Monday, 20 February 2012

Fashion Show in Monrovia

We all like to try out new experiences; however, unfortunately, it does not work out all the time. I decided to attend a fashion show right here in Monrovia even though these kind of events never appeal to me. But I thought, "let's try it, what the heck." What's more I purchased 2 VIP tickets (for $ 50/head) and even a general seating one for one of my staff members. 

Haresh and I excitedly got dressed for the show. We both wore traditional South Asian suits and felt great. Haresh even wore his Sindhi cap! I wore my new suit which is made out of a silk sari.

The show started 3 hours late and hardly any tickets were sold. As you can see in the pictures below, more than half the seats are empty and most of the people sitting on those chairs look like the staff of hotel where it was hosted (Golden Gate, near the SKD complex). We ended up spending more bucks at the restaurant on drinks and snacks out of boredom. 

The show was really lousy. The microphones were not working. The music was bad. There were a couple of musicians who lip synced to their own really lousy songs. It was really b-a-d and amateurish. There was a stand up comedian and about half of his jokes were funny. The host of the show was quite entertaining and I guess made up for the disastrous event. 

It was a lousy event simply because it started so late, was anti-climatic and really boring. There was a general air of frustration. I could not believe I had dished out $ 100 and had been so excited about attending it.

The fashion show itself show cased 2-3 designers and some of the clothes were quite eye-catching but none of it was mind-blowing. The make up was kind of cool. 

There were some gorgeous models and I must add that they really knew how to strut, pout and work the stuff.

The main designer was Fanta Marazetti, a model turned designer, who definitely seems like a promising designer. Unfortunately, this show was a disaster. 

Apparently, there was a really amazing fashion show held in Monrovia last year. Therefore, I guess I was unlucky. 

I still look forward to more social events in the city and hope each one will be better than the last. 

Most of the guests there seemed to really enjoy the show, and I am guessing most of them are the Liberian 'returnees' from the diaspora. For them, this must be very encouraging and exciting. It's only 'foreigners' like me who must be sulking and comparing these events to those back home for their lack of organisation. 

I did enjoy taking pics and tweaking them afterwards. Here they are:

I think this is the only fountain in Monrovia?

Taken by a "professional" photographer who had come to cover the event

It looks like Haresh is pouting, too.

Help NATC Save a Life

Dear friends and community members,

NATC has sponsored the medical treatment of a young Liberian woman, Naomi Zeinabu Meh, by sending her to India. The girl was suffering from acute pain and given the pure lack of medical care in country, it was not clear what was wrong with her. She even had a leg amputated unnecessarily by doctors at Firestone Hospital. We knew Naomi as an employee of NLTC (NATC's predecessor) and seeing her awful condition decided to send her to India for diagnosis so at least to figure out what was wrong with her. Did she have cancer? Did she need to have her leg amputated? Why was she coughing constantly? 

So we sent her to India and she's been there since about October. The doctors diagnosed her and found her to be suffering from jaundice, TB and a tumour in her pelvic region. Yes, indeed, she does have cancer. It explained the enormous amount of suffering she's been going through. Also, the amputation of the leg was completely unnecessary. The doctors focused on first curing her jaundice and TB - she's been coughing blood and it took time before she was stabilised. The doctors still see her unfit for surgery and would like to her to be fully cured and stable before they consider surgery.

We often communicate with her and see her the pictures she's posted on Facebook. She's doing well and looks much healthier. She's regained some weight and doesn't look like a skeleton anymore. But she needs rest and we are planning on calling her back to Liberia as soon as we pay off her hospital bills.

The purpose of the trip was to have her diagnosed and possibly go for surgery. Naomi ended up staying much longer than we had anticipated and, so far, only her TB and jaundice have been taken care of. The hospital bills mounted and we really exceeded our budget. 

We are in the process of trying to pay her outstanding bills of $ 4,000+ and calling her back to Liberia. She has a return ticket. We want her to come back, spend time with her daughter and recover completely from the TB and jaundice. After that, we will figure out when/how to fund her surgery. We will also know more once she is discharged and the hospital issues a full report. 

NATC has spent around $ 10,000 already in getting her a passport; Indian visa fees from Abidjan; ticket costs; hospital fees; and other miscellaneous costs. It's a significant amount for a mid-size company like ours.

We also sought assistance and contributions by posting on the Liberia Expats Google Group (Liberia Expats <>) and spreading the message to some of our friends. We got around $ 1,000.00 contribution from our close friends (a huge thanks to them for standing by our side) and through a friend who is an American philanthropist, a contribution by a member of the Rotary Club in India of $ 2,000.00. 

