Kevin in Liberia

Its Purpose: to raise awareness of current social, political, ethical, and spiritual issues within a relief and development context in Liberia. Its effectiveness is simple: It relies on me, the author, to provide insightful, and often debate-sparking material that will encourage you, the reader to get engaged through comment contributions, emails, and promoting others to read, re-think, and respond to the important issues discussed.

I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom. ~ a prayer by Blaise Pascal

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Liberia's Natural Beauty: Silver Beach (25km Southeast from downtown Monrovia) - an already popular weekend destination of many expat and local beach lovers
Posted by Kev-o-rama

Liberia's Natural Beauty: Robertsport - Africa's third best surf spot and resort destination for thousands of tourists in the near future
Posted by Kev-o-rama

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Wonder Year

Here I am having spent close to twelve months in this recovering and budding Republic of Liberia. One often wonders why God calls them to face certain situations, career paths, or experiences (both good and bad) and what eternal purpose really lies behind it all. The intention of this post is to briefly reflect – I say briefly because I honestly think it will take a few months to fully reconcile what I worked through: the growth and direction that I’ve experienced with respect to my career, both the forced and natural growth/reduction spiritually, as well as numerous social encounters that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I’m labelling this entry as well as my time in Liberia as the “Wonder Year” because I often find myself wondering “why” or “how”:

1. Why was I put in the position I was put in, and how did I use it to benefit others?

2. How could human beings be so “inhumane” during the civil war? (A very foolish question since human nature is sinful, but still a question nonetheless.)

3. How do I deal with the constant begging from a society genuinely in need when my natural reaction would be to turn them away with the excuse that “I’m in Liberia to help the people of Liberia and not begging individuals”?

4. Why is the idea of corruption engrained within individuals as “right”, or “best practice” for all those development workers out there? I’ve come to experience that corruption isn’t an idea or some sort of attainable target at all, it just IS.

5. Why did I act the way I did in differing situations, and how, or would I change the way I faced certain situations if I could do it all again?

6. How am I going to face life back in North America?

7. How can people back home live the way they live? (If they only knew or cared about how people live in Liberia or other traumatised countries around the world. What I’m trying to say is quit worrying about how your waist is going to fit into those pair of pants. Do something useful with your life, before its over!)

Coming over to Liberia in May 2005 as an inexperienced development worker I really didn’t know, and wasn’t given much insight into what to expect. Flying over various countries of North and West Africa on the way here was, in and of itself, an interesting experience. Match those emotions with vague misconceptions and habitual images of Charles Taylor, child soldiers, and informal economies and you have a very nervous first timer to Liberia. This proved to be both harming/challenging as well as tremendously beneficial to myself mentally, spiritually, socially, and all those other words ending in “ally”.

First of all, the shock of coming to any post-conflict country as an inexperienced development worker will have an effect on someone from merely seeing the aftermath and hearing hair-raising stories of 14 years of chaotic civil war and a people who have been in “survival mode” for practically a generation. This feeling is especially compounded when travelling directly from a developed nation such as Canada into a foreign atmosphere such as Liberia. What is probably the most shocking is watching documentaries about the civil war and seeing common landmarks or faces that you know, only in a completely different background of war. At times throughout my stay in Liberia, especially near the beginning, there were times where I felt like I was in mental “survival mode” due to increased stress from work. But as you learn your job it tends to get a lot easier and stress levels tend to diminish. A lot of NGOs believe in and practice employee development in the areas of stress/security management and its role in the increased productivity of employees due to reduced stress, risk, and insecurity levels. I would tend to agree with this practice but unfortunately the disadvantages of a smaller NGO played their roles and either due to lack of financial capacity or the present organizational culture, which often lacks structure and discipline, this level of employee development was not practiced.

I’m not sure what the global definition of culture shock is but I think I can honestly say that I did experience a fair bit of that definition, whatever it may be. Having previously been to Central America I have experienced a bit of “culture shock” so to say but nothing rocks the boat like flying into Liberia for the first time seeing scores of houses either burnt or totally demolished, missing-limbed ex-fighters turned informal parking attendants, and stories of wartime massacres. One can’t help but be shocked by real scenes that Hollywood producers would only dream of reproducing on the big screen. Having been exposed to Liberia and its culture in a very integrated way for one year I can say that going back to Canada could possibly be a lot harder than coming out to Liberia. There is something about poverty that I find very attractive. Don’t read this the wrong way because there is nothing attractive about swollen stomachs due to severe malnutrition or houses made of flattened cars but I do find it attractive how people somehow seem to find happiness amongst all the suffering, disappointment, and ruined expectations.

