Thursday, 29 January 2015

Driving home

Driving home after work. I get picked up and dropped home by a Mercy Corps vehicle. My days start quite early: I'm up at 6:30 AM to get ready by 7:30 AM and 5:30 AM in case I have to train with Ashland that morning. 

This is Benson Street. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sunday walk

Yay, I made it the first week of working at Mercy Corps and here we are out for our usual Sunday walk. 

One of the security guards at the US Embassy demanded I delete the photo I took of Kavita and kept following me but I politely told him I did not do anything wrong and it was just of the grass. Haresh kept turning around to see if we were being followed. 

Friday, 23 January 2015


I made a complete U-Turn and decided to give International Development another go. So, I'm working with Mercy Corps on the ECAP Project:

The Ebola Community Action Platform Program (E-CAP) for Liberia is a 6 month USAID-funded project. The Partner Support Director is a pivotal position in the ECAP structure. The candidate will lead the Partner Support Team and will be responsible, mainly through this team, for building and maintaining the network of effective partnerships with about 40 international and national NGOs on which all program elements rely. S/he will ensure that core activities including; the Monitoring Evaluation and Learning System (MELS), training provided by Population Services international (PSI) and digital outreach activities are effectively coordinated and delivered through this partnership. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Copper coloured dust

From Jackie's Guest House in Ganta, Nimba County

I have been toying with the idea of going back to the development world since last year. The time out I had last year in Pakistan pushed me to take a real perspective on the work I accomplished with my IT company. I allowed myself to acknowledge achieving my objective when I decided to go into the business world back in 2009: to see if I could take over an IT company and run a business. I succeeded in my goal. 

Words cannot explain how content I feel at having made that decision in 2009. It was one of the most lucid moments of my life. 

Of course, the IT company has a long way to go but I don't feel it needs my constant attention anymore. In fact, I am sometimes quite bored. Things are in motion. The tech team is relatively self organised and motivated. Haresh is running the show, getting new business, liaising with clients, managing the daily schedules, following up on payments. Of course, I could help do more marketing and quality control but it doesn't need to take up all my time. 

So, recently I decided to see if I can make a foray back into development and see if I can manage a short stint, learn something new and see if this is a side career I want to kickstart again. 

I applied for a few positions last year while in Pakistan and even considered moving back for a bit to reconnect with my country and to be closer to my parents. Of course it would have been quite tough to be away from my home and Haresh and my other baby, my IT company. 

When I got back to Liberia in November, I delved back into the company and, really enjoyed being back in my space, with my staff and reconnecting with my clients. 

But I started to think about job hunting again and, while scanning the Liberia Expats Google Group one day, saw a job and immediately applied. I skimmed through the job description and it seemed to be quite similar to what I used to do at UNDP years ago. I even got really excited and hit 'Reply All' in my e-mail to the person who posted the vacancy and felt mortified for the next few days. Apparently, 2,000 people on that group know I applied for that job.

Following a few interviews and a speedy recruitment process (two of my former colleagues at UNDP and a former client happily provided references), here I am about two weeks later, already on board and in the field. 

I am writing this post from Jackie's Guest House in Ganta, Nimba County. After 3 days of workshops and visits to implementing partners and communities, we are to return to Monrovia tomorrow. I am too excited at seeing Kavita again, never having been separated from her so long. All I can think of is hugging and kissing my baby. I miss her physically and, long to hold her again. I don't know how I will handle further field trips and having to be away from her again. I wanted to quit the first night itself: "Screw this, I can't be away from Kavita!"

Meanwhile, I wanted to capture my immediate thoughts and feelings at my venture into the development world again. It has only been three days but I am overwhelmed already emotionally and intellectually. It is a bit of a nostalgic rush, taking me back to the days of my field trips with UNDP. My visual memories of those long trips is bumping and speeding along red-earth dirt roads surrounded by thick steamy rainforest. Copper coloured dust settling in and on everything.  

Although I was quite exhausted on my first day with the car ride and briefings, my initial impression was one of impressed amazement: I am around young but highly motivated, organised and methodological people.

