My West African Development Safari

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West Africa in a time of Ebola: Warning signs everywhere

Following a few weeks’ residence in Liberia, in which I spent a total of two days in field research and interviews, I was then off to Sierra Leone for 5 days, in which another day was allotted for field research. Despite a full schedule, I only managed 1 very formal, large, crowded ‘interview’, but a lot of ‘guest star’ appearances – where my skin-color, my Western woman, expat aid-worker status brought prestige to international NGO events.

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The streets of Monrovia. So many electricity wires and no electricity…

This was meant to be enough data collection to complete my task: to create a manual for a worldwide, grass roots training program in child protection. Child protection is the term given to the process of protecting individual children identified as either suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm as a result of abuse, violence or neglect. It involves measures and structures designed to prevent and respond to abuse, violence and neglect. Thus, field research – in the middle of the ebola crisis – was intended to provide all the required input for shaping the manual to meet the specific needs and levels of the target community, i.e., all the world’s poor and marginal children.

This essay, however, is not about the business and often silliness of the jobs I take as an international development consultant. It is about my experiencing life and work in other parts of the world.

Safari in Liberia

Liberia is a train wreck of a country. Even the capital city hasn’t got electricity. Everything

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Street life Liberia

runs on generators – for those that can afford them. Most villages (though residents are insulted when I used that term. We are a city! …. uh, ok) have no sanitation, water or power. Houses are made from adobe with grass or tin roofs. Kids run around naked and filthy. The majority of interviews revealed that people defecate, wash and drink in the same river and do not recognize this as a health hazard, especially for children. Prostitution is rampant, but HIV is ignored now thanks to 100% focus on ebola. BUT they did manage to stop the ebola crisis – showing how decent governance really can exist (perhaps because it was entirely foreign managed? I don’t know). It just doesn’t most of the time. Corruption is rampant and nothing trickles down beyond a longing for power and an opportunity to be corrupt – or so my local team explains to me.

Ironically, Liberia exists as a home for slaves to return to after emancipation in the US. Now all anyone wants to do is get back to America – or work for an NGO. There is surely nothing much else here for them. When the ebola crisis is over and all the foreigners leave, wow – economic implosion! Firestone, however, has the world’s largest rubber plantation here. They made a deal with the rebels in 1990s and provided them a safe haven during the civil war in exchange for the ability to keep their rubber exports running. Blood rubber. Over 200,000 died.

Snapshot from Liberia: Evening in a ‘bar’, a few plastic tables and chairs in an unpaved parking lot with power from a rumbling generator only slightly drowned out by blaring Afro-pop music. Over the constant rumbling and rhythm of the music we began to hear voices, shouting, louder and louder, increasing in ferocity. O damn, there’s going to be a fight, I thought as the rage increased, furious large men jumping to their feet as cheap plastic chairs thrown backward, bouncing out behind them. Others joined the anger match in a language peppered with a few English words I could catch but mostly in local languages. Voices increasingly louder, bodies leaning toward their adversaries over plastic tables tilting against the pressure, empty beer bottles, leaning precariously ready to fall at the next jerking of seething anger.

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The ‘bar’ was next to this barber shop. No pix.

My Liberian companions were totally calm watching with interest as one would a lively soccer match. My American companion and I clearly feeling the tension and afraid for whatever this increasingly active volcano was ready to erupt.

Suddenly, the generator died and we were left in silent blackness with only the moonlight glistening off the raging faces of furious and likely quite drunk men. The sudden silence and darkness of a dead generator had no effect at all on the violent scene next to us.

What the heck is going on??? I asked my Liberian host.

That guy lit a cigarette.

Ya. OK. So what are they fighting about?

This one is demanding he put it out. They are arguing over the cigarette. It is illegal to smoke in public places here.

A pure WTF moment as stereotypes and expectations of raging black men creating mayhem and bloodshed rapidly dissolved. The culprit finally walked toward the road to finish his cigarette away from the offended throng.

I could really grow to like Liberia!

Safari Part 2: Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone in many respects was miles ahead of Liberia. The capital, Freetown, was where American slaves first landed but conditions were so bad most died. Now, it is a boom town compared to Monrovia (Liberia) with a population over a million. Beyond the capital city, life changes radically as access to power, water, sanitation and other basic needs diminish entirely. But compared to Liberia, Sierra Leone has a beauty from being greener, rolling hills, more cultivation, and a far better protection system for their

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Street life Freetown

children.

Thanks to ebola, there are roadblocks everywhere where all passengers in cars or buses are required to take a fever test. Anyone with a fever is pulled over as a possible ebola patient. Even foot traffic must stop and be tested. Entrance to any shop or hotel must be preceded by hand sanitizing. My hands are dry and red from all the washing with bleach. Ebola can be transferred through touch. Thus, touch must be avoided and guarded. Introductions to new friends, staff or participants in my field work include a touching of elbows instead of a handshake or hug. These are the new rituals of survival in the age of ebola. After several weeks in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the heart of ebola country, I seemed to have absorbed these strange new rituals and lost that dreadful fear that I felt initially. Hanging out in a group of ebola survivors, playing with kids, close, touching – just so careful where I put my hands again before I get to sterilize them.

Snapshot from the road to Bo, Sierra Leone: We had been on the road from Freetown for 4 hours. It was a long, rough road. When there was blacktop, it was pitted and bumpy. Most of it was not much more than a dirt track through dry bush. Villages were far and few, picturesque in that quaint, old-style, dry but timeless poverty way.

On the dry, rutted dirt track in the bush that passes as a main thoroughfare, our lead car got a flat tire. We all pulled over to wait while the drivers changed the tire. It was a long, slow process as each of 4 drivers had different opinions. We expat aid workers were trying to huddle in the non-existent shade of the overgrown, sundried bush. A sedan slowed as it passed us along the narrow track. When the dust settled, we saw it had pulled over and out came two very well dressed black men. Their shiny black suits, white shirts, black ties and spotless shiny black loafers seemed ridiculously overdone in this hot, dry climate. The men struck me as a caricature of Southern US, corrupt preachers. As they walked toward us, they raised their open hands in the universal sign of surrender. But instead they said, “Don’t worry, no touching!”

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Ebola survivors

They just wanted to know if they could help. A gaggle of Western women on the side of the track was most likely unusual enough to warrant stopping. But for me, the scene was utterly shocking. I guess this was the new, standard greeting in the age of ebola. It brought home to me the terror of ebola and the folly of my diminishing fear of the disease.

“Don’t worry, no touching!”

See my hands!

I come in peace.

Like if I wanted to kill you with one touch I could, but you’re lucky because I don’t!

This certainly is a bold new world that has such wonders in it!

Monrovia and Freetown, March-April, 2015

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