Saturday, March 05, 2005

Blue Clay People by William Powers

In 1999 William Powers went to Liberia, then run by the infamous Charles Taylor, to run Catholic Relief Services. Though the cover blurb calls him "fresh-faced" he already had some experience: just not in Africa. Liberia had lots of surprises for him: some external and some evoked from within him.

He clearly did a lot of nip and tuck on his story to try to give it a little drive and dramatic appeal--nobody's life reads that neatly. And he makes it sound as though he had more feeling for Sapo National Park than he let himself have for any human.

Liberia is one of those places where grand theories of aid and of good intentions meet the road--and turn to dust. Spend good money to build badly needed bridges--which the Oriental Timber Company promptly tears down to build sturdier ones to handle log transport. Nobody talked to the OTC beforehand, because they couldn't be trusted anyway. Pay for a village to to build a new farm type, and they'll tear it down so you can pay them again next year. Everybody from the driver to the Supreme Court is corrupt and looking for ways to siphon off something from the goody stream. Or is it corruption if you're trying to keep your family from starving?

Want to complain about the OTC logging where it shouldn't, or its shady tactics and private army? You might want to be out of the country when you do.

Want to take in the beautiful tropic sunset walking along the beach? It ain't called PooPoo Beach for nothing.

"Miss Manners" wrote of her childhood something along these lines (from memory) "When he discovered where we were moving to, and that post included a residence with servants, my father sat us down and said 'It takes a while to get used to having servants. It takes about two minutes. It takes about two years to get used to not having them any more.'" Powers discovers the same thing. At first he's deeply uncomfortable with being the "bossman" and having a driver. And then he discovers, and is outraged at, how deeply isolated the foreign community can be. And then he starts to learn why they isolate themselves.

Wonderful ideas turn to dust. Sometimes through outright incompentence: like USAID building a market building hours from any village or existing market. Or building a swamp-rice paddy in a swamp that's only a swamp during the rainy season. Sometimes through failure to understand the culture; as with his own guinea-pig project.

His heroes are Gabriel, the untiring idealist; and Jacket, the cynic who wants everyone to have a bed. And as the country goes to hell again and the NGOs pull back and make contingency plans for evacuation his heroes make unexpected choices, and he has hard duties:

"People cried when I handed out those severance letters." "It's not your fault." "That sounds like a line from a movie. Anyway it feels like it is." I stared out the window. OTC had penetrated even farther into the Krahn-Bassa National Forest, supposedly a protected rainforest. Two OTC trucks tailgated us, flashing their lights to pass. Momo let them by, and a cloud of dust covered our Land Rover. We rolled up the windows, coughing. The drivers were Asian. We rolled on for a long while, no one speaking. Finally I said, "Do you know one CTS paycheck here feeds fifty people?" Momo jumped in when he heard th is. "Yeah! Everybody want to eat some. Next minute--what?!--money small!" "Then why do you give to everyone?" Susan asked him. "People talk. They say you mean, you greedy. Your relatives gossip. Anyway, they gotta eat too. How I going to let them hunger when I got something in my pocket?" "It's the original insurance polity--a traditional safety net," Susan said. "Also a race for the bottom," I said. "What is the incentive to get ahead personally if everything gets shared equally in the end?" "Ah, but when you give, you get to be the bossman!" Susan said.

And his villains are the warlords, and the economic situation, and the "pepper" sneezed into everyone's soul--including his own. Oh, and missionaries. It really gets under his skin when The Economist describes him and his ilk as "secular missionaries."

He gives a good picture of Liberia, as far as I can remember (and extrapolate from what I've heard since I left). I can't verify his description of life among the expats: life has to be much different now because of the war and boy soldiers; and the missionaries I knew then weren't much like his NGO expats now. But the fundamentals of living in Liberia were pretty much the same. Go read it.

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