I don’t know what I’m going to get, but it’ll be fine

I just had the most profound sense of peace wash over me… not of the spiritual variety, but of the logistical. I was out checking up on the carpenters to make sure they understood my instructions right and were building the right stuff today. I held the plank for the guy as he was sawing out the handle for the drawer he is making. I puzzled for a while about the two pieces he was making, trying to figure out how he’d make a handle out of them. Then it dawned on me, “I don’t know what he’s going to make, but I’m sure it will be fine.”

This realization is the key to working here and not losing your mind. You have to accept that things might not happen the way you expect. It’s OK to maintain your standards, and explain what the minimum standards are, but after that it’s better to just embrace the zen of developing world construction and be pleasantly surprised with what you get. Of course, it helps immensely to have a long relationship with the workers and know from experience that you can trust them. It is a lot harder to achieve the zen state of acceptance when a bunch of people you have never worked with before start mixing concrete according to their own recipe, or ask for salt and laundry blue for the whitewash (both things that have happened to me).

The other nice thing with shutting up and just watching to see what they make is that sometimes you discover really nice details that people here know how to make. It is hard to describe any of these offhand, but there are benefits to approaching a construction project with a bunch of smart people and hand tools. They can adjust for problems in the material that a standardized approach, with power tools might not make allowances for. Everything here is a handcrafted work of art, to varying degrees of quality, depending on the needs.

Ok, it is off to lunch to enjoy a handcrafted meal of varying quality. We’ll see if it is red on white today, or maybe another exotic color on top of rice. My bet is on red though.

PS: Happy Halloween, to those out there who know what it is. And to Scooby Doo, here’s hoping you find a pig’s ear in your trick or treat bag.

Birthday wishes from the WFP

Just a quick note to tell you all that I had a great birthday here in Nimba. The day went much better than could be expected, starting with the surprise arrival of the chief mechanic who fixed three cars today. It was not really a surprise, but it sort of felt like it, because he arrived on Saturday when I wasn’t around, and then came in to work on Monday morning and started waving his magic wrench around like a fairy sprinkling motor oil and fixing cars.

We’ve had an ongoing, slow motion food crisis related to CSB, or Corn Soya Blend going for a while. We had some go bad, and I didn’t calculate very carefully, since we used to be drowning in the stuff. Turns out that once we had only 20 kg left, someone remembered it was about to be Groundhog Day and decided this time for a change to try telling me before something ran out. Ok, we’re making progress! I figured, no problem, it’s cheap and we only need a bit, we’ll just buy it in the market. But I called my food hustler, and he said, CSB is all out, in his store and all the stores. Oops. So like the grinch, I canceled breakfast on Saturday, to conserve food for the children in the TFC. Then I asked the medical staff to send home something else, anything else, than CSB that they normally send with the discharged TFC patients. I suggested cigarettes, which make you feel less hungry, but they settled on Plumpy Nut instead. This morning we had 7 kgs left, and I finally found 50 kgs of CSB in the marketplace. Yay! Better yet, tomorrow is market day, and I can be sure to find 100 kg more in the big market.

I also spent a huge amount of time today in the WFP offices which are air conditioned, another gift. First I was begging for CSB (they left me hung out to dry on that) and then negotiating the next food delivery. The latter was one more birthday present. Because I came and brought all the details to my food monitor early, and was very cooperative, she was feeling generous. We worked through the numbers, and I told her which commodities I did not want, under any circumstances. 1400 kg of sugar, plus dry season equals a slick of melted sugar flowing out of the bags and across the stockroom. Not good. So she promised not to give me any sugar, a gift in itself. Then she asked me why I was always in her office begging for food when we had too much. I reminded her that sugar is not beans, and that I’m always begging for beans and oil (ok, except today, when I was begging for CSB). So she looked at the 200 kgs of beans and 200 kgs of oil that are in my stock now and said, “well, let’s just not subtract your current stock from your next order like we normally do.” I said, “ok, thanks, nice seeing you, goodbye” in one breath and headed for the door before she could change her mind.

