Welcome to Cestos City!

At the end of the dusty track is a small town on a peninsular between the Cestos River and the Atlantic Ocean. But you have to drive the 4+ hour journey yourself to fully appreciate the humour to the sign, “Welcome to Cestos City!”

We visited there recently and stayed in a local guesthouse which provided me with a far better sleep than I’ve had in UN guesthouses in other parts of the country. A clean simple room with a mosquito net, large bed, sea breeze, and a bucket of warm water to wash with in the morning – what else does a gal need for her US$25? If it were not for the generosity of the Ghanian peace-keepers who provided meals for us, it would be difficult to manage as a visitor. Food is not available on the streets and I don’t know how often there is a local market. The only way to make it for a long stay is to find a house/room to rent – you may have to find a partly constructed house and complete the building yourself – and set up a means to cook for yourself everyday with supplies brought in from Monrovia or Buchanan. You can get fresh or smoked fish which is the enormous benefit of living on the coast! Our staff spend most of the evenings and weekends in the office where there is 24-hour power and internet access most of the time. (Cestos does not have a functioning light or power grid nor running water as is the norm for all places outside of Monrovia.)

The County Superintendent (who has just been reappointed by the President for another term) is quite active. He moves everywhere with his iPad showing photos of building projects and he has quite a few plans to develop the county. He has started a new road and wants to encourage people to eventually move to a new part of the town as sea erosion will eventually inundate the current town centre. Unlike many Superintendents he spends most of his time in the county and he appears to enjoy the job and be competent to plan and manage the work well.

Somehow despite the difficulties, I quite like Cestos. It is a quiet village with a restful feel to it. Perhaps I like it better because it is on the coast I have an affinity for the beach),or perhaps the functional County Administration brings a different sense of hope, but whatever the reason, if you get posted to Cestos you should not be too despairing – there are many worse places to be!

These photos will illustrate some of the sights of Cestos City…

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I’m back in Monrovia

I’m back in Monrovia. Back in the green and brown land. Back to slow and frustrating internet service. Back to food that always disappoints. Back to distrust and having to stay on constant alert. Back to tedious superficial work. Sigh. I want to be positive, but its difficult to move beyond a sort of relative positivism derived from knowing that “there are worse places to be”. That always sustained me through difficult times in Albania “well you could be back in the classroom facing 35 rampant 13 year olds…hmmm…better to be here afterall!” Now that thoughtline is replaced with “well you could be in Afghanistan, or Dafur, or Iraq…hmmm….better to be here afterall.” But it does kind of wear thin. Mainly because my subconscious is also starting to raise a counter argument to that…”well you could also be in Australia, or Croatia, Cambodia or Uganda…hmm…so you don’t actually have to stay here!” Aahhh the human mind is pretty amazing and tricky in how it reveals what’s really going on as a sort of sudden surprising revelation. I’m not about to make any changes, and I plan to stay in Liberia for as long as it makes sense to, but that’s not to say that there are some days when its nice to dream of escape and a more enjoyable and constructive way to pass my time.

These negative thoughts are somehow indicative that I had a fine holiday these last 5 weeks…great holiday equals difficult re-entry! The long flight back gave me time to think through the type of life I want here. As I can’t do much to change the work scenario, I need to sort out a few things related to my living situation – deal with the house-cleaner who is cheating me, find a new fitness routine to replace taekwondo, resign from all responsibilities outside of work, and expand my social network. All the usual things that we typically think through at the start of a new year hey…but good things that will help me to be happier for as long as I’m in Monrovia. I spent a few evenings sitting by the beach with an evening drink. The sunset by the beach is the best time of the day in Monrovia!

Even with the weeks of silence on the blog, there has been a steady stream of readers – noice! I need to find the time to post more and snazzy things up a little…if only the internet was a tad faster!!!

