Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It has been one eventful week (and a half)

In my stubbornness to make sure this post had some photos, I've delayed uploading this by 5 days. It's difficult to get my photos to upload, so bare with me.

I'll run through a few things briefly:

My flight to Liberia last Saturday was without incident for 1hr and 45 mins. However, when we reached Liberia it was raining heavily and we experienced a lot of turbulence on board. Needless to say, when the pilot announced that we were about to land, I was a little nervous. We began to descend and mid-descent, the plane started to climb. Seconds later, the pilot made the announcement that we could not land after all and that we were headed to Abidjan (the capital of Ivory Coast- about an hour between Accra and Monrovia).

We ended up taxied in the Abidjan International Airport for 3hours (at one point there was talk of going back to Accra). We were finally cleared to fly to Monrovia and we flew back without incident. I went through immigration quickly and got both of my bags, my uncle even had someone come fetch me from immigration and saw me through to the driver. The airport is about 30min from the the city, so by the time I got to the apartment it was after 9 (initially my plane was supposed to arrive at 3pm).

I've been blessed with my accommodation situation. Thanks to my parents for hooking me up with our family friend. My uncle has really made me feel at home here in Monrovia (we even live next to the Ghanaian Embassy). The houseboy Gilbert is also Ghanaian, and he is so helpful with getting adjusted to life in Monrovia. I've been fortunate to have hot water, electricity, dstv and fast internet at the house - it's unreal. My uncle traveled on Friday and will be gone for the entire month, so I've got the apartment all to myself for the month of June. Only downside of my place is that I'm not staying with other interns so I have to make more of an effort to get out of the apartment.

Currently, the Office of the President is located on the 5th and 6th floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building because the Executive Mansion had an electrical fire a few years ago. It doesn't seem like a priority to move back to the Executive Mansion, so for now we're here; I've even heard a few people say they don't want the President's Office to go back to the Executive Mansion because there has been so much bloodshed there.

The Philanthropy Secretariat is located on the 5th floor. We walk when the elevator isn't working or when it is in use and we do not feel like waiting (there's only one elevator working in the building). I hear the President herself walks to the 6th floor when that elevator isn't working. The office that I am in is shared with other initiatives under the Minister of State without Portfolio, so it is a little cramped. We've had to do some adjusting with seating arrangements now that everyone is back at work, so currently I'm camping out with the Special Adviser on Climate Change and his intern.

I really like the people I work with. Jennah is the Program Coordinator for the Secretariat and she has been so helpful. We share a lot of similarities: she left Liberia when she was very young and lived in the US up until last August when she decided to move back to Liberia. We have plenty of discussions about feeling like an outsider in our respective countries, and she's given me good insights into what to expect when moving back to Africa after you've lived all your life outside. Dan is the Program Manager for the office, and he just got back from a trip to the states. He's very open to me adjusting my tasks to my interests, and I'm really grateful for that. I was just told that I could attend the annual Foundations meeting that I am helping plan in September (it'll be in NY). Also, Dan has just confirmed that I will be helping to create a prospects list of corporate foundations that would be a good fit for initiatives in Liberia. I'm excited about this because corporate philanthropy in Africa is my area of interest.

From what I've seen thus far, the government is trying. There are great people working hard to bring about change in the country, and a lot of that comes from the attitude of the top leadership. However, there are major impediments to this, one being slow slow slow internet. I'm amazed at the speed of the internet at the President's Office, because the internet at my uncle's place is night and day in comparison. In observing my surroundings, I noticed that work itself isn't necessarily difficult, it's just getting things done is.

The President had been gone for a couple of weeks and finally returned Wednesday night. Accordingly, security was extra tight on Thursday and Friday. I would be lying if I didn't say I was a little bit annoyed, but I had to catch myself: this is like the White House equivalent.

I've had the opportunity to eat in a few places. The high end restaurants tend to be in hotels, and have cost between 10-20USD per meal. The closest that I've gotten to a local spot is a restaurant called 'The Office' right across from my work. The food was delicious and only cost $6, score! One thing Liberians know how to do is spice food well. There are a lot of dishes from other West African countries, especially Ghana so I feel at home with the food. My favorite Liberian dish is Cassava leaf stew (yummy!). I also tasted a delicious eggplant stew at Robtel's house (she's another repat that works in the President's office, and Jennah and I had lunch at her place during the week).

Misc Observations and Random Thoughts

I have been here one week and have yet to see a single traffic light. I know I haven't been very far, but there is definitely a lack of traffic lights in Monrovia. This makes crossing the road for pedestrians quite challenging.

Pretty much everything is closed on Sunday; there are sporadic shops open at night, but everything else is closed. I've heard one rationale for this is because the country is a Christian nation, but I think this is just something that was developed early on and has stuck.

The internet is routed through other countries, so depending on where you access it, your google may appear as Google Israel or Google Lebanon. I usually get Lebanon. Though I changed my language to English, I still get arabic translations on some of my internet pages.

Speaking of Lebanon, I used to think that there was a large presence of Lebanese in Ghana, but there is a larger presence of Lebanese here in Monrovia. The Lebanese run a lot of the pharmacy shops, car shops, restaurants, etc in the country. Something else that also has a huge presence in this country is the UN. I've never traveled to a post-conflict country before, and to some degree I knew this would be the case, but I still am amazed at the amount of UN vehicles on the road.

The UNMIL (United National Mission to Liberia) is one minute up the road from my work

Liberians use both US dollars and Liberian dollars (or Liberty). I have yet to change money, because everything has been priced in USD. I've received change in Liberian dollars however, so I have some Liberian dollars now. The exchange is roughly 70 Liberian dollars to 1 USD. I've noticed that when purchasing cheaper goods and services, Liberian dollars is better: taxi services (non-chartered), leaving a tip, etc. The money notes are quite dirty here (both the US dollars and the Liberian dollars), I find that a lot of the notes are brown in color and damp.

The dynamic between repats and expats is quite fascinating. After the war, expats were first on the scene, however now that more and more repats have returned to the country and want to (and have the capability to) participate in the development of Liberia, it seems a little bit of a challenge for them to find an appropriate fitting (especially for their skills). There will be more on this later, because I believe this is the state Liberia finds itself in as more and more repats return.

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