Friday, 26 May 2017

Settling back into life in Monrovia

I arrived back in Monrovia from on 3 May after being away from about a month. It always takes a while to settle back into Monrovia after being away, especially if one has been away in a country with far more advanced infrastructure and pleasures of limitless consumerism. 

Folks always remark they don't miss the consumerism (ah, but they do) but as much as they miss culture like being able to watch a film at the cinema or visit a museum or enjoy concerts. But these cultural delights also have to be consumed. Sure, sometimes they may be 'free' in advanced societies but many times they are not. 

But apparently, there was a Joss Stone concert in Liberia while I was gone. 

For the last few days of my induction and security training with International Alert's head office in London, Haresh joined Kavita and I for a mini London break. We had a good time together and traveled back together on the newly resumed KLM service to Liberia. The experience was fantastic. The crew was genuinely friendly and smiled with sincere smiles, unlike the stiff faces of the coiffured and slicked Emirates staff. They also looked like real people which leads me to wonder whether Emirates has launched a test pilot of robotic air crew. 

The 3 hour stop over at Schipol Airport was an enjoyable experience. The airport is modern in the real sense of the word: beautiful art, comfortable sofas and seats for weary travelers, and a playground for children. The tables in the food court had in built charging stations to charge one's devices. 

Coming back to our life in Monrovia was not so easy. The first night we had to sleep at a hotel because we didn't have light at home. It took us more than a month to restore the LEC. We spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars repairing our back up generator twice and, hundreds more in official and unofficial fees to the LEC. 

I nearly forgot to mention that on our second day back, our staff at NATC banged up our car, damaged 2 other cars and, cost us $ 10,000 and more. What happened was that they were meant to take some small bags from the NATC office to our apartment (walking distance), an activity that has happened thousands of times every evening. Somehow, my staff gave this task to our technician who doesn't know how to drive and even while Haresh was at the office, the office manager took the keys from the desk and convinced the technician to drive. This technician is a Pakistani, without a driving license. Was he dreaming? He decided to drive and while reversing, rammed the car into 2 standing vehicles, one with a passenger. The wreckage was so bad you wouldn't have believed it. Worse, one of the cars belonged to some folks in the Cooper clan. Thankfully, we were able to resolve the whole mess with the aggrieved parties but it cost us an arm and a leg. 

This same team couldn't get our light and generator back on in our absence but had the presence of mind to drive when not knowing how to drive. 

You can appreciate what a foul state of mind I was in for quite a while. 

Things at International Alert have also been quite hectic so much so that I've not had the time or energy to slip back into my weekly ritual of evening walks, cooking at home and, having friends at home. 

The work at International Alert has been busy with following up donors, addressing funding crises, and working on a proposal in response to a donor call. The proposal writing process (we had to abandon the process half way) was truly a soul sucking experience, especially as we didn't give ourselves enough time. I did learn a lot about some new "thematic" areas that touch upon the work that we're already doing. I think I appreciate a lot more at what a strong local NGO sector is in Liberia although it can be said that after all these years, 'we' have not done enough to build up the professional capacity (what the technical industry requires) of local NGOs. 

I did have the privilege to meet a delegation from one of our donors (Sida) that was in town to assess things in light of UNMIL's phase down. The whole delegation was made up of women which was highly inspiring. It was interesting to be in a room with local and international NGOs with this delegation at the Swedish Embassy sharing experiences and opinions. 

Given the enduring lack of infrastructure, social services and security in Liberia, NGOs and the international community needs to innovate and invest in creativity, thinking of ways to leap frog over obsolete technology and routes and, find faster/newer ways of delivering basic infrastructure and services to Liberians. 

So, I'm back with my life in Liberia, trying to the best with my 3 jobs: NATC, International Alert and Haresh. Yes, I have to manage Haresh, too.  

Life in Monrovia is simple. During the week days, I make the long trek from Randall Street to Congo Town, dropping Kavita off at Kid's Nest en route to my office. She loves her school and is the ideal, obedient and engrossed student. At home she makes demands for endless cartoons and, doesn't eat her food properly. But at school, you would never know. 

So, we live our life in Liberia and, continue to wonder will things change or not? What's in store for our business? Will the economy improve and grow? Will infrastructure improve? Will security improve? Will the elections be peaceful? 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Exploring masks, paintings and sculptures in Mamba Point








Saturday, 13 May 2017

Good evening


Friday, 12 May 2017

Joining International Alert as Country Manager for Liberia Part 1

I joined International Alert Liberia as Country Manager on 1 February. I saw the vacancy back in September or early  October 2016 and, applied and was confirmed by early November. It took a couple of months for the contract and recruitment formalities to be agreed and finalised and, I joined as head of the office here in February, a few days after returning from Pakistan from holiday. 

I've lived in Liberia since 2003 and worked with WFP-UNJLC and UNDP until 2008; took a year out to pursue a masters at SOAS in London; and been running an IT company since 2009. 

