Hi everyone – I’m Gavin. I’m 28, from New Zealand. I’m currently doing my Masters and I came to Liberia back in February on an academic field trip – really enjoyed the experience so I decided to come back. Over the next three months I’ll be writing about my own observations, thought processes and conclusions, and hopefully offering an interesting inside perspective into life in Liberia. ACIPP currently has two interns on the ground here in Liberia: me, and an American Liberian who already runs two regular blogs. Which gives me a great disclaimer if my posts are lousy, as Florkime’s will be much more insightful and better written.
It was great to touch down in Roberts International Airport again last Sunday, even though I knew the next 300 metres out of the (tiny) terminal would be a very long, slow experience – sure enough, it took me over an hour to get through immigration, find my bags, and get outside. Note to future interns: research how many other international flights will arrive at the same time as you before you finalize your flight!! But the air was warm and ACIPP director Simon was waiting outside brandishing a big smile and an even bigger camera to ambush me with. Thankfully my best look is after a day of buses and airports, and I managed to pull out something worthy enough for the 2013 Dolce & Gabbana tropical collection.
Driving into Monrovia reminded me of something I’m often struck by: the enormous perception challenges that seem to face Africa. Kristine’s already written a really insightful post on how her experience of Liberia lined up with her conceptions. Liberia is so much more than the war and the corruption – the people are genuinely some of the friendliest and most welcoming that I’ve met anywhere – and the country has clearly come a very long way over the past ten years. Are we looking just at the black dot on the page, or have we considered the white of the paper all around it? I was interested to hear one Liberian comment that the huge volume of reported corruption was a good thing because it demonstrated that the country was becoming more transparent and the media freer to hold people to account. He contrasted this against the years of unchecked nepotism that happened under past governments, stating that the country was far more corrupt then than it is now. Maybe this is a good thing?
So with all these things in mind I’ve come to AGENDA, a policy think tank here in Monrovia. I’m very interested in how to enable communities to engage politically, and AGENDA’s aim is to push an accountable system of governance by providing space for citizen participation. I was very interested to see what they were doing to encourage governance reform and promote transparency. There’s a hundred ways to tackle these issues – theirs include a lot of policy analysis; promoting advocacy and dialogue with other organisations; advocating themselves; capacity building; and promoting citizen participation in political processes. It’s great that they are a well known and respected CSO here for their work; which includes a number of significant (and provocative!) pieces of major research such as their recent corruption perception index of all the major state institutions. Strangely enough the police minister wasn’t happy to hear that 90% of the Liberian public perceive the police to be “extremely corrupt”.
It’s only been a week so far but I’ve been busy and relishing the work, even if my colleagues have a laugh when I get a particularly spicy mouthful of tobogi (stew made with local aubergines, palm oil and a lot of chillis); or ask them to break their sentences down into 3 to 4 word chunks. My direct supervisor is heading up a project on corruption in the education sector; I’ve been observing interviews and taking transcripts – 15 year-olds speaking Liberian English might as well be speaking Martian sometimes so it’s been a good way to practice my listening & comprehension skills! It was interesting, and a bit sad, to compare two state schools: in one, the children talked openly about paying teachers to grade their assignments, working to support themselves instead of going to school, and teachers approaching students inappropriately. Their teachers stonewalled a lot of our questions, deflected most of the interview towards corruption in the Ministry of Education, and openly blamed students for not learning. In the other, the students were positive, chatty and knew what corruption was – but showed so little first-hand understanding of it that we almost cut their interview short. Their teachers talked openly about getting the PTA/community to work together to subsidize supplies the government weren’t providing to their rural school; and how the principal struggled to keep the school running when the Ministry didn’t pay the teachers’ salaries. It was a striking example to me of how our circumstances define us as humans much less than our choices to react to them do.
Amongst all this I’ve been struck by how honest many people are – even though the only way out of poverty for most is by taking advantage. The boy who offered to polish my shoes for 20LD – about US$0.25 – because it was the going rate; the taxi drivers who hand over change without pausing; the two guys who didn’t inflate the price of my umbrella, even though they have to split what little profit they make between them (and their families). If someone happened to pick my pocket, I’d only have to shout “Rogue! Rogue!” like the locals do, and the crowd would grab him and beat him up before letting the police get them – one Liberian explained to me that stealing from people who are working so hard for their money is one of the worst things a person could do. It may not be the solution we’d like them to have for criminals, but until police and justice sector reforms can deliver consistently, this is how many Liberians help ‘remind’ each other to be honest. Most things in Liberia need a lot of work, but considering there was literally no government here ten years ago, just the fact that the systems are back in place and slowly starting to work is a massive and important positive to recognize around the black smudges.
There’s plenty more to talk about over the coming months other than societal issues though – the beautiful beaches; my Liberian friends; the place on UN Drive where they say you can buy Haagen-Daz icecream for $10 a scoop (I haven’t succumbed); and of course the whole rest of the country outside Monrovia. But I’ll keep you posted.