Monday, 30 November 2015

What is racism?

What does subtle racism sound like? And should one bother to even call it out?

Unknowingly I became embroiled in a nonsensical argument over whether or not it was racist to say "Liberians are lazy" and "Liberians are so lazy they would rather be prostitutes." 

After a memorable day out at the Libassa Ecolodge, our friends and us were driving back to town when this illuminating discussion disintegrated into an uncomfortable silence. I became extremely grumpy and, felt a little guilty about whether I had ruined a friendship or worse, lost a customer. 

I also felt I was trapped in a car by badly-disguised racists.

One's social life in Monrovia can get quite incestuous. One ends up socialising with the same people - people you do business with, people you run into at restaurants, meet at the supermarket and call up to see if they will come to your dinner party. 

I had been a bit annoyed with my friend's earlier comments during our various times together, mostly at my house for a movie night or dinner party. She had mentioned several times how she found Liberians to be a contradictory lot of people, who like her, were church going, but were obviously not faithful or very sensible. She was puzzled at how women spent so much money on hair pieces, jewelry, shoes and handbags. And of course, she has mentioned on occasion that she has been shamelessly approached many times for money. On these times, I politely explained to her the contradictory nature of her statements - people go to church everywhere but also spend money on fashion. Women are victims of the fashion industry everywhere, not just in Liberia. And, people who are religious are not the standard bearers of morality, common sense or decency. With what yard stick was she measuring Liberians with, anyway? And, because she was seen as a foreign official working in the capacity as donor, it was not surprising that was she was approached for money by her counterparts and, persons of lower rank. Asking for money happens in many countries, including wealthy ones, but perhaps is displayed in different styles. Corruption is not unique to poor, African countries. 

I still enjoyed spending time with my friend as we shared our amusing perceptions of the typical aid worker. Despite her earlier comments about Liberians, I had found a good friend with whom I spend time discussing interesting topics. 

Haresh and I had planned a great day ahead with our friends who we picked up before driving out to Marshall. 

Driving to Marshall was foreshadowed by everyone's running commentary on the orange ribbon campaign: gas stations, public buildings and fences were criss crossed with orange sashes and banners commemorating a few week's of activism against violence against women. I was of course the first to joke about the superficiality of hanging coloured cloth in the public and calling it activism. My friend from UNICEF said but raising awareness was important. I agreed of course but without any penalty, without any reform of the justice system and without real education, raising awareness is almost pointless. Moreover, don't we need real political action, political activism? 

Well anyway my girl friend in question was very happy to see we had brought the puppy "Bijli" along and indulged both Kavita and Bijli. The 45-minute drive was pleasant and we all were excited about spending a day together. The next day, Monday, was a public holiday. 

As we queued up to enter Libassa, my girl friend started muttering at the Liberian girls who were all usually prostitutes at public spaces, hanging close to expat men. I should have said something to indicate that it was not appropriate at all for her to say that but chose to ignore it. I had Bijli in my hands and was too busy wrinkling my nose at all the entrance fees we had to pay.

We had a good time at Libassa, a little shocked by how many people there were there. We had not been there in a while and were bowled over by the new pool and extension. There were more Liberian faces than the usual "foreigners" one sees at most of the restaurants in Monrovia. 

On the way back home, I marveled at the vivid hues of the sunset over the trees. It was more than one hour on the way back. The road was packed with holiday-makers trekking back to town. 

There were quite a few people on the road too: people at cookshops, people trying to get cars, people at roadside vendors, people standing, and so on. This is the usual scene here. 

My friends seemed to be really bored and started on the side-of-the-road people. Why are all these people here? 

My friend ventured to say some of them are probably prostitutes. And, then she added Liberians are so lazy.

I will try to faithfully reproduce the fine points of the conversation that ensued, what was essentially a self righteous reaction to what seemed like backhanded insults, gross generalisation and what seemed to me blatant hypocrisy by professionals who were part of the do-gooder industry in Liberia. I emphasise the fact that mine was really a self-righteous reaction, guided by me trying to prove others are racist and illogical. In the end, I am not even sure why I bothered and, why I was trying so hard to be right. The whole time my friends seem to think I believed I was superior to them.

So, I first got riled up when my friend said some of the women on the side of the road were prostitutes. It was an accusation. Why are you so lazy? Why are you prostituting yourself? I first made  a sarcastic comment about how UNMIL peacekeepers and even UNMIL civilian staff are have been reported to engage (thereby encourage) in prostitution and even been involved in sexual harassment and abuse. Of course, there was no real response to it except for a shrug. To that I asked, but why are we judging prostitutes? Aren't women either forced into it by traffickers or by poverty? Aren't my friends meant to be even more acutely aware of the socio-economic circumstances that drives women into prostitution? Or, are they working in other "sectors" like water and sanitation or infrastructure and, their sector mentality prevents them for understanding unemployment which is further compounded by lack of access to education and job opportunities? Or, can this fine point only be understood by folks working in SBGV (sexually based gender violence)? And what was my girl friend's problem with judging other women? Of course, none of this was said verbally. I talked to myself in my head days after wards, as a continuous unfolding reaction to very offensive remarks made by folks who one is surprised to see in a different light, not as like-minded persons but politically incorrect types. 

