Sunday, August 30, 2009


Well, I and my roommate finally made it to our home for the next 10 months, after a long adventure yesterday. The driver who originally agreed to drive us never showed up at the training site, and the taxi we chartered popped a tire on the road. We finally hitched a ride with a UN vehicle, and after a very long, very bumpy, somewhat muddy ride, made it to town.

Today, we unloaded our things at our house – and what a house it is! 3 bedrooms and a kitchen, and a dining/living room, and a bathroom with a toilet! There is no running water (the toilet must be flushed with a bucket), and for the moment no electricity, but the previous volunteer left all of her furniture so the house is completely furnished. There is even a gas burner for cooking, and pots and pans and dishes. And the house was wired for electricity, so all we need to do is buy a generator. Luxury!

For the most part, I am still incredibly happy to be here and excited to get to work. I am also glad to have the amenities of a big town and a big house. We can buy pretty much everything we need and many things we want in town (except maybe coffee -- and the fruit and vegetable selection is mostly limited to oranges, bananas, cassava greens, and potato greens). There have been some moments of frustration – like when all of the people on the compound gathered to watch and laugh as I and my roommate attempted to haul heavy buckets of water from the pump to our house. But, in general, I am happy with my living situation. I'll find out about the work situation very soon – school starts next week, but teacher and student workshops will be taking place starting tomorrow, so I really just jump right into things.

I feel as though my brain is too full of new information right now to write cohesively, so I'm just going to list a few of the things that I've noticed or that have crossed my mind with the end of training and my first day at site:

- They treat dogs well here. The Peace Corps volunteer who has been living in this town for the past 5 months told us that she thinks this is because they are often used for hunting in this region. In any case, it is nice to see, as I think that is rare in developing countries.

- White people are unusual here, but not that unusual. There have been a lot of international aid organizations around over the past few years. So, while we are certainly noticable, we are not the center of as much attention and harassment as we were in the rural parts of Kenya (though this comparison is not completely fair, as I am in a much more urban area now than I was in Kenya).

- Meat is kind of scary here, mostly because it is stringy and full of bones and often unidentifiable. Last night we went to eat at a restaurant when it was already dark out, and were given a big bowl of mystery meat with rice. And today when we went out to eat, we were given what we were told would be “cow meat,” which ended up being fish. I wouldn't mind so much the not knowing what I am eating, except that people eat monkey. We saw a man today walking one on a string past the restaurant where we were eating. Apparently they also eat many other types of “bush meat” -- deer, porcupine, rat, ground squirrel, etc. I think for the most part I'll try to avoid meat, less for the mystery factor and more just because it is hard to eat and not very tasty here.

- The principal of my school seems like a really awesome person. When the driver who was supposed to take us to site flaked out on us, he organized the taxi to take us. And then when the taxi got a flat tire, he sent us on with the UN vehicle. And when I went to visit the school today, so I would know where to go tomorrow, he was there, on a Sunday afternoon, preparing materials for the teacher trainings tomorrow. All in all, he seems like a really giving and committed man, and I am looking forward to working with him.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

First Impressions

So. Here I am in Liberia. It's been kind of a crazy few days – intense, but in a really good way. We already have our site assignments, and will be heading to our individual sites on Saturday, which is fantastic and kind of insane at the same time (one single week of training this time around, compared to 3 months the first time). I'll be in a (relatively) more urban environment this time, which is exactly what I wanted – something to contrast with my very rural and isolated living situation in Kenya. And there will be several other volunteers serving either in the same town as me or in a town just a few hours away, which is great, as my 10 fellow volunteers are awesome people with a lot of diverse skills and backgrounds.

My first impression of Liberia was that it felt very familiar. A lot of the scenes that were common in East Africa are common here as well: the small roadside shops, many lit by lamplight at night; the street vendors peddling corn roasted over a charcoal stove; the chaotic markets packed with people wearing a crazy mix of Western and African-style clothing; the children with smaller children tied to their backs in colorful lapas. Even many of the smells were the same – the scent of burning wood fires in the country or the much less appealing stink of sewage in the city.

