Mercy Simiyu:: Liberia
It’s been four weeks since I landed in Monrovia to start my internship, and I am slowly adjusting to life, meals and the special quirks in Liberia like the Liberian English, for which I need translation services, or the Liberian love for rice, or the uniquely Liberian handshake with a finger snap. Before my arrival, in preparation for my internship, I looked up information on Liberia, trying to figure out what to expect, but I was not prepared at all for these special quirks. One of the most memorable things about Liberia is the civil war that plagued it from about 1990 till 2004. Another memorable thing about Liberia is that this is the first African nation with a democratically elected female president. Due to its unique history that links it so deeply with the United States (Liberia was founded by a colony of freed African-American slaves in the 1800’s), I expected Liberian culture to have an American tinge. So many of my friends in the U.S and my family members in Kenya kept asking me if Liberia was still at war and many in the US were not entirely sure where Liberia was located. My expectations were at absolutely nil as I had no idea what to expect. I was not too sure what it would be like to step foot in West Africa for the first time, and I was even less sure about the trickle-down impact that my 3 month internship would have on the local community.
Upon my arrival, the very first thing I noticed was the heat. The temperature has been hovering constantly around or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit ever since I got to Liberia. Even on the one day that it rained during the last week of January, the heat was undeterred by the precipitation. The harsh heat explains why air conditioning units are so ubiquitous at office buildings and in apartments all over the city of Monrovia. I have become so used to the quiet hum of the units that when there is no electricity and the machines lie quiet, I often wonder what is missing. Electricity in Liberia is a precious commodity and it is not an understatement to say that Liberia runs on generators. My Chief of Project (COP) summed it up perfectly when she said that the loud rumbling of generators is, indeed, the sound of Liberia. In fact, when I was searching for an apartment in Monrovia, instead of looking for the usual amenities that we are used to in the States, I was scrolling through ads that had, as highlights, notes about 18-hr electricity or 24-hr electricity, water availability, air conditioning unit availability and a 24 hr guard presence.
The civil war devastated Liberia in more ways than one. Academic development was stunted by the war, with schools and colleges shutting down. This has led to a sort of knowledge gap within different sectors, as many people are operating on an academic level from either the 1980’s or 1990’s. Infrastructure has also suffered. There are no stop signs in Monrovia and, due to the electricity issues, no street lights either. This means that there is always traffic, compounded further by drivers attempting to cross four-way intersections, around motorcycle taxis. People get around by using motorcycle taxis which are usually driven quite recklessly, so much so that the local hospital in Monrovia has a special Trauma unit for motorcycle accidents. It is interesting to see the yellow taxi cars in use around the city. People stand on the curb, signaling with their hands and fingers which way they need to go, and the taxi driver also uses these signals to let pedestrians know which part of the city he is heading towards. I still cannot figure out the signals. Security is a big concern in this country, with most apartment buildings and offices contracting 24 hrs guard services. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is a heavy presence in the country, a constant reminder of those years of war. UN cars and blue-helmet-green-fatigues guards are almost everywhere that you can see. The visible effects of the war are present in the run-down buildings that make up Monrovia. The buildings in the city center are far from shiny. The building next to my apartment building is a large 4 storey building but it looks like it was bombed, yet there are people who stay there. There is even a lady who uses the space that is supposed to be the entrance of this building as a little kiosk where she sells biscuits and other little household items. I found myself wondering about the differences in the quality of life between expatriates (so many in NGO-heavy Liberia) and the local people (there is a row of tin-shacks behind my apartment building. My building houses expatriates exclusively). I usually selectively shop in a grocery store about ten minutes walk from my house in Mamba Point, where a tube of toothpaste goes for about $7, and is mostly frequented by expatriates since it stocks American items. The Liberian Liberty dollar is used alongside American dollars, but on a comparatively lesser scale, so everything is a little more expensive than in the U.S. A box of sugar is $6, so I have taken to drinking tea with no sugar. One of the things that I found myself reflecting about, once I arrived in Liberia, is the external perception of me. As an African myself, I had wondered what my Liberian participants and co-workers would think of me. Every day as I walk to work just down the street, I look Liberian (until I start to speak) and I recall discussing this as a possible asset in class, but now that I am here, I fear that it may work against me in some ways. However, many of the participants that I am trying to help seem to be quite pleased to meet me, taking to dropping by unannounced to ‘say hello’ and check on my progress in their specific areas. Some say that I talk a little funny, and some Liberians that I have encountered say they cannot understand me when I speak. They are not sure if I am American or British or African or Caribbean. It’s a reversal that surprises me when it happens. Despite the war history in Liberia, the people are upbeat and quite positive. There are universities and hospitals in place, despite the lack of resources, and with so many NGO’s working in Liberia, the systems are getting strengthened.
