Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Breakfast by candlelight

My usual routine for the days I have morning work out is to make breakfast. This morning, it was pretty dark so I lit some candles. The generator has already been running all night so I couldn't turn it back on. Usually we have the news on (Al Jazeera English, Channel 406 on DSTV) but this morning, I played some home videos on my laptop and we had a few chuckles.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Good evening from our rooftop

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Lying Bastard

It is kind of befitting that after I waxed lyrical over the handiwork of Oliver the generator technician, he left us in the lurch and now he is hereby referred to as the lying bastard.

The night he got our generator started we paid Oliver $ 40.00 and he was supposed to come back the next day to finish the job. The generator wouldn't start otherwise.

The man did not show up the next day. Naturally I blamed haresh and he and I had a terrific row and I and Kavita went to sleep at a friend's while the poor guy slept in the dark.

Next day, we made up and went up and down Monrovia looking for a generator mechanic. Thankfully, we found one who got our generator working and we slept fine that night.

So much for that!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

In an artist's studio

I was struck by the bright and funky colours a boy was was painting his bicycle with.  I felt I was in an artist's studio: paint brushes, colours on the pavement and a boy with a fierce haircut. 

The Machinist

As everyone knows, LEC (Liberia Electricity Corporation) is not only extremely expensive but also inconsistent. One needs a back up generator to complement the frequent power outages which come and go unannounced, like mood swings. Last night we learned one actually needs back up generator A and back up generator B just in case the first one gives up because LEC outages are getting longer and longer. So, our one and only back up generator stopped working yesterday and, we asked a generator technician to repair it for us. Oliver has often times helped us get the generator working, even come late at night. He started working at 6 the evening and did not finish until 11 PM.

During this time, we came home and because there was no light, we went off to have dinner out at Mama Susu's where I met an extremely fascinating personality and talked with non stop about philosophy, religion, feminism, and politics. It's so nice to meet someone who hates small talk as much as you do and would rather indulge in more interesting talk. My new friend even came over to have a drink on our rooftop because we were sure the generator would have been repaired by then. But it was not repaired even at 10 PM. 

We enjoyed our sitting corner, lit with candles, had a drink and enjoyed the view of the city. Our view has actually become quite obstructed in the past couple of years with newly constructed buildings but we can still spot Ducor Hotel and the Ministry of Finance. Our guest telephoned her husband in Delhi to let him know what she was up to. We talked a bit more on the very limited and ephemeral social scene in Monrovia. It was one of those stream of consciousness conversations where your ideas become even more lucid.

My other good friend called and said he doubted the generator would come back on and, he had put on the AC in the guest room just in case. I thanked him and mentally prepared having to trudge over to his place at night, gathering our clothes and toothbrushes in the dark, in case the generator did not come on. I continued my chat with my new friend. Kavita was pottering around in the rooftop, completely oblivious to the dark, and Haresh was desperately trying to stay awake. It was way past his bed time.

After my friend left, we watched more closely what Oliver was doing. Earlier, we had used an extension cord, borrowing electricity from our neighbours, to give us light up there. Our friendly neighbour decided it was much too generous of him to give us one light bulb's worth of electricity and cut it off. We all cursed him "Wicked man, how can he do that?" That collective complaining entertained us for a bit. Oliver said "All Lebanese are the same!" So, Oliver worked in the dark aided only by the torch light app on two mobile phones and an actual slim torchlight in between his lips. I watched him in fascination as he put all the generator parts back together, in the dark. His hands seemed to know the whole machine so well, as they worked the machine, rolling cables in their place, screwing back nuts, and tapping the battery. I wondered how the heck would this machine-beast start working again, since most of it lay spread all over the concrete floor, its parts, nuts and bolts, like innards spilled out from a gut.  

While we watched Oliver work his craft, this is the genius conversation we had:

Is a generator like a car engine?
A car engine has several cylinders, a generator only has one. A generator is a much simpler machine.
Does a generator have horsepower?
You know what horsepower means, don't you?
When cars first came round, people still drove in horse-drive carriages and an engine's power was measure by horse power. Get it? 

Oliver started putting back the whole machine back together and, I couldn't believe that it was actually going to work. All parts were assembled and put back in place where just now they had lain scattered on the concrete floor. But by all the horsepower of several car engines, Oliver got the machine working again. Smoke was billowing up from the top and, it roared like an engine does. He asked Haresh to go down and switch the power to generator. A few minutes later, the lights on the rooftop came on. Yoo hoo! I was gobsmacked and impressed at having witnessed a technical wonder.

