Published: July 6th 2012July 5th 2012
Expat Farmbuilders Team
Hanging out at the Entertainment Center on one of our last nights in Kakata
Since I’ve last written, the skies over Liberia have continued to pour with reckless abandon and the daily pounding of liquid needles on tin rooftops has become my daily alarm clock. Almost immediately each morning, the melody and lyrics of Toto’s song pop into my head: I bless the rains down in AAAAfrica!…I passed some rains down in AAAAfrica!
While this may sound like torture to some of you :), I revel in it quite a bit (both the song and the sleepy, cozy environment that rainy gray skies create). I’ve never been anywhere else that’s rivaled Kaua'i’s rainy seasons the way Liberia has this summer!
Other than this consistency, though, nearly everything else has changed. I now write to you from the capital city of Monrovia, where the Farmbuilders team relocated to last weekend. As a quick recap, because Farmbuilders’ recently lost its strategic partnership with Buchanan Renewables, we were required to leave our offices and homes in Kakata (which is their building). Our last few days there were spent closing down the office, packing up, and generally saying goodbye to friends and colleagues in the nearby community.
A rare non-rainy day prompts everyone to dry laundry as soon as possible. These were our neighbors outside our Kakata compound.
Before I left, though, I got the opportunity to explore more of Kakata’s sights and smells— stumbling across great open-air “hair and nail salons” that occur almost impromptu on overturned buckets as seats; sifting through clothing stands that sell random U.S. football jerseys; visiting a local teachers’ training institute that my friend worked at for a year; and enjoying “bars” filled with soccer fans crowded around to watch the Euro Cup.
As a follow-up from last time, I did indeed get the chance to swap some dance music with the kids at the Entertainment Center across the street. I gave them a playlist replete with Lady Gaga, Shakira and LMFAO tunes. They loved it (or claimed to), played and danced to it for a bit while I was there, and then promptly went back to their same music on endless repeat for the next three consecutive days. Oh well— at least now I can recreate my own little Kakata Entertainment Center wherever I am in the world! In fact, those few songs— “Chop My Money” and other hits by the Nigerian group P2
— are pretty much the only songs I’ve heard
Clothes shop in Kakata
Steve Smith Giants jersey randomly tossed in amongst other fashionable wear.
here, be it in Kakata or in a car or in a Monrovia restaurant. We’ve all grown quite fond of them!
But one of the greatest treats happened on my last day in Kakata. It was Founders’ Day for the Booker Washington Institute (BWI), a local high school that was founded in 1929 as a “sister school” of Alabama’s Tuskegee University. A local Harvard Kennedy School alum is a BWI alum, and I accompanied him for a delightful day of parades through town, student group performances, and an afternoon of choirs and speeches. Everything about the festivities made me smile or laugh, including two “Miss BWI” beauty pageant queens that were in the parade, a dance team with amazing attitude, and a student choir that fervently sang praises to “God, Jesus, Liberia, the faculty, and the choir” (i.e. THEMSELVES) all in one breath. (Liberia is 85% Christian, and while in theory, there is separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, Christianity is taught in most schools.) I have great videos of all of these, but have not had a chance to splice them together, so they are not here yet…
This guy had a bunch of nail polish and fancy displays of nails dolled up in crystals and glitter!
The event also featured speeches from the city’s mayor, the school’s president, and a house representative from another district. The last one was a powerful speaker, inspiring all to improve the school in order to prepare students to usher in an industrial Liberia in this critical, post-conflict, state-building stage of the country’s history. He got the crowd so pumped that I was cheering right along! (As you can see from the photos, we stood out quite a bit because everyone else was dressed in the school’s white shirt and red cap…and was Liberian.) One poignant moment in the afternoon of speeches came when the alumni association’s president asked alumni from each decade to stand up to be honored. The oldest folks there graduated from 1974. He then went through the 1980’s and many more stood up. When he got to the 1990’s, there was not a single alumni there to represent the entire decade. While I knew this would likely be the case, since that decade was spent in intense civil conflict, it seemed like they wanted to purposely point that out and let the sound of empty responses fill the room before moving
BWI Parade in Kakata Town
The alumni head up the march through town
on to the 2000’s. The classes graduating in the 2000’s and recent years were boisterous and hopeful— more than anyone else, these older-than-typical-high-school graduates, who have spent more time in their lives fighting in war than learning in classrooms, know what the country has to become and the great challenges that lie ahead, but seem ready to get there.
Moving to Monrovia has somehow simultaneously confirmed this notion and made the struggle seem harder.
First of all, the company house into which we’ve all moved (which we are allowed to stay in for only a couple weeks) is a comedy of errors. It has the appearance of a very nice place— it’s spacious, well-furnished, decked with appliances, and in a great location in Sinkor, a fun neighborhood in Monrovia. And nothing works.
I could go on about the hilarious laundry episodes, temperamental water pressure, light bulbs popping from voltage swings, etc etc, but suffice it to say that it’s been very funny living with the Farmbuilders gang here. It’s amazing how quickly you become like family. We cook messy family dinners, collectively and clumsily solve household issues,
drink away the hours without electricity, TV or internet, and conserve cash to run the generator, which we try to do only about 6-8 hours a day. In fact, Thad and I (the slightly younger ones) call Scott and Midori (who are married) “Mom” and “Dad,” since Scott is our CFO and holds the only company money that we can spend as well as the keys to the car. They also do not like to go out but wait up for us to come home. On a couple occasions, they sit around as I Skype with Michael and wave to the computer. Keep in mind that throughout it all— in our pajamas with wine in hand and mosquito coils burning strong— we are constantly having in-depth talks about how to save and revive the company. A friend came over and said that our house is like a reality TV show, and I would have to agree. I also think it is an appropriate metaphor for Liberia— lots of things that look very good, but deep down there are still many issues to solve and fix. They are fixable, but with time, money, and patience.
