The trip that tested my limits more than I would have liked…

I had long known that midway through my volunteering in Senegal, I would be spending 3 weeks in December in Monrovia, Liberia for borrower verification. I wasn’t sure what to expect of a country that had gone through over a decade of civil wars up to 2003 but I was willing to take up the challenge, after all it was only for 3 weeks. Little did I know how much such a short stay will stretch me out of my comfort zone and make me question my sanity. Before I started this Kiva fellowship, I’ve heard many times you can never be prepared enough, now I get it!

Monrovia, Paynesville South

And the irony is none of the troubles I’ve had were work related. If anything, I’ve enjoyed working with the partner BRAC Liberia and meeting loans officers and borrowers (minus public transportation!). I was also excited to do site visits and discuss opportunities to partner with Kiva to empower farmers through in-kind agricultural loans (loans disbursed as inputs – seeds, fertilizers, livestock feeds, etc.). Creative ways to make a difference in the fight against poverty… I was stimulated!
Monrovia, West Point

Hawa, a borrower in West Point

Fatu, a borrower in Buchanan

BRAC Seed testing farm in Kingsville - Corn, rice, cassava, eggplants, pumpkin, etc.

However, it’s everything else aside from work that got under my skin and it’s started even before I set foot in Monrovia. This is a long post, you have been warned!

Departing Flight:
It took a while to find an itinerary online that won’t take more than 20 hours to go from Dakar to Monrovia (typical route would include Mali, Togo and Ghana or why not go all the way to the East coast through Kenya or Ethiopia). So I was quite satisfied when I finally found a 3h30mn flight on Flighthub with a stopover in Freetown, Sierra Leone. According to my final itinerary, I was flying out on December 2 and returning to Dakar on December 19th with Atlant-soyuz Airlines. Never heard of this company? Me neither but I didn’t think much of it, after all I don’t know much about local airlines in Africa.

Few days before my departure, I was sorting out logistics with my cousin so she could drop me off at the airport on her way to work. She asked what airline I was flying and when I replied Atlant-soyuz Airlines, she goes “what? I’ve never heard of this!”… Hmm this is not good. She travels quite often and the airport in Dakar is very small, so if she’s never heard of this company, then something is definitely wrong. I went online to search the name and it turned out it’s a Russian company that went into liquidation in 2011. Really?! I went on skype and call Flighthub, long story short: no way we would sell you a ticket with a company that does not exist anymore, contact them at the airport (are you deaf? I’ve been telling you for the past hour that the company does not exist and does not have any local representatives), or contact parent companies in Russia and Germany… I must have spent at the very least 3 hours on the phone, call 3-4 times and each time wait about 30 minutes before someone could talk to me. After asking several times to talk to a Manager, I finally got someone that admitted that such company does not exist and in fact, the ticket should read Gambia Bird for the airline. They reissued the ticket with the correct name but with no flight numbers. I emailed back to ask for it and they’ve conveniently ignored me. By then, I was just too disgusted to call back and let’s face it, how many flights could possibly leave from Dakar at that time?  

Come the departure day, I breezed through the check-in and security, life is good!

I left for Monrovia with few small USD bills, firmly counting on using my MasterCard for my living expenses there (I’ve never had any issues withdrawing money from ATMs in Dakar). Unfortunately, things are a “bit” different in Monrovia! I couldn’t find one single ATM in the whole city that takes MasterCard, only Visa cards were accepted. I had bank cards that I couldn’t use and not much left of the USD bills after paying for a local SIM card, water, few snacks and the shuttle that took me from the airport to the hotel. So I called back home and asked to be sent money through Western Union (is there any country where they’re not?).  

I have been looking for an economic housing option for the 3 week-stay but no such luck in Monrovia. It’s disturbing how everything can be so expensive in such a poor country (mostly catering to the large UN base and the many NGO’s staff). After a long negotiation and explaining the purpose of my trip (read multiple emails back and forth), I finally managed to get almost 40% discount off the standard rate at Moko’s Bed and Breakfast if I stayed with them for the entire 3 weeks. At $60/night, this was far from the budget I had in mind but what other option did I have? And mind you, this is not a luxury hotel in any way. It’s barely OK.

