Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Farewell to Liberia; itinerary planning

Angola, December 7, 2003

This is my eighth last day in Liberia. Here's my probable itinerary for the next eight weeks. Details subject to change.

  • Friday November 30: Last day in Buchanan

  • Saturday December 1: Fly Monrovia via Dakar overnight to Brussels

  • Sunday December 2: Arrive Brussels, fly to London; Consume litres and litres of fresh milk

  • Monday December 4 to Friday December 8: Work at Merlin London HQ, completing a hospital patient satisfaction survey analysis and report, debriefing for Liberia and briefing for Sri Lanka; Watch the new James Bond film.

  • Tuesday December 12: EuroStar London to Brussels - then Amsterdam

  • Sunday December 17: EuroStar Brussels to London

  • Monday December 18: Dad arrives in London; to Aunt Jill's in Nottingham

  • Wednesday December 20: Fly East Midlands Airport to Cyprus with Dad

  • Wednesday December 27: Return Cyprus to East Midlands Airport; To York

  • Thursday December 28: National Rail Museum and Humber Bridge with Dad

  • Saturday December 30: Dad to Canada; To Belfast

  • Tuesday January 2: Belfast to London

  • Wednesday January 3: London to Ottawa

  • Friday January 5: Ottawa via Chicago to Washington DC

  • Sunday January 7: Pick up, load U-Haul truck with personal effects; Drive U-Haul to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

  • Monday January 8: Drive U-Haul to Syracuse, New York

  • Tuesday January 9: Drive U-Haul to Ottawa

  • Wednesday January 10: Unload U-Haul in Osgoode

  • Saturday January 13: Fly Ottawa to London

  • Sunday January 14: Fly London to Sri Lanka????

Friday, November 10, 2006

Liberia exit announcement; Buchanan travel guide

Near Woldia, Ethiopia, 2003?

After decisions that involved a LOT of factors I now know I will be leaving Liberia on Friday December 1.

I was recently asked to prepare text for a Merlin Buchanan visitors' guide. It is here on the right. Please bookmark this page if Buchanan Liberia is in your future travel plans.

The Buchanan field site is about 3 hours drive from Monrovia. The first hour is the same as the drive to Roberts International Airport and is smooth and fast. Most of the last two hours are rough. The road is almost all paved but full of potholes. The nicest part is immediately after the airport where the road passes through the Firestone plantation at Harbel. This is also where there is the closest useful supermarket to Buchanan.

Five of Merlin’s current ten Primary Health Care clinics are accessed by the road from Harbel to Buchanan. The first in this direction is at Owensgrove – it is a couple of hundred metres south from the main road. This clinic is easier to access from Monrovia than from Buchanan. The next clinic is at Bockay Town – it is a couple of hundred metres north of the road. Bockay Town is about one and a half hours from both Monrovia and Buchanan. The side road to the next clinic – Little Bassa - connects to the main road is less than half an hour further on towards Buchanan but the additional ride to the clinic takes 45 minutes in good weather, longer in the rain, and forever if the bridges are damaged. The fourth clinic at Lloydsville is beside the main road and is about an hour from Buchanan. The last clinic is at St. John, is also beside the road, and is only about half an hour from Buchanan.

One of the other five clinics is in Buchanan. It is the Well Baby clinic and specializes in Maternal Health Care. Three more clinics - Tubmanville, Compound #3 and Gardour - are on a road leading north from Buchanan and one – Foster Town – is further east. Both Gardour and Foster Town clinics take a couple hours to reach when the weather is good.

The road from Monrovia is known as Tubman Street when it reaches Buchanan. The Merlin compound is a few hundred metres from Tubman Street – ten minutes drive from the arched ‘Welcome’ when the roads are good or about twenty minutes when it is necessary to drive a longer detour.

The Merlin compound really consists of two adjacent rented properties – the office compound which includes the main office building (which includes the radio room, two medical staff offices and two guest bedrooms), garage, logistics office, drug warehouse, security booth, fuel depot and transit warehouse; and the residential compound which includes the expatriates’ residence (with four bedrooms) and the airy Palava hut which is used for meetings, training, and quietness.

The residence has, apart from the four bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, two bathrooms and an enclosed porch. There is wireless Internet but it doesn’t work during heavy storms. There is DSTV television but that also can fail during bad weather.

The office compound has Internet provided by a cable network to most desks. Expatriates and the two most senior national staff have their own computers but other staff share a couple of common computers, one of which serves as a networked file server.

Current Merlin expatriate staff in Buchanan are the Project Coordinator, the Field Medical Coordinator, the Primary Health Care Supervisor and the Hospital Head Nurse. Senior national staff are the Finance / Administration Officer and the Logistics Officer. Under the Logistics Officer are the head guard and the head driver. Under the expatriate PHC Supervisor are four national health workers.

Merlin employs a housekeeper and a cook. Chicken and rice are very frequently prepared.

The only tourist attraction in Buchanan is the beaches. The farther beach, only accessible in the dry season, is spectacular but lacks facilities. The closer beach has had a bar but as of this writing it is closed. The Liberian Agriculture Company has a rubber plantation (about an hour from Buchanan) which has a charming waterfall and a fairly nice restaurant.

Back in Buchanan there are two bar/restaurants. One is called the ‘E.K.’ and the other, which also features dancing, is the ‘Ocean View Entertainment Centre’. Both feature hilariously bad service but rather good chicken. Vegetarian dishes can be served but it is best to request it in advance. The Ocean View Entertainment Centre is beside the Ocean View Cinema which features Nigerian films and live football transmissions.

There are a few more bar/discos. Notable is ‘The Village’. One or two petrol stations also serve drinks – particularly ‘Millers’ and the ‘Can Jah Filling Station’.

There are markets and countless stalls, kiosks and shops but only one supermarket. It offers basics including alcohol and non-perishable foods but very nearly nothing fresh. It also sells motorbikes and generators.

Visitors might be glad to have brought their favorite toiletries or specialized foods but it is quite possible to survive in Buchanan with what is available.

Guests are accommodated in the two spare rooms in the office building. The housekeeper will refresh the rooms daily except on Sundays. Laundry will be returned in about two days. Three meals are prepared by the cook every day except on Sundays. It is best to announce vegetarianism ahead of time – it will be catered to. Guests are welcome to contribute US$3 per day for meals.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Islamic Aid?

Near Hargeisa, Somaliland
March 2003

Sorry, it has been about a month since my last entry - but that time went very quickly for me. I've been very very busy at work and there have now been a few developments.