Might I add that the road from Monrovia to Ganta is fully rehabilitated and paved now. It was a really good feeling to see that. We were also stopped at every county crossing to register our temperatures and wash our hands.

And the most exciting thing was finding a Bangladeshi-owned shop in Gbarnga where we had chicken curry for lunch!

The second day consisted of a visits into communities around the Liberia-Guinea border. Although a seemingly thoughtful preparation was made, in hindsight it seemed to be done without much real research and reminded me of intrusive, awkward visits into communities by foreigners. I felt completely useless. The post discussion was quite animated too and, not informed by any actual facts or expertise. That day was a bit annoying.

Today was interesting since I got to see a County Health Coordination meeting in Saniquellie which started sharp at 8 AM! It was headed really well and was over in an hour! We got to hear some stats and even something from CDC who briefed everyone about a visit to the border. A WHO representative also made a useful comment. We then visited one of our partner's offices in Saclepea followed by a visit to a community. It was an Ivorian refugee community (in Liberia for more than 10 years!). We met a couple of ebola survivors.

Did you know that Saniquellie was host to some early discussions 
to form the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the AU? 

A lot of stuff has been running through my head. I've told myself to approach this job as an opportunity to learn something new, to keep an open mind, to try not to compare with my previous experiences and views all the time, and to think about all I learned at SOAS. 

I finally understand the criticism about the obsession of the development world with the community as a unit of analysis, action and projection. It seems that everything is by passed and, the community is used as a starting point. In some ways, it seems useful since we go right to the beneficiaries but it also is too small a unit to understand bigger issues and other linkages. 

At the same time, I am learning a lot about the ebola response which I knew almost nothing about. The government seems to be in control and, is trying its best to work with partners in the effort. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the professionalism and competency of the local NGOs, something which I didn't see during my work with UNDP or was not allowed to see. The people I worked with had a very negative view of local NGOs and also had a very 'scary donor' attitude to local partners. 

I am going to have to really switch to NGO thinking to make this work. 

I am really excited in general to doing a job, working with a team, trying to make a boss happy (after being boss for so long), and learning a lot about ebola. I am excited that I can do both at the same time - be involved in the private sector as well as the public one. I feel I can take over the world. 

I can't wait to see my darling Kavita tomorrow and what's that guy's name? Haresh? 

I'll leave with some photos of the guest house and the road. And who would think I would find such a beautiful rose bush at a guesthouse in Nimba County.

I must say I was really really impressed with the guesthouse. For $ 50/night, we had 24 hour electricity, air conditioners, hot water, wifi and DSTV! The food at the restaurant was fantastic and I even got to have hot cups of tea with milk and sugar. There was even a convenience shop where one could buy everything from soap to wine to chocolate! It was apparently owned by "the richest man in Ganta!"

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Kabsa for Sunday dinner

Since food is one of the most common things that people talk about on social media, I might as well join the herd. 

Wesley taught me this dish and apparently he learned it in Qatar.

The chicken is cooked whole in rice with lots of spices. Minced beef is cooked separately and mixed in with the rice when ready to serve. The pot is turned upside down on a large platter and served grandly, garnished with herbs and sprinkled with lemon juice.

I didn't quite make it like that tonight but added some strips of carrot and raisins. It turned out quite well and made for a lovely Sunday night dinner.

I've been feeling anxious all day since tomorrow I start my stint with Mercy Corps, the first four days out in Ganta Nimba. Not only will I have to start a completely new routine, work "for someone else," but also be separated from Kavita!

Sunday walk

Dancing Queen

Kavita danced the night away at Sajj on a Friday night.

We went with a friend with who we are planning on re-discovering all the restaurants of Monrovia. We enjoyed our favourite dishes at Sajj: Special Kafta, Chicken Bread, Fatouche Salad, Armenian Meat Pie and the fresh pineapple and strawberry juice.

It was dimly lit but we had a good time. The DJ was getting ready for the night.

For some years, Sajj has become a Friday night dance floor where they have salsa classes too.

