Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Overview of the Villages

Before I go any further in documenting my time in the rural hinterlands of Liberia, I thought it would be helpful to give a quick tour of the villages, Boi Town (pronounced "Boy") and Kpellemue (pronounced "Belly-moo"), which are nearest to Gbanga city in Bong County. I did this walkthrough at the end of my stay, and planned it so that it was midday when people would be working and I wouldn't be ransacked by each and every villager eager to say hi.

From village to village it's about a 15 minute walk, but I've condensed it (and added music) for your sanity. Along the way I point out a few key people and places, some of which I'll refer to in subsequent posts. You'll also notice me repeating the same several phrases - I had the greetings down pretty well, as well as commonly used items for me like "cutlass" and "country axe", but beyond that I pathetically defected to English. Needless to say it led to some interesting, if frustrating, conversations.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Living Their Life: Entering 2 Weeks of Immersion and Uncertainty

I was probably scared, early on in my trip. Since I set off I’d wanted to live in a village, but I've balked. I’ve lived in South African slums for several days, had a few nights’ stay in Bangladeshi villages, and trampled around countless times for hours on end through ghettos and rural communities in the world’s poorest countries. But I wasn’t living their life. I was observing, interviewing, walking around, going to social events – and my Western preoccupations were never really checked at the door. I was always planning, producing, multi-tasking.

Finally in Liberia everything came together: a harvesting season (where labor is needed and I could be used), an English speaking country, and a connection to a villager. So, a friend of a friend of a friend said sure, his father would put me to work. Not knowing any of these people, as usual, I just took their word and snagged a free ride one Saturday morning, heading several hours over crumbling roads into the war-ravaged interior of the country.

Arriving in the small town of Gbarnga, I met my friend of a friend, Johnny, at his Carter Center office. An impressive individual, Johnny served as my contact in case anything went wrong. He introduced me to Cooper, the son of the old man I’d be working for. I hopped in the back of truck with Cooper and his friend, and we drove through a light rain shower off to the village. I was nervous. Two weeks, alone in the bush, as an outsider to a bunch of people with whom I have nothing in common. What would we talk about? How awkward would it be living with the old man? What if I got sick? (I brought no medicines, no water purification, nothing) And perhaps my biggest concern: what if I was just bored all the time?

When we arrived, some half hour later (not far, but far enough to see no trace of modern civilization), we were in solid bush. The village was Boi Town. I hopped out of the back, and met Togbah, a short, scruffy old man with graying hair, a strained face, and condemning eyes that were initially hidden behind a big grin and welcoming attitude (pictured in orange shirt). He insisted I call him his Papa (pronounced “Pap – A”), as he was known in the village as the Papa. My things were dropped off at his house, which was quite impressive, and then we walked to his farmhouse, five minutes away. His daughters were pounding rice and his wife was busy at the fire. From his farmhouse we made stops at every home and person, introducing me. Finally we came to the village “restaurant” that serves breakfast and lunch, run by the wife, Framadah, of Togbah’s younger brother Amos.

“Do you want to bath?”, asked Amos. “What?” I asked, bewildered. In hindsight, it was really dumb for me to assume I’d bath at the house, since the village has no running water. Next thing I knew, I found myself stripping down by a murky puddle next to an old guy I’d met 30 minutes prior so that we could cup water from the puddle and splash ourselves clean. So much for small talk.

That night dinner was delivered to me and Togbah at his house. Everyone else claimed they had eaten, so his wife Gamay (pronounced “Ga – may”), his 18-year-old daughter Esther, Ma-Mary the 2-year-old toddler, and others including James (in red hat) and Goma (pronounced “Go – ma”, pictured in orange shirt helping to find a creative way to hang my mosquito net) who were somehow related to Togbah, sat around watching Togbah and I eat this large portion of rice, greens, and fish. It was very awkward – almost like the white man and alpha male got all the food and everyone got what was left over. Had they really eaten?, I wondered. After dinner we sat around, in the dark, passing a bottle of hard liquor between Togbah, James and me while everyone watched. Two sips later I was already feeling the buzz. Looking back, that first bottle was a warning sign of things to come from Togbah.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Punk'd: Liberia Style