The newest is that I've decided that I wouldn't accept any renewal offer with Merlin in Liberia. It's nothing against Merlin - I've applied for several Merlin jobs in other countries (and a few non-Merlin jobs). I've had two good-feeling interviews for a similar job in Darfur and tomorrow morning I'll have an interview for an equivalent to my current job in Sri Lanka.

In order to impress Islamic Aid (apparently unsuccessfully) for a photographer position I posted this portfolio of some of my developing country shots. (I've used a few on my blog pages.)

I will probably leave Liberia on December 6. First I'll go to London for debriefing and then some visiting. Dad and I are talking about going to Malta for Christmas. Then I'll come back to Canada and even the States for a little bit... I'm telling prospective employers that I'll be available in mid-January. (Any prospective employers out there?)

Hey! I'm not able to see many good movies here - in fact very few at all because I don't buy pirated DVDs - but my friend Nienke wrote so effusively about Code Inconnu that I had it sent by Amazon. Though it's directed by Michael Haneke it reminds me so much of films by my favorite director, Atom Egoyan. Lots of long sequence shots. Loved it. Thanks Nienke!

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Nattering on about leaving Buchanan

Near Hargeisa, Somaliland, March 2003

Sorry, it has been about a month since my last entry - but that time went very quickly for me. I've been very very busy at work and there have now been a few developments.

The newest is that I've decided that I wouldn't accept any renewal offer with Merlin in Liberia. It's nothing against Merlin - I've applied for several Merlin jobs in other countries (and a few non-Merlin jobs). I've had two good-feeling interviews for a similar job in Darfur and tomorrow morning I'll have an interview for an equivalent to my current job in Sri Lanka.

In order to impress Islamic Aid (apparently unsuccessfully) for a photographer position I posted
this portfolio of some of my developing country shots. (I've used a few on my blog pages.)

I will probably leave Liberia on December 6. First I'll go to London for debriefing and then some visiting. Dad and I are talking about going to Malta for Christmas. Then I'll come back to Canada and even the States for a little bit... I'm telling prospective employers that I'll be available in mid-January. (Any prospective employers out there?)

Hey! I'm not able to see many good movies here - in fact very few at all because I don't buy pirated DVDs - but my friend Nienke wrote so effusively about
Code Inconnu that I had it sent by Amazon. Though it's directed by Michael Haneke it reminds me so much of films by my favorite director, Atom Egoyan. Lots of long sequence shots. Loved it. Thanks Nienke!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

My first birth

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia.
March 28, 2004

On Thursday I witnessed a birth for my first time. Our visiting medical student, soon-to-be Doctor Charlie has done Caesarian Sections (emergency and scheduled) and assisted with natural births but had yet to deliver a baby naturally herself. (Charlie is specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.) When her chance suddenly arose I rushed along with her to the Liberian Government Hospital to witness the miracle of birth for myself.

When we arrived the 17-year-old prima gravida* mother was 8cm dilated and incredibly noisy. Whenever she wasn't emitting a pure piercing yell she was demanding an operation (she meant a Caesarian) and for someone called 'Jasmine' to 'come to my rescue'.

Charlie quickly took charge but was expecting to learn from the midwives. They were marvelous - guiding but respecting Charlie as she learned the routine procedures. From time to time Charlie or the midwives would refer to the clock or to hand-drawn circles of different diameters on the wall. (It was all too technical for me.) Their style with the Mom was a bit rougher than I expect we have in the west - slapping her when she didn't hold her ankles properly or for any other infringement.

(The Liberian Government Hospital's obstetrics ward has about 12 beds which often have to hold two women and one or two babies each, a nursery with five cots and two incubators - awaiting proper wiring - and a room with two delivery beds. We deliver an average of about twenty babies a month. A large proportion of those are complicated cases because ordinary births can be done at our nearby 'Well Baby' clinic - or, very frequently - at home.)

The midwives tickled the woman's (huge) belly to provoke contractions - which in turn provoked the intense screams, which made me wonder whether Merlin should install sound absorption materials. I tried to pretend to be useful by stroking the mother's head - she didn't pay me the slightest bit of attention. Finally the baby's tiny head emerged. Charlie seemed to yank it around terribly roughly but she knows what she's doing. The head took about a minute of manipulation and then Charlie pulled the rest out easily. It was a baby girl - incredibly tiny but way way more beautiful than I'd ever imagined. (I thought babies were just slimy little animals until this. Maybe that stage starts after a day or two.)

She was a kind of grey-blue colour. I've learned that African babies turn black only a bit later on. The first thing Charlie did once the baby was out was to suction goop out of it's mouth and nose. I was incredibly nervous until it started crying. Then she clamped the cord in two places and snipped it off - leaving about 10cm on the baby. Then I think they washed it and weighed it and stuff like that - I was watching the mom who'd gone catatonic and therefore thankfully quiet.

They wrapped up the baby and showed it to the Mom who just stared without expression. (Later my sister Ruphine told me that when that happens you refer to the history and form certain suspicions. but maybe the Mom was just in shock.) Anyway when we went out into the main OB ward and told the family they started to dance with joy and then I realized that I'd really seen the growth of a family.

I think I'd like to see another birth but I'll never forget this one. I was honoured that I witnessed Doctor Charlie's first complete personal delivery. And I was pleased that the Mom finally stopped her ghastly screaming. It is truly the miracle of birth but I'm so glad I had a vasectomy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Olga's Cat

Sydney Aquarium, Sydney, Australia.
March 29, 2004

Several years ago I vowed to try writing some short stories. Several years later I've only the following to show for myself. (It also sits, horribly formatted, here.)

Olga's Cat
©2001, Tom Haythornthwaite

In January, 1958, Olga Khmelnytsky had been an energetic journalist for Pravda. She normally worked the East Berlin beat but suddenly she was dispatched far to the east of her native Ukraine, to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Kazakhstan. She noted as she rode the frozen Moscow - Tashkent line that the special train was heading hundreds of kilometres from the actual town of Baikonur. This she put to Soviet secrecy, and gave it little further attention. She knew not to refer to the fact in her stories.

Andrei led Frank up the stairs to Valentina's apartment in the eastern suburbs of Kiev. Valentina worked for Andrei but was away and had allowed Frank to crash there. Valentina shared her apartment with Olga, an elderly woman. Frank would be living with Olga for two weeks. This was in 1996, and Olga now spent her days washing and cooking for Valentina in return for reduced rent, reading the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, and trying to share vodka with her cat. The cat kept sniffing and withdrawing from the chipped 'Brandenburg Gate' coffee mug she offered, so Olga would drink the vodka herself. Frank had come to visit Andrei because when business had brought them together the year before, Andrei had said that Ottawa was pretty but Kiev was more beautiful.

