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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.

*** *** ***

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

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Back in Liberia

Filed under: Africa,family,Notes from Liberia,Patrick,US politics,war — alison @ 07:10

After returning from Bangladesh and a too-short stay with family, my father is back in Liberia.

*** *** ***
Dear Family and Friends,

Back in Liberia. I spent this afternoon with the Minister for Education and his deputies. They all say they will be up most of tomorrow night watching the inauguration and the balls. All over the world – or at least in my small sampling – people are joyful about the new direction they see in America.

My previous time in Liberia (2004), there was a short break in the war that had lasted fourteen years. My assignment took me to villages where people were rebuilding homes, shops, bridges, wells, roads, and whatever other infrastructure competing armies, often made up of children, had taken into their heads to destroy. The villages were doing their best to reintegrate their ‘lost’ young people, many of whom had done terrible things. The returnees were doing what they could to be accepted back. There were three short, intense wars in 2005, but now there is a stable and reasonably competent government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There is hope again… sort of. USAID is helping rebuild teacher education. Our team of three is spending six weeks to evaluate this effort and suggest improvements.

We’ve been in Monrovia since Wednesday. The attached pictures may give you some of the flavour. We’re off tomorrow for two days to see schools and teacher training colleges in the countryside. We’ll come back to sharpen our survey instruments then head back out for more intensive interviews and observations for the next four weeks.

Lunch today was cassava leaf stew with fish, chicken, and shrimp… and rice.

Update on Beli: She’s bought a rickshaw and some rice. She rents out the rickshaw and will sell the rice in small packets. Her life as a businesswoman has begun.

Affectionately,
P.

Vivian's Fashion Butik Salon

Liberia 2

Liberia 3

Liberia 4

P on the beach

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

solace

I often have interesting conversations with taxi drivers, but it’s usually me who starts them.

Yesterday I gave my destination and we discussed the route. Then the driver cautiously asked me if I were Québécoise pure-laine? Well, I said, I’m anglophone but I’m born here.

Because, rushed on my driver, he had read a story in the newspaper that morning* and couldn’t stop thinking about two countries, on two continents, separated by history and religion but united in their misery. La Guinée, in Africa, and Haïti, where he was born.

He was satisfied with his life in Canada, he wanted me to know that. His children didn’t eat steak every day, but they could have meat every week. Canada is a good country, built by people who were not his parents, and he was grateful for the welcome he had been offered, the opportunity to make a life here. But he couldn’t stop looking back to his people in Haïti, feeling for their suffering.

Yes, I said, and feeling responsible but helpless and not knowing what to do. I told him I’d lived in Nigeria in the seventies when people were doing very well, that I knew a little about how people lived who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and even a little about what children looked like who didn’t have enough to eat. That I felt a bond with people in other countries and circumstances that I had no idea how to act on.

Yes, he said. One doesn’t need to have a lot of stuff to be able to care for a family. His father had been a cultivator and he had worked with him. They rotated crops with the seasons, rice and yams and vegetables. In between crops, his father fished. There was always something to do. His father had also been a judge. This was in the time of Papa Duvalier. He had disappeared one day. Both his father and his mother. The children had all found their way out of the country. It had been hard, but the children were now all over the world and managing fine. Even their cousins had left.

But now, he said, Haitian rice farmers can’t make a living any more. They can’t compete with the price of rice imported from the US, where agriculture is heavily subsidised. When rice can be bought so cheaply, people would rather buy it than grow it themselves, so they leave the farms and go to the city. But of course there is no work in the city. People struggle, women prostitute themselves.

Yes, I said, and you and I look on from our comfortable spots and don’t know what to do. I told him my father had recently returned from Bangladesh and was struggling trying to help a woman he had made friends with there. He was helping her, but it was hard. It’s hard for one person to help another person, for a country to help another country. And for one person, like him or me, to help a country – it’s very hard to know what to do.

The kind of work my parents do makes some difference directly. The kind of work I do does not. I can only donate to local and international aid organisations, but it doesn’t feel right, or like enough.

Yes, my taxi driver said, he gives to aid organisations too. To Centraide and Jeunesse au Soleil. But they’re all local.

Yes, I said, to support international aid means donating to different organisations. And then it can be hard to know if the help being offered is really useful; for instance, free american-grown rice is even worse for farmers than cheap american-grown rice. I contribute to one that gives agricultural animals. The people who receive them must commit to breeding the animals and sharing the offspring. It sounds like a good program, though I can’t be sure of its impact in practice.

My taxi driver got very excited at the thought of country people receiving such a useful and community-minded gift as breeding animals, but pointed out that it takes so much more. There has to be water, for instance. And transportation. And fertiliser. And there has to be a market.

You know, I said, we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems parked here in your taxi. But I will shake your hand and wish you a good and happy new year, and know that your frustrations are shared.

He shook my hand, and thanked me for telling him about people who work in international aid, who travel and care. He feels better now, knowing that he isn’t alone in caring.

I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in my lack of direction.

Happy new year to all, and may we continue to shake hands with our neighbours and share our challenges!