A happy birthday indeed, when you get 400 kgs of food you are not expecting!

As for more conventional birthday presents, those are still in the mail to me. But I have a bunch of birthday cards, and the cook made me a cake for tonight. So we’ll have a nice birthday party in a few minutes when I head in to dinner.

Back at work

This week was a regular work week for me, but a couple days were shaved off it while I was in transit back to Nimba. It has been nice to get back to the normal schedule of Nimba life. None of the normal annoyances really bugged me because I was happy to be back “home”. I started looking forward to the second half of my time here and realized that because I took my break a little late, the second half is actually only 7 weeks or so. And it was a strange feeling indeed to imagine that that won’t be enough time to get everything done. When I got here, the 6 months seemed like an eternity, but once I figured out how to keep the trains running on time I realized how little time there is for new work. And how few months to get it done in.

One nice thing that is happening here is that the economy in Saclepea is booming. People told me this in my briefing, but it has been nice to see while I have been here. Lots of new stores have been opening, and people are finishing houses left and right, adding previously luxurious touches like paint and cement pillars. Also, there are a huge number of new wheelbarrows in town, which I assume means that the vendors are doing a brisk business and upgrading their place of work. Nathalie and I were talking about this today. I told her that it did seem that the people really have all gotten tired of starting wars all at the same time, like an epidemic burning out. She pointed out that Liberians are lucky, because they do not have anyone bringing war to them right now. In Congo, where she worked last, she said the people were equally tired of war, but neighboring countries were bringing new combatants to the border and across it, who are all ready to fight to get whatever their political leaders convince them the war is for. It doesn’t matter if the war virus has burned out in the local population. A new strain comes flooding in from the environment and the antibodies seeking peace are overwhelmed.

This is why the regional wars that slosh back and forth across borders in West Africa are so destructive. If there is a built-in peace drive in human society triggered by the privations of continual war, it is disabled by war brought by “others”, because human society has a very strong mechanism for mobilizing against a threat from an outsider. This is the same mechanism that is so well understood by politicians all around the world, and used to keep people in fear and voting for them. If you have ever looked very closely at the “War on Terror” you will find the same system at work. There is in fact a serious terrorism problem, but the War on Terror is not aimed at the problem, just at maintaining a continuous state of fear.

My garden has been eaten by mold again. The growing conditions here, which seem so favorable, actually make it very difficult to grow vegetables. Even with tropical sun it takes a long time for vegetables to mature. The competing organisms like weeds and mold, have all that time to wreak havoc. And the quiplu seeds I brought with me have no immunity to the local pests. I have not put very much effort into gardening, because at the beginning I was too busy, and now I feel overwhelmed by the aggressive competitors here.

I am beginning to make plans for Christmas and the rest of my life after Nimba. I will be in Geneva staying at a friend’s house. The only plan I have so far is a fabulous week of skiing in Switzerland, and eating lots and lots of cheese. I have plenty of new friends in Switzerland now, so I will also go to see some of my old Nimba family in their home towns. That will be pretty interesting. Eventually I will return to the States to see friends there, and maybe to head to Mexico to visit my parents. I use my Spanish from time to time here to translate, and it is clear I am losing it and need to go practice some.

Hello from Nimba again

I am back in Nimba now, back with my adopted family here. The work is hard (even just one day has already presented a terrifying array of problems), but I am really happy to be back with the team and in my “own” bed. I brought back a new expat from Monrovia with me. Pierre is a Frenchman, an architect who worked in San Francisco for several years, and returned to France, then quit his job to work on real problems, instead of the somewhat unreal ones that architecture offered. He said that it annoyed him that people designed buildings that they do not know how to make. I don’t know yet if he knows how to make buildings, but I really like him and I think he will do well. His job is to build the replacement building for the pole and plastic sheeting hospital that I am supposed to keep limping along.

