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To the West we Wander

If you remember a piece of information from many months ago, phenomenal. If not; I and a baker’s dozen of volunteers were forced to move sites between school years as we were effectively inaccessible during the Liberian rainy season. For me that meant a new home Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County, a county seat of governmental buildings huddled in the bush near the Sierra Leonean border. Only a four hour hop and skip from Monrovia, this new land offered a different window into Liberian life.

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The western part of Liberia is really the central part of Liberia in that it’s more integrally tied to the urban country capital of Monrovia. The good and the bad. Good because the educational setting and road networks, while still severely disadvantaged, are better serviced. Bad because the hell Liberia has suffered often grades out from Monrovia. The recent civil wars upended life, cumulatively displacing nearly half of all Liberians. Many of my peers in Bopolu spent parts of their childhoods in Guinean or Sierra Leonean refugee camps.

Ebola, a far more fatal disease than present-day COVID-19, exposed a vastly unprepared medical network and led to health workers being seen as harbingers of death. Despite overwhelming visual similarities of green rainforest, dark skin, and rainbow fabrics, the experiences that inform the culture here are quite different than those in the Southeastern reaches of the country. I carried these thoughts into the classroom – less likely to casually ask students about their parents and more likely to classify viruses as living things.

Lay of the land

Religiously, the region is split between Islam and Christianity with remarkable amiability between the two. Most business owners are Islam, often moving to Liberia from neighboring Guinea or southern Mali for the benefits of commanding a larger volume of sales and a more relaxed tax environment.

Food shops dot the main street, where 200 LRD (~1 USD) fetches a chicken dinner. My favorite seller is colloquially referred to as “24-hour” for her round-the-clock service. I did catch her sleeping on the job a time or two… thankfully her kids knew how to keep the oil bubbling.

Main Street in Bopolu
The main street in Bopolu on an average overcast morning

Tea shops are frequented by men talking politics at non-yelling volumes while sipping sugary shot-glasses of concentrated tea. Two video-clubs, both owned by Nigerians, show football (n. – a sport played with a ball and feet) for 75 LRD. Gold-miners from temporary mountain villages come down to the valley to restock, while county officials build guest houses and entertainment centers to host them.

Forming a new form of Volunteer

Enter Kristen Grauer-Gray – our tireless leader. For half-a-decade she trained Liberian teachers on how to bring classrooms to life using local, affordable materials. She wrote the 132-page “Hands-on Liberia” Lab Manual – a de facto Bible of science.

Kristen humbly sharing with us her successful starting tactics.
Kristen humbly sharing with us her successful starting tactics.

She trained countless teachers, then took it one step further and trained fellow volunteers to train teachers. She once crushed an industrial fuel barrel using atmospheric pressure – very nice! Collaborating with the Ministry of Education, she and others nucleated a new volunteer assignment; Science Lab organizer and instructor.

And what do they do?

Our mission was to revitalize hands-on learning in schools that already had established science laboratories. Most county capitals were fortunate enough to have well-stocked labs, primarily built and stocked through an NGO project in the mid-2000s. They looked nice, and even on paper they are impressive. To me, however, they reflect a major failure of foreign-aid initiatives in the region.

Money flows to the what and not the who. What do schools need and what can we give them instead of whose capacity do we build such that the schools can provide for themselves. Give a man a fish or teach him to fish? Many of these high-end labs became dusty vessels ripe for the looting.

With care, practical know-how, and re-bar-inforcement, these labs could foster intrigue among students who otherwise spent the day in front of one chalkboard. Thomas Varmah, the Chemistry teacher at Bopolu Central High School, recognized this. When I arrived in early September, he surprised me with labeled dilute acids and bases and stories of what worked in years past. Right then I knew he’d be the perfect co-instructor.

Our Science Lab in set-up mode - Maintained by Varmah
Our Science Lab in set-up mode – Maintained by VarmahEnter a caption

Strong foot forward

Together we bounced from school to school handing out letters and inviting science teachers to attend our Saturday teacher training. We sent out frequency-modulated radio waves at 90.7 Megahertz to recruit educators in surrounding towns (sounds approximately 19-times cooler than “advertised on the radio”). Starting that weekend, the 7-week course covered topics from unit conversion to parallel circuits.

Our primary goal was to answer schools’ pleas for guidance on how to teach the “Practical” sections of the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). This comprehensive test – for which a pass is technically required to graduate high-school in Liberia – expects students to master the use of scientific apparatuses like pipettes and binocular compound microscopes. With only occasional exposure to chalkboard drawings of the sort, this is “practically” impossible.

Our secondary goal – which really acted as a vehicle for the first – was to enable science teachers to make their labs localized, interactive, and replicable. Varmah and I were impressed by the commitment of certain teachers, like Mulbah Massaquio, who showed up early each and every Saturday. At the same time, we were disappointed that others preferred to hit the Palm Wine station early on their days off. Understandable, seeing as many taught at two schools on weekdays just to put rice in the pot.

Participants prepare soil samples for chemical analyses of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and pH
Participants prepare soil samples for chemical analyses of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and pH

A sample of another Saturday session’s objective is seen here:

Participants will measure the extension of springs with varied applied forces to determine the spring constant using Hooke’s law. Successful participants will use coordinate graphing to aid in their discovery. Participants will then observe locally collected plant samples to differentiate between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, then draw a specimen using the WASSCE drawing format.

Putting it to Use

The final Saturday was the participant’s first chance to apply what they practiced. In groups of two, they designed and presented lessons on familiar lab experiments to school principals, the county education officer, and a reporter from the Voice of Bopolu frequency-modulating station. We checked in with the trained teachers, observing what portions or ideas they carried back to their classrooms. Young teachers showed the most immediate changes in their style and use of teaching aids. It’s hard to know if any lasting impact was made without periodic monitoring. This is one of the more frustrating facets of Peace Corps service – to plant trees under whose shade we may never sit.

Trained Teachers presenting to special invitees. School Principal, Mr. Shariff, in Black garb
Trained Teachers presenting to special invitees. School Principal, Mr. Shariff, in Black garb

STEM Club with the Youths

Another dedicated group of learners were those in our STEM Club. We met weekly to run experiments, collect atmospheric measurements, and engineer with Legos. In Liberia, every organization must have a motto. And the motto must start with “Motto:”. Ours was the brainchild of the precocious Ezekiel T. Doe; “Motto: Our future is in our Hands”. Most of the time it was dirt or plastic bricks in his hands, but we got the idea.

Working with the NASA GLOBE program, the STEM club students measured temperature, barometric pressure, and precipitation, uploading the data on GLOBE web interface. Their favorite, perhaps a universal favorite, was Legos. Whether building the tallest wind-resistant tower or strongest load-bearing bridge, their ears were split by smiles.

Three STEM club scholars installing the GLOBE rain gauge - Edwin Ballah, Edward Siryon and Ezekiel Doe from left to right.
Three STEM club scholars installing the GLOBE rain gauge – Edwin Ballah, Edward Siryon and Ezekiel Doe from left to right.

The Liberian Banking Crisis

Peace Corps withdrew all their volunteers worldwide some weeks back. This is a first in history, and the trajectory of the Peace Corps is uncertain especially as governments cut foreign expenditures to support domestic recovery. Most of us in Liberia left in December, however, long before concerns about COVID-19 shook the world. The issue was quite different; in the rainiest capital city in the world, the banks were dry. Amorphous blobs of frustrated clientele waited all day, only able to withdraw $10 USD when they managed to accost the teller.

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Bank lines (on a good day)  in EcoBank Monrovia, several months after the onset of the banking crisis.

Civil servants, nurses, and teachers hadn’t taken pay for up to four months. Local banks and central government employees assured they were fixing things. Forced to borrow from friends and shop owners, teachers “put down the chalk” and classes ceased for weeks. Students, the biggest losers in this game, swapped their white button-downs for muddy farming shirts. Those who did show up searching for a semblance of school played quiz bowl with each other for a couple of hours then returned home.

Circumstances confound

Volunteers who ran out of money had to leave their sites for several days to travel to a bank that was reported to have money, often showing up to hear the liquid dollars finished just hours ago. Peace Corps expects some level of uncertainty, but this problem didn’t appear to be resolving anytime soon. After an impromptu all-volunteer meeting, they released this message; “Over the past year, Liberia’s economy has faced a number of challenges, including the inability to reliably obtain needed funds from banks. Out of an abundance of caution, the Peace Corps has made the decision to reduce the footprint of volunteers in Liberia in order to better support them.”

That weekend was full of tears and denial. Was it really necessary? Most of us had strategic reserves or at the very least could have asked neighbors to cover us until things stabilized. And what about the communities we would leave behind? They couldn’t simply get up and move away from the problem. Frustration permeated every conversation. Even more palpable, though, were the connections that volunteers had made with Liberia in the months or years they spent there.

Sharing families

My family and I returned to Liberia in February. Ma, Pa, Dr. H, and Dr. Le, as they were so lovingly referred to. They had long planned to visit me and airfare was locked in. We went ahead with the trip, no longer under the guise of Peace Corps. After one night of warming up in Monrovia, we took dusty northwest road to Bopolu. The checkpoints, where officers dress in a variety of non-descript uniforms and ask for “cold water” before one can cross the rope gate, were less accommodating than normal. Before, a flash of the Peace Corps ID worked wonders. Now, no longer an official volunteer, some longer explanations were in order.

We made it to Bopolu, our faces dustily imprinted with negatives of sunglasses. Mr. Kamara, the high school dean of students, offered us a home to stay in. His children ran up to hug us as we wobblily dismounted the motorbikes. The next several days were spent catching up, visiting campus, and playing frisbee games by evening. We trekked to Mr. Kamara’s farm and dug for yams and cassava. Some children accompanied us, masterfully crossing stick bridges in flip-flops.

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Post ultimate frisbee game! The little fellow in Blue must’ve been out of bounds.

 

Revisiting the Southeast

We passed back through Monrovia before flying southeast to visit my original site. Daniel, AKA Dr. H, quickly stepped up to ride co-pilot. We landed and walked down the road looking for a kehkeh (n. – small, covered 3-wheeled transportation vehicle), but all of them were out of town. Instead, we resorted to the omnipresent motorbike, zipping to Pleebo where we had to refuel, one of our bikes getting a boot for parking at an angle to the curb. Any foreigner screams money, and some locals (although relatively few in Liberia) attempt extortionary ploys to buttress their minimal hourly pay. Bribery, a rose by any other name, is an accepted routine. It takes less direct routes with foreigners and can almost always be avoided with the right logic. This time, after about 30 minutes of our driver shouting, we got off the hook.

