Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I've written quite a bit in December – this entry will put me solidly at three entries per week – by virtue of the fact that I simply haven't had all that much in the way of structured work (emphasis on structured – the unstructured task of grading, though I am making headway, is still a significant time-consumer).

I want to write a little bit about tribalism here. One of the reasons that I was excited to come to Liberia was to see how it compared with Kenya – West vs. East Africa, a country with strong American ties vs. a former British colony, a country that is emerging from a long period of tribalism-driven civil war vs. a country that, at the end of my time there, saw its own latent problems with tribalism flare and threaten the stability of the country. In light of how I left Kenya (evacuated after the December 2007 elections, which prompted a wave of violence when the incumbent president appeared to rig the election in a very close contest that was mainly split along tribal lines), I thought it would be very interesting to see the flip side of the coin – a country that is struggling to rebuild itself after fourteen years of civil war, in which tribalism was the single greatest motivating factor.

Once again, my own experiences are confounded by the fact that I am in a larger town this time around, instead of a small, mostly ethnically homogeneous village. In general, both here and in Kenya, tribal prejudices are likely most severe in the rural areas, where education levels overall are lower and there is little overlap between groups. Peace Corps told us in our very brief training (and I think I repeated this in a very early entry) that, in essence, people in Liberia are “tired of” tribalistic concerns. In the war, everyone suffered, and to that end it served as a unifying factor among ethnic groups. Yet tribalism is still clearly a major concern – one of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson's most difficult tasks has been maintaining adequate governmental representation by all ethnic groups.

I will say, though, that I rarely or never hear people disparaging rival tribes here (or even talking about the different tribes in general), whereas in Kenya that was nearly a daily occurrence. To be fair, I was, for most of my time there, in Molo district, in solidly Kalenjin country but very close to an area that was still subject to violent land disputes between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes. So by virtue of my placement there, the extent to which I perceived ethnic tensions may have been exaggerated, as compared to the degree to which tribal concerns persisted throughout the country as a whole. (As an example of how tribalism affected everyday life – although my first boarding school attracted girls from other districts, and we had representatives of the Maasai, Luhya, and Luo tribes, there was not a single Kikuyu girl or teacher at the school, despite the fact that there were large Kikuyu-dominated areas relatively nearby). Yet the fact that the elections were so very tribally divided, and resulted in such swift and senseless violence, suggests that tribal tensions were indeed lurking just below the surface throughout the country.

One tangential, but still relevant, issue that I find fascinating is the divisiveness of language in tribal disputes. As I mentioned before, here and in Kenya (and throughout Africa in general), there are many unique ethic groups, and, in general, each has its own language. In fact, language is one of the major ways in which outsiders can distinguish between the tribes. Just after the elections in Kenya, when the violence was at its peak, people were erecting roadblocks along the roads (this was the major reason that Peace Corps sent a helicopter to fetch me, not because I was in any imminent danger – I simply couldn't leave). They would arrest traveling matatus (the main form of transportation), and would force the occupants to speak their mother tongue in order to determine whether they were members of a friendly or opposing tribe.

Here, I have noticed that, while I do hear older persons speaking in the local dialect, I rarely hear the younger generation speaking Khran. In fact, when I questioned some of the neighborhood children about this, they told me that they don't speak the dialect at all. Whether this is a symbol of the unification of the country and a movement toward a national identity as opposed to a primarily tribal one, or a byproduct of increased mobility with the end of the war, leading to the necessity of wider usage of a common language, or the result of something else entirely – that I can't say. But the fact that members of the younger generation (at least in the more urban areas) are not learning mother tongue certainly seems like a significant fact in it of itself.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Christmas Ramblings

Christmas in Liberia, as it turns out, bizarrely combines elements from American Christmas (namely, a widespread disregard for the religious origins of the holiday in favor of its commercial aspects) and Halloween (in particular, children begging and wearing masks and face paint). Town was absolutely packed with kids running around with new toys, playing games and asking for money. In fact, it was so crowded that someone made the surprising but wise decision to dispatch police to direct the normally chaotic, unregulated road traffic (comprised of UN and aid vehicles – generally Land Rovers or similarly sturdy trucks in decent condition – local vehicles – overloaded station wagons and minibuses that one expects to collapse at any moment – and many, many motorbikes).

Santa Claus is not very well-known here, but he has an incredibly creepy stand-in: Old Man Beggar. The Old Man Beggar I saw was a child wearing a skeleton mask and a ski jacket (in the 90-degree weather) that had been stuffed to give him a (not very jolly) belly, dancing down the street followed by several other children and asking anyone and everyone for money.

I actually had quite a pleasant, though decidedly low-key, Christmas. I went to the Catholic Christmas Eve service with my landlord, had chicken foot and fish head soup at the principal's house on Christmas Day (though I, coward that I am, avoided both of those particular elements), walked around town to see the holiday goings-on, and hung out with the hyperactive, face paint- and glitter-covered neighborhood children until I couldn't stand the demands for money anymore. And I read. A lot.

I have to say, one thing that I really enjoy about Peace Corps is having the time to read. There are generally a lot of great books floating around among volunteers, books that I wouldn't necessarily have known to look for in the US, but am generally pleasantly surprised to discover. Since being here, some of the most engaging books I've read have included Emma's War, a true story about an aid worker in Sudan who ends up marrying a Sudanese warlord, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, about the way in which supposedly “neutral” aid is manipulated to oppress other countries and further the USA's agenda abroad, Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, about traveling across Liberia by foot in the 1930s, and most recently, The Pilgrimage, a mystical though nonfiction work by Brazil's Paulo Coelho (who also wrote The Alchemist) and The Devil in the White City, about the H.H. Holmes murders during the Chicago World's Fair.

I haven't read as much science fiction as I did in Kenya, where I read quite a bit. I think science fiction particularly appeals to me for several reasons: 1. I'm a dork, and 2. A recurring theme in a lot of science fiction is that of dealing with others who are different. Think of every alien story you have seen, heard, or read – even though they are “about” aliens, they are really about human nature; the core question is “How will we, as human beings, react in the face of entities who are different from us?” Will we react with fear and violence, or unintended cruelty under the guise of scientific investigation? Or will we react in a completely different way? (Side note: the movie District 9 is a fantastic example of what I'm talking about, in a context that is especially relevant to work in Africa). I think, if you have been reading this blog, that you can probably imagine why that particular theme appeals to me. Though if my own cross-cultural experiences can be said to broadly reflect on the ways in which people act in the face of something new and different (like a nerdy white lady), then what I think will happen when we finally make contact with extraterrestrials is this: we'll mock them mercilessly and laugh them off the face of the planet.

Anyway. I allowed myself a few days' respite from grading, but I'm starting to worry that I won't finish before I go. So I should probably stop rambling about Christmas, literature, and science fiction, and suck it up and get back to work.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holidays Alone

It's looking like I'm going to be spending Christmas by myself again, and I think I'm actually perfectly OK with that. A big group of volunteers is hanging out on the beach this holiday season, but since I'm using all of my vacation and more for my trip back to the US, I can't join them. Anyway, I really need to get all of these exams taken care of before January, which I can't do if I'm running around the country. Beyond that, although I think it could be fun, large volunteer gatherings (particularly when I don't know most of the volunteers) have their stresses as well.

As a whole, I think that spending holidays alone while out of the country is somehow a lot less unpleasant than spending them alone in the US. I'm not going to lie – there is a nagging little part of me that thinks I must be a huge loser if I'm spending Christmas alone under any circumstances. This is especially true because it brings out my worst insecurities about being here – I still feel as though I'm a failure, to some extent, because I don't really have any Liberian friends here (or at least any over the age of fourteen). But I guess I feel like less of a loser knowing that there are a lot of other expatriots around who are also far away from their homes and families, and are also having to spend the holidays either alone or with relative strangers.

So in that sense, holidays alone in Atlanta were definitely much more unpleasant. In part that is because, in Atlanta, I seemed to be the only person I knew who had to struggle to find someone else to spend a holiday with. For that reason, the smaller family holidays (Fourth of July, Easter, Memorial Day, birthdays), which never seemed like a big deal when I was near my family, and which certainly weren't worth special trips all the way back up to the Northeast, became sources of stress and unhappiness.

Another difference between holidays at home and holidays abroad is that, in Peace Corps, I find myself with a lot of other people like me – in their 20s or 30s, single, and transitioning from something to something else, although the “somethings” are not always clear. But what seems like a natural and acceptable period of change here feels more like an awkward in-between stage at home. Many of my friends in the US have or are starting families of their own, and family holidays remind me painfully that I'm getting to an age at which I should be doing the same thing – only, as things stand now, I don't see that happening anywhere in the near future.

Most of the time, I feel as though the fact that I often seem to be by myself when others are not is reflective of the fact that I've chosen to do things that have moved me around a lot, and taken me far away from family and the friends that I've made. Although I would definitely make the same decisions again (I wouldn't hesitate to up and move to Kenya, Atlanta, or Liberia), one of the prices to pay for the rewarding experiences I've had is having to spend a lot of time by myself, including during holidays. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do these things in the first place – I figure that, in my lifetime, I'll spend more time with myself than with any other person, and so I should at least make an effort to make “myself” a person that I like (and one of the ways I can do that is by living in new and different places).