If things had occurred differently in that Cold War winter, Frank would never have met old Olga, so many lonely years later, because she would have become quite famous. But this was the way it was and over the next few days Frank observed that she drank more vodka than he would ever have believed possible. Each day, when he returned from photographing Kiev, she would greet him with her handful of English words - 'Darling', 'Vodka', 'Poetry'. He would sip vodka with her and she would urge him to read her Shevchenko from an English translation she treasured. Sometimes she would also read along in Ukrainian, and once he was fairly sure (he found he could recognize a lot of spoken Ukrainian vocabulary because of its similarity to French) that they weren't on the same poem.

Frank's Ukrainian was worse than Olga's English. And even worse than he thought, because although he had learned a few polite words which he would use around Andrei and his friends, after a few days Andrei took him aside and said "Words you use - you are very kind to try to learn - but these are Russian words. Ukrainians now proud of Ukrainian history, Ukrainian literature, Ukrainian language." When he was a schoolboy in Kiev, Ukrainian had been banned. Schools only taught Russian, and Andrei and his twin brother were teased by their mother about not being able to speak good Ukrainian until they were twenty. Now Kiev was bilingual. Pairs of Cyrillic signs on the Metro doors looked almost the same to Frank, but Andrei pointed out which characters were not shared in the two languages.

Olga had grown up before Stalin's suppression of Ukrainian culture. She was fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, and German. Part of the reason she was sent to Baikonur in 1958 had been so she could immediately report the lift-off in those languages. But the Politburo had another motive in mind - out of a mixture of kindness and propaganda, they pulled her from Berlin because of the identity of the cosmonaut on top of the Vostok rocket: Sergey Shaborin, her husband.

A week after Frank arrived in Kiev, Valentina returned unexpectedly. She had been on vacation, buying canned goods in Moldavia to sell outside the Kiev Metro stations. Through some urgent telephone translations via Andrei, she told Frank he must still stay in her apartment, and would sleep on a folding camp bed. Now the apartment was even more crowded. Olga and her cat occupied one tiny room, Valentina and Frank the other, and when they were peeling potatoes in the kitchen there was hardly room for the cat to spin itself around. But they would play the radio and laugh at the difficulties Frank had with the language. There were many phone calls to Andrei but they managed quite well with sign language.

Valentina did not return straight to work. The next day she took Frank to the hydropark on an island in the Dnepr River. Along with hundreds of others, they swam in one of the world's most polluted rivers - scarcely a hundred kilometres downstream from Chornobyl. Andrei had explained that Valentina would love Frank to photograph her. She posed on the beach, hooking her sunglasses through the string of her thong. Then she lead him across the island, past the bodybuilders working machines made from tank parts, to a quieter beach. They met a boy with a tethered hawk, and she posed for more photographs. Andrei had said that it was Valantina's dream to be a model instead of a programmer.

That night, after some vodka, Frank signed that he wanted to sleep with Valentina. Olga grinned and nodded vigorously. Valentina looked doubtful and opened up the camp bed, but before she turned out the light she beckoned him into her single bed. She would jerk away from even the gentlest touch of his tongue, but then grab his hair and pull his head back into her. The next day she prepared him and Andrei a feast of lobster.

Olga had arrived at the Cosmodrome and met the other journalists. She would only have one hour with Sergey before he went into isolation; and they hadn't been together for three months. They held each other tightly, but could not say what they really felt because of the others around them. They spoke only in Russian. She wished her Comrade good luck. The rest isn't history, because she never reported from Baikonur. Sergey's rocket blasted off four days later, reached an altitude of about seven hundred metres, and then fell back to earth. Smoke still rose from the wreckage in the snow when the journalists were told that there would be no reports of the fate, crew or existence of the mission. In April, after she and the world learned of Gagarin's success, she tried to meet Valentina Goryacheva, his wife, but it was not approved.

Olga lives on her pension from Pravda. She had donated Sergey's pension to an orphanage. She let her party membership lapse but had kept reporting from Berlin. Eventually, when she retired back to Kiev she was put at the top of the waiting list for a two-bedroom apartment, where she lived in relative luxury for 25 more years until a friend asked if she would share with Valentina. She found the cat at the food distribution centre where she bought her vodka. She found solace in Shevchenko.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

More on the execution

Indian Pacific Railway, New South Wales, Australia.
March 27, 2004

We have learned the following about the troublesome death penalty case from a valuable source at the United Nations:

1. The guilty man is one Emmanuel Kpah, found guilty of murder. He has been in pretrial detention since January 2005.

2. On September 7, 2006 Mr. Kpah was sentenced to the death penalty, by public hanging, scheduled for September 29, 2006.

3. Liberia DOES still have the death sentence in the Constitution. However, on September 16, 2005 Liberia signed an "International Covenant of Civil and political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the death penalty."

4. An appeal is in progress and the supreme court will most likely be changing the ruling to life in prison.

5. A death warrant would have to be signed by the president to be carried out.

6. 1978 was the last time the death sentence was carried out in liberia.

Thanks very much to the friends who have written in with advice and encouragement.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Liberian execution?

Child at Well Baby Clinic, Buchanan, Liberia.
September 13, 2006

There's great confusion about this possible public execution penalty issue - Liberia supposedly abolished the death penalty in August 2005 but then, in December, passed a rape law that prescribed the death penalty. This was then altered to life imprisonment but the lack of commitment to the abolition is very disconcerting.

Various sources are giving various 'facts' so first of all we have to find out if there really is a plan to execute.

We (MSF-Holland) and I have contacted our HQ with varying levels of success. We've communicated with Amnesty International but have had no response yet.

Thanks to those readers who have sent in advice.

I hope to post good news here soon.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Capital punishment

Danielle, Richland WA, 2002

A little while ago I began an atomically small bit of activism when I complained to the Mayor of London about a street performer I thought could be dangerously influencing children. Not much became of that but now I have a much bigger thing to worry about: we learned yesterday that the Liberian Government intends to perform a public execution of a convicted murderer here in Buchanan on September 29. Here's a brief media reference about it.

Capital punishment is more objectionable to me than the crimes of the murderers being executed. I'm not as eloquent about it as many more important and heroic people but I think I might be about to get vocal. I won't be quiet on this but I don't know what I can do while representing Merlin. Or will working for Merlin give me a useful voice?