Deeper and deeper into the conversation, I realised that to have such notions, one has to have a certain ideological bent. I asked my friend if he was BJP to which of course he got extremely annoyed. 

My friends' comments were that still, Liberians were quite lazy and they couldn't understand what all these people were doing on the road. I quizzically asked, "Isn't it quite racist to say that all Liberians are lazy?" My UNICEF friend gave examples of how during the heat of the ebola crisis, the national staff sometimes would not even show up to work and it was actually international staff who were working their assess off. I grew quite incensed at this analysis. Positive national generalisations - despite the near impossibility of knowing every single person of every nationality and then again, is there such a thing as a historical nation - are usually always easy to pass off ("Germans are hard working," "The French like to protest for their worker rights," "The Japanese tourists take so many photographs," "The English like to say 'sorry' a lot," or "Pakistanis are so hospitable".) but negative ones come off as extremely offensive, coated in arrogance, dripping with judgement and a sense of superiority, laden with what is essentially an instinctive idea that one is probably superior to the folks from a poor country. Well of course one can make an observation from one's limited experience on work ethics, working style, notions about work, attitudes to work, knowledge, capacity, but can one generalise about thousands and millions of people? Later, I found it amusing that a nation's hardworking levels were measured at a bureaucracy.

I expressed my sense of outrage at seeing my friends pass judgement on Liberians. I implored them, "Haven't they seen the market women carrying kilos of fruit, vegetables and fish on their heads all day?" What about the boys selling socks, underwear, and packaged foods in wheelbarrows all over town? And, what about the push push boys who haul gallons and gallons of water up to apartment buildings? Who can say the average Liberian is not working hard, hustling all day long trying to make ends meet?" Don't they know better than me the socio economic conditions of Liberia? 

My Japanese friend was not convinced by an of my dramatic dialogues. She conjured her hardworking grandparents, her parents. Her grandfather was a garbage collector but built himself up. Her parents lived a simple life so her sister and her could get the best education possible. The Japan she knew survived World War 2 defeat and atomic bombs. She went as far as to say she was actually convinced by the island mentality that Japanese are indeed a superior people. I don't know how I egged her on to blurt that out. I asked her, "Would she as a diplomat dare to tell the President of Liberia that she thinks her people are quite lazy?" She thought for a minute and said yes. 

I told my friend but the Japanese culture has a very extreme idea of honour and shame and, subsequently, one of the highest rates of suicides, even amongst suicides. Does a culture which does not extoll life demand respect? Of course she got riled up hearing that. 

All in all, as you can imagine, it was a frustrating conversation and, I don't even know why I bothered to put my hand into it. Why did I not just take a nap? Why do I have to get so self righteous? What did I achieve by trying to correct my friends? Why did I take so seriously what was said in casual passing by bored passengers in slow moving traffic? What if they don't even mean it? What point did I prove? And, who gave me the mandate to defend Liberians? 

I guess I was so offended because it simply offended me. Liberia has been my home for my adult life and, as frustrated as I get about the day to day life here, by corruption and how slowly things are moving (not even for the better), I guess I feel I need to stand up against slander of ordinary Liberians. I don't have any patriotic feelings for Liberia nor do I personally think things will change anytime soon but there are very clear reasons for it. Try reading a book to understand what Liberia's history is and, what is going on in the post-war peace building experiment that is Liberia.

I do not claim to know I know first hand what poverty is and what the majority need to do to make ends meet. I do have a sense of things, gleaned mostly from my experience both in the UN and as an entrepreneur.  Yes, corruption is rife. Yes, we do not have world class university or schools here. Yes, we do not have good infrastructure or health care. Yes, Liberians do not have the same educational or professional qualifications. Most Liberians did not experience the kind of academic and business competition to get where they are as compared to more advanced and developed societies and economies.

But how does one exactly arrive at the idea that Liberians are lazy? Or, rather they are lazy whores? 

Is lazy not a very colonial understanding of Europeans and how they justified domination of Africa? Is not lazy a label given to poor working class of labourers, sweepers, cooks and gardeners by the middle and elite class housewives and office going men? Don't our aunties and Ammas complain about the "lazy beggar class" when their chauffeur or self driven cars stop at red lights or the city markets for their shopping? When is the last time lazy was said to someone on their face and taken as helpful criticism or tough love? 

