Friday, April 13, 2018

Life in Liberia

By the end of the second week of teacher training, I was used to living in Liberia. I was happy hauling all my water from a well, bucket showers seemed normal and loved the food from the moment I got there. What I found more difficult to cope with was being permanently covered in orange road dust, seeing copious plastic pollution absolutely everywhere (apart from a pretty town called VOA – more on that later…), and the constant night time noises that seemed to amplify in the concrete yard before shooting through my glass-free window and pounding into my earholes.

Street in Kakata
A road just outside Kakata, near the compound.
Some noises were a joy; the Mosque’s calls to prayer and the various rounds of frogs and toads calling in unison in the vegetable gardens – some hooted, some croaked, some sang. It was quite comedic at times, as they would start off and build to a crescendo before falling silent after about 10 minutes of putting all they had into making their own special noise.

Less enjoyable sounds included church clapping (the same rhythm several times a night), repetitive drumming, wailing, chanting etc at any time of night; security guards talking outside my window from 5:30am; lorries hooting from 6am.

After a while I started to find the insanely loud bar music - consisting of the same five Nigerian hits with autotune – comforting. It went on until about 11pm every single night; 2 or 3am on national holidays, of which there are many in Liberia.

Meals were best bought from the expert street vendors and brought home to serve with home-prepared salad items. My favourite street food dishes (and the only proper cooked ones available) are sweet potato/yam leaf stew, cassava leaf stew and peanut stew. All of them come with rice, are spicy and contain both chicken and fish. I also enjoyed spicy beans with ground cassava (the same as Brazilian farofa but moist and with flavour enhancers; called garri in Sierra Leone) and sometimes the odd bit of fried plantain or chicken. And the fufu (fermented cassava root pounded to a dough) was absolutely delicious, served with a very spicy, smoky, tasty soup containing smoked fish and smoked meat (unidentified), and a chilli-peanut sauce. These were all great with cucumber-based salads dressed in fresh lime juice and salt. 

I did not enjoy the weird processed ‘sausages’ available everywhere, that were tasteless frankfurter-style packets of lips, fat, colouring and arse. Also, the plain spaghetti coated in neutral oil was boring beyond belief.

Out in ‘The Field’

In terms of work, a colleague and I were tasked with designing and implementing a research project into the effectiveness of the organisation’s small business and savings scheme. The aim of the programme is to enable parents and guardians to save the money for school fees and send more children to school. Girls at risk of dropping out due to early marriage are also identified and hopefully prevented from leaving school.

The work was intense and took us to see more than 50 families between the two of us, in under two weeks. We were always accompanied by the charity’s local experts who support our survey participants and know them well. We followed a heavy schedule of survey interviews, separated by very squashed and sticky public taxi drives, long walks in midday sun and dusty motorbike rides, sometimes seemingly straight through people's back yards. By the end of each sweaty, dust-coated day we were exhausted, but it was just such rewarding and interesting work.

After a long survey interview in hot sun, this cool canoe
crossing was very welcome.

The families were scattered over a large area, and we went to a diversity of settlements, even though all were very deprived. My favourite was VOA, named after the defunct radio station that planted an enormous mast there. The town – one of the worst-effected by Ebola in Liberia – has wide, clean sandy streets and spaced-out houses made of mudbrick, corrugated iron and woven wattle. The residents keep their town litter-free, and it was particularly picturesque due to all the natural building materials – not many water-stained concrete blocks here. The local expert and I sat under a huge mango tree and hung out with a load of little kids while we waited for a survey participant. A man was fixing his fishing nets. It is a calm, tranquil place.

Football and fixing fishing nets, VOA
On International Women’s Day, we went to see a mother of 13 who lives in Love Island, an area made up of lots of tiny ‘islands’, or mounds of land just big enough to fit a dwelling or two, surrounded by filthy water and connected by very rickety walkways. During rainy season, inhabitants have to constantly bail water out of their flooded homes. It is called Love Island because you really have to love someone to visit them there. When we arrived, we found a grief-stricken family – the woman we had come to see had died. Her husband had abandoned her and all the children when he acquired a new wife, and our local expert had seen her health deteriorate under the strain of feeding her large family.

The real Love Island, and the start of the footbridges that
stretch long distances between all the dwellings. They are
very wobbly in places and I was lucky not to fall in.
We passed kids zooming over them on their way home
from school.
We also found success stories of women who had lost their husbands, often to Ebola, and others whose male partners had simply disappeared, but the women had managed to not only create a successful business and send their children to school but also adopt additional children who were all in school as well. With lots of orphans in Liberia and parents who are unable to provide for their kids, adoption or fostering is extremely common.

Ma Mary with the yellow dreads is doing so well,
she's mentoring other business owners.
Our research uncovered areas of strength of the scheme (the local experts) and plenty of areas that needed improvement. I’m still finishing off the final report, but we have already managed to get some of our recommendations signed off. Due to this research project and some other work I did in Liberia, I was able to leave the country feeling that my time there had been worthwhile: I felt I had made a positive difference the charity’s operations and to a tiny degree to people's lives. As that was the whole point of my career change, I felt I was finally on the right path.

Weekends Off

At weekends, we had the chance to go to Monrovia’s incredible indoor market, the eerie abandoned Ducor Palace Hotel, Libassa Ecolodge, Kendeja beach resort and another trip to Tropicana...

Monrovia’s covered market is a vast network of alleys, with distinct areas for different types of product. In the new clothing area (as opposed to the second-hand clothing area), the walkways are lined with displays of clothes and beautiful bright lappa material. The alleys open out into little areas where people sit working away on old whirring Singer sewing machines, and there’s a lovely light falling on everything through gaps in the roof.

