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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.