Now at the B&B: 
-  1st room (week 1): I couldn’t find the remote for the AC, the TV, no soap in the bathroom, unclean toilet and can’t get out of the room (the key allows you to close the door but it couldn’t unlock). After much efforts and help from the staff, I managed to get out and move to the… next room.

-  2nd room (week 1): well no issues with the key but there’s some consistency here: smelly carpet, moldy bathroom and uncomfortable bed, not exactly what I was expecting for the price but again can’t do much about it. I did visit other hotels but believe it or not, this was the least worst option in what I could afford.
Other grievances with my room: no internet connection on the ground floor (where my room was) and they couldn’t quite consistently deliver either on the promise of no power outage (there’s always something to fix on the backup battery). As if this wasn’t enough, 2 days later I noticed a mouse scurrying across the room, up and down the furniture and I was terrified to go to sleep! Not even a mosquito net to feel remotely protected, I spent a sleepless night. Not only did I feel angry and miserable, it felt as if my whole body was crashing down the following morning: extremely tired, burning sensation in the eyes, dry throat, bad cough (with the long list of things wrong there, I couldn’t quite pinpoint to what I was allergic to). I emailed the owner (a Liberian living in the States) and got to move to another room, this time on the 1st floor for few days.

-  3rd room (week 1): Rooms on the 1st floor are newer, therefore in better condition than the ones on the ground floor. Obviously the rates are higher and since I couldn’t afford it, I moved back downstairs in yet another room. In the meantime they have resolved the internet connection issues on the ground floor.

-  4th room (week 2): At this point, I’m just counting the days to my flight back to Dakar. Sure enough, 4 days later, back to the mouse episode and this time it was full occupancy so no other rooms left to move to. The staff assured me they have cleaned and moved all furniture, they haven’t found any mice (!) so all should be good. Well, all was not good and now it was not one sleepless night, but 2 in a row with headaches and severe allergies, there’s no word to describe how I felt … Now the staff and the owners are annoyed that I kept complaining, and I’ve even been asked “what’s all the fuss about, have you never seen a mouse?”…argh!!  And well during the day, I have work to do! I spent most of the time in the field in the blazing heat, moving around in scarce, awful and crowded public transportation, and I’m asking myself why am I here, an unpaid volunteer spending a fortune, and staying in such difficult conditions in a place I don’t know a soul and where poverty makes you uncomfortable? And I’m leaving out other incidents of people trying to rip me off at every turn!

-  I was back to actively searching for a place to stay for my 3rd and last week in Monrovia because quite frankly I couldn’t imagine myself going through this for one more week. It was either I find something decent or I move to a $200/night hotel and cut short my fellowship for lack of funding but I refused to subject myself to this anymore… I’ve reached my limit! At the same time I made that decision, I got a note from the owner “kindly” asking me to move out so they can treat their rooms (read I’ve had enough of dealing with you). In any case, I was not going to argue with that. I found a new posting on the Liberia Expats google group:  an expat couple looking for a roommate in a 4 bedroom apartment (at $80/week compared to the $60/night I was paying at the hotel, why didn’t I see this earlier!?!). I called in the evening, went to visit the morning after and moved in the same day, what a relief!!!

And then the most unexpected thing happened: I was at my wit’s end few days back but there I was enjoying my last week in Monrovia! It just clicked with my roommates and out of nowhere I was enjoying myself at last: good laughs, good food, great company, going out together, meeting other expats, lengthy and inspiring discussions on ways to start a profitable business in Africa, on changing the world and fighting against poverty, etc. Finally, I was feeling good again! Thank God!!!  

