Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Excursion to Tubmanburg in words

We set out to Tubmanburg on Sunday, 4 September with a group of friends. I had invited the usual gang to go check out Aaron Sannah's farm and then go for a picnic at Blue Lake. 

I know Aaron Sannah since my UNDP Liberia days. My colleagues and I used to buy $ 5.00 weekly flower bouquets from Aaron. I lost touch with him but had heard from another friend in the UN that he still delivers flowers to UN offices. 

Another Liberian-American-Zimbabwean friend I made during my time at UNDP who since then has become a bosom sister friend - and now is back in the US - told me she was trying to get crowd funding to help Aaron expand his business. She had been helping him from afar all these years. She wanted me to take pictures of his farm and extract information from him in order to put together a business proposal. 

For this reason, I decided to invite my friends to a day trip to Tubmanburg. Not only would we see a farm but also see Blue Lake. 

We packed a picnic and piled into 2 cars and set out at about midday. Tubmanburg is hardly an hour away. The road trip was fun and, we chatted and, cracked jokes along the way. 

We met Aaron at the Total gas station in town and, he joined us in one of our cars. We drove for about 20 minutes on dirt roads through forest to reach his farm. We came on to a large field in the middle of a village and were then led to a farm which at the bottom of a hill. The farm was land cleared in a forest, next to a ravine. Aaron's whole family of parents, wife, kids and farm workers had gathered to greet and welcome us. We were shown the piggery first which was at the top of the hill and then made our way down to see the beds of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, cassava, and lots and lots of basil. Apparently, cucumber and basil was the easiest to grow. We were also shown endless birds of paradise which grow in so many shades. It was really a great tour and, Aaron picked bunches and bunches of flowers for us for bouquets to take home. 

I took so many photographs of the farm, of Aaron's family and workers, of us with the family, and of the various produce and animals that were being grown and nurtured. Visiting this farm made me realise what intensive labour the farm is and, without constant care and diligence, the forest will reclaim that land and grow over months and years of back-breaking labour. Despite how fertile Liberia's land is, the challenges facing small farmers like Aaron are truly colossal. Although Aaron is quite close to a main city, it is still a good 20 minute ride by a car to get to the main road. He needs a vehicle, tools, workers and a good irrigation system to keep the farm all through the year. And, then he needs to a good distribution system to be able to sell his produce in the city. 

We bid good bye and drove onwards to Blue Lake. After about 10 minutes we there and, what a sight it was!

There weren't any other picnic makers there and, it was such a soothing and beautiful sight after having been in the forest. By this time, it was cloudy and, I really loved the scenery of the clearest blue water against the surrounding green hills and sloping trees. The clouds moved closer to us and, we thought we should quickly have our picnic. The thatched huts were in disrepair and there was no covered space so we spread our picnic and started eating. 

We had brought chicken curry, aloo sabzi, yoghurt and bread. There was also daal chawal. The highlight though was channa batoray. And, what's more they were still warm! We relished each bite and, enjoyed our food in the dilkash and sohana mausam. Slowly, the rain drops started splashing on our heads and into our plates. We were amused and continued eating. 

The rain drenched us a little bit but eventually subsided. Afterwards, the men and kids jumped into the lake. They made million dollar plans for converting Blue Lake into real tourist spot. Visitors would be ferried by helicopter to a five-star hotel at the top of the hill overlooking the Lake. I reminisced about my visit to Blue Lake when it was stationed with the UNMIL Pakistani Battalion and how they hosted me and friends to a fabulous lunch and boat rides. Good old days!

The guys kept making one dupkee after another into the Lake until we managed to convinced them to start heading back.

The drive back was pleasant and, we continued to make jokes and share anecdotes. We were going to make a stop at Vai Town so one group could go home and we would need to re-arrange the remaining passengers into one group. 

The Vai Town group asked my friend and I to come upstairs for a cup of tea. The other car with Haresh, my friend Jyoti's husband and the kids, were still behind us. I asked my friend Jyoti whether she wanted tea. She said of course! We went upstairs for my friends' Qasim and Amna's famous and delicious desi tea. Even before it was ready, the men telephoned us and asked us where we were. We said, we had come for tea. They started complaining and saying the kids were asleep so we should come down. My friend Jyoti explained to her husband that she wanted to enjoy her tea and, she was always patient when he wanted an extra beer at restaurants so why couldn't she enjoy a cup of tea. The men trudged up, bearing sleeping kids in their arms with sour faces. 

Jyoti and I enjoyed tea with an amused Amna and Qasim who joked that of course we deserved tea for all the dupkees the men had made in the lake. We started giggling over our own jokes and, I joked that after a day of so much laughter I was bound to cry. 

Sure enough, my phone was mugged that very evening. Read about it here.  

Monday, 26 September 2016

Good evening from Miami Beach

Here's some photos of our evening walk on Miami Beach in Mamba Point. We've been a few times now and, it's a nice change from our usual laps up and down on Snapper Hill. Today we paid 100 LD to enter but after we met our friend Luca who came to meet us, we found out there's no entry fee on week days. So, we put in some extra money and got a couple of beers instead.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Another friendly game of Settlers of Catan

We had another Sunday at Lila Brown's playing Settlers of Catan. The kids first watched some cartoons on the TV but afterwards they went chasing kittens and then, got engrossed in the game, too. They also served as bankers and helped to distribute valuable commodities and resources when players banked. 