Still, it's hard not to feel as though those are just excuses, that the real reason I am alone for the holidays, when everyone else is with someone, is that I'm defective, a loser, a social outcast. But I try to silence those thoughts when I have them. From a purely practical standpoint, I made no effort to join up with other volunteers over the holidays, for the reasons I've given, and I will be spending time with friends and family in the US in very short order. So for the most part, I'm content to see Christmas as just another day, and to look past it to my upcoming trip home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Education in Africa

Writing about the corporal punishment issue here versus in Kenya reminded me of something that I've been meaning to write about for awhile – the similarities and differences between the school systems in the two countries, and how they compare to the system in the US.

Overall, although there are a lot of issues with the Kenyan educational system, I would say that it is vastly superior to the system here. I guess that is not surprising, as Kenya in general is way ahead on the development scale, wheras in Liberia I would characterize things as barely a step above total chaos (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but not much of one). This is true not only in the realm of education, but in the political and judicial systems as well, and pretty much any other system that you can think of – for the most part, things are functioning, but not effectively.

In my eyes, one of the major problems with the Kenyan educational system (aside from the corruption and sexual and monetary exploitation of students, which take place here as well) is its extreme rigidity. In part, I think that the rigidity stems from the British colonial influence; somehow, the Kenyan system seems to have combined traditional African values with the worst, most inflexible parts of Western education to create schools in which students are held to unrealistically high standards that cannot possibly be achieved. The girls at my first boarding school were awakened at 5:30 AM every morning, Saturdays and Sundays included, and expected to spend the entire day – from 6:30 AM until 9:30 PM – in their classrooms. Classes ran from 6:45 AM until 6:45 PM on the weekdays, with short breaks for lunch, sports, and of course the requisite twice-daily tea breaks; the rest of the evening was set aside for homework and studying, which students were expected to do in complete silence.

Not surprisingly, the huge amounts of time set aside for studying did not correspond to a good academic performance for most of the students. And the students were punished harshly for poor outcomes – they were publicly humiliated in front of their classmates, called fat and lazy, or beaten. I think, in part, that this excessive harshness came from a twisted interpretation of the value of hard work. “Work harder!” was always the advice given to students who were failing. While the application of hard work to achieve educational and professional goals is certainly a value that Americans hold highly as well, it is useless in the absence of a realistic plan for achieving those goals. Students were given huge, overwhelming courseloads, expected to learn all subjects – including college-level chemistry, physics, and mathematics – in their third language, which many of them had not really mastered, and were never taught mechanisms for effective studying. “Work harder” was not a helpful piece of advice for such students, who were totally unequipped to handle the intense academic environment. A vicious cycle resulted – students performed poorly because the teachers did not teach critical thinking and study skills, students were punished for poor performance, and then students performed even more poorly because the strict punishments demoralized the students and failed to address the base issues underlying students' poor performance.

Here in Liberia, I feel as though some of the problems are almost the exact opposite of the Kenyan system. The overcrowded classrooms and undertrained and underpaid teachers combine to produce an environment in which students are not being held responsible for their own education – as opposed to the Kenyan system, in which far too much responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the students. I was very happy at first to hear parents and teachers alike sympathizing with the students; in the teacher training workshop run by the principal of the school just after I arrived in Liberia, he urged teachers to find the source of students' poor performances, by counseling them individually and maintaining good communication with the parents. Yet, far too often, in practice what results is not any actual attempt to find and rectify the source of poor student performance, but instead an excusing of student failures without any attempt to help them overcome those failures. Thus, students are given passing grades even when they have not even remotely mastered the material, resulting in what I see every day – eighth graders who read and do math at a first-grade level. Blaming the students for their failures without making a real effort to help them is not good in terms of promoting real learning, but neither is absolving students of all responsibility and allowing them to pass without actually achieving anything academically.

I can't help but feel that the major advantage of the Kenyan system over the Liberian one is this: The very best students in Kenya can generally find a way to succeed. A standardized national exam is given in 8th and 12th grades; the results of the 8th-grade exam allow one to enter into a national, regional, or district-level school (national being the highest-quality and district being the lowest). A good performance on the 12th-grade exam allows one to gain entrance at the university. So, although things are complicated by the fact that the better schools cost more, putting the poorest students at a disadvantage (true not only in Kenya, but in Liberia and the US as well), there are opportunities available for the best and the brightest in Kenya. Here in Liberia, I can't help but feel as though everyone is equally fucked when it comes to academics. The good and the bad students alike are piled into the same huge classroom, making it impossible for a teacher to teach at a pace that is appropriate for all students. So even though I think the Kenyan system is not well-suited to your average student (the 12th-grade exam, administered to all students, covers topics ranging from advanced caculus to the interpretation of Shakespeare to basic organic chemistry), it is superior to the system here, in which even the best students do not have as many opportunities for success.

The other major issue here is that education simply does not seem to be as highly valued as it is in Kenya. The idea of universal education is certainly appealing, but many people seem content to let it rest as an idea and not an actual means to an end (i.e., actually learning stuff). As long as students appear to be going to school, and appear to be getting an education, the quality of the education is not of great importance. It's hard to say exactly why this is – maybe I am just witnessing the first step toward the rebuilding the educational system, and the quality will improve over time. Or maybe the lack of emphasis on quality is reflective of a general cultural attitude in which appearance is valued over substance. Or maybe it comes from something else entirely, which I completely fail to understand.

This entry is already way too long, but in reading back over what I've written, I feel the need to mention one thing: As I've said before, there is a huge amount of variation within both Kenya and Liberia. My experience at girls' boarding schools was very, very different from the experiences of many other Peace Corps Kenya volunteers. The size of the town or village, the region of the country, and the cultural norms of the dominant ethnic group have a profound influence on the functionality of each individual school, and my own experience in no way allows me to accurately reflect on the educational system of the country as a whole (even though that is pretty much just what I tried to do). My work in Liberia has likewise been limited to one single large town, and the problems I face here are certainly not the same as those faced by teachers in the smaller towns and villages. So keep that in mind as you are reading through this; take everything I've written with a grain of salt.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I can't believe it's almost Christmas. In part, that is because it is still 85-95 degrees outside every day (and nearly that hot inside also, with no A/C or fan). Also, there are none of the cues that signal Christmastime in the US – no tinsel, no ugly fake Santas, no Christmas carols playing 24/7. The only thing that seems to have changed with the onset of the Christmas season is that people have a new reason to ask for money (which they do by saying “Where is my Christmas?”); also, there are more people selling small toys on the roadside. For some reason, little inflatable dolls on sticks seem to be very popular – brightly colored Chinese-style fish, Spiderman dolls, and inflatable wands decorated with famous soccer players are appearing everywhere.

School is officially over for the year. Exams were, again, miserable, but this time at least I had help proctoring from two of the male teachers. Apparently, the key to getting 150 teenaged students to do what you want them to do is to carry a big stick, which you whip around threateningly and slap on the desks to make a very intimidating noise, all the while shouting at the top of your lungs. I can't say that it would have been my chosen method of trying to create order, but it worked just fine. As a side note – although threatening students with switches seems to be an accepted method of motivation, actually beating the students appears to be frowned upon. This is in contrast to the situation in Kenya, where – despite the illegality of it – the public was enormously in favor of corporal punishment in the schools. The extent to which it was actually carried out varied – in my first school, I only witnessed the girls receiving a slap on the palm, wheras at my second school, the teachers would routinely call girls into the teacher's lounge, force them to lay on the floor, and beat them over the back and shoulders until they cried. In other schools, teachers would circumvent the legality issue by calling parents into the schools to beat the kids themselves.

In other news, life outside of school continues, in its leisurely though unpredictable and often confusing fashion. Yesterday, the neighbor's kids captured a live snake and put it in a bucket of water, which they showed to me. When I asked what they were going to do with it, they said they were going to “sell it to the Chinese.” Speaking of -- the Chinese soliders have been driving all over town lately, carrying shovels, and offering to pay people rice in exchange for bushes, which they dig up and apparently re-plant on their compound. Our county's soccer team beat the neighboring county the other day and there was much rejoicing in the form of people riding around on motorbikes, honking and shouting and wearing the Grand Gedeh (pronounced “Jee-deh”) county flag. A new phone-charging station opened near my house, which would be much more convenient if they actually charged phones in a timely manner (in a country in which most people have cell phones but no electricity, phone charging is an important business; the town is dotted with small booths containing gas-powered generators, where people – including myself – leave their phones to charge for a fee of 30 cents or so. But at this charging station, they leave the generator off when the phones are “not plenty,” as they say, meaning that a phone can sit there all day without actually charging).

So that's la vie quotidienne here in Liberia. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with myself until I go home in January, aside from grade papers, which is always a good time. I'm excited to go home but already dreading the journey back to the States – the trip from here to Monrovia (a vomit-inducing ride over unpaved roads, which I've been told can take anywhere from 8 hours to 2 days), then two 8-hour plane rides, then a 2-hour plane ride, and then, finally, a 4-hour drive back to my hometown. But the rewards at the end – unlimited hot showers and haircuts, food that I actually enjoy eating, and being able to blend into the crowd again – are well worth the effort.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Seen recently:

- A “devil,” covered in raffia, with the top tied in a point like a witch's hat, dancing down the streets of town to the sounds of drummers accompanying him, and followed by a large crowd of gawking spectators
- A boy playing with a teeny, tiny baby monkey, too small to even make monkey-chattering noises
- A woman wearing a dress made from lapa cloth decorated with cellular phones
- A poster for the Obama Cut haircutting salon, complete with pictures of the different hairstyles they offer (or rather, different pictures of the one shaved-head hairstyle they offer), two pictures of Obama, and one picture of Will Smith

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I said I wanted to talk about beauty and body image awhile ago, and then somehow got distracted. Let's see if I can do better today.

