Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Nerd Nite in Monrovia

Jamal's Boulevard Café in Sinkor has started hosting Nerd Nite. There have been three Nerd Nites so far and I attended the last two. 

The latest one was held last night and the topics were 1) Urban Mass Transport in Nairobi 2) Etiquette 3) Water Harvesting. 

The first one was quite clever since most people (including me) didn't realise that that the Garimeme light rail network is fictional. The presenter had actually made up a public transport system and projected it on to Nairobi. Even though it was entirely made up, it allowed the presenter to talk about land issues and poverty. Nairobi has around 3 million people but the majority live in slums, on 5% of the land. Part of the reason for this disparity is colonial legacy: the British lived in higher elevation, the Indians imported to build the rail in another part of the city and the Kenyans in another part. The "natives" were thought to be temporary casual workers only. The presenter explained that slums are spread all over Nairobi since every wealthy area attracts workers looking for jobs. 

The presentation was quite impressive since there was so much attention to detail and we got a great short lecture on land issues in Nairobi. The Nairobi was created using GIS technology, apparently the presenter's brother helped her to do it. He also helped her to create a fictional Ministry. 

During the question and answer session we realised that this was an entirely fictional transport system which was not even in the pipeworks. I myself felt stupid since I have been to Nairobi back in 2010/2011 and there was no proposed transport system, not even a hint of it! Perhaps I was too busy eating the delicious spinach and garlic pizza and did not concentrate!

The presentation on etiquette was amusing: the presenter put together some very odd historical examples of complex rules of social engagement. 

During the question and answer, she was asked on how to appropriately deal with Liberians wanting to be one's "friend" and asking for one's number. She said, she has learned to just politely decline. 

The last presentation was the star one of the evening. Firstly, everyone was really quiet and intently listening to issues of water injustice in awe. Towards the end, the presenter was bombarded with questions and they were still asking questions as we were leaving (we had to go earlier). 

It took me a while to get into it at first: it was too "preachy" and I felt I was sitting anywhere but Liberia , being lectured on the number one cause of deaths in Liberia. The presenter had initially come to Liberia to work on another development sector but soon realised that Liberia's real problem was water-related.  She then went on to show us how heavy a bucket of water was and she pointed to the Liberian waiters to say that they probably carry this bucket every day and only get to use one per day. A volunteer then tried to carry a bucket of water on his head. I don't know - it was just a liiiiittle patronising. 

But perhaps people do need to be shocked and patronised!  Not everyone knows of the daily realities for the inhabitants of this country. Everyone knows Liberia is poor and lacks infrastructure but since most expatriates live in either gated compounds or have all the normal amenities, we have no clue about how people here go about their daily lives.

Even worse, is that people expect the poorest, uneducated to know about the conditions of the dirty water they consumer. 

Otherwise, the presentation was great and one can explain the odd tone because of pure passion. I must say that the presenter was quite worked up about the whole issue and rightly so. Liberia receives some of the highest water fall every year but the majority of Liberians need to go out of their house for their water needs, it is often a water pump that has not been dug deep enough and therefore, is not clean. Most Liberians only get to use 1 bucket or 10 litres of water per day while the rest of us use at least 50 litres directly and most indirectly through our consumption of electricity. The contrast is shameful! 

I loved her dig about international development's love of water pumps and how nothing makes them feel better than seeing a picture of a smiling little child pumping water. I can't agree with her enough. 

Most governments in the world subsidise water but if people people actually paid the real cost of water, they wouldn't waste it as much. 

The presenter has been studying water and how it could be harvested for every day use. Apparently, rain water is completely safe although she did recommend filtering it. She's done some test projects and in one community, the harvesting was able to sustain the needs of the entire community as well as the clinic, whose roof they used. 

Anything can be used to collect rain water but one needs to make sure the buckets are clean in case a bucket is used. Rusty zinc roofs are a problem and rust-proof paint would need to be applied. The presenter said that PVC roofs seemed to be the ideal ones. Needless to say, there are costs related to all this. 

There were a few Liberians in the audience (thank God!) who said they actually had been collecting  rain water since childhood. However, they always see black particles in the rain and asked what that was. The presenter said she had not encountered these particles but it was good to know.

Another issue with rain water is that it is 'soft water' and those who have tried to wash themselves with it find it hard to use soap and shampoo. 

A company has been set up by the name of African Rain to start commercially looking into harvesting rain and creating systems around it. A long term project would be to actually pipe water - just as oil is - to countries which have water shortages. A short term one is which Liberia's Government has already signed up to or rather, agreed to in principle, pending capital investment. 

The project is to cover the Buchanan highway with a roof, an aqueduct which would not only collected a ridiculous amount of water, but also protect the new highway which after three years will wash away. It seems like an ambitious project and good luck to African Rain. If it succeeds, African Rain will sell the water to the Government who in turn would sell it onwards.

I am not an engineer or hydrologist so I can't think of any constructive feedback on how feasible this project is but the presentation was interesting. 

All in all, I really loved the evening and every presenter had put in a lot of work. The restaurant was more than full and there was a great atmosphere. In between the presentations, we had funky music, too. 

I really appreciate the good work the manager of the Café, Ben Morgan, who has initiated this. It's a nice change of pace. 

Check out Nerd Nite Liberia's site: http://liberia.nerdnite.com/

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