Thursday, September 3, 2009

Settling In

So. The end of my first week at site, and second week in Liberia, approaches.

My housemate and I are finally starting to settle in somewhat. We set up a system with our landlord whereby we will pay him and his wife to haul our water, wash our clothes, and clean our house once a week, which is a huge relief. I feel a little bit guilty about doing this, particularly because there was an extremely well-loved volunteer who lived in the house before us, and she apparently did all of her own work. And she was 65 years old. But I also can't help but feel that I have more important ways to spend my time – aside from writing lesson plans and finishing medical school applications, I also want to have the time to pursue secondary projects. Anyway, I get the impression that it is a mutually beneficial situation – I think we are paying quite a bit in Liberian terms for this work, so they are glad to have the income, and we are certainly happy not to have to do it by ourselves.

Our landlord came over last night and talked with us for a long time. We discussed a lot of different things (or rather, for the most part he talked and we listened), but one thing that struck me as particularly interesting was something he told us about Liberian businesses. He told us that, especially in our town, most of the shop owners are from other countries or at least other regions of this country (this seems very true from what I have seen – among others, I know there are local business owners from Ghana, Nigeria, and Lebanon). The reason for this, he says, is that it is difficult to own a local business because there is a cultural assumption that property is communal, particularly between family members. Thus, if a man owns a business, he is expected to provide goods for free or on credit to family members. Given that family structures tend to be large, this is a significant problem for any potential businessperson living in the same region as his or her family members.

From what others told me, I think that a lot of the frustrations that business development volunteers in Kenya faced stemmed from this sort of a mentality. Property and ownership are more fluid here (and in Kenya), which in some ways is a very positive thing. As a whole, I think the society is less materialistic than that of the US, and people are generally quite generous in terms of giving and lending. But the negative side of it is what our landlord spoke of – it can be a major hurdle in business. The question is, while this is true at the individual level, what are its effects at a society-wide level? Is this approach to property and enterprise enough of an issue to significantly affect development? More broadly, can the path of development in these countries follow the pattern of the US and other countries, or will it proceed through in some other direction? To what extent is the path to development universal, and to what extent does it depend on societal and cultural concerns?

I don't know enough about business in general, or about development in non-Western countries, to be able to give much more thought to these questions. And I certainly don't know enough about Liberia just yet (and will not in the short time I have here) to really be able to understand these issues. But, anyway, within the limitations of my cultural and economic understanding, these are some of the things I wonder about.

One little story before I go: The adventure with meat continues. The other day, my housemate and I went to a restaurant in town. We asked what they had to eat (no menus here – every restaurant has a little sign that says “Food Is Ready” on one side and “No Food” on the other, and they hang it on the door with the appropriate side out, but “food” is whatever they have available that day). The owner told us that they had soup with cow meat, or eggplant with bush meat. Eggplant sounded tasty, so we asked what kind of bush meat it was, and were told that it was deer. Fair enough; I don't mind eating deer. So they brought us the food and we started eating, and I started noticing hard little pebble-sized objects in it.

Upon closer inspection, these turned out to be rodent-sized vertebrae. The ribs in the dish, and the piece of skull my housemate found in hers, were also definitely not deer-sized bones.

We're cooking for ourselves now. Vegetarian.

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