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Monday, June 28th, 2010

Notes from Liberia – third trip

My father has just returned from another trip to Liberia. The danger pay isn’t what it used to be, but he still loves his work.

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Dear Family and Friends,

I came back from Liberia in early June after three weeks of field work on a mid-term evaluation for a USAID-funded education program.

Liberia is putting itself together… with help from NGOs and International Organizations whose signs are on every corner.

When I was there in 2004, there was still tension. People weren’t confident that the wars were over. Young people who had been fighters and young people who had not been fighters were uneasily moving back together in their old villages – though many former child soldiers, ashamed to return home, stayed in Monrovia, the capital, with no trades except the ones they learned in war. Market women sat in front of the home of a warlord/minister, silently holding up signs that said No More Fighting. My danger bonus was 25%.

In 2009 I visited teachers’ colleges. The students were from all fifteen of the country’s ethnic groups. You could still see wariness, but mainly they were working well together as Liberians. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was President and was respected. My danger bonus had dropped to 15%, and applied only when I was in the countryside.

This year, the streets of Monrovia are livelier; the towns in the hinterlands are more prosperous; and ‘Ellen’ is running confidently for a second term. We once ran into a roving band of ‘commandos’ who were doing a poor job at intimidation, since they no longer carried guns. To [my wife] Vivian’s chagrin, the danger bonus had been eliminated.

I took pictures and am attaching three for flavour.

The owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School.

The owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School.

The first is the front office of the hotel where I had just spent the night. The woman in the yellow dress is the owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School. She, herself, began school after having three children. With the encouragement of her husband, she eventually earned a high school diploma.

Stop Early Marriage!

Stop Early Marriage!

The second is on a door of a mud house in a village a long way off the main road. We talked with townspeople. Different generations are back at school making up for years of lost education during the wars. Three of the young people who talked with us walk 40 kilometres to school at the beginning of the week and 40 kilometres back on the weekend. Others attend night classes at the local evangelical church. These are the survivors.

The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn.

The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn.

The third picture speaks for itself. The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn. Children and parents judge the quality of schools; if the school doesn’t provide value, the children go to work on the farm.

My email misbehaved during most of the trip. When I eventually understood what was happening, Vivian hadn’t heard form me for ten days and was contacting the embassy to learn whether I was lost. Soon I started getting urgent messages saying “Please Contact your wife!” (One of the education team opposed getting involved, reasoning that I might not want my wife to know where I was. She was over-ruled.)

My assistant, Frank, and I spent three weeks, mostly on bombed-out or mudded-out roads, in a four wheel drive Toyota whose multiple breakdowns effectively randomized the communities we observed. I stayed in a different bush hotel every night, usually paying extra to have the generator turned on in the morning so I could type up the previous day’s notes. Eating was good – eggs and bread in the morning; bananas, plantain chips, and roast corn on the road; foofoo or rice and goat pepper soup in the evening. Liberia is a Christian country, so there was beer with supper. In Monrovia I ate grilled barracuda on the beach or Lebanese tabbouleh, hummus, and kibbee at a rooftop restaurant run by Indians.

In the capital, Frank found me a well-run local hotel on the main commercial strip, which I preferred to the beachfront expatriate hotels where I had previously stayed. I may have been a disappointment at the hotel, however. The first evening, while I waited for my pepper soup, the bar filled up – an attractive young woman on every second stool. Each one winked prettily as I walked out. The second night, they weren’t there.

It was a thirty-six hour trip back – through Accra, Addis Ababa, Rome, and Washington. Quicker though than the trip over, when we were diverted through Dakar to avoid the volcano in Iceland.

On my return there was two weeks of report writing – now over. And then the excitement began: First a 5.5 earthquake that felt like a ghost train running through the house. Two days later, the police invaded our quiet agricultural neighbourhood and removed plants and occupants from houses on our nearby corner.

Happy Canada Day and Fourth of July!

Pat/Patrick

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

preparations

Filed under: Apocalypse,consuming,Vivian — alison @ 14:00

Conversation with my mother:

Me: I have the thermostat set at 15°, and I took a shower this morning so my hair is wet, so I’m wearing a hat and fall jacket and fingerless gloves inside the house.
Vivian: Is that for budgetary considerations, or… ?
Me: Preparation for the apocalypse.
Vivian: Oh, like those russian revolutionaries who poured hot oil in their ears to prepare for being tortured.
Me: Exactly. Except that I’m actually quite comfy.