But, although we have been relatively isolated in our little Peace Corps training bubble, it is quickly becoming apparent that there are going to be some really fundamental differences between the culture and society in Kenya vs. here. Many of these differences stem from the fact that Liberia is only a few years out of a 14-year civil war. I'm sure that I'll write in much more detail once I, say, actually start doing work, as most of my impressions are based on what our Liberian trainers and former volunteers have told us, but here are a few of these first impressions:

- Tribalism and religious prejudices do not appear to play a major role in the culture, even though there are many different ethnic groups and active religions in the country. If anything, the war seems to have had a unifying effect in this sense. This is especially interesting to me because of the divisiveness of ethnicity and religion in Kenya, which fueled the fire lit by the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections and eventually led to the temporary destabilization of that country (which resulted in the evacuation of the Peace Corps program).

- Traditional religious beliefs and superstitions are widespread in Liberia, in contrast to the heavily Christian influence in many areas of Kenya (I can't speak about the Muslim areas of the country, because all of my experiences were in Christian regions). Years and years of missionary work in Kenya has had a profound influence on the society in this sense.

- Resources are extremely limited. Kenya had many, many profoundly poor people, but the level of need here is well beyond that. Kenya had functioning schools – many of them underfunded, underattended, and understaffed, but still operational at a basic level. This country is suffering from a major case of brain drain. Students are trying to return to schools after years of absence, but facilities are extremely basic and overcrowded (the school we visited today had 1500 students enrolled last year with 10 teachers), and there is almost a complete lack of trained teachers. I was struck also by the scarcity of animals along the road and in the village here. In Kenya, cows, goats, donkeys, sheep, or chickens could be seen everywhere. Here, they are present, but in much fewer numbers.

That's all for now. I and my fellow volunteers have been bombarded with a lot of information over the past few days, and it is going to take a lot of time and thought to assimilate it. For now -- sleep.

Friday, August 21, 2009


I leave in about 24 hours. I am actually doing laundry as I type (ahh, sweet, sweet machines . . . how I will miss you), which makes me feel slightly better about ignoring all of the other last-minute things I need to do in favor of writing in this thing.

At this point, I'm mostly just excited to have the opportunity to do Peace Corps again. Still, at the same time, re-entering brings up all of those little self-doubts in the back of my mind from the first time around.

I think that one reason (not a big reason, but a reason nonetheless) that Peace Corps appealed to me after college was that I was tired of the competitiveness of academics.

My last summer in college, I remember signing up to speak about the honors program at my university to prospective students. I and the other undergraduates who had signed up to do this were supposed to talk about our experiences in an auditorium full of high-schoolers and their parents; it was basically an opportunity to brag about our academic achievements in front of a bunch of strangers. I won't lie, I was just as excited as the other students (if not more) to stand up and wave my academic dick around for all to see. But afterwards, I remember thinking, "Wow, that was pretty stupid."

I thought that Peace Corps would be free of this kind of shallow, mindless competitiveness. But, as it turned out, it was still there -- just in a different form. The urge to proudly complain about the hardships of one's site, and how said hardships were harder than other volunteers', was too much to resist for most, myself included.

(Though I must note that, in all fairness, that we as a group did undergo a pretty drastic lifestyle change in moving to Kenya, and it's only natural that we would want to commiserate with fellow volunteers about the difficulties of adapting to these changes. Also, I was fortunate enough to be pretty healthy throughout my time in Kenya, so I don't want to belittle those who were not. Still, there was definitely an undertone of competition in many of these discussions).

In addition, a deeper kind of insecurity manifested itself -- perhaps not for other volunteers, but certainly for myself. Despite my efforts to prevent pointless comparisons, I couldn't help but hold my own work up to that of my fellow PCVs. How were they able to become so integrated into their communities and schools, when I still felt like the resident mascot in mine? What aspect of my personality made me fail to form close friendships with my co-workers and community members? Why wasn't I as organized and innovative as other PCVs, or as fearless in pursuing projects?

This time around, I am going with a bunch of people who have already spent at least two full years in Peace Corps. Because I was evacuated from Kenya only a year into my own service, I will therefore have half or less than half of the experience as compared to these other volunteers.