Here’s a photo to capture the mood of this post…sunset at the beach taken New Year 2012. Til next time, let’s keep smiling 🙂

PostAWeek2011 – what it meant for me

There are times when I think that attempting to blog in a country with minimal and erratic internet speed and service is just a recipe for frustration. I started this blog 3 years ago when I came to Liberia with the high ambition of having an avenue to share my impressions and images with my friends and anyone who might be interested. For the first 2 years I struggled! Either I was too busy or the internet was too slow to upload anything. So from its Sept 2008 birth, at the pathetic rate of about one post a month, I kept my blog alive but barely!

Then came the PostAWeek challenge and a faster ISP in Monrovia (I use LibTelCo). I remembered my original goal! My imagination was fired up again! There were possibilities and they could be achieved or so I believed!

Therefore I proudly declare that in 2011 I added 55 posts to my blog! I achieved my goal. Okay, I admit the December frenzy of (10) posts helped me get there, but I really wasn’t that far off my target even without that blitz. That makes an average of one post a week – a few ranks improved from pathetic!!

As for the readership, oddly enough the number of visits to the site in 2011 was double the total visits for the previous two years! Go figure! The more active you are, the more visits your site receives! The more your post, the more readers!  Thanks to the challenge, my blog is alive and healthy and getting closer to becoming the type of site I imagined from the beginning.

It is good to have an end of year review and recognise the milestones and achievements. I feel encouraged by what I have accomplished because I admit that it has not been easy especially under the ISP conditions I live with. But it is worth it. I have enjoyed reading other people’s blogs and have even started to subscribe to a few myself. I find myself drawn increasingly into the WordPress world.

So what is my blogging plan for 2012? More of the same, but with a few changes. I might remove some of the pages that I enthusiastically added in order to write about my safaris. With my constant time-crisis, I simply cannot work on them. I will also try to do the weekly photography challenge, just for fun. But mainly I will continue to share small snap-shots of life in Liberia as I experience it and I’ll write about my holidays when they happen. For as long as the internet gods bless me with sufficient internet speed, I will continue!  

Having said that, dear subscribers whose inboxes have suffered from my recent blogging blitz, I will now return to a more intermittent posting schedule because I am going on holidays! If you are lucky I won’t think or write about Liberia until sometime in February!! Happy New Year, happy holidays, and thanks for reading! 

 

2011: Every holiday was a safari!

Well I must say that the true genius of 2011 was my holiday planning!! On that score the year rocked! If anyone questions my planning and organising skills, I’ll just point them to my awesomely planned holiday schedule!! Aside from my annual journey down-under, in 2011 every holiday was a safari!!

I won’t gloat too much, but 2011 allowed me to enjoy safaris in 3 national parks in South Africa, plus a sublime month-long safari which took us through Botswana, Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania/Zanzibar!! I simply haven’t had time to edit the 15,000+ photos I took in that month!! What a blast that was…2011 was the ‘year of the safari!’

So, allow me to indulge in a few safari references to illustrate the year that was.

The 6 am rises for the morning game-drives quickly settle into the ‘safari rhythm’ and you start to appreciate the momentum of the morning dawn experienced while bumping across the savannah and the sundowners enjoyed to the fading light of the sunset. [2011 was my 3rd year in Liberia and life had developed a largely dull and unchallenging routine. I can’t say that I like it much, but I am grateful to be here and there are some enticing opportunities emerging on the horizon.]

The anticipation of the chase and the kill are definitely high adrenelin moments of any safari. You have to be alert and ready because even though the hunt can take time, the kill can be over in seconds. But after the kill, you do think of the victim – the sweet baby antelope that just happened to become the leopard’s dinner. [There were moments in 2011, when I felt like I was being hunted by a pack of nasties trying (and failing) to make me their victim! Lesson: stay alert and don’t become anyone’s ‘kill’!]

