Saturday, May 17, 2008

April 2008

In the month or so that I've neglected my blog, Liberia has been a busy place - full of celebrity visits (Akon and Ban Ki-Moon, George Bush and Jeff Sachs), rice price hikes, jet skiing around Marshall islands, a trip to Robertsport, etc. Below, is a pictorial review of a few highlights/observations from April... here's hoping May is a more consistent, blogging month!

Robertsport - A few from the Clinton Foundation took a day and drove to Robertsport, the seaside city on the Northwestern coast of Liberia.

The road to Robertsport:

The view from atop a hill in Robertsport, next to St Timothy's Hospital:

Gorgeous beaches (though this picture is deceptive - there were a number of parties along the beach):

The telecom concert showdown - Cellcom and rival telecom company, Lonestar, held dueling concerts on the 15th: Lonestar's was a free concert featuring Liberian musicians and preceded by a parade, while Cellcom paid 200,000 USD for international pop star, Akon. Music by senegalese-native, international pop-star plays like a constant soundtrack in Monrovia, so his visit was a much-anticipated event. The Akon concert, held on the 15th at the Samuel K. Doe stadium, was disrupted when the singer called fans onto the field - people tripped over wires and the speakers were blown for the night. But, on whole, the event was entertaining. I didn't bring a camera to SKD, but did catch Akon at the Mamba Point hotel a few hours before show time. Below, are pictures of Akon and his entourage, as well as two of Lonestar's parade preparation at the National AIDS Control Program.

Akon waving to fans at the Mamba Point hotel:

Parade preparations:

Martial Arts on Monrovia's Rooftops - I caught a glimpse of this character working out on a rooftop across from the Ministry of Health and the National Malaria Control Program.

Jet skiing around Marshall -
Our base for the day:

Two Marshall sailors:

One of the boys we paid to watch our stuff as we jet-skied:

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Iron Ladies of Liberia

On April 9th, 2008 PBS will re-air Iron Ladies of Liberia an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the first year of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's administration. Narrated by filmaker Siatta Scott Johnson of Monrovia, the 75 minute documentary illustrates for viewers the challenges faced and tactics used by the Iron Lady herself, as well introduces us to other leading ladies in Liberia's public sector such as Beatrice Munah Sieh, the national police chief, and Minister of Finance, Dr. Antoinette Sayeh.

In addition to profiling Liberia's movers and shakers, the movie is an excellent glimpse into Monrovia's recent past. Check it out - or buy it!

National Census Day

On March 21, 2008 Liberians were told to stay in their residences - shops were closed, government building were empty, and the streets, for the most part, were clear. This day marked the kick-off of a three day national census - the first in over 24 years.

Census counters have chalked houses, huts, and property through each of Liberia's 15 counties and crafted a unique list of questions to collect demographic and socio-economic information. A recent Washington Post article numbers but a few of the challenges the national census takers will face. ("Liberia Readies 1st Census in 24 Years")

The Liberians I know have different plans for the day. While some see the process as part of their civic duty and plan to stay home, recognizing that government funds and public services will likely be influenced by the results, others welcome the Friday as just another day off of work to do errands. Many left homes in Monrovia to repatriate to their counties of origin, leaving some skeptical of results and everyone anxious to see results. Others still, are puzzled by the timing of the event.

Good Friday, coincidentally the first day of census, is the biggest church-going day of the year - Easter, this Sunday, is not far behind. It seems strange, then, to schedule a national event that requires citizens to stay in their residence on a weekend when many were planning to travel, or least spend a majority of their time in church. The executive branch explained that the census was scheduled early last year around other events. The Liberia Institute of Statistics & Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), the implementing body does not anticipate skewed results due to Easter weekend.