We paid Oliver his fees and gave transportation money to Frank, our office assistant, who had been there the whole evening helping Oliver, mainly by giving him light from a mobile phone. 

It was captivating  to see an expert at work, a craftsman who skillfully repaired a faulty machine in the dark. 

In the morning we learned that neither Frank nor Oliver had managed to get back home and had to sleep on Broad Street. I felt guilty - as I usually do - at the contrasting lives my staff and I lead. 

I wonder if the average person in Liberia, trying to make ends meet, has a voice like that in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia  and loathes richer, snobbier folks like me. 

Thursday, 25 December 2014

A cranky Christmas

After I had my parathas rudely insulted yesterday morning, I wake up this morning to aloo parathas which Haresh had been perfecting all morning. 

I'm having a funny Christmas holiday so far. 

In fact speaking of, last night I overheard some American guys exchanging man talk at a house party and one of the questions to the group was "Which is the strangest place you've been at Christmastime?" Before anyone else could respond, this fellow answered his own question by saying, "Liberia!" Then, he delved into his Christmas experience in "Moslem countries like Abu Dhabi."

I had a really lousy day yesterday, mostly prompted by my crankiness and completely impatience with my staff, especially since I've been working up to have a pleasant Christmas with my staff. I was sulking for most of the day. 

But back to the parathas. Since I've been back from Pakistan and since I started my 3-times-a-week morning workouts with Ashland, I've been making breakfast of parathas and omlettes or just with plain yoghurt.  In fact, I've got pretty good at it. It's a far cry from when I first tried to make them - flour all over the floor and table top, gooey dough everywhere and the smell of burnt parathas.

I start my exercise at 6:30 up on the roof and am down at 7:30 or quarter to 8 AM. I get started on breakfast and Haresh and I have it together before he goes off to the office, leaving me behind to get Kavita and myself ready. The most irritating thing about Haresh is that he doesn't do the obligatory "Very good!" for my cooking. Insult on injury, he disparages and yesterday crossed the line by actually insulting my parathas.

So, not only do women have to contend with sexism but also endure taunts that men can do everything better than women, including cooking! 

So, I was in a cranky mood but was determined to have a pleasant morning and afternoon as planned. As planned for quite a while as I do every year since I started the company.

In the spirit of things, I've been celebrating Christmas at the office almost every year (except for the year I was in Chicago on maternity leave) with my staff. We have a Christmas tree, we do the Secret Santa gift exchange, disburse salaries around then, and have lunch or snacks together before we close shop for Christmas. I also try to decorate the office. 

Part of the end of year ritual is also submitting a post for our company blog. Not only is this towards my exhausting but unwavering effort to improve my staff's communication skills and to teach them to express themselves but also rounds up the year in a reflective way. 

Not only don't my staff submit their reports on time but my most senior staff throws a tantrum because his first submission was a bit of a cut and paste job. We asked him to do it again. That was on Monday. 

Yesterday, the plan was to exchange gifts, have some snacks and close up for the day. Salaries were also disbursed in the morning. It seemed no one had bought their gifts and everyone disappeared after they were paid trying to buy their gifts last minute. By 3 PM no one was back and I was sitting at the conference room table waiting for 4 of my 7 staff! I just lost! I threw a huge tantrum and, stormed out of the office. As we were closing up, our staff started trickling in, infuriating me even further. 

I went home and took a nap. 

I should not have lost it but we sometimes do lose it. I'm actually surprised I lost it after so long because I thought I was done with my "losing it" days. 

I was really frustrated that after quite a long time, the relationship with my staff remains quite one sided and despite efforts to do things which would help us bond, it doesn't work. I can't believe everyone waited until they received their salary to actually go and buy gifts! I was very upset to see that no thought had gone into it at all despite repeated reminders. I also don't buy the I'm-so-broke-I-need-my-salary-before-I-can-participate-in-this-activity. Everyone's salary has been increased, medical expenses are supported by the company and moreover, we have even helped with rent this year for a couple of the staff. 

The same thing happened a couple of years ago when we invited our staff for a lunch out and, two of our staff didn't show up without even informing us. 