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Vaccinated!

Filed under: aging,being a landlord,death,family,illness — alison @ 16:12

I went to the Stade Olympique yesterday for my H1N1 vaccine, my first-ever influenza shot. I’d never bothered before because it had always seemed like too much trouble and I wasn’t in a risk group. But for H1N1 they’ve made it really easy and I’d taken the day off work anyway so I could do it whenever and wherever it was convenient.

I still had to think about whether protecting myself against a deadly strain of influenza virus was really something I wanted to do. A likely outcome is that I will have a longer old age, which is not something I necessarily want. (Healthy but not particularly long would really be the ideal for me.) But another likely outcome is that I will not be a vector transmitting H1N1 to other people who might actually be gunning for that long, productive life but who might not be in a condition right now to be vaccinated: small babies, for instance, can’t be effectively immunized against influenza. My friend with cancer, who most definitely wants to live, may get only limited protection from a vaccine and is largely dependent on the people around him to not transmit it to him. The girlfriend of the woman who is dying of lung cancer in the apartment upstairs will not be able to point the finger at me as being the one who infected her with her final illness. And I will not interrupt the old ages, happily surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of my old relatives.

So I got the H1N1 vaccine and will get the seasonal flu vaccine when it becomes available. If I ever decide my old age is dragging on too long there are ways around that that do not involve making other people sick.

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

How to change the sheets and make the bed.

The second instalment of my “keeping tidy” series.

The traditional way:

  • Strip the bed. Put the bottom sheet and used pillow cases aside to be laundered.
  • Flip and shake the mattress and put back any mattress pads.
  • Take the top sheet, which is only lightly soiled, and tuck it over the mattress to be the new bottom sheet.
  • Put the pillow or pillows in clean cases and place at the head of the bed.
  • Take a clean sheet and lay it over the bed as the new top sheet.
  • Layer on cotton and wool blankets and quilts as dictated by the season, fold down the top sheet and tuck everything neatly under the mattress.
  • Lay a quilt over the whole bed, if needed.
  • If you haven’t used a large, decorative quilt then lay a bedspread or coverlet over everything to keep the dust off.

Advantages:
Keeps laundry to a minimum (one flat sheet and one or two pillowcases per week/month/season/year) which preserves sheets from wear and tear and reduces labour (especially important when washing by hand). Allows use of inexpensive linens (no contoured sheets; threadbare blankets can continue to be used, just layered on top of one another). Layers can be fine-tuned weekly as the weather and seasons change. Use of a bedspread or coverlet keeps off dust and means blankets don’t need to be washed – yearly at most, but perhaps not ever. Home-made mattresses are turned routinely to avoid lumps.

Disadvantages:
May cause problems for people with allergies. Animals must not sleep on – certainly not in – the bed. (Well, if you’re change-the-sheets-yearly type folks, you probably don’t have access to much liquid water in the winter. You might as well sleep with your animals to keep warm, because animals or not those sheets are not going to be pristine at the end of the year.) Flat sheets on the mattress tend to pull out in the night.

The modern way:

  • Strip the bed, leaving the mattress pads in place.
  • Put the sheets and the pillow cases aside to be laundered.
  • Place a clean contoured sheet over the mattress; replace the pillows in clean pillow cases at the head of the bed, and lay a clean flat sheet over everything.
  • Further layers as above.

Advantages:
Contoured sheet stays in place throughout the night. Commercial sprung mattress doesn’t need to be shaken and turned weekly (or daily). Use of a washing machine means that the extra sheet can be washed — weekly even! —  without excessive burden. Layers can be fine-tuned weekly as the weather and seasons change. Use of a bedspread or coverlet keeps off dust and means blankets don’t need to be washed – yearly at most, but perhaps not ever.

Disadvantages:
Contoured sheets are more expensive than flat ones and they wear out more quickly because they are always on the bottom. Commercial mattresses are much more expensive than home-made. More wear and tear as both sheets are washed weekly. May cause problems for people with allergies. Animals must not sleep on – certainly not in – the bed.

The way of the Ikea generation:

  • Strip the bed, leaving the mattress pads in place.
  • Put the sheet, pillow cases and duvet covers aside to be laundered.
  • Place a clean contoured sheet over the mattress.
  • Replace the duvet in a clean cover and lay over the bed.
  • Replace the pillows in clean pillowcases and place at the head of the bed.