I have a difficult time judging how beauty is percieved here. What I mean by that is, I'm not convinced that features I find attractive are considered attractive by Liberians. The “fat” thing in particular really throws me off – although people don't hesitate to tell me how fat I am, fatness, here as in the US, does not seem to be considered a good thing. On the other hand, in general, people attire themselves very attractively here, by Western standards, so that suggests that the way attractiveness is percieved is not hugely different in the two cultures. So I'm confused – if the same things are considered attractive in Liberian and American society, then why is it OK to call people fat here, and a deadly insult in the US?

I suppose it's possible that the “fat” issue has less to do with how attractiveness is actually percieved and more to do with cultural norms for rudeness – in general, making extremely personal comments about someone's appearance is not that uncommon here. In addition, although there are certainly fat people in Liberia, the kind of excessive obesity that one sees in the US is not present. Furthermore, people are generally very physically active, so fatness does not have the same negative health connotations that it does in the US, which perhaps makes it less of a bad thing in terms of attractiveness as well.

In terms of how people view me personally – it's a strange kind of a situation. I have a difficult time judging whether or not I am seen as attractive at all, or am viewed as more of a novelty than a genuinely attractive or unattractive person. I feel like I am constantly having to rebuff romantic advances, but as far as I can tell, the motivation behind them has less to do with any kind of actual attraction and more to do with a desire to be associated with someone who is percieved as rich. There is definitely an element of curiosity in there as well – I've had more than one kid ask to “see the white woman titties” (I can only hope that someday they can realize that dream, with some other white woman's titties).

In any case, one would think that dealing with constant advances would make one feel extremely attractive, but for me at least, it has the opposite effect. I feel as though I am being objectified in a way that has less to do with the body as a sexual object and more to do with it as a representation of Western prosperity. Somehow, being seen as a symbol rather than a girl or even a mere object of sexual desire makes me feel completely asexual, despte the (assumed) sexual nature of the advances.

Anyway, the situation is definitely not helped by how unattractive in general I feel here. I know I've mentioned this before, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to do the things that one must do to be considered attractive in the US. I wasn't a fan of the short (though extremely practical) haircut I got before leaving, and after four months of uncontrolled growth (unless I want to shave my head or braid my hair, I'm pretty much out of luck in terms of professional haircutting), it's looking pretty wild. I'm dirty, and there is only so clean that a a person can get by means of a bucket bath (or even several bucket baths in a day). It's hot and I have to wear sunscreen all the time, so I'm constantly sweaty and sticky and greasy. My skin is aggravated by the dust and the grease and the oil in the food, and I'm always having to deal with breakouts. Wearing any kind of skin-evening makeup is next to useless, as it sweats off within an hour, and somehow I feel kind of ridiculous wearing other makeup, given how gross the rest of me is. I wear my glasses most of the time. And to top it all off, somehow, despite the fact that I'm not a big fan of the food and walk several miles a day, I'm not losing any weight, and if anything may even be gaining it.

So overall, I feel like I've given up on the idea of being attractive here. “Who am I trying to attract anyway?” I keep asking myself. I'm only here for ten months, and my goal in coming here was . . . um . . . OK, sometimes I can't remember exactly what it was, but I'm pretty sure it didn't involve romance. On the other hand, it's only natural to want to be attractive, and, as a girl, there's a part of me that can't help but feel that my worth as a human being is fundamentally connected to my level of attractiveness to the opposite sex. So when the meagre assets I have are depleted by sun and dirt, I can't help but feel somewhat lousy.

On the bright side – I don't own a full-length mirror, and rarely use the electric lights in my house, so most of the time I am trying to judge my appearance in a tiny mirror in either candlelight or the sunlight that filters in from outside. Thus, most of the time, the full scope of my unattractiveness is not apparent to me.

EDIT, 17th December 2009, 3:46 PM: Two marriage proposals thus far today. I must be looking very wealthy.

Monday, December 14, 2009


It's hard to believe, but today was the last day of the first semester. School isn't quite over – I've got piles of papers still to grade, and the rest of this week we have semester exams, and then getting through the paperwork that results from those may well take me into the new year. Still, the atmosphere in school today reminded me of my own last days of school, before the summer breaks – the students were in a good mood, classes were relatively disorganized, and nobody – teachers and students alike – seemed inclined to do any real work. (Of course, come to think of it, that's pretty much school every day here . . . so maybe my impression of the eager anticipation of break was all in my head).

It's crazy how quickly things are changing. That is one difference between Peace Corps Response and “regular” Peace Corps, I guess – the pace of everything is hugely accelerated. In Kenya, we had new volunteers come into country twice a year; here, they arrive every two months or so. The next batch is coming in January, and we're supposed to be getting two more here at my site, with one possibly teaching at my school. Then of course since all volunteers' terms of service are so much shorter – six to ten months being the case here – there's just a much more rapid turnover rate in general.

In any case, I feel like I finally got settled into a little bit of a routine, and now things are up and changing all over again. School is over and I'll have to find something else to entertain myself for the next few weeks. My roommate is going home to the US. I'm going back to the US for interviews for most of January (side note: Yes! Interviews, plural! I was offered another interview that I was actually able to schedule, so hooray!), and by the time I come back, a new semester will be underway, and there will be new volunteers in town. In February and April, the other volunteers currently in town will be going home, and then of course only a few months after that, I'll be on my way back to PA myself. And after that, who knows?

If you can't tell, I'm feeling a little bit nostalgic right now.

Sometimes, I think there's something wrong with me, that several incompatible personality traits were all thrown together into one person. I love doing new things and going new places and meeting new people, but I absolutely hate to see the experiences end or the people go. Even though it's true that everywhere I go, I meet new people who are equally as awesome (in totally different ways) as the people I left behind, it still really makes me sad to come up to an ending.

Or maybe there's nothing wrong with me at all and that is a completely normal and universal human emotion. Either way, that's what's going on right now.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fevers and Baby Animals

. . . And, once again, the pendulum swings back the other way – from “Yay Africa!” to “Fuck this shit.”

The latest unpleasantness from the neighboorhood is that the neighbor's kids acquired a puppy, and it is one of the most miserable animals I have ever seen. The kids kick it around, pick it up by its front or back legs, and generally just torture it. They also bring it to my door every day, shouting “Butch is hungry! Butch wants milk!” When I give Butch food, he acts as though he has not been fed in weeks, eating so fast that he almost chokes.

The worst part is, sometimes when I have some old gross food that I want to give to the dog, the kids will steal it and eat it themselves. Today I wanted to give Butch a little bit of bread, and when I opened the door, six or seven kids were standing there, looking up at me and saying “Give me bread! Give me bread!!” I was irritated by the demands, shooed them away, and told them the bread was for Butch. Then I thought, wow, I am a terrible person; I just told a bunch of kids I wouldn't give them food so that I could feed a fucking dog.

The whole situation is pretty shitty. Even if they wanted to sell him, I can't offer to buy Butch and raise him myself because, really, what would I do with him? Most days, I am away from the house for 11 or so hours at a time. I can't lock him inside for that amount of time, and if I leave him outside to run around with the kids, things won't really be all that different than they are now. Anyway, I don't think there's any way to get rabies vaccinations here, and there's certainly no de-worming or de-fleaing medication, so I don't know how I could possibly keep him healthy. Furthermore, Butch is getting to be a pretty mean animal. Even just last week I could pick him up and hold him, but now, as soon as anyone gets close, he growls and threatens to bite. It's no wonder with the way the kids treat him, but I don't want to be the owner of a vicious animal.

I'm starting to think the best solution is to stop giving Butch any food. I would be absolved of all responsibility and guilt for giving food to a dog instead of to people, and possibly he would starve to death relatively quickly. Of course, if he didn't, he would just be even more miserable than if I gave him the little bit of food that I do.

It's a pretty awesome decision to try to make, and it makes me feel like a pretty fantastic person: deciding whether or not to try to starve a puppy to death.

Anyway, sorry for the cranky entry. There is another reason that I'm so unhappy today – I just don't feel all that great. I complained about having classes be canceled for stupid reasons outside my control. Now I have missed almost two days of school due to something which isn't totally within my control but feels like it should be – a stupid fucking low-grade fever. It has varied between 100-101 degrees; not enough that I actually feel particularly sick, but enough so that when I'm doing anything other than lying in bed, all I want to do is go home and lie in bed. Of course, when I am at home lying in bed, feeling moderately OK, all I can do is feel bored and guilty about skipping out on work, and kick myself for being such a worthless lazy piece of shit.

Monday, December 7, 2009

UN Party

The weekend did not begin well. I got the last of my rejections from MD/PhD programs, from Emory. I'm still waiting to hear back from the MD-only programs, but my hopes are very, very low that I'll be offered any interviews at this point that, much less ones that I'll be able to schedule.

