10 October 2007

Liberia - recent developments and football

I enjoyed a 10 day visit to Liberia in early September. I stayed with the parents of a friend I played football with in DC, in our Saturday soccer on the Mall days. The parents served in northeast Liberia with Peace Corps in the 1970s, and have been working in Monrovia for the last few years.

As you may recall, Liberia suffered through a series of wars from 1989 until 2003, when rebel leader/president Charles Taylor was forced to step down, leading to a large UN mission, 2005 elections and increasing stability.

Today, there are relatively few clear signs of the conflicts, namely bullet-holes on unrepaired building facades and pockmarked streetlights. Some of the ruins date to earlier tumultuous times, such as a minister's house that was destroyed after Samuel Doe's coup d'etat and purge in 1980.

A lot of buildings and infrastructure have simply succumbed to two decades of neglect. These include the national Masonic Temple (I think all of the Americo-Liberian presidents were masons), the large Ducor Hotel (where hundreds of people from upcountry sought refuge) and one of the two bridges to the Monrovia peninsula, which finally collapsed a few months ago.

A less visible, but obvious, effect has been on education. Many students had their studies interrupted for up to 15 years, and now are competing with their younger compatriots for high school and university places. George, who works at my hosts' home and recently completed high school, is applying for admittance to the University of Liberia. He's in his 40s. Such difficulties, compounded by economic collapse during the wars, make one wonder how Liberia will support itself and find work for its young people. Many people are trying to help, though.

Aside from the thousands of UN workers and peacekeepers, there are myriad agencies driving around town. The UN presence has enabled all the displaced people who wanted to return home to do so, and they have carried out a lot of minor infrastructure improvements - for instance, the Pakistani contingent erected a temporary bridge on the road from the border to Monrovia a few days before I got there (this is a different bridge from the aforementioned Monrovia bridge).

The swell of international aid workers has created a two-tiered economy. In a country where the vast majority of people are unemployed, Monrovia has no shortage of nice restaurants, expensive hotels, and supermarkets full of fine imported goods. At least this provides some Liberians employment, although I expect the profits go to owners with the capital to cater to this high-end demand.

Other large fields of work are in counseling, vocational training and education. Working with youths and others to find positive outlets and develop skills is a big challenge, as is helping existing educational institutions maintain standards while confronting staffing problems, demand for enrollment, and the temptation to increase fees and enrollment to stay afloat. This is leading to a commoditization and devaluation of degrees.

One of the nice examples of the rehabilitation efforts is an amputee footballers' league. Unlike the apparently more seasoned Sierra Leone league, which is mostly made up of victims of the RUF's 1997 post-election tactics, most of the Liberian players are former combatants.

Given the small pitches they play on, sides have six field players and a goalkeeper. The field players are amputees with part or all of a leg missing (touching the ball with a crutch is a handball), while goalies are missing an arm. Keepers could have an amputated leg instead, but that's widely regarded as inferior to having two legs to jump off. Still, it had me pondering the wide wingspan the crutches offer, although a powerful shot could probably not be deflected (and they are strong kickers).

The matches for the round robin tournament were held around the Monrovia area, and I was able to see the Conquerous play LASA (the flagship team - Liberia Amputee Soccer Association). It was the last day of the tournament, and the Conquerous had already beaten LASA (the perenial champions) on overall points, but it was a spirited match all the same. The small pitch, abutted and encroached upon by houses and construction (with a convenient nook behind one goal line where players and spectators could take a piss), was crowded by a couple of hundred enthusiastic residents. The match was very entertaining, although there were a lot of missed through-balls, with the Conquerous willing 2-1 to crown their overall victory. The spectators were very supportive of the players, the celebrations of the hefty, high-heeled Conquerous president (she's a counselor for former combatants) were infectious, and the players showed great effort and skill.