Walking around Monrovia city on my second Saturday, I was able to see the beauty that used to be this city. With the North Atlantic Ocean curving around most of Monrovia, the views are absolutely breathtaking. At the old Ducor hotel, located on a strategic hill top, possibly the highest point within Monrovia, one can stand out on one side and look down on the ocean or look down at the city of Monrovia from the other side. The hotel is now completely run down, carrying visible signs of bombings from the civil war and now guarded by UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) guards. The culture in Liberia is quite welcoming. Despite my difficulties with the language, my Liberian colleagues are eager to make my stay here as enjoyable and as culturally educational as possible. I have tasted fufu (pounded cassava) and ketile (bitter-ball) for the first time, enjoyed eating traditional Liberian meals, visited the golden beaches and I have picked up a few words in Liberian English. Some Liberians also speak French, due to migration across borders into neighboring French-speaking countries during the war, and I am able to practice my French as well. I am getting more comfortable in Liberia and this has served to only underscore the importance of my internship placement.
I am working with FORECAST Project, a satellite program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the acronym explains the entire purpose of the project: Focus on Results: Enhancing Capacity Across Sectors in Transition. The project focuses on the Education, Health, Economic Growth and Democracy and Governance sectors as these sectors have been adversely affected by the lengthy war that had plagued Liberia. We are working entirely with mid-level professionals in government and in various institutions who have diplomas and first degrees but lack graduate level education. By providing access to advanced academic and technical training, FORECAST hopes to build the capacity of these professionals in order to bring up the quality of work within the different sectors, building up the country from within. Despite such a heavy title, our office is made up of only six people working to place over 600 participants in various academic and technical assistance programs within Liberia and in other countries. Since my interests lie heavily in Health (Policy and Development), as the project’s first official intern, I have been assigned the main task of locating programs and technical assistance experts in the fields of Anesthesiology, Laboratory Science, Dental Science, Refraction-Ophthalmology and Environmental Health. Officially, I am introduced as the Health Sector intern, and at times, my scope of work is expanded depending on the needs of our Health participants. My COP and my office-mates are extremely supportive and caring, making me feel as if I am at home, as they have become a family of sorts. I work mostly in Monrovia, since our project is based here, and most of our participants work for government ministries located in Monrovia. During this first week of February, I will be introduced to the Minister of Planning, and this only serves to remind me of how much impact our small project is liable to have on the government here in the long term.
During my second week, my first field trip was to Gbarnga (pronounced Bun-gar) in North-Eastern Liberia, close to the Guinean border, to visit Phebe Hospital where some of our participants are working. One of the biggest problems facing the health sector in Liberia, along with other different sectors, is the lack of human and material resources. At this hospital, regularly present electricity is a problem, as is archaic equipment. The generators are meticulously timed to maximize their benefits, meaning that they are switched on mostly at night. This means that if you need an urgent chest x-ray during the day time, there is a lengthy process to undergo in order to get permission to turn on the generator. The hospital operates with one dentist who comes from Monrovia, 4 hours drive away, twice a month to cater to dental issues. One thing is for sure, our participants are eager to gain knowledge and when my COP explained to the hospital participants my role in getting them into programs designed to provide advanced knowledge, they looked at me with this look in their eyes that had me feeling the pressure of my assignment. If I was to fail to find programs or experts to come in and train them, hospital services would remain sub-par. After that field trip and that realization, I knew that whatever I would organize for them in the next few weeks would be extremely appreciated and their learning would trickle down and affect the community around them. I am looking forward to what I can come up with in the remaining weeks of my internship for my participants. I realize now, after meeting my participants and noting how motivated they are to apply the knowledge they will obtain to build their country, how my role as a Health Sector capacity building intern is more important that I thought. I may not be vaccinating babies in isolated villages or physically building medical centers brick-by-brick, but I am working with a demographic that is not normally considered in development work, in a post-conflict nation, and that is a unique aspect of my position that I deeply appreciate.