Most organizations estimate Liberia's current population to hover around the 3.6 million mark, a number based on assumptions about population growth and migration, among others. While the process will most likely encounter minor challenges and setbacks, the National Census will provide valuable data where there has been a shortage of concrete statistics for over two decades.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Eggs from India, Ground Pea from Guinnea

It’s difficult to take many more than 15 steps in Monrovia without passing someone selling ground pea. “Ground pea” is the local name for Arachis hypogaea - the legume known in much of the Western world as a “peanut”, but elsewhere as earthnuts, goobers, goober peas, pindas, jack nuts, pinders, manila nuts and monkey nuts. Ground pea are roasted and wrapped in small pieces of plastic on the side of the road. A pack of roughly 20 grams costs 5 Liberty Dollars (LD), about 12 cents, US.

Eggs, though slightly less ubiquitous, are sold on many street corners for equally marginal cost. Hard-boiled, at a registered grocery store, a half dozen eggs may cost 60 LD, or $1 US. Hardboiled, on the side of the road, two eggs costs about XX LD.

It seems logical to assume that products such as ground pea and eggs are sourced locally. Logistics in Liberia are complex enough, that I assumed sourcing products from any distance would make such cheap prices impossible. Perhaps neighboring countries have a comparative advantage in growing ground pea, or producing eggs, but wouldn't the transportation costs render local production more economical? Moreover, there are enough chickens in the streets of Monrovia, and there is arable enough soil throughout Liberia, to imagine an abundant, local supply of ground pea and eggs.

I held this assumption for months, until a recent stock out of eggs in the local grocery stores. What in the world would cause an egg shortage? I posed this very question to Roger, the owner of our local Stop and Shop (yes, there is a Stop & Shop in Monrovia, and no the discount cards to not work).

“Many people lost entire consignments this past month,” replied Roger.
“They were mishandled and cracked during shipment,” explained an attendant at Monoprix Grocers as he weeded out the cracked from whole eggs.

Monrovia’s eggs, as it turns out, are not grown locally. Nor are they sourced from within West Africa, or even elsewhere in Africa, for that matter.

Monrovia’s eggs are shipped from India. How, precisely, is a question for a later day. But, if the eggs are from India, what is the origin of other basic, cheap, core products? Like the ground pea?

The ground peas sold on Monrovia’s streets are a somewhat more local flavor than the Indian eggs. While ground pea does grow in Liberia, the majority of those that we pack in 5 LD packs come from Guinea, Liberia’s neighbor to the North.

The ground pea is harvested in Guinea, wrapped in plastic bags or stored in barrels, and trafficked through Nimba or Lofa counties down to Monrovia’s “Red Light” District. Red Light is a major intersection between Roberts International Airfield and downtown Monrovia; before the war it was home to the largest market in Montserrado, a title held in recent years by Waterside market. At Red Light, market women purchase ground pea by the can before packaging the small snack in plastic purchased at local Monrovian stores. The market women are expert bargain shoppers and purchase the ground pea in such bulk that they can turn a profit on 5 LD per pack.

Nutritional staples, cheap products, surprisingly complex supply chains.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bi-elections in Margibi County, District 4

Margibi County held bi-elections (elections held mid term, in this case, due to the death of an incumbant) in District 4 on Tuesday, 13 February 2008.

On whole, the elections were quiet, voter turnout was moderate, and results were formally endorsed by all candidates. Minor exceptions to these high marks include a charge of "a lack of transparency, unfairness, and cheating" by the Liberty Party chairman Israel Akinsaya against the National Election Committee (NEC) (detailed in the Analyst's "Liberty Party Cries Fowl") and low voter turnout during morning and mid-day hours. As a volunteer election observer, I witnessed Akinsaya's confrontation with the NEC Chairman, the slow turn-out at polling stations with dense populations (as well as surprisingly high turnout at polling stations such as Marshall City and Smell-No-Taste) and other election occurrences, both standard and exceptional.

We began the day at 7:30 a.m. at the regional NEC office in Smell-No-Taste (reference previous blog for name description). Upon arrival, lines were already forming at polling stations and local election observers and workers were preparing for voters.

