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 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 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!



  1. I am pleased to see that there are good things happening in Liberia. I was in the Peace Corps in Voinjama, Liberia in the late ’60s and have been very sad at how badly things have gone there. I have seen post-war photos of Voinjama on the internet that show washed out streets and bombed out buildings that were vibrant and full of people when I was there. I’m sure that many of the people I knew there are now dead or were forced to leave their homes.

    Pat/Patrick, I see you were able to get to ZorZor. That is most of the way to Voinjama. Were you able to get to Voinjama? If so, do you have any photos? If not, do you have any news of how things are going in that part of Liberia?

    Ray (Bowman) Phelps-Bowman

    Comment by Ray Phelps-Bowman — Friday, July 2nd, 2010 @ 13:03

  2. Il y a un siècle, à l’époque où tu travaillais ici, je te trouvais bien chanceuse d’avoir quelqu’un comme ton père qui t’envoyait des courriels si bien écrits. Je constate que ça n’a pas changé. L’avant-dernier paragraphe est particulièrement savoureux.

    Ce qui n’a pas changé, non plus, c’est que je reçois toujours, quant à moi, des courriels de type Twitter, écrits dans un français bâclé. C’est plutôt décevant de songer qu’en vingt ans de correspondance par l’Internet, je ne me suis jamais trouvé quelqu’un qui sache bien écrire le français, ou pire, qui manifeste le moindre intérêt pour la qualité de la langue et de la pensée.

    Tu es l’exception Alison, une exception… anglophone !

    Je serai toujours étonné de voir les gens si soucieux de leur apparence l’être si peu de leur langage. Pourtant, on est bien plus habillés de sa langue que de ses vêtements. Je sais bien que c’est une question de valeurs, mais quelque chose en moi refuse de consentir à cette réalité.

    Comment by Coucou ! — Saturday, July 3rd, 2010 @ 17:30

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