What works for development? One of the main problems with development is that in many cases, we simply don’t know. Failed approaches get tried over and over again by different organizations or even the same ones – in Ghana, an organization with which I worked was planning a community grain storage scheme in the same manner that had previously failed. When I got assigned to the task, I started asking questions, doing interviews, and digging deep for data – at least in the handful of organizations with which I worked, there wasn’t any organized manner for looking at past results (partly due to digitization only since the late ‘90s). And there certainly isn’t any database between organizations to document past experiences. So, most of the records are either buried deep in the archives, found in some long chain of emails, or recalled only from the memories of development workers who may or may not still be with the organization.

Compounding this problem is that even when you do find the records, it’s almost always a self-evaluation. What a breeze Vanderbilt would’ve been had I been able to grade myself! I was actually brought on with TechnoServe in Mozambique to gauge the impact of its poultry project. I tried to be objective as possible, but when the organization that you’re evaluating is paying your bills and giving you all the contacts, there will be some bias. And there’s pressure to paint a positive picture, because that improves your chances of getting a gig at another project, as it did for me in Ghana. Most NGOs are guilty of this.

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) is trying to change this. Based out of Yale, the NGO and its sister organization J-PAL at MIT are conducting randomized controlled experiments to test and improve the effectiveness of poverty alleviation interventions. So, they will generally go to an NGO that has or will have a program soon starting, take a baseline survey of random villages both included and excluded from the intervention, and after the intervention administer the same survey to the same villages.

IPA interested me because of its unique role as an NGO that supplies the implementing NGOs with the information they need (though IPA has recently started doing implementation itself). To get to know the organization better, I volunteered just for a week and a half helping design a very small part of a survey that was to determine whether peace education was worthwhile (peace education is big in post-war Liberia). The UN and Liberian government had implemented a huge program to train communities in conflict resolution.

For my part, the setup was that after the team had finished administering the survey to the entire village and right before they were to leave, several enumerators were to get into a staged fight in the presence of the village chief. How would the chief respond? Had the training improved his “conflict resolution”? I was tasked with designing the skit and training the enumerators to act it out. Not the budding Shakespeare everyone believes me to be, I asked for the help of some locals in writing it. Training them was hilarious – when they practiced it out in the church (above), several unknowing pedestrians came by to try to mediate the fake fight. Liberians (and I tend to believe Africans in general) are amazing performers, at least when it comes to getting in fights – I think because they often do get in real fights themselves.

It really got fun when we went to local villages to practice on unsuspecting village leaders. We first asked permission to act it out, but this didn’t work since they knew what was coming. I did a quick 180 and in the next village we did a fake mini survey as a pretext for being there. I excused myself to go to the bathroom so that I – as the survey team leader – could not be assumed by the chief to take action when the fight broke out. I took a video, which was previously posted but had to be taken down in response to IPA's human subjects liabilities. The chief comes out saying, “We don’t fight here! I will fine you!”, and the village chair soon after runs out too. From there we go to the palava hut, and evenutually reveal the skit as a fake. There’s a moment of disbelief and then everyone just starts laughing hysterically. Invariably this was the response of the villagers. Everyone was a good sport, and the chiefs were especially interested to know how they performed.

(Ivory Coast Update: On Thursday the election results were announced with opposition candidate Ouattara winning in a 54% to 45% margin. On Thursday night, incumbent president Gbagbo's ally in the Constitutional Council called the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission null and void. Gbagbo has instituted a curfew, closed borders, and threatened to kick out the UN envoy. Gbagbo's henchmen are patrolling the streets of Abidjan, and on Thursday night they opened fire at point blank range, killing 8, at the opposition party headquarters in Youpougon, the exact compound I spent time interviewing opposition supporters. Riots have broken out across the country. As I write this, both candidates are being sworn in as president, and the country is on the brink of civil war. International community supports Ouattara, and the African Union is holding an emergency summit to decide a course of action. The news is coming out by the hour. For a good article and stunning pictures, go here.)