Thursday, June 26, 2008

Notes from the Edge - Liberia today

I am in Liberia for business. The whole concept is bizarre to me. There is apparently business growing here. Opportunities. Investment. Liberia has no electricity supply and no running water. Anywhere. It has been like this for 18 years.

Recently some street lights have been illuminated in the capital city, fed by a huge generator, donated by another government.

All water is supplied in huge round trucks that drive around the city constantly.

Of course there is only water for those who can pay.

This morning as I sit on the balcony of the $200 a night (less than) 1 star hotel, my view is the ocean, dotted with small fishing canoes, the beach that stretches along in front of miles of corrugated tin slums, and below me the daily water is being delivered.

One of the big trucks is parked on the street below, loudly pumping water via a hole filled pump, into the hotel building. Surrounding the truck are scores of barefoot children, sent with buckets of every size and description, to collect some of the water. They jostle and fight and wave up at the hotel guests. But the sad truth is that they are here on a mission and no doubt there will be trouble if they arrive back home, down the road in the slums, without water.

Their dilemma is pathetic. The guys from the water delivery truck are also on a mission and the dirty swarming children are to them, like flies. They must fight them off, or bear the repercussions from the hotel owner who's not interested in feeding the water needs of the people. If the kids get alot of water they will tell more people and the hotel will be swarmed, on a dangerous level.

But the children are desperate.

I focus on one little boy who is about 5 years old. Mostly because I see something so familiar in his eyes. He is alive, there is a spark in him. His long smooth chocolate brown forehead is beaded with sweat and his eyes squinting, while he bounces a wide mouthed large plastic bowl against his ashen, bony knees. He steps back from the mob and watches the men from the truck. All the while the pump is deafening. As soon as they move toward the other children to beat them away, slap and shout, flail their arms around hoping to touch skin and cause fleeing, our little boy moves up to the truck behind them and holds his bowl under the massive leak at the base of the hose. At first no one sees him and his bowl is filling. He smiles a cheshire grin to himself. He has no clue he's got a witness, a fan, a cheerleader above him looking on.

I notice as the water sprays up on him, that he's wearing a badly faded 'Rainforest Cafe' t-shirt. This t-shirt has been bought for coins, in the local market. Originally sent by the Salvation Army or other charity, and plucked up for selling to the poorest of the poor. It may have been through three children here already. And all of a sudden I am not happy for him, I almost cry. Involuntarily.

I think about his childhood. That is not a childhood. And that at the Rainforest Cafe, back in the 'civilized' world, children light up at the animals that talk, they enjoy huge lunches they can never finish, they whine for ice cream afterwards, and they get it. They never think about how they will wash or whether there will be water to drink, or whether they will have to fetch muddy slush from the potholes instead, and hope their depressed, desperate, poor mother will not beat them when they get back home...

As I was lost in melancholy, I was jolted back to reality. The water truck driver had seen our boy and lashed out at him. In his haste to get away, his slyfully attained water supply sloshed round and out of the bowl, as if in slow motion, all out onto the cracked pavement as he ran off, the water making rich brown streaks, down to his little calloused feet, down the dry grey panes of his bony legs. And he was gone.
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