17 November 2010

The Aid Workers

There was a map of South Sudan on the wall behind his desk. The lines demarcating the boundaries between states were drawn in clear black ink against the smooth ivory paper. Near the bottom, Juba, the capital, was nothing more than a solid black dot.

I had arrived the day before with a few reports about Sudan in my suitcase and a few ideas in my mind of the story I would write. Touch down and lumber across the tarmac in the glare of the midday sun; shuffle through the sweaty crush of immigration; then down a dusty road cut with craters, past slopes of mud huts and charcoal fires, to my pre-fabricated hotel. Internet is out so I can’t confirm interviews. Drop heavily to sleep. Early morning departure, but we’re lost and running late. By the time I arrive at the small compound of the international NGO whose country director I have come to interview, I’m exhausted.

From inside his spare, cement office, sunlight flooding in through the room’s single wood-framed window, I take out my notepad and ask him about the program I’ve been sent to write about it: do you think it will work in South Sudan?

He smiles. “On paper it’s so easy. When you get here, it’s not.”


It takes an enormous amount of vanity—to drop into a country for a few weeks and think that you can capture the reality of a place. Because of course you never can.

Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand. Distrust of outsiders runs deep, but they want to talk too, to vent, to plead: This is what it's really like.


Kim is wearing jeans and tennis shoes and though she is young, she has dark circles under her eyes. Her office is just like everyone else’s in Juba: spare, except for her computer and a gigantic map of Sudan on the wall, marked with red pins where the international NGO she works for has projects.

She tries to explain the basics of their contract with USAID, functionally, how it works. She pulls up spreadsheets and all kinds of official documentation. It becomes a tutorial. Most contracts run about 12-18 months, she says. Barely enough time to get programs up and running, especially because nothing ever gets started until six months after it’s “launched” anyway.

And the donors require NGOs to come up with exit strategies. It’s insane, really: in one of the most underdeveloped countries on Earth, they have to explain how they plan to turn over operations (such as running health clinics) to local authorities once the contract is up.

—We know we won’t be able to and the donors know it too. So, we make it up.


He was one of the first aid workers I ever met. A salesman, he ran a USAID-funded HIV/AIDS project in Southern Africa in the heyday of Bush II’s big push.

One night we had dinner with some American aid workers in Lusaka. Gathered around an outdoor fire, drinking and smoking cigarettes, he expounded on the process people from Washington go through when they come to the field for the first time: the initial whiplash of being face to face with extreme poverty; a sort of guilt-laden depression; and then, the moment:

—They look up at me and ask: what can we do? His eyes were glowing like embers as he spoke. “I say: Follow me!”

A salesman and a savior.


Time is different here, fluid, flexible. Arrive at Medair’s offices, on the dusty road near the airport, around 5 p.m. Jospeh, a twenty-something from Kenya who in the space of one week has become not only my driver but also my fixer—the man knows how and where to get anything—beeps the horn and we wait in silence for several minutes at the dilapidated metal gate.

I used to ask Joseph to come back in one hour, but the assumption that my interview would start on time and last roughly 45 minutes was all wrong. Sometimes the person I’m supposed to interview doesn’t show, and other times, they ask me to stay for dinner. I remember arriving thirty minutes late to meet the country director of an international NGO, an unforgiveable sin back in Washington, and was dumbstruck when he acted as if I was right on time. It didn’t throw off his schedule, it was just part of the rhythm.


The compound where Chuck stays is a fortress. Thick concrete walls, enormous coils of jagged barbed wire, a massive and heavily guarded gate. But inside it’s like summer camp: cottages scattered along winding dirt roads and grassy hillsides.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday. We grab beers and popcorn and sit beneath the shade of a eucalyptus tree. The rustle of the leaves is so pleasant that for a moment I forget it’s pushing 95 degrees out.

Chuck is a straight shooter, a veteran. He knows the problems with aid and isn’t going to make excuses. “Exit strategies are bull shit,” he says. “But changing a system that is so politically entrenched is very difficult. We must be realistic about what we can do.”

Later, I ask him why he came back to the field late in his career after a return to the United States.

He shrugs: I get bored back there.


Some where along the way I realized I didn’t feel normal anymore unless I was getting on a plane every other week. Airplanes became my taxi, and I met a lot of people who traveled much more than I did, for longer periods of time, sometimes years.

I remember being at a dinner one night “at home” in Dar es Salaam. Looking around the table, I realized that each of my friends had just come back from another country or were getting ready to leave. There was Laverty, just back from Joburg, stopping in Dar “for a drink” then on to eastern Tanzania. Mark, on his way to Kinshasa. Alix and Jean were in Nairobi, another about to meet his wife in Kampala, another on her way to Kigali. I too was back for 24 hours, about to head to Liberia.

It’s like a drug. The motion, movement. It’s like noise, drowning out other voices. And for some, it acts like the tide does against the cliffs, chipping away at relationships. It can take real exhaustion or depression (or lots of alcohol) to make you feel quiet again, still.


