Monday, November 26, 2007


Susu is a traditional form of banking in Liberia. The goal is financial management, and the investors act more as a support staff than as investors. That is to say, money changes hand, but no profit is generated. The benefit, still, is huge. Just ask Jonathon.

Jonathon is a self-made business man. Just three years ago, he took a loan from a Lebanese man to buy a car. At the time he had neither prospective clients, nor the expectation that he would be able to pay his loan any time soon.

Today Jonathon is the sole proprietor of Jonathon’s Internet CafĂ©. His facility dons three computers with high speed internet (high speed, as in 128 kbps … enough to make a skype call) and a Vonage phone (a phone with a US number to that allows callers to pay US long distance rather than international roaming fees).

Equally impressive, is the booming taxi business Jonathon has built for himself. He is one of only a handful of drivers whom internationals call for transportation throughout Monrovia. His reputation has grown through word of mouth – as has his social capital. His clients routinely send him to the Roberts International Airport (RIA) where he is often the first face that new arrivals to Liberia meet.

Though Jonathon’s story is a success by any “up from your boot-straps” standard, he is faced with a challenge. Word of mouth and client-by-client growth is important, but how can he elevate his business to the next level? Taking a loan from a local bank is ill-advised; even keeping money in a bank account is considered risky (most people have a safe at home, or an alternate storage system).

This is where Susu plays a turn.

The “susu” is a group of like-minded business folk (men, most often) who enter into financial partnership. They agree to each devote a decided amount of money per day (maybe 200 Liberian Dollar, about 3.25 USD) to a Susu manager who holds the money for safe-keeping. At an agreed upon time interval (maybe once a week), that lump sum is given to a member of the Susu to use in a way that will promote his business. The cycle repeats until each member of the Susu has received his due.

“So you don’t actually make a profit,” I asked.

“Noooo, you put in as much as you get,” he says with a smile of understanding. Jonathon has infectious good humor – the kind that seems almost impervious to hard times, though I know he’s seen many.

“The advantage is that you make progress in a big way, like you couldn’t on your own.”

With Jonathon’s next Susu receipt, he plans to upgrade his car – an achievement that seemed wholly untenable only three years ago.

Giving Thanks in Liberia

On Thursday evening at the 16th Street apartments, I had the pleasure of sharing (and preparing) perhaps the most delicious and bountiful Thanksgiving meals ever to be enjoyed by 30+ internationals in Monrovia, Liberia.

The meal capped off a glorious day-and-a-half marathon of cooking and working (mostly emailing while bread baked and turkeys roasted). Preparing for the meal had been most unconventional, but everyone’s efforts (and the good fortune of snagging the last three turkeys that the Grand Prix Grocery store had to offer) resulted in what felt like an evening in the States for one of the greatest holidays.

In fact, our Thanksgiving table was complete with turkeys and gravy, potatoes of all kinds, cornbread stuffing (both veggie, and turkey filled), grilled veggies, cranberry sauce (usually the hardest thing to find over seas) and a slew of desserts.

As we hunkered down for round two, one of my roommates made a valiant efforr to start the “I am thankful for…” game – you know, when everyone goes around the table and lists one thing for which they’re inspired to give thanks.

The table was long, and mouths were full, so the game didn’t make it very far. But, looking through pictures of this night, and the past few months, I felt it appropriate to devote a post to the “I am thankful game.”

Note: Many are Turkey-Day related, some are most random, a few are cliché, and all are sincere

1: I am thankful for a city where many of the cars that pass have steering wheels on the right side of the car… and others are just as likely have them on the left. (Random, I know, but endlessly amusing)

2: I am thankful that IS the bread I baked on Wed night FINALLY dried enough to be used in stuffing the next evening. Note: the air is so humid that it took 36 hours, and to keep the bugs away I dangled the bread, hanging from a colander, from our kitchen (picture below)

3: I am thankful for turkey roasters in Liberia

4: … and for pizza amuse bouche.

5: The comfort of spacious apartments, in a city so congested, where so many have so little for themselves….

6: …. and for friends to fill the room and share the table.

7: The chance to learn so much from such talented and generous minds.
(this is a picture from one of the many days of training that Clinton Foundation has facilitated)

8: And, for talented, guitar-playing roommates.

9: The chance to see the sun set over the Atlantic….

10: And, for those reading at home, having seen the sun rise over those same waters.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.


Taxing home today, I looked out the window to see a bright blue puppy toddle across the road. While I think, at this point, very little in Liberia surprises me, I found this peculiar.

When I inquired of the driver as to the source of these puppy blues, he explained to me that there is a substance called “blue,” is available in most grocery stores, which is used for “shining” fabrics. Many people couple it with laundry detergent or soap to add a sheer finish to their clothing or materials.

Blue also doubles as a flee-repellent – so they say. It’s commonly believed that dousing an animal in the liquid will rid them of the pesky bugs.

I’ve no reason to think one way r the other about how successful an anti-flee treatment this may be – but it seems as good a reason as any to be blue.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Ice

Walking next to the Barclay Training Center this morning, I saw a young girl approaching at a fast jog. She was holding her arms out and fiercely gripping a boxed shaped object in her palms.

As she got closer, I read her desperate, yet amused, expression and noticed a stream of tears pouring down her face. Completely confused, I couldn't understand what was happening until she passed by and I realized she was running with a block of ice the size of a standard shoe box.

It's about 28 degrees in Monrovia - who knows how far she was carrying this icicle.

Suppy Chain Troubles

... seem to be a hot topic these days.

This Sunday NYTimes article profiles a case of mismanagement in Iraq. I don't know much about artillery supply chains, but I wonder if they have the cold chain issues we experience.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

African lightening through African rain

I spent this evening's thunderstorms dancing to Cuban music with friends Carlos and Victor (de Peru), Milan i Vladan (iz Bosna), and a happy assortment of others at an ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) party in Sinkor, Monrovia.

The rains have been "heavy" in the evenings for the past few weeks - but it was hot enough tonight that the showers were welcome. What never ceases to amaze me about these Liberian storms, is the intensity of the lightening. Twice in three months I've awoken in the "small, small" hours of the night to booming thunderstorms - but not because of the thunder. Rather, the lightening flash has shown so brightly in my room that I've thought the lights were switched on (which, incidentally, is entirely impossible because we don't have power between 2-7 in the morning).

I've always loved lightening storms.

Perhaps I was acutely appreciative of a gorgeous Saturday night because the day, 'til that point, had been a long one. Morning began at six with a run round the Embassy, up Benson street and back through Mamba Point on UN Drive; I met my friend Joe (student at University of Liberia studying business management) for a jog. Per usual, the smog/humidity ensured that breathing/ gasping was a challenge.

The rest of the morning and most of afternoon was spent at NACP for the final day of the training on the new "Integrated Guidelines for Prevention, Care and Treatment of HIV/AIDS." The training, overall, was a success; representatives from hospitals throughout the country seemed enthused about the material and likely to share the material in their home institutions. We'll see.

Participating in this training was particularly useful for me because it offered insight into workshop "dos and don'ts" that I can hopefully apply during the December trainings for the Procurement and Supply Chain Standard Operating Procedure (PSM SOP). The workday was a preview of the magnitude of the preparations required in the coming weeks...