Friday, May 25, 2012

Think about your hottest summer. The kind where you start sweating when you wake up and the sheets are already soaked. You hop in the shower hoping to cool off. Problem is no water. Oh and no electricity. Welcome to Liberia. Even if you could afford 54 cents per kilowatt hour, most people can't, (.6 % of the population is connected according to the Guardian Newspaper,) the power here is hit and miss. Liberia is currently powered by diesel. All of it. Those that aren't hook up to the grid, which is being helped along by Manitoba Hydro International, use generators. To the tune of $800,000 a month.

Woke up on Sunday morning hoping for a relaxing morning and the comfort of hot coffee, a cool shower and air condition to take the edge of the stifling heat but was reminded that life is that simple for most people here. Over night we had one of Monrovia's rainy season storms so I have to put up with the inconvenience of no power and no water. Just outside our comfy compound it's just the daily struggle for most people who could only dream of 24 hour power and a clean source of water. I would if they are even aware, or dare to dream of what we take for granted. Yes for some Canadians life can be called a struggle. Mortgage payments, car loans, student debt for some, maybe not having steak for dinner tonight. But its all relative. So before you decide that I just being a sanctimonious arse, take a breath and be happy that where you were born makes a big difference and count yourself lucky and thank your lucky starts that your water works, you have electricity and food in the cupboard.

Now I'm off to have another cup of coffee, as I was lucky enough to boil the kettle before the power died the morning. As for shower, it can wait, and is going to have to.   

Thursday, May 17, 2012

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Why is it that a government would step into a pollution case and ask the local residents not to pursue legal action? Instead the Liberian government urged arbitration. Ok I guess, but 2 years since the pollution at the Firestone Rubber Plantation on the edge of Monrovia nothing has changed. They've built community buildings and improved the roads except they haven't stopped the pollution. Wouldn't that be the first thing they should do?

We went with two journalists from Power TV, to update the story. When we arrived at the village of Kparn Yah it didn't take long for someone to call the local chief and have him come down to meet us. In the waiting time we wandered back to the stream, which still appears a cloudy colour. We spoke to local residents who have complaints of stomach ailments and of the smell of the water. Of course there are new wells, but they still take the water from the underground aquifer. So it's still polluted. While we where there a local Firestone crew was chlorinating a well. Great, nice patch work, but why wouldn't they address the problem, and get rid of the pollution. I guess I'm missing something, but I'm a little thick sometimes.

When we went back to meet our driver and truck, (more on that later), we finally had an audience with the local chief who said that things are fine and improving. Just that it's a four year plan. He was well dressed, well spoken, (read: well-briefed,) and it was clear that if we had spoken to him first we would have been given the boot.

We headed off to get some pictures of the source of the pollution and shoot Henry's on camera. Well it wasn't long before security showed up and said we where trespassing and there are rules. Apparently the public road isn't public. We had what we needed and headed off.

Next stop the EPA. They apparently have no comment as it is a Presidential committee that is in control. They have no background, and no interest in this pollution. Let me get this right; the EPA doesn't look at pollution? Me thinks there is a problem here.

The boys of Power TV filed their update and it was well-received. They texted us at 7:30 am the next day to see what we where up to and what they could work on with us today.

All in all a very interesting exercise in local reporting here in Liberia.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Our first attempt at getting a story done on Maternal Health was friday. We had planned well, contacts made, things lined up, driver booked, all ducks in a row. First stop was to be the new Ministry of Health build for a clip on the stats. 994 women die per 100,000 live births. We arrived early thanks to a speedy driver. After making contact with the interviewee, we soon discovered that he first had to run his friend to the bank, 20 minutes or so. Which of course means 2 hours and I still might not come back. We did get a phone number, room number and name for a Dr. that might help us. So after about 20 minutes of no answer Laurel just started knocking on office doors. Eventually she made it up to meet the Chief Medical Officer of Liberia. Once in while being pushy works for you.

Interview in the can we headed for lunch. Lebanese food. It's safe, and everywhere. Next up was to pick up Nathan. A JHR graduate and the Human Rights Reporter for Liberian Broadcasting System. It was great to have him along as he was able to translate the driver's English for us. As we headed out of town we had to detour around some road closures and wound up in the back streets of Red Light District. One of the best places to get robbed or pick pocketed. Fortunately for us we just leaned on the horn to get people out of the way. Your usual foreigners just pushing their way around.

Once we got back on the paved road it seems the driver decide that speed was best. Never mind the potholes that would swallow you front end and snap the axial or blow out your tires, 65 mph it is. After about 45 minutes of this and a few “slow the #$% down” he managed to blow the shock absorbers out on the car that someone lent him.

We turned off the pavement and headed into the bush. Destination Todee District. Laurel had arranged for some mid wives to meet us at a Gobah Town. They are luck enough to be serviced a Presbyterian clinic nearby. We then pushed on further into the jungle and headed for Qurment where there are no services. If there are complications at birth, the local women must walk, or hope that someone can drive them to the closest facility. 30-45 minutes by car. A hell of a lot longer if your walking. Most of these deaths are preventable by North American standards. Not so much here. Simple minor things can kill you.