We're also wondering security issues - will there be any social unrest that could mean 'business' for the hospital? - or conversely, might there be risks that would require us to get out of Grand Bassa County? Part of me wants to be far away when it happens and another part wants to fight it.

I'm seeking advice and direction from Merlin but I'd also like to hear from anyone reading this.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Kidney Stones are no fun at all

May, Thailand, March 2005

SO MUCH has happened since my last entry. The gist of it is - I had three episodes of absolutely agonizing pains in early August (following a day of bloody urine) and on August 12th it turned even nastier. Dr. Simon was away in Monrovia and very helpful by phone but I also called in my friends from Medecins sans frontieres. Before long I was on a (wonderful) morphine derivative and feeling a little bit better. I am very very lucky to have had such concerned, caring and skillful help, particularly from Emmanuel, Dr. Jochan, Dr. Brown, Brian, Anna, and Anna.

Dr. Jochan from MSF took really marvelous care of me. The initial diagnoses were appendicitis or kidney stones but my symptoms were not classic for either. There was a LOT of consultation between Dr. Jochan, Dr. Brown (of the Liberian Government Hospital) and Merlin Doctors Simon and Julius (and my boss Jen) in Monrovia - and even our London office. Dr. Brown brought an ultrasound viewer and although we learned a bit I kept needing that (wonderful) morphine and it was soon decided that I had to be evacuated to Monrovia as quickly as possible.

Anna (left) and Anna (right) from MSF-Holland took great care of me, as did Dr. Jochan (in the car, adjusting my (wonderful) morphine IV).

'Quickly' meant a UN helicopter so to get that approved I was taken to the UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) hospital where I was examined by my third and fourth doctors of the day. They quickly approved the chopper flight - and I'm very grateful for that - but the typical Liberian rain was reducing visibility too much. Instead I was placed on a mattress on the floor of a Merlin LandCruiser and after a few false starts (due to the on-off-on-off possibility of a chopper flight after all) Dr. Jochan and I rode to Monrovia.

On the way I was looking up out the windows and sometimes could only see blue sky... Liberian weather is very changeable. On the way we stopped to meet MSF's Dr. Aileen on her way to the airport and a new life - so she became my fifth doctor of the day although basically she only teased me. I was taken straight to the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital in Monrovia where Merlin Doctors Simon, Julius and even Alex (who is normally based far away in Harper) examined me, along with a Liberian doctor. (This brought my doctor count to nine for the day.)

My colleagues described the Liberian as a 'Journeyman' doctor - I think because he wanted to scoop out my appendix first and ask questions later. Dr. Julius was his normal diplomatic self and kept me from going under the knife. I had more pain that night and still needed very strong analgesics.

I was admitted into hospital for the first time in my life. From the next morning on I didn't need any more pain killers - only boredom killers. Thank goodness my friends and colleagues visited but I didn't really need the hospital counselor who told me so many times not to worry that I began to worry quite seriously. I stayed two nights, hardly seeing any hospital staff except nurses who would visit with their successors at shift changes, who I would then not see until their shift ended...

When I was finally released - feeling as fit as a fiddle - I had another night in Monrovia and then was told I had to go to London for further investigation! The doctors (by now I'd had another Liberian, making ten in all) could not confirm that I'd had kidney stones and Merlin's insurance company preferred to fly me to London for tests and treatment than perhaps to have to fly me out urgently in their private jet later on.

At this point I'll emphasize that I've had no discomfort since my first night in the hospital but I've just come back from ten rather fun, rather relaxing, rather stimulating and very very very expensive (but for the insurance company, not me) days of consultations and investigations and treatments. I met friends and ate out and saw four movies and the hardest part was not feeling guilty about a) not working and b) 3.5 million Liberians who could certainly not have had any of the care I received. (If they'd had what I felt, but out in the jungle, they'd probably be pleading for death the way I would have if MSF hadn't been there to help me.)

To finish up the story a (£1000+) CT scan revealed a 2mm kidney stone in my LEFT site (my pain had been on my right). If I understand the medicine correctly, this gave strength to the unconfirmed theory that my pain had in fact been due to the passing of a kidney stone. Stones up to 4mm are supposed to be able to pass without help - but not painlessly. I had (£2,600) lythotripsy treatment to pulverize it and I'm now trying to drink lots of water every day to prevent this ever happening again. (But I'd accept being flown back for a check-up...)

One very last thing: I'm planning a dinner to thank as many of the people as possible who helped me. And - oh - I haven't been running in a month...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Access to health care

Srinagar, Indian-Administered Kashmir,
October 2005

I'm back from three nice nights in Monrovia, where we can stay in very nice apartments with HOT WATER! On the way there we stopped at one of our clinics where a woman was in labor distress and needed to be transported to the Liberian Government Hospital in Buchanan. The clinic had stopped a few cars but the drivers had demanded 400 Liberian Dollars (US$8.16) and the woman's family couldn't afford it.

We radioed for a Merlin vehicle heading back to Monrovia to take the woman but by incredible luck a Medecins sans frontieres car came by with Dr. Jochan. He delivered the baby but it had died.

This could almost certainly have been prevented. It was her second pregnancy and second loss. Better health education and the option for family planning would probably have helped. Better access from rural areas to the clinics (she had had to walk to the clinic) would also have helped. An ambulance system that could be dispatched to the clinic could or her home would probably have saved the baby's life. Actually we expect to be able to put an ambulance in place, thanks to an anonymous donor, but the attitude of Liberians who wouldn't even take her to the hospital is always going to be a stumbling block.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Cheerful construction worker adhering to Liberian safety rules and regulations. August 3, 2006.

My running speed is slowly improving, but not because of any great dedication. I'm a bit too ready to use the frequent rains as an excuse not to go. Actually recent improvement is probably due to walking up and running down the hills.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Québec referendum

'Non' celebrations, Québec sovereignty referendum, May 20, 1980. This was while I was doing my Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography at Concordia. I also went to the 'Oui' headquarters ('Non' won the referendum by 59.9%) and shook hands with Parti Québecois leaders Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau. It pays to hang around the wings somtimes. No photos of that though.

[Irrelevant prattling about my then blog format removed.]

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Hospital pump and reading

Lori, April 3, 2002

It's the first of the month which means we're in the middle of a lot of accounting and project reporting here at Merlin Buchanan. In the midst of this the water pump at the hospital we support (the Liberian Government Hospital here in Buchanan) failed again yesterday... sigh... this undoubtedly mean another dip into our already hemorrhaging hospital maintenance budget...

