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Three years ago, Canadian Joelle Gordon boarded a flight bound for – not Buenos Aires or Rio, as anyone who knew her well might have expected – but Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, west Africa.
South America might have been the obvious choice because for much of Gordon’s adult life she specialised in the region – in 1996 she completed a master’s degree in Brazilian military history at the University of Calgary. Then, after 10 years as an investment banker, Gordon, now 45, started running the family’s skateboarding company in Calgary after her father decided to down tools and cycle across Canada. The business thrived – and her teenage son was impressed – but family and friends knew it was only a matter of time before Gordon departed for another country.
The move to Liberia, she says, can be traced to a meeting of the Calgary Rotary Club. During her banking years, Gordon had become friendly with the group’s expert in microfinance, and one night he urged her to attend a talk by the Liberia-based Foundation for Women. “The stars aligned,” says Gordon.
The group had a clear mission: to extend microcredit, or small loans, to female entrepreneurs, so with a few hundred dollars they might be able to open a market stall, for example. The format appealed both to Gordon’s business instincts and her growing sense that she would only be really happy if she started working to make the world a better place – and not just for her fellow Canadians.
Exhilarated and ready for action, she sold her house and put plans in place for a three-month trial in Monrovia, although she knew she wanted to stay long term. Perhaps sensing her resolve, Gordon’s father – a long-time executive in Canada’s oil and gas industry, and a man accustomed to managing risk – asked that, as a Christmas gift to him, she prepare three fully articulated escape plans.
There was ample reason for caution. After nearly 15 years of civil war, Liberia’s infrastructure was in tatters. Villagers fleeing violence and a lack of jobs in the countryside caused Monrovia’s population to rapidly increase from its prewar figure of 150,000. Today the number of people living in the city is about 1m. At night, Gordon was warned, bands of marauders roamed the city, looking for anything to steal. Even during the day, a woman needed to be on her guard. “I was probably the only non-military personnel in a country of 4m that had a ‘go-bag’,” Gordon says, referring to a knapsack she kept packed with emergency clothing, medicine and cash.
Indeed, Gordon’s time in Liberia began ominously, when – on an early visit to a village – children ran screaming from her, saying she was a witch. With her pale blue eyes, Gordon says she was unlike anyone many Liberians had ever seen. But she was undeterred: after this, when she met a Liberian for the first time, she would simply wear sunglasses.
During those first months in the country, Gordon shared a house with a number of other expats. Without a 24-hour generator, some weeks they would have to sneak off to a hotel to take a hot shower. She missed her son, now aged 23, who expressed support but remained in Canada.
However, she soon fell in love with the work and the people, realising how much it meant to her to be able to make a direct impact on lives in such distress. “We are so lucky in Canada,” she says. “What’s the challenge in making already comfortable people more comfortable?”
Then she began to notice a troubling pattern. In villages she often met women who had been identified by the Foundation for Women as potential entrepreneurs, except Gordon could see that their children were ill. “When I came back, I knew all the children would be gone,” she says, and that all the loan money would have been spent on medicine.
The problem was water. Even after the foundation had started making a difference in a village, funding new business initiatives, many women would later ask to take out all their savings, hoping to save a family member from a waterborne disease.
During the war, Gordon says, when the state was fractured and Liberians were desperate for money, the metal was stripped off every water treatment plant in the country, leaving bottled and trucked water as the only safe option. Then, as now, the majority of people could not afford to buy this water every week and, instead, were forced to drink contaminated water which made them sick.
“If only they’d fill a 50-gallon drum with water now and then,” she told her son on the phone one day, thinking of the rainy season. “A drum?” he said. “How about a 10,000-litre tank?”
It was an idea that led Gordon to start her own water management company, African Rain. One of her first major clients was a rubber plantation where a 100,000-litre collection tank was installed – enough water to last for 90 days during the dry season, and a capacity that could be filled in a single hour in the rainy season.
The technology is wonderfully simple, Gordon says, and she expects her client roster to expand quickly after a pending deal with the Liberian government, which has agreed to install tanks of several million litres at a downtown public works building. This will be enough, she says, to supply water for 3,000 people, with enough excess produced during rainy months to allow the government to undertake a huge bottling operation.
“Bill Gates dreams about a computer in every home,” says Gordon. “I want a tap in every home . . . It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Helping Gordon in her quest is her partner, South African security contractor Chris Botha, 40, the “love of her life”, whom she met at the rubber plantation. They live in a rented apartment because rules against foreign ownership preclude nearly all expats from buying property.
If you are seeking adventure, Liberia is great, says Gordon, but she tries to find time to visit nearby countries, such as Sierra Leone and Kenya. She also often returns to Canada to visit her son and other family members.
Although they work all hours, Gordon says she and Botha spend their free time taking advantage of Monrovia’s beaches, where they walk their dog, a Belgian shepherd called Endor. At weekends, the couple enjoy taking part in acoustic jam sessions at the UN military compound – “sort of like singing round the campfire”.
Things are more difficult during the rainy season, when roads can be impassable, and the couple find themselves playing board games and watching films. “Thank God for Kindles,” says Gordon.
● The exhilarating sense of being part of a young country in the process of rebuilding
● For a country that has suffered so much, there is incredible capacity for love and goodwill. For example, if you go for a run, people cheer you on
● Food is expensive. It costs about $9 for a box of imported cereal
● Security is a concern. It is important to be aware of personal safety at all times
● Traffic is terrible, and if you do not own a car, it can be very costly to hire one
What you can rent for . . .
$1,000 a month: A one-bedroom apartment, although this might not include electricity, which can cost as much as $500 a month.
$4,000 a month: A nicely appointed two-bedroom apartment on the beach and close to downtown