Every morning for the past two months of my internship in Monrovia, during my walk to our project office, I have passed by this run-down one-storey building with faded and peeling paint on its broken walls. The right side of the front face of this building kisses the ground in a manner that I believe may not have been the initial intent of the architect or constructor. This is a school, hosting about 40 children ranging in age from 3 to 6. The children are always joyfully playing in what is supposed to be the front yard but it is littered with trash, broken down metal rungs that used to be, perhaps, swings? This picture greets me every morning on my path to work, and it is indicative of the state of the education system in Liberia. There are good intentions all around, from NGO’s and local actors, to reform the educational system which was broken down completely during the civil war years, but it is an uphill battle specifically because of the extreme poverty that may be an after-effect of the war and lack of resources. Reforming the education system here in Liberia should be, and is, a top priority. When I go over the forms filled in by some of my participants, who happen to be working at mid-level ministerial positions, I am struck by the obvious mistakes, misuse of language and grammar and the inability to relay appropriate answers to posed questions. At times, when we speak, my participants seem unable to verbally communicate their plans for the next 5 years. Understandably, due to the war, Liberians seem to be extremely short-term results focused rather than long-term strategists. A tell-tale sign of this is the apparent lack of career-planning options available to students and mid-level workers. When I ask one of my participants what his career plans are for the next ten years, I get silence as an answer.
I believe that educational systems can, indeed, be catalysts for social change especially within the developing world. In Liberia, however, the society itself must change first in order to appreciate the educational reforms and systems strengthening that the sector so desperately needs. A few weeks ago, one of the local paper headlines proclaimed that the Ministry of Education top officials were not fully aware of just how many schools existed in the country. That is only the tip of the education sector iceberg.
Children are deposited at school buildings just like the one archaic one I described above but the books and the curriculum are old and outdated. Parents and their children are aware that they need to go to school so schools are filled with attendees, especially after President Johnson-Sirleaf’s announcement that primary education is to be free. However, the quality of education in Liberia calls out for urgent reform and this issue is being tackled by the World Bank, UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations. To what degree of success they will achieve, it is impossible to gauge especially since any effects will be visible only in the long-run. At the same time, in my limited experience here in Liberia, I have noted that there is a high number of NGO’s and multinational organizations that are working on similar issues (such as Education and Poverty Eradication) but without interacting on any possible collaboration or information sharing so that may very well affect the success rate of any reforms in any sector.
Closely linked with the education issue is the extreme poverty that exists in Liberia. There seems to be such a divide between the haves and the have-nots, both educationally and materially. There also seems to be such a strong local dependence on the expatriate organization funds that are being pumped into the country. Perhaps, instead of donor-fatigue, there is a sense that NGO’s and all the other international actors will always provide money and support to different sectors for different programs. The question of whether this donor money will affect those on the last rungs of Liberian society is still one that cannot be definitively answered. As I noted in my previous reflection, I have questioned myself as to whether or not my current work here will eventually trickle down to impact the extreme poor that seem to have trouble surviving on the daily here. FORECAST Project is about capacity building and as the Health Sector intern, I wonder what impact my work would have on the poor here who cannot afford to go to the hospital if they fall ill. I believe that we can eradicate extreme poverty but Liberia herself has shown me that, no matter how well intentioned an organization is, there will always be people at the bottom of the rung. What helps them to stay at that low point is the lack of access to education. If the education system was to be reformed, and certain societal changes (the breakdown of corruption, the elimination of nepotism and favoritism practices and the redirection of that sense of entitlement felt by some of those in power positions) occurred, perhaps extreme poverty in Liberia would stand a chance at getting eliminated.
The rain has been making some unexpected appearances during my final weeks in Liberia, surprising everyone as it is supposed to be the dry season. It cleans out the air, leaving it crispy and cool; a welcome reprieve from the harsh Monrovia sun. Thinking about my work here, and all the efforts underway to develop Liberia, I feel like the surprise rain showers symbolize the potential within Liberia herself. There is a great divide within education, pushed on by poverty, but there are some surprisingly ambitious elements within the country. There are local people who understand the value of obtaining an education in order to break that cycle of extreme poverty. This sentiment is what our project is trying to spark within the hearts of those that we are helping to access higher-education knowledge with the hope that, upon their return, they will work on changing the systems that are in place here that are slow-turning, red-tape blocked and bureaucratically stalled. There is a cyclical dependence or symbiotic relationship between education, poverty and progressive systematic changes in Liberia. I am not sure if this is generally indicative of most developing countries, but I hope that Liberia is able to break this cycle. With all the partners, collaborators and actors working in this country, it is my sincere hope that there will be some positive change for Liberians.