Last night I finished re-reading Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky was here, which I highly recommend.

It was particularly interesting to note which features and passages I remembered from my first reading, which was sometime before 2001.

I list what I've read in 2006 here. (Start here for other years.)

Monday, July 31, 2006

Primary Health Care clinics

Primary Health Care clinic, Compound 3, Grand Bassa County, Liberia.
July 31, 2006

Today I finally visited the last of the ten Primary Health Care clinics that Merlin supports in Grand Bassa County. This bridge (left) crosses the St. John River between Grand Bassa and Lofar County. Several years ago our logistician (not pictured) witnessed a frantic mob fleeing rebels across this bridge. Several people fell off and he saw babies floating down the river.

Pictured are Mr Weah, Bassa County Health Team TB officer (running) and Dr. Simon Bwire, Merlin Field Medical Coordinator.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lyse Doucet

Sarajevo, February 4, 2003

I'm developed quite a crush on the BBC's Lyse Doucet. I feel a bit guilty about this because while she's reporting on the current crisis from Beirut I'm tending to think about how sexy she looks in a flak jacket. I'm delighted to have just discovered from the link above that she's Canadian - although she sounds Irish to me. I'm reminded of the book Our Woman in Kabul by Irris Makler who was one of the first journalists to enter Kabul after the 'fall' of the Taliban - in it she remarks on the fact that while she was reporting historic events, most of the feedback she received was about her lipstick.

Running progress:
July 16
July 22
July 30

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fire at Liberian Presidential mansion

Ice Harbor Dam, Snake River, Washington, USA.
September 3, 2001

Not much news today. Torrential rain here in Buchanan - but that's hardly new.

It was interesting that the Liberian Presidential mansion caught fire the other day immediately after the city power was turned on for the first time in over a decade. Our logistics coordinator, Carl, had predicted that the electrical infrastructure would fail.

That's about it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

MSF versus Merlin

Merlin (red) take Medecins sans frontieres (blue) to a hard-fought 0-0 draw at the Buchanan fairground
July 22, 2006

Buchanan market
July 22, 2006

July 22, 2006

July 22, 2006

Yesterday was the first recent football match between the Merlin staff and Medecins sans frontieres staff here in Buchanan. Despite predictions of victory by both teams they played to a tiring 0-0 draw in front of a couple of dozen fans. Many were disappointed that there was no overtime or penalty shoot-out but the nets were being taken down before anyone realized and the referee would probably have wanted a supplement to his $15 game fee. Anyway, congratulations to Merlin (and MSF, I suppose)!

On the way back from the game I had a nice stroll through the Buchanan market and then on to the Merlin base. It was nice to shoot some cheerful pictures.

Running, um, continues. After pressure from Lord Coe, Haile Gebreselassie, and Bill Rogers I am simplifying my time chart - I will just show the total course time (currently composed of my run and walk) which will, I hope, continue to drop.

Sunday, July 16, 2006



Sundays are our day off. That's enough of a reason to like them but they get even better for me when there's a Formula 1 Grand Prix on. (Today is the French Grand Prix.)

I'm going to go running. I'm in poor shape but getting better. I try to run around a big triangle (OK, it's probably not that big) and I've gone about half-way so far before walking back but making good headway each time. It should be worth walking around the rest of the triangle today as I'm really inspired to push myself.

Some days here are less inspiring though, especially emotionally. We were discussing the demoralizing lack of voluntary blood donors a couple of days ago. I was moaning uselessly that nobody who works at the Liberian Government Hospital has ever given blood voluntarily. My friend Dr. Simon looked me in the eye and said there was something I didn't know: Hospital staff wait until a patient desperately needs blood - patients are supposed to persuade two friends or relatives to donate blood per surgery but sometimes they can't - and then the staff sell theirs. Also Simon told me of a case where the father of a needy woman had had to pay her brother to donate.

It's in keeping with the total lack of compassion for community and country that I find here - worse than any other country I've lived in.

But enough of that - I can moan about the West too. For those of you following my mission to have a dangerous street performer in Covent Garden stopped (see July 2), I have taken the issue up with the City of Westminster.

My favorite journalist, Peter Dudley, has posted another of his insightful stories to his blog (http://www.canadiannewsblog.blogspot.com/). This one is about Canada's failure to meet its Kyoto targets.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

From Brussels, London and Amsterdam

Lilly, London
June 18, 2006

I'm back in Liberia - safe, healthy and sound but already missing the places and particularly the people I met on my holiday. Thanks and greetings to everybody who could fit me in.
As well as meeting many marvelous (and uber-marvelous) people I ate well, drank lots of fresh milk (I already miss it) and saw a fantastic show: Fuerzabruta at Roundhouse Studios in London. (It runs until August 31 and I recommend it.)
Although it's was a great holiday I'm following up on two disappointments. The first was the service I received at the photography shop in Amsterdam (as I described last month) and the second was about a street performer in Covent Garden. This is a letter I sent Mayor Ken about it:

Dear Mr. Livingstone,

On a recent and very wonderful visit to London I was distressed by a street performer in Covent Garden who had an audience member
wrap him entirely in plastic wrap - including brief complete tight wrapping of his face. (The performer than escaped to great applause.) The point of course is that children might imitate the performance and suffocate.

I urge you to ensure that this performer be asked (or required?) to stop covering his face during the performance.

Please keep up the great work in London.

Tom Haythornthwaite

This is the response:

Dear Tom Haythornthwaite

Thank you for your email.I note your concerns about the street
performers act in Covent Garden. However, it is not in our remit to issue their licences or have any control over them or that area.This responsibility falls under the local authority for the area which could be Westminster. You can find their contact details via the website


Nicola Dunderdale

Public Liaison Officer

I'll pursue it and report back in a future blog entry.

So now it's back to the crazy life here. Frustrations continue to pile on but I'll stick it out until my contract ends at the end of December. There are currently a lot of Merlin jobs advertised around the world and I hope there will be then. But I'm certainly going to need another break.

I really like my new camera. The lens focuses so quickly. But I have to admit I'm surprised that I'm finding 70mm a bit too short sometimes. I do love it wide though. I'll probably buy a longer lens before my next holiday... which is going to be Kenya in October!!