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Booted up.

A warm welcome

In a couple of hours, we reached the first village I lived in. As we pulled up to my old house, throngs of children ran behind our motorbikes shouting “Mr. H”. Filled with elation and covered in little hands, I introduced them to my family.  The children who cried when they first saw the likes of “white man” now embraced several novel ones. I expected to see older, different faces, but they all looked the same. The 12-year-old still ordered around the 5-year-old who still dragged around the 3-year-old.

We set our things down and scurried over to the mayor’s house, where the clan chief and other head figures gave us the traditional Grebo welcome: Kola nut and Cane Rum. When asked to state our mission, I told that I was back to share my two respective families, biological and societal. Heads poked in every window, blocking out the sunlight as my biological half shared their appreciation for the welcome.

Each day brought us to several more Kola nut ceremonies, whether to welcome us to an individual family, the school, or the townspeople. We spent time, though never enough, with old friends like Ma Sue, grandmother of little Angel. S Cotee Jeh, the leading voice in town. James Collins, my cabbage farming friend who works harder than the heat. Uncle Augustus Y Dibleh, a thoughtful man who went blind just before finishing university. Ben, the school registrar and one of the only people from the town who I can keep up with through WhatsApp. Even with the week we spent there, I could not introduce my folks to everyone.

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One of the Kola Ceremonies with the school teachers, and somewhere’s favorite cookie brought by my Ma.

Escapades

Dr. T, my brother’s girlfriend Trang, captured the attention of many scurrilous youths. She taught them the Chicken Song, Do Re Mi, and several similarly savory sing-alongs. She also taught them a few Taekwondo basics, feeding into their love of martial arts derived from bootlegged Karate DVDs.

That Saturday we had an educational day for high-school seniors and juniors, working with them on a mix of academic and non-academic subjects. Dr. H – brother Daniel – taught useful knot-tying tricks. Dr. T taught math based on what she saw in students’ notebooks. Ma taught hand massage, and Pa opened the floor for questions.

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Saturday lesson in the 12th-grade classroom.

Later that day, Daniel and I were set-up to visit the island off the coast. Iudotrehn. My brother, still considered a stranger to the customs, needed special permission. The clan chief gave us the go-ahead, but ultimately, we had to ask the Sea Commander, a man who reads the tides and grants access to the sacred area. We brought our liquid offering, took some in, and set off in the dugout canoe. Barnacles, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins covered the different surf zones, turning into a maritime snack for those on the island.

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Canoeing to the island at low tide in a dugout cotton tree.

Sunday brought us to church. Liberians are always surprised to learn that Americans, who they assume are all good and righteous, infrequently attend services. Seeing as it is perhaps the most organized, regular institution in this area, I saw it right to bring my family. Church bells rang at 10:30, so we waited to go until 11:00. Apparently, we were still an hour early… should’ve known. We sang and danced, my mother reliving her youth one hymn at a time.

After service we went to my good friend Emmanuel Sieh’s to sympathize with his family, who lost their father a few weeks prior. The Methodist church was already there celebrating his life with men beating the drums and women shaking the saa saa (n. – calabash gourd dressed with beaded strings to serve as a shaker) and dancing in a line. Formalities are a must, so I made an open statement to the family expressing our condolences. The family thanked us and invited us to join in the dance, to which we responded with gyration.

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The Sieh Family and mine after the celebration of their deceased father’s life. Emmanuel in the front in white-button down.

I asked those who visited Liberia with me to share some of their thoughts, as their perspectives developed along a different timeline. Here they are, in imparticular order:

Dr. T (Trang Le)

Liberia brought me many surprises, but the most unexpected was how much the village reminded me of my own home town. Just like Vung Tau (Vũng Tàu), the village has the almond trees (cây bàng), the fish, the ocean, the smiles, and the warmth. Or perhaps it was the worry-free, stress-free, haste-free time that I spent there, mostly playing with the wonderfully jubilant children that brought me back to my childhood. Who knows, if these children encounter the chicken dance again at some point in the future, it may make them nostalgic for their childhood too.

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Dr. T teaching some math with the porch children while getting her hair plaited.

Dr. H (Brother Daniel)

We were in the city of Bopolu. Mr. Kamara had graciously provided our family with a house to stay for our visit. Nearby there was a communal pump. While many pumps in town had run dry or yielded contaminated water, rumor had it that this pump produced some of the sweetest water around. Locals drink this water unfiltered (although some seasoned locals also drink from the river downstream of the city).

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The river which is potable to those with acclimated guts.

With its amazing water, there was usually a line of women and children waiting to use the pump. Children would congregate, as the pump served as a spot to gather and socialize. That morning I approached the pump with hesitation. I didn’t want to cut everyone in line (line is figurative here as there was no formation to the crowd).

The locals were filling up large receptacles and bowls, but I approached only with my water bottle. As I arrived to the scene, a little girl ended the awkwardness by grabbing my water bottle. I barely had time to unscrew the filter before she proceeded to take it to the front of the queue, helping me without even thinking to ask.

Daniels Full reddit post here.

Ma Rebecca (Mother Becky)

Most food is grown locally and homes are mostly built from readily available local products that require little transport. Supporting beams are bamboo, laced together with reeds of grass. Some roofs are tin, but others are made from broad leaves supported by stiff stems. Their soil is used to make two grades of cement – one to go between the bamboo beams and a finer, adobe-like grade for finishing the exterior. Lumber for doors and furniture is cut with hand saws.

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Roosevelt weaving a Pahpaw roof for the kitchen.

The village people are very self-sufficient and word of mouth tends to be the main means of communication. The well is a common spot to talk and tends to have activity almost every hour of the day. The school dean in Bopolu said he knows almost every non-transient person in the city of 8,000 people. Pretty amazing! In this way, life in Liberia seems more community-like and self-contained than life in America.

Pa pa (Father Marty)

The children of Garraway. Shining eyes. White teeth and expansive smiles. Girls with colorful dresses and intricate braids. Cheerful, always willing to help: water in large pails perfectly balanced on their heads, laundry, cooking, an eight-year-old carrying an infant on her hip. Poor? Who’s poor? We have water from the well, roofs that keep us dry in the rainy season, chores that keep Garraway running, time to spend with each other.

Mr. Dibleh, sightless since his twenties, walking Garraway’s rutted roads alone. Giving the Sunday sermon at church to an attentive audience. Poor and blind. How does that produce joy?

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Mr. Dibleh, center, accompanied by James Collins to the right, Uncle Ben Gweh behind, and Lawrence Doe to the left.

The town elders formally welcome us: shared roasted pine nuts, hot pepper sauce, fermented sugar cane, and speeches. Genuine appreciation for Josh’s work when he was in Garraway and even more appreciative astonishment that he kept his word and came back as scheduled with his family. Some memories fade, some remain, some change you.

An end, but not THE end

Introducing one family to another was rejuvenating – I saw every interaction, custom, and scene in a new way. Or perhaps the same way I had once seen things. Customs that started making sense to me confused my American family. I had to translate in both directions despite English being our common language. Liberians looked confused that a woman as young as Trang had already become a doctor. There was so much to read into that no writing could ever encompass.

But pictures are worth a thousand words. So we can get pretty close.

Monthly Update

Here and there

 

Begin Journal Entry

Nails in the coffin. Buried, and final. Angel died last night. She almost reached 3 years old. Every day I spent with her, playing, trying to show her right and wrong. As I walked home from her house, she would call “Mr H – wait for me!” I once found her sleeping on my front porch, alone. I guess she found comfort in me. I did with her. She was a strong sense of hope – something young and bright. A child who captivated those who met her. She was full and healthy, with snot making frequent appearances on her upper lip.

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Yesterday, a Sunday around 5pm, an old ma said Angel is seriously sick. I went to the house to see her. Josiah sat beside her on a mattress in the dark bedroom – lit only by the ambient hallway. He moved and I sat next to her, asking if her sides were hurting. She nodded, her skin hot and her breathing rapid. The man who gave her injections earlier in the day said she had low blood, so her grandmother Susannah fixed raw egg, milk, and tomato paste to bring up her blood. Angel readily drank it, but had trouble keeping it down. It was clear she was sick, but the lack of alarm among the people around made it feel normal. Old ma Sue carried her in the clinic. Me and some others when on the football field to watch the end of a game. As we walked home, Dioh queasily walked past me, “They say Angel died.” I stood for a moment, blank, then numbly strolled back to the house. Cries cascaded atop one another. I found Josiah on the same bed where we comforted Angel an hour before. Night fell, and the cries magnified. Women screaming “Nisouah-o! Oh God!” pounding the ground hoping for an answer. Men passing through, keeping their heads low. Josiah crying in the room. People kept coming to him and telling him to “keep courage,” as the man of the house he was expected to comfort others with his dry cheeks and steady composure. An unreal expectation. The reality sank in as 3 hours of constant crying passed. They had laid Angel’s body outside on the table ma Sue fixes her coconut cookies on. Two men hung a mosquito net over her. Still in disbelief – or perhaps just hoping for impermanence, I had to see the body. As I looked down to her, she seemed to move. To me, she was still breathing. I desperately reached under the net to check her neck for a pulse. No pulse. No beating of the heart. Skin still warm.

She died with her eyes open. We buried her the next morning in a little rectangular casket with a palm-leaf wreath on top. Old ma Susannah said she put the overalls I bought Angel inside. Pastor Flahn Nyema steadied the people, “God works in funny ways. Her time reached. This is not a strange thing – stay strong. Nearly all of us here have lost a child in our family.” It was sobering, brief. Two men picked up the casket and carried it to the cemetery near Yudo hill. We followed behind, meeting someone digging the hole there. Josiah and I woefully looked on. As the casket was set six feet down, we each covered it with dirt until it was mounded over.

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Angel in her casket.

End journal entry

After death, a mat is laid out. The home of the grieving family hosts women that were close to the deceased. They all sleep together in the piazza, spending day and night sympathizing and comforting. Neighbors bring food and drinks, the affiliated church sings and drums. It can last anywhere from three days to some weeks.