I know that it is kind of silly to worry about these kinds of things, and I am getting better at not entertaining these kinds of thoughts. Each volunteer's experience is so unique that any kind of useful comparison is really impossible. In addition, I think that I am helped out this time around by the fact that I now have a much better idea of what I want to do with my life. Because I know that I want to make international health work my career, I can look at this experience as another step to building my understanding of international health and development work. It is much more something that is moving me toward my goals this time around, and not just something to do.

One final thought: In the laboratory I worked in during this past year, there was definitely a competitive atmosphere, often in an unpleasant way. Perhaps it was because of the particular mix of personalities in the lab, or perhaps I felt it especially because this was a new brand of science for me, and one in which I had extremely limited previous experience, or perhaps there was something else at work. In any case, it was hard not to let the little things get one down -- somehow, it was too easy to feel that one's ability to pipette directly reflected one's worth as a human being. But, in the end, it was really just another form of the same senseless competition; a person's manual dexterity no more reflects her or his ability as a scientist than the number of times one has the shits reflects one's effectiveness as a development worker.

I think that is partly why I like having a range of experiences -- I may not be the best at any of the things that I do, but doing them helps me to see things in context and to try to get past the little ego traps.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Liberia Is A Go!

After many, many minutes spent on hold at the Emory Clinic (. . . did you know that you may qualify for a reduced-fee full-body scan??!?!!), and many anxious phone calls, faxes, and emails to various doctors, and much complaining to many different people -- medical clearance has been achieved! Hooray! I leave on Saturday.

Oh, SHIT. I leave on SATURDAY. That is really fucking soon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Well, it's 10 days until the departure date, and I still haven't been medically cleared by Peace Corps. I received a call from the medical office today saying they need a letter from a specialist I saw in Atlanta before they can clear me. Unfortunately, said specialist is 1. in Atlanta and 2. not in the office until Monday. So, the soonest I could possibly be officially cleared to go is 5 days before I am actually supposed to go -- and that is if everything goes exactly right and the doctor faxes the letter over as soon as she gets back. And, being 800 miles away or so, the best I can do to expedite the process is continue to be an annoyance through the phone.

Also, in case something goes wrong with the doctor I saw, I tried to schedule an appointment with a specialist in central PA, and it turns out there aren't any in my town, or anywhere within 45 minutes or so. I guess that if things don't work out, I'll just have to try to set things up with a specialist in a nearby city. However, I don't want to deal with that unless I absolutely have to, so I'm just crossing my fingers for now that I get this letter and that is the end of it.

In any case, the whole situation is extremely frustrating. I already quit my job, and at this point I don't have health insurance. I have a vague back-up plan if Peace Corps doesn't work out -- namely living and working in PA and taking classes on the side -- but I really, really don't want to have to resort to that, particularly because I'm not entirely sure what I could scrape up for the "working" part. Also, to be perfectly honest, the embarrassment of having told people that I am re-joining Peace Corps, and then having to say "oops, just kidding -- instead of volunteer work abroad I'm just going to live at home with my parents" would just kill me.

I don't know how I could have handled things differently -- I mean, I had to quit my job at some point, if I am to go. And I really needed the time at home to take care of med school stuff and all kinds of other little things. But, it is still upsetting to think that I may have given up a decent-paying job in a city I like, and health insurance, and all of that, just to move back home.

Oh, well. If I remember correctly from last time, the whole Peace Corps clearance process is just the tiniest taste of the frustrations that one actually faces as a volunteer. So I'll just consider this a little re-introduction to life in Peace Corps. "Welcome back, Red!"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aid in Africa

While reading today's local newspaper, I came across this article.

It's a feel-good piece about a local 21-year-old, Liza Kessling, who is planning on going to nursing or medical school, then moving to the Ivory Coast to be a full-time missionary doctor. And it makes me angry.

One reason it affects me this way is that it portrays Ivory Coast residents in an extremely one-dimensional light; they are simply recipients of aid, caricatures to be pitied, and little more. Even the one man mentioned by name, "Mr. Gonai," is hardly more than a tool to demonstrate Kessling's generosity and extroverted character.