Voter registration occurred prior to election day, during which each voter received a voter ID number and a voter registration card with photo. ID numbers were consistent with those issued for the 2005 elections, which raised some skepticism amongst election parties. In 2005, Liberia, and Margibi in particular, had a large population of IDPs, or Internally Displaced People; these IDPs were eligible to vote for national, but not county-level positions. Today, some IDPs have relocated while others have taken permanent residency in their new county. Many Margibi natives were concerned that these IDPs would now be casting their vote for Margibi representatives.

The physical process of casting a vote is quite simple. Registered voters check into a polling station where an attendant cross references the photo ID with both the voter and a list of eligible voters in the district. The voter then proceeds to a voting attendant to receive a ballot (with pictures of each candidate); the ballot is folded to facilitate the voter's refolding of the ballot after they've made their selection, and then stamped with an official NEC seal. Next, the voter "carries" (if you will, in Liberia we say "carry" rather than take/bring :)) the ballot to a voting box, checks-off the candidate of choice and then drops the re-folded ballot into a large, transparent box in the center of the room. Lastly, the voter continues to one last station where they receive an ink blot on their thumbnail to deter people from trying to vote twice.

The process is straightforward, but visuals always help:

Checking into the polling station.

Receiving a ballot - with a NEC stamp.


Casting the vote

Receiving the ink-blot, after voting.

There were two things that impressed me about the voting process itself: first, the picture-ballots enabled illiterate citizens to vote and, second, the ink-blotting safe-guarded against double-voting. Apparently, ink blotting is standard practice in African elections. The practice was introduced in Namibia in 1989 by UNTAG (the UN Transitional Authority Group) for elections that followed more than two decades of civil war. In theory, it seems effective. In all honesty, I feel that ink blotting acts more as a deterant than a monitoring tool. I'm certain that voters received ink blots after voting; I'm less sure that those registering voters checked to see if people already had ink blots. This raises the concern about election transparency in Liberia; while the proper processes may be in place, the execution of these measures is questionable.

By mid-day, we reached the Dolo Town polling station on the Firestone Campus. This polling station, as all polling stations, was open from 8:00 to 18:00, but there was hardly a crowd, even by 11:00. On speaking with voters about the turnout, I found that some believed employees were hesitant to leave work to vote while others maintained that people were simply not engaged in these elections. "In 2005, these lines were out the door," noted multiple election observers. While at Dolo Town, our party listened as political party candidates prodded NEC officials about "tally cards" - the sheets used to total the votes at the close of the election. Political party candidates demanded the opportunity to participate in completing the tally cards while NEC officials maintained that NO candidate or party representative would be permitted to touch the voter ballots or tally cards.

As the closing hour neared, debate over tally cards had snow-balled. The Liberty Party National Chairman, Mr. Israel Akinsanya met NEC officials at the NEC Margibi headquarters around 16:00 for a shouting match about the issue. Mr. Akinsanya approached NEC about the issue, at which time he was informed he need to file a report to NEC in order for the complaint to be processed. Mr Akinsanya found this unacceptable and began a rant on "foul play" on behalf of NEC. He and the NEC Chairman (a highly respected human rights attorney) exchanged ... words. Akinsanya was escorted away, after which time I had the chance to ask the Chairman about Akinsanya's charges.

"What claims did he make?" I asked.

"I don't even know, he just wouldn't stop complaining about having to file a report... he just goes on about how he should be able to voice his complaint now," the Chairman replied. Note: only 9 of 13 parties attended the pre-election debates on the Saturday preceding election day - and Akinsanya was not among them.

"I will be that thorn in your side!" ... was just about all I understood from Akinsanya. Here's a glimpse of the scene:

(would have taken a better shot, but this UMIL soldier was not enthusiastic about having cameras around)

From my understanding, the process of tabulating the votes onto tally sheets was hardly cause for concern. Our team watched a closing of the polls at the Rock Institute. I was amazed by the transparency. The magistrate at Rock Institue was composed and clear throughout the entire counting process - which was no small feat. By the end of this day, I'll admit, I was exhausted. Keeping vigilant watch over voters is a taxing job in the heat of Liberia's dry season. And, counting votes into the night is a challenge when the electricity goes out and the only source of light is camping lamps.