 

 

 

 

 

The safari experience is best enjoyed with like-minded friends and/or photography buffs. Sharing the vehicle with restless bores is definitely excruciating and I find I don’t have patience any more for difficult and complex people in my social life!  [In 2011, more friends left my social circle than entered it so I have ended up in a deficit of like-minded people around me…except that my new friends are outside my work-life and they’re pretty cool!]

Open spaces, rare opportunities, and splendid skies. Safaris always restore my sense that it is great to be alive and moving in god’s creation, spotting rare wild creatures under an enormous blue canvas sky. [Even though Liberia’s skies are often hazy and grey the wet season can bring some spectacular thunderstorms, enormous clouds, and beautiful sunsets. Whatever the weather, I am grateful to be here: alive, exploring, and ready for more!]

I hope that 2011 was a splendid journey for all my friends and readers.

I wish that 2012 will be a superb safari for you all!

A year of adventure, unexpected surprises, natural beauty, 

and wild possibilities!!!

Life is a safari!

On the road again… Travelling in Liberia

It is not easy to move around in Liberia. In the last month I visited 7 counties and survived because most of the trip was undertaken on the UNMIL helicopter. These photos are taken from the moving vehicle during our 6 hour road trip between  Zwedru and Sannequellie. 

The roads are paved and in reasonably good condition to the main towns in the two directions heading out of Monrovia, and then the bitumen ends and the red-brown dirt or mud begins. The UN military components try to keep the main supply routes maintained and open so for the most part they are okay but with patches of corregations and potholes. When you go off of the main routes onto the feeder roads and further from the County headquarters into the Districts, towns and villages, the road conditions quickly deteriorate. During the rainy season, many Districts are inaccessible.

If the photos above don’t convince you – try these – taken by colleagues in the field (Thank God I didn’t have to drive through these ‘critical spots’)

People tell me that I should enjoy the opportunity to travel by road to see the countryside and the different villages. I completely disagree. I’ve seen enough of the countryside from the ground and the air to know that it is consistently green (trees, rubber plantations, forests, and a rare patch of agriculture here and there), red-brown (dirt or mud roads, clay or mud structures) and grey-blue sky (heavy grey rain clouds, or haze and dust when the winds blows down from the Sahara). The scenery may change according to the season, the weather on the day, and the road conditions, but its always a variation of the same green, red-brown and grey-blue. I’m sorry but I’ll take a 2 hour heli ride over a 10 hour road journey any day!!

There’s no happier sight at the end of a field trip than to see these Ukrainian birds land! Oh and of course I have to acknowledge that as an expat I have the priviledge of a decent 4×4 vehicle or a heli to move me around, but that is unattainable for most Liberians.

Christmas in Liberia

“My Christmas is on you!” is the greeting I heard most often during the Season in Liberia! At first I was confused. What has your Christmas got to do with me? ‘People, we have to take care of our own Christmases’, I thought. And after four Christmas seasons spent as an expat in Liberia I think I eventually ‘got it’ in the end.

Christmas is a very important celebration.

The majority of Liberians claim to be Christians (about 80%). Church attendance is a priority and after the mass or Sunday service people spill out onto the roads in their Sunday finery, greeting friends, blessing each other, and searching for a ride home. Christmas Day is spent with the family and people go all out to enjoy a nice meal and share some small gifts for the children.

Family time is very important and after sharing the special meal families will go to the beach or somewhere special to visit and pass the time together. Interestingly, Christmas is not always celebrated on the 25th December. If, like this year (2011), the 25th happens to fall on a Sunday then Liberians will celebrate Christmas on the public holiday.

Christmas shopping is stressful all over the world!

The RedLight market area in Monrovia may not be Woolworths or Marks and Spencer, but the stress for the shopper on the hunt for a bargain is the same the world round, and more so at Christmas! (The photos tell the story!)

Now you cannot compare the Christmas consumerism of a typical Australian with that of Liberians because the two are quite different contexts. However speaking only from my observations, many Liberians seem to face more pressure than most Aussies would experience during this time of the year. In Liberia, where 85% of the population do not have regular jobs or salaries, the urgency to hustle and beg is an incredible burden for many. I can’t really imagine how it feels.