The music that night was quite eclectic.

Just before we left - and saw lots of incoming slickly-dressed youngsters - Kavita made some moves on the dance floor.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Weekly Round Up of Charlie Hedbo

It has made me realise that secularism and detachment from religious passion and identity can't be enforced. Muslim immigrants will not become post religious over night. Neither France nor Europe shed religion in the public space in a day nor a generation. It took hundreds of years. Similarly, immigrants or Muslims living in Muslim countries cannot be expected to find humor in poking fun at holy figures. If Muslims themselves are not ready to indulge in that kind of humour, how can the French post-Charlie-Hedbo-attacks public think it is defending the truth? If the French are trying to teach secularism or atheist humour to the world, the Muslim world, they are really barking up the wrong tree. 

It's been forever since I updated my Weekly Round Up post. 

I'm going to start with rounding up the Je Suis Charlie Week and backlog the rest of it in another post. 

Needless to say the attacks horrified all of us, as is the nature of terrorist attacks. Gunmen, suicide bombers and hijackers appear out of nowhere and enact the terror of a well-planned drama. Victims ranging from school children (such as the children of the school in Peshawar, Pakistan) to religious sects (direct targets of Shiias and Ahamdis in Pakistan for example); from shoppers at a shopping mall (Westgate Shopping Mall, Nairobi, 2013) to entire communities (Boko Haram's massacre of 2000 people in Baga). Gruesome details of merciless killings fill the airwaves and the tragedy is dissected in minute detail by the media. Body counts are made. Security experts are interviewed. Survivors recount the terror. 

And the inevitable analysis, commentary and introspection commences. All kind of theories are made. Ideological sides are pitched. 

In countries like Pakistan, reasonably rational public debate remains quite limited. Being an Islamic Republic, we are still embroiled in who is the right Muslim.  Mullahs openly preachatred and celebrate killings of minorities and certain Muslim sects. TV anchors encourage murders of Ahamdis. By July 2014, almost 15_ Ahamdis were murdered including an American Ahamdi doctor who had come back to Pakistan to serve his community. The burning of Ahamdi homes in Gujranwala in July last year  was celebrated by dancing. A Christian couple was beaten, dragged from their home to a brick kiln where both worked and plunged into the fire for reportedly having blasphemed. Every year at least 1,000 Hindu girls are forcibly converted and/or kidnapped. Last year in October, the Shiia Hazara, already being massacred in what can only be described as genocide, were targeted on a bus in Quetta. 

These are just some of the headlines I remember from last year off the top of my head. Pakistan is in a moral chaos. Our very laws have criminalised an entire Islamic sect and declared them heretics. Our blasphemy laws enshrine religious fascism. 

The concept of justice holds no meaning in Pakistan and, very rarely are perpetrators punished. Murder of innocent people who belong to minorities and sectarian killings are not rationally debated on public media. 

I understand that Irfan Hussain's regular column was not printed by Dawn, one of the major English dailies. It was about one of the TV anchors I mentioned above: the infamous Amir Liaquat. 

hope you can appreciate the ambiguous moral universe I am trying to describe where tragedy, injustice and suffering are part of the daily life of the majority of Pakistanis

Folks like me deplore the marriage of church and state in our country. We are painfully aware of not only the enormous divide between the have and have not's but also abhorrent acts of violence against groups of people who are either the wrong kind of Muslims or hail from poor Hindu and Christian communities. 

The fact that Pakistan was created to protect Muslims who would have otherwise become second class citizens in an independent India after the British left is one of history's most ironic farces. 

Freedom of speech is a distant dream.

So, what does a Pakistani make of the Paris killings, the Je Suis Charlie response and the resulting backlash against Je Suis Charlie? 

My first reaction to the killings are horrified shock. 12 journalists killed in one go? It was a massacre.  

Those of us Muslims who have rejected Islam personally and religion in general feel angry that some terrorists have once again decided to defend Prophet Mohammad's honour by murder and mayhem. We are already fed up by the tyranny of the mullahs and Islam-is-under-attack mentality : protests from Cairo to Lahore to Jakarta. Men and women will take to the streets to protest the insult of Islam. Mobs might even burn down some McDonald restaurants.

