Me-n-rai / Bo-e / Verrry, Verrry Bad
Liberia is where fellow CAI Trustee Sohail Abdullah, TRS CEO Shaida Hussein Bhayani, and I are headed next in our quest to bring quality education to impoverished communities – worldwide.
I would categorize Haiti and Liberia as the toughest countries I have visited in my lifetime. They are dirt poor, corrupt, sometimes violent, and shamelessly exploited – by all. It is not easy to reach Monrovia from anywhere. The choices are limited to a few dodgy airlines that hop over West Africa, with painfully long layovers and airfares that can cause severe heart palpitations. Since I have to visit London for other matters, we decide to travel to Monrovia from here by Brussels Airways, the only ‘decent’ airline flying there. Our hosts for the four days in London are Fatema and Nazir Merali of Northwood. They are one of the most hospitable and kind people I have had the good fortune to associate with. Have them treat you to some of the worldwide fruits they indulge guests; I guarantee you’ll feel in worldly heaven. The flight from London stops in Brussels, is delayed two hours, flies to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and hops over to Monrovia, landing in the dark.
The airport arrival terminal in Monrovia resembles any noisy, chaotic, and disorganized fish market in Africa. It is supposed to be a newer airport but about $50 million appropriated for it disappeared in thin air between construction, so it is poorly made or managed. We apprehensively watch as people propel to grab their luggage from a single wobbly carousel. Sohail’s bag does not make it. In the melee of crowds and confusion, someone else takes the look-alike bag away by mistake. Filing a loss complaint takes forever and we finally troop out to the waiting Askary Korma, who has hired a rickety vehicle to pick us up – it is now 23:00. Askary is no stranger to us. CAI built a school for his remote community some years ago.
The outside is a dark, forlorn, and scary place. Liberia has no power generating plants so the country runs on diesel most of the time. The problem is, diesel runs out and there is little funding to purchase more. The road leading towards the city 32 miles away is horrendous, with so many jarring potholes, it is impossible to think or hold a conversation. I pray we do not get a flat tire; it’ll be a disaster. The entire country depends on handouts, which the UN funds for various dubious reasons. Of the ex-pat communities in the country, the Lebanese rule, with their money, power, and influence. The Indians are next, with their hardware, grocery, and medical stores, looting the hapless local people. The indigenous people in political power loot from within, via embezzlement and bribes from the UN and other NGO aid. So, it’s a continuous circle of pillaging, from and by everyone. Aid programs keep on changing as the personnel in the UN are rotated in and out of their temporary posts in the country. The poor citizens, overwhelmingly uneducated and hapless, are left to hustle for daily basic survival, and the rough edges in them are evident. It’s a never-ending, frustratingly sad, and maddening mix of affairs.
In this chaos and greed, CAI donors gifted a basic school outside Monrovia so that remote community children can get a head-start and MAYBE get the opportunity for quality education. Due to the remoteness and coarseness of both the place and the people, the school is struggling. Askary and company are trying, but I can see it is an uphill struggle and their stamina might be waning. Yet, I am hopeful that the investment will pay off in the distant future – it is the only hope for these children.
Like everything else in Liberia, prices for almost anything give me constant toothaches, from hotel stays to basic, most-time tasteless meals. I would have stuck to the inexpensive me-n-rai, or bo-e, but I have accompanying guests whose stomachs may not be as accommodating.
Most Liberians are descendants of freed slaves from the United States, who decided to return to Africa and settled in this desolate but convenient location west of the continent. They speak their own version of English, which we all struggle to understand. They are lazy in their speech and it shows in hard-to-comprehend conversation. Boiled eggs is reduced to bo-e, meat and rice become me-an-rai, just something is jus-soting, sometimes is suntines, etc. So, it’s a constant battle to keep us focused on what Askary, and others, are saying.
Most Muslim Liberians will marry more than one wife in their lives: it’s a given. So, it’s a wonder to them when we show surprise. Why, Askary offers all three of us the opportunity for a maiden in nikah if we are interested. Almost all Liberian women opt to wear little or very revealing clothing. Perhaps it’s the warm and moist year-round weather? That’s another perpetual daunting test, for me – keeping my eyes downcast constantly.
Our two days in this hapless country are a blur. We visit the school CAI paid for years ago; it needs some major renovations and extra effort by Askary and his team to grow. Bo Waterside, a three-hour drive from Monrovia is another remote and impoverished location we visit, driving through thick and pristine lush jungle; at least the roads are a bit better. There is a promising school project that CAI may be interested in in the future IF Askary and his team act out their talk. The Jaffery School in downtown Monrovia, run by Mohammed Bah is an encouraging project that CAI may look to renovate. 300 promising students need help renovating shoddy toilets and a computer lab and a library. Sohail recovers his misplaced suitcase on the final day of our stay.
Verrry verrry bad, are three words Askary uses a lot, to describe almost everything in his country. The economy, the roads, the power supply, the government, the judicial system, the police, commodity prices, corruption all over – all verrry, verrry bad. I see where he’s coming from and sympathize. But apart from focusing on offering the children of his community an opportunity for quality education, CAI can offer very little.
We hire a nicer, newer drop-off car to the airport; the cost is another instant heartburn in me. But it’s a prudent, safer decision. I am happy when Brussels Air announces an on-time call to board. It’s a red-eye flight of nearly seven hours to Brussels, with an agonizing transit wait of five hours, another hour flying to London, a wait of six hours, connecting to Dubai for another seven-hour flight, another six hours wait at Dubai airport before connecting to yet another five hours in the air to Dar es Salaam. Mama mia!