Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Portrait Of A Morning

The commencement ceremony for the high school is this Saturday, and so there are no classes today. Instead, students are being put to work beautifying the campus. Knowing this, I allow myself to sleep in this morning; I set the alarm for 6:45 instead of 5:45. I wake up at 6 anyway. Rain drips off of the roof, and for a minute I think the noise is the mouse that wanders my room in the middle of the night. I put in my headphones to block out the early-morning sounds, the rain and the roosters and the women calling their children, and listen to music for almost an hour before getting out of bed. My roommate is at the door, waiting to run with the local running team. I'm self-conscious about my slowness and choose to run on my own.

I jog toward town, turning just after the paved road begins to go past the Indian and Chinese UN solider compounds. I should have left earlier, just after sunup; students of all ages in their uniforms are already on their way to school and many shout or laugh as I run by. Outside the Chinese compound, a group of Chinese engineers works to fix a truck. 7:15 AM and already bored with the day, people sit in the gazebo across the street and watch. Women and children walk past me with buckets and jerrycans and wait at the one pump on the block to collect their water for the morning.

I run on the high broken sidewalks, past UN housing, fenced and surrounded by barbed wire. A happy-looking puppy on a broken leash wanders past. An older dog runs up to a man, tail wagging; the man kicks it away. There is a broken and burned-down building to my right with a fancy new satellite in the space where a roof should be. I have been told that someone shows movies and soccer matches on a TV inside.

Despite the shortness of the run, I turn to head back to the house. The streets are becoming more crowded and I am self-conscious in my shorts. A UN pickup truck passes and the twenty men in the back turn to stare and smile, exacerbating my discomfort and leading me to run faster despite legs sore from the previous day's walking. I arrive home just in time to catch the woman who sells rice bread in the neighborhood. She is calling just as I come up the path -- “RAAAAAAAI BREEEHH!! RAAAAAI BREEEH HEEAHH!” “Rice bread here,” in the clear plastic bucket that she carries on her head. I buy two pieces, warm and fresh-made, brown and oily to the touch and tasting slightly of banana.

I turn on the gas stove and heat water for Nescafe, instant coffee with sugar and powdered milk. Standing in the kitchen, I watch the kettle as it boils; yesterday, the gas hose came loose from the stove and caught fire where it connects, and I want to be sure it does not happen again. I sit in my room, darkened with the curtains drawn for privacy, and drink the coffee as I prepare for the day.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I can't sleep.

I was almost there, but some insect started making the most unbelievably loud sound right outside my window. The whole “not having glass on the windows” thing is nice for ventilating the house, but it really sucks in terms of drowning out noise from outside. The fact that I was hot and sweaty and uncomfortable already as I was going to bed didn't help with the whole “sleep” thing. Neither did the issue that my whole bed seems to be mildewing or something in the warm air, and I'm trapped in the stink under my mosquito net (side note: Fuck humidity).

Anyway, since I'm very much awake anyway, I might as well put down some of the stuff that's been running through my mind as I try to force myself to sleep.

The kids in my morning 8th grade science class made me very happy at the end of last week. They started asking all sorts of questions – REAL questions, which demonstrated a (possibly) genuine (if fleeting) interest in science: “Do flies have blood?” “Does an ear have bone?” “Do all plants come from seeds?”

As excited as I was that they were asking these questions, the questions are difficult to discuss in class. How to break down the answer in a way that they can understand with the limited science background they have? How to encourage them to think about the answers themselves without simply telling them, but also without frustrating them to the point that they just give up? Combine these issues with the fact that I am not overly confident that I know the answer to some of the questions they ask, and it makes things very challenging.

The plant question in particular really got me. I don't know much at all about plant biology. I had the basics in my introductory biology classes, but that was several years ago, and I haven't had much opportunity to use the information since. I remembered enough to stammer something about mosses and ferns when they asked the question in class, but had to read up on it more in the school library (side note: Do mosses exist in Liberia? It seems like they must but I don't think I've seen any, and I realized that I really have no idea if there is moss everywhere in the world . . . ).