I used to think it would lessen with exposure. Eventually, I thought, you'd get numb to the shock of poverty, you'd find a way to live with the fact that you're a millionaire compared to the people you have come to serve, to write about.

One morning in Monrovia, I set out with Wilson, my 40-year-old driver who waited out the Liberian civil war by flitting back and forth from Guinea to Cote d’Ivoire doing odd jobs. His contract with the World Bank was a new gig. Each day I needed him, he had work: $5 a day. (I was wracked with guilt on the weekends when I decided to save the $100 a day and use taxis.) When I left, he'd be out of a job.

As we set out he asked if the NGO down the road needed drivers, and if there was someone there I knew whom he could talk to. In an instant, something in my stomach went hollow and queer. I knew his situation, I knew his daily wage, knew it was decent, and I’d met lots of people worse off. But it isn't right—that existence should be so precarious, that distances between people should be so far.

You never get used to it. That obscene fact—that life isn’t fair—stares you in the face everyday, and it is grating and persistent and devastating.

I told a friend about it later. He asked if I felt guilty. No, I said, not guilt. Anger.


Nights in foreign capitals can get lonely. A disappointing meal, not feeling well. Non-descript hotel room, just like all the rest, suitcase on the floor, heap of dirty clothes in the corner, the BBC flickering on the television screen.

Some colleagues in town from Washington, and me, flown in from Tanzania, get to Havana late, looking shabby and tired after a long day’s work. We slump onto the leather couches like puddles, faces blank. After a few beers and a handful of peanuts, we get up to leave, all save one.

“He has a girl here,” a colleague tells me. “Don’t look so surprised. You know the story. Unhappy marriage back home, and it’s so easy out here.”

I meet her one night, out at a club playing pool. She is young and beautiful, in an outfit—black leather boots, a short, backless dress with abrasive metallic detailing—that belies her unassuming manner. She smiles shyly, says she likes my dress. Thanks, I say, I like yours too.

More details emerge as the night wears on: She has a diabetic uncle who our colleague helps to support. She has a day job too, earning money for her family.

"He says they’re alike. He says she’s a survivor."


A colleague and I meet for dinner at Afex, a compound for U.S. contractors on the banks of the Nile. Grab some food (it's all you can eat) and sit down beneath the pale pink and purple twilight sky. Below, the silvery blue iridescence of the Nile is glowing in the half light like the inside of a sea shell.

We talk about work—she's been in the country for more than two years and is a wealth of information—but as the night wears on, and we become flushed with humidity and beer, the conversation trails off like smoke.

—Sometimes I wake up and I’m just angry, she says. I find myself being short with people, almost for no reason. There’s no where to go here, no freedom of movement (international staff cannot have their own vehicles; too much of a liability for the agency), and no one stays. Friends leave.

She speaks expansively—about where she grew up, about her family, and, after some prodding, about a boyfriend in the States. The day before I'd accidentally interuppted their call one afternoon, and overheard his voice on the line saying: I love you I love you I love you. She'd laughed and covered the receiver with her hand.

There are so many late night dinners out with friends, colleagues. Every conversation is the same. They say: put yourself in my shoes.

01 November 2010

Memory (Dispatches from Liberia)

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday at Mamba Point and business is slow. The Lebanese-owned hotel is one of the oldest in Monrovia, perched on a hillside across the street from a beach lined with palm trees, like a scene out of a movie, a tropical paradise.

Except foreigners don’t go there. It’s the locals’ domain, where Liberian boys play soccer, where trash is dumped, where, in some places, people go to defecate. And there is no security along the stretch of sand, so best not to walk there, at least not alone, some say. The hotel has a pool instead, surrounded, like everything else in Monrovia, by thick concrete walls and enormous coils of barbed wire.

Four waiters are sitting on bar stools in the dim half light, talking to the barman. The theme is Irish (who knows why): dark wood paneling, bottles of Jameson along the wall, an Irish flag hanging overhead. There’s a football match on the television; the crowd roars and the waiters look up in unison, eyes fixed on the screen.

In the lounge, a pair of aid workers—a young girl with a pony tail and her older, frumpy colleague—are sitting on the couch with laptop computers glowing in front of them, working. The polished director of an NGO just in from Washington strides into the restaurant where another polished man is waiting to meet him.

Outside, some of the regulars are sitting on the deck in the growing dusk. Three young girls, drunk from an afternoon of white wine and hummus, giggle in the thick night air, faces shiny and tired. A pair of beefy guys with military haircuts pay their bill and eye the girls as they get up to leave. And a fat, bald man with a moustache and his lanky compatriot smoke cigars solemnly, watching the smoke waft through the air in front of them and disappear.


Though it’s right next door, Mamba might as well be oceans away from the hustle and flow of the streets. Life in Monrovia has improved dramatically since the civil war came to an end, but it’s still rough. The streets are littered with the charred carcasses of buildings, dark as coal. Ramshackle houses are built atop the jagged black rocks that jut up out of the ground all over the city, like gigantic claws.