__________________

* That would have been these articles:

http://www.cyberpresse.ca/dossiers/crise-alimentaire/200901/10/01-816458-le-monde-de-sily.php

http://www.cyberpresse.ca/dossiers/crise-alimentaire/200901/10/01-816459-la-faim-dans-larriere-pays.php

Friday, August 20th, 2004

Re: Fwd: Avoiding Genocide The right to bear arms could have saved Sudan

Filed under: Africa,fallacies,libertarianism,naïveté — alison @ 09:21

Jean-François replies:

A simple handgun, not a very complicated thing, no need for “gun handling and gun safety classes”, equalize a 92 lbs woman with a 250 men.

Furthermore, training does not need litteracy. Send UN arms trainers and give one 1911 .45ACP to every woman. Train weapon’s instructors (the few who are litterate) who will train others. Handling a gun is nothing but common sense. If you can surmount the danger of remaining alive in the world, you can learn gun handling.

And who cares about a few accidents happening, in comparison with the tens of thousand of people getting killed ?

This is one aspect that infuriates me most: equating accidental death to murder death.

No no no, that’s not what I meant at all! But it’s my fault, I didn’t express myself clearly. What I meant was: you have never been to Africa. Civil law is a rare and precious thing there. “Rights” and “control” as written in statutes have little meaning.

My mother put it succinctly:

Vivian_Cummins [____@pigeon.carleton.ca] wrote:
I scanned the article quickly – and as you say – the authors understand nothing about Africa.

What struck me right away, about the article, was the underlying assumption that there was a rule of law. In truth, no one cares if you get a gun and ammunition – and no one will do anything to enforce laws, especially in a situation like Darfur has become. But it is true that access to weapons will be less available to minority or disadvantaged groups – hence the machetes, which have the advantage of not requiring bullets or maintenance

V

I of course, will go on and on…

With rare exceptions, these are not modern countries where each person has rights and obligations as a citizen. Rather, these are poor countries where people rely on networks of relatives, clan-members and ethnic allegiances to survive. The obligation to support a brother or sister (this could mean same-mother-same-father, or it could mean someone from the same general geographic area) in need is overriding. African students abroad regularly receive letters from home asking them for money to buy a sewing machine for a cousin, pay for a nephew’s school uniform and so on. And they pay up. They often find feeding themselves out of their constantly-chipped-away-at grant money to be a considerable trial.

In this context, if, say, a judge is faced with finding for a brother or a stranger, it will be extremely difficult for them to find against their brother regardless of the facts of the case. (And how do people get to be judges? They are appointed by people with obligations. There’s an excellent chance that the person who finangled their appointment to a judgeship was mostly interested in the payoff money, and only incidentally in justice.) What does civil law mean then?

Another problem is that government employees are not paid enough to live on. So they do the logical thing and implement fee-for-service. Traffic cops stop you, get into your car and instruct you to take them to the station. You then pay them to get out and let you continue. Alternatively they will stop your taxi, haul out the driver and start beating him up. You are expected to pay them to stop so that you can continue your journey. (If you think your driver deserves the beating you will take your time before intervening.) This happens especially just before major holidays when people need money and has little or nothing to do with the quality of driving. And no, don’t even think of complaining to their supervisor. This is what they are expected to do.

Instead, we find that people act autonomously to punish perpetrators. In the case of a car accident where a pedestrian is killed (it happens very often, expecially when country people unused to traffic — and carrying heavy loads on their heads that make it difficult for them to maneuver — ball their hands into fists, squeeze their eyes shut and charge out across the road) onlookers stop the car, haul out the driver, burn the car and beat the driver to death. If the pedestrian is not severely hurt, the drive may be beaten but not killed. Likewise, shoplifters in the market are pursued by mobs shouting “Thief! Thief!” and when caught are beaten to death. In the absence of civil law, people resort to this sort of thing to make sure that consequences stick.

At least, that’s how it happened in Nigeria in the late seventies, and it’s not unique. And no, it doesn’t prevent either traffic accidents or shoplifiting.

It’s also why Shari’a law is so popular. When there is widespread corruption and no civil law, people find it very hard to live together in large cosmopolitan communities. An advantage of Shari’a law is that it defines the community as Muslims. (Not citizens, but still it’s a step up from sister or brother.) So that there can be some hope of fairness. Judgements and consequences might not rely exclusively on who is related to who, or who can pay off the judge.

It doesn’t always work well, especially when co-opted by local thugs, but there aren’t always a lot of alternatives.

One thing I marvel at is that Jean-François the libertarian espouses an ideal world where people rely on their families and the government exists only to print money. In this world, rights and obligations are negotiated individually with each person you meet, on their merits. (To me, this means that there are no rights or obligations. It’s just a way of saying “take what you can get.”) In this world, you must be armed at all times for self-protection because there is no rule of law. There is no social safety net, so the poor, indigent and insane with no family able to care for them will beg on the streets exposing their sores and swollen-bellied infants hoping for pity from strangers.