I even complained to my friends that I have heard these racially-tinged insults over and over again since 2003, when I first came to Liberia. I've heard a senior Kenyan UNDP official say in exasperation that she wished she could through Liberia into a toilet. I've heard a French Total employee quietly whisper to me at a fancy compound pool party that "Liberians are like Africans." He wanted me to concur and it was quite clear that "African" had very negative connotations. I didn't concur when I asked him what he exactly meant to which he got a bit flustered. During a large gathering at the old sushi bar at the Royal Hotel (The Living Room), my Tanzanian friend and I asked a French fellow to explain himself when he said but the French should never have left Africa. I've heard one of my very good friends who has lived in Liberia a long time insult Liberians by saying they are lazy, one should never be good to them, and no wonder there was no black prophet. During a long lay over in Accra, my fellow passengers in a UN flight from Monrovia and I decided to hang out together to kill the time. This Lebanese UNMIL fellow and I decided to go to Cape Coast for the day. After a full day of looking at the slave castle, he concluded that Africans should still be enslaved. I counted off such examples and tried to make them understand that it is never OK to pass such comments. Heck, if any development official came to Pakistan and said something even remotely insulting, I would shoot them in the head. My Japanese friend probably took that word for word.

A few hours later, I wondered if I should have added fire to conversation by saying that all aid given to Liberia goes hand in hand with kick backs to companies from the countries where the aid originates from. Isn't that sophisticated corruption?

What prompts this kind of arrogance? Is it a class thing? Or a race thing i.e. do non-black folks automatically feel more superior to darker people?  Why and how do we still continue to be conditioned from a young age that lighter colour somehow translates into better character and superior intelligence? 

I suppose what really grated against my conscience was how privileged we all are, just having spent a few hundred bucks at Libassa (the entrance fee alone was $ 10/head), an amount that most Liberians would not even see in a month. My friends are in the development sector and, are making hand some salaries, living in compounds with 24 hour electricity, running water, and internet access. They travel in air conditional vehicles. If they get sick, they can access UN-run hospitals and clinics and can even be flown out of the country. The ordinary Liberian does not have any of these amenities.  How can have such insensitive comments given how well off we ourselves are?

What makes someone from a developed, prosperous country working under the guise of international cooperation in a poorer country in another continent think they belong to a more superior race of people, that their culture has a more ingrained hard working attitude to life? What makes someone from a developing country working in a UN Agency in another poor country think they are somehow more hard working than their national colleagues? What kind of thinking and experiences lead a woman into thinking that every local woman she meets at resorts and hotels in the country is a prostitute? What kind of academic and professional training leads you to think that it is a sound argument to compare the political economics of two different countries with entirely different terrain, economies, socio economic conditions, history and politics?

Why don't people automatically call out leaders? Those in power? If you have to criticise anyone for poverty, poor infrastructure, and corruption, please criticise and insult those in power: presidents, ministers, deputy ministers, public officials, country directors of NGOs managing millions of dollars in annual budgets, UN country directors who command sizable programmes and given diplomatic privileges? I do. I don't criticise the common woman or man on the street. I like to insult and make fun of those with privilege and power. Take a leaf out of my book, please. 

What kind of lazy thinking is that? If anyone is lazy, it is the person who does not ready history or understand the plight of the masses trapped in the slow, violent and unequal development cycle road in developing countries. If you are going to blame the poor for being poor, you are the laziest bum in the world. If you managed to attend university in your life, cannot think for yourself and give into stereotypes, guess who is the lazy one?

One thing is for sure, I am not getting into any argument like this again. I am keeping my mouth shut and will hereby only engaged in mental debates. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Good evening from Masonic Lodge

These are some good moments from our evening walk. I must say I am very happy with the photographs of the Masonic Lodge, lit up by the moon. 

Norah Jones' "Come Away with Me" album was one of the few albums I had with me when I first came to Liberia in 2003. The part of the song where she sings about the tin roof always reminded me of all the rusty zinc roofs of Monrovia.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Saturday afternoon

We had a lovely Saturday afternoon after we closed up the office. 

The office girls, Rita and Musu, went up to the house to drop off Bijli, my laptop bag, and Kavita's diaper bag. Kavita and I waited for them to come back so we could go for a rickshaw ride around Mamba Point. One of Hi-Tech's mechanics passed by to sit with Kavita. 

There are a few names going around for the rickshaw: pen pen, jabba jabba, and yeke yeke.

Going down Benson Street hill was really fun. Kavita went "weeeeeee" all the way down. 

After that we hung out at Bendu's for some soft drinks. I was amused at how Bendu was trying to figure out which tribe the girls belonged to. She asked Rita what her "real" name was to which Rita replied "Rita" was her Christian name. Then, we watched her prepare sesame seeds. I asked Bendu to prepare some sweets for me because I was going to a dinner party that evening. 

Kavita and I went back up to the apartment. We took Bijli upstairs on the rooftop garden, had tea and cake and, enjoyed the new ambience. We have hung up glass bottles and plastic cups (Kavita's old formula bottles, jam jars, candle jars, yoghurt cups) and placed tea lights and plants in them. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015