No One Has More or Less Right to Complain
It rains almost daily and, most days when it rains, it rains to soak everything. The soil is porous-sandy and the water table is high beside the ocean so when the rains stop the streets dry and the flooding recedes quickly. But always the air is humid. (As I write this, I stop to make a cup of coffee. When I reach for the tin of Nescafe I realize that I left the top off when I made coffee this morning and now the instant coffee is a moist shell on top.) The moisture is bad indoors and, where there is poor ventilation, you must use a dehumidifier or an air conditioning to extract the moisture.
When we arrived in Liberia, the company had already leased an apartment for us. The location was great - close to the shops and the restaurants and walking distance from the office, but the building is old and the apartment was a ground floor unit enclosed by a tall concrete wall on the open sides. When we first arrived, the air smelled thick and musty but we lit candles and assumed it would freshen with use. Sunlight only entered during a few hours each day and even then only when the rains let up long enough for sunshine. Also, the wall dampened the breeze that could get through so that even when a good wind was up the air was mostly still inside the one-bedroom unit.
Ceiling fans helped to circulate the air and 24-hour electricity permitted the electric lights to be on during the day. But with only two phases on, the air conditioning units in the bedroom and living room did not function. So the moisture hung in the air. Also, there was leaking. Our first day in the apartment there was a large puddle on the living room floor. We dried it and it returned each time it rained. It was not from the ceiling or from the window but the wet stucco suggested that the rainwater had infiltrated the walls and pooled when it reached the floor. After the first week, I spoke to my office and the landlord re-plastered the exterior wall outside our apartment. But the leaking continued so we knew that the water was coming from somewhere else.
Water in the walls and pooling on the ground floor and the uncirculated moisture during the day fed the mold that grows endemically here during the rainy season. Everyone complains of it and no one has more or less right to complain about a thing than anyone else, but our mold problem was worse than anyone else’s.
It grew in the dresser and in the wardrobe, under the sink and on the back side of the cabinets. It grew on the plants that we bought to freshen the air and that were wilting for lack of sunshine. It grew on our luggage and on our bathroom mats. It grew on Jessica’s leather belt and on my leather motorcycling jacket and my hiking boots. It grew on our passports and our money and the pages of Jessica’s journal notebook. It consumed where it grew and it grew on nearly everything. It grew so that we retreated our things from the dresser and the wardrobe. My clean clothes sat folded on the ironing board and everything else was strewn over the sofa cushions either to dry after washing away the mold or to stay dry enough not to grow new mold.
After a few weeks, I spoke to my office about it and we were moved to another one-bedroom unit on the third floor of the same building. This unit was smaller than our last and the kitchen was like a nook so that the refrigerator, which was half-size, was in the bedroom. After a few days the unit we were in had been rented to another party and we were moved to a one-bedroom that had opened on the second floor. This was the same size as our first apartment but it was the unit directly above that one.
The plaster was wet on the walls in this unit too and water pooled in the bedroom beside the closed window. This is how we discovered that the water had infiltrated the walls from higher up in the building. The mold grew in this unit as fiercely as it grew in our first, ground floor apartment. It grew so that I was washing shoes and jackets and leather belts and passports for a third and fourth time.
Those who know me will know that, for as stoic as I wish myself to be, I complain as much as the next person. But my ‘official’ complaining - that is, my complaining to my supervisor at work - is always relegated to issues of program support and policy decisions and unrealistic promises made to donors. To complain about work issues when you have ideas and suggestions that have not been tried is somehow professional but to complain about challenging personal or living circumstances is for sissies. But the ‘squeaky wheel…,’ as they say, and I so have been learning to complain. Boy, have I been learning to complain - personally and ‘officially’. And what a chip it puts on your shoulder. You figure, I’m a professional and I have skills that this company needs but my needs don’t seem to matter to anyone, do they?
After about a month, Jessica - who spends far more time at home than I do - developed a cough. Now I was not providing a safe, healthy environment for my ‘family’, so I became angry. I documented my complaints in emails and I sent photographs of the mold infestation. Only what I did not do - but should have done - was take air quality samples.
I visited apartments and we found another place for rent, which we liked because it was newly renovated. But the process of negotiating a lease became much delayed, despite my urgings and intervention. After about seven weeks, I told the Director that I would remove us from the apartment and send the company the bill for a hotel suite. I had expected that he would suggest this himself, given the company’s liability for having placed an employee in substandard accommodations. So when I informed him of my intentions, I expected that at least he should pick up on the idea and insist upon the course of action. He did not. That was on a Friday.
Over the weekend I fell ill so I did not present at work on Monday. On Tuesday, the company helped move us into a nearby hotel where we have been for the past three weeks.