What we do on a holiday

I got lots of stuff done on my “day off” yesterday due to the Liberian Independence Day. The threat of unrest on a national holiday meant that we were confined to the compound all day while the staff had the day off. Even though I had a day off to catch up, I had a really hectic morning with a thousand little problems to solve. The most embarrassing one is that we ran out of rice for the hospital. Last week we ran out of tea, which was a big crisis because the staff is so touchy about missing a tea break. Running out of rice and tea were basically both squarely my fault, but each time they were easy to fix, and I’m confident that we’ve got things set up right for August.

I got to meet the log from MSF Holland, Taj. He works in Sanniquille. He’s a really nice American guy from Seattle. He is halfway through his 9 month contract and really has the hang of working here. He invited me to come visit anytime, which I will be happy to do. The MSF sections in Liberia are really friendly, which is nice. Taj and I were grousing about not being able to find any girlfriends since we are not allowed to date Liberian women. Jerome and I have only Susan (the boss) and Lilian, who is married, to choose from (Emir, the remaining man, is married also). Taj said at Sanniquille, it is two guys about 30 and four 50 year old women. Which to me didn’t sound too bad, but he’s apparently not interested. I think I need to make a trip to Sanniquille!

Also a few days ago the newest member of the team arrived. Lilian is a nurse from the German speaking part of Switzerland. I haven’t learned about her background yet. She’s very different than Dima, but she will be a good member of the team, and the family. She is really down to earth and didn’t flinch at all when I showed her our bucket-flushed toilet and the shower which the cockroaches reluctantly let us share with them… they don’t even run when we turn the lights on anymore! I think it is time for a bottle of SpriGone, an insecticide from Dubai which Liberians use like air freshener. In fact, today I used some SpriGone on a termite nest out where I was installing the satellite phone antenna and I realized it was the same nice scent I’d noticed in my room each day after the house cleaner finishes tidying up. And all this time I thought it was just the fresh sheets she puts on every day. Actually, she has been helpfully spraying insecticide all around our rooms!

It is my after-lunch break, and I think I will go lay down and play with the shortwave radio I bought for USD 12 last week. It was supposed to cost 10, but I got them down from 15 to 12. It would have been better to send an African to buy it for me, but it was fun anyway and 2 dollars is not the end of the world. The traders in electronics are all Guineans who speak French, so we did the old calculator negotiation thing, then in the end the batteries he had were damaged, so I made him give me some LRD to go buy some batteries of my own. Jerome and I brought back a big bamboo pole from the bush and I put up an antenna, but I’m not sure it’s really better than the built-in one. I think it just picks up more noise. The national staff were all laughing as I walked around base with my big bamboo pole. They think it is hysterical when a white man tries to do any work with our hands. Leading by doing is difficult here because people just scramble to arrange for it to be impossible for you to exert yourself. If you are persistent and make it clear you’re going to get your hands dirty and work too, then they respect it, but their first assumption is that you shouldn’t be doing anything, like how a porter acts in a hotel.

Tomorrow we have a big workshop at the hospital to teach the national staff about the MSF movement they are part of. For many of them, it is difficult to grasp the worldwide significance of the movement, and what their place is in it. Liberians have a solid understanding of NGO’s, but it is somewhat colored by the type of NGO’s that dominate the economy here. The vast majority of their budgets come from governments, which makes them less frugal than us. We also have some staff who consider this just a job, and look at us like we are from Mars when we explain about concepts like duty, impartiality, witnessing, and so on. (Witnessing has a technical definition in the MSF world which is light years away from the Christian use of the word. Perhaps I will try to explain a little bit in another posting.) All of the expats have to attend the workshop, so my day will be somewhat less hectic tomorrow, at least once the meeting starts. Of course, the log is also the all purpose events planner, so I had some minor crises to work out today related to the event, and will be running around like a wedding planner (but with a VHF radio in my belt and riding in a Land Cruiser instead of a Camry).

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