“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!