I gave him the logistics briefing today. I gave him the security guideline to read, since the fieldco is not here, and then gave him some editorial comments, telling him which parts to memorize and which parts are generally ignored (or not really important in the current context of Liberia). When the fieldco gets back, he’ll get the full deal, but from me he got just enough not to get in trouble this week. I also taught him the rules for who rides in the cars, etc. And what things drivers are in charge of, and what things he is in charge of. Finally I taught him about our radios. It took a little longer than the 15 minutes I promised it would take, but not too much.

One of the interesting things about being a log I didn’t consider is that I am the hotelier for the staff. It is my job to have a comfortable room waiting for them (but not too comfortable… this is MSF). In Pierre’s case, we had two rooms ready. I sold him on the best one, but he went and took the other one. Then he had the temerity to ask me to make some furniture that was missing in the crappy room, but present in the other room. I think I am going to like this guy. Temerity is a required asset for an MSFer!

Hanging out with medical people is interesting. I have long since ignored minor interruptions during dinner with snippets like “does the patient have discharge from her vagina?” and “the patient has no urine output”. I just smile and ask for more beer, thankful that I will later have plenty of urine output. But things have ratcheted up a notch because the HIV nurse found a new collection of photographs on one of the CDs she got in Geneva. The pictures of posters from around the world educating people on condom use were interesting. The worst ones are the genital skin lesions caused by the combination of STIs and AIDS. Yuck. At least it was only after dinner that I came to the office and found her looking at those.

Quiplu the dog is happy to have me back, I think. At least he was eager to have my chicken bone tonight after dinner. He is excitable, by which I mean by jumping and acting like a maniac you can get him into a serious puppy mood, where he careens around the compound narrowly missing palm trees. Tonight I got him really spun up and running in circles around me. We were having a great time, and then he came straight at me. I was a little worried I’d finally pushed him too far and he was going to attack me, but what happened instead was even more surprising. He ran into me at full speed, bruising my shins painfully. I can only imagine what a terrible headache he got from it! He bounced off with a “yip!” and then stood still a while looking at me trying to figure out how and why I had put him so much pain. We made friends again within a few minutes (amnesia?) and he has no lasting effects that I can tell, not even a bruised ego.

The other new sensation that is sweeping the MSF compound in Nimba is Oware. This is the Ghanian name for the African game played with cups and balls. You pick up the balls and put them into the cups one at a time in a clockwise manner. If you land in a the opponent’s cup, and it has one or two balls, you get to keep their pieces. My grandparents have a board game up on the wall in their house that they picked up someplace in their travels, maybe in Morocco. (Later, I found out the game was from their time in the Philippines.) I bought an Oware game in Ghana, and brought it back, complete with an instruction booklet. So I have been teaching everyone, and they have been beating me soundly ever since. MSF attracts very, very smart people, despite what it make look like when a bunch of people forsake good jobs for snake hunting and cockroach-infested bucket showers.

Back to Accra

I am back at Accra, at the same place I stayed in the first night. Not very adventurous, but it has Internet and hot water, and is in a nice neighborhood.

Here is a quick list of things I did while I was here: bought some craft items, saw the fort at Cape Coast, walked on the catwalk at Kakama National Park, swam (pool and ocean), got a mild sunburn from being too relaxed to even notice, had a massage, listened to drums over a bonfire. I am leaving out the less-than-glamorous things that always happen in a week of traveling. It was a nice week, and I’m rested enough to go back to Nimba.

I got some pretty strange culture shock by coming to Ghana. There is an electricity shortage here due to a drought. So the electricity goes off at odd times, which is different than Liberia, where if someone cares enough to pay for and install a generator, then it works. So in Liberia, a country without any electric system, the electricity was much more reliable than in Ghana. Also, Liberians use latrines. In the cities, I guess they use septic tanks. In Ghana, they use indoor plumbing. But the toilets drain to open sewers. It turns out I prefer latrines. I never really realized I have a preference, but traveling teaches you things about yourself, they say.