It is likely Angel died as a result of Malaria. She experienced a strong fever followed by a misleading day of recovery, and then that Sunday morning the burning fever returned. She was playing in the morning. Severe anemia and respiratory distress are two of the most common complications in early childhood malaria – she exhibited both alongside the high fever. Unfortunately, she was one of nearly 700 children worldwide who died from malaria that day.

It’s not all bad. This number has reduced from around 1000 in the late 2000s. Considerable increases in the distribution and use of Long-lasting Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNS), Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs), and Artemisinin-based combination therapy treatment (ACT) have all contributed to reduced rates of mortality. Being a preventable and treatable disease, the reality of a malaria-free sub-Saharan Africa is not impossible. It depends on dispelling myths and stigmas, affordable prevention and treatment, and local adaptation.

 

Inaugural Seniors

This is the first year for 12th graders to graduate from the school I teach at. Senior classes here, along with those in most West African countries, face the month-long West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). It as an extremely hard and comprehensive test with subjects ranging from history to physics. A total of 9 subjects are tested over 30 days – with gap days for studying in between. It is compulsory to pass English and Mathematics and 2 other subjects to make an official pass in the WASSCE, and an official pass is technically required to graduate high school. Most universities devise their own entrance examination to more realistically assess the Our 12 seniors are impatiently waiting for the results to come in late July.

Students in the 1st through 11th grade have been meandering through the 238 instructional days in the academic calendar. One of my 10th graders deserves an honorable mention. Benedict Weah, a committed, hardworking, and humble servant of the Biology and Physics gods has gone above and beyond to master the material at hand. He takes the Dux almost every period and with averages of 97 in both Biology and Physics, his dethroning is dubious.

 

Building Homes

Houses, much like in the United States, are considered milestones of success. The way in which they are made, however, differs dramatically. The stringent, unavoidable regulations found stateside are indeed avoidable here. If a neighbor agrees, the house can be built.

The walls go up as such. Four strong corner sticks planted 2 feet deep and packed into place. A level string tied from one to the next. Ground sticks, similar to studs, planted 1 foot apart for the entire stretch between the corners, rising to touch the taut string. Interior walls erected similarly according to verbal floor plans from the owner. The trusses, with a short central spine and ribs bowing down in each direction of the four walls, can be made from strong sticks or planks and 5-inch nails.

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Ground sticks laid

When it comes to roofing – a decision must be made. To zinc or to leaf it be. Zinc or tin corrugated roofs are the new status quo and last a solid 20 years. But the Pah-paw waxy leaf roof is less expensive and gently dampens the drumming of rain during the rainy season. With care and occasionally the aid of smoke from the kitchen, a Pah-paw roof can reach 8 years before needing a lift. Those who have “the hand” will opt for Zinc.

Once the roof is set, the ground sticks are laced together on both sides with horizontal pieces of reef or thin sticks. Strips of old plastic or misused mosquito nets tie the pieces to the ground sticks. The result is a hollow, wall-deep grid that provides a skeleton to be fleshed with mud. An event in and of itself. Daubing (v. – liberally applying mud) the wall is a family affair. Women and children haul dirt and water, while several young men mix the two by dancing barefoot. The fresh mud is reformed into watermelon-sized clumps that are then thrown into the grid, backed by the hands of a worker on the interior of the house. The wall is evened by scraping and recasting obtruding mud. The older men in the community encourage with songs, chants, and fermented liquids. A standard house requires several tons of mud and several dozen laborers. When hands are plenty a days work should do.

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Lattice to hold the mud during daubing

From there, a month of drying solidifies the place. A kitchen is often built adjacent to the house. Plastered walls and cement over the floor can finish the house quite well. Doors, window shudders, and furniture are made by a town carpenter and voila! A house becomes a home.

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A finished house becomes a home

 

Economic Update

In recent months the Liberian Dollar (LRD) has depreciated rapidly. Currently, 194 LRD fetches a mere United States Dollar (USD). Besides powerful government officials and businessmen, most are paid in LRD. Some 80% of goods are imported (STATS) using USD, thus the market basket has grown dear (adj. – expensive) for the everyday Liberian. The causes for the 28.5% inflation experienced in 2018 are several. On top of Liberia’s export commodities fetching low values in the global market, foreign aid stilts that propped up the economy have been removed. A recent article written in Quartz by a multinational team focusing on peace-keeping in Liberia suggested that “relying heavily on foreign cash established a false sense of stability and growth in the economy, as infusions of foreign cash were temporary.” They cite foreign aid as the source of 25-40% of GDP from 2010 to 2017 – and with the United Nations Mission in Liberia withdrawn after the peaceful presidential election in 2018, that contribution has significantly dropped. While I believe that GDP is an overused and often misleading indicator of citizens welfare, the implications of this economic downturn are inescapable.

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Inflation over the past 5 years in Liberia, with year on the horizontal axis and percent inflation on the vertical axis.

With concerns over the economy and accusations of ongoing corruption, a group of activists protested under the banner of the “Council of Patriots” this gone June 7th . It was highly anticipated as it ominously reminded Liberians of an event that sparked the civil war in 1989. On the day itself, many were glued to the neighborhood radio from the morning hours. To the relief of the nation, it was peaceful and served as a reminder that constitutional free speech is honored.

A change of scenery…

A rift has befallen communities with PC volunteers in southeastern Liberia. At the end of this 2018-2019 academic year, we who are serving in the five southeastern counties are splitting from our homes. A spike in motorbike-related accidents initiated our headquarters in Washington, DC to review our motorbike policy. Those of us in the southeast depend majorly on such transport in the rainy season – some 6 months of the year. Due to the new policy, we were given no choice but to move or resign.

The news fell heavy on communities and volunteers, who have committed immeasurable efforts to develop relationships with one another. The Peace Corps only recently returned to the southeast, statistically the least developed region in Liberia. Our presence here is interpreted as a sign of the times – stable and forward-leaning. Our departure is viewed as a setback- a personal one. When people in my community learn of the news, their reactions are sobering. The news is met with anger, denial, and strategies to prevent the unavoidable. Students joke of barricading the road to make me stay. I wouldn’t mind that.

No part of me wants to leave, and I expect a part will always remain. In just over a month I will go – before then I am trying to finish what I started, truncated or not. Who knows when, but I plan to return. Hold me to it. In this untimely, unexpected, and most unfortunate shift I am searching for silver linings. I will be part of two Liberian communities, not just one. I will get to try my hand at a different assignment, that of teaching and training teachers in a science laboratory. Time shall tell.

Words of the wise

In my town, parables are frequently used to resolve the moral underpinnings of a conversation. These are a few of my favorites.

“When two elephants fight, it is the ground that suffers.”

“That which the house does not sell the street cannot buy.”

“When someone bathes your back you must bathe your front.”

“No food for a lazy man.”

“It is not all the trees in the bush that the raccoon can clean its butt with.”
Speaking of wisdom – one of the village elders, Augustus Y Dibleh sat down with me several weeks ago to share some stories of his life, going blind, and persevering. Listen here.

 

Monthly Update

A Ride to Remember

“I’m down at parking and the guy here says car is the way to go, should be 5 hours the way the road’s looking,” I relayed to Dan, a former US Marine who disarmed IEDs for a half-dozen years. “Alright. Coming there now” replied Dan, betraying little reluctance. For Dan, now meant now. For our driver, now meant “I don’t have a sure answer, for now.” Thus it was for 2 hours, as we waited for our car roster to fill with players who had already signed on for the long haul. Once we found ourselves in the same place at the same time, we packed into the dugout that was the 5-seat car steered by “One-time Sammy”. Perhaps his name was the subtlest of hints, but there was no time for speculation… We raced down the road graded by Chinese Aid at a turbo-turtle’s pace – and within 5 minutes we were huddled around the car waiting for the real “Sammy”. His outstanding ticket for an outdated license prevented his free (in the most financially literal sense) passage through the outbound city’s checkpoint. We only had to wait for another half an hour there for some passenger trades with another team headed to Monrovia. All settled, our roster of 13 loaded up. 3 in front – the County Education Officer (CEO) and I sharing shotgun. 7 in the back-seats, 4 adults and 3 children. 3 bringing up the rear in the flatteringly titled “VIP” trunk. Our mascot, the Goat, was tied atop the roof with our cargo. The engine turned over after some encouragement, and we were off to Zwedru.

The family dynamic unfolded soon thereafter. Up front, I mediated between the bickering couple Sammy and the CEO. In the back, the children rocked to sleep on their parents. Dan was working to hold his wedge next to the door, realizing bump by bump that his earlier reluctance was wisdom. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction, however chaotic the cabin conversations may have been. Before getting too uncomfortable, the car began to offer myriad chances to stretch our legs at every hill. One-time Sammy failed to mention his failing fuel pump, so we scurried on up the hills by foot as he inched his car by lead-foot up the hill. We journeyed to the midpoint in this fashion – and upon arrival there waited for two hours as he haggled around town for a cheap replacement. Off we went, again.

The sun fell in our dust as we picked up northward momentum. Town after village after town could be spotted from inside the dugout. Our stops were not excessive – only two. One in a gold mining town where 1970s country music echoed like a call-to-prayer. The other, a rite of passage here, was for a prospective bush-meat vendor. Sammy and the CEO came back sharing frustrations on the rising price of groundhog. They grew to thrive off of each other, and this was just the beginning of their voyage to Monrovia. Luckily, we only signed up for Zwedru. And we got there – 13 hours later.

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Fellow volunteer Jeff simply dreaming of a paved Liberia.

At Mount Nimba

With one more day of travel, this time by way of the two-wheeler motorbike, we reached Yekepa. This town is steeped in iron ore mining history (not to mention, steep) and the base for hiking Mount Nimba, the tallest mountain in Liberia at ~1400m above sea level. Prior to Liberia’s decimating civil war in the 1990s, the Liberia-American-Swedish Mining Company (LAMCO) built a 360km railroad from the town to the coast to ship the crude ore. Their open pit mining took advantage of the easily fractured rock, and in the 30-odd years of extraction, they inverted one of the mountains into a deep, ridged lake. When the war prevented outgoing shipments from the port of Buchanan, LAMCO ceased operations. The drastic relief in the land is not the only mark the company left. The town of Yekepa was developed by a Swedish planner as evidenced by its rowed houses and public park veiled with Christmas lights. In 2007, ArcelorMital, the world’s largest steel producer, reopened the mining site. The laterite deposits (iron and aluminum-rich tropically weathered rocks and soils) are enriched with detrital iron from uphill erosion – some 62% Fe by mass with an estimated bulk of 54 million tons, which the company plans to export over 25-odd years.