For a few hours after getting the news, I pretty much melted down into a dramatic, blubbering puddle of self-pity and -hatred.

Yet somehow, today, I feel better than I have in weeks. There's something about not being in limbo anymore that's a huge relief, even if the news is not what I wanted to hear. I do still have the single solitary interview that I was able to schedule, but I'm not pinning all of my hopes there. I'm going to start looking into MPH programs as an alternative if I do ultimately get rejected; I know that Peace Corps offers scholarships for some master's programs, and I think it may not be too late for me to apply for next fall. Anyway, the upside of the whole “nobody wants me” thing is that now I can buy my plane tickets home, and I'll have more time to hang out and eat good food in the US, without stressing out about interviews.

One big thing that helped me feel much better was an incredibly fun UN party that took place on Saturday night. It was a funny mix of people – UN police, aid workers and affiliates, and volunteers like myself. The event was set up much like I imagine a middle school dance would be (not that I, in my outrageous, hideous nerdiness, ever actually attended a middle school dance). There were plastic chairs set up around the edges of a room lit by fluorescent bulbs, a few pathetic-looking Christmas garlands as decorations, and a lot of really awkward-looking people hanging out and, well, looking awkward. The major differences between this gathering and a middle school dance were 1. there were people of all ages from all over the world, and 2. there was freely available alcohol.

The awkwardness lessened considerably once the dancing started. It was hilarious and awesome to watch – the wide range of ages and nationalities was accompanied by an equally large amount of variation in dancing styles and levels of intoxication.

Anyway. I'm obviously still super disappointed and embarrassed that I wasn't offered any more interviews, but at least I had a good reminder of one reason that I bothered to come here in the first place. I love the variety here; there are a ton of interesting (though frequently very strange) people around (be they Liberians, people from other African countries, or people from the US or elsewhere in the world).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity

I didn't write much last week because I was in such a terrible mood that every time I tried to organize my thoughts, I ended up with nothing but a series of complaints and depressing self-reproaches.

Things are starting to get better again, though. It helps a lot to have other volunteers in town, and talking with my roommate especially has helped me to figure out the source of some of my frustrations and to try to relieve them.

One thing that has really been wearing on me is the continual effort of trying to be cross-culturally sensitive. It can be exhausting to have to put so much thought into things one would take for granted in the US; for example, figuring out what clothes to wear. In general, people dress more conservatively here, but not as conservatively as in Kenya (though this may have more to do with the fact that I am in a larger town and not a small village, as opposed to representing a broad difference between the cultures of the two countries). Tank tops and tight clothing seem to be completely fine. Shorts I haven't quite figured out yet. Some people have told me that anything above the knee is considered provocative, while others have said that times are changing and the younger generation will not take offense at Western clothing. I see others wearing shorts, but I don't know if that means that it is OK for me to wear them – with about a thousand students at the school, half of whom are in one of my classes, I'm bound to run into students any time I leave the house, and I want to maintain some illusion of respectability.

Anyway, I mention this just to show how much more complicated simple things become in a foreign culture. What's frustrating about it is, because the people here do not have to put the same kind of thought and effort into acting appropriately, it can feel like an enormous amount of effort goes into something that is completely unappreciated. And it can be irritating to feel like it is a one-way street; people often say or do things that seem extremely rude to us as Westerners. For example, people do not hesitate to tell me and my roommate how fat we are looking. Even if I know this is meant as a joke or a compliment, it's very, very difficult to hear it without feeling shitty, especially because I feel so very bad about my appearance here in general. Or as an example I've used before, people do not hesitate to ask for money, food, my phone number, or even my laptop – sometimes even before they've told me their names. It's difficult to put up with what seems like unbelievable rudeness when I feel like I'm putting so much energy into acting in a way that will not bring offense to others.

(. . . Huh. I meant for this to be an entry about body image and cultural differences in the assessment of beauty, but once again, somehow the writing has taken on a mind of its own and gone in a completely different direction. Another day, then.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Student Government

After a week of no classes, I was ready to get back to work on Monday, but as it turned out, Monday was a holiday. Then Tuesday was a holiday as well (World AIDS Day), although it was supposed to be a “working holiday,” and everyone informed me that work would indeed continue as usual. The students apparently felt differently and decided not to show up for school, and although the principal assured me that school was in session, with no students there, the fact that school was technically “open” was really a moot point.

Today, again, there were no morning classes, and instead we had an inauguration ceremony to induct the new student government. It was actually pretty entertaining. Ceremonies here are very similar to ceremonies in Kenya in a lot of ways – there's a great deal of emphasis on formality and strict rules are observed in terms of the hierarchy of speakers. A printed program is created with 15 or 16 specific bullet points, the first and the last of which are always prayer. Every person who speaks must first greet the audience in order of their importance – for example, today, every person who took the microphone opened with something like “Distinguished guest speaker, invited guests, principal, faculty and staff of the high school, students from neighboring schools, students of the Multilateral High School, ladies, and gentlemen – good morning.” (Pause for applause). The biggest and most welcome difference here seems to be that the ceremonies usually last about an hour or so, whereas in Kenya they could go on for three or four hours, often through lunchtime, and often with several of the speakers lecturing in the local dialect.

Anyway, even though it was a little frustrating to have classes be canceled AGAIN, the ceremony itself was neat. The choir sang several songs, and the drama club performed a short skit. Aside from simply providing entertainment, which they did, these performances gave a really interesting insight into some of the attitudes, priorities, and problems here. One song in particular had what seemed like a very appropriate message for a country attempting to recover from war – the title was “Forget the past, remember the future.” It included a really beautifully sung section about a mother not having enough money to buy food and then crying until she can't cry anymore.

The drama club performance was interesting too. It was an anti-corruption skit about an official (or maybe a school president?) who stole money, and then avoided being caught by bribing every other person who threatened to turn him in. The skit included such lines as this (in response to a parent who threatens to turn the official over to the authorities): “You have three children who are not in school because you cannot pay their school fees. How can you turn down the money I am offering you?” (In the skit, and I'm sure most of the time in real life, the parent couldn't turn down the money). If this topic seems not completely appropriate for a high school president swearing-in, one of the speakers mentioned that in 2006 a big chunk of money being managed by the school government mysteriously went missing. (Yet another example of how the pervasive corruption problem starts early and persists at every level of society).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cheating (Again)

One more exam to give and then I'm blissfully done with proctoring (. . . for a few weeks at least, until the final set of exams begins). I thought that monitoring exams was a bore in the US, but it's infinitely worse here – it's one of the things that I absolutely dread.

I talked to the principal about the cheating problem, and he agreed that, for the biggest classes – my 150-person chemistry class and my 100-person science class – the school would print the exams for me. So that offered at least a partial solution – with printed exams, the students could be moved to a bigger classroom or the gym (the issue otherwise being that all of the students had to be relatively close to the blackboard so that they could read the exam). In theory, this would allow me to put more space in between the students and make cheating more difficult to undertake and easier to spot.

In practice, it was, unsurprisingly, a minor disaster. Moving the 8th-grade class in particular to another room took about 30 minutes (out of an hour-long exam). The room was locked so I had to find someone with a key to open it. Once we were inside, it turned out there were not enough chairs and some students had to import chairs from other classrooms. A minor fistfight broke out over one of the desks. I went over instructions for the test three or four times and then repeated same instructions individually about 30 times in response to student questions. Students still cheated and I still couldn't catch them all. I had to take points away from the several people I did catch, which I absolutely hate doing (the students don't like it much either, as they made very plain to me).

I've changed my mind again with regards to the cheating issue. I don't think anymore that students simply have a communal approach and want to help each other out; although that's true to an extent, they are perfectly happy to snitch on each other and refuse to work together when it suits them. I'm starting to think it's more of a cost-benefit analysis kind of a thing – not only with the student cheating, but more broadly with the corruption that is firmly ingrained in every aspect of society (which is becoming more and more apparent the more I look for it).

As I mentioned before, the individual costs of cheating, stealing, lying, and bribery are generally minimal, in school and out of school – since everyone does it, it's impossible to catch everyone (especially since the ones who should be doing the catching are corrupt as well). Even though people give lip service to the idea of honesty, dishonesty is really kind of expected; the general consensus seems to be “if you can get away with it, then it's OK” -- but if you get caught, look out. (Again, though, this is an overly simplistic way to look at it. There are exceptions; for example, pickpocketing is much less severe here than it was in Kenya). As an example of the ubiquity of the stealing problem, one of my friends recently pointed out to me that many of the small food items – juice and milk boxes and biscuits – that are sold on the streets are printed plainly with the words “FOR UN USE ONLY – NOT FOR RESALE.” And the benefits of dishonesty are very high – for people who, in general, have so little, any little bit helps.

Anyway. It's a difficult situation; how can I condemn people for their actions when I have the luxury of knowing that I do not need to resort to dishonesty because my basic needs will always be met? The situation in the schools is, fortunately, simpler – like I said before, I'm here to help the students learn, and allowing them to cheat goes directly against that goal. So even though I'm fighting a losing battle, there's nothing to do except keep on fighting.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Cranky Entry

Well, this weekend was pretty much a waste.