Amna, Arthur and I at BWI campus
Harvard students meeting for the first time in Kakata haha
Outside of this, everything else has worked out fairly productively in Monrovia. The founder seems to have recovered pretty well from malaria last week, and took some much-needed R&R time back to the States for a few weeks. Meanwhile, we drafted a plan for much of the Farmbuilders team to take a break for now (so my “family” is all leaving within the next week or so!), while I continue to work to help develop diverse revenue opportunities and a new business plan. The goal is to have daily operations up and running again by October. This work took me to a very interesting multi-day conference/workshop this week on sustainable palm oil forestry development, where I got the chance to meet many folks from the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency, Ministry of Agriculture, several NGO country directors, and managers from the big international palm oil companies based in Indonesia or Malaysia, who now have concessions here in Liberia.
I’ve also decided to fill some of this extra time now with a new government gig at the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat, in the Office of the President (http://www.supportliberia.com/). Another intern fell through for the
The leader of each student group did this salute at the end, which elicited wild cheers and applause each time.
summer, so I have stepped in and literally just joined the team. While my remaining time here is limited, I think I should be able to work on a few cool projects. Because this ministry deals with work directly related to initiatives by the President, I am hopeful (though doubtful) that I will get to meet the Big Boss Lady herself at some point!
I am now familiarizing myself with the country’s long-term Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and Liberia’s Vision 2030, before using that information to help strategize and inform this department’s 5-year plan. Even after only a day and a half, I can already see that it will be very useful for me to understand the different country perspectives from both the private and now public sectors.
Ridiculous fact that I did not realize until reading the PRS today: At the time of the election [in 2005], there had been no
electricity (except from small private generators) or
piped water anywhere
in Liberia for 15 years! To think that an entire country was without even a trace of grid electricity as recently as 2005, seems insane to me. While there is still not
Cheering with a BWI handkerchief
Since I had no other BWI paraphernalia, this girl gave me her handkerchief to wave.
much electricity or running water in much of the country, it’s come a long way. Just knowing that fact and seeing where Monrovia is today certainly inspires optimism.
There are also a slew of other Kennedy School interns out here working across all the government ministries. It’s been fun finally meeting them, as I had been communicating with this “Liberia group” for awhile now, but never got to meet them in country until now because I had been the only one stationed in Kakata instead of Monrovia. Automatic friends in new places are always awesome.
Looking back on just my short time here so far, it seems that everything truly does happen for a reason. I would not have wanted to leave Liberia without knowing Monrovia well, for it is the nucleus of business and government— with its beaches and bad drainage, crazy traffic and cacophony of shiny new buildings next to crumbled storefronts. But, I am also grateful for my time in Kakata, for it is so abundantly clear that this Monrovia life is not Liberia. The expat life in Monrovia is so separated from real life here. It
Ballots Not Bullets
Common billboard seen around, this one appropriately in front of the National Elections Commission
features its own unaffordable supermarkets, hotels, good restaurants and real bars that have flat screen TV’s showing Wimbledon and free speedy Wifi— while just .5%
of the country are Internet users at all. The contrasts continue to shock me even as I have learned to expect them.
Through these limited and unexpected experiences so far, I’ve concluded a few things about the business and social environment here. Disclaimer: At the risk of making some blanket, generalizing statements…I am about to make some blanket, generalizing statements:
Liberians are excellent speechmakers, usually without much or any preparation at all. Rhetoric seems to be a gift, whether you are a regular citizen or an elected politician, and as some friends and I have recently discussed, it would be a game changer if anyone ever managed to effectively monetize and export this skill.
Related to this, Liberians really care and pay attention to syntax— word choice is highly debated and carefully heard. People will remember the exact words that you say.
Corruption and bribes, as expected and known, are unfortunately all too commonplace. From the
new police force and public utility managers to our trusted drivers and generator operators, it seems to be one of those issues that most people don’t really want to continue to do, but if they don’t, they find themselves left behind or being cheated. All they can do is participate just to keep up. We had our own personal bribe incident the other day when police stopped our car (granted, legitimately, as our driver had accidentally gone down a one-way street the wrong way). Our driver got out, walked away to the back of a building with the police, and came back after paying them to avoid a ticket. Initially, they asked for $40 USD, but in the end, our driver got away with $150 Liberian dollars-- $2 USD.
Finally, there is a lot
of planning, writing, talking and agenda-making, but not a lot of action— whether it be in government or giant businesses or small farmers. Plans and more plans written on paper do not make execution any easier. The lack of infrastructure and surprisingly high cost of doing business have prevented many of them from becoming reality. (To be fair, this
can probably be universally applied to many governments, businesses, and people all over the world.)
But, just as I see Farmbuilders on the brink of great opportunities if we can get over this hump, I see Liberia in the same vein. Next year, it reaches the 10-year milestone within which post-conflict countries face great threats of relapsing into violent conflict (50% chance historically, apparently). Peace seems restored, and with it excitement and hope, and with those, hopefully both new roads and inroads. Because of its strong ties with the U.S. and western world, an English-speaking population, and a seemingly burning desire to make it, I think Liberia will get there; it just won’t happen quickly.
I guess Toto was right: I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never have…
(Lots of photos remaining on the following pages-- they tell the stories better than I can, so be sure to scroll through!)
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