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Layers of laterites exhibiting an open, angular fold.

Our crew of 9 volunteers set to the mountain with a different end-goal – to summit the roof of Liberia. The single thing we knew about the hike was that we had to go up. Sparse information kept us guessing. “Where is the top? That side looks taller,” and “Who’s down to try this shortcut?” We found ourselves coiling up the terraced mountain, kinking our path for craggy passages in the overgrown cliffs. Our accordion of paces added an element of tracking to the hike; trampled grasses and shouts kept us strung together. The last leg of the ascent was up a horribly steep gravel-path of our choosing. Getting up was simple enough: lean forward, stay low, and keep on. We reached a local high point marked by a concrete post – let’s call it the peak. High-fives all around. Atop the peak, we saw into the lands of Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia in one fell swivel. With some cloud cover… at least a full moon was on the rise. Getting down offered little room for error, and to minimize any injury we figured to commence in the fallen position. Sitting with our feet under us and arms spread like paddles stabilizing a row-boat, we began our controlled slide. Unfortunately, we did suffer one casualty. Likely the most cherished member of our trip, the distal joint of the Adventure Strap on my left Croc was fractured beyond recognition. The loss was tragic, but the winnowing daylight prevented mourning. We based at Blue Lake.

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Looking into the pit of Blue Lake. The wrapping terraces around it were access roads for trucks to carry the mined iron ore to the nearby train.

My friend from site warned that the lake’s beauty was only that. A thing for looking. He claimed one could not swim there, and that if one threw towards it a rock, the rock would bounce away. He held back a laugh of pity when I mentioned our plan to try and submerge there. When we first arrived to the site we stopped the edge of a brief plateau. Tip-toe peering over, we saw Blue Lake, wrapped on all sides by cliffs. Loose pebbles tempted a toss– and sure enough, we saw no ripple in the still water. Perhaps this was the hand-me-down tale’s source. We further investigated Blue Lake base level when we set our camp there. This time – we busted the myth by soaking our strained muscles in the fabled waters and roasting char-dogs till the coals blew gray.

Culinary Adventures

Round 1 – In the culinary corner, weighing in at 1 pound 12 inches, the most cliched crustacean in the ocean, the heavily armored Rock Lobster! Accompanied by his loyal henchman, Mr. Slipknot, the Slipper Lobster. To enter the ring with these decadent Decapods takes a pot of boiling water and a big pair of tongs. And once you have them buttered up, they’re no match for a set of 28 teeth.

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The Slipper Lobster atop a bed of parboiled.

Round 2 – Squid tentacle. Expect a 30-minute duel trying to separate the suckers from the inner muscle when in retrospect there may be no distinction. After a paring cross-cut, the seasoned limb can be finished in the frying pan. Call it magic, or calamari.

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Dangling squid tentacles alongside their fallen aquatic army.

Round 3 – 2 Feet of Wild Okra. This slimy opponent grows and weaves among the bush, climbing its way to the top. A slice-and-dice tactic works best against its sweet-pepperish skin. Once finished chopping it to pieces, take it out back and toss it with the fried rice. That’ll show ’em.

Super Blood Wolf Moon How Can I Possibly Make That Name Longer

During one evening meal with my counterpart S Cotee, I foretold the coming of the Super Blood Wolf. Around 6N 8W we were just within the realm of visibility, with the sun rising on the vast majority of the African continent. Before I went to bed, the moon cast defined shadow’s on the ground. At 4:52AM on January 21st, 2019 S Cotee called me, “The moon has changed”. I was minutes late, alarm set for P.M. When I stepped outside, I couldn’t see a thing save the stars. I used a light to navigate to S Cotee’s. There, I tracked his gaze and laid my eyes upon the feral wolf. A true sight. Few were awake at that hour, and even fewer looked up to see the moon. The next day, as we came back from school to take in (v. – consume) some cola nut pieces, an older man named Alaska stopped by. His name was taken from an American textbook his father saw around the time of the state’s incorporation in 1959. Alaska told us that in the morning when canoeing the river to cross his daughter, he saw the water go dark. He looked to the moon and all he saw was its red hue. His heart started racing with fear – he thought to hide under one of the large rocks until 2019 passed. Only after light came back on the moon and the sun rose did he feel at ease. Much to his relief, we described the phenomenon and assuaged his doubts. The whole event reminded S Cotee of the story of the Little Darkness, during which the whole town turned dark for a couple minutes and people expected the world to end. A brief internet perusing shows the most recent total solar eclipse to fall on my town was on May 29, 1919 – the Little Darkness.

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Ying-yang train. Edited sunset photo from atop the Ducor in Monrovia. Not an eclipse. Or the moon.

On the Scholastic Front

The first semester of the 2018-19 school year drew to a close in February. It was a time of where I learned as much, if not more, than my students. Each success was greeted with a new challenge, encouraging me to rework lessons, experiments, and even my mentality towards the classroom. I am growing closer to many of my students, better tuning my ears to their advice and encouraging them to rise to any challenge. Through their own trials and tribulations, three students earned the coveted title of Dux (n. – top scoring student in a class) and deserve recognition.

10th Grade Biology – Josiah Weay – Curious, appreciative, quick.

11th Grade Physics – Jefferson Dorbor – Assertive, forward-looking, adaptive.

10th Grade Physics – Benedict Weah – Committed, honest, hardworking.

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Class Dux. From Left to Right: Josiah, Jefferson, Benedict.

Happy Daylight Savings Time… from the land of the chrono-logical.

Monthly Update

Settling In

“October 24th we are celebrating… October 24th we are celebrating! October 24th ! October 24th! Oc-toeeee-ber twenteeee-fourth!”

United Nations Day we were celebrating. This international holiday is celebrated as nothing less here in Liberia, one of the initial signatories of the 1945 UN Charter. Students congregated on the school campus early in the morning to begin drilling around town – Left… Left… Left-Right… Left-Right… Forward march! Most students quite enjoyed this procession – or at least joyfully tolerated it. After rounding town, passing from Mission town to Tribal town (the dichotomy of Tribal origins with the advent of missionaries arriving in the 80s), we gathered at the Methodist Church Building which doubles as an auditorium for most of our school events. Through an obscure hand-off chain, the key to open the lock on the door was missing – student George locked it in his room at home and couldn’t find his room key. A double-key conundrum. The over 500 student procession clumped beneath shade while waiting for George to lumber home and back with no particular urgency – at least he managed to find the key.

We flooded into the church, students vying for seats. After the customary prayers and songs, which included another catchy United Nations number, I was called up as the guest speaker. I briefed the students on the United Nations Charter, of which Liberia was a signatory, and moved into the role of the United Nations in our everyday lives. This was my second sporting of the Lappa Tuxedo from Swearing-In, on the big stage nonetheless. There was an unfortunate background hum of preschoolers being preschoolers – but those who heard and understood the speech flatteringly deemed it “powerful”.

Fast-forward one week. It’s Halloween and my students were in for a spooking – I dressed as a mad scientist with lab goggles and a rally cap. I am sure I just looked like a madman who coincidentally was teaching Physics. That weekend me and some fellow PCV’s from the Southeast flocked to a nearby city to celebrate with the company of other strangely dressed patrons. We spent the day cooking and listening to American comforts.

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Mad Scientist Mr. H

On the scholastic front:

To evaluate my 10th and 11th grade students I am employing Performance-Based Grading tactics – a favorite among Peace Corps teachers in small-to-medium sized classrooms. It is, in my opinion, a forward way of assessing learners in that it solves several issues found in most Liberian classrooms. Instead of points being garnered from projects to quizzes to participation, students can only earn points through individually demonstrating mastery of a topic. Each marking period presents 4-6 topics, with point values varying according to difficulty and time spent on a topic in class. The sum of the points available is 100 – representing a perfect final grade. When a student gets every question (and no less) correct for a specific topic, they earn all the points for that topic. After a mid-period quiz on all topics, students are able to come on their own time to master topics one by one. Students come and tell me the topic they wish to attempt and I write several problems for them to complete over 25 minutes. If they “deuce it” (earn 100% on the topic test), they are pronounced masters of the topic and can help fellow students extracurricularly and during review periods. If an attempt ends in anything less than mastery it serves as a learning experience. Committed learners often come back the next day to retry. The period ends with a final exam – a conglomerate of all topics in which any grade made is final – no ifs, ands, or buts.

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Students sorting field samples into their appropriate Kingdoms of Life: Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia.

This grading system addresses several challenges that are commonplace in Liberian classrooms. Spying (n. – cheating in the classroom) is seen as helping a friend and enables students to lighten the burden of studying. This means some students only learn how to copy the letters and shapes on their neighbor’s paper, advancing to classes far beyond their learning level. There are no neighbors when taking a topic test by your one – and thus spying is non-existent. Students must prove their knowledge individually. And it works. Students cannot beg for grades; “Mr. H bring me up small, I beg you” is easily responded to by saying “You had your chance – remember this next period.” Students are afforded practically endless opportunities for practice and those who attempt more earn higher marks. After each attempt students receive immediate feedback to guide their efforts for the next go-around.

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A crew of my 10th Grade Boys (band) showing off their animal cell drawings. From left to right: Benedict, William, Bahway, and Oliver.

Other extracurricular activities – perhaps more enticing to the average student, have included the student football games and Quizzing competitions. The Old Student vs. New student Game was a rousing battle. The new students were eager, nimble, and lively while the old students played as such – a bit lazily and reliant on a few of the all-stars. I was rooting for the new students. Unfortunately, they lost in a last minute 1-2 defeat. Hear the voice of our self-appointed school reporter on the day of the day of the event. Listen Here

Adventure is not excluded from the home – some adventures take place in within a 5-foot radius of the kitchen. Several culinary rendezvous have been nothing but adventurous. It all started with the boisterous bellied Bullfrog, was aided by the country Chicken, and now has invert(ebrat)ed into cooking the resilient Rhinoceros Beetle. The heavily armored, 3-odd-inch beetle makes for a savory delight that rivals that of the finest French cuisine. Attracted to light and perhaps the hum of generators, these horned giants can be collected by the bucket for the enthusiastic bug-eater. At present they are one of the most prevalent players in town, whether as fashion accessories or as leashed lurkers. So long as the holder avoids the pinch of the horns and the pinch of contracting armor plates between the head and the abdomen, the Beetle cannot do significant harm. Its sharp hooked claws can scratch, but only in a therapeutic, unlikely-to-draw-blood way. And when transformed into a meal these Rhino’s take up a most tepid character.