Can't remember who won the game? Was it me, by any chance? It doesn't matter who wins or loses as long as we play by the rules and don't use dirty tactics. Right?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

My life in Liberia

I have been working on an essay on Monrovia and my life here. I finished the draft and sent it to various publications to see if I could get it published. Honestly, I didn't even know where to send it to and, randomly looked for magazines.

Then, I thought of asking the closed Pakistani women's group on Facebook about ideas and, found a friend who connected me to a very good paper in Pakistan. The paper said they will publish my piece. Needless to say, I am very excited.

The way I have been describing my essay is that it is a tribute to the city of Monrovia where I've lived practically all of adult life. I've described my day to day life, challenges, how the city looks, and also interlaced the descriptions with anecdotes. 

Let's see if anyone would like to reach such an account? 

When I marked a decade in Liberia, I started thinking about a book about my life here. Now that I've clocked almost 14 years here, I keep thinking about my life here. 

Thus, my life here is always framed as "my life in Liberia" and not just "my life." I suppose I myself find it a novelty that I ended up in Liberia for so many years which should actually just have been a duty station in an international development career, a regular stop of 2-3 years, and then on to the next capital city of another country in the global south or if lucky, eventually end up with a nice stint at a regional headquarter. 

In the time I have spent here, I have seen life both as an international staff of a UN Agency and then as an entrepreneur, both very very different lives. I have lost a partner here. I have met another one and now I reside here with a family. I have very strong opinions about the the aid industry and the political, socio-economic scene here. I can also boast of a few friends who may be called prominent Liberians and, also have some close Liberian friends who have seen hardships and over come them. 

Since the idea of a book sprung in my head, I have wondered about my audience. Who would I write to? Is it it interesting to read about the experiences of a Pakistani woman in Liberia? What would make my observations and experiences different from the annoying and cliché-ridden commentary that Westerners make? What would be my purpose? Surely, I would not try to depict Liberia poorly, accentuating its obvious poverty, poor infrastructure and poor social services for the sake of doing so. And, there is more to Liberia than just its image of civil war, poverty, corruption scandals, and so on. 

I don't know if I have managed to write something honest and personal even while describing the infrastructure challenges and day to day frustrations. I also paid tribute to the city itself which I realised keeps on going despite how much we complain. 

Writing about "My Life in Liberia" made me realise that even if I spend a decade more and, learn even more about the city of Monrovia, make many more Liberian friends (hopefully, more and more intellectuals, writers, and artists), and carefully witness political developments and changes, my homeland will always be Pakistan and decidedly so. It's ironic that despite my present is here in Liberia, and, I learn more and more about how this city works and, contribute daily to commerce, am responsible for livelihoods, my identity is still rooted in Pakistan. I lay claim to my parents' Punjabi culture and heritage; profess a great love for Urdu, the language my parents spoke to me in and hope that Kavita will know Urdu even better than me; and consider myself a Pakistani for my memories and, that my parents hail from that country. For these memories and the little precious time I have spent in Pakistan, in a few of its cities on holidays, I still consider myself Pakistani and, as the time passes and I am nearing my 40s, I have spent very little time working and living in Pakistan. I feel like it'll become more and more of an artificial bond unless I actually live and work in that country that is my homeland. 

In this sense, I feel loyalty to my country. I also feel loyal to Liberia and, would like to see it carve a brighter future and that its people will see social, economic and hence, political justice. 

I hope the article does get published. If it does, it'll be a great boost for me and, I hope to keep writing about life in Liberia. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Evening walk on a trashed Mamba Point beach

Happy second day of Eid. We enjoyed a wonderful Eid dinner yesterday at our friends' Amna and Qasim's home where we were treated to a feast following by sweet saviyyan and tea. 

Instead of going to the usual Benson Street hilltop for our evening exercise this evening, we decided to go for a run on the Mamba Point beach. 

I used to live in Mamba Point from 2003 to 2004 in a house which housed the Carter Center for a few years after the fact. I used to come to the beach on by way home from work at WFP and play with children. I know some of the children who have grown up. Some folks still know my name and greet me either 'Susana' or 'Farzana' when I walk past. 

This beach  is directly opposite the fancy Cape and Mamba Point hotels and, UN vehicles and keke come here to get their cars washed. There are  NGO offices and apartment complexes in this part of town yet this is a completely trashed beach. 

I took many photographs this evening of the trash that has washed up on the beach: sandals, sneakers, empty tomato paste sachets, cassettes and plastic. There's also a picture of a dead bloated fish. If this is the trash that's been spit back out by the ocean, what is still in the ocean, mistakenly choking sea animals throats and necks? 

Why do we have such a polluted beach in one of the prime areas of Mamba Point  which houses important UN offices, US Embassy, and residences of high-flying officials?