Posts Tagged 'Liberia'

Lords above and below

The hotel driver who was going to take me to the airport didn’t show up, so the project mobilized its own driver. I was told that one never knows whether the ride to the airport takes 1 or 2 hours (37 km), depending on traffic. I left at the height of rush hour, but we arrived at the airport earlier than expected. It’s an old and decrepit airport of the kinds that were common across Africa, built in the 60s and 70s. I was too early and had to stand outside in the sweltering heat for some time before the gate was opened and we could stream into the small spaces that were designed for DC-3s  and DC-6s rather than jumbos.

In town I had been struck by the number of churches – one on every corner along the Boulevard where my hotel and the office are located – and their colorful names. So I pulled out my notebook and started writing down all the churches we encountered on the way to the airport. The list is by no means complete because I missed several while I was conversing with the driver about life during the wars and Ebola. I did not write down mainstream churches such as the Methodists or Baptists. Here they are, more or less in order of appearance:

  • Church of God, Inc
  • Eagle Kingdom Church
  • Salt and Light International Ministry
  • Harvest of God Church
  • New Life Ministries
  • Divine Destiny Church
  • Highway to Better Living Chapel
  • Temple of Good (not a typo)
  • Redeemed Christian Faith Church
  • True Life Blocks Church (huh?)
  • Kingdom Harvest Global Ministries
  • Kingdom Care Church
  • Crossroads Kingdom
  • Jehovah’s Kingdom Church
  • Life Church of the New Apostle
  • Lighthouse Mission Church
  • Dominion Christian Fellowship
  • Throne of Grace Church
  • The Lord’s Chosen Ministries
  • Wood light Church
  • Solemn Pentecostal Church
  • Calvary Chapel Mission
  • Blessed Hope Church
  • God is Good Church (clever!)
  • Church of the New Beginning
  • Salvation Tabernacle of Faith
  • Christian Covenant Family Church
  • Winner Chapel
  • Zion Intercessionary Church
  • Free Pentecostal Global Ministries
  • Men and Women of Faith Church
  • and many more named after their earthly benefactors.

It’s truly a dictionary of Church names if one were to look for one. There probably is a website with possible church names, alphabetical or by key word (Kingdom, Jehovah, Light, etc.).

I asked the driver how it was possible to have this many churches in a population that wasn’t all that big. I asked him whether some people were member of two different churches. “Yes,” he said, “on Sunday morning they go to one and later in the day to another church service.” These could be entirely different denominations; Pentecost in the morning and Jehova after lunch. People are hedging their bets I suppose, which is understandable given what this country has gone through. The civil war atrocities were barely in the past when Ebola raged around the country as an even more insidious enemy.

I don’t feel I know much about Liberia, having commuted back and forth along one stretch of Boulevard only. I didn’t even see downtown. I want to know more about its history. From the founding of the country until now there are rivalries and old scores to be settled. The freed slaves colonized a country that was already inhabited, much like all the European colonizers did in the US and elsewhere. The newcomers were called Congo men. They looked down on the locals. I want to learn more about how this universal story of lords and slaves played out here, given that the lords were the slaves before they arrived.

Monrovia Ltd

I stayed in a garish hotel owned by Lebanese – there is much owned by the Lebanese, just like in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. And so Lebanese food dominates most restaurant menus, which is fine – I like Lebanese food – ate it for two years back in the 70s. A very pricy Japanese restaurant in a neighboring hotel allowed for the occasional break; a more traditional popular restaurant next door offered local African foods from around the region, including Senegal’s famous cieboudien (rice with fish and vegetables).

The remainder of my time in Monrovia was a bit disappointing from a professional point of view. My counterpart was too busy, being pulled in this then that direction, to put me to use. I had asked for a plan but there never was one. And so I left Monrovia with my reports done and ticked a lot of to small to-do’s from my list. I could have done all of this at home. I was able to get his team’s attention for only one hour which I used as well as I could. I supported the Madagascar team and prepared for my trip to Cameroon, and then India in the first months of 2017.

We had one more meeting related to the retreat which allowed me to set foot in the hospital we had been discussing for 3 days. We toured it late in the afternoon, guided by an American Liberian, raised in the UK and US and with degrees from American universities. He had presented a slide show about what was going on, construction wise, during the retreat. And now I got to see it with my own eyes.