Advantages:
Contoured sheet stays in place throughout the night. Commercial sprung mattress doesn’t need to be shaken and turned weekly (or daily). All the sheets are washed weekly and duvets can be washed seasonally or as required, so no dust or musty smell. Duvets can be purchased in varying weights so you can get the weight you need for a given season. Duvet covers mean that duvets can continue to be used even when they get old and you start having to patch them. In-home front-loading washing machine means that washing the equivalent of three sheets per bed per week is not an undue burden, and you can even just throw a duvet in when you need to. Animals are welcome to sleep in the bed because the hair and dander gets washed out weekly.

Disadvantages:
Requires storage space for all those seasonally-perfect duvets. If you don’t have a seasonally-perfect duvet you will be too hot or too cold. All that washing causes wear and tear. Threadbare linens have nowhere to be layered discreetly: if you patch them they will show, and you will probably just throw them out.

My mother and I argue about these approaches. She combines the Traditional and Modern Methods for the advantages of both, using suspender-strap thingies to connect a flat sheet under the corner of the mattress so that it will stay in place like a contour sheet. Very smart and practical. (My mother is very smart and practical in general.)

Her dust distresses me. I, the profligate modern daughter, am of the Ikea generation. I live with one other adult in an apartment designed for a family of at least four, in a time when sheets manufactured elsewhere can be bought cheaply here. Storage is not an issue. I do not worry about caring for my things: they are disposable. I do laundry liberally. I sleep with my dog. My lack of understanding of economy shocks my mother as not only a failing in self-care and housekeeping, but as a failing at a moral level, of stewardship.

She’s appalled at the idea of washing duvets. “You mean they have to be washed?” she shrieked when I mentioned it. I tried to explain that this was a feature, not a bug: they don’t have to be washed, they can be. She’s cannier than that. She knows that once something becomes possible, it becomes the new standard.

While I understand and respect the traditional bedmaking approach, I do have allergies. If I were to adopt traditional bedmaking I’d have to become a much better housekeeper – actually cleaning the house myself, instead of waiting for the dust to float (or be tracked) into my bedding so that the washing machine can get rid of it for me.

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Mail-order brides

A little kerfuffle over at Science Blogs brought mail-order brides back to my attention. (Didn’t they have their fifteen minutes of fame in the eighties?)

I commented to Mark that I didn’t see what the fuss was about. He gamely pointed to the fuzzy grey borderline between mail-order brides and prostitution.

Alison: Well, there’s a fuzzy-to-nonexistent borderline between marriage and prostitution generally. The point of marriage is that it recognises sexual relationships as inherently potentially exploitatitve, and confers legal rights and responsibilities on the parties involved.

Mark: Ah, but that doesn’t apply in the US. If they divorce, the mail-order bride has no residency rights and is deported back to her country of origin. It’s not like Canada where a sponsored immigrant spouse has residency rights independent of the status of the relationship.

Oh. Right. I keep forgetting. (Which is odd, because one of my favourite stories about sponsoring Mark under Canada’s Family Reunification Program is how when he went to get his visa exchanged for a residency card, he was sat down and solemnly lectured that if I were to become abusive, he was not to hesitate to Move Out Immediately. Quebec would help him find a place to live and give him welfare if he needed it. He would NOT have to leave the country. Quebec would come after me for reimbursement as necessary. He was NOT to worry about that.)

But does that mean that we should be worried about the institution of mail-order brides, or that we should be protesting the lack of protection the US offers immigrant spouses – exacerbating a situation of potential exploitation where marriage is supposed to alleviate it?

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Advantage to having dodged parenthood #3876

Filed under: consuming,dogs,family,Mark — alison @ 17:27

Sitting in the airport listening to fathers boast about their children’s achievements, I’m realizing that as a non-parent I don’t invite one-upmanship in this area and am thereby excused from listening to long ramblings about Junior’s university adventures.

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So, like, the other day I’m sitting in the car making sure the dogs don’t suffocate while Mark pops into the store to do groceries. While waiting I pick up the Ikea catalogue and as an exercise I decide to page through and pay attention to exactly what excites feelings of envy. Will it be the quality of the light in the rooms? The well-appointed kitchens? The CD collections? Interestingly, it turns out to be the kids. I am envious of people who have kids to furnish a room for, or build a home for. “Nesting!” says Mark when he gets back. So that’s how the Ikea catalogue works: don’t buy this for yourself, buy it for your family. Noted.

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