We need $ 4,000+ to get her discharged. I am extending a request for any amount of contribution! NATC has just moved into a new office and we are quite overwhelmed with expenses. Your contribution will help us and gives you a chance to participate in a good cause. Also, if you know of anyone who would like to help, please help to spread this. 

We have also blogged about it at Help NATC Save a Life. This link also includes a doctor's report.  Please share with people you think would be interested in helping us now or in the future when Naomi needs to go through surgery.

I am also attaching a picture of Naomi at the Nanavati Hospital. 

If you want to know how to help, you may give the donation to us in cash or directly transfer to the NATC Account in Monrovia, Liberia or the Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, India:

1) Nanavati Hospital, India
Bank name: Axis Bank, Santa Cruz West.
Account no: 778010200000019 in favour of Dr. Balabhai Nanavati Hospital.
Swift code: AXISINBB020

Make sure that the Patient details (Ms. Naomi Zeinabu Meh) are mentioned in the transfer.

2) New Africa Technology Company
Ecobank Account Number: 004-1024701946001
IB Bank Account Number: 04-00-02532-6

I look forward to hearing from you! 

Thursday, 9 February 2012


When I looked out the window this morning, I was struck at how white the sky looked. The whole view was hazy, almost foggy. You'd think this was a white, snowy sky. I could not see anything I can normally see on the horizon, for instance, Ducor Hotel or the new American Embassy. 

What we are seeing is the Harmattan, fine dust traveling down from the Sahara. Apparently, it's so thick that flights have stopped coming into Monrovia. 

I do not really mind it at all because the sun is blocked and it is slightly cooler.

A friend of mine though suffered from a horrendous migraine for about 2 days which he blamed on the Harmattan. He even came out to dinner with us to the newest restaurant in town (Blue House in Congo Town) and suffered through excellent food and a fabulous ambience with the slowest service possible. He was optimistic though, because he said the migraine would go away the next day as the sun was bound to come out. And guess what, the sun did come out that Sunday! I texted him to ask whether he could also predict other weather changes! He said he's working on it. 

Below are some pictures taken from our terrace:

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Monrovia: I Love My City, I Hate My City

It has been a week since I got back from my very long trip out of Liberia. I must say I am struggling - like I always do - in settling back into Liberia. I am frustrated with everything: the hot and sticky weather; the general shabbiness and ugliness of Monrovia; the gutters, the putrid smells; the throng of street vendors and especially their goods-laden wheelbarrows; and, how long things take to get done here.

It is pure culture shock! Even when driving back from the airport, one looks around at the thick tropical forest on either sides of the RIA highway, and you say to yourself, yaar ye tau jungle hai, what am I doing here?

That jungle-shock-fever passes and you start coming into Congo Town, one of the furthest edges of Monrovia, and get re-acquainted with the bareness, the shoddiness of Monrovia. I did notice the new Ministry of Health recently renovated by Chinese contractors and it looks good. But it stands out as a lone building. As you come into town and pass Sinkor and finally into the very congested central Monrovia, you are really struck by how shoddy and small Monrovia is.

Sure, Monrovia has seen loads of changes over the past several years. In fact, I should know having first arrived way back in 2003 when it was literally enveloped by darkness, full of refugees, piles of garbage and shelled-out buildings starting out at you from every corner. I often make glowing and enthusiastic remarks at how much change has come about and that we are really moving towards much more. But I guess because the country still has such a long way to go, it is such a culture shock coming from places like Islamabad.

I arrived back at my apartment slash office only to find everything caked in 1-inch dust and half my plants struggling for water. Nothing was as I like it and have instructed to be maintained in a certain way. I was incensed, infuriated and indignant. I wanted to fire everyone. Thankfully, it was the weekend and I couldn't actually fire anyone. But my God, was I pissed off that my staff had let simply ignored my very detailed and explicit instructions on how to maintain my office. I couldn't even enjoy the cup of coffee on the new terrace that Haresh had added to by making a walkway and a wooden floor. I was fuming the whole time, angry that my plants had unnecessarily been starved of precious water.  I found dirt and dust everywhere, wanting to weep and scream at the same time. 

I also forgot to mention that half of the new rattan set that I had specially got made for the terrace was stolen on one of the holidays when both Haresh and I were away and I guess no one was around (although I had asked my staff to check the place by passing by on Sundays and holidays and take turn doing it). The clever thief had actually broken the lock going up to the terrace and apparently no one in the entire building heard the sound. Naturally, I was seething about this as well. 