The old presidential office speaks of grander days lost: a wide, elegant half-moon driveway, a towering building on the edge of the sea. But it has been empty since a fire broke out inside soon after President Sirleaf took office. Now it stands rusting, derelict, some people say haunted—by evil spirits maybe or simply the past.


Fourteen years of civil war tore Liberia apart. It made paupers of an already poor population and traumatized everyone. Per capita GDP declined by 87 percent between 1980 and 2005; in 2009, more than half of the population lived on less than US$1 a day and about 80 percent were unemployed.

And the repercussions of sustained violence, of years of persistent threat, appear as cracks, shockwaves. They come out in bursts, unexpectedly, like a car backfiring: stress, outbursts full of rage, panic, fear.

In the car one morning, on our way to a health clinic, I ask James, a Liberian doctor who lived in Monrovia before, during and now after the war: what was it like to be here in those days?

He shook his head and half smiled, looking down at the floor: “We fought for food,” he said. Then his phone chirped and he took it out of his pocket and typed a message.

I looked out the window, into the spit of morning rain, at the people at the market and all the things they were selling: umbrellas, shoes, soap, brooms, mattresses.

A few minutes down the road, James began again suddenly: “Wars were fought on these streets.” I turned to face him. He was staring out the window too, but not at anything in particular. Just looking out past everything, at some secret thing I couldn’t see. “We fought for food.”


Up a dark stairwell, in a row of decaying buildings across from a cliff of rock flecked with shacks that look like they were carved into the face of them, is Tides, a bar on the waterfront. The deck is lined with comfy chairs and expats sipping drinks to the throb of the pop music playing inside.

Just down the beach is a slum. If you grew up on the beach like I did, and are accustomed to beach-front property being the exclusive domain of the rich, the beach slums of Monrovia are jarring. The colleague who met me later, a young Liberian raised in the U.S.—the only one of six siblings to come back to the place he was born—said some 70,000 people live there: 70,000 people in that low-lying crush of tin and cardboard that look as if it’s been smushed flat down against the ground.

There are kids playing soccer there, and a boat is docked in the sand beside several enormous piles of trash. Beyond, a factory, the port, and beyond them, a lightening storm is brewing in the deep purple and gray sky.

They say that President Sirleaf takes her cabinet on tours of the slums. They go to the dirtiest, most squalid places in Monrovia, and she says: Look! We are the government of this.


Things have gotten better, though. Under the watch of a legitimate government backed by a UN peace-keeping operation, the country is enjoying a period of steadily improving peace and stability. Power was restored to the capital, massive amounts of debt have been cut, and the economy is recovering, thanks to investments in physical infrastructure, hefty sums of donor aid and a gradual improvement in security.

Everyone has an explanation for Liberia’s relative success. Strong presidential leadership, trust of the donors, the character of the Liberian people.

I ask a friend one evening: How is it possible—for life to be one way for so long and then start being another? “Take the ex-combatants. Some studies show they reintegrate into society really well. How does it happen?”

—That’s easy, he said, smiling mischievously: Magic. “In some countries they have a ritual before war. Soldiers have a spell cast on them and from that point on their bodies are inhabited by the god of war. At the end of fighting, there is a cleansing ritual to cast out the evil spirit.”

It's an appealing story, I say, but I'm unsatisfied.

—So do people just forgive them?


There’s a night market for locals who can’t get to the markets open during the day. The streets are slick from rain when I go with Charles, a Liberian with gray hair whom the World Bank has charged with looking after me when I arrive. I’d called him in a panic: my computer is about to die! Where can I get an adaptor?

—Ay be right over, he’d said.

The streets are lit by the yellow glow of the kerosene lamps burning on the side of the road, and the market is packed, bustling, a maze of people.

We pull over and Charles tells me to stay inside. As he gets out, a man limps up to him and they exchange a few words. Then the man comes to my side of the car and tries to talk to me through the glass. He is spindly thin and missing an arm. Charles returns and the man approaches again and they talk for a little longer this time, and I’m confused: it seems they know each other. And before getting back in the car Charles reaches into this pocket and gives the guy a little cash.

Back inside, Charles starts the engine and gives me a wry grin: “They used to be our masters,” he says.

The man had been a fighter during the war. People feared him. Now he’s on the street, begging for money.

“Things change pretty quick,” Charles says.


I guess I’m like everybody else: wooed by Liberia’s story of redemption, of coming out of darkness and into the light, as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia recently described it. It’s easy to get sentimental about this kind of story, but I don’t think it’s sentiment that keeps Liberians moving ahead. It is whatever it was in Charles that made him help a man who used to threaten him. It is whatever made James keep going all those years when everyone he knew was hungry and afraid.

Necessity, maybe. You move on because you have to. Or maybe it is anger—an angry refusal to stop believing that tomorrow can be different from today.