By Friday, I just couldn't take it anymore. Exactly what “it” is, I'm not 100% sure -- I don't know if it's the general stresses of dealing with the constant requests for money, or the “living in a fishbowl” feeling, or the difficulty of forcing students into doing work they don't want to do, or the futility of trying to build friendships with other teachers that don't eventually result in them coming onto me, or the whole medical school situation. Whatever the source, I shut myself inside, read John Grisham, ate an entire container of Nutella, and only left the house to buy food in town and play board games with the kids.

I hate feeling like this. I hate the voice in my head that says “Nothing you do matters. The people you are trying to help don't want your help, and nobody else gives a shit about what you are trying to do. You have no skills and the schools that could train you don't think you are worth training. You're 25, and awkward, and single, and nobody cares about you. Your life is empty and you are and will always be worthless and alone.”

And I hate only slightly less the other voice in my head, the one that chastises the first one, saying “Look at the people around you. Look at what they have and look at what you have. What do you have to complain about? Why are you so shallow and self-pitying? Being here is the LEAST you can do; shut up, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and get up and get out of the house. And remember that YOU made the decisions that brought you to where you are today.”

I do actually feel a lot better after my few days of relative isolation (aside from the physical discomfort I'm feeling from eating the Nutella, which was not made better by some of the children telling me how “big” I look). So maybe it wasn't so awful that I took a day or two to do nothing at all (though I still feel guilty about it).

I also have a lot to look forward to in the near future. This coming week I get a bit of a breather in the form of no classes, due to a second set of exams (although that will be followed, of course, by a new mountain of papers to grade – and I just finally finished grading the last ones). Thanksgiving is on Thursday and we have a volunteer get-together planned. After that, I suspect the last few weeks of school before the winter break will be very busy, and then of course winter break begins, and I'll be going home to the US for a few weeks.

Anyway, hopefully I'll snap out of this funk sometime soon. I'm doing my best to silence Voice Number One, and take Voice Number Two's advice. Sometimes, as with this weekend, my best isn't really all that successful – but as they say, tomorrow's another day, right?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Being White in Africa, Part II

(Correction from before – Ishmael Beah's book is called A Long Way Gone, not A Long Way Home. Don't all rush out and buy it at once, now. I wouldn't want to be responsible for a riot at the bookstores.)

As promised, here is the exciting sequel to Being White in Africa.

I wrote earlier about the frustration of Liberians assuming (correctly in general and relative terms) that white people are rich. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the communal culture aspect I've talked about. To the frustration of many Westerners, many Liberians – to an extent – have a communal approach to property (though of course, this is a rough generalization for a country containing a diverse mix of ethnic groups and cultures). Thus, people are generally very generous with their own belongings, but also assume that we, the rich foreigners, will contribute more than they will by virtue of having more resources to contribute.

It makes for a constant balancing act – caught between my American sense of “what's mine is mine” and the feeling that I'm culturally and ethically obliged to share what I have. Then there is the frustration of seeing some of the things I do give away wasted (like the schoolbook I bought for one child that was lost by the next morning), and the conundrum of where to draw the line if I do decide to give. Should I buy the neighbor's children school supplies? What about their friends, when they come? And what about THEIR friends, and their friends' friends, who all come knocking at my door when they hear I have free pencils for anyone who demands?

There's no good answer to these questions, and to be honest, though I don't think it's right, the way I decide to act on a given day often depends on nothing more solid than what I feel like doing at the time.

In addition to these issues, what I wanted to write about before was the way in which white people here are given special and often superior treatment as compared to native Liberians.

There are countless examples of ways in which this is true – UN cars driving past women and children carrying heavy loads to stop next to me and offer a lift, people moving to the backseat of a car so I can take a place in the front, and so on. When I go to the bank (always a confusing, time-consuming, and uncomfortable experience), I am sometimes offered a private room in the back in which to withdraw money, rather than waiting in line with everyone else for a teller.

Sometimes, it is difficult to avoid taking advantage of a situation. People are confused when I turn down a lift in the car, and it's easier just to take the ride, even if it doesn't seem quite right if I think about it. When it comes to the bank, I dislike the experience of going so much that I often take out a month's wages at a time, which is a far larger sum of money than most people are withdrawing. Thus, I ask for a back room because I'm uncomfortable withdrawing money in the very crowded, very public front room, where it's easy for many people to observe exactly how much money I have. (At least that's what I've told myself. But lately I think I'm just making excuses).

Why do Liberians give foreigners special treatment as compared to their own people? The same attitude is common in Kenya, and many foreigners (especially expatriots who have been living abroad for long periods of time) take the special attention for granted – a modern sort of colonialism. Both there and here, I think in large part the situation continues to exist because of money. Your average foreigner in Africa is far richer and more powerful than your average African. Simple economics dictate that it is more cost-effective to cater to the interests of the rich than the interests of the poor, and skin color is an easy (if not always accurate) way to distinguish between the two.

Here in Liberia, there is a somewhat more charitable reason for the difference in treatment as well. In Kenya, a country built on tourism, most people assumed that I was a tourist. Here, a country with almost no tourist base, the majority of foreigners are here doing aid work. So people (correctly) tend to assume that I am here doing volunteer work, and offer rides or little things like that as a gesture of goodwill.

The whole issue is another example of a way in which my sense of right and wrong is being challenged. It's far too easy to take advantage of the situation, either intentionally or unintentionally. I would love to pretend that I never do, but I know that is not true. I do show up at the door of the UN refugee association, asking to sit on their porch and use their wireless internet (though I have no connection with them and there's really no reason they should let me inside). I don't KNOW for sure that they're letting me in because I'm white, but I can't help but think it helps. I do get lifts in cars, and I have asked for a private room in the back at the bank.

Does that make me a bad person? I'm ashamed when I feel like I've taken advantage of an unfair situation, but on the other hand, I'm not going out of my way to try to be treated specially. Can I be blamed for grasping the opportunity when it presents itself, especially when there's no way to know for sure if I'm being treated differently because I'm white? (Most of the time, I feel like the answer to that question is “yes, you can be blamed” -- and yet I do it anyways – though I'm not proud to admit it).

Monday, November 16, 2009


I have not been in the best of moods lately.

In part it's due to the normal stresses of teaching here. Friday, I gave a quiz in my 7th grade AM mathematics class (85 students). Being the end of the week as it was, my nerves were pretty frayed, and the kids just WOULD NOT BE QUIET. I spent the first 10 minutes of class waiting until the noise was down to a dull roar before I put the quiz on the board, and spent the next 30 minutes patrolling the class trying (and failing) to keep them from looking off of each other's papers. By 20 minutes into the quiz, the entire class was talking again, and when I lost my patience and raised my voice to yell over them “BE QUIET! KEEP YOUR MOUTHS SHUT AND BE QUI-ET!!!!” they laughed at me and then returned to talking, reinforcing my complete lack of any authority in my classes. I almost cried, I was so frustrated.

(The silver lining to this story is: I graded the quiz and they actually did really well. And the evidence of cheating was not as bad as I had anticipated. So that is good).

In larger part, the bad feeling is due to the stream of medical school rejections that has begun pouring in. I knew that it would happen, and I think in part this is why I've been putting off applying to schools (aside from the bigger issue that I just didn't know what I wanted to do with myself until recently). I had no desire to repeat the ego-bruising that characterized my application to and subsequent rejection from undergraduate institutions, even though it's a necessary unpleasantness.

There's something about having an unknown group of people objectively analyze your accomplishments and label you Not Good Enough that's incredibly demoralizing. Especially when it's multiple groups of unknown peoples, all coming to the same conclusion about your inferiority.

It's especially rough after spending the majority of last year doing demeaning work, and not doing a very good job at it at that. And the fact that I don't seem to be a very effective teacher here doesn't help (although, despite the fact that I suck, this job is still about a million times more fulfilling than the one I was working at before I came). It's hard not to think, damn – maybe these med school people have a point. There really isn't ANYTHING I'm good at. I should give up, call it a day, maybe bum around Africa for awhile and then go back to cleaning incubators ( . . . OK, not that. There were too many other factors, aside from the tedium and pointlessness of that job, that made it incredibly unpleasant. But I could do some equally menial job that requires no skills whatsoever).

To be fair, I do have one confirmed interview, and was offered a second that I won't be able to schedule. But that almost makes it worse – is it really worth the extremely expensive plane ticket all the way home for one lonely interview? What are the odds that I can actually get in to that one place? (I should note that there are still a few schools I'm waiting to hear back from, but given the trend toward rejection thus far, I'm not optimistic about my chances with them).

In retrospect, I made the same mistake in applying to graduate schools that I did in applying to undergraduate schools, which was applying to way too many competitive schools and not enough less competitive ones. But it's too late now.

Anyway, it's not all bad. As I said, I'm generally quite happy here; even though teaching can be extremely frustrating, at least I feel like I'm making an effort to do something worthwhile (whether or not it succeeds). And while there are plenty of dull moments, there's also an unpredictability about living here that I love. A walk into town may take me past a woman carrying a chimpanzee, or a pet monkey tied to a tree, or a dead monkey hanging off of a motorbike. Or a storeowner might randomly give me a fresh Liberian honeycomb, or a kid bring lemongrass tea to the door. So, despite the beating my self-esteem is taking, there are certainly things to keep me from dwelling on the negative (most of the time).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Being White in Africa, Part I

So despite the title of this blog, I haven't touched much on, well, being a white person in Africa.

