Busy and also not so busy

We were really busy here in October because of the need to plan 2007’s activities. We had to make a Plan of Action, then we had to make the budget. The whole process was eye opening into how MSF plans its activities, and working on the budget was sometimes boring drudge work, but sometimes it was really interesting. I understand the MSF budget system much better now, and in the future I will be able to quickly see what work was envisioned by the previous people when I get to a new project. I put in a bunch of nifty things that I think the next log/admin will appreciate, including major repairs to the radios and some replacement equipment for stuff we have worn out.

All that work is done now so things are a little less busy. We have a lot of people taking annual leave because we have to get all the leaves finished before the end of the year. No one can carry over any time, which means you have to plan carefully, and really squeeze in any annual leave that was delayed or canceled for some reason. In order to save the new log/admin some pain, I have encouraged my two must important assistants to take time off now, even at the same time. Next week I will be all alone, but I know how to run things well enough by this point to cover for them.

We are out of car servicing hell, though we still have a lot of regular service to do, and they are all the difficult to plan ones that take a full week and happen down in Monrovia. So that means we have a few weeks without one of the cars, which is a pain. But I take it in stride now, and don’t get too worried about it. And most importantly, I schedule the car service first, then worry about the medical needs. I learned the hard way that broken cars don’t do anyone any good. Now I just smile and nod when they tell you that next week is a bad week to have one less car, then send the car to Monrovia anyway. We get along with the remaining cars, somehow.

We had another Lassa Fever suspect this week, but most of the team is well versed in what to do. We have two new people, so Susan made a big deal out of teaching them about it. “Never miss a learning moment,” my mother always says.

We have had two of our giggliest girls missing on training and vacation for several weeks, so meal times are quite a bit more quiet. That’s too bad. I miss the giggling.

The biggest news for me is that the second health post rehabilitation I was supposed to do was canceled. Another NGO showed up and started making a health post in that city. They will not provide a staff when they leave, which is a problem that MSF will look into solving, perhaps by working on finding another health NGO to work there. But that’s not my department, so I have much less construction related details to stress out about. We still have some construction to do, but it is much easier than a health post rehabilitation. I will hopefully go visit that project this week and will know more about it then.

Last Wednesday was the official opening ceremony for Diallah Health Post, even though it has been in operation since October 17. The ceremony was nice, and short by Liberian standards. I gave a little
speech. It had to be translated into Mano, so I kept it to about 3 sentences and each sentence was an easy to translate chunk. The general idea was that it was my job to bring resources from as far as Geneva and Monrovia, but we found the best resources were the cooperative people of Diallah who worked with us like brothers. And it really is true. It was a nice place to work. When I look at the water well at Diallah, it is clean and tidy, and the people follow all the rules just like the sign out front says. In other villages, the fence is all broken down and there are livestock walking around on the apron around the well, and babies are pooping in the street.

Many times I walk around and see things like that and I just shake my head. A quote from the movie Clerks runs through my head, “There’s a bunch of *&%*@ savages in this town.” But it’s not really true. Just like in suburban New Jersey, where Clerks was filmed, a few knuckleheads ruin things for everyone. The problem is that lack of access to education dramatically increases the number of knuckleheads, and what they impact is a matter of life or death (access to safe water in this case) instead of just an irritation (like gum in a padlock, in the case of Clerks).

For the record, the knuckleheads in Liberia do not put gum in padlocks. This is not out of a sense of civic duty regarding padlocks. Gum’s just pretty rare here.

My replacement has accepted the posting, and is now busily shutting down his life in Italy and packing to come here. He will arrive in Nimba December 5, and I will leave here December 12. I will fly back to Geneva and then have some meetings, then I am free until my mother comes to Geneva for Christmas. We will go to Prague and tour around some in Switzerland. She will return to the States in late December, then I will stay on in Geneva a bit longer to enjoy a one week visit to a ski chalet. If that doesn’t manage to spend all my money, then I might plan another side trip to see friends in Germany. MSF will fly me from Geneva to New York, where I have a day of meetings with MSF USA. I might try to add in some time there to see New York and Boston friends. Then I will end up back in San Francisco sometime in late January or early February. After that I don’t have a clue what I will do, which is OK with me. I am not physically wiped out, like can sometimes happen from a really difficult mission. My patience level is certainly diminished, and I will spend all the time it takes to get bored and want to work again.

I do want to work with MSF again, as soon as I am ready to work. But part of the reason I want to work for MSF again is so that I can see something different. The Liberian context is too much development and not enough emergency. And this is the worst kind of development, where things are so destroyed and the people are so dependent that it is impossible to really see anything that a normal person might consider progress. The kind of progress you see here is virtually impossible to differentiate from the background of severe poverty, breakdown in social cohesion, ignorance of basic life skills like hygiene and how to feed babies, and the virtual certainty (according to recent history) that it will all just be destroyed again in the next civil war. Committed, long-term development people can no doubt recognize the positive effects
of development in leading indicators that they are (hopefully) monitoring, but I certainly can’t see much really constructive change in people’s behavior yet. The changes are all really hopeful ones, like school being in operation, people going back to finish elementary educations interrupted by the war, etc. But these are investments that take 5 to 15 years to mature. How will Liberia remain stable that long? The mind boggles. The odds, based on recent history, of 15 more years of stability are mind bogglingly small. But this is the brilliant thing about humans, we keep plugging along against the steepest odds.

Emergencies happen in all kinds of contexts. The most vulnerable people, who MSF targets, are regrettably pretty much always in the kind of situation Liberians are in. But I know for sure, by talking to other MSF volunteers, that there are differences, and that other places to work give you very different MSF experiences. This one hasn’t been bad, but I would hate for it to be my only experience. And the stories I hear from other missions, though likely colored by time and distance, are much more hopeful and happy than what we deal with daily here. So I am looking forward to having more MSF experiences to compare with this one.

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