Archive | June, 2013

Tom Tyler – Liberia – The Art of Driving

11 Jun

‘My experience of Joe before this trip was seeing the line for ‘Driver’ when looking at the budgets for the projects back at my desk in South London. I had always assumed that someone has to drive the vehicle, but it seemed strange that it needed a skilled, permanent employee. That assumption has been wiped clean this week.’

The Art of Driving

I am writing this in our guest house in Cestos City, the capital of River Cess County in Liberia. ‘City’ is a loose term here, there is one un-tarmacked road forming the high (and only) street, a small number of permanent concrete structures, and a large number of wooden-framed and mud-walled homes (which require rebuilding every year after Liberia’s long rainy season).

I’ve been in River Cess now for three days visiting the projects that Children in Crisis is delivering with our long-term partner FAWE Liberia (Forum for African Women Educationalists), a local education charity.

Typically foreboding rain clouds gather over Cestos City.

Typically foreboding rain clouds gather over Cestos City!

As a member of the small fundraising team at Children in Crisis (there are six of us based in our office in South London), my primary role is to write the proposals requesting funding for our work and the update reports on the progress of the projects. This has been a week of firsts for me: my first field visit, my first trip to Liberia, my first trip to Africa for that matter, and my first real appreciation of the amazing lengths that my field colleagues and FAWE will go to reach the most isolated and remote communities.

I arrived in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, late on Sunday and was immediately hit by the humidity and luscious green surroundings (Monrovia, I would learn, is the wettest capital city in the world. In July alone, it receives double the amount of rain that London receives in a year!). After spending a couple of hours on Monday morning meeting with our FAWE colleagues, the rest of the day was spent on the road to Cestos City. Before starting the journey, I asked Charlotte (my field colleague), who has lived in Liberia for two years, for an indication of the likely travel time. Six to eight hours was Charlotte’s response. It was not the traffic that would determine the final length of the journey, as it might in the UK, but rather the state of the road. The first three hours’ driving would be on a tarmacked road all the way to Buchanan, Liberia’s second city. Beyond Buchanan it would be the dirt road.

April and May are the change-over months from the dry season to the rainy season in Liberia, so bright blue skies and 28 degrees in the morning, then three hour thunder storms in the late afternoon and early evening. If the rain over the last couple of weeks or so had been hard enough and soaked through into the road, we would be looking at the full eight hours (which rises to a potential 10 hours at the end of the rainy season when the road is truly saturated).  As it was, even with a stop off for lunch in Buchanan (rice and ‘cow-meat’ soup), we reached Cestos in five and a half hours.

Tragically, on the stretch from Buchanan to Cestos, we saw a small amount of commotion at the side of the road, surrounding a car that had crashed into a divot. Given the lack of traffic, it was most likely that the brakes or steering had given out, or that the driver had made a mistake. One body was still in the car, and another had been covered up with a blanket at the side of the road. It was a sombre sight.

Within this context, for the remainder of our journey I was incredibly thankful for two things; the sturdy 4X4 vehicle we were travelling in, and the skill of one man. Joe Cappard, the FAWE driver, has been working for FAWE for over 15 years, and driving on Liberia’s challenging roads for 30 years. We’re pretty sure that Joe has literally driven on every one of Liberia’s roads. Before joining FAWE, Joe worked as a mechanic in one of Liberia’s few medical facilities, the JFK Hospital in Monrovia. To pay his way through high school, Joe worked for a mechanics firm during the holidays. Both Joe’s brother (now living in the United Sates), and his father were also mechanics. Joe’s four daughters however, all of whom are still in education – his eldest will soon be graduating from accountancy college – do not share their father’s love of cars and oily engines!

Joe Cappard, FAWE driver.

“It is the most important thing that my daughters are educated, so that they can stand on their own and make a future for themselves and their children. I will make sure that all my children are educated because that is the best way to have a good life.” Joe Cappard, FAWE driver.