And I thought oh, at least I’m ending this trip on a good note. Wait not so fast…

Return flight
I was supposed to leave Monrovia on December 19th (a Friday) at 2pm. I got to the airport (about an hour away from the city) around 12:30pm. The security guard checked my passport and itinerary and asked me to return at 2pm for security check and boarding. How come I am only allowed to go through airport security at 2pm for a 2pm flight, I asked. Has the flight schedule changed? Looking quite annoyed, he kept saying no one is allowed in there until 2pm. Fine, I went to seat at the restaurant and came back at 2pm. I ran into the Gambia Bird’s staff that does the boarding at the door, she looked at my itinerary and said she had to take a late lunch break, she would call me when she’s done. Back at the restaurant again! I finally managed to go through security around 3pm, again they checked my passport and itinerary. Then it was time to check in my suitcase and suddenly they realized I was heading to Dakar. Oh no Madam, I’m afraid this flight is only heading to Banjul (I’ve never even heard of that place before, didn’t have a clue where it was – in Gambia, I’ve learned since!), there’s no flight to Dakar on Fridays, the next flight is on the following Tuesday December 24, sorry! Let me see again your ticket, oh you got it online in September, that’s why! It’s the machine’s fault (!), we have changed our flight schedule to Dakar since, it’s only once a week now on Tuesdays... Are you kidding me???! Ok Maryse, keep your cool… I was seating around for over 3 hours, got my passport and itinerary checked by at least 3-4 different people, was never contacted by Gambia Bird to inform me of their new schedule, was never told anything when I checked in at the airport in Dakar few weeks ago (even though the information for the return flight was on the same ticket) and all I’m getting is sorry, come back in 5 days on Christmas’ Eve, no compensation whatsoever (hotel, food, transportation… nothing!)? And oh did I mention I only have $20 bill left on me?

By that time, there were no other options with other airlines – I’d have to leave the following day and go through Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire… If you’ve ever travelled in Africa, you know there are no low cost flights and quite frankly as an unpaid volunteer, I don’t have another $300-500 to throw away because Gambia Bird has not bothered to update their flight schedule on their website. How they will charge you for a flight that doesn’t exist and never realize it is beyond me! Now shall we find a solution? Sorry, we can’t help, everything is decided at the headquarters in Banjul, we’re calling and they’re not picking up the phone. Do you still have units on your cell phone, let’s try to call them with yours… Can you check if I’m on the Tuesday flight? Nope, you would have to buy another ticket. Are you for real? You already took money for a service you’ve never delivered, I’m stuck in a country with only $20 left, you’re not offering any compensation for the 5 extra days and you want me to pay for another ticket? Hello?!?? I demand that you re-issue a ticket for me for the Tuesday flight! Oh well, we really can’t do anything here, go to our downtown office tomorrow morning to sort it out… In the meantime, I called my roommates and new friends in Monrovia and got them up to speed. No problem they assured me, come back to the apartment. Don’t worry about the money, you can stay with us until your flight on Tuesday… Boy was I relieved to hear that (and almost grateful to the hotel’s mice, I wouldn’t have met them otherwise!)… I had gone through so many shades of emotions in few hours, I felt numbed and appalled at the mediocrity and lack of initiatives of the Gambia Bird staff (the country manager was the worst of them). The only thing I got out of the staff at the airport was a ride back to the apartment (I had to wait past 5pm until they were done with their day).

The next day, I went to the downtown office and back to square one: sorry, we can’t do anything for you, the ticket has to be reissued at the headquarters in Banjul. How about you call them (duh!)? I am not living here until I get my new ticket! She looked at me annoyed and grudgingly started making calls. Few minutes later, she said you can leave and we will get back in touch with by Monday to confirm whether you’re on the Tuesday flight. Really? Which part of the I’m not leaving here until I get my ticket didn’t you get?... 2 hours later, I finally got my new ticket, it was about time! For a company that markets itself as “Your gateway to West Africa… offering a safe, reliable and scheduled service across all major cities in the region”, I’m sorry Gambia Bird, you are not even close! And I’m still waiting for my compensation…

Since I had no choice to wait until the following Tuesday, I resolved I might as well roll with the flow and make the most of those few days with my new friends. They had 2 friends visiting from the UK and they had planned to spend few days out of town on the beach in Robertsport (3-4 hour drive from Monrovia). I’ve decided to join them. Meanwhile, I’ve resolved my money problem thanks to Paypal. I sent the money to the account of one of the expats and got back the much needed cash for the next few days. So off we went all 5 to Robertsport, it was quite a journey to get there with a car packed full of food. And… yes it was such a great fun out there, again I was surprised to feel good when few days ago I was beyond myself!