Built in 1960, Hotel Ducor was once the epitome of splendid luxury. It was the only international class hotel in Liberia and for ages was one of the only five-star hotels in Africa. On top of a hill, it has panoramic views of the sea and West Point slum (one of the areas I visited for the survey work). It was closed then damaged and looted during the war. Squatters were chucked out in 2007 and then the Gadaffi regime made moves to buy and redevelop the hotel in 2010. For obvious reasons, the redevelopment never happened, and now it is guarded by a couple of men who prevent new squatters and ask visitors for a fee to enter and a further fee to be allowed upstairs. As volunteers, we managed to negotiate free basic entry.

It was spooky, imagining the luxury and the people in the pool and at the bar. We even role-played and imagined the seafood display on the plinth behind the bar.

Credit: Liberia 77

View from the Ducor over West Point slum,
where I visited families for work.
Credit: could not find a link - please contact me.
Credit: Around the World in 80 Clicks

Credit: Liberia 77
Credit: Jefferson Mok

For Libassa Ecolodge, I’m going to risk duplicate content (apparently not such an issue these days..?) and paste in my 'spoilt Westerner' TripAdvisor review:
Absolutely beautiful surroundings but the food situation is not good. Came here for the day, and it's worth a bit of a road trip to get there. It's $10 (US) to get in, but the surroundings are like a tropical oasis. Lovely bird sounds, paths through trees, a beautiful, tranquil lagoon (until the afternoon...), stunning beach, clean pools surrounded by trees and a lazy river to coast around - I swam round it really fast in the current, which was fun :-) 
I didn't want to pay what I thought was an obligatory extra $5 for the adjoining animal sanctuary, but it's a separate charity and you just pay what you can. The guy running it is a volunteer. When I heard about my friends' experience there I wish I had joined them.

The lagoon during the afternoon was not the restful experience I was looking forward to; lots of people started shouting and playing loud music, but different types of music at the same time. It was just a total racket. Not sure why people would want to spend time somewhere so peaceful then ruin it with conflicting music playing tinnily on phones, then shout over the top of all the music..?
One of the pools
Walking onto the beach

The biggest problem with this place was the food. What a let down! I thought from the website, the fact that it is an 'Ecolodge', mentions of vegetarian dishes and the French/Lebanese ownership that the food would be good. But it's the same menu as all the other Lebanese-owned eateries in Liberia, so quite boring and meat-based. I ordered fries and some humous as an special treat. The fries were the worst I've had in Liberia (frozen from a bag as usual, but not even crisped or cooked through), and the humous was literally the worst I have ever tasted. I was hungry and kept trying to like it, but the only flavour was sourness. It didn't seem to contain any seasoning. It tasted like chickpeas puréed with pasteurised lemon juice from a bottle. And I think that's probably exactly what it was. How can you possibly make chickpeas taste so horrible? The olive oil did not taste of anything either. Guys, it's not hard to make outstanding humous! Purée chickpeas with a little freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly crushed garlic, lots of salt and decent olive oil. Can't you import high quality extra virgin olive oil from Lebanon? Or Provence?

Kendeja beach was quite weird. You arrive through a swanky air conditioned reception that seems to promise well-appointed comfort, but then you walk past the sparkling circular bar and out the other side of the building into what looks like a run-down 1980’s British holiday park. It’s grim and featureless, with brown grass and few trees. The beach was nice enough, but without greenery or colour, it felt very drab compared to Tropicana, which is a just few hundred metres down the coast. Oops I didn't take any photos - it slipped my mind due to lack of inspiration. $15 sounded a just about bearable amount to get in, as we thought this gave us $15 worth of food and drinks. It’s a swizz! You’re only allowed $10 of food and drink, and as their menu is bonkersly overpriced and very limited on low-cost items, that $10 will get you one plate of chips (frozen, not handcut) and one small beer. It is far better value and far more pleasant altogether to go to Tropicana.

Fabrar Rice

Given the low internet use in Liberia, I was stunned to have my Instagram photos liked and my profile followed by an organic Liberian rice company based in Kakata. Their social media efforts worked a treat, and I went to visit them. It felt like my old food writing days.

An Instagram post from Fabrar

The operations manager, Whykies Mentee, gave me a guided tour. We saw the hulling machinery, rice laid out in the sun to dry, the steel drum cookers sitting over charcoal for parboiling, and the depot full of sacks of rice arriving and being stored. Parboiling is a totally different process than I had envisaged. Rice is not boiled but cooked very gently in water for 12 whole hours. The nutrients are sucked back into the grains and fixed there, and the rice will take less time to cook at home. If you buy rice that has not been parboiled, many of the nutrients will leach out when you boil it. 

Whykies shows me the unhulled rice

Rice dries in the yard, with parboiling going on behind.
In the depot - posing and relaxing
Fabrar Rice is a social enterprise that processes and markets rice. The organisation is trying to give Liberian rice value, because at the moment most of the country’s supply is imported. As Liberians eat rice twice a day, that is a lot being imported that could be grown locally. Fabrar buys from nearby farmers, and actively seeks out and promotes local and slow-growing strains that have a higher nutritional value than regular imported rice, and that would otherwise be at risk of extinction. They supply NGO, Mary’s Meals. Not only that, they are aiming to export this ‘country rice’. The Founder and Senior Partner is Jeanine Cooper, and she apparently runs Fabrar's fabulous social media.

I bought some parboiled red rice, and it had a really good flavour and satisfying bite – an enjoyable change after all the soft, sticky white rice.

My lovely lunch, with Fabrar's parboiled red rice

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