To prepare them the legs are trimmed to the most proximal segment, the dorsal armor protecting the wings is pried off, and the horns taken in. Some dainty eaters remove the innards containing post-consumption leaf product (yes… AKA poop), but this component is locally cited as a major source of grease and thus should remain. Once prepared, the hefty Beetles should be clunked down into a boiling soup with sufficient seasoning. Within minutes these delightful morsels can be taken off the fire to cool. When eating, you can chomp them shell and all (Dentist recommendation pending) or try to work around the thick armor. But if – better yet when – you have the opportunity to try this underutilized source of protein, focus your efforts on attaining the meat at the joining of the head and the abdomen. It puts pulled pork to shame.

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A small Rhinoceros Beetle on Campus

Fear not vegetarians – I’ve eaten several vegetables in my new home. My good friend James Collins and I have been developing Collins Agricultural Project – a half acre cabbage farm atop one of the nearby hills. Collins worked a lifetime of jobs to garner funds to attend university: He sold boiled eggs on the side of the road, was a traveling medicine man, fixed concrete tunnels, and felled trees as a lumberjack. To name a few. For the last half-dozen years, he and his wife Comfort have been running a provisions shop on the main street in my town.

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Collins on the farm; post pouring water over himself to cool down.

At university, he focused on the technical side of farming, diligently studying and practicing that which he learned. It shows – his daily work has yielded almost 1000 sturdy cabbage plants with no machine help. He cleared the half acre of tropical vegetation with his trusty cutlass. I helped – but portions that took me an hour were 10-minute tidbits for him. We trimmed some of the outer leaves on the 2-month-old cabbages, carried them to the house on a Friday and tied them in 3’s to sell at the Saturday market for 10LD. The market is a 5-mile walk – we wheelbarrowed the produce to the market early in the morning listening to Akon, a crowd-favorite. Cabbage is a notoriously work intensive crop, and we were the only people in the packed market selling it. Ma’s rushed to the wheelbarrow to buy their Sunday greens in bulk. We crashed the market.

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Collins Agriculture Project (CAP) takes it to the Market

The beaches of my town are magnificent, serene oases that inherit litter washed ashore from both nearby coasts and distant vessels. With no machines or tourist revenue to clean the beach, storms, tidal fluctuations, and treasure hunters are the only means of clearing this stranded debris. The overwhelming mass of allochthonous material is a floating seaweed called Sargassum that is quite the pushover… if the current wishes to toss poor fella onto dying grounds he puts up no fight. This mustache of decomposing brown mass runs along the shore, speckled with brightly colored plastics, old mismatched flip-flops, and treasures for those who wish to see them as such.

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Jordan on the Yudowen at sunset (n. – Ocean beach)

Each time I run along the beach – I see something new, intriguing and often pocket-sized. Recently I found 50mL emergency drinking water sachets made by Seven Oceans strewn along the beach. People throughout town were showing off their pouches of water, so small that they ought to hold liquid gold. Rope and abandoned nets are frequent and valuable find along the beach. Nets are used to hold down Pap-Paw roofs (made of strung together elongate leaves layered atop each other) which can be torn up during storms, as well as to fence in small gardens. Plastics are widdled into “seeds” (n. – any moving piece in a board game) to play Checkers or Ludo.

One story tells of a man who found a package of tightly sealed white-powder protruding out of the sand. He brushed it clean and carried it to the center of town looking for a quick buck. Seemingly to his luck, he sold it to an eager – perhaps entrepreneurial – buyer under the assumption it was a baby product. The buyer forwarded the mysterious matter to the city, made a fortune, and never returned.

Ludo and Checkers are the two main board games played here, but a friend up North tells me he ran into some old pa’s playing Scrabble. Checkers here are traditionally a “man’s game”. The main difference in Liberian checkers is that the King, once being crowned as such, can move any distance of diagonal spaces before “eating” a seed. Seeds can also eat behind them. Some men play every single day and move their seeds quicker than a jack-rabbit. Ludo is a “women’s game” played by two to four contenders and is similar to the Indian game Pachisi. Seeds race around the board, capturing and jailing those they land on. To bolster the odds of rolling high numbers, players let out exasperated gasps (eg “Bo-yi-nocka!”) as they roll. My sound effects need to improve considerably if I wish break my 3-game losing curse.

Happy holidays to all, wishing you jubilee and joy wherever you are!

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One of my porch children and a Croc-ware apprentice. Start em young, they say.
Monthly Update

Foreign Man in Grebo Land

Our final nights of training reunited us in the dorms of Doe Palace. We embraced the close quarters living in anticipation of looming loneliness. We milked every last interaction with fellow Americans, peeling our eyes till the morning sun rose. Friday morning we bused to Monrovia to swear-in as official Peace Corps volunteers, shedding the skin of trainees. At the wee hour of 6AM we received our sweet breakfast of donuts, a boiled egg, and soda-pop, sporting our meanest Lappa attire. I opted for fusion-wear; a tuxedo made from the finest polyester Lappa I could find. I drew a rough design for my tailor, Robert (a Peace Corps favorite due to his attention to detail), and after ample time the work was complete – the total summing to less than $15.

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Robert the Tailor, posing to look as tough as a tailor can.

The entrails of a monsoon gave us that fresh-from-the-shower hairdoo as we entered the city hall where the ceremony was to take place. We stood staggered up a staircase for a big group photo, waiting patiently for Liberian President George Weah to arrive. He strolled in just before our legs gave out, wearing an ankle length gray tunic.. The 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year turned politician joined us for the shot – front and center. We relocated to the auditorium as trainees, stood for the instrumental track of the Liberian National Anthem (no one was bold enough to begin singing, perhaps), took the oath every Peace Corps before us has taken, and sat as volunteers. We enjoyed speeches from the Ambassador, a fellow Volunteer, the PC Country Director, and the President, and feasted with our host family ma’s.

I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, domestic and foreign, that I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps by working with the people of Liberia as partners in friendship and in peace.

 

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Swearing-in: Taking my Diplomatic Oath

 

Splitting ways the next morning, a steady drizzle watered down the salty drops on our faces. As a group, we grew quite close during our 3-month training (we like to think that it all started with the overnight flight delay out of DC). Volunteers loaded into cars to drive to their respective sites, but us Southeasterners had a different mode of travel in mind. Disoriented from our convoluted land route through Monrovia, we arrived to the blip of an airport where we would fly along the coast to Harper in the Southeast. It was Sunday, and us Peace Corps were the only passengers on the plane – in fact two brave comrades volunteered to experience the 3-day dirt-road drive so that we didn’t overload the plane. Security was more lax than a bag-check at a middle-school dance, and for once there were no flight attendants to compulsively demonstrate how to tighten our seat-belts. We guessed a number between 1-100 to decide the co-pilot, said a group prayer as the flight was facilitated by a Mormon NGO, and took off. Being rainy season, the clouds were quick to envelop us and block our sight of the coast – but as we descended we caught a brief view of the rocks off the shore of my soon to be site. A thick zone of coconut trees lined the coastline, confirming prior intel that suggested my site would be rife with the fruit. Our landing was smooth, easing us into life in the Southeast of Liberia.

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Loading up to fly southbound in style.

Stepping down the narrow staircase, a cool wisp of air greeted us newcomers. Before then I was content with leaving the sensation of cold behind me – now it was energizing. Temperatures had ranged no more than 10F for the past 3 months – but in 1 day we went from the muggy confines of a Monrovia taxi to the windy stretch of dirt that formed a runway. That day we found spaghetti and beans at a Cook Shop (n. – a side of the road shack with bar seating and hot food) and hustled inland to Pleebo, the home city of another volunteer from my LR-8 cohort and the place of our counterpart workshop.

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The Principal and I

My counterparts – the Liberians from our sites responsible for aiding in a safe and productive service– are the principal of my school and an older community member. The 2-day workshop summarized our Peace Corps training to give our counterparts an idea of what they’re working with. It also emphasized the skills and limitations of us volunteers – mostly that we aren’t meant to teach every class at every grade level. Thank god we established that.

 

 

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The Coat, currently hanging to give it some air before I store it for the next two years.

With the workshop summed up, we readied for our new homes. We visited merchants whose goods were lacking our site, and my penchant for secondhand clothes landed me a patched technicolor coat; very groovy. Also very unnecessary here.

Driving to site in the all-terrain Land Cruiser was a bumpy two hours during which we drove through two streams and over one by way of a wood-plank bridge. It was quite engaging; tactically racing over potholes with fans of broad leaves arching over the track. Each time we passed through a village I asked “is this it!?” like an impatient kid driving to grandma’s – “Are we there yet?” The rainforest vegetation cleared into a savanna with sweeping grasses surrounding massive, isolated cotton trees some 20 meters tall. This landscape did not reach far, and soon Plum (n. – Liberian word for Mango), Palm, and Orange trees took a stand. This was site.

Jerry the driver veered off the dusty road and dove between two houses, masterfully avoiding both by what felt like inches. Children had already taken to chasing the car, and when we parked on the sandy front yard of my house a crowd radiated. “White man here!” noted several children while others looked on silently. Older members of my new community came, shaking my hand and lobbing first, middle, and last names to me. Most had Nyema somewhere in them; I remembered that. Many hands made light work and before I could meet the final Nyema all my supplies and belongings were inside my house. The mayoress showed me to a nearby area where the village elders were seated. We each exchanged pleasantries and my counterpart Cotee gave me a seat.

He briefed me on the order of the ceremony which then followed as such:

Item 1: The Kola Nut.

Any one who enters the village of the Grebo tribe must be offered the bitter nut as indication of welcome. The golf-ball sized nut is split into many thin wedges and the stranger dips the nut in peppay dust and bites down. After the Clan Chief took his piece, it was my turn. Bitter indeed – but I kept a straight face. I knew this was the first of many. The water (n. – cane sugar liquor [when used in the context of Kola]) followed behind.

Item 2: Statement of Mission

I stood up and shared what brought me here and the mission I had. A blind man called Dibleh translated my words into the Grebo dialect. After each sentence I heard applause and thank you’s. Perhaps it was the overwhelming kindness and smiles, but this impromptu speech was so splendid. No nerves muddled my thoughts or words – I said precisely what I meant and no less. It was then I felt most content; this is exactly where I am meant to be.