The time ebola struck Liberia and indeed the region, I started to think about reviving my development career. Ebola was a  real existential crisis: I was away in Pakistan for about 8 months because folks told me it was better to stay away and, that in itself created feelings of anguish and guilt. I was also separated from Haresh and, he even had an ebola scare himself. It was time to think about putting my eggs in other baskets. If I revived my job career, I would have an alternate source of income and even have the option to start moving out of Liberia in case things got worse. 

The general existential and moral crisis of course has not been resolved. Ebola and the suffering it wrought exposed to outsiders a barely existent health care system barely managed by a state. As the death toll increased, many aid workers living in the bubble they do in Monrovia, fled the country. An emergency was imposed and, everyone was fighting a war. International airlines pulled out and only 2 airlines served the whole country. Despite it all, the Liberians managed to control and halt the epidemic. Unfortunately, the ebola epidemic coincided with a general global market slump and, the fall of iron ore prices forced some of the mining companies to pull out. Things in Monrovia have normalised of course since the ebola epidemic but the fractures and vulnerability are still here. One can have an enormous sense of helplessness and anger when one thinks about what little postwar reconstruction has actually taken place. 

Against this personal crisis, I joined the big bad Aid Establishment in 2015 when I saw an advert for a Partner Support Director position at Mercy Corps Liberia. The project I was part of was an ebola sensitisation  project: Ebola Community Action Platform. I completed my 6 month contract and, unfortunately, was not renewed for the second phase of the project. I was told I would be better suited at a think tank. 

In some ways, I was glad to be out because I was not really intellectually stimulated per se and, wondered how we could better use $12 million in a country without critical life-saving medical equipment; and, how sustainable was this work without hand-in-hand collaboration with government counterparts. 

I was too glad to see the post of Country Manager for International Alert. I read as much as I could about them and, bombarded my interviewers with my rants about the socio-economic-political crisis in Liberia. Somehow, they hired me and, I began my new stint with a London-based peace building NGO. 

It's been about 3 and a half months since I joined. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Back in Monrovia.

We arrived in Monrovia at about 10 PM with the new resumed KLM service. It was really nice to pass through Schipol Airport, one of the most modern and stylish-but-understated airports. The KLM flight itself was comfortable with crew that were extremely friendly and smiled with sincere smiles, quite a stark contrast to the Emirates experience. In fact, 5 passengers didn't show up for the Amsterdam-Freetown flight and, the pilot kept us informed every 5 minutes and, in fact, the bags of the defected passengers were offloaded in 10 minutes. Talk about efficiency. It was also a very chatty flight with folks from Liberia and Sierra Leone who were socialising through out the flight making one feel like was in a restaurant or bar. I bumped into my best friend's cousin on the flight. I overheard project plans about a medical project or assessment in Monrovia. And, the passengers clapped each time the flight landed in Freetown and Monrovia. We landed in a dark air strip and, could smell rubber right after we got out of the plane. I've usually landed at RIA during the day time so I was quite struck by the smell of rubber. One person on the bus to the terminal told me the smell of the rubber is emanating from Firestone. The folks on the bus were very chatty and, joked about the heat and, why they had to be on a 1-minute bus ride. Pretty soon we were at the terminal that became the scene of friendly hugs and loud chatter. While arriving at the airport in London or in Chicago was such a subdued and hushed hushed affair - folks exhausted with the endless immigration queues and anxiety over the grilling and interviews of why they had decided to come - coming through RIA is a pure chaotic family affair. An immigration lady who we knew took our passports while we waited in the small rackety baggage hall to collect our bags. It was humid, hot and the baggage belt croaked and shrieked. Lo and behold, one passenger started screaming that his iPad and Laptop were stolen and he jumped over the baggage belt to throttle the ground crew while another one started making a huge racket. I started to worry whether our stuff would also get pilfered. After 20 minutes, we collected our bags and went outside to our welcome party: the New Africa Technology Company friends driver and our nanny. They helped us load the car and off we went on a dark highway back to Monrovia (the same dark highway I drove along when I first arrived in Liberia in September 2003, picked up by a WFP driver who impressed me with his knowledge of Benazir Bhutto). The moon was really a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas and, Haresh and I wondered about the stark contrast to our comfortable time in London (although Haresh will complain about the dry weather in London which gives him sore bleeding lips) and the stresses and headaches of running a business and our daily concerns over light, water and security. We were informed that despite best efforts, our house generator was still not giving output to the house and the LEC meter was still not replaced. We made a quick decision to crash at a hotel in town. Our nanny and driver took our suitcases back to our apartment on Randall Street and we slept quietly with our thoughts in a freezing room in Boulevard Palace. I dreamt Kavita and I were mistaken for terrorists by the CIA in Afghanistan. 
Good afternoon Monrovia!