I traveled for the first bit here, both because there were things in the guidebook that tempted me, and because I was looking for somewhere with the right comfort to price ratio. I had one really bad morning in Cape Coast when I realized I simply didn’t have the energy or patience for traveling. I looked in my book for the most expensive place I could find, hailed a taxi cab, took his first price (thereby overpaying by 5 times) and went directly there. I call it my “Out of Africa” moment, when I realized I really needed to be out of Africa, right then, immediately. The expensive hotel was OK, but was actually a disappointment in a number of ways. On the plus side, I was checked into a place with a clean bed and swimming in the pool within about 30 minutes of having my Out Of Africa moment, thereby saving my sanity from utter oblivion. On the negative side, the electricity was out for my entire stay there, which made some things like AC not work.

The restaurant was anemic. I ordered once and was told they didn’t have what I wanted. As a wise traveler, who was also on the edge of a nervous breakdown from things in Ghana not working right, I immediately said, “Well how about you just tell me what you CAN make.” The waiter seemed pleased that I was not going to make him say no a hundred more times. He told me they had some chicken. I asked, “Can you make the curried chicken?” and thankfully, he said yes.

After one night at the super expensive place, I made a beeline for Big Milly’s Backyard, where I hid out for several more days, pretending I was someplace else than Ghana. It worked fine, and I am now delighted to be bqck in Accra, and tomorrow I will be delighted to be in Liberia.

Hello from Ghana

So I’ve made it to (and past) the halfway point. I am on my vacation in Ghana and I thought I would give you all an update of what it islike to go from a post-conflict context to one of the richest countries in West Africa in 24 hours. In a few words, culture shock!

The culture shock started as we drove out of Nimba. I had been out as far as Phebe Hospital, where the two cars meet when we do a “kiss movement” which is where one car leaves from Monrovia and one from Nimba at the same time, then they both meet in the middle. I rode out to Phebe hospital with our normal driver, Elijah, and read my Lonely Planet for West Africa on the way. I played with a kid in the car (a patient with a broken leg, who I coincidently mett while riding in the car weeks ago), giving him my little Altoids container with a rock inside it to rattle, and also making a paper airplane for him. Then we tranferred into the car from Monrovia, and that’s when the culture shock started to set in.

First, I was in a car I hadn’t been in for three months, not one of “my” cars. When it had a minor problem with water in the fuel, I felt curiously detached. I felt like a passenger, mildly annoyed that the taxi was broken, but trusting that the driver would get us back on the road quickly. (The mechanic happened to be along, and drained the water from the fuel filter and bled the fuel line, so we were in fact back on the road quickly.) I also felt a strange relief to be out of Nimba, but a much stronger yearning to be back with my teammates. As I willed myself to relax and just be on vacation, I actually came to tears, and I don’t know why. Certainly part of it was being proud of what all was finished, which shouldn’t be tearful, but it was all my overloaded mind could think of to do. Strange feeling, but this is a strange job. I can only imagine how powerful and upsetting the feelings would be during an evacuation, when you had to leave people and jobs behind. Or worse, during an evacuation resulting from witnessing something really terrifying. I’ve read about what causes critical incident stress, but to feel the emotions from a normal, simple, scheduled departure from the project was way more powerful and confusing than I expected.

Luckily, that was relatively over in a few hours, and I switched into starry eyed country hick let loose in the big city. I marveled at the streetlights (which were not even on yet, as it was 3 pm). The driver got a kick out of the fact that I thought streetlights were remarkable… but I could tell he was actually still proud of them, as his city had been without them for 15 years until just this August. I also finally got a better feel for the city, as this time I was able to pay attention to the city layout, instead of being distracted by all the new experiences of being an MSFer (riding in the Land Cruiser, hearing the radio, seeing the MSF flag, etc). This time I was just a passenger with a good driver, and I could actually learn about Monrovia.

I had a nice afternoon in Monrovia, but experienced a problem I’ve noticed before. Life in the capital team is much different than in little Nimba. People have friends outside of the team, and team members have spouses (or significant others) and don’t really pay attention to you as a guest. Instead, you are like a customer in a hotel, and left to yourself. In my somewhat fragile state having just left Nimba, it was unsettling, but I know why life is that way in the capital team, and I would never demand that they drop everything and pay attention to me. Well, ok, I did a little. I told several people that I wanted to go out to dinner, and laid a bit of a guilt trip on them about how it was my first night in Monrovia in 3 months, and that I shouldn’t have to go out to dinner alone. I got my boss and his wife to take me out to a great pizza place which happened to have live music that was not totally offensive and really great pizza. I flew out the next morning (this morning) at 11 am.