Item 3: Acceptance of Mission

Community members resounded that my stay was welcomed, and my mission a valuable one.

Item 4: Offering of the Dwelling

Floating on the high of the moment, I was brought back to my house for a formal offering. The community used its funds to construct the house and everyone was eager to see the final product. The house suited me well.

Item 5: Remarks on the Dwelling

I was asked to comment on how I received the abode, and whether or not I accepted the offering. Its color matched my shirt – a convenient talking point. Accepted I did.

Item 6: Comments from community members

Any welcomes that were not offered earlier were done so.

Item 7: Closing Prayer

In Liberian English and the tribal Grebo dialect, god was thanked for all things good. My town had several American missionary women help develop and promote Christianity in the area, and references to God are as plentiful as the coconuts here.

Item 17: Meal time

Item 17 always refers to the meal – the crux of any well-attended meeting. From a nearby house children carried out the staple Palm Butter soup (palm nuts reduced into a creamy orange soup with hot pepper dust and bouillon inside) atop rice with bony fish.

This warm and at times spicy reception was more than I anticipated and sauced me up to make town rounds. Cotee escorted me as I was Kola nutted from place to place, becoming familiar with the village sprawl as well as the bitterspicy tradition.

One quiet morning some weeks later, my friend James and I went on a mission to harvest bamboo from a stand deep in the mangroves up River Trehn. He needed the reef to build a nursery for his newly procured cabbage seeds and I needed it for something sometime. We met at his house and walked through Fante town, an area inhabited by Ghanaian emigrants. James had talked with a fisherman who was not using his canoe that day and we found it resting on an inner shore where the river meets the Atlantic. A man named Emmanuel joined us and helped overturn the scooped out log. It was north of 300 pounds and took the three of us to haul it over the grainy sand into the river.

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One of the large boats made for off shore fishing next to a shorter version of the canoe we used. The Atlantic is to the west, and the river extends inland to the east.

Emmanuel made seats from driftwood with his cutlass, wedged them between the walls of the canoe, and had us hop in. He took the rear and I paddled up front. The narrow boat was rockier than Balboa but its tall walls prevented it from taking on water. We paddled upstream with help of a rising tide, “Water is coming full” James said. Passing by landings for a couple different villages, we finally reached to the town of Pity. Resting there, we let a peekin (n. – any boy whose age is less then yours) use our canoe to cross some market women selling Palm Nuts.

A dirty three year old, who had tied a makeshift handle to a discarded blade, came and sat next to me. Saying nothing, he poked at my pale arm using his weaponless hand. With his mouth open he tilted his head far back to see who the limb was attached to – and there I was. I smiled and said “Na Wie” (Grebo for Hello), and that was it.

An hour and a coconut later we reentered the canoe and paddled onward. The channels winnowed until we were nearly grazing the mangrove roots. After countless forks in the water we came to a muddy landing where terrestrial plants again dominated. The water was fresh here, clean enough for my friends to drink. Following an overgrown footpath we arrived to a towering stand of old-growth reef, huddled tightly like straws in a broom. Abandoned pieces confirmed we weren’t the first to find the spot. With cutlasses in hand, we felled a dozen shoots and cut them to fit in the 20′ canoe. No calls of “timber” warned me, only the sound of crackling branches and leaves ruffled by the descending shoot. We loaded the canoe completely, save the rear seat which the peekin used to steer the boat home. Emmanuel, James, and I “walked to come”– passing through a swamp, a field ruptured with termite hills, and a rubber plantation. Mission complete.

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A bench I recently built (with helping hands) from the reef. It’s true value is in its decompositional design – the seat can be lifted and removed overnight so goats don’t reinvent the John.

House is becoming home one wall-hanging at a time. From my butcher knife to a painting to a bookshelf, I’m incidentally building an “American” museum for my Liberian friends. One photo shows my father, mother, brother and me posing before my departure, when my hair was a few licks shorter – most people mistake my then jew-fro’ed brother for me. I’ve found that the insulative value of Styrofoam makes it feel just like a luxurious heated floormat. The silky bug-net that drapes over my bed furthers this royal ambiance. Only does the occasional haired spider disrupt the scene. All joking aside, I am a stone’s throw from the Pon pen (Grebo for water pump), have a propane stove, and an indoor toilet – local luxuries.

I recently nailed a fragment of blackboard on my front porch to teach neighbors. I have been using it to broadcast the date, temperature, and percent chance of rain. The nearest weather station may be 30 miles away, but it’s the thought that counts.

At my school I am responsible for teaching 10th and 11th grade Physics as well as 10th grade Biology. My classes are not large – only 20 students in each. We meet in the afternoon as classroom space is limited and the elementary classes convene in the early hours. My students are excited to be taught by the “Peace Corps”, however unfamiliar my teaching style may be. The short 3 weeks of model school during training is proving valuable, and my class here has grown well-behaved (less a scallywag or two).

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Nyemah the math teacher and some elementary students looking over the school calendar we developed. 

I’ve also taken on a weekly prep class for the 12th graders hopeful of passing a subject on the West African Secondary School Certificate Exam (WASSCE). Our grand total of students from 1st to 12th grade is 501.

“Good morning teacher, welcome to our class.”

The first week of school was, how should I put it… understaffed. Most teachers were at a last minute workshop 7 hours away. My principal wanted to show concern and open school on time. I helped teach almost every grade that week. One drizzly day I arrived to school to see 150 students from the 1st to 6th grades and not a teacher in sight. According to the daily schedule classes had begun. Students crowded into their respective classrooms and perked up as I walked on by.

 

Their anticipation was too grand – I had to give them something. I walked into the 2nd grade class and students sprung to attention, uniformly reciting “Good morning teacher, welcome to our class.” I introduced myself as Mr. H and said “What do you want to learn about today?” Not even a cricket. I echoed “Any questions – ask!”. Nope, time for a new prompt. I gave them an ultimatum “Math or Science?” That got them talking. Nothing like striking the fear of math in to the heart of a second grader. They opted for science, so I drew them a watered-down water cycle. Minutes after entering I hopped away to brief with the rest of the grades. Teachers trickled in and the load was lightened – but at least 5 grades have seen the water cycle now.

 

 

Animals loiter in every patch of town; goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats live in harmony, eating from the same pile of scraps and taking cover from rain in clusters. My two small covered porches make great shelter for the livestock, and my morning ritual has become repairing my fortifications from the bowel barrage they bring about. I just checked (for dramatic effect) and there are goats sitting on both porches (Edit: A cow has replaced the goats out front). If you ever get the chance I suggest you have a staring competition with a goat. They are remarkably concentrated. And good listeners too.

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A baby goat learning what is scrumptious and what is just a waxy leaf.
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Kernel the Kitten looking at me like I’m a piece of fish.

My friend’s mother gifted me a kitten as I was interested in eliminating the mice and spiders that like to cause trouble at home. I was lucky; cats are traditionally acquired in exchange for an adult chicken. The kitten’s dark gray and orange streaked fur earned her the name of Kernel, after the Palm kernel whose colors she resembles. She is adventurous and playful with a knack for elimination. She canceled 4 high profile mice on my neighbor’s turf just the other day. Some jokingly call her Agent 009 lives. By some I mean me right now. The name’s Kitten. Kernel the Kitten.

 

Update: The Economic Situation
The Liberian Dollar (LD) to USD exchange rate is hovering around 150 particularly in rural communities far from cities, like mine. Turmoil is rising as 16 billion LD ($104 million USD) went missing between March and August of 2018. Shipping containers carrying the Swedish minted currency were never accounted for after reaching port in Monrovia. With details slowly surfacing its hard to say who is behind the disappearance, but as questions are being pointed back to those in power the country is high alert.

In the Culinary corner, weighing in at 4 croaks, 1 cock-a-doodle-doo, are two rare Liberian sources of protein: Country chicken and Bullfrogs. Country chickens are those who wander around town looking for anything to eat but still know where home is. Bullfrogs are found in the swamp a half-hour out of town and are best to catch at night; all croak no bite.With the help of Emmanuel on both occasions, I’ve learned how to perform the less savory side of meat eating.

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Emmanuel and the Bullfrog
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Country chicken post-pluck
Monthly Update

On the Pepper Coast

The Sunday morning after America’s independence day, we grouped into cars to roll downslope to the coastal capital city of Liberia. Monrovia it’s called – named after James Monroe, the founding father figure, 5th president of the United States, William & Mary alum, and advocate for the American Colonization Society in Africa who ironically died on July 4th some moons back. The short-distance trip was impeded minimally by traffic and one county-border guard bribing, as most funny-business prefers the less holy days of the week. In the city of one million, our car fringed the main Peace Corps office until we caught a glimpse of the circular logo and debouched. We were to spend two nights in “town” (n. – the city of Monrovia) and get a lay for the land. By touring around the city, searching for places to eat, and talking with other foreign-aid workers, we gained worthwhile insights.

The hotels, a variety of cuisines, and paved roads implied the more developed side of Liberia. Lebanese business-people own much of the housing infrastructure in the city proper and charge a premium for western amenities. Prices of goods are similar to cities in the United States, however, services like transportation reflect the lower cost of labor. Traffic is dense with motorbikes and Kay-Kays (n. – 3-wheeled, door-less taxis resembling Southeast Asian Tuk-Tuks) sifting through the honking 4-wheelers. Ice-cream consumption – which is a pipe-dream for Peace Corps Volunteers outside of town – is rampant. Beaches skirt the western limits of the city, but the waters that shape them are rich with sewage and impose a rip-tide that would frighten even surfer-dudes off the coast of Australia. Some structures still bear scars from the civil war some 20 years ago, most powerfully The Ducor. What was once the largest upscale hotel in West Africa remains only in its fractured skeletal form. The central staircase is crumbling, exposing rusty tendons of rebar. Moss and mold rent cavities on every floor. Fenestral openings hold no glass, and small pores for gun barrels permeate light inside. The scalp of the building is the highest point for miles and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and West Point, the densest slum of Liberia.

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Clockwise from top left: Positive phototropism shown as small plants on the 5th-floor face towards the main light source; View of West Point, a densely populated slum formed atop dredged sand, where an estimated 75,000 Liberians live; a port used for outward gunfire along a set of stairs.