The hospital is a giant construction site – a few things are finished but most are not. It was built to UK standards in the late 60s and opened in 1971. It had suffered and withstood much since – aside from its use as a strategic point in the two civil wars (1989-2003), there was also the combined action of salt, wind and water that had steadily eroded the concrete pillars, roofs and walls. Aside from a realization of the immensity of the task to retrofit this place for modern medicine, one other thing stood out: I didn’t see any patients. Most African hospitals I have visited are busy in the morning and quiet in the afternoon, when the doctors work in their private clinics – but there are always patients. Not here.


The retreat was over in no time. It was like a dance – at the end of each day we would meet with the team and counterparts to discuss the day and plan the next – we changed the steps and the rhythm each time. We constantly tinkered with the agenda, sometimes making things up as we went to make sure the Liberians got what they wanted: movement towards this dream they have of the hospital being a regional attractor; there was mention of India or Thailand’s coveted medical tourism but this remains a far out dream. The first order of business is to get the hospital back and beyond its former glory.

In one day we had succeeded to get the energy up, something we had set out to do. Then we pushed towards rubber hitting the road – an apt metaphor in this Firestone country. Some of the Board members had worried looks on their faces – they had said yes to the prestigious invite from the President to sit on the Board – but they may not have realized how much work there was to be done in between the quarterly meetings.

Slowly we learned about some of the undiscussables; the squirming and foot dragging we didn’t quite understand until our counterpart told us what was behind all that – powerful figures and family connections – a familar story in Africa.

My co-facilitators turned out to be brilliant, both of them. I would be sitting in the back watching them in awe. They got the people to put wheels under their lofty pronouncements.  In the final reflection and wrap up I asked them to show their commitment by raising their hands: 5 (or 10) fingers= 100% commitment; 1 finger 20% and a fist: none. We immortalized these commitments by taking pictures –  they could serve as a record if anyone wants to do so.

The sister of the minister had passed away on the evening of our first day; and so there was more rolling with the punches as the three day retreat was reduced by half a day to allow people to pay their respects. In spite of this we got nearly everything accomplished that we had set out to do. With focus and a good structure you can do a lot in two and a half days.

I wrote a positive email to all my colleagues at HQ who had told me I was wading into a mess. I’d thought they’d be happy to get some good news out of Liberia. Only 1 of 9 people responded. It’s puzzling to me; I had expected more of a reaction. It is nearly as if HQ people only respond to crises.

Up and up

The day after my arrival, after just 6 hours of sleep, I met with my co-facilitators at breakfast in their hotel and requested a transfer there– the move was easy, no luggage. Staff from our  office took my missing luggage information and planned an evening trip to the airport. Delta, which had failed to book my suitcase through to Monrovia, assured me it would be on the next day’s flight. After that I could focus on the task at hand, the retreat, which was after all the purpose of my trip. It was to start an hour later.

Without my suitcase I had nothing other than my grungy travel clothes with a few unfortunate specks of airplane food. The only way I could hide these was by draping a scarf over the spots, wearing my scarf Indian style. Aside from the warm and humid climate of West Africa, my outfit was, I thought, hardly appropriate for the opening day of a high level retreat.

Although the start was set at 8:30, it wasn’t until 10:15AM that we had a quorum. It is not that people weren’t there; several were leisurely enjoying the offered breakfast long after the official starting time in the adjacent restaurant. We had to peel them  away from the breakfast buffet.

Contrary to my expectations, the opening and everything that followed was of a highly informal nature. My unfortunate outfit actually didn’t seem to raise an eyebrow. Some thought the neatly draped scarf looked rather elegant.

We had divided the day’s sessions between the three of us before we arrived giving each up front time to establish a relationship and credibility with the participants. All of us had a common intent for the first day: to bring the energy up, help the participants see possibilities, and inform each other about what was happening or not happening (positive and negative) in and around the medical center. I believe we achieved this already by noon of day one. When we closed the day the mood was high, participation and engagement had been good (even though we lost a few people after lunch) and everyone agreed they had been learning. And then other good things happened: we had a very informative end of day debrief with one of our counterparts, learned more about the politics, designed the next day, divided roles, I moved into my comfortable hotel room, got the internet working after some trials. And best of all my suitcase arrived with everything in it.