Arriving in Ghana was fun, because it is like Mexico. Halfway between Liberia and Europe. I dealt with the crazy taxi people at the airport with some amount of dignity, getting a fair price into my hotel. I walked directly to my hotel, and as a nice bonus met a nice girl from England on the way. Then the hotel gave me a discount because I work for MSF. I went out in search of food, and found a nice fast food place. We will see tonight if it was serving safe food or not!

The girl, Rosalind, and I had a nice evening together. This is her first time in Africa, so I took her on a walk and then took her to a pub. I got to play the experienced Africa expat card, which was kinda fun. She’s a smart cookie and will figure it all out soon enough. She certainly appreciated having someone to learn from.

OK, out of time, so I have to send this. Tomorrow I have no plans, but will figure it out over breakfast.

I’m still alive

Just a quick note to tell you all that I am still alive. Things have not been super busy, but I haven’t felt too much like writing.

This week a logistics helper came from Monrovia and completed a renovation of the building that used to be our food store into a new office building. After we finish moving out of the office this week, we will have more bedrooms for both the new expat arriving soon, and for guests. Right now, there are no rooms in the inn. I kept the rehabilitation plans really simple in order to get them done fast. I had planned to leave the wood trim unpainted and only whitewash the walls. But it turned out that we had some white paint left over from the health post renovation at Lepula. So I gave the team that paint to use. Then they complained that you can’t paint the walls white and the trim white. Fashion nazis! So we dug around some more and found some Jade Green paint that was also incorrectly bought for Lepula. Ministry of Health standard for health posts in Liberia is whitewashed walls with Forest Green trim, so the Jade Green was right out. I gave them that to mix with the white. The result is a shade of green that reminds me of the United States Forest Service every time I see it. Everyone really likes the new office because of the green windows and doors. They are pretty snazzy, actually.

Colors aside, the office itself is going to be a major disappointment. The building is too small. We went around and around trying to make a good plan for expanding the residence and moving the office and never came up with something that made everyone happy. The best I could suggest was to make bungalows for people to live in, and expand the office into some of the residence. But that met with stiff resistance from people who feel like it is unhealthy to have the office and the residence in the same building. (Obviously these people have never worked for a Silicon Valley startup.) Fair enough. So instead we have a very small office with lots of little rooms that are a little difficult to put furnishing in, not only because the floor plan is small, but because the hallway and doors are so small the furniture won’t fit. And if you do tip something sideways and get it in the door, then the ceilings are too low to let you tip it up again. Luckily the Liberian ceiling construction is flexible, so you can push the furniture up into the ceiling to make it fit. It seems like maybe I will have the carpenters here this week modifying the furniture to make it possible to move it in. What a hassle.

This Saturday I leave for my vacation. It is supposed to be in Ghana, but I have not gotten confirmation about my plane flight. Hopefully everything is lined up. I sent my passport down to Monrovia a while ago to get my visa, so I’ve done everything I can from this side. I still don’t really have a clue what I will do when I get there, but I have good suggestions from my family who researched it online, and I also have a guide book I will read on the 6 hour drive to Monrovia.

We continue to have minor livestock crises. The cute little chicks have grown into unholy terrors who are pooping all over the patio. So we are sending them to the place where our goat is as a thank you for taking care of the goat. Jeff the goat will come back to MSF and be the main dish in Jerome’s going away party. Today I heard a huge noise by where the another chicken had made her nest in a little box. I looked in and found two newly hatched chicks, a lizard, and a really mad hen. I have no idea where the lizard came from, but it was about as scared as the chicks, and it was getting one hell of a beating from the hen. We held down each of them with sticks and then threw the lizard out. I have not checked on the chicks, but I assume they are OK.