While in Qurment we met two week old Prince. He was lucky. His mother gave birth with no complications with the help of the local mid wife.

After our little exploration in the Liberian bush we crammed back into the beaten vehicle and headed for home. We limped back to Monrovia at a slower pace with an experience that I can only show you a few photos that don't do it justice.

I hope to post the story when we get it together in the coming days.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We got to meet with our Mentees today.  Henry, Akai, ans Estelle.  Dedicated journalists for Liberia's Power TV.   We hope to encourage some of their stories on environmental, political, women's issues while we are here.  TV here is emerging so there are some technical issues.  The gear they use is a little older than what we use, but a camera is just a tool so one must overcome the obstacles and get it done with what you have.  

They do a regular evening newscast at 9 pm for approximately and hour. Just looking at lastnights newscast and its great to see that the top stories where about landrights, oil rights and the recent appointment of the Presidents son as Board Chair of the National Oil Company.  A pro bono position, but    do to him being the son of the President raises some transparency issues.

There are some great stories here to tell and I hope that Laurel and I can bring you some of them. Here is a few pictures from outside Power TV's offices.

Monday, May 7, 2012

As we dropped out of the clouds and landed on the newly repaired runway (thanks for trashing it Air France,) you could see the lushness.  Many many shades of green.  (Which for a colour blind guy, is pretty good.)   After they popped the doors on the plane you could feel the heat rolling down the plane to my seat in the back.  The shimmering waves of a plus 36 degrees, something that I was happy to embrace.  Ok maybe not that happy.   We zigged and zagged our way through passport control in the tiny Roberts International Airport.  I laughed out loud as the Chinese passengers cut in front of people in the line up, some things never change.  After picking up our bags and my cases, we headed out the door through customs who took one look at all my stuff and waved us through.   

Monrovia passes the airport road test.  You can tell a lot about a place on the drive in from the airport.
People going about daily life, trying to make a buck selling what ever they can on the side of the road.  A fairly good road I might add.   The odd garbage fire to jog that smell of a 3rd world country from the back of you head.

Laurel and have moved into our 2 bedroom apartment, and spent our first full day doing the usual business of sim cards and cell phones, rocket stick and internet connections.  A few groceries and some general orientation and we are good to go for our first day at Power TV tomorrow.

We were treated to a great lighting show tonight. Unfortunately our place doesn't have a great vantage point for shooting such a storm, but I'm sure I'll get a few pictures at some points.  For now I will leave you with these from Day one.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dirty, greasy and tired.....and I'm not even there yet.

Flight path; May 3rd, 11 am, customs and check in. 1 pm flight Ottawa to Toronto. 5 pm flight Toronot to Montreal. 7:45 flight Montreal to Brussels. May 4th, land in Brussels at 6 am. 12:10 Departure Brussels for Abidjan, Ivory Coast about 7 hours in the air. After an hour and forty five minutes on the ground, depart for Monrovia. Arrive and begin circling

As weather can affect air travel, we circle Roberts Airfield in Monrovia. We then atemp a landing in heavy thunderstorms and at just below 3000 feet, the pilots decide to abort the landing do to heavy rain and standing water on the runway. We circle again. After a few minutes we are diverted to Sierra Leon's Freetown. After landing without incident, we refuel and wait.

Information trickles in. It appears that an Air France plane attempted to land after us. They landed yes, but in the process have wrecked 1100 metres of runway and there plane. Oh and the other 1800 metres in under water. 7 cm we are told.

So, after about and hour and a half on the tarmac in Freetown, we are informed that we will head back to Brussels. So that's about 6 and bit hours back to Brussels. All in all about 18 hours in the same seat on the same plane.

After navigating the Brussels airport, Laurel and I finally made it to the Holiday Inn Brussels Airport and now we wait and I right this little missive. Waiting to see we can fly on Sunday at 12:10, or if the repairs will take longer and it means more like Tuesday. The one lingering question I have and can't get an answer for is: do I get aeroplan points for this?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What a nice looking bunch, except for the guy on the far left.

The tiny blond one in the middle is Laurel Clark,  Global Edmonton Journalist extrodinaire. She and I heading to Monrovia, Liberia to mentor some Liberian journalists at Power TV.  This will be a little different for me as I'm usually in a foreign country as it is falling apart, not trying to recover.  Also having time to work on stories for Global National, with an eye to human rights.  It's a program put together with Journalists for Human Rights, ( and Shaw.   Three weeks in length with time for mentoring and time for filing.

Liberia has gone through its ups and downs, most recently trying to recover from a second civil war from 1999 to 2003 if you believe Wikipedia.  It has Africa's first female leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  She was returned to lead a second term in office in November of 2011.  But Liberia suffers from a laundry list of problems that most Sub Sahara nations face.   Clean water, unemployment, and corruption just to name a few.

The idea is that by helping local Liberian journalists improve their coverage of human rights some of this will change without creating dependancy.

The others in the photo, Christina Steven's (Sierra Leone), Sean O'Shea (Ghana), Robin Pierro JHR gifted communications Manager, International Program Coordinator, and the tiny, but experienced CBC reporter Nina Devries (she's off to do 7 or 8 months in Sierra Leone).

More to come in the lead up to departure which is May the 3rd.