The magistrate emptied the voting boxes, unfolded the ballots, counted all the ballots - then, one by one, lifted each ballot for all the political party observers to see and placed the ballot under the name tag for the respective candidate.

Emptying the voting box,

Counting the ballots,

Presenting the ballots to the political party observers,

Amassing the ballots behind the name tags of each selected candidate.

Political Party Observers - taking notes and recording votes as the magistrates call off names.

At the end of the day, it appeared that the CDC Party had a clear lead. While there were 13 candidates in total, the clear leaders were CDC and Unity party candidates Mr Ballah ZayZay and Mr Roland Cooper respectively. Unity Party is that of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the CDC (Congress for Democratic Change) is the party of George Weah, football start and Sirleaf's primary opposition in the 2005 elections.

Monday, February 11, 2008


"Smell-no-taste" is a small Liberian town sandwiched between Roberts Field International Airport and Harbel. The name dates back more than a half century.

During WWII (and the years following), the US intensified relations with Liberia. The currency was switched from the British pound sterling to the US dollar, Pan Am and the US government collaborated to open Liberia's first airport (Roberts International), US Lead Lease fund were availed to facilitate the construction of Freeport, and American military began clearing major roads to the interior.

With this new infrastructure, came a wave of domestic migration. Liberians native to inland regions flocked to the coast seeking jobs. Some succeeded, others were less fortunate. The majority were met by the growing international presence with less-than-welcoming sentiments and greater hardship than anticipated. While locals struggled to feed their families, ex-pats and military lived comfortably in compounds and with goods imported from home. Liberians grew accustomed to SMELLING the dishes cooking on the opposite side of the compound... and never getting a TASTE. Thus, the name:


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Americans Follow Their Money"

The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is a commitment made on the part of President George Bush to increase funding for the prevention and treatment of malaria worldwide by over 1.2 billion dollars over a five year period.

I thought this was a generous use of our national resources, but was hardly surprised to hear more than a hint of resentment regarding the appropriation of these funds from those working in the National Malaria Control Program (NMCP).

It was a slight ironic situation, sitting at the NMCP across the desk from a Database Manager, listening to his impression of the PMI.

“Americans always follow their money. That is how your country works. You make promises, but then you send consultants and there are strings attached; we purchase primarily American products. Of the 12 million dollars a year that Liberia receives from the PMI, 3/4s of that goes right back to the US – buying supplies, paying for salaries, things like that.”

I felt like I had walked into the pages of “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” – without the glitz and glamour. I’d been working with a man from NMCP to pull together the PSM Plan for Round 7 of the Global Fund Grant. I’d waited an hour for our meeting to start (due, in large part, to burgeoning traffic in the downtown area) and my patience was relatively thin.

“Well, even three million is start. Let’s look through this budget and see what we’re missing for the grant.”

Botched Demilitarization

In Spring of 2003, an ECOMOG peacekeeping mission composed of S’Leonian troops landed at Roberts International Airfield; the task of demilitarizing ex-combatants was among their chief priorities. Street fighting in Monrovia had subsided over the past few months, and many citizens felt that Liberia, in fact, was demilitarized.

“That is what surprised so many people,” a friend of mine recounted, as we sat at a beach in Sincor, Monrovia.

“People thought the war was over, until ECOMOG and UNMIL troops began offering money for remaining weapons. One of the largest collection points was on Randall Street at Stop and Shop [one of three major grocery stores in downtown Monrovia]. Troops offered up to 100 dollars (USD) for a rifle, and 50 dollars for three shots… I remember standing on the street and watching children and old ladies come with reels of ammunition.

“This did not have the desired effect, however, because during the war, Taylor and his opponents armed their soldiers. People were given weapons to go to the front lines – so even those who already owned arms received guns. Many people had two or three AK 47s.

“The system of purchasing weapons was also just dangerous. One time, UNMIL ran out of money and had to tell a crowd of people bearing guns and ammunition that they would not receive the money they expected.”