I've updated my reading list.
That's all for now but I'll try not to wait so long before my next update.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

To Brussels, Amsterdam and London


I am now in London. I've had a few adventures getting here... After meeting friends my goals for this holiday were to 1) buy a particular new camera 2) to take a course called 'Finance for the non-specialist' and 3) to get a lot of rest. Guess which of these has actually happened as planned?

First I went to Brussels to see my friend Alan. I was still a bit overwhelmed by malaria and I hope he didn't mind. We walked around a lot of the town and had a splendid meal and a few extra beers there and there. Brussels has some very nice architecture.

Then I went to see my friend Marga in The Hague. We had a lovely but brief time - it was good to catch up on our lives. Then I went on to Amsterdam to see my friend Gwen. I had a fanstastic three days including a great birthday evening with her and her friends on Friday. I always enjoy Amsterdam but it's particularly good to have a knowlegable tour guide like Gwen. I also managed to see my friend Bonno who I'd known in Buchanan.

While in Brussels I'd learned that the shop in London where I was planning to buy my camera was out of stock so I changed my plans and bought it (at a higher price) in Amsterdam. It's a lovely Canon EOS 5D with a EF 24-70mm F/2.8l USM lens. The first test shots (of Gwen's dog) came out very well but when it came time to take out the battery I couldn't - it was stuck in. By then it was too late to return to the store while in the Netherlands or even on this trip so I began to panic.
Luckily here in London the camera store (Camera World) I'd wanted to patronize were very helpful. Actually they pointed me to a camera repair service that was able to pull out the battery - to reveal that it was a) sticky and b) NOT A GENUINE CANON BATTERY. (The 5D is supposed to come with a genuine battery.) I am furious with the Amsterdam shop. (They had also neglected to give me the camera dust cap and lens back cap. Furthermore I heard them spending 20 minutes trying to persuade an unfortunate customer that the scratch on his lens is 'irrelevant'. Even though front surface marks ARE out of focus they cause blur and block light and it was very unprofessional to claim otherwise. Oh - and they also grumbled about having to process my VISA card transaction manually because VISA were blocking the unusual purchase...) Please do not patronize "Foto Professional" in Amsterdam - I think they are crooked. But all ended well here in London - and then I had a DELIGHTFUL evening with my friends Susi and Jon.

This morning I headed to the finance course in Hampstead - only to find that it had been canceled on the 8th. I hadn't checked my work e-mail because I'm trying to be on holiday from work... I'm dissapointed and it means this holiday will use three more days of precious leave than planned but then those days weren't going to be holiday and now they can. So perhaps it's alright - at least I'll take the opportunity to see more of London. My notions for tomorrow are the British Airways London Eye, The National Portrait Gallery and perhaps a tourist bus tour. And I have some fun dates set up...

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Malaria is no fun at all

Sydney Zoo
March 29, 2004

I am unexpectedly in Monrovia - I planned to be in Buchanan until Tuesday when I will fly to Brussels and the beginning of my two-week vacation. I am here now on doctors' orders, at the tail end (I hope) of my first bout with Malaria.

It hasn't been fun. Last Saturday I felt a general soreness in my mouth along with cold sweats and I realized I'd been feeling lethargic for a day or two already. On Sunday I had did a 'Paracheck' blood test which detects only the most common malaria parasite here. The test was negative but on Monday I did a blood smear and although the hospital lab technician who can distinguish malaria parasites was not available, the lab did confirm I had malaria. Meanwhile I grew more and more sleepy and less and less useful at work and more and more irritable (and probably irritating). I developed a 'geographic tongue' (misshapen by sores) and an intolerance to anything in my mouth except salty water. Before raiding my bosses fridge here this afternoon, the last thing I ate was canned pears, very gingerly, on Tuesday. I completed a course of combined drug therapy but yesterday tested positive again for Malaria. Today, Dr. Simon (my colleague in Buchanan) and Dr. Julius (our Chief Medical Coordinator here in Monrovia) sent me to Monrovia for further observation. Actually I feel a bit better today - and even think I'll be going to a farewell party this evening.

In a certain way I'm glad to know a little more about Malaria. It can manifest itself in various ways - for instance I was never observed to have a fever. I was never in danger because I live and work with two nurses and a doctor but I felt sick enough to be able to imagine how it would have developed without expert treatment. Malaria is the number one cause of mortality (and morbidity) in Liberia - it kills about one person a week right in our own hospital. I'm glad I'm one of the much luckier victims.

In a lighter vein, I've just finished reading a great fiction series lead by The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. (You can see all my recent reading here.) These are remarkably delightful books about a 'traditionally-built' private detective in modern Botswana - which Smith makes sound like paradise. The books are at once hilarious, feminist, pro- and against development, ethics manuals (Altering the Blueprint: The Ethics of Genetics is by the same author) and guides to human failings. Most importantly, they are gentle and charming. Two thumbs and two big toes up.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

My past and my future?

Fuel wood market, Eritrea

I'm in Monrovia for a series of meetings that are making me think a lot about my career. How did I get into development without knowing anything about it? The actual answer is that on two occasions my Geographic Information Systems background (which itself was a tangential step from my academic work, which was glaciology) sent me to developing countries. I'd begun working for the Canadian government in 1986 and ten years later they'd already sent me to do brief GIS work in Egypt and eventually Eritrea for a couple of months. Then I left the government to do my Fine Arts degree in photography but in 1998 the government re-hired me to go to Eritrea for a splendid year. (Eritrea was then a very easy place for a westerner to be comfortable, except for one little episode of Ethiopian bombing in June.) Because of this and Mom dying I took five years to do a three-year degree.

In the fall of 2002 I joined the evil Bechtel corporation in Washington State for a couple of restless years. More about that job and the town I was in another time. But while I was there I responded to question from CARE International in Sierra Leone on a GIS discussion list. I was able to help them with their first question but not another one so I suggested they fly me to Freetown to help out. Amazingly, they did. My two weeks there opened me eyes to NGO work and I began to look around. The next step was transitional - I got a job as a GIS and mapping officer with the Survey Action Center in Washington DC - not knowing that they would send me around the world to help with Landmine Impact Surveys - eventually in Afghanistan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland (Somalia). In 2004 they posted me to Kabul to work continuously on the Landmine Impact Survey of Afghanistan which we completed in early 2005. That work was great for my career and personal development but I'm pessimistic about the results being properly used. Then I did an unrewarding six-month contract with Oxfam in Afghanistan. Now I'm with Merlin in Liberia and everything is grand.