 

While in Monrovia, my group took the chance to observe a critical-thinking workshop led by two volunteers at the Armed Forces of Liberia base. The half-day program encouraged these middle-aged military men (and one woman) to use reason and consideration to achieve positive outcomes for all. One activity had groups designing and constructing boats from tin-foil with the goal of floating and toting the largest cargo of bottle caps.

A discussion on sex and gender taught the distinctions between the biological male and female and the societal man and woman. The soldiers were asked to answer what makes men and women. Their responses were familiar to me but more extreme, or, by western standards, outdated. Men are expected to be forceful and the financial provider for the family – those who can’t provide are weak and shameful. Polygamy is common and some men can marry upwards of 10 wives. Men make the main decisions for their homes. Women should stay home to keep the house immaculate and discipline the children who misbehave. Their education is not essential.

Afterward, the volunteers introduced the ideas of equality and equity; the former meaning to be fair and the latter meaning to provide a boost for those who need it (assuming different starting points).

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An image used to facilitate the Equality vs. Equity talk in during the Critical Thinking Lab.

Getting our bearings oiled for solo visits to Monrovia was a lovely way to spend 3 days.

The Commonwealth of Liberia celebrates its own independence on July 26th; Hence the playful remark “my 26th on you” (statement-question – you will buy me a gift for the independence holiday). The most effective retort is to restate the phrase and share a laugh. I celebrated the momentous day in Liberian fashion – playing a football match in the morning against our Liberian Peace Corps staff and cooking plenty (adj. – lots of; very much) dishes. Our American team tied the match 2-2 with a header from John “Castration Station” Castro in the final seconds, thus a rematch is in the works. To refuel I shared some American cuisine with my family in the form of flatbread (pancakes) to pair with fried cabbage and rice. Music was blaring from houses, keeping a vibrant party on every dirt road.

Liberia was the first African country (1847) to claim Independence from its colonial grasp. Power was in the hands of the Americo-Liberians, the freed slaves from the United States who hoped to modernize and Christianize the indigenous tribes that called the fertile “Pepper coast” home. In doing so, their simultaneously adopted Constitution was modeled after what they knew best – the US system. They incorporated checks and balances through three primary governmental branches; executive, legislative, and judicial. However, instead of the US Republican vs Democrat, Liberia has developed a barrage of political parties that all claim to lift the country out of poverty and corruption.

Parallels between the two countries can be found at every turn: The Liberian flag is identical to the US flag but with one central star in the blue section; Devotion at school starts with “I pledge allegiance to the flag of Liberia, for which it stands…” One of the counties is named Maryland. Every Liberian dreams of coming to America and many will ask me to “carry” (v. – to escort or lead the way) them there. Some even refer to it as “Small Heaven.” Liberia is believed to be the 52nd state, and Liberians see Americans as brothers of the same blood. I often find myself dispelling Utopian myths of my home country by helping Liberians understand that nowhere is perfect.

If only I had a chance to spread the word as I did for Peace Corps summer school: through the airways of Radio Atlantic in Margibi County. Radio is the medium of news here, and the host of an evening show let us promote our school through the broadly-casted station. The next Monday, some 900 students came.

Model school – the 7th – 12th grade summer school taught entirely by the lot of us teachers-in-training – began the third week in July. It was our chance to engage with students in the Liberian classroom setting, become frustrated, adapt, and try again. My cluster of 5 taught 120 students between 2 rooms:7A & 7B. Notorious 7B. It was a smaller class, but ripe with trouble at every desk. A rowdy, bold, and tricky bunch they were. Over the first few days, I put up with a constant mumble-rumble, trying to speak and write over the noise for the half of the class that was attentive. I focused on sticking to the lesson plan, simplifying jargon, and “moving” forward. My rationale was simple: share the information I had with those who cared to listen.

After every day of school, we took half-an-hour to give and receive constructive criticism among the cluster and from Liberian teachers and seasoned volunteers. After one especially chaotic and exhausting day of teaching, a former volunteer gave the advice I needed. She looked at me and demanded, “Stand up and kick me out of your class.” And I did. But I smirked. And so I did it again, reminding myself that any hint of a smile would be perceived as weakness in the Liberian classroom. She then told me that I need to win back respect in the classroom – and the surest way to do so was through a strike of the teacher’s hammer.

The next day, I kicked a student out within the opening minutes of my class. I had the rest of the students write what respect meant to them, quietly. I didn’t shy away from punishing distracting behavior, regardless of how much it reminded me of a past me. Much like the Atkins diet, the results were astonishing. All eyes were on me, notes were being taken, and I could hear my voice resound off the walls. Looking back at it, this experience was the essence of model school – learning to manage and interact with the students. Once I re-established authority and calm in the classroom I could move on with content. Earth Science. I taught the rudiments of weather, climate, and the three rock types (sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic). I even stuck in a little environmental bit by including humans as one of the factors capable of influencing our climate. My students said “CO2” like conference-bound champions, but could have benefited from some pressure to work on “meh-ta-mor-fik”.

Watch my daily stroll to Model School!

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A good chunk of our students from 7A and 7B huddled together for this photo on the last day of classes.

 

My sister Matu graduated from St. Augustine’s Episcopal High School this past Sunday. When youngsters graduate kindergarten in Liberia they dress in cap and gown and ride around the city laying on the horn – I’ll let you imagine the upgrade for high school graduation. Relatives from town arrived the day before and began preparing food; 60 cups of rice, hundreds of onions, chicken legs, and over a thousand small peppays.

My ma recruited me to photograph the graduation ceremony using Matu’s plus-one. As I entered the event hall with my admission ticket I was directed on stage for a chair, as seating was filling up quickly. Before too long the introductions began, and sure enough, I was front and one-right-of-center. Facing all the graduates and parents as if I had an ounce of qualification to be on stage next to the school principal and the County Education Officer, I nodded through lengthy speeches and sang the Liberian national anthem on queue.

Back home, children summoned by music playing on the loudspeakers since 8am were gyrating away. Some family members, I included, gave speeches for Matu as the Jolaf rice (n – fried rice seasoned with tomato paste and bouillon cubes) was doled out. Cane juice (n. – spirits derived from cane sugar) mixed with condensed milk equals Liberian egg nog – the specialty drink of the evening. Four other Peace Corps volunteers came for the festivities and to meet folks from my side of the coal-tar. Later in the night, the crew playing the music put on Mano (a Liberian tribe from the mountainous lands of present-day Nimba County) tunes per request of my grandma. Here music has a way of possessing dancers – almost as if a set of sonic strings tug limbs every which way. Grandma and I let loose and danced late into the night…

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Clockwise from left: Sister Matu and family friends from town grooving for the camera; Peppay post mashing in the wooden mortar and pestle; Two of the fellow Peace Corps who joined for the festivities.

 

Ongoing Ventures:

My weekly girl’s club came to an end this past Saturday. Katie and I had a committed group of girls vote on their specific interests for the final three meetings. Sexual Reproductive Health won by a debris flow. It made sense, considering most of the girls are hitting puberty. We gave an anatomical overview of “receiving” (n. – menstruating), taught about STIs, and led the always entertaining condom demonstration. Lastly we helped them sew Reusable Menstrual Pads (RUMPS) from Lappa and plastic water bags. Receiving keeps girls away from school as the shame of potentially bleeding in public feels too great and few affordable options exist. Our club ended with a booming cheer and we said our so-longs.

For the past five Tuesday’s the cohort has gathered after training or teaching to roast one another. The volunteer who delivers the best joke is afforded the gracious opportunity to be roasted the following week. One propitious jab won me the honor. I won’t divulge any further details in writing but I truly enjoyed the experience – feel free to inquire.

The economic situation in Liberia has undergone notable stimulation. As inflation sped along, president George Weah announced

“An immediate infusion by the Central Bank of US$25 million into the economy to mop up the excess liquidity of Liberian dollars.”

The details of this proposal are scarce, and its unclear where the money is sourced from. A meeting with all the money-changers in Monrovia and the surrounding areas were called to town and told to keep the rate at 1USD=150LD. In two days the rate dropped from almost 170 to 110 – and has since remained fixed at 150LD. Fastening the exchange rate to the stable USD is a widely used macroeconomic tool, and for now some confidence has been restored.

 

So long Kakata…  

In a week from now I will be in a new corner of this land – the Southeast. Find me in my Orange Kente Lappa shirt below. A village in Grand Kru County – perhaps with 5000 people.

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The map of Liberia with volunteers standing at our respective sites after removing our blindfolds. 

It’s rural; over 20 hours of good-condition driving from Monrovia. The site is new and many questions are still unanswered – but I am told I can see the Atlantic from home.

Here’s to a new beginning!

Monthly Update

The Honeymoon month

… smells, temperature, noise, interactions. Life is fresh, exciting, and waiting to be explored. Time here is already moving fast, but each day brings a new scene or friend.

My inaugural blog post was unintentionally misleading – we didn’t actually leave the contiguous 48 until the next day. We boarded the plane to play a game of Brussel Airlines Limbo whereby lightning delayed the flight and a subsequent computer malfunction canceled it. This made for an impromptu layover in Brussels – the capital of the EU and breeding grounds for the allusionary Delirium Tremens beer (…among a family of others). The continental breakfast at the provided hotel in Brussels, ripe with dairy and obligatory Belgian waffles, served as my final last meal before lifting tread from the West. Scraping our wheels in Freetown, we traded half the cabin for new passengers and continued onward to Monrovia. Sunset lingered over the runway as we touched down in Liberia and it cast light on the homes surrounding the runway just behind a barbed fence. As we unloaded the metal tube and claimed our orange yarn-tagged bags, the preceding education volunteers received us with glitter-shedding signs and smiles. Leaving the airport, a wave of dank air hinted at the sweaty years to come. On the bus ride to Doe Palace, our training center and home for the first three nights, the driver navigated on bumpy dirt roads through a Firestone Rubber plantation (one of many in-country). 90 some hours after arriving at Dulles Airport, we crawled into our bug-netted bunks and caught some rest.

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Clockwise from top right: Warm welcomes from current volunteers as we set foot into Liberia; Impromptu day in Brussels with the hooligans; Kola nut welcome ceremony – dipping the bitter nut in spicy oil in front of high-ranking Liberians.

