Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Even though we can't always do it, we want to

(voor Nederlands klik hier)

Mary's garden
In Mary's garden bananas, potatoes, oil and coconut trees grow. There's pineapple, cassava, sugar cane and a collection of herbs that I do not know the names off. 'Subsistence farming', growing just  enough to support your family, mainly occurs up country: the 'interior', which is mainly jungle. But in the crowded Montserrado County, where we live, I see very few farms. Mary's garden is an exception.

Agriculture gets very little attention
When Tonia's parents settled here in the '60s, they hoped to teach people to grow enough rice to feed themselves. But the majority of the rice is still imported. Whether it is the lack of fertile soil, the climate, poor infrastructure or the lack of initiative among Liberians - I've asked several people and many books have been written about it, but there is no unequivocal answer. Apart from subsistence farming inland, agriculture gets very little attention.

They can't or they won't 
That also applies to industry. There are enough raw materials, which mainly benefit foreign investors. I am reminded of a sign along the road that we always drive past when we go into the city: 'Our natural resources should be a blessing, not a curse. " The board was put up by Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), which claims to ensure that the proceeds of extracted raw materials do indeed benefit the population. Still I mainly hear criticism when I talk with Liberians about foreign investors. Not only investors are criticized, but also Liberians themselves: the opportunities are there, but we can't or won't make use of them.

Culinary treasures 
We have already tasted many of Liberia's culinary treasures - such as cassava and potatoes, of which both the root and the leaf are eaten, yam, lots of fish, a cow's ankle (eh ...) and the infamous palm butter, a divine sauce made of palm oil. I say 'we' because I am now accompanied by my friend Roos, with whom I organized a fundraiser for MF last year. It is very nice and special to view Liberia through her eyes and be surprised again by what I see. It's weird how fast I've gotten used to things. The heat, the lack of running water, unreliable electricity. In short, to Africa.

Rose was not the only visitor from the Netherlands since the family Slagmolen: mid-November we there were suddenly four Dutch ladies from Stichting Initiat from Apeldoorn in front of me. Bukky and Mary were out of the office, respectively to attend a congress and due to malaria, but fortunately I am well enough integrated to give the tour by myself. Initiat supports a local project, but was so generous as to spend 800 Liberty (Liberian dollars) on soap to sell in the Netherlands.

Time is relative
Actually, just about every day is a bustling and busy day at the MF office. With the exams just completed, the multi-day entrepreneurship training started which is provided by the Business Start-up Center (BSC), and which is compulsory for all trainees. Although sometimes they are late, they all do show up and the office is too small to hold such enthusiasm.

The start of training was somewhat difficult, with the trainer cancelling at short notice, much to Bukky's frustration, although she did not really show it. Liberians ... even the professionals are not professional,  she just sighed. But everything worked out after Tonia had a serious talk with the organization. The trainees are motivated, and although you sometimes notice that many of them have had no formal education, they all try their best to understand what doing business entails. Many of them already sell products that they make or buy, but they don't know how to keep records or grow the business. That's what this training is all about.

BSC also allows talented trainees to follow a comprehensive entrepreneurial training, which includes a start-up loan. Rose and I helped some trainees fill in the registration form, which is not easy for people who have never learned to express themselves professionally. Hopefully, at least some of them will get the opportunity to participate in the training, because their motivation is certainly not lacking.

Household finances
Sometimes it's easy to confuse lack of motivation with lack of knowledge and practice. When someone expresses themselves badly, it sometimes seems as if they do not feel like delving into the question, but I find that that is too harsh a judgement.  That point was driven home for me at the Women's Club meeting that Roos and I chaired. We found it quite exciting, especially since we are not teachers and the teaching methods we have seen here – dragging things on and a lot of talkinf and repeating – aren't things we are familiar with. But it went very well and the trainees actively took part.

The topic was 'household finances' and Rose and I had made a small finance ledger for all the ladies. Earlier I had asked around what the women thought that I could teach them, and the answer was: how to manage our money. We do not have much, but still sometimes we spend too much. On food, clothing, makeup or hair. The others all agreed. They really wanted to learn how to manage money better.

The method of keeping financial records was sometimes very complicated for them, and some things we had to repeat five times. But they kept asking questions, and paid close attention. No lack of motivation, but if you have never been to school then even seemingly simple things as a balance sheet booklet are very difficult  to understand. You have to have patience to teach someone something, but that's very important to be able to achieve anything. Otherwise your expectations are too high and it turns into a disappointment for both parties. It took a while before I realized that.

And perhaps the same is true on a greater scale - agriculture, industry. I really think that enough people want to learn, if only enough time were invested in them. A lot of time. But you can not expect people to become experts by themselves, especially if they don't have the resources to do so.

After the Women's Club, one of the women to start a "credit club ', an idea which was enthusiastically received. As far as I understand it is a kind of shared savings account where everyone puts in money on a monthly basis, which is then divided at the end of the year. If you borrow money, you pay it back with interest. Quite a good solution if you want to avoid the old sock under your mattress, but also do not feel like going to town every money to the usually crowded bank through heavy traffic.

President Tubman's birthday
After MF Kid's Club 's football and kickball competition last week - unfortunately they lost – a long weekend started. President Tubman's birthday, so Monday was a day off.

On Sunday, the actual anniversary date, Roos and I went to a local beach, where a party was going on. Jonathan had already warned us for many displays of public drunkenness on holidays, and it proved to be true. Even before noon. Roos and I had a beer along with the Liberians, but we left on time - it is not really nice when people swallow a shot of gin every five minutes in the scorching hot sun.

Monday afternoon we spent with Mary and her family, where we all get tasty and spicy Liberian food and dance on the grass. We end the evening, just the two of us, with a Savanna (South African cider) at Golden Beach on a crab-studded shore.

Ebola is real?
Meanwhile, we haven't missed the news that three new Ebola cases have been registered in the previously Ebola-free Liberia. We are a bit more careful at washing hands, but it hasn't made us feel really anxious. Everyone still takes taxis and touches each other, although it is unclear where the ebola came from this time. I can suddenly imagine how things escalated last year.

Incidentally, we talked to two Dutch women who lived here during the Ebola crisis, and their vperspective on the whole period was very refreshing.' In the West, we've been told that foreign NGOs did all the work, but according to these ladies it was the Liberians themselves who went into the communities and really made contact with the population. They just didn't have a good PR machine.

Final week
Meanwhile  the last week has arrived. Preparations for the launch are ongoing, but made difficult by a broken generator, and in between there is still time to enjoy a tourist outing or dinner. I'm not going to miss everything here. I won't, for example, miss the mice and the cockroaches that terrorize our bedroom. But that's about it.

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