Reaching Cestos City in good time was just one leg of the journey to visit the communities that we are working with. Indeed on our second day in River Cess we travelled to a community where even Joe’s skills were of no use. In 2011, with the help of our supporters, Children in Crisis and FAWE constructed a brand new primary school for the community of Neegbah. The amazing thing about this building project, and the reason that Joe could not be of assistance, is that there is not a single road that leads to the community. To reach the school we took the same route that every single bag of cement, steel rod, nut and bolt also had to take; the 25 minute crossing of the vast Cestos River in a hand-built wooden canoe, followed by an hours’ walk through the bush.

Mardia, one of the mothers we spoke to in Neegbah proudly described how the whole community had worked every day from 6am to 12pm for six months to transport the building materials. While the funds were lovingly provided by our supporters in the UK, and the construction work was completed by skilled professionals, the transporting of the materials (including locally contributed materials such as sand from the riverside) helped to create a real sense of ownership amongst the community. 18 months on from completion of the construction, it was clear from the highly maintained state of the school that this sense of ownership was bearing fruit.

Mardia explained that she and the other parents were scared for their children when they attended the old school during the rainy season. Pieces of the roof used to fall on the children, and snakes (yes snakes!) would often fall from the roof into the classroom!

Amazingly, after completing the new school, the Children in Crisis and FAWE team decided to go yet further into the depths of the bush to reach an even more remote community. Beyond Neegbah, Jarstar community is a further 25 mins on the back of a motorbike (as I was fortunate enough to travel), or a two hour walk (almost three hours from the riverside). The women of Jarstar are now benefitting from the piloting of our Vocational Training Outreach Project, whereby our training team live in the community for four months, delivering lessons in locally relevant skills such as pastry-making, tailoring, and hairdressing, as well as adult literacy and business skills classes.

Women attending a VTC bakery class. I was lucky enough to try one of these very tasty fish pastries.

Women attending a VTC bakery class. I was lucky enough to try one of these very tasty fish pastries.

Today, my last day in River Cess, we visited two other communities involved in this pilot project (we hope to turn the pilot into a wide-ranging three year programme benefitting thousands of women in the near future), which were about a four hour drive from our guest house. For this journey, we had to cross two of the most rickety, dangerous-looking ‘bridges’ I’ve ever seen. At one of the bridges, to reduce the weight, Joe asked us to get out of the vehicle. After checking the bridge, and looking for the strong and weak points, he skilfully manoeuvred the vehicle across. We jumped back in on the other side.

Joe Cappard, FAWE driver, and the FAWE team assessing the bridge before crossing in the vehicle.

Joe Cappard, FAWE driver, and the FAWE team assessing the bridge before crossing in the vehicle.

Our timetable for the day, given the amount of travelling involved, gave us about an hour and a half at each community. It became apparent that the women involved in the Vocational Training are so proud of their new skills, and so thankful for the support provided by Children in Crisis, FAWE and our supporters, that the joyful conversations, the meetings, and demonstrations of their new skills were going to play havoc with the timetable.

As a result, by the time we finished at the second community, the early evening rains were coming down heavily (at a force I’d never experienced before!), and daylight had all but run out. I was a bit nervous at this point – the road, strewn with holes and ditches, was difficult enough to navigate during the day when it was dry, let alone at night and in the rain. What was this journey going to be like? And more importantly, given that mobile phone coverage doesn’t extend to the remote parts of River Cess, what would happen if Joe misjudged a divot, or if the vehicle let him down?

As it was, I had no need to worry. Joe drove in the pitch black with only his headlights for guidance (there is obviously no road lighting), handling all that the road had to throw at him. It was an amazing piece of driving. We arrived back at the guest house about 45 minutes ago. Ironically, the generator is broken, and so I’m typing this in the dark. I’ve made more mistakes in the last ten minutes than Joe did in four hours!

My experience of Joe before this trip was seeing the line for ‘Driver’ when looking at the budgets for the projects back at my desk in south London. I had always assumed that someone has to drive the vehicle, but it seemed strange that it needed a skilled, permanent employee. That assumption has been wiped clean this week.

Learn more about Children in Crisis’s work in Liberia.

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