I've also been thinking about my goals. (They're subject to change.) Right now I think I want
to work here until our two current projects are complete (one ends next February and one ends next March) having helped to develop excellent proposals for the following projects. Then, as I see it now, I'd look for a challenge within Merlin somewhere else in the world. Perhaps somewhere less humid. I'd also like to do some development studies via distance learning but currently I'm just too busy.

I had a great conversation about anti-malaria bed nets the other day with staff from Concern Worldwide - one of our friendly partner NGOs. Concern distribute thousands of bed nets but they are learning that the effectiveness is sometimes disappointing because:

  • people are selling them for food

  • people find them difficult to install in their types of homes

  • children go to bed too far after dusk, when the mosquitoes are biting

It's an interesting reminder that problems and solutions aren't always as easy as assumed.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Five-minute old boy (and his mother) at the Liberian Government Hospital, Buchanan, Liberia.
April 29, 2006

President Johnson Sirleaf with Grand Bassa County Superintendent Madam Julia Duncan Cassell (left), Sophia Craig-Massey (my boss, right) and a senator at the opening ceremonies of the new Outpatient and Medical Imaging Departments at the Liberian Government Hospital, Buchanan, Liberia.
April 29, 2006

Ellen works the crowd.April 29, 2006

President Johnson Sirleaf throws the schedule out of whack by diverting towards the Pediatrics ward at the Liberian Government Hospital. The smiling faces in Merlin shirts are Bassam (left) and my dear colleague, friend and roommate Ruphine Olouch. (Ruphine instigated the diversion.)

April 29, 2006

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Today was a big day. It began just after midnight with the terrible news that one of our guards had died in a motorcycle accident. We had a brief team meeting this morning for prayers and tears and then resolved to carry on with special plans for today - the official opening of the Outpatient and Medical Imaging Departments at the Merlin-supported Liberian Government Hospital, to be dedicated by Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Republic of Liberia.

Despite a few glitches but because of the extremely hard work of my staff we think the event was a success. I was delighted to shake the President's hand. She's a charming politician - the person making introductions in the receiving line gave up before reaching me but she carried on and quickly and positively reacted to my Merlin T-shirt. Later, as she was getting into her car I called out and again she remarked on the work that Merlin does in Liberia. In between she gave an eloquent speech without notes that included diplomatic responses to preceding speeches. At the end she drove out waving to the crowds that had not been allowed into the hospital compound.

The day ended better than it began and the event marked the end of one of the sources of stress in my life. I'm hoping I'll have more time to post blog entries in May.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Seeing Red in Edinburgh

July 9, 2005

I've just posted a little vanity photo collection on www.haythornthwaite.net - shots of Edinburgh that kept popping into my viewfinder with tiny splashes of red. (Please click here.)

In the hospital last night I couldn't help correcting the Administrator's English on a memo - he'd written about staff's 'land managers' (instead of 'line managers'). This is so typical of Liberia - I think because as the second half of a word is rarely pronounced, people don't necessarily know what the rest of the word really is. I'm not always very good at tolerating this. The first time I blew up was a few months ago when someone (a law student) wrote to me about 'action points' but actually wrote 'acion poin'. The national language is 'English' and most Liberians speak nothing else (although there are local languages such as Bassa which I'm slowly learning) but it is not uncommon to need translation between 'International' English and 'Liberian' English. I shouldn't be such a snob about my English, I suppose.

Anyway, today is St. George's Day, which is not only the day for the Patron Saint of England but also the anniversary of our emigration to Canada. Thirty-six years ago Mom, Dad and I flew by BOAC Boeing 707 to Montreal and then by Air Canada DC9 to Ottawa where we were met by Dad's new boss, Andy Molozzi. Tomorrow will mark the 31st anniversary of our becoming Canadian Citizens. (Back then the wait was five years, now it's three.) Happy Canadian Anniversary, Dad!!

It is great to be able to watch Formula 1 races on TV - last year I was in Kabul where we worked on Sundays. I just watched Michael Schumacher win in Imola - quite against my predictions.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Camera in the Atlantic

Crab and Fateful wave, Buchanan, Liberia
April 14, 2006

I had a bit of an adventure last weekend - the wave shown in the picture above swept me off the rocks where I was crab-watching. (The picture below, shot previously, sets the scene. I was sitting on the rocks on the left but further back where both sides were sunny.) I went under water but held my camera as far up as I could. The surge was nice and strong and would have been pretty thrilling if I hadn't been worried about my camera and the fact that the park safety officer hadn't inspected this ride yet. I surfaced out beyond the rocks out of my depth where I treaded water and noticed that the lens was still dry! I had to time my kicks toward the rocks with the waves and brace myself the surf as I clambered onto a shelf - still holding the camera as high as I could. When I was stable I tried the camera - it seemed to work once I'd turned it off and on but I think it must have had a shock because it's been moody ever since - sometimes displaying nonsense on its status screen and sometimes refusing to auto-focus. Little does it know I'd been thinking of replacing it anyway.

'Surprise Notch', Buchanan, Liberia
April 14, 2006

I hope it will pull its socks up because we will have a special guest at the Liberian Government Hospital next Saturday - Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia. She's coming to open our new Outpatient and Medical Imaging Departments and we have a lot of preparation to do. People are asking me if I'm excited but all I can think of to say is that I'll be excited when it's over. Luckily the photography won't fall to me and my camera - we've got an expert coming and although she doesn't have a Canon (this is one of my few big brand loyalties) I know she'll do a wonderful job.

I just did hospital rounds with the hospital matron. This job is teaching me so much - about development, myself, and a little bit about medicine. Tonight we saw a two-year old boy with severe malaria who is very unlikely to survive.

Everything else is the same - work personalities are testing my diplomacy and I'm really terribly busy, tired and lonely.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sierra Leone, Elamma

Lumley Beach, Freetown, Sierra Leone
March 26, 2006

Goodness! I only wrote one entry in March - and none in the first two weeks of April. The main reason is that I've been very very very very busy at work. I have had two brief respites though. The first was a nice long weekend in Sierra Leone... the main relaxation indicator being that I read three books in four days, and one a le Carré at that. (By the way I list what I've read here.)

Elamma Varughese
April 9, 2006

The other nice break was an afternoon trip with my dear friend Elamma to a waterfall at the rubber plantation last weekend.

In other news Merlin, in an uncharacteristic lack of recruiting wisdom have offered to renew my contract until December 30. And I very cautiously predict that I am going to have a bit more time in the next few weeks to post new blog entries. If that turns out to be untrue I might edit that sentence out...

