Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Love of liberty & lack of money

The love of liberty brought us here: Liberia's motto, the country that was founded by freed American slaves. But the lack of money kept us here, the cynical supplement which sometimes follows, adds. The more the students get used to my presence, the more questions arise: you're going to send me money, right? You'll leave me those pants when you go, huh? Can you buy me a graduation dress? You'll invite me to the Netherlands?

It is difficult to answer such questions. Because to say that I have no money is ridiculous - I'm rich compared to them. But to have to live in the Netherlands, I need that money, and I have to work for it. I can't buy a dress for all of them, and besides, doing so won't help them move forward.

It's not just the lack of money that causes problems. Next week Roos and I are going to discuss managing household finances with the Women's Club. Because our monthly expenses are so very different from theirs, I asked them what they would like to learn from us. How to manage our money, was the answer. Because when a woman here earns $ 7 a day, she uses up that money. Even if she only needs five dollars for her groceries.

Savings, long-term thinking, these are all unusual concepts. Not surprising, if you do not have a fixed monthly income, but have to wonder every day how much you will make. So Roos and I will have to adjust our idea of a household budget to help these women with their planning. But at least there is one universal feature of money: whether you have five or fifty Euros to spend per day, you can only spend it once.

It is not the only situation where my love for planning and scheduling conflicts with the Liberian ad hoc attitude. November is dedicated to the examination of the pastry students. Exams mean exam schedules, but I think I've sent a dozen e-mails to Tonia with the subject line "New exam schedule". Modified sequences, dates or combinations of dishes, everything underwent changes.
In addition, the first exam days didn't exactly proceed along established lines. Given the modest size of the kitchen the group was divided into three, and had to be assessed as a group - mostly by myself, sometimes assisted by Mary. But everyone mingled, some came too late, some members infiltrated other groups or grabbed ingredients ahead of their time, resulting in the other group having none. 
Who should buy new butter or sugar when it is finished isn't always clear either. The students are supposed to sell their products and return the money to MF to purchase ingredients, but in practice this often does not happen. Bukky sometimes fronts the money, but she has her limits. In addition, the volume level continuously reaches deafening, which doesn't really positively impact the atmosphere. The order in which the groups were to take their exams was not immediately clear, and when I eventually drew up a schedule for that, protest broke out along the lines of "But they were allowed to start yesterday too".

After coming home with a headache for a couple of days, the schedules began to have an effect. The fact that I now know all the students and the group they belong to also helps: I know exactly when someone is not supposed to be in the kitchen. Eventually, all the exam components seem to be carried out properly. But the peace hangs by a thread, and if I or Bukky are absent, chaos breaks out again.

We also discussed this with the trainers during the monthly trainers' meeting. They find it difficult to exert dominance. They do not have enough distance to the trainees, in part because the community relationships, but also because they have not clarified the relationship from the start. As a result, it is always messy, noisy and, for newcomers like me, unclear who exactly is the trainer and who the trainee.

When the trainers noted that Bukky's words make a more lasting impression than theirs, we explain that she knows how to keep that distance. She's a different person at work than at home. The trainers deal very amicably with the trainees, and join in their emotions when something goes wrong. They need to learn to deal with this differently.

We agree to start with this with the next batch of trainees. The teacher's manual that I have started working on will also help. This will also improve the curriculum: this year, new recipes were added halfway through the course, making time management all but impossible. But I'm not sure how far I will get with the manual and curriculum. Communication problems with the trainers are a dime a dozen, so I can't work very quickly.

In rereading the above, I realize that while there may a couple of things to whine about when it comes to the trainers and the exams, the students' results are generally excellent. I think I gained a kilo of body weight over the past week, partly due to banana bread, cassava bread, cinnamon rolls and my personal favorite: pawpaw pie. I was also pleasantly surprised by a few students who missed exams and on their own initiative decided to catch up.

It is easy to fall into criticism when you've been here a little longer, but high-level visitors from the Netherlands made me realize again what beautiful things MF has been able to do. MF volunteer Rosemary, her parents Jannie and Stanley and her boyfriend Daan came by to visit the office. They were very impressed and I must own that I still am too. As we speak, dozens of women walk the streets of Monrovia selling pieces of MF-soap, cakes and breads.

The family also met Tonia's father, who very much appreciated the visit, but also found it hard to deal with. Since Stanley is Liberian-Dutch and Jannie Dutch, Tonia's father immediately draws a comparison with his own family. A family that he lost in the war.

When he talks about his wife, Mineke, it is as if he is talking about yesterday. According to Mary it is that way for many people who lost someone in the war. Impunity means that one has to live with the idea that the one who hurt you or your family, is still on the loose. You can run into him at any time. The same impunity makes it difficult to leave the war behind or to close the chapter on grief.

At the same time certain aspects of that war seem to be pushed into oblivion. I remember how shocked I was when our 20-year-old driver Andrew (who has since been fired because he was secretly using Ayo's car as a taxi) said about Charles Taylor: I hope that my president will be released. When I later asked Jonathan, he said that Taylor is still popular. Purely from an economic point of view: when he was the president, rice was cheap. And as for his conviction, he was convicted for his actions in Sierra Leone, not for what happened here. If Charles Taylor were to stand for election next year, said Jonathan, he would win. "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him," was the slogan often heard during his campaign after the first civil war in 1997. And he won. Love of liberty, but lack of money.

Fortunately, a repeat of this scenario is unrealistic for a man who is behind bars for the rest of his life. Who will succeed president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I do not know. I only know that half of Monrovia hopes that all the projects she started will be completed this year. Otherwise, they say, all will remain abandoned while the new president starts his (or her) own projects. And of course that way you never get ahead.

Thanks to our Dutch visitors, I also experienced incredible luxury over the past weekends: a hot shower, delicious coffee, a great sushi meal at Mamba Point Hotel and tourist outings. These included Firestone, the largest rubber plantation in the world, and the Ducor Hotel, the first - and most luxurious - hotel in Monrovia, left in ruins since the war, but from where you have a wonderful view over the city. The hotel exudes faded glory, with the dilapidated elevator shafts and the mossy pool recalling what it must have been like in its heyday.

All courtesy of Stanley and Jannie, who have opened their house in Sinkor to me and even go to the trouble of show me some of the country. It's also nice that I don't have to burden Bukky and Ayo the whole weekend with all my energy.

It's nice to see how Stanley and Jannie contribute in their own way. They employ several people, both at home and on their own rubber plantation, and help them care for their families. Besides the lack of education, lack of employment is a major obstacle to Liberia's progress.

MF's progress seems to be on track.There may be lack of money, but the more people Bukky and I meet, the more clear it becomes to us that there are many jars with funds to sponsor MF activities as soon as we have completed our registration in Liberia. UNICEF and ECOWAS are already positively inclined, so it is important for Bukky and me to have proposals ready as soon as possible after the launch, to capitalize on the fact that MF is still fresh in everyone's minds.

The renovation of the Damiefa school is one of the projects that I think holds great promise: the building is available and good schools are always needed here. Response from people has been enthusiastic. And maybe reviving the school will also help Tonia's father process his grief. If only a little.

1 comment:

  1. Alweer zo'n recht voor z'n raap eerlijk verslag. Goed werk daar en naar het 'thuisfront'.