In our own immediate experiences, we all know too well the danger of allowing religion to become an untouchable ideology and in one way or another battle with religious authority in the personal as well as the public sphere. We battle with the idea of a Muslim state, too. 

haven't not scanned all the Internet or Pakistani papers for a view point on the killings in France but judging from my Facebook newsfeed, Pakistanis are either very blindly angry at how Charlie Hedbo used free speech to insult their religion or very happy that millions of people showed up in Paris to protest against terrorism. 

But is there a middle and more accurate ground where a Pakistani can be allowed to stand on and talk freely and intelligently?  Can one be a Pakistani and Muslim (practicing or not) and be given a space to criticise the seemingly idiotic direction that everyone is running off to? Can I be JeNeSuisPasRacist because that is exactly what this paper was all about? And I would love it if my fellow Pakistanis would understand this fine point - that they need to feel angry not only about their religion being insulted but also how this paper went around printing racist-pig cartoons of Africans, too. Yes, Pakistanis, try to think about issues beyond your identity in the Muslim Ummah and maybe try to place yourself as humans in a global village. 

I've enjoyed discussing Charlie Hedbo on Facebook. 

It has made me realise that secularism and detachment from religious passion and identity can't be enforced. Muslim immigrants will not become post religious over night. Neither France nor Europe shed religion in the public space in a day nor a generation. It took hundreds of years. Similarly, immigrants or Muslims living in Muslim countries cannot be expected to find humor in poking fun at holy figures. If Muslims themselves are not ready to indulge in that kind of humour, how can the French post-Charlie-Hedbo-attacks public think it is defending the truth? If the French are trying to teach secularism or atheist humour to the world, the Muslim world, they are really barking up the wrong tree. 

These are some of the articles I've read:

1) In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism by Jacob Canfield 

"Here’s what’s difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes,  Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. (Update: Charlie Hebdo’s staff it not all white. See note below.) Its cartoons often represent a certain,  virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally, ’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam,  and frequently sexist and homophobic." 

"Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons., Fuck those cartoons"

2) Unmournable Bodies BY TEJU COLE

"Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations."

3) Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist by Jordan Weissmann 

"But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.
This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

But it’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms."

"Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff.
The editors, writers, and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were human beings with families, friends, and loved ones. Their deaths should be mourned for that reason. But no more so than the Sodexo building maintenance man or the two cops who were also killed in the crossfire.
I join with those who call for grief at the deaths of twelve human beings—but I’m not down with mourning the work that Charlie Hebdo was doing or standing up and saying “Je Suis Charlie,” like what they did was a holy mission. If anything the work the two cops and the maintenance guy were doing deserves more respect and probably helped a lot more people.
Let’s be real about what Charlie Hebdo is. Calling it “journalism” isn’t quite right. Even the term “satirical newspaper” puts it on the same level as The Onion, which isn’t very fair to The Onion, which strives for at least some degree of cleverness and subtlety, most of the time.
The whole reason the concept of responsible satire has been summed up as “punch up, don’t punch down” is to acknowledge that not all your targets of satire start out on an equal footing. Francois Hollande is not on the same level as girls who have been kidnapped into sexual slavery, and having the same “no-holds-barred” attitude toward them both is not the same as treating them fairly.
I mean, Muslims in France right now aren’t doing so great. The scars of the riots nine years ago are still fresh for many people, Muslims make up 60 to 70 percent of the prison population despite being less than 20 percent of the population overall, and France’s law against “religious symbols in public spaces” is specifically enforced to target Muslim women who choose to wear hijab—ironic considering we’re now touting Charlie Hebdo as a symbol of France’s staunch commitment to civil liberties.
Muslims in France are clearly worse off overall than, say, Jean Sarkozy (the son of former president Nicholas Sarkozy) and his wife Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, but Charlie Hebdo saw fit to apologize for an anti-Semitic caricature of Ms. Sebaoun-Darty and fire longtime cartoonist Siné over the incident while staunchly standing fast on their right to troll Muslims by showing Muhammad naked and bending over—which tells you something about the brand of satire they practice and, when push comes to shove, that they’d rather be aiming downward than upward."