Shifting up

I ended my not so good 24 hour journey in the hotel’s Lebanese restaurant with a cold beer, an excellent kofta platter and a big plate of fries. The restaurant made moves to close so I ate and drank fast, then retired to my crappy room, too tired to care. At least I had no suitcase to unpack, but even if I had, it was not a place I wanted to stay for more than one night.

All during the evening I was struggling to keep myself from dropping down into victim mode – pitying myself for my bad luck. I told myself that my problems were what some would call ‘white (or rich) folks’ problems,’ and rather trivial in comparison to real serious problems. Being in Liberia this kind of perspective is easy to trigger – all around me are Liberians who survived Ebola; many, I assumed would have lost at least one relative if not more. I did ask about what it was like – unimaginable for us. One of our midwife participants told me about a delivery in the early days of the outbreak. She wore protective gear because she had a hunch, even though Ebola was hardly on the radar. A young woman delivered her baby at 7 months and then hemorrhaged, dying shortly after; the baby did too. Ebola was the cause of the early labor and the hemorrhage. For us delivery is a joyful event, and comparably safe. How often do we hear of women giving birth in the US dying in the labor room?

My travel troubles suddenly looked very unimportant against the backdrop of such heartbreaking tragedies and Liberia’s most recent drama. And wouldn’t you know it, with that shift in thinking, everything else started to shift as well.


The joys of travel

I was able to get two gift certificates from Delta converted into upgrades to and from Brussels, but the rest of the trip, into and out of Africa, was on an airline I have no standing with. My seat was a regular economy, in back of the comfort or privilege class – narrow seats, standard legroom (=not much), and slow boarding lines. I also was to discover later that the transfer of my suitcase from one airline to the other didn’t work.

Once in Monrovia I stood (at first) patiently waiting for my suitcase amidst a cacophony of uniformed people and tired passengers, myself included. The space around the luggage belt was small; the airport reminded me of how most African airports used to be when I started traveling to Africa more than 30 years ago. Much has changed since then; many have been upgraded and modernized. But this one had not. The cramped space was soon filled with enormous bags, people bumping into each other and the uniformed people talking to each other at the top of their lungs, chaos of the first degree.

I engaged Mr. Kamara with the neon yellow vest to find my suitcase and then lead me to the hotel shuttle amidst the chaos. Before the belt has started he assured me he would go outside and spot my suitcase, bypassing the slow unloading process. I thought I lucked out and was going to pay him a good tip for this service that would make my transition to the hotel a breeze. But things turned out otherwise.

Although we arrived half an hour before time, two hours later I was still waiting for the elusive suitcase. And then the belt stopped. By the time I made my way to the desk where missing luggage was registered most of the passengers had cleared out. I was left at a chest-high counter with about 8 uniformed people behind and around it all talking at the top of their lungs about God knows what – most activity had ceased by then.

I could not see what was happening on the other side of the counter, even if I stood on my tiptoes, to see the forms that had to be filled in.  You’d think with that many officials around the missing luggage registration should have been a cinch, but it took another hour in the hot space and me in my fall weather traveling clothes, by now tired beyond tired.

I had asked Kamara to find the shuttle driver and make sure he wouldn’t leave without me. He returned shortly with the sign with my name on it, telling me the shuttle had left but a private car was summoned to wait for me. Kamara had earned his tip, even without the suitcase.

Another gentleman heading for the same hotel had also missed the shuttle and accompanied me in the private car. I was glad to have this male companion when, about 15 minutes outside the airport, we had a flat tire on a narrow deserted road. Luckily there was a spare tire, it was in good shape and there was a jack. 15 minutes later we were back on the road and another 45 minutes later I was dropped off at the Grand Royal hotel. Grand Royal was actually two hotels, an old 1 star crappy hotel (Royal) and an ostentatious and imposing new building (the Grand). The receptionist at the Grand told me she was sorry but they were full and pointed me across the driveway to the crappy royal hotel which had a crappy room for me. By that time I had also learned that my co-facilitators were in another hotel which was also the venue for the retreat. It felt like everything had gone wrong and wondered whether the universe conspired against me, awakening a nagging feeling that I should not have gone on this trip.

May 2018
« Apr    


Blog Stats

  • 120,055 hits

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 65 other followers