My first week in Nimba

Well, I survived my first week as the log/admin for the Nimba project!

The big event this week was me taking over financial responsibility for the safes and all the cash in the project. At the same time, I also helped close the books for June. We had a troublesome 281 USD to track down, but thanks to my training in Geneva, which happened to cover the precise tricky bit accounting we were having trouble with, I got it fixed. Of course, the majority of the work to prepare for closing the books was done by my assistant, Mr. Toe. He brings me the books ready to go, and I review them. He tried his hardest to get them to balance, but this time it was up to me to find the remaining errors.

For the Liberian dollar accounts, it is almost impossible to make them balance. We just handle way too many bills, and the possibility that a stack of 100 bills will be short by one bill when we receive it is always there. To give you an idea of the problem, the exchange rate is 1 USD = 56 LRD. The bills are 20 LRD and 50 LRD, so if we were paying someone about 100 USD (5600 LRD), we could be handling as many as 280 bills. And a few of those are going to get miscounted.

So you can see that the administrative side of my job is dominated by shuffling papers, both currency and receipts, invoices, etc. Thankfully Mr. Toe handles much of this, and it is up to me to handle the final checks on things, as at the end of the day it my signature, not Mr. Toe’s, on the books.

The other half of my job is logistics, which is much more interesting and varied. This week I got a tour of the water treatment plant. Walker, my head watsan guy showed me where the raw water comes from, how it settles, and how he calculates the chlorine to add. He’s received really good training from previous expats, so he is completely self-contained. Even so, he wants more training still, and it is up to me to figure out what training resources we have and make them available to him. Walker invited other people to watch as he demonstrated for me, so it turned into a little class. It was really fascinating to see Walker do and talk about what I’d read a bunch about, both in training with RedR in London, and on my own. I was able to add some explanations for the mysterious parts of the process based on Frosh Chem, the hellish chemistry course that almost killed me during my first semester of college.

It is a common problem in the developing world that even when a local person masters a complex task with coaching from someone trained in the developed world, they focus on how to do it and not on why they have been trained to do it that way. That’s no problem as long as they keep doing it right, but their superficial knowledge prevents them from effectively teaching their coworkers, or adapting the knowledge if the conditions change. The leverage you hope to get by teaching supervisors and having them teach their staff is lost. I don’t claim that in my first six months working in Liberia I’ll have any chance of solving this problem that’s been afflicting Africa for 100 years, but hopefully since I’ve already seen it with my own two eyes, I can consider what to do to minimize it.

I also took another trip to Lepula, where we are building a health post. It is almost done now, so we took the furniture for the building out from where it was built and stockpiled in Saclepea. The expat team is planning final details to get the place open. Susan, the Field Coordinator (fieldco) met with the town chief to plan an opening ceremony. Jerome put in a big order for little stuff like trash cans, mattresses, etc to fill the place up. I worked with the supervisor on how to solve a problem with a door that was made the wrong size. I also surveyed a warehouse that the community has loaned to us to hold construction materials, and agreed with their request to donate some materials to the community to fix up the warehouse as a thank you for letting us use it.

We moved a fair amount of freight back and forth this week. We had construction supplies coming in from Monrovia, we had to send some therapeutic food down to Benson Hospital, and we had parts of our expat food order, and monthly project order trickle in. It always makes me feel like Santa Claus to get to tell someone that their order has arrived, particularly when the order is something critical like tomatoes or canned asparagus (a real favorite of the boss). Because we have construction projects downstream from us in the supply chain, there’s some planning to be done to make sure that inbound items can be transferred to smaller trucks and sent into the bush without delay. This is the essence of supply chain management, and Roger (my logistics assistant) showed me how it’s done this week by having the little truck ready for direct trans-loading when the big truck arrived.

The week was also filled with various types of meetings. I interviewed a new taxi driver, met with representatives from the World Food Programme, sat in on the delivery of a warning letter to a staff member, held a meeting with a subordinate about creeping staffing levels, and attended my first expat staff meeting. Susan and I also had a nice meeting to welcome me and give me the context of the project, though I had picked it up pretty much by context by the time we had time for the meeting!

The other crisis we dealt with this week was due to a dead computer. Thanks to excellent IT support from Geneva I was able to fix things up using just what we had on hand here. It’s not pretty, but everyone seems happy with the new setup. Mom, thanks for the 1 gigabyte memory stick, I used it to move stuff around from the dying computer in its death throes.

Today I started a garden. During the week I arranged for some fertile soil to be delivered, because the soil in the compound here is said to have too little sand and too much iron. I put the soil into egg cups and planted seeds to get them to germinate. Later we’ll transplant the seedlings into some beds the gardener will make for us.

Today we are going in to town to watch the World Cup final between Italy and France. My teammate Jerome is an anyone-but-France fan, so I think I’ll go with the flow and support Italy. We watch the matches at a little bar called Farmer’s Friend. The Cokes are cold, and only 30 LRD. The beers are a fair price at 100 LRD for a 750 ml bottle (consider that for a second the next time you pay 6 USD for a pint in California). The owner of Farmer’s Friend knows it’s our favorite hangout for games, so often we arrive to find seats with signs that say, “reserved for MSF”. It is nice to be known in the city like this, but it can also be a problem. We are in a fishbowl, and everything we do is reported on the bush telegraph (the rumor mill) far and wide.

Next week, we have a huge amount of contract printing and signing to get through due to a big contract change that’s in progress. We also have to start planning some trips to survey some upcoming construction work in the bush. Finally, the team will be adjusting to the loss of two expats, and the arrival of several others (some visiting from Monrovia, some coming to stay). Dima will be returning to Geneva on Monday (assuming I’ve got the logistics right) and Dr. Emir has just left for a 2 week vacation.

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