But Rowling wasn’t alone in her disgust for Murdoch — God knows that’s a sizeable club. When Murdoch, perhaps feeling a bit more generous in his assessment of at least one of the millions of Muslims in the world, tweeted Sunday, “Extraordinary scenes in Paris today, but do not forget the heroic sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet, Muslim police officer whose funeral was today,” Aziz Ansari shot back, “Quit back peddling you racist piece of sh_t.” And in response to Murdoch’s previous claim that Muslims “be held responsible,” he asked, “Rups can we get a step by step guide? How can my 60 year old parents in NC help destroy terrorist groups? Plz advise.” Then going into full fury mode, he continued, “Are you responsible for the evil shit all Christians do or just the insane amount of evil you yourself contribute to?… @rupertmurdoch is responsible for all pedophilia committed by anyone Catholic. @rupertmurdoch why are you pro-pedophile frown emoticon … @rupertmurdoch is Christian just like Mark David Chapman who shot John Lennon. Why didn’t Rupert stop it? ‪#‎RupertsFault‬ … .@rupertmurdoch Are you responsible for the evil shit all Christians do or just the insane amount of evil you yourself contribute to? To be clear, I am not religious and have nothing against Christians or Muslims, just ignorance like what @rupertmurdoch is spreading.” And with that, the brilliant hashtag #RupertsFault bloomed, laying at the mogul’s feet responsibility for everything terrible from Uber surge pricing to Panda Express to the popularity of “The Big Bang Theory.” Well done, Twitter, well done.


THE SATIRICAL WEEKLY CHARLIE HEBDO is one such thoroughly French institution. That is what you hear again and again if you criticize the content this paper trafficked in. “But you cannot understand Charlie Hebdo if you are are not French”; “Charlie Hebdo has been a pillar of the French popular culture that shaped us; It is our tradition!” dozens of friends have insisted, as if somehow all traditions are noble and worthy of upholding. One of my oldest and kindest friends from Paris, a man with a beautifully aristocratic last name, made a point the other day that seems to have become one of the default rationales: “But Charlie Hebdo offended everyone the same. My grandmother, who is a practicing Catholic, will tell you they are harsher with the Pope than with anyone else.” While this may even be true, Anatole France had the right of it when he said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

In this era of facile hashtag activism, it is no wonder that a music journalist at a free weekly magazine was able to launch the now globally ubiquitous ‪#‎jesuischarlie‬ campaign. What is surprising is that no one seems quite able to define what these three words are supposed to mean. On the most anodyne level, they express a justified sense of grief over the senseless loss of life we all share. Beyond that, some people maintain that the slogan is itself a defense of free speech and a defiant stance against any tyrannical power that would silence it. This seems to be what the French government wishes to convey by projecting the phrase Paris est CHARLIE across the top of the Arc de Triomphe and on the face of the Hotel de Ville. But this same government, which only recently silenced the popular anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné by preemptively banning some of his shows (and is currently seeking to silence him again) is hardly intellectually consistent on the issue. Nor, for that matter, is Charlie Hebdo itself—the publication notably forced the departure of the cartoonist Siné for a column that was deemed offensively anti-Semitic in 2009.

You and I didn't like George W Bush. Remember his puerile declaration after 9/11 that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"? Yet now, in the wake of another horrific terrorist attack, you appear to have updated Dubya's slogan: either you are with free speech... or you are against it. Either vous êtes Charlie Hebdo... or you're a freedom-hating fanatic.
When you say "Je suis Charlie", is that an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo's depiction of the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, drawn as a monkey? Of crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave?
Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic. Also, as the former Charlie Hebdo journalist Olivier Cyran argued in 2013, an "Islamophobic neurosis gradually took over" the magazine after 9/11, which then effectively endorsed attacks on "members of a minority religion with no influence in the corridors of power".