Learning the Lingo

Hello from the middle of a huge rainstorm. It has been threatening to rain all day, and getting muggier and muggier, so it is nice that the rain and the cool breezes have finally come. It means, of course, that when I am done writing this and try to send it, it will fail because the satellite signal is blocked, but this is a small inconvenience to trade for the cool breeze coming through the office.

After a couple months in Liberia I have mastered enough of the lingo to be accepted as a native speaker of English, instead of an incomprehensible foreigner. Likewise, I usually understand people, even when they are talking to others instead of directly to me. Liberians with long experience working in NGOs know how to speak English to foreigners, and will occasionally translate for us. The key difference is a combination of word choice, grammar, and word endings. In casual Liberian English, the word endings are gone, making it pretty hard to reconstruct what word from standard English they meant. When it comes time for a Liberian to write down a word, if they don’t know the spelling and choose to write it phonetically, you can actually SEE that the end of the word is completely lost. The grammar used by casual Liberian speech is the simpler grammar found around the world. This version of English is like the welding or masonry or carpentry of the developing world. A little rough around the edges, but exactly what is needed to get the job done, and nothing more. And in case that sounds condescending, remember that I love the engineering of the developing world, where everything is out where you can see how it works, and any parts that are not needed broke and were removed years ago. This is casual Liberian English, and it works great. Most educated Liberians can switch into standard English in a heartbeat, and they know they need to do so to make themselves understood to foreigners.

Like everywhere where English is spoken, there are local words, or much more confusing to an outsider, local meanings for standard English words. One fun one is the verb to embarrass, which means to disrupt, make untidy, or annoy. When I first got here I asked Roger to arrange to have a huge pothole filled because the water in it was always messing up the cars as they came and went from the compound. As the waste water from the small lake was going to cross someone else’s property, he wanted to get permission from the mayor, and took me along. He said, “we want to drain the puddle because it embarrasses our vehicles”. Another funny example was a message that came over the radio one night: “Please bring diesel fuel to the hospital to waste around because there are driver ants that are embarrassing the patients.” In Liberian English, to waste is to spread something (however wastefully or frugally). A man clears land then wastes rice seeds over it. We wasted a whole lot of diesel fuel on the ants that night, let me tell you. In the morning, I told the storekeeper what we did and he carefully wrote on the stock card, “8 gallons of diesel fuel for ants in hospital”.

Everything is justified to the last dollar and gallon around here. I spent an enjoyable few minutes the other day looking for an accounting code to list the LRD 20 (about 50 cents US) that I spent on a pair of bowls for feeding the dog and cat. I settled on “expat residence expenses” reasoning that Quiplu is pretty much one of the expats now, and Dude the cat only ever eats, as far as we can tell, if we put something dead in a bowl for him. I keep explaining to him that American cats would love the opportunity to eat the kinds of moths and bugs he
has here, but he just walks away.

Back on the topic of Liberian words for a second… “Fine” is used like “uh huh” when someone else is talking… so if they are saying something you generally agree with you utter a string of “fine”, “fine”, “fine” sotto voce along with them to show you are following them. This is pretty distracting until you get used to it, but now I do it some when listening to Liberians. Hopefully, like getting into the wrong side of a car when I try to drive it, this will be an easy habit to drop when I get home.

Today I got Lilian and Desma to cut my hair. The guys in town do an OK job of cutting hair, but I just wanted a buzz cut and Hugo brought what a Liberian would probably call a shaving machine (anything mechanical is called a machine, like the pumps and generators), so I decided to get my hair cut at the MSF barbershop. A good time was had by all, and I cleverly scheduled my shower right after the haircut, so the little pieces of hair that were stuck to my sweaty skin are all gone now. Ick.

When you are the administrator, there are a thousand places to sign your name every day. The same holds true for a logistician, who approves expenditures of the material variety. So as a log/admin, I have about two thousand signatures to do a day. I’ve learned the benefit here of carrying a distinctive pen. It doesn’t need to be expensive or anything, but everyone knows now what my pen looks like, and if I start to leave their desk and it is still there, they call me back for it. It is absolutely incredible to consider it, but I am still using the same pen today that I was using when I got here, over 2 months ago. I’m beginning to worry that it will run out of ink, and I will have to train everyone what my new pen looks like. My current pen is a promotional one I got from Telenor at the Humaninet Demonstration Day in June that’s got puppy teeth marks on the end from Kat. I was looking at it closely during a really boring staff meeting (yes, even in Africa you can’t escape boring meetings) and it turns out it is Swiss-made, which is fitting, as I work for MSF Switzerland.

Update: It turns out that I did in fact run the pen out of ink, which is a first in my life, I think. I had a troublesome few days until I settled on a new pen with the help of Marina, who had brought an amazing collection of pens with her from an aunt. She was supposed to be giving them to children, but she gave one to me too. Marina also brought a special pen for me from Barcelona after her training session, but I immediately lost that one, which made me very sad. Getting attached to pens in the bush is not an effective use of the finite energy available for emotions.

My work is completely under control right now. That’s not to say that it won’t careen dangerously out of control on Monday morning with broken radios, lost vehicles, and water and food shortages. But on Saturday evening, I sat down to have a beer and de-stress and realized I wasn’t stressed. The accounting closed on time, and no money is missing (though I had some really big scares this month, which taught me to be more careful about everything I learned the first month). The health post rehab project in Diallah is going great. WFP assures me they will be delivering food next week, as long as I get this stupid report done tonight and take it to them in the morning. And I moved a radio over from one car to another, giving us 3 cars for use in the bush again, since last week I found out one of our bush cars needs major transmission work and is no longer allowed outside of Saclepea. On Saturday evening I did have one little fly in the ointment, which is that the front sway bar on one vehicle has broken loose and needs to be fixed. Luckily, that part of the suspension breaks the most around here, so just by looking at it, I could tell it will be a 2 hour fix. I
adjusted the Monday morning vehicle plan, and we’ll get it fixed right up.

The condition of the roads is increasingly bad. But everyone says that this rainy season wasn’t as bad as last one because we have had lots of small storms with lots of sun in between instead of days and days of slow rain. It turns out what’s needed to maintain an African dirt road is not machinery or rocks, but sun. As long as the roads get enough sunlight to cook them back into hard clay from mud, everything pretty much repairs itself. The villagers have a system set up where each village is responsible for cutting the bush away from the road to ensure it gets enough light. No amount of sun fixes bridges, however. This week we had two trips interrupted by broken bridges. At one of the bridges, our driver worked most of the day to get a commercial truck off the broken bridge using his MSF vehicle and it’s tools. Then he took the mobile clinic team back to base to spend the night. The next day they made it to the mobile clinic site beyond the place they were stuck the first day. People understand here if you miss an appointment out in the bush. Sometimes you just can’t get through.

With the arrival of a new expat, Desma from Kenya, we got a delivery of mail from home. I got some stuff from my mom and some mix CD’s from a friend in Rome. Thanks Kristin! Kenneth and Dima, who were the log and nurse here before Lilian and I got here sent a care package for the team too. It includes the Rough Guide to West Africa, so I will start reading up on Ghana and plan my vacation which is coming up in a month. The guidebook includes no info at all on Liberia and Ivory Coast because they were at war when it was published. But it’s OK, we already know the best bars in Saclepea!

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