Saturday, 10 June 2017

A lovely rainy Saturday walk around town

The rainy season is here although we've been having freak rainstorms and full rainy days these past few months when it was still officially dry season. When I first arrived in Liberia, I was told the rainy season starts in April and ends in October. However, the rainy season starts a little later now.

I was recently chatting to my Karachi cousins on WhatsApp and, sent them a picture of a rainy day. They didn't quite understand how much it rains in Liberia. 

I must say the rainy season is my favourite time of the year. The city feels completely different. 

Kavita dressed herself up for a rainy day with her rain boots, a sweater and her umbrella. We took a keke to L'oven Bakery to buy some meat and spinach pies which we had with Haresh back at the NATC office where he was working. For LD $ 150, the keke took us and brought us back. Kavita is slowly getting used to the concept of money and one needs it for things and keke rides. 

The feel of the cool air on our faces was delicious. How nice it is to finally feel this weather. 

Kavita and I left Haresh at the office to continue strolling around Monrovia. As we walked back up Randall Street, Kavita stopped at Super Cool's store. She wanted to pop in and say hello. The lady was quite pleased to see her. I understood that Kavita has made quite a few friends on Randall Street while she walks with Musu. 

We then met a couple of fellows selling moringa leaves. They told me to boil the leaves and drink the tea. I bought a bunch for $ LD 100.00. One of the men walked in front of me and, started selling the leaves. "Back pain, malaria, anything" could seemingly be cured with these leaves. "See," he called out. That part of his marketing made me smile and I paused to take his photograph. He gave me shot with his arms wide open. 

We dropped off the leaves at the house. Kavita wanted to stay on to practice her ballet (she makes graceful leaps around the living room, I think she's learned about ballet from Max and Ruby and some story books). I convinced her to keep going for another short walk. "Let's enjoy the weather," I implored her. "We'll have tea when we come back." 

So, we kept walking. Kavita insisted on walking into Tiny Tots, a children's clothing and toy shop right next to Compu Tech. She looked around and I told her we're just window shopping. 

We kept walking and bought some bananas to snack on. 

We stopped by the mosque on Benson Street. The azaan was being called out and, I peeked into a small stall selling tasbee, jaanamaaz, skull caps, incense sticks. I even bought a few "Aladdin" incense sticks from India.

We passed some boutiques. 

We passed a DVD shop and I saw some interesting film posters. Kavita became obsessed with a fake fire. It was one of those devices that looked like a flame. She didn't believe it until the shop keepers let her touch it. She kept asking to touch it over and over again. 

We kept going and, came to the intersection of Mechlin and Carey Streets. I bought some honey from Guinea. The vendors were from Guinea but they were third generation Liberians. When I asked why they still considered themselves from Guinea, they said it was because Immigration officials would often harass them and tell them they are from Guinea. Some girls shopping in the next store turned around and engaged the conversation. It kept going and, I couldn't stay because Kavita got bored. 

I hope the honey will be good. 

We walked on and browsed in the book stalls under the old Ministry of Education. I managed to find some Liberian children's books! That was quite exciting. What was nice to see was that the illustrations by artists I actually know through the NATC technology art contest. 

Kavita wanted to go home but I convinced her I wanted to see the red flame trees on Broad Street. So, we kept walking up Broad Street and, I took some photographs of the beautiful trees. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Joining International Alert as Country Manager for Liberia Part 2

Peace building is a completely new "technical sector" for me in terms of my actual experience in the Aid Establishment. So, joining the Liberia office for International Alert has been given me a very unique opportunity to learn about peace building. In the industry sense of it. 

I started my first work day in town. International Alert's national Programme Officer met me at NATC along with an Economics for Peace expert from International Alert's head office. There was a meeting scheduled with one of the companies that International Alert Liberia is engaged with in downtown Monrovia.

It was ironic to be in a meeting with a company representing an NGO instead of an IT services company, something which I have been doing since 2009.  During the meeting, I was really a quiet participant, observing how my colleagues interacted with the company's top manager. 

Coincidentally, many of NATC's past and current clients were in the extractive industry and at least one is a plantation. Some of these companies pulled out of Liberia such as BHP Billiton and Putu Iron Ore Mining Inc. I managed to get some lucrative supply and service contracts with such big companies. I learned a little bit about how companies operate, the sheer expertise and highly skilled  planning and projection that's required and, what challenges and risks companies operate with. I had the chance to visit the camps, meet geologists, learn about the social corporate responsibility teams, learn about environmental studies companies had to undertake and so on. There was also political challenges such as being called to meet with government officials regularly for regular paperwork or to respond to news of conflicts with communities or other allegations. Because I had befriended often times almost the whole management, I would hear of problems the company would have because there were pressures to recruit people from the area but often times the skilled labour from areas outside of Monrovia was even poorer than from Monrovia. I also remember hearing about the limitations of the clinic that was set up by the company and, how it couldn't serve everyone in the company.