Busy fishermen in Robertsport

Dinner sorted out! We've just got fresh fish & we're still at coffee time in the morning!

I had a memorable dinner experience on that beach: corn paste with okra sauce and fish (cooked right on the beach)!! That’s what happened when you’re traveling with foodies that like to experiment. They were selling okra everywhere in the little town we were so they figured since I’ve mentioned okra in some of the Togolese dishes I must be an expert. Pleading ignorance (no pun intended) didn’t work: how bad could that be they said? Come on tell us what to do and we would help you with the cooking. Alright then! Got my sister on the phone to refresh my memory (the last time I’ve tried that dish I must have been in my teens i.e. it’s been over 15 years!), needless to say she was in stiches! We agreed Mom would have been amused for sure!
Well by the time dinner was ready, we needed head torches to see anything!

Then I had to arrange for a car to take me to the airport on Tuesday. At 8pm the day before, I still didn't have any viable option since all the drivers I've spoken to were determined to rip me off. I kept saying no hoping for the best, continuously making calls and finally at 11pm I found my driver at a much more reasonable fare. He recommended we leave early since we had to go through Monrovia and traffic would be pretty bad on December 24 with the holiday festivities. Best case scenario it would be a 5 hour drive. Well it took almost 7 hours, I left the resort at 8am and arrived at the airport at almost 3pm. I went straight through the security check and this time no drama checking in my suitcase, phew! The staff at Gambia Bird just pretended they've never seen me before! I got back home in Dakar past 9pm on Christmas Eve, exhausted but happy to have finally made it. What a trip!! 

Lessons learned
Great if you've made it so far, I’m finally wrapping up this post! Few takeaways:

-  I’m truly grateful to my amazing support system during this whole ordeal: family, friends and Kiva staff. Thank you for your “virtual” presence and words of encouragement. I’ve needed every single one of them!
-  I can and I would continue to try to make the best out of a terrible situation!  
-  Be open, have fun and prepare to meet amazing people even in the craziest situations!
-  Never ever purchase anything online here (at the very least in West Africa) unless the company is based elsewhere. Continuously update your website is apparently overrated here!
-  I might consider getting a Visa card when I go back to Montreal in few months
-  Customer service: wow I am missing this so much… Would never take it for granted anymore!
-  And finally, I’ve learned to overcome my fear of motorbike taxis. They may not be the safest option, but at least you are not squeezed like sardines in the cars or buses.  

Et voilà! The journey continues in Dakar… Have a great day!

About the author

Maryse Gbeassor

Maryse is a Canadian-born to Togolese parents and she grew up in Lomé from age 5 to 17. After that, she went to college in Montreal and graduated of Business Administration from HEC Montreal. Maryse is a Director in Transaction Services at PwC Montreal with 12 years of in-depth experience in financial due diligence for mergers and acquisitions transactions, project management and auditing for the private sector. From 2007 to 2011, she has successfully completed two long-term assignments within PwC (Boston, USA and Milan, Italy). She is a Chartered Professional Accountant (Quebec) and she holds the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Maryse has been exposed to development issues through her childhood in Togo and her involvement with CAUSE Canada, an international relief and development agency. She wishes to use her skills to contribute to sustainable development efforts. She strongly believes that one effective way to alleviate poverty is by empowering women through financial inclusion, enabling them to improve their quality of life and feel hopeful and confident about the future. As such, Maryse is delighted for the opportunity to get a unique insider experience into the microfinance industry as a Kiva fellow, particularly in West Africa.