It's kind of a bizarre dynamic. I feel much less exotic here than I did in my village in Kenya, and I'm sure this is mostly due to the fact that there are just a lot more white people around (and non-black people in general – a significant number of Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Filipino soldiers, among others, are all stationed in the region). But that doesn't mean that I and my fellow white folk aren't the objects of constant scrutiny – we are, even if the attention is somewhat diluted. At least 10 times a day, someone I don't know calls me “white woman.” Usually it's a kid, but occasionally (and to my much greater irritation), it will be an adult. And frequently this salutation is followed by the statement “Give me __________!!” (money, your umbrella, your bag, five dollars, your hair – that one is odd – bread, bananas, or just the all-encompassing “something”).

As someone who generally prefers to blend into the background, even in the US, this can get very tiresome very quickly, especially because some people are quick to take offense if the response is not friendly enough. I've several times had people I've never met before – or people I've met once or twice but don't know particularly well – come up to me very angrily and tell me off for not approaching them or saying hello or something of the sort. And even if I feel that it's unfair, to a certain extent, I can understand where they are coming from. The colonial era in Africa was really not all that long ago, and the effects can still be felt strongly both here and in Kenya (though especially in Kenya, the epitome of a British African colony). The attitudes of some of the foreigners stationed here are appalling – it's all too common to encounter extremely overt racism.

So I do feel like I have to make a special effort to be friendly – it's understandably very easy for my aloofness to be interpreted as an attitude of superiority. This is especially true because people in general are much more open and outgoing here than in the US – it's a very social place. Just look at the differences in public transportation (side note: I'm stealing this specific example from Ishmael Beah's book A Long Way Home, about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, which is an interesting read). I don't travel much here, but I did quite a bit in Kenya, and it was rare to have a quiet ride, no matter how far I was traveling. Compare this to your average bus or subway ride in the US, which is generally characterized by an oppressive and even hostile silence; strangers simply don't talk to each other as much at home. So what would be normal behavior in the US will be seen as strange and stand-offish here.

Making an effort to be friendly is not easy for me. I am not an outgoing person. In the US, I prefer self-checkout lines and automated tellers in order to avoid superficial stranger interaction as much as possible. I'm uncomfortable here when people I don't know greet me for no reason. Even as I sit and type this, I had to pause for a minute because a man came up to me and sat down beside me. “I'm Gregory,” he said. “I wanted to come and get to know you. Here we like talking to people. How is everything?” My instinct was to say, “Can't you see that I am working? Leave me alone!!” (Don't worry, I suppressed that instinct).

But aside from my own asocial tendencies, it is frustrating on another level to be constantly approached by strangers, and that is because they are treating me specially because I am white. To a certain extent, this is because people are generally genuinely welcoming, and my skin color makes it very obvious that I am a visitor in this community. The other side of it is what I mentioned before -- “Hello, white woman!” is often an opening for “So what can you give me?” Other frequent questions immediately following “Hi, I'm _____!” are “Are you married?” (the idea being, “Marry me so I can get a green card”) and “Can you get me a visa to the US?” So I've come to be suspicious of anyone who approaches me; I can't help but believe that many people are only talking to me because they want something and perceive me as rich and powerful (which is laughable as an absolute, but in relative terms, not altogether untrue – at least for the majority of people who are approaching me in this manner).

Anyway, the whole reason that I wanted to write this entry now was because of an experience I had recently at the bank. But I've already passed the one-page mark, so that will have to wait. Let's call this Part I of Being White in Africa; stay tuned for Part II . . .

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


OK, let's talk about honesty again here for a minute.

To solve the problem of the low exam scores, I've been giving the students mounds of extra credit. This creates problems for me, in that I'm already drowning in papers to grade (so much so that I'm starting to get in trouble with the administration for not turning in final grades), but partially solves the problem of student motivation. And student motivation is so difficult to come by that I've opted to suck it up and do it this way, instead of simply curving the grades, despite the slowness (and sometimes apparent futility) of it.

But even this doesn't motivate the students all that well. Basically, to get the extra credit, all they have to do is turn in SOME paper with SOMETHING written on it that makes it look like they may have made some sort of minimal effort to actually do the work. And yet, some students are STILL finding ways to miserably fail. Some of them just aren't coming to school or turning in any kind of work whatsoever, and some are cheating in blatant and insulting ways (to be honest, the cheating is so rampant that I've stopped looking for it; I only address it if it's so obvious that it can't be ignored).

The worst was the one student who turned in a carbon copy of his friend's homework assignment, without even bothering to white out the name – he simply penned his own name over the top of his friend's (with the friend's name still clearly visible underneath). As if that wasn't obvious enough, he turned it in right on top of the paper that he had carbon copied, so that I came across the two identical papers right in a row as I was grading.

Obviously, I want all of my students to pass, but I'm not going to lie – failing that kid was a pleasure. I really hope he learned a lesson from the experience. I'm not optimistic that it taught him anything about the folly of cheating, but I do hope that at least he learned this: if you're going to cheat, at least do it in a way that isn't incredibly insulting to the teacher's intelligence.

But as frustrating as it is to be faced with evidence of the students' continued attempts to lie and cheat their way out of any kind of actual work, how can I really blame them for it? People keep reminding me that these kids are facing enormous difficulties; many of them have excellent reasons for their frequent absences. The average student here has to work about a thousand times harder than I ever had to work in school. Most of them – no exaggeration – are teen parents. Some are without their own parents. Many of them bring cookies or donuts or other small things to school to sell during the day, trying to make extra money for the family as they complete their studies. So how can I hound them about their schoolwork when I haven't the slightest appreciation for what they are going through?

On the other hand, just because they have to work much harder than I did doesn't mean that they can just not do the work. There are enormous obstacles facing these students, true – but the fact remains that if they don't make any effort in school, they are not going to be able to move forward in the world. It's my job to try to help them to learn as much as they can, and that requires that I push them to work hard and don't cut them slack when they cheat and cut corners.

Unfortunately, there is no good way to distinguish between those who have good excuses for not doing their work and those who do not. “I was sick that day!!” the students always tell me when I point out that their grade is low because they did not complete a homework assignment, or a classwork assignment, or a quiz. And it's possible that they were. As I said, many of them have no parent at home to write them an excuse. The chances of getting an excuse from a doctor are even slimmer – the hospital here is so ridiculously overcrowded that only people at death's door are likely to be able to see a doctor. And even if there were someone to write an excuse, the administration is so disorganized and the school is so overpopulated that there is no good way to keep track of the excused vs. unexcused absences (though in theory we are supposed to try).

Anyway. As I (finally) begin to compile the final grades, and listen to (endless) student complaints about them, I'm realizing a few things that I think will help me next marking period. One is that I need to give more homework assignments. Even if the students cheat and copy off of one another (which they will), and even if it takes me forever to grade and feels like a waste of time (which it will), it's better than nothing. I gave too few assignments this marking period, which meant that students who happened to miss the one or two days of class in which they had graded work were punished more harshly than was really fair. More assignments will give me a more accurate idea of who is consistently coming to class (even if the only thing they do is show up). I should also try doing more groupwork, especially in the smaller classes. I'm not sure how this will work in terms of the whole classroom management thing, which continues to be a disaster, but at least it will lighten some of the burden of grading.

Of course, as always, I have plenty of great ideas for how to do my job better, but they are all easier said than done. In the end I still end up feeling like I'm scrambling just to do the absolute minimum.

Friday, November 6, 2009


After several weeks of struggling not to be bored (what with canceled classes due to soccer matches and exams), I'm lately finding myself overwhelmed with work. Two weeks after the last marking period exam, I'm still trying to finish grading (marking 400 or so written exams by hand is a pretty significant task), and students now starting to seek me out in between classes to ask for help. So the days have become pretty packed.

But I like it. I especially like tutoring students outside of class; the enormously high student-to-teacher ratio is definitely the biggest factor holding back student progress. My accent combined with the literacy issues are also major factors, but one-on-one or small group tutoring helps to overcome all of these things. So, though unfortunately I can't tutor all of the students one-on-one, it's still very rewarding to help out those who come to me outside of class.

I've also started trying to tutor some of the neighbor's kids in math when I have time. This in part is a solution to the problem I was having before – how to deal with them when they ask for stuff. Having them work math problems in order to get small treats – usually a little bit of chocolate – seems to work pretty well, and, when I can find the patience to tutor hordes of wild boys that usually show up (most between the ages of about 6 and 14), it's rewarding for me as well.

The only problem is, when the kids find out I'm giving out chocolate for math, suddenly it seems like every child in a 3-mile radius shows up at my door. And it's impossible for me to monitor all of them. I have a rule, “no fighting on my porch,” but I don't have the energy to try to teach math and keep them all from whooping on each other. So what starts as a fun way to motivate the kids to study generally ends up as a brawling free-for-all in my front lawn, with 5 or 6 kids hanging off of me or my porch, while I try to shoo them away from the one kid at a time I'm trying to get to actually do the math and not just write random numbers so that I will give them sweets. Yesterday this turned into a 3-hour marathon of teaching (or trying to at least), by the end of which I was covered in pen (my white skin makes an excellent drawing surface), and the porch was covered in little ripped-up sheets of paper and various articles of clothing that had been removed and left behind.