Those first three nights reminded me of summer camp – sleeping in rooms of 12, tip-toeing to not awaken the drowsers, and joining in the chorus of a god-knows-who’s shower song. We learned the basics by day: common expressions, cultural faux pas’, money exchanging, and how to remember our daily Malaria prophylaxis. Our last night in the dorms fittingly ended in a shirtless dance party to Liberian tunes and periodic Lady Gaga.

With those thoughts in our back pocket, we dispersed in groups of three to spend the weekend at a current volunteer’s site. John, Steph, and I traveled a couple hours north with the Convoy of Excellence to a village called Sinyea, just off the coaltar (n. – paved road). Maryam, a volunteer who is coincidentally also from the Live Free or Die state, greeted us while teaching her biology class on male reproductive organs – a ballsy introduction. Our presence was promptly noticed and a handful of porch kids (n. – children who appear to have no obligations and will loiter around PCVs homes regardless of invitation, equally loved and loathed) tugged at us as we entered Maryam’s place. Site exposure gave us a taste of how much free time there will be once settled into our villages along with the respect, kindness, and opportunities we are afforded as PCVs in Liberia. Ma’s (n. – any lady who is older than you) offer meals and Pa’s profusely say “Welcome” or “Thank you for helping the people of Liberia” despite us not yet teaching. I saw several stereotypical African scenes – boys rolling tires down the dirt road, naked children bathing in a stream, and girls miraculously balancing tubs teeming with pineapples atop their heads – but was more fascinated by the communal living and respect dynamics that formed the everyday.

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The bunch of kids who stuck by our side throughout the weekend. DJ, smiling with his eyes in the bottom right, was the closest to me.

On our last full day, we spent four hours preparing and cooking traditional Liberian food over the coal-pot. Everything from scratch. A standing mortar and pestle to mash the staple peppay (n. – small, hot peppers). A few whole fish tossed in the stew. And Fufu – fermented Cassava starch that forms a gooey dough to be swallowed in whole. After the time-seasoned meal, we settled back to Maryam’s and slept our last sweat-drenched night in Sinyea.

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Top: Cooking around the coal pot; the girl in the white dress mashing peppay, Maryam grinding a seasoning nut, the inescapable oil in the plastic water bottle. Bottom: Me, Steph, and Jon in the background, Agricorps volunteer Sayvanna and LR-6 Maryam in the foreground at a local stream where children were bathing.

Loud music ushered our return to Doe Palace where the host family adoption ceremony took place. I eagerly watched other trainees dance away with their families – then heard my name called. I met my mother from another motherland – Ma Anna Dennis. My sister Patience was also in the crowd.

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Ma looking sassy after the adoption ceremony and Patience bluffing (v. – posing, generally in a tough manner).

Ma is a humorous lady – a middle school English teacher who has hosted two prior PC trainees and birthed a mere four children. She is healthy (n. – well-fed, a sign of stability and wealth), and keeps the house clean and in order. Nine of us live under the tin-roof including grandma and some four-year-olds, but only one is ma’s direct child. Whenever elders want something they simply call the name of a youngin followed by the desired item or task. A response from around the corner, often just a grunt, acknowledges the request.

This hierarchy of generation permeates throughout Liberian society and establishes a culture dependent on respect.

My house has a large overhang out front where grandma stays all day and sells bags of coal for 10 LD (n. – Liberian Dollars, currently 1 USD=155 LD). We have a blonde mid-sized dog named Revenge. Dog’s here have no distinguishable breeds but are rather different colored mutts, and the concept of pets is quite different to non-existent. Our plot of land hosts grass, two gardens, and four fruit trees including plums (n. – mango) and grapefruits.

 

My weekday schedule is quite consistent;

  1. Wake up around sunrise, fall back asleep
  2. Roll out of bed 20 minutes later
  3. Eat bread, peanut butter, and tea
  4. Walk 30 minutes to the training center along the coaltar
  5. Engage in lessons and technical teacher training from 8am-5pm
  6. Reach home before dark
  7. Eat, Sleep, Sweat, Repeat
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New 14 Road on a dry day- the first leg of my walk to Doe Palace. Powerlines exist in Kakata, but the infrastructure to run them does not.

On the weekends my hours are less structured. I hand-wash my clothes with buckets and a washboard, fetch drinking water (we collect rainwater for all other purposes), sweep my room, and walk through the markets to familiarize myself and try strange bitter foods that I can’t pronounce. A couple weekends back I’m pretty sure I ate dried clay, an apparent health booster for a pregnant woman. On Saturday afternoon’s, fellow volunteer Katie and I lead a girls club for ages 12-19 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal School. Many girls are quieted in the classroom or all together cannot attend due to chores back home. We aim to empower these girls through self-confidence building and leadership skills – encouraging them to stick out education and advocate for themselves. The presence of these clubs run by PC Liberia began after Michelle Obama visited our training center to promote her Let Girls Learn initiative in 2016 (see We Will Rise documentary on her trip to Morocco and Liberia).

This past weekend the 45 of us volunteers arranged a Malaria carnival to weave prevention, recognition, and treatment tips into active games like my group’s Mosquito ball toss. The average Liberian gets sick with the parasite several times each year but fatalities are far more frequent in children under five and pregnant women. Every two minutes a child dies from Malaria in sub-Saharan Africa despite many accessible forms of prevention. This statistic read every 30 seconds back in the early 2000s – the 4-fold reduction in death serves as motivation to keep driving on despite nonchalant attitudes surrounding the illness. I’ll talk more about the pandemic in a later post – there is plenty to say.

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Craig instructing one of the groups on the rules of Mosquito toss. They are the mosquitos who can host malaria by extracting the parasite (in this case a wiffle-ball) from an infected human. To infect a well human they must bite them during the nighttime (toss the ball into a humans bed), as the mosquitoes that are competent vectors are nocturnal. Beds with bug-nets work best to prevent bites from the dangerous Anopheles mosquitoes. More on this later… 

In the mean time I’ll list some of my impressions of Liberia, its people, and culture.

Being “white man”. As I walk around Kakata I am called white man more times than I can count, mostly by young children. More surprisingly I am called “China man” at almost the same rate – I am told this is because of my long-ish, dark-ish hair. I grew less likely to respond to these shouts from across the road, but now am comfortable turning around and waving to the crouching kids or correcting them by presenting that I do, in fact, have a name. In Liberia, the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply for things like nicknames – but in some ways, it does for introductions. People ask me how my health is, how my family is doing, or what my favorite food has been – a contrast from the American “What is your job and where did you get your degree?”

This leads to another observation – communalism versus individualism. Here your family, neighbors, and friends define you. You are always someone’s son, brother, or cousin. Even people with no familial relations are “brother” or “old ma”. Neighbor’s keep an eye peeled and will warn each other when trouble is brewing in the area – often walking into the house unannounced. Despite this allegiance to those closest to you, there still exists a strong patriotic sentiment for the star and stripes of Liberia. Alternatively, Individualism is the idea that each of us is self-governing; an entity of our own. You are what you make of yourself and self-reliance is an ideal. Conformity is foolish and challenging norms is progressive. It is what you do rather than who you are. I personally find myself falling in the individualistic realm – but I am attracted to many aspects of the communalistic pole I see here (and the one my friends/neighbors and I created with Shantytown during the final month of college).

On an unrelated note, we are experiencing rapid inflation in Liberia due partially to the falling prices of Iron ore and rubber, the primary commodities exported from the country. The exchange rate was 1USD = 142LD when we arrived and has steadily risen to 1USD = 155LD at most money booths, and is recorded nationally at a hasty 21% this past month. There is considerable variation locally, as competition with the large number of unregulated exchange booths in cities like Kakata drives up the rate. In the bush (n. – rural communities that subsist on farming and where most volunteers are stationed) this rate will be lower. Price stickiness has maintained the price of goods under 10LD – as 5LD bills are the smallest denominator – but more expensive items such as clothing or meat products are adjusting promptly.

 

Happy July 4th from the 51st state! Please leave comments or reach out to me via Facebook, email, or the trusty old trans-Atlantic Pigeon.

Uncategorized

Here it begins…

6 Degrees North of the Equator in the West African country of Liberia. 24 hours of flights for 27 months in the unknown. Luggage checked and expectations set: 50 lbs on the dot and 45 fellow volunteers to teach high-school science with.

Today I take flight from the US capital of Washington, D.C., and tomorrow I arrive in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Between sunrises, I will shift from a fast-paced, technologically connected, and comfortable lifestyle to something markedly opposite – it excites me. Uber’s will be replaced by a sturdy pair of crocs and air-conditioned high-rises will reappear as two-story open-air buildings. This idea of simplification attracted me to the Peace Corps, but it will come as a shock nonetheless.

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Rough map of Liberia, showing its expansive coastline (lot’s of protein from seafood) and inset locator map.

Liberia, as with most countries in the region, has faced developmental setbacks since its establishment of independence (in 1847). Most recently a set of civil-wars from 1989-2003 toppled infrastructure and resulted in over 250,000 deaths. Among these humans were children and teachers, leaving a void in the education system. Recognizing the importance of education in uplifting their socioeconomic status, the Liberian government reintroduced Peace Corps volunteers in 2008 with the mission of “helping the people of [Liberia] meet their need for trained men and women”.

My role at post is to teach science both to the students and fellow educators in my community. How should I, with no formal training in education, go about this? I am not sure yet, of that I am sure. I’ll spend the first three months of volunteering in the inland city of Kakata figuring it out.  With the help of what seems to be an excited staff of Liberian and Peace Corps officials, we will go through lessons on cultural assimilation and effective teaching strategies. During this time I will live in a homestay and grow familiar with daily customs, one of which — I am delighted to learn — is the copious consumption of chili peppers.

I am joined by volunteers from across the US. Having only met them yesterday, I still have names to learn, awkwardly forget, and learn again. In this time it already feels that we are forming together, bonding through our uncertainty. We even got the Idahoan’s to admit their love for potatoes.

The weeks leading up to this have been ripe with celebration and good company (see below), and I look forward to seeing all of you again soon and reveling each other in tales of our respective journeys.

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Clockwise from top left: William and Mary Class of 2018 Geowallies, a rock-solid conglomerate with our B.S. degrees; The Cary Street hooligans at the candlelight ceremony; Parting ways with the family; a most robust departing bonfire prepared by the pyromancing brother, Daniel. 

I will be out of internet service for a couple of weeks but hope to update this blog monthly – so check back! Until then, Let’s do this…. Leeeeroy Jenkins!!!