I did, of course, take my staff to task on Monday morning. The answers I got were really creative: the cat ate all the plants, we just cleaned the place, I don't know or let me blame someone else for it. Then, there was a whole lot of sulking and mumbling. 

So yes, I got really pissed off and did some almost-firing and sulking of my  own. I think I also really miss Joseph Dennis and I feel pangs of nostalgia through out the day. May his soul rest in peace.

I guess I need to find keep working at enforcing rules and getting people to follow instructions. I have noticed that although most of staff come from really humble backgrounds, some of them really think it is below them to do other things requested of them. I found it very strange that none of the staff bothered to wait for me at the office after I returned from the Airport last Saturday. And, the worst is that they'll never admit their mistakes and instead, sulk! I was shocked to see how much attitude and sulkiness I was shown when I pointed out my disappointment at finding a messy office and half my plants in bad shape. There is really no way to change the mentality but I guess I can keep pointing out what I like and dislike and hopefully, this set of young persons working for me will start to follow instructions. 

Work wise, the business has been doing well and for the couple weeks that both Haresh and I were away, the staff handled clients and followed instructions. It was also a slow time and not much was happening. Ultimately, Haresh and I can only afford to be away for about a month at the same time and any more than that impacts the business. 

So, I think I am getting back into it although I do really miss Islamabad. I miss being in a city which is functional and also pleasing to look at. Monrovia offers no respite because it is in a very shabby condition. Sure, things have improved a lot in the last few years and the mayor's office has accomplished a lot to restore order (parking areas, street signs, one-way streets, control of traffic, building of the new bridge going into Bushrod Island), get the city cleaned up (so much so that the first Saturday of the month is set aside exclusively to clean up the town) and to beautify (plants, painting, renovation).

Broad Street

Broad Street

But still, it is always a culture shock to come from any other country and to find oneself in a shabby city that is Monrovia. It also offers no natural beauty and so one longs to see something looking pretty and normal. Monrovia is by the ocean but unfortunately most of the beaches in town are extremely dirty and people have been using them as public toilets! One has to drive out for several kilometers to find a clean beach. So what does that leave us with? There are some hilly bits of Monrovia which are nice such as the top of Broad Street which offer a nice view but really one is hard pressed to find some scenic views.  All in all, I do not think Monrovia is naturally pretty making one starved of beauty. 

The streets during the day time on weekdays are full of street vendors, masses of people, traffic and lots of commotion. I often find myself wanting to throttle the guys who sell those outdated, annoying CDs and play them on an ancient deck, transporting the whole mobile CD shop on a wheelbarrow!

Having said all of the above, I do have a certain relationship with Liberia that forces me to think in positive terms. I am here for the long term and have set myself up for a challenge that I am relishing. I have been in Liberia for almost 10 years, most of it working for the dysfunctional UN system, but only recently switched to the private sector. I am here to establish and grow a premier IT company that will provide services and goods to the new Liberia, which is booming and shows great promise.

I am really glad that I don't belong to the aid crowd with its typical short-term relationship with the country it serves. I am here for long term and have a different vision and stake in this place. When I used to work in a stuffy UN office it would take me ages - at least a month - to get back into Liberia mode or to feel motivated again. Now, my turn around time is a week! There's too much going on in my personal and professional life to feel down or depressed. Where before I was stuck in a job which had such a messed up relationship with the country I was in, I could never be positive about the future. 

It is a completely different ball game now. Having a business has completely changed my outlook and view towards the place I am in. Instead of seeing Liberia as an aid-receiving hopeless case, I now see it as a growing economy with a leadership that has an outward-looking, modern vision. I want to be part of a new, changing Liberia and yes, benefit from it. I want a piece of the cake!

I see potential everywhere. And yes, Liberians can be a pain to work with but I have way much more freedom to train people, to hire people, to fire people and find and mould a team to my liking. And I am sure I am also a pain to work with, too. 

Yay! I have given myself a great pep talk and am re-excited about all the great stuff I am trying to accomplish in Liberia!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Living in the world's most expensive city

There's an article on BBC "Living in the world's most expensive city," which is none other than Luanda, Angola. 

Monrovia is also extremely expensive and it appears that Monrovia is expensive for the very same reasons: aftermath of a prolonged civil conflict, broken down infrastructure resulting high prices for basic commodities and energy, high rents created by an expatriate bubble, and very little local production and necessity to import almost everything. 

