Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Diamond Differences

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This time I had no choice.  I was in the middle of nowhere, so hitching was the only way to reach the closest city 200 km away.  Exhausted with malaria, I sat at the side of the road waiting for a vehicle.
I was stuffed in the back of a jeep, sharing a one person seat with two other people.  The road was unbearable.  Spoiled by the rain and bad driving, we got stuck several times behind vehicles which had been too hasty.  Stopping gave me a chance to vomit out my guts and for others to feel sorry for me.

Upon passing through the border of Liberia, I was put in the front seat of a taxi and waited for it to be filled.  My brain didn't work fast enough to think of finding a ride which was leaving immediately.  So I just sat there.  For hours.

Finally, here I was in Monrovia.  Desperate for rest, I stopped in a compound and lay down on a sun lounger at the side of a pool.  I was woken up hours later by a man asking what I was doing.  He invited me to stay in his home, where I stayed for the next week.  He turned out to be the second richest man in the second poorest country in the world.

For the following three weeks, I was shown dramatic differences in wealth in this country.  This also reflected back to what I saw in Sierra Leone, but hadn't fully comprehended at the time.  These two countries have such a large expat community, especially Liberia; with NGO's (Non-Governmental Organisations), big businesses, and funding from Europe and North America at every turn.  Both countries are rich in natural resources like diamonds, gold, and iron ore, among others.  Yet, despite all these facts, more than 60% of people live below their national poverty line in both countries.

It was nice to have a rest from the difficult conditions I had been living in for the past few months, so I couldn't really complain about staying with rich, white people and hanging around with them every day.  They were all very nice, interesting people.  But it was strange to adjust to this way of life when in the back of my mind I knew I was in poverty-struck Africa. Here's how my story in Monrovia went...

One night I went to a party of the man who I first stayed with, the second richest man in Liberia; only expats were allowed into the party, money was spent on alcohol, and by the end of the night there were people falling all over the dance floor from drunkenness.

The following day I was kindly invited to a buffet lunch; it was Easter Sunday so they had hidden painted eggs all around the house for us to find.  I admit I had a good time, had some nice conversations, ate some good "western" food which my stomach was dying for after such a long time away from it.

I met some journalists from Canada at this lunch, and managed to tag along with them on their business trip to Robertsport.  It was really interesting to hear them talk about how they create a story, how they find out all the information they need.  They asked about my trip and were astounded at what I was doing.  From then on they kept asking me questions about what I had come across, about people, about poverty.  I shared my stories willingly of course, but it did feel strange to be being interviewed by these people, who were also in Africa.  It was like they didn't know that they were here too.
Whilst the journalists were out collecting information each day, I spent my time at the beach and in the town.  There was a little boy, Elijah, who was always hanging around the beach, collecting coconuts and mango's to sell to people.  He said he didn't need money from me because I was his friend.  I ignored those comments and gave him a few dollars here and there.
When he was still at the beach in the afternoon, I asked "Why aren't you at school?"
"Oh, I didn't collect enough coconuts" he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"The teacher said no money, no school."
"What about your parents?"
"My mum is in Monrovia because my grandmother has died.  So I'm here by myself.  That's why I'm collecting fruit to sell."
I costs five US dollars for the books he needed for the whole school year.  I gave him the money.  He gave a fast, heavy sigh, smiled, said "thankyou my friend" and ran up the hill towards school.  I saw him later and he told me all about what he had learnt that day.
Later in the day, he hurt his foot playing in the sand.  He ran to me to tell me.  I cleaned it and wrapped it up in a bandage.  I felt like I was his mother!
When the journalists had got their stories, we returned to Monrovia.  I gave Elijah some money and told him to be careful with it and don't spend it all at once.  He is ten years old, so I doubt he will be manage it all that well.

After spending a week with the second richest man in Liberia, my already-organised Coushurfing host returned from a trip home, so I moved in with him for the following two weeks.  Mario had a good job, lots of money, but I could see that he didn't spend it on himself; he always talked about his family and what he had done for them.  Staying with him was very funny, he lived such a bachelor lifestyle!  One evening we had cereal and beer for dinner.

I was invited to a weekend trip to Mount Nimba by the friendliest couple I've ever met, Katie and Guillaume, and some of their other friends.  We had a great time, everyone was so friendly and fun to be around.  We walked up Mount Nimba, (where I unfortunately began vomiting; the first signs to me that the malaria had come back for a third time.  I won't tell that story again, it's the same as the last one), and saw the beautiful landscape together.
     After expecting an untouched jungle with an abundance of wildlife, I was saddened to see that whole mountain tops had been dug into mines to collect iron ore from the 1950's until the 1970's and left to stay like that for eternity.  On the other hand, this did create a unique picture of layered hillsides as well as a lake that had burst through from a spring during the mining, the iron ore even made the lake a bright blue colour.
     During the long drive back to Monrovia, we stopped in a leper colony to check out a shop which had been recommended to us by somebody.  The people of the village handmade wicker baskets, which I have to admit, were really impressive and would probably sell in Europe for more than fifty euros each.  There was a church service going on when we arrived, and when I went to watch the people singing their hymns, a small boy reached out to shake my hand.  For the first time on my trip in Africa, I had to refuse.  Leprosy is spread through touch.  He looked at me confused.  My heart sank.
     As we waited for some of our group to purchase some baskets, some of us sat in the car waiting.  The conversation was something about this new technology that had been developed where you put this tiny computer in your shoe and it can somehow tell you directions to the place you desire to go....our driver of the rented car, a Liberian man, who hardly talked for the entire trip, burst out "Why do you need that?!"  Yeah, that's right, what a stupid conversation to be having when we were in Africa, for one, and in the middle of a leper colony, for another.  I wasn't the only one who though this; we all looked at each other in embarrassment.

None of this story is meant to attack the people I met, who were all very nice people, or anybody else who is working and living in Liberia.  I am only explaining my experience and that it felt very strange and kind of unethical to be so separated from the real world, living a life of luxury, drinking, partying, playing, not being involved in the Africa that surrounds you.

After writing this post, I can see it will be really difficult for me to adjust when I return home. 

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