Things I've learned since taking on this job:

  • Accountancy can be interesting after all

  • Management is a skill and an art never to be belittled

  • There's no substitute for not maintaining an up to date to-do list

  • Attending your work appraisal, taking notes on the understanding that you are to type them up for submission to the boss, but then losing them is not generally advised.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Kittens growing so fast

'Bravo Zero' with (left to right) 'Bravo Zero-One, Two or Three', 'Bravo Zero-Two, Three or One', 'Bravo Zero Four', and 'Bravo Zero Three, One or Two'.

'Bravo Zero Four'

I'm sure I seem like one of those people who are besotted with their cats at the expense of a good grip on reality. Well - I am. Our kitties are now three weeks old (where did the time go?) and totally adorable. My colleagues have come to grasp that when they kick and fling them I will scream. They (the kitties, not the colleagues) are shown above on their first day of scrambling outside the box. Their box has been placed in the dining room cupboard where 'Bravo Zero' took three of the kittens after about a week of putting up with their roommate's (that's me) snoring. She had left the spotty one - 'Bravo Zero Four', known from photographic monitoring to have been born last - squeeling in my room. Thus it's the one I've become most attached to. I'm glad our friend Kathleen has chosen one of the tabbies (I can't tell them apart) for her allocation instead of 'Four'.

I lost an argument with my boss Sophia the other day. Sorry - this is still about cats. Her cat 'Tarzane' just delivered four completely different-looking (but all adorable) kitties. (Her delivery room was inside their Sofa Bed - Tarzane ripped an entrance hatch and made a nest right in the underframe.) Sophia claimed that cats can have kitties in one litter that have differnt sires. Rediculous, I claimed, and went straight the net to prove my point. Well, it was me who was wrong. I learned that cats, dogs and rabbits can exhibit this superfecundity - and then I learned from my colleage Dr. Simon (who is an obstetrician) that humans can too!! Furthermore, cats can also exhibit superfetation - overlapping separate pregnancies. That's it - Bravo Zero is never being allowed out of the house again. Even though she is supposed to be patrolling for rats and snakes. At least the appearances of her litter suggests that she's only half the shameless tramp that Tarzane is.

In other news - the last few weeks have been extremely busy and stressful but rather successful. We've got assurances of funding for our clinics (from the Irish government) and for our hospital (from the European Union) for 2006 and we're very relieved. My colleagues and I (both here in Buchanan and in Monrovia) worked very hard on final reports and new project proposals but it was all very well worth it.

So since my last entry I've become a bit of a cat litter matron and a bit more of a Project Coordinator. But I've still got a lot to learn about both.

I'm going to Sierra Leone for a short R&R on Thursday.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Kitten birth in my room

Bravo Zero already nursing Bravos One, Two and Three. (Bravo four yet to be born.)
Buchanan, Liberia
February 24, 2006 (Bloody early in the morning)

I was awoken four times last night to squeaks emanating from my cupboard, where I had hopefully installed a birthing nest for Bravo Zero. I understood it is traditional for cats to disdain designated nests but B.Z. had very few comfy options. The "Beck's Feline Obstetrics Ward" is a happy place. Friend Katherine is bringing milk (not available in Buchanan) later today - and to select her kitten. Another will be employed, like Zero on snake detection and rat deterrence duties - probably deployed to the office. That leaves two more currently unallocated.

Rat deterrence is critical because of the risk in this region of Lassa Fever - transmitted by rats and potentially deadly. Two people have recently died of Lassa Fever in Tubmansberg. We are instructing Bravo Zero and her offspring to implement a Zero Rat Tolerance policy.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Miss Ellen's inauguration speech

Andrew Martin, Merlin Project Coordinator for Harper, Liberia
Buchanan, Liberia, January 22, 2006

As my dear friend Betsy sweetly suggested, I should report my views of the recent presidential inauguration here in Liberia and the even more recent Canadian general election.

OK, as has been very widely reported, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated on January 16 here in Liberia as Africa's first female head of state. Here is her
inauguration speech. My manager, Sophia, was at the ceremony in Monrovia but I just listened to the speech on the radio. I don't know a lot about Ms Ellen or the politics so I'll only write about my own impressions.

First, she spoke very charismatically. She made a lot of good promises and I don't think she would have done so without knowledge of international support.

The international press made so much about her being female (and Africa's first female head of state). I never heard any Liberian mentioning this. They compared her education (Harvard) to that of her rival's (Grade 11) and her experience (World Bank) to her rival's (football) but her gender never seemed to come up. Liberia has many very serious gender issues (such as tolerance of gender violence) but simple participation in social roles seems less of an issue here than in any other country I've lived in. (Perhaps it is equaled by Eritrea.)

Ms Ellen might have displayed a slip of judgment the other day. We heard that she had walked into the Ministry of Finance and sacked everybody, encouraging them to reapply for their jobs in a new corruption-free replacement ministry. The next day it was 'clarified' that only the top 14 bureaucrats had been dismissed. I think people may question the change of approach as much as the admirable goal. Time will tell.

I don't have much to say either about the Canadian election. I didn't vote because I couldn't. I did vote in 2003 from Kabul but it wasn't possible here. (I have checked the results in my own riding and confirmed that if I'd been able to vote I would have changed my life-time 100% record of never voting for a winner.)

I can't feel very sorry for the departure of the Liberals. We New Democrats like to say that 'Liberals are Tories too' but I'm not sure that the Conservatives (who now lead their own minority government) won't be less corrupt. I am waiting to learn how the opposition parties will align themselves. Minority governments can be very effective when there are interesting coalitions.

I was woken this morning by an excited group of Merlin drivers and guards who had found a deadly black snake in our office. They'd also (surprisingly quickly?) located a pair of snake killers who wanted $10 to do the deed. I authorized the contract immediately and they went in to the office to do their work. A minute later the guards ran out of the office screaming (I assure you I hadn't gone in) - something had gone slightly wrong. But there were more whacking noises and then they brought the snake out on a stick - head flattened but tail still wriggling.

Sorry my picture is a bit blurred - it was taken from behind the safety of a LandCruiser.

The snake had had a nest behind a bookshelf about a metre from where my colleague Ruphine sits. She's at church now but won't be happy when we tell her.
Here's the snake's current resting place:

I'd been blocking out all thoughts of snakes as a self-protective measure. Now I'll be worrying about whether to poke behind furniture or carry on in denial. (And I'll be researching snake deterrence - the guards are talking about sprinkling gasoline on our floors?)