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.