Still, overall, I love spending time with the kids. Despite the fact that they don't have much in terms of toys, or even food, they are generally such happy kiddos and have so much fun that it's difficult not to be happy around them. Yesterday it started to pour, and a bunch of them took off all their clothes and started dancing around naked (this eventually degenerated into them kicking mud all over each other, which – I'm not going to lie – looked like a GREAT time). They also proudly demonstrated their armpit-farting, singing, and storytelling skills, all of which are very impressive.

But the more time I spend with the kids, either my students or the neighborhood children, the more I realize just how messed up the educational system here is. Part of why I like tutoring the neighbor's kids is that they learn extremely fast – even if I only have 5 or 10 minutes once or twice a week to devote to each kid, they still are making visible progress. What's sad about that is that they can progress so fast because they are clearly getting almost no individualized attention whatsoever in the schools. And, for the most part, the parents do not have the education or the time to help out at home, so the kids aren't getting any support there either. So even a tiny bit of personal help is a lot more than what they get most of the time.

The result of this mess is barely literate high-schoolers. Grading the 8th-grade science exams in particular was distressing; some of them were not even able to copy down the questions they were supposed to answer, much less actually try to answer them. I don't feel as though it is my job to teach or grade English, but sometimes the answers that were written were so garbled that I couldn't even begin to decipher what they were trying to say. For example, one student wrote, “you can test the hyothesis from jear the meart and faster.” At least I could read that answer; others' writing is completely illegible, or appears to be a random mix of letters that do not make anything resembling actual words.

I have to think, as I grade these, that it's no wonder there are behavior issues in this class (in which I should note there are officially 99 students, about 70 or 80 of whom usually come to class). Many of the students are totally lost, coming to school only because they are supposed to come to school. After years of failing, with nobody to turn to for help, they have given up on actually trying to learn. I'm more and more coming to understand that the noise, the mocking, the rudeness, and the rowdiness are all the results of a feeling of hopelessness, a byproduct of going through the motions without any expectation that going to school will realistically allow them to improve their life situation.

Honestly, I just don't know what to do to motivate the students. Last week, I tried to have this same class do a simple activity in which they measured the two sides of a square and then calculated the area, but many of them flat-out wouldn't do it. I walked around the class trying to get them to do something besides sit there and talk to each other, or complain that they didn't understand what I wanted them to do, but it didn't work. Then this week I spent the majority of Tuesday's class trying to get them to be quiet so I could talk to them – alternately speaking in a normal voice, trying to quietly express my disappointment to them, trying to yell over them, trying to yell at them, and simply waiting at the front of the class until they settled down (they never did). Finally I gave up and left the class (I'm ashamed of how short my patience can be – I'm trying to work on that). I told the principal about the situation and he ended up lecturing and then punishing the entire class, making them clean the school campus for two days. Today, after the punishment, they were quiet but sullen and defeated – which I'm not convinced is an improvement over noisy and disruptive. So that was not a great solution. But then, I'm not convinced there is a great solution – or even a mediocre one. Maybe a lousy solution is the best I can do for now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

School, Halloween, Volunteerism, and So On

A lot happened this past week. School is back in full swing, and I was generally happy to be busy – filling the time in between classes and lesson planning with grading. Saturday, I spent the day with two other Peace Corps volunteers, my housemate's co-worker and her family, and a British woman working with the organization Save The Children. We ate, carved a jack-o-lantern, and generally had one of the best Halloweens I think I've ever had. It was definitely one of the most unique – never before have I spent the holiday watching African music videos, cooking papaya pastries, or eating fish head/peanut soup. But those were some of the things we did.

So, generally, things are good.

I have been having one major frustration, and that is the recurring feeling that I'm not doing a particularly good job in my work. Students have made it clear that they don't really like me as a teacher – they can't understand my American accent and complain about it to fellow students, teachers, and anyone else who will listen. It's a difficult situation, because obviously I can't do all that much to change the way I speak, besides talk slower. And it brings up some of my most basic insecurities about being here. Not only am I trying to operate in a foreign culture, teaching students with a funny accent that they can't understand, but I have no formal teacher training. So how can I possibly expect to do an even halfway decent job teaching here?

The answer is, maybe I can't. But what I can do is try to learn from my mistakes and adapt, and try to be more patient and positive with the students than I have been.

I keep reminding myself as well that a large part of my reason for being here has nothing to do with the teaching. Selfish as it sounds, I wanted to come here to learn as much as I can to carry forth into my future career, and in that area, I think I am succeeding – I definitely feel as though I am learning a lot. And hopefully the knowledge that I am gaining will help me to help others in the future. So as long as I don't actually make the students stupider, I guess, overall, things come out ahead.

I think that this issue is one of the most significant that many volunteers face – feeling as though they are not actually doing anything. On the surface, volunteering seems so simple: my time + effort = benefit to others. But the reality is, if I am lacking in knowledge and cultural understanding, then my time and effort isn't really worth all that much. Furthermore, there is only so much that you can do to help others when the others don't have the ability or desire to help themselves. This is true in the US, in Kenya, in Liberia – anywhere, really.

Anyway. I guess I just need to try to do the best job that I can do while forgiving my own frequent (sometimes it feels like constant) failures. The extent to which I can actually do these things varies from day to day, as you can probably tell. But, like I said, things are generally good.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I'm often pretty embarrassed to read back through some of the things I've written in this blog.

I tend to sit down and write entries when I'm trying to sort out my thoughts on different topics, but I'm not sure that what comes out in the end really reflects what is going on in my head, which itself may not be an accurate reflection of the reality here. Sometimes it seems like I'm trying to make it look like I know or understand more than I do, when of course the things I write are just my impressions at the time of what's going on around me. And those impressions can change very quickly with different specific experiences.

I can't help but feel that I end up sounding hopelessly naïve and trite, or else overly self-important and arrogant.

Maybe part of my feeling that way has been because I've been reading Obama's book Dreams from My Father, and he is such a beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful writer, that sometimes I feel ashamed to look back at my own pathetic writing attempts. This is, of course, a ridiculous comparison to be making, but I guess like reading his book gives me something to aspire to in terms of writing, and I feel badly when I don't live up to my own expectations.

I also feel like I tend to come across as somewhat negative, when generally, my experience here has been an extremely positive one.

Anyway. I guess it should be obvious, but just keep that in mind when you are reading through these entries.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


As you may have guessed from my last entry, I've spent quite a bit of time lately reading instead of doing what I should be doing, which is grading the giant piles of exams sitting on my desk. And now, to break the tedium of reading dry, statistics-heavy books, which I am doing to break the tedium of grading, I'm now going to write a tedious blog entry to try to organize some of the ideas floating around in my head as a result of reading (thusly passing my boredom along to you).

Aside from the idea that “development” is way too complicated to organize in the all-encompassing way that many aid agencies try to do, there's another aspect of Easterly's book (The White Man's Burden) that has been particularly interesting to me (especially because I've been avoiding doing my own work lately). That is the idea of accountability.

Easterly spends a lot of time talking about how aid agencies are inefficient because they are not held accountable for their actions. Time and time again, international organizations put together big, impressive goals for the reduction or even eradication of poverty and the improvement of basic conditions in developing countries, and then miserably fail to make any headway whatsoever toward the achievement of those goals. And what happens? Nothing. It makes zero difference one way or the other whether or not these goals are met (except that millions of people continue to suffer, which isn't so great).

Easterly goes on to say that setting goals that are unrealistically high, or setting goals that may be achievable but without a concrete plan for how to achieve them, may not be a recipe for disaster, but it is certainly one for wastefulness and inefficiency. I guess in my mind I feel like this problem persists in the aid community in part because there is an of assumption that giving aid to poor countries is Good Work, being done by Good People who are just trying to Help Others. Thus, even if they fail at doing what they are supposed to do over and over again, it is justified because it is a worthwhile endeavor.

As you can maybe tell, I like Easterly's ideas and I especially like his main point: that the best solution (actually, not so much a solution, but rather an adjustment in approach to an unsolvable problem) is to stop setting big, overarching, idealistic goals, and to start setting small, realistic, and measurable ones. Saying “we are going to reduce the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 30% by 2015” is a pretty difficult goal, given the number of different factors that conspire to keep people living under these conditions. Better to focus on specific sectors – education, health, and so on – and set specific, smaller-scale goals in each of these areas. The end goal is the same – reducing poverty – but the second approach provides a framework under which to actually move toward its achievement.

Easterly is mostly talking about the big international associations when he describes the aid issue – the UN organizations and USAID and such. But I think that the accountability thing applies at all levels of development work. My own laxity in grading is an example – there are no real consequences if I don't finish grading the exams in a timely manner, and in my own head, I guess I don't feel as guilty as I should about putting it off because . . . well, my being here is better than nothing, after all, isn't it? So even if the work I'm doing isn't terrible, I'm not as motivated to do my very best work as I should be.