One of the fields in the area, near the Red Light motor park, is called Gobachop Field. Apparently people liked the sound of the name Gorbachev and corrupted it to Gobachop. Chop is a universal West African pidgin English word, meaning eat, or to steal/embezzle. A popular Nigerian song and music video is "I Go Chop Your Dollar."

My friend Francis used it interestingly the other day, noting that another friend of ours was "chopping that girl..." when we were last together in Ghana.

07 October 2007

"In Jesus's Name, We Shall Make It!"

15 September (relating events of 12-13 September 2007)

I composed an article on my ride from Sierra Leone to Liberia, dubbing it the most difficult so far. But it paled in comparison to the journey from Monrovia to Toulepleu, a small town on the Ivoirien side of the border. The only reason the route is used is that a better one further north has been abandoned since the civil war and division of Cote d'Ivoire.

The bulk of the journey took place between Monrovia and Toe Town (pronounced "Toes Town" by Liberians). The first nine hours were fairly uneventful as the road to Ganta is sealed (i.e. paved), though bumpy in stretches.

After stopping for dinner, we began the unsealed portion of our trip. After a couple of hours we reached a checkpoint where our apprentice/aparanti caused offense. The policemen loudly took exception to being bribed (I fear our apprentice was a bit curt). After an hour or so waiting at the roadside, we were allowed to continue once the driver and apprentice (essentially a conductor) paid an acceptable fine (no doubt larger than the proferred loan). The passengers gave the apprentice a lot of grief for not being more careful with his words.

On the plus side, our cramped minibus (they installed a wooden plank to create an extra row between the front seats and the first row of passenger seats behind) had the best sound system of my whole COS trip, and a decent selection of music to boot. In addition to some nice Ivoirien and Liberian music, the obligatory reggae and some gospel music, there was some 90s dance music, including Jennifer Lopez's first album and the guys that sing "What is love/Baby don't hurt me" and "Where do you go?" And one male passenger knew the words to every song played.

At 3AM we pulled into Tapeta and snoozed until dawn. We set off along the increasingly muddy path and stopped to chat with a driver coming the opposite way, to learn about the route ahead. From his perch in a sturdy SUV, the driver surveyed our battered red minibus and said, "You have no chance of getting there." At this point a woman in the row behind me announced, "In Jesus's name, we shall make it!"

Soon enough we came to our first impasse. At the bottom of the hill, a taxi was bogged down. To its right, a 4x4 was a few feet under, having stupidly tried its luck on an uncharted section of mud. Up the hill a bit, a large truck was also stuck.

In another section, they had succeeded in fashioning two lanes, so that other vehicles could head downhill while we tried to get a goods truck over the hill. This worked until another big truck decided to chance the bypass lane downhill. Instead of careening straight through, the driver went too slowly and when the lorry hit the bump, it smashed its headlights and the truck's nose just sank a meter into the mire.

While this was not the first unsealed road I encountered on my holiday, it was rather worse than others. In Guinea and Sierra Leone, the roads tended to be at least somewhat graded, so most of the rainwater could run off them. Sure there were plenty of furrough and grooves making the ride bumpy and some large puddles (deep enough to wet our feet on the SL-Liberia road), but we made reasonable progress.

The Ganta to Zweru (where our vehicle was continuing after I alighted) road, by contrast, had no such grading. As a result, most of the water was absorbed by the road, turning parts into mud patches.

We removed our shoes, dismounted, and began digging out the vehicles in front of us. Our driver took the lead in this, and the men joined in, and the woman who proclaimed that we'd succeed also helped dig. After the digging, we'd push the vehicles as the drivers attempted to get moving again. This was sometimes an iffy proposition as we occasionally had to jump out of the way of fishtailing cars we were pushing from the sides, and the drivers often reversed unannounced. Proceeding in this manner we got vehicles moving.