“My Christmas is on you!”

So here’s where the saying “My Christmas is on you” starts to make sense. The security guards say it, the office cleaning ladies, the parking attendant at the shops, government interlocutors, and even my colleagues at work! Everyone looks to their connections, no matter how thin, to ask for money.

Of course, expats are a natural target as everyone assumes we have money to give away to anyone who asks. But the Liberians with a stable job and salary are constantly chased by the unemployed family members, long-lost cousin ten times removed, and neighbours who they barely meet throughout the year. Imagine how much pressure that is!

While the hustlers might accept a negative response from an expat, they do not let up with their Liberian brothers and sisters. They will hustle until the family member gives them some money, and they will shame them if the amount they give is not enough. (I’m not sure that this makes any sense until you have lived in Liberia.)

 

How to respond 

At first when people greeted me with “My Christmas is on you” I used to smile and say “Bless you”. I felt that if I gave to one person I would need to give to everyone. And so the well reasoned mantra, ‘I can’t help everyone, so I won’t help anyone’ justified my inaction on too many occasions. (Thankfully, not on all occasions)

Once I understood the Season greeting would come every December, I thought about who was important to me and what they might need. I planned ahead so that for some people I could give more than a ‘bless you’.

The spirit of Christmas in Liberia

I eventually  realised that the consumerism and pressure people faced at Christmas time in Liberia came from the same source as everywhere Christmas is celebrated – a desire to celebrate a special occasion and have time with family.

That is the same heart and motivation many people have across the world. It is the spirit of Christmas!

So when Liberians greeted me with ‘My Christmas is on you’ they were actually voicing in a unique way, their desire to celebrate and their need for help. I would rather hear that greeting than “Hey big mama! You got money for me!” Yes, I did hear that statement in Liberia too, but never at Christmas time!

I hope that my comments as an expat have captured some of the reality of the challenges that come with celebrating Christmas in Liberia. And I hope also that when someone greets you saying, ‘My Christmas is on you’, you can feel the heart and need behind the expression.

I wish I had caught on to that heartbeat much sooner!

MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone and richest blessings for the year to come!

 

A look around Greenville, Liberia

Yesterday I posted some photos of the Greenville Port, so now here are a few photos of the town and the fish market. In my opinion, if you have to live anywhere outside of Monrovia, try to opt for a coastal area. At least then you can supplement your diet with fish and there’s usually a nice beach to visit and enjoy somewhere nearby. Otherwise, this country is mainly made up of green trees, red dirt, and a sprinkle of villages.

This is Greenville, Sinoe County!

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I enjoy the fish market, and yes we did enjoy nice grilled fish! I also love the way they name their boats. Maybe it is because the fishermen cannot always swim and the sea can be so rough, they often quote scripture as if to try to bless their boats and bring God’s protection!

Men @ Work! Housing construction, Liberia

In my area there is a house under construction. I hate it when the guys turn up for work and shout excitedly about the latest news noisily at 7.00 am (esp on a Sat sleep-in morning), but I appreciate the opportunity to observe Liberian construction methods. Cement is mixed with shovels, bags of cement carried on heads, metal bars cut with a hand-held cutting saw, and….  It is very labour-intensive and the men work mostly without protective gear! These are a few photos of the progress, starting from foundation and building up from there!!

The starting point: a hole in the ground. As this is overseen by a Lebanese bossman, the “big yellow machine” was available for the digging tasks.

Yes, it really is called a “big yellow machine” out here! 🙂 Personally I’ve seen bigger ‘big yellow machines’, but this smallish yellow machine did help a lot.

So now some photos of the men at work…

That’s a pretty neat triangular ladder hey!! You can see behind the ladder how they’ve built the walls up. These photos were taken from June to August. I’ll post some more soon. 🙂