This sounds very much like Darfur, or Liberia today (or medieval Europe). Nigeria was much better off, but one of the many lessons I learned there was that people who want to live a modern, cosmopolitan life, who seek education and experience and travel, who want to improve the lot of their fellow-citizens and the status of their country, who value peace and oppose war — these people think tribalism is an evil. And there are many, many of them. But without universally applied civil law, and without a social safety net that protects all citizens equally on the basis of citizenship regardless of ethnic or family affiliation, tribalism is a necessity of life.

Our modern policing and social safety nets were implemented by people who wanted something better than what we had. I think we need some respect for their experience.

I have referred to “Africa” in my discussion, though Africa consists of many countries and histories and each area is different. However, poverty and an agrarian tradition with the attendant marginal existence vulnerable to drought are common across the continent. As are the traditional attendant obligations to care for your sister and brother, and ambivalence regarding these obligations. Some countries are forging their own versions of modern nations in the midst of this — Uganda comes to mind. Other countries are not countries at all, but territories patrolled by thugs.

But the point I come back to is, you cannot apply a theoretical concept like “the right to bear arms” to a situation where rights do not exist. To have rights, you need citizenship. Darfur doesn’t have citizens or rights. And you can’t have “gun control” without civil law. Darfur doesn’t have civil law.

And I don’t mean Sudan doesn’t have constitutions or statutes; I mean Sudan (Darfur in particular) doesn’t have the social conditions for them to have any meaning.

[originally transmitted by e-mail August 20, 2004]

Thursday, August 19th, 2004

Fwd: Avoiding Genocide The right to bear arms could have saved Sudan

Filed under: Africa,fallacies,libertarianism,naïveté — alison @ 08:40

——Start of Forwarded Message ———
> From: jfa
> Subject: Avoiding Genocide The right to bear arms could
> have saved Sudan
>
> August 18, 2004, 8:24 a.m.
> Avoiding Genocide
> The right to bear arms could have saved Sudan.
> http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/kopel_gallant_eisen200408180824.asp
> By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, & Joanne Eisen
>
——End of Forwarded Message ———

The National Review clearly understands nothing about Africa.

The relevant passages in the article Jean-François thinks will convince me that we all (everyone in the world, and in the particular case of me and Jean-François, Canadians) need to stockpile automatic weapons in order to prevent our governments from murdering us in our beds:

In Sudan, it is virtually impossible for an average citizen to lawfully acquire and possess the means for self-defense. According to gun-control statutes, a gun licensee must be over 30 years of age, must have a specified social and economic status, and must be examined physically by a doctor. Females have even more difficulty meeting these requirements because of social and occupational limitations.

When these restrictions are finally overcome, there are additional restrictions on the amount of ammunition one may possess, making it nearly impossible for a law-abiding gun owner to achieve proficiency with firearms. A handgun owner, for example, can only purchase 15 rounds of ammunition a year. The penalties for violation of Sudan’s firearms laws are severe, and can include capital punishment.

International gun-control groups complain that Sudan’s gun laws are not strict enough – but the real problem with the laws is that they can be enforced arbitrarily. The government can refuse gun permits to the victims in Darfur and execute anyone who obtains a self-defense gun. Meanwhile, the Arab militias can obtain guns with government approval, or the government can simply ignore illegal gun possession by Arabs.

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1) When I lived in Nigeria, the top reason for road accidents was illiteracy. The connection? Because an illiterate person cannot pass a driver’s test, they need to buy their licences from the officials under the table. From the official’s point of view, there is no point in trying to apply the law because few people read well enough to pass the test. Trying to evoke the concepts of “gun control” or “the right to bear arms” in this context misses the point.

2) Guns are very expensive. The preferred method of killing your neighbour in Africa is to hack them to death with a machete. (See Rwanda.) However, Sudan is generally heavily armed anyway.

3) Anyone who refers to “black” vs “arab” when discussing Sudan has never met anyone from a “black” or “arab” group. Or they have, and are deliberately misusing key words calculated to evoke emotional responses in americans.

From the Guardian, much better informed on international issues than the National Review:
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1268647,00.html

The Darfur war erupted early last year, when two armed movements – Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement – began a rebellion against a government in Khartoum that had neglected their region.

In response, the government mobilised, armed and directed a militia, known as Janjaweed (‘rabble’ or ‘outlaws’ in local dialect), using scorched earth, massacre and starvation as cheap counter-insurgency weapons. The UN has described Darfur as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’. On Friday, the US Congress described it as ‘genocide’. The British government is considering sending in 5,000 troops.

Characterising the Darfur war as ‘Arabs’ versus ‘Africans’ obscures the reality. Darfur’s Arabs are black, indigenous, African and Muslim – just like Darfur’s non-Arabs, who hail from the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and a dozen smaller tribes.

*** *** ***

As you can see from my sharing of Jean-François’ post, I value diversity. But I wonder sometimes. From a review of “The Wisdom of Crowds” http://www.powells.com/review/2004_06_24 :

“Diversity is usually good, above all because it allows groups to acquire more information. But what is needed is not diversity as such, but diversity of the right kind. NASA’s judgment would not have been improved if the relevant officials had included members of the Flat Earth Society, or people who believed that aliens are among us or that space flight is simply impossible.”

[originally transmitted by e-mail August 19, 2004]

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