Anywhere else, you are obligated to participate in the company or organisation's events. Even if you have to pretend you are loving it, you make the effort. It just seems to be the opposite here. 

Most of my staff has only started working in an office with us. They have been taught how to be professional and their skills by us. They are also from simple, humble backgrounds and live in communities with not much of the luxuries I enjoy at my apartment. But I still try to hold my staff to higher standards and, try to cultivate the best in them. I don't think it is much to ask of them to participate in a simple office ritual that builds a friendly atmosphere. 

It is what it is - my staff can sometimes behave like irresponsible and lazy people. And, I was definitely not interested in waiting for them so we could have the ceremony, enjoy some memorable moments and have a nice staff Christmas. I am the boss and my sense of boss over powered all other emotions.

So, after my restful nap, we were going to join our friend at a house party. While I was getting ready, I tried on a few of my old kameezes and felt extremely frustrated and annoyed because they were too tight. I took one kameez off after another and as I built up a bit of sweat I felt very angry at how much weight I've put on, especially after Kavita came along. It's going to take a lot of hard work if I am going to shed this weight and get back into some of my favourite kameezes. 

We arrived at this house party but instantly realised this was not going to be Kavita's scene. It was on a huge balcony at a house next to Anglers. It was a balmy evening and the place was only lit up with a few candles. There was a good mix of people. There were some lousy appetisers and a few drinks there and, many people were dressed to kill. I felt like the odd person out with a toddler who would start interrupting me as soon as I tried to strike up a conversation. So, I ended up hearing bits of other conversations, like the "Liberia is the weirdest place I've ever been for Christmas."

I forgot to add that our neighbour, the owner of Geochris, had passed away the night before. It struck a shocking and rather gloomy end to the day. We talked about it for some part of the party with our friend, cynically remarking on how life goes on for all of us, drinking at a house party on Christmas day while he was gone and had left a wife and kids behind.

We called a cab and took ourselves to what seemed to the homeliest option: Mama Susu's. It was quite dead at her place but it was nice to see a familiar motherly figure on Christmas eve. Haresh ordered an omlette and I my favourite baked chicken. Kavita went off to play with Florence in the kitchen.

In all the years I've been Liberia, I've adopted Christmas as a holiday that must be celebrated. Do as the locals do, no? It is the most important holiday of the year and, over the years, I've come to really cherish this time of the year. I've also had some fun times over the years, including hosting some nice Christmas day parties. 

If I'm here next year again for Christmas, I'm going to host a dinner party myself and, cook up a storm! I want to make more of an active contribution to the day I will have on a festive day instead of waiting nice stuff to happen.  My staff can go to hell in the meantime. So can Haresh's parathas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Election fever

Spotted a bus full of folks campaigning for the upcoming senatorial elections last week. It was a holiday on Saturday, 21 December and thankfully, everything went peacefully well.

And, here are the results which I got my FB Newsfeed.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Relationships with people and countries

I found myself acting like a bit of a relationship counselor recently.

In the first instance, a sticking point was Liberia. One party wanted the other one to get the heck out of Liberia so they could create a new life elsewhere. Much of this person's frustrations seems to be focused into this country. At first I obliged by telling my friend that I understand how much Liberia frustrates him/her. But then as this person ranted and, laid bare her/his thinly veiled racism, I allowed myself to feel offended but to also think about why people either hate or love Liberia. 

I also thought about my tricky relationship with my home for more than ten years now and, how far I've come and how far I still need to go.  My non-Liberian friends, over the years, many of them who came and went, have informed and shaped my view of Liberia. Unfortunately, I have mostly socialised with outsiders, many of them in the aid industry. Whether Liberia was experienced with an open mind or with the most biased point of view, our understanding (or lack of) of Liberia ricochets off of our collective and usually very shallow mind set. Many of us pretend to be pseudo intellectuals, have read academic texts about Liberia and civil war in West Africa, and, work very hard to have sympathetic and compassionate appreciation of a poor country without falling into any dangerous expatriate traps. Some of us whisper quietly how corrupt and lazy Liberians actually are and how badly we need a vacation just to be able to keep our sanity. Many business owners, who actually should be considered Liberians but are categorized as outsiders, that I met since I forayed into the private sector, have passionately explained how you can't actually trust Liberians and, who cares about quality or good business practices. 