To wrap up the last year spiritually all I can say is that it was a “rollercoaster ride”. A real shocker, and what proved to be a really tough spiritual issue for me, was the inbred corruption not only rampant in large, “respected”, donor organizations and the public, but also throughout my own organization. This proved to be extremely spiritually taxing and dilapidating. I often wondered why, if God called me into relief/development work, He would bring me to a situation that would, in the end, pull me so far away from Him. Also, at the beginning to the middle of my stay in Liberia, work was so mentally and physically draining that there were times where I would just eat, sleep, and work. The last thing that I would want to do when I got home from work was to read the Bible when that is probably what I needed most at that time. Spiritual discipline was fairly non-existent. I cannot only blame the fact of inbred corruption I also have to blame myself for the decline in my spiritual life. It is just a lot easier to hang out with amazing individuals and watch the latest cricket, football, or rugby match or ride a wave or two down at Silver Beach. And let me say this, the better you get at surfing the more addicting it gets and the greater the chance for “spiritual slacking”.

Having pointed the finger to almost everyone, including myself, for my spiritual downfalls, I definitely have to point my finger a group of individuals that gave me a spiritual boost during my time here. I have to say thanks to the amazing group of individuals at the ELWA compound, and specifically the Samaritan’s Purse house, for their love for God and others and their dedication to the spiritual part of life in Liberia through their Tuesday night Bible studies. Even though they were only twice a month and I often could not attend due to work obligations, I enjoyed and got valuable information out of every one I attended. If it wasn’t for the individuals at Samaritan’s Purse (especially Bev, Kendall, Marcel, Mark, Dave, and Lauren) I don’t want to even think about what sort of mental state I would be in at this moment of my life. They really know how to pull the ‘sane’ out of the ‘insane’. Thanks guys for everything!

To give an in-depth recap of the personal and career growth that I experienced during my year in Liberia would be a very exhaustive exercise but I’ll try and give a fairly comprehensive description, taking into account the attention span of an average reader. First of all, the position as Finance & Reporting Manager pushed me to all limits and forced me to put into practice the five years of schooling in the area of Accounting that I had acquired what seems like many lives ago. The one thing about relief/development work, at least according to a lot of the expat relief/development workers that I know and have talked to, is that it is as much “flying by the seat of your pants” as it is applying what you already know. Mistakes are not shunned on but thought of as part of the overall learning experience because, frankly, the things you encounter on the field no training can prepare you for. If there was an academic or development professional which had all the answers I don’t think we’d see a situation like un-/under-developed Africa that currently exists. In an environment when “productivity” often takes precedence over “product”, quantity often exceeds quality. In no means do I want to put across the message that I did a bad job because I personally know what I did for EQUIP Liberia in my short time will benefit them in the long run as they grow and establish themselves as a larger, more recognized and respected NGO in Liberia. The position really gave me an understanding of how the international community and donor nations interact with the country in question in a relief/development situation, how funds are filtered down through large “coordination type” organizations such as the UN and World Bank to implementing partners, and frankly, who actually gets the job done. I have to look at my time in Liberia as a one year Masters Degree in International Development, a degree where at the end of the day I have gained not only in the knowledge bank but also in the bank account. I have gained an increased respect for people who dedicate and put their own lives on the line to help the poor and have opened up a place in my heart for people caught in situations forced upon them by governments with mal-intent based on money, power, and greed.

I dare not take anything for granted lest I fall into the trap that the majority of Western culture is currently not trying to get out of. A couple days ago, as I walked back from the local postal outlet, I had the opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of living in probably the most stunning part of the world that I’ve ever seen, British Columbia. A postal delivery driver patiently waved me across as I hurriedly shuffled across the entrance of a neighbouring townhouse complex. As he made his way into the entrance behind me, window down, he blurts out to me, “I get paid by the hour!” I could have brewed him a fresh cup of coffee and he would have waited for me. As I continued down the street, wearing the biggest smile and chuckling to myself as I walked, the question popped into my head, “Why did I find this unmotivated display of lack of pride by the postal worker remotely hilarious when it was this same unmotivated lack of pride which drove me crazy during the past year in Liberia?” Oh, the puzzling world we live in today!

As my reflection of Liberia draws to an end for now the ever-looming question remains for me to answer and I still don’t know if I have the answer to “What to do with the blog now that I’m back in Canada?” Thanks to the combined interest of friends & family, the press, and the international community I have to say that what was started as a tool to keep people back home informed on the goings on turned into a representative story of my life in Liberia which benefited a number of individuals including journalists, missionaries, future relief/development workers, and Liberians seeking refuge in other countries among others. The number of people I have met due in part to the blog exceeded any expectations. It helped me form a reputation, whether I liked it or not, for myself in Liberia. I was known as “the guy who climbed the tower”. The hours upon hours of time I spent working on the blog seemed to pay off when I had a dedicated reader express interest in donating £20/month to a Liberian of my choice. It’s a good feeling to know that somebody buys into what you are doing and has the guts to get themselves involved in the work that is happening on the ground.

As far as the future of the blog, I am open to suggestions as to what the blog should look like while I’m outside of Liberia. I wouldn’t rule out the idea that I might be back in Liberia in the near future but there are a lot of important decisions I need to make in the next 4-5 months regarding education, work, and relationships before I can concretely say what my future will hold. I have thought of turning the blog into a fundraising site for different projects in Liberia and that might be a part of the solution but I envision the blog as being a sort of resource material for my readers, the scope of which I’m not quite sure. I have had other expats in Liberia offer to write for the blog and that is still another option. I need your guys’ help on this on!