I spent more time with 2 iron ore mining companies so my knowledge regarding this extraction is better than challenges/operations of palm oil plantations (I have one palm oil plantation client). I understood that these companies initially go through an exploration phase where highly detailed analysis and projections are made before any extraction and processing even takes place. The Agreements are quite complex and, even though there are hefty fees to be paid, a lot of under the table hand greasing also has to keep things going. While one of these companies may have not been so sincere about environmental protection, one of them seemed to walk the talk when it came to community and environmental protection. All in all, I got a sense that these companies had to tread quite carefully, maintain relationships and manage their reputations.

Despite such close encounters with companies and positive impressions, I found International Alert's model of engagement with the extractive industry something new to understand. I was told that International Alert does not do the 'blaming and shaming' type of advocacy and, rather tries to work with all parties to a conflict.

I had a lengthy and interesting chat with the expert from London who explained that International Alert believes there will always be conflict and, it is only be engaging all parties to it that peaceful outcomes can be envisioned and produced. This is Alert's  notion of peace building. So this entails providing conflict-sensitivity training to companies; promoting dialogues between the companies and "communities"; and even providing consultancies to companies. Where is the government's role in this whole process? I was told that the government is also included in the whole work but often times governments don't ensure consultation and protection of "communities" through the whole process.

The first few days and weeks have been quite interesting in terms of learning International Alert's approach and work. In Liberia, they've been operating since the mid 90s.

My induction at the London office was quite a treat. I was able to visit London after about 7 years. What a long time! Not only that, I went back with Kavita and, was able to stay at my brother Tariq's place and spend some good time with my sister Saira and Tariq.

During the induction, I was able to meet all the department heads and, many other colleagues as well. It was quite a packed 3-4 days at the office in Clapham. My sister and brother took care of Kavita during the day while I was at the office. One day she didn't want to go with Saira so I had to bring Kavita with me to the International Alert head office. Poor thing was so well behaved and quiet for the whole morning. She stayed in the recreation room and, then eventually I brought her to the Africa office where she was entertained by the communications officer while I was in a meeting with my boss's boss (my boss is the West Africa manager while his boss is the Africa manager). I could hear that Kavita was demanding that the communications officer put on "Frozen" for her. I kept apologising but the Africa manager was quite kind and did not mind, even when Kavita popped her head into the meeting room.

It struck me through the induction that the intellectual cream, the experts, the technical experts, the policy makers, the fund raisers are all based in a head office while the Country Offices, such as ours in Liberia, house a different set of folks. Not many of them have been around that long and, are implementing projects that haven't been designed by them. I am not quite sure how this model benefits the Country Office.

I was not so crazy about the required security training which was 4 nights away at a training facility an hour outside of Oxford. I dragged my sister with me so Kavita could be close to me.

It's been about 4 months and, it's been quite a busy time. When I joined, I found myself with 2 reporting deadlines for donors. It was quite an overwhelming task to put together a report with the team without having been there at all. I also had to go up to London. I have not even had the time to go visit any of the projects in the "field." I have tried to network as much as I can to get a sense of what's going on in Monrovia and "map out actors."

It's quite interesting to be in this world again. I am giving myself prep talks to be patient with the organisation, with the NGO world and to really learn what are the socio-economic and political issues that "civil society" is currently grappling with. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Facebook is bigger than China

I just read "If Facebook were a country, it would be bigger than China" in a BBC Technology article. I read about 5-10 technology articles almost every day to post on the New Africa Technology Company page. The article goes on to say :
And yet, Mr Joler argues, we know next to nothing about what goes on under the bonnet - despite the fact that we, as users, are providing most of the fuel - for free."All of us, when we are uploading something, when we are tagging people, when we are commenting, we are basically working for Facebook," he says. 

Yet we all willingly participate in this forum because it has become the central site for us to see what's going on with our friends and family, particularly those of us who are not in our countries and close to our families. I particularly enjoy following political discussions and reactions/opinions to latest events. It is a great platform (and other social media sites) and changed the way we engage with ideas, news. Thankfully, we don't need to rely on mainstream news anymore for our only source as an opinion maker. 
In the process we help Facebook become bigger than China. 
One often meets or writes folks who are seemingly inactive on Facebook yet they are on it. They'll reference something you have posted and, you realise they are on Facebook. But then you get folks who are a little slow or just surfaced. I posted a picture of Kavita and my brother and sister when I was in London in April and, one friend of my brother asks him, is that your kid? Clearly, they aren't that close friends. 
But we're all friends on Facebook aren't we?