Read on for highlights, reflections and anecdotes from my summer internship in Monrovia with Liberia's Ministry of Finance. Comments are very enthusiastically encouraged!
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Voyage to Sierra Leone Border
On Saturday, Emily, Zach and I headed off on a road trip to Liberia's northern border with Sierra Leone. The spontaneous road trip, organized by Zach's Liberian colleague in Protocol, provided us our first taste of Liberia beyond the capital. Our 5 hour drive along Liberia's best road -- broken up by two dozen UN security checkpoints -- provided us glimpses of rubber plantations, incredibly dense green vegetation, simple villages, and colorful local markets.
During our stop at the (remarkably informal) border, we spent some time wandering through the local market on the Liberian side. Thanks to my penchant for travels to such places as India, Kenya and Bolivia, I've grown quite accustomed to looking like a 6'2 redhaired alien and to eliciting bewildered stares from locals. Normally I deal with the awkwardness of these interactions by using silly/friendly antics to transform the intense stares into smiles and laughs: without a doubt, being a crowd-pleasing clown is strongly preferable to parading as a circus freak. I must say, though, that the women at the Saturday market selling hot peppers, cassava, and dried fish were not an easy to crowd. Not one person cracked a smile, perhaps a reflection of the difficult circumstances of their life (or perhaps our inappropriate foreign presence!), and Emily and I scurried out of there quickly. Much to our relief, the children in the area were much more playful and curious and Emily and I had a blast playing games with them.
One of the most striking images at our stop in the border town was the sight of teenage boys with a great deal of attitude cruising around on motor bikes. We had learned earlier that the money that many of the young ex-combatants and former child soldiers earned when they turned in their guns was, by and large, spent immediately on the purchase of motor bikes. While there is little doubt that the disarmament process was crucial, the byproduct is quite disturbing. These teenage boys are now marked almost like a gang, and their possession of very cool looking bikes undoubtedly incites envy and even resentment in the others in the community. (One sunglass and fancy sneaker-wearing motorbiker had an attractive female on the bike). Emily and I both left questioning the impression that this image is making on the same young kids we played with, and the lesson they are learning about the consequences (or rewards) of partaking in highly undesirable violent behavior.
Before graduating from the MPA/ID program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 2008, I spent a summer internship in Monrovia as a special assistnat to Liberia's Minister of Finance, Antoinette Sayeh. A big thanks to the NGK fellowship and the Women and Public Policy Program for the generous financial support and sponsorship.