The article interviews various expatriates who live and work in Luanda. The comments and observations they made could almost describe the scene in Monrovia: tomatoes are so expensive here you'd think they were made of gold, rents for ordinary apartments in those exclusive compounds where the UN crowd lives are sky high and drive up rents elsewhere, and the quality of the average item or service you buy never matches the price!

However, there is a way to live more economically as some of the more practical residents of Luanda are doing. Likewise, one can find cheaper accommodation in Monrovia - it's not in a compound but in available for example in central Monrovia in the commercial areas, usually above the businesses and shops. The apartments are available unfurnished and have very reasonable rents.  One can buy one's vegetables, fruits and meats outside of the supermarkets and one can save money. Sometimes it is a matter of getting as far away from the supermarket as possible and buy from the market women. I avoid buying meat from the supermarkets but from the butcher.  I have also heard some farms have cropped up and it is cheaper to buy directly from them. 

You'd think that these measures are so basic, so commonsense and why bother even pointing these out! But most expatriates who live in these post-conflict countries which are experiencing a double aid-and-foreign-investment boom can't seem to think normally as they would back home. 

So yes, Monrovia is also extremely expensive but there are ways to save that hard-earned cash and put it to be better use. Of course, one still misses have the variety of options as a consumer, one misses the variety of fresh produce, one misses the quality of service and goods back home but at the same time, life is quite simple in these places. 

Let's hope that we have more competition in Liberia and prices are driven down for basic things. Let's hope we have more options and choices. And let's hope that domestic production also takes off. It'll be nice to see more products made in Liberia on the shelves. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Greetings from Nairobi Airport

* image from Excess Baggage Charges and How to Avoid Them

Why is my life so full of excess luggage? As far back as I can remember, I seem to be flying from city to city, continent to continent dragging over-the-limit suitcases and hand carry on's bursting at the seams. Why do I always insist on packing a hippo and an elephant?
There are such profound questions and because the answers will be so philosophical and require quite some time and space to fully elaborate the explanations from a socio-political perspective, it is best to just put the questions out there and let them linger as giant question marks over our heads. But I can tell you how much I spent so far on excess luggage! While I was driving to Islamabad Airport at around midnight, I asked the Radio Cab driver whether he had any contacts at the Airport who could help me with my excess luggage which was around 20 kg as I was only allowed 30 KG on the Emirates flight from Islamabad to Dubai. He said the best thing to do was to ask the porters to help me out as they would speak to the officers at the counters and make a deal. So that is exactly what I did! The Radio Cab driver spoke to a couple of them before hand to explain what I wanted. So, while I was in that ridiculous 3-laned queue to actually get into the airport, I explained to him how much I thought I was in excess. Another porter came round and explained that he would try his best to get my things through with spending a minimal amount. He told me he would get it done in half the amount. So, I slipped in 10,000 rupees into my passport and the job was done. I also paid 3,000 rupees to the porter who arranged the whole deal. I guess I saved a lot of money as I would have had to pay at least double. But it was not over, I also spent quite a bit of dirhams for excess luggage for the Dubai to Monrovia leg on Kenya Airways where my travel allowance was 40 KG. I spent 350 dirhams for 7 kgs excess luggage for the checked-in luggage and guess what, 200 dirhams for 9 kgs excess for carry-on bags! This is a fortune to say the least. The Islamabad to Dubai flight on Emirates was full of screaming babies and I hardly got an hour's sleep. I mean you know it that the flight is full of desi's when you have a screeching symphony of bitterly crying and whining babies. Mujhe paida kyun kya??

The Dubai to Nairobi flight was around 4 hours long but because I was so tired, I hardly remember much of it. Both airports were a modern Internet-user's disappointment as the wi-fi was not working at either! At least I would be able to send e-mails. I think this e-mail will stay in my Outbox until I reach my apartment in Monrovia. I only have a 3 hour-stop in Nairobi and am probably going to spend it sipping coffee at the Java House cafe until they announce boarding. I would love to look around duty free and buy some Kenyan souvenir but my hand luggage is too heavy to drag around and they do not have those trolleys like they do at Dubai Airport. It's an almost 9-hour journey from Nairobi to Monrovia including the 1-hour stop in Accra. Fortunately, I will spend that stop over in the plane. Will call from Monrovia once I get there on Saturday at 3 PM. It will be 8 PM in Pakistan and Saira will be glued to the TV watching the latest Humsafar episode which I shall try to watch on YouTube on Sunday if the Internet speed permits it.

28.01.2012 - Nairobi Airport