OK, well, speaking of that, I guess I should get back to doing some of that work that I'm avoiding. One more thing I want to point out, though, is that this is why it is necessary to be extremely careful when donating money to any kind of aid organization. You might assume that large, well-established organizations are large and well-established because they have developed effective means of achieving their goals, and that this implies that the money you donate will be used effectively. But this is not the case, in part for the reasons I mentioned here. A stunningly large proportion of money donated in good faith – even or especially to big, established organizations – is wasted. I'll have to write some more specific examples of the way I see that happening here. But for now – grading, yay!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Well, exams were this week, and as I predicted, they were pretty much a giant cheat-fest. The sad thing is, the average grade appears to be failing. I haven't actually graded everything, but a glance through the papers tells me the average will be well below 50% in all of the classes I am teaching. Cheating isn't good, and failing isn't good, but at least it would be nice if it were one or the other. Cheating and STILL failing is just depressing.

However, proctoring exams all week, I did realize several things that I think will help me. You know all that stuff I said about ethics before? I think that I was approaching things in the wrong way. I think that, in part, the communal approach that is prevalent in every aspect of the society here is what is motivating the cheating. Talking during an exam, looking off of each other's tests – they just don't see these as “cheating.” It's more that the students want to work together and help each other out on everything, including exams.

From the perspective of a lonely individualistic American, the whole “communal culture” thing is kind of a puzzle. On the one hand, people are generally very generous, open, and welcoming. As I mentioned before, the second I give one of the kids something, no matter how small, they turn around and share it with their friends and siblings. And no matter how poor, people always have a little bit of money to give to the church offering on Sundays (which raises a whole different issue, which I'll write about “later” -- my favorite time to write – namely, how I perceive the good and the ill that the spread of Christianity in Africa has wrought). So in that sense, it is very positive.

On the other hand, it seems to me that this mentality translates to a failure to take personal responsibility in many cases. It's great that people are so supportive of each other, but on the other hand, if everyone is relying on someone else to help them do math, nobody is going to end up learning math. I've talked about another downside of this mentality before in the context of the business community: businesses are difficult to run because family members expect to profit even if they are not involved in the actual running of the business.

Speaking of that issue, the whole “cheating” thing brings me back to something I brought up then – the extent to which certain processes that are key in development are universal or must be modified in the context of a culture. Does the educational process as we know it in the US really work in all situations, or might there be some way to adjust it to take advantage of the communal learning mentality? From my perspective, there's no way to get around the fact that individual responsibility is necessary in learning – what YOU put in is what YOU get out, in the end. But, while this may be true, maybe there would still be a way to organize classes differently here than in the US, so that they better fit a communal culture mentality.

I'm being very vague, and the reason for that is of course that I have no idea whether or not these thoughts actually have any merit. And even if I knew they did, I wouldn't have the slightest idea of how to go about “organizing classes to fit a communal culture mentality.”

I've been reading two books simultaneously for the past couple of days – The End of Poverty, by Jeffery Sachs, and The White Man's Burden, by William Easterly (don't worry, I'll be sure to bore you all with a thorough review once I've finished reading them). To vastly oversimplify and summarize: Sachs argues that the Western world is not fulfilling its responsibilities to developing countries, and that if we would just all get together and donate a big chunk of cash, the countries would have enough of an economic stimulus to get out of the “poverty trap” they are in and “gain a foothold on the development ladder.” Easterly believes that “development” is such a complicated process, with so many unknowable variables, that there is no way that Westerners will ever successfully be able to “promote development” in other countries in a big way. The two are not arguing completely mutually exclusive points (which I'll be sure to get back to when I write my oh-so-fascinating review), but I have to say that Easterly's viewpoint resonates more with me. I can't help but feel, being here, that I and my fellow outsiders will never fully understand what's going on around us well enough to brainstorm workable solutions to some of the problems that we observe. The cheating issue is just one specific example of this.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Today was a “Fuck Everything” kind of a day.

Fuck the dozen-plus people who called me “white woman” today, especially the ones who know my name.

Fuck every person who demanded that I give them something.

Fuck the students for not giving a shit.

Fuck the half-dozen unrelated people who, at various points throughout the day, made fun of the way I talk.

Fuck my skin for getting sunburnt despite sometimes twice-daily sunscreen applications.

Fuck Jeffery Sachs for writing an interesting book (The End Of Poverty) in such a boring way that it's all but unreadable, and also for being an arrogant prick.

Fuck Robin Cook for writing the incredibly shitty medical thriller Terminal, which I read to take a break from Sachs.

Fuck weird meat.

Fuck all the children who mocked the way I run today.

Fuck my pot belly.

Fuck the rude, aggressive men who get angry and pushy with me because they think I'm not friendly enough.

Fuck the smell of burning trash that permeated the school all afternoon.

Fuck the dust.

Fuck the generator for being noisy and smelly and expensive to run.

Fuck the heat.

And fuck me for letting all these insignificant little things get under my skin.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


This week was relatively uneventful. School began as usual on Monday and kind of petered out, so that by the end of the week, only a handful of students were showing up. This is because the latter part of the week was designated as “review for exams,” which most of the teachers and students interpreted as “don't bother to show up to review for exams.”

Since I don't have much to say about school this week, I'm going to write about something I've been meaning to touch on for awhile: the language here.

. . . Ack. I have to pause for a minute. One of the mothers next door is shrieking and beating one of her kids and he is yelling and crying, and it's very distracting.

OK, they stopped. God, it's so unpleasant to hear that. I know that I wrote a little bit about the domestic violence situation here, but it's something I'm going to have to revisit at some point. Not today, though.

Anyway, the language.

The language situation here is really interesting. As in Kenya, there are many different local dialects (the region I am in is dominated by the Krahn – or maybe Khran? -- people, who have their own language), but this place differs from Kenya in that the majority of people usually speak English. However, it's a version of English that's so different from American English that I often can't even tell whether people are speaking English or the local dialect. In Kenya, that was not true – while many people spoke only dialect or dialect and some Swahili, those that did speak English generally spoke a very British English with an accent that was not too difficult to understand.

Here, the difficulty in comprehension is not just a matter of an accent, although many people have a very heavy accent (by my Northeastern American standards, obviously; “accent” is a completely relative term). There are significant differences in word choice and order that make it hard to understand as well. For example, people sometimes greet you by saying “How de body?” or simply “Fine?” And they often leave out connecting verbs or articles, use only present-tense verbs, and replace “I” with “me” or “he” with “him,” as when the kids proudly state “Me do maths today!” or demand “Give me football!” Then there are some things that are called by completely different, though still obviously English-origin, names. Asking for “avocado” in the market is useless; we've learned to ask for “butter pear,” or, to be more accurate, “buttah pay-ah.” “Papaya” is the British “pawpaw,” and mangoes are “golden plums.” “Colored pencils” or “crayons” are simply “colorings.”

In light of this, when I first came here, I felt even more lost in terms of language than I did in Kenya. Having a conversation with someone who is speaking the same language as you and being totally unable to mutually comprehend each other is a really bizarre experience. I felt as though I was living in a foreign language country, piecing together meaning from context and individual words picked out from the conversation. At the end of the day I even felt that kind of mental exhaustion that comes from sustained linguistic efforts, the same exhaustion I felt when I studied abroad as an undergrad in France.

On the other hand, overall, I understand a lot more than I did in Kenya. While the Swahili training we had there was interesting and allowed me to sometimes get the gist of what people were talking about as I eavesdropped on conversations, it was also totally useless at the village level, where people spoke almost exclusively Kipsigis (the dialect of the sub-tribe in my region, part of the larger, Nilotic-origin Kalenjin languages). So while I had no problems with language at my school, where everyone spoke English (to an extent – which brings me to an issue that I'll have to come back to another time, which is how requiring bi- or tri-lingualism from every student potentially interferes with the learning process), as soon as I left the school grounds my understanding of what was going on around me essentially dropped to zero.

It still surprises me to hear people speaking English in the community and to realize that they are not doing it for my benefit. It's also kind of funny to hear and understand people talking about but not to me as I go by, as when children excitedly shout to their friends “White woman passing!! White woman JOGGING!!!!” Furthermore, it's still surprising to me when I hear coarser language; I almost never heard people using English curse words in Kenya, and if they used local or Swahili ones, I didn't understand them. But here, a day doesn't go by when I don't hear someone throw out a “fuck” or a “shit,” often directed angrily at another person.

The extent to which even young kids use this kind of language still shocks me a little bit, though I suppose it shouldn't, knowing that child supervision is frequently relegated to other, often only slightly older, children. As an example: yesterday, I and a fellow volunteer were hanging out with the kids outside, and they started playing a totally safe and enjoyable game in which they attempted to poke each other in the butt with sticks (we're not talking about a gentle prodding, either; we're talking a full-out crack-directed stabbing). One child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, turned around at one point and yelled “Don't touch my asshole!” A few minutes earlier, an older child (around 12) had been playing with his younger brother (around 1 or 2) in a way that disturbed me. “What are you doing?!?” I asked him. He looked up with a big grin and said “Me suck his titty!” This, in fact, was an accurate description of what he had been doing.

Anyway, there is more that I want to write about language, particularly about the ways in which I and other volunteers modify our own speech patterns to be understood, and the mixed feelings I have about doing this. And I'll have to write more about the kids' rough play at some point as well. But, once again, I've written far too much for one entry, and will have to leave the rest for another day.