The demilitarization of Liberia, according to many, is a job left undone. Particularly in the outer counties, communities possess stockpiles of weapons; further still, many Monrovians believe they would require little persuasion to put them to use. Ex-combatants, and armed civilians for that matter, are know to have sunk weapons in nearby using sealed containers filled with oil; the lakes make ideal hiding grounds and the oil lubricates the guns and artillery such that they may be surfaced and used years later.

What would be the most effective way to route a county of such weapons? Today, UN peacekeeping missions continue to offer money for arms in southern Sudan (among other places, I would imagine). Money for guns is standard operating procedure. Though clearly this process was not fully successful in Liberia, the practice is still used and the implementers are still thought to be vital to the peace in Liberia.

“UNMIL cannot pull out of Liberia yet. Though we all agree they cannot be permanent, they must stay until people have faith in the new army [the Armed Forces of Liberia]. For now, it’s just too soon.”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Strangers At the Door

American Airlines neglected to get one of my suitcases (incidentally, the one with the electronics I was carrying for our office) onto my flight departing Boston; I realized this at Heathrow’s baggage claim, when I was racing to get to Gatwick for my flight to Monrovia. Luckily for me, AA connected my suitcase to an SN Brussels flight. That flight arrived today - and after a speedy unpacking job, I confirmed that everything arrived.

I was at my apartment early this afternoon to finish this task and decided to show our landlord a broken screen in one of our windows while I was home. Mohammed inspected the window and said he would send someone up to fix it later.

I quickly made lunch, and no sooner had I sat down than I heard someone knock on the door, then saw a face peering through the window. Assuming this was the man to fix my window, I unlocked the door … and found no one. I walked onto the porch in time to see a man leaving the compound – the garage door was open, unattended of course.

This is at least the third time that I’ve been home, midday (previous times were Sundays), and someone has knocked and disappeared. Based on my apartment’s earlier experience with someone finding the door open, and subsequently cleaning out a purse sitting in a living room, I can only imagine that people have success with just trying to open various doors.

2008 in Liberia

For a NH native so engrossed by American politics it takes quite a bit of motivation to leave the state two days before US primary elections. But, on Sunday evening, I pulled myself away from campaign-hysteria and slid down to Logan International to catch a flight back to Monrovia – hoping to find the unpredictable, ever-entertaining scene I’d left on Dec 17th.

Monrovia did not disappoint. In fact, random, bizarre hilarity began with the flight we took to Monrovia. As Gatwick’s moving sidewalk accelerated my walk towards the departure gate, my peripheral vision caught the glimpse of a Nordic-looking figure on the tail of a plane. At a full stare, the plane read “Iron Maiden: the 2008 Tour”. Check it out:

Of course, this was our plane from Gatwick to Monrovia. Iron Maiden, we learned, was going on tour the following month (not in Liberia, incidentally). The lead singer, furthermore, is a certified pilot. Who knows.

We landed on time – in stark contrast to our flight departing Monrovia, which was 7 hours late. We stalled on the runway for about 15 minutes, before the flight attendants informed us that the rolling staircase was not attaching to the plane, and we should subsequently mind the gap.

Heeding the stewardess's warning, I stepped onto the platform (the “gap” couldn’t have been six inches wide) to the immediate stench of burning rubber. I hadn’t forgotten how heavily the air in Liberia sits in the lungs, but I wasn’t really prepared for the smell. Quite honestly, I didn’t recognize the new odor; my roommate identified it later that evening.

I’d had a long vacation – but Monrovia appeared to have made more progress that I’d expected. Blocks and blocks of Tubman Boulevard had been repaved and dumpsters had been distributed throughout the city. Where piles of rubbish used to steam, there now sat enormous, yellow dumpsters. I was thrilled to see (and smell) this improvement. Every morning I jog by a pile of trash, which at least, now is elevated above nose level.

Ironically enough, while jogging this morning I noticed two teenage girls emptying the trash. It looked like they were sorting – for what, exactly, I’m unsure. It was early morning, though, so they’d have all day to sell their findings. The image seemed to capture both that Liberia the speed at which Liberia is changing and raise the question as how the changes will effect the lives of average citizens.