The experience fostered a lot of solidarity, and my presence no doubt encouraged a few waverers to pitch in. On the other hand, no such cameraderie was extended to those drivers and passengers who did not help dig. People in SUVs and pick-ups were particularly guilty of this, perhaps reckoning that if the path was cleared for a car ahead of them, they'd probably make it through too. But it was a taxi that ended up getting the most scolding. Having been mired in the mud in front of us a few times, the consensus was that they did not show sufficient gratitude to us, leading to one of our older passengers exclaiming to one young man, "I can beat my son!"

One might expect that a 4WD would be best in such conditions, although that ignores the question of the occupants. The vehicles were more adept, yes, but the drivers and passengers tend not to be so hardy. Indeed, our humble van's passengers were very active, and more numerous - there were routinely 15 of us at work. Of course, no number of passengers could talk sense to our driver who, although a very active digger, could not be dissuaded from speeding through the lanes we righted. It was only the high walls of mud that kept our vehicle from falling on its side during such dashes.

At Toe Town I alighted and got on a motorbike to get to Toulepleu, Cote d'Ivoire. This road was virtually impassable for larger vehicles, with one SUV and passengers on their third day on the 40 km road. We only made it thanks to a strapping man who hauled our bike through the muddiest section. I rewarded him with some biscuits with strawberry cream filling.

You say cucumber...

September 6

While travelling in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I've been impressed by the amount of cucumbers for sale. More impressive still has been the fact that Sierra Leoneans actually eat them.

This past year, when we did a pretty decent job in the Njau school garden, my headmaster elected to sow a half dozen beds with cucumber seeds. Master's reasoning was that the "kacoombas" (as it is pronounced in The Gambia) could be sold to Donald the French proprietor of the nearby hunting camp that has a very brief, sparse but profitable stint every dry season. Conveniently, we could send Gui Jahanka kids to peddle our kacoombas and other veggies, as the camp's not far from their village.

Unfortunately, Donald often pleaded poverty or lack of guests, so sometimes the cucumbers just spoiled. They could not be foisted on me, as I don't like them, which proved problematic for Master's next gambit.

With a bucket-full of cucumbers and one purchase in Njau, it was time to give them away. We'd had a PTA Committee meeting with a respectable turnout, so Master decided to act. At the conclusion of the meeting, he doled out the kacoombas to the bewildered old pas and the couple of matriarchs in attendance. It was left to me to explain the virtues, and eating/preparation, of cucumbers to the dubious audience. Pa Musa Jeng then asked me if I liked them, and I had to be truthful. No one reported back as to whether the kacoombas were enjoyed and cassava was transplanted into the beds as the hot season was upon us.

There was a thriving trade in cucumbers in Salone, by contrast. Whenever our poda-poda or sept-place stopped at a junction or village, we were besieged by girls and boys hawking water, roast/boiled corn, bread, groundnuts, and cucumbers. Just inside the border from Guinea, though, the kids were shouting "Come-cuber!" as they sold them. Indeed, they were very popular and invariably a few passengers were eating come-cubers or saving them for their families' travelling gifts.


September 1

Bonthe, the capital of Bonthe district, is on Sherbro Island, just off the southern coast of Sierra Leone. After riding three hours to Mattru Jong, you catch (if your vehicle's not late) the daily boat to Bonthe - a 30 km journey of 4-5 hours.

In its prime Bonthe, a prominent colonial outpost along with Freetown, must have been quite impressive. Today the town has perhaps ten deserted old churches, dozens of pretty if dilipidated 'storey-buildings', an abandoned airfield (complete with stripped plane), streets and lanes with names, a local radio station (there are lots of these in Salone), and a ten square foot area that sometimes gets mobile phone coverage. It is kind of like Janjanbureh, Gambia's old colonial island, except it's more remote and seems to have fallen from a higher perch.

Still, it was a nice place to spend a couple of days walking around, visiting palm and/or bamboo wine ghettoes/spots, listening to locals chatting about politics and Bonthe's steady decline, and learning a tiny bit of Mende (hello/how are you?/thank God). There aren't many tourists (besides me there were two EU election observers and a British student journalist) so there are few hangers-on like in Gambia, just some kids saying Pumwai (white person/foreigner).