Beyond that, this article extols the virtues of international development work without acknowledging any of its complexities and frustrations. Granted, the author is describing a mission trip, and not a program expressly designed for development work, but there is an element of public health promotion to the missionaries' activities that allows me to categorize it as "international development work." Anyway, in the two and a half months that Kessling spent in West Africa, she was able to gain an experience that few in US have had, and the fact that she was able to address some public health issues while she was in the Ivory Coast is admirable.

But she wasn't around to witness what happened after she left. People lose, or sell for profit, the drugs the missionaries distributed. Toothbrushes and anti-malarial medications are used up. Lessons on hygiene and healthy eating don't take root overnight, and these habits may not realistically be possible to maintain. It's the worst of the idealistic and superficial "Let's fix Africa!" approach. And, unfortunately, many people in the US view international aid work in these simplistic terms -- including, obviously, the authors of this article, and probably the majority of the readers who will view it.

I'm not saying that Peace Corps is a whole lot better in this respect, and I certainly don't want to imply that my own experiences in Peace Corps somehow more "valuable" or allowed me to make more of a "difference" than Kessler's experiences in West Africa. Two years might be enough time to get past the initial "look at me, I'm saving the world" excitement phase and to enter into the frustrated/jaded one, but in the grand scheme of things, it's very difficult to have a real impact in that amount of time. But, at the very least, Peace Corps attempts to foster sustainable development work, even if the program itself and all the bureaucracy and politics that go along with it sometimes get in the way of the organization's own goals.

Of course, you can't measure "good." And there's really no reason for me to be upset when I see a fluffy article like this one. Still, I can't help but feel that portrayals of international development work such as this one are detrimental -- they promote unrealistic expectations for potential development workers and don't give credit to those who have really made an effort to acknowledge and overcome the real hurdles inherent in this type of work. Furthermore, on some level, they are patronizing and insulting -- as though all people in developing countries are so backward and stupid that their problems can be fixed with a simple lesson from a missionary and a few drugs.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thoughts on Leaving

I received a call from Peace Corps Medical yesterday. I am apparently very close to being finally medically cleared -- they are just waiting on one last set of medical records to be faxed over from Emory.

I have a lot of conflicting emotions about going right now. There is the anticipation of being able to apply the skills I learned in Peace Corps Kenya in a new setting, sadness at leaving my friends and family behind, excitement about the opportunity to do something completely different, concern and fear about safety issues (I had an awful dream in which I was in Liberia and someone was trying to break into my house -- it came after reading the section on safety issues in the Peace Corps Liberia resource handbook), relief to be leaving central Pennsylvania again (no offense, central PA), good but also nervous feelings about being in a stressful though rewarding volunteer environment, worries about being able to successfully complete the MD/PhD application process while I am there . . . and the list goes on.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sexual Assault in Africa

I stumbled across this article from Fox News on Google Reader today. It is disturbing -- four boys between the ages of 9 and 14 are accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. All of the children are Liberian refugees living in Arizona.

There are so many aspects of this that are distressing that it is hard to know even where to begin. One thing that particularly struck me, though, is a paragraph near the end of the article:
"In some parts of Africa, women often are blamed for being raped for enticing men or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Girls who are raped often are shunned by their families."
This was an issue that was particularly apparent in Kenya as well. While victim-blaming is of course a problem in sexual assault cases in the US, it is far more pronounced in Kenya. To a certain extent, I think that there is a misguided attempt at control at its base. Women are told not to dress provocatively because that is one of the few ways in which they believe they can actively prevent sexual assault. However, the downside of this is that other aspects of sexual assault are never discussed, and this fosters a victim-blaming mentality. If the only thing you know about rape is that you must dress conservatively to prevent it, then when it happens -- no matter what the reason -- the logical reaction is to assign blame to the victim for not taking the necessary precautions.

In general, with regards to something as terrifying as sexual assault, people want to believe that there is a reason that it occurs, and thus something they can do to prevent it happening to them, but this type of thinking can easily backfire. This article makes me think that the same kind of misdirected thinking may be prevalent in Liberia as well.