But what I stumbled upon recently in my conversation with my friend who hates Liberia is the realisation that most people project their neuroses, their issues, their prejudices onto Liberia. And, I am no exception. In my early years, I started loathing Liberia too. I couldn't stand anything: the power outages, my landlord, a stifling social scene frequented by career ladder climbing hyper international development youngsters out to save the world, a very limited interaction with Liberians, and the shabbiness. I saw Liberia and Liberians as one-dimensional. Even  my reading of its history was judgmental: but of course a civil war was going to erupt, what have you guys accomplished anyway? I have a very poorly-written essay stashed away in my books that talked about my experience of Liberia as an adventure in a primordial jungle. Ha ha! If that is not racist, I don't know what is. 

It is racist because non-African interaction with Africa has been defined by a general view that this continent is a-historical, tribal, dark and basically a steamy, dense jungle. To say it is a primordial jungle means it is uncivilised.

My friend moans about how much he/she hates life here, that nothing is normal, that people are lazy and corrupt, and that he/she misses the luxuries back home. If you constantly compare Liberia to your country, you are never going to have an open mind and experience Liberia and its folks without prejudice. If you are convinced that Liberians are corrupt and lazy while you are the Country Manager of a company or an international NGO, enjoying fantastic monetary and other perks, and live in the best spots in Monrovia, you are judging an entire country by your limited experience. Yes, Liberia suffers from corruption but corruption exists everywhere. Moreover, the dynamics of corruption in a poor country are completely different from that in a richer one. One could even argue that corruption exists because the system is set up that way. Just because Liberia doesn't have Starbucks, does not mean it is not a livable place.

The way one moans about a place tells you a lot about how subjective their experience is. It also tells you how much they project themselves.

I have met folks who absolutely love Liberia, too. Their experiences are much more rich. They clearly interact with Liberians socially and, do not seem to be so annoyingly patronising. They don't seem to be judging Liberia all the time.

I tried very hard to convince my friend that he/she needs to give Liberia another chance and, it is very possible to build a good life here. It really depends on you.

My other experience as a relationship counselor involved a younger friend. My friend found out the man she was faithfully in love with for the past half a decade or more was cheating on her. When she confronted the boy, he lashed out violently, called her degrading names and threatened to expose her. I haven't met my friend during this ordeal and only interacted with her on phone and Whatsapp but I could tell she was in deep shock. She couldn't believe this other side of her boyfriend. It was like she saw his other face. She was quite numb for a while and, it seems like she was able to get over this incident without too much damage to her ego.

Lucky for this boy, if I had been in the same town, I would have done something awful to him.

Apparently, he wept afterwards and begged her to take him back. But she stood her ground.

She seemed to have had a hint of something not right for a while. It really goes to show that if something does not feel right, it is not.

My friend is young and, I am glad she found out she was with the wrong guy. I hope my friend is able to find a man with whom she can have a wonderful, exciting relationship with. And, if that doesn't work, out she should be able to continue looking for the right guy or stop if she wants to. I hope conservative societies eventually give up their control of personal lives and, let us be free to find what we need to find, on our own terms, to be fulfilled.

A glorious Sunday walk

See pictures of a glorious Sunday walk which started from Randall Street. We walked along UN drive and past the UN Agency offices, my old apartment, my old UNDP office and apartment buildings where friends who used to Liberia lived. We walked past the UNHCR building where one of our current clients, JICA, is housed. We walked past the old US Embassy gate and casually strolled up to the the Masonic Temple. 

Kavita walked all this way and refused to sit in her stroller. She was delighted wither walking freedom and, I photographed her all the way.

We stopped at the Masonic Temple, one of my most favourite spots in Monrovia. We took a break and sat on the curb to drink water and munch on an apple. It was a warm sunny day. 

Kavita finally fell asleep from the bottom of the hill until all the way to Flower Restaurant on Broad Street where we had an early Sunday dinner. It was delicious.

There, we ran into a friend of ours, a Chinese partner of our Lebanese friends. They own and manage a spare parts business on UN Drive. We also met an Indian family who have a business on Bushrod Island. The gentleman seemed to remember Haresh quite well, since the 80s when Haresh first came to Liberia. But of course, Haresh couldn't place him. But then again, he even forgets people he has met a week ago.

Go figure, as the Americans would say.