We’ve had some pretty bad generator problems in the hospital, which is a pain, because of course people only notice it is not working at night. Somewhat embarrassingly, the last time we had the problem one of my watchmen started turning off lights as an experiment to see if overloading was the problem. Guess what? It was. I’m remembering now that the mysterious generator problems started about the time we added a bunch of new light bulbs. It turns out that we had a miscommunication. I thought the instructions the electrician was working under were, “fix up the system to be more reliable and add lights, but only if the system can handle the additional load”. What he did was add lights wherever anyone asked for one. So we have a bunch of new lights and an overloaded generator. So now I get to go be the bad guy and disconnect a bunch of lights. We are using a much more powerful diesel generator for the time being, and that’s postponing the real fix. Probably the easiest answer is to just throw money at the problem and buy a bigger generator for the hospital that can handle the load we have now. Part of the reason lots of things in the hospital are less than perfect is that people always say, “the new hospital will be finished soon, so don’t fix this one”. But the construction project is way way behind schedule, or it would be if the plans were not changing so fast that there could be an actual schedule. (Later, I got permission to just keep the powerful generator, so I did not have to take away any lights. Yay!)

What brought this all to a head the other day was that the diesel generator had two problems in one day. First, it wouldn’t start. I suspected that the fuel lines had air in them, so I called my head driver to see if he knew how to fix small diesel engines. He said no. My mechanic was in Monrovia, so he was no help. So I gathered a bunch of tools and went over there feeling much less confident than I looked. (This is the normal state of an MSF log, I’m assured by experienced ones.) I examined the generator closely and found the starting instructions that I’d glanced at before. It turns out that there’s some extra steps to starting a small diesel engine that I didn’t know about, as all the small engines I’ve dealt with before are gasoline ones. So I followed the instructions, and sure enough it started right up. The watchmen who called me for help had been following my old (wrong) instructions.

There’s this saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Think about the generator story from the point of view of my watchmen. They can’t start it, so they call me on the radio. I come and invoke a hitherto unknown technology among the watchmen called, “reading and following directions”, and then do something different than what I taught them, and the generator starts. They must think I am a wizard with a magic wand that starts generators.

I made a new starting instructions sheet, translating from the small sticker that won’t stay on the fuel tank because they slop diesel on it, into Liberian English. Also, somehow instructions printed on MSF letterhead have more force (like the word of God) and get followed when the same instructions on the side of an engine are treated like decoration.

The second problem was that the generator developed a bad noise. They called on the radio and told me they wanted to stop the generator, leaving the camp without power. I agreed, and then went over to listen to the noise myself and decide how bad it really was. It turned out to be a broken engine mount, which I knew about before, but had been ignoring, hoping it would somehow fix itself. (Well, also, the parts are really hard to get for this generator, so I figured we didn’t have a replacement anyway.) I made a replacement engine mount out of a rag and some copper wire, and gave them the green light to use the generator again. This week I will have the mechanic make a replacement for the rag and copper wire out of an old tire.

I’m not sure how I feel about this upcoming vacation. I think I need the rest for sure. But I’m kind of wondering how being gone for a week will really make a difference. I’m also not looking forward to all the travel necessary to get out of Nimba and onward to some nice resort outside of Accra. The vacation also marks the halfway point of my work here, and I’m also not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it means I have the same amount more work to do, which seems like an awful lot, and that it would be sort of nice if I could just go back to Geneva directly from Ghana. On the other hand, it means that the end is in sight, and all the people and things that I like about this place will soon just be a memory. Already, we will lose one of our team, Jerome, in the next two weeks. I really like him, and will miss listening to him parrot my English. His favorite thing he learned from me is “you-gotta-be-kidding-me”. I didn’t even notice that I say it, but he listened and learned it, and then used it one day. It was like hearing an echo of myself, he did it so well. Then he wanted to know what it was he’d just said, since he couldn’t really understand the words… he was just parroting the idiom as pronounced fluidly by me.