Aside from a few skirmishes in Bo and another town, the elections were pretty calm, with the main opposition party (APC) beating the Sierra Leone People's Party in the second round on September 8.

03 October 2007

Bush Meat

September 1

At one of the stops on the way to Mattru Jong from Bonthe, a pirogue full of meat pulled up to our boat. As they were loading it on I struggled to identify it until I saw a flipper and surmised that it was a manatee (further confirmation came when the head was added to the wicker basket on deck). This was disconcerting as, although I don't know if this manatee was actively hunted (it may have been injured by a propellor then put down), a lot of endangered animals end up as bushmeat. Some are common and even pests (such as bushpigs and grasscutters), but many other animals are killed indiscriminately.

Meanwhile, Alhagie, a young man sitting at the guesthouse, just mused that he could kill one of the bee-eaters constructing nests in the trees above us, if only he had a slingshot. He offers to catch one for me and I suggest we don't disturb them.

02 October 2007

Black Guys and White Guys

September 1

One thing that remains interesting to me is the blanket description of all foreigners as white men. A recent example of this took place in Bonthe, when some Sierra Leonean drinking buddies told me about their white friends who served there as a UN peacekeeper. Lieutenant Zoa was from Bangladesh.

Of course, it would be a bit churlish to give Africans grief for seeing all foreigners as alike, given that Africa is widely perceived in the U.S. as a monolithic entity.

I was presented with another perspective on this while waiting to get on a boat from Bonthe back to the mainland, and listening to early 90s standards from Whitney Houston, Brian Adams and Elton John, courtesy of Radio Bonthe. Throughout West Africa (and the world, I'm sure) one can pick up pirated compilation CDs/DVDs of movies. Although often random, they are sometimes organized around a theme -- sequels/serires, horror, Schwartzenegger opuses, etc. One of my fellow passengers was carrying one called "Black Guys in Great Movies." Of the eight, I could only recognize (thanks to Newsweek) Blood Diamond (set here, coincidentally) and Apocalypto, whic was set in pre-Columbian Central or South America (I believe) and so probably does not feature black people.

Poda-poda and store slogans

August 26

One thing that was lacking in The Gambia and Senegal was creativity in naming of gelegeles/minibuses and stores. Most were named Alhamdoulilahi, Santa Yalla (Wolof for "Praise Allah") and so forth; stores and vehicles were otherwise named after their owners.

Sectarian diversity and enthusiasm for speaking English/Krio in Sierra Leone, though, make for greater variety in names and slogans attached to poda-podas (as dilapidated minivans are dubbed here) and stores. To wit:

To be a man is not easy
Hizbullah Tours
Daddy U Nar Man
Bum Stars * * * *
No Matter How Long The Night Is, The Morning Must Come
This Business is Built Upon The Blood of Jesus (Liberia)
I am Covered in the Blood of Jesus (Liberia)
Rien n'est tard (Cote d'Ivoire)

Pimp My Looks (salon)
Your Beauty Lies On Your Head
Some will hate u. Pretend they love u.
Yu fri fo tok te yu taya. (mobile company ad)
Don't Mind Your Wife Chop Bar (Ghana)
Corn Roll (among the services advertised outside salons in Ghana)

A nighttime drive through the forest

July 31, 2007

Our vehicle from Mandar, Senegal to Labe, Guinea left around 5PM, after everyone had had their fill of the lumo (weekly market). So before long it was dark as we muddled along. The forest enveloping the road reminded me of when I first visited my English grandparents, as we drove through the New Forest that night. So this nighttime drive was evocative of that 1988 visit, notwithstanding the washed out road, frequent breakdowns and eventual retirement of our vehicle (we transferred to another station-wagon the next morning).