Anyway, what's cool about the student's questions is that they motivate me to go and read up on random things. Although the school is pretty much completely lacking in any other resources, it does have a nice library with quite a few high-school and college-level textbooks. From the question about fly blood, I ended up reading through a whole section on insects, including detailed information on honeybees (Did you know that a queen bee only mates once and then stores the semen inside her body for the rest of her 5-year lifespan? I didn't, though maybe I should have. But can you imagine waddling around, chock-full of semen, for FIVE YEARS??).

Spending time looking up random things also reinforces for me the fact that just about any subject can become interesting if you find a way to tie it back to people and the way it affects their lives (. . . or semen). Like I said, I was never really interested in plant biology before, but reading about it and then trying to find ways to make it interesting to the students makes it interesting to me. And realizing how much having a really solid understanding of plants could really matter to a lot of people, in terms of agricultural endeavors, makes it that much more immediate and thus provides that much greater motivation to learn about it.

That idea – the interconnectedness of subjects and the variety of ways in which isolated topics, like plant biology, are highly applicable when it comes to helping other people – is actually what I intended to write about when I pulled out my laptop, but my sleep-deprived mind seems to have produced a totally different, rambling essay instead, which is already much too long and boring. Oh well. I may not have cured my insomnia, but at least I provided a good remedy for yours.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Little Sick

I really thought that I was going to do it last night. I really thought that I was going to break the no-vomit streak.

The last time I threw up, I was 8 years old.

I have no clue why, but around 8:00 last night, I started feeling nauseous. I went to lay down, but the nausea built steadily until about 2 AM. At this point I gave up. “OK, stomach.” I said. “You win. The streak is over. Let's go do this thing.”

So I went to sit in the bathroom. And, I swear, my stomach couldn't remember how to do it. It was awkward, really. We had come to an agreement, or so I thought – I was going to let it vomit, and then the nausea would go away. But I sat there awkwardly, and I just thought . . . wait, how does this work again? Do I need to initiate this thing? What's happening?

I waited for about 30 minutes with the taste of my dinner right up in the back of my throat before I decided to go back to bed. No pukage. Just sustained, unpleasant nausea.

Today, I feel moderately crummy. Still nauseous. Low-grade fever. Achy and tired. And being sick here fucking blows. I'm sitting in bed, bored out of my mind – no daytime TV, no nothing to distract me. I need to go to town to buy more gasoline to power the generator to charge my phone and laptop, and I can't find the energy to do it. Even just typing this post is wiping me out.

To make things worse, for some reason, one of the churches nearby is having some kind of marathon service. Starting at about 10 PM last night, and continuing until 5 AM, and then starting again about an hour ago, some idiot with a loudspeaker has been yell-preaching, screaming until his voice is hoarse. There's been lots of extremely loud, off-key singing, and drums, and even a keyboardist who knows 3 chords. I swear to God, I came this close to storming out of the house, tracking him down, and spewing chunks all over his keyboard (“C F C G C? C F C G C?? C fucking F C G fucking C?!?!?? Learn a fucking A chord, asshole!! BLARRRRRRGH”).

Oh well, it could be a hell of a lot worse. As African illnesses go, this is pretty darn mild. But it was kind of weird how fast it came on. And it just goes to show how easy it is to get sick here – as I said before, things grow crazy fast in this heat and humidity. Bread molds in two days, and several times I've picked up some veggies I bought a few days before to find them crawling with bugs or worms. And everybody wants to greet you with a handshake – including the obviously ill. So there's plenty of opportunity still to end the no-vomit streak.

EDIT: Turns out the middle-of-the-night noise was a funeral. Guess I'm glad I didn't puke on the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Scientific Method

So happy right now!!

Just about an hour ago, in my 8th grade class, we – for what feels like the 9 millionth time in the past 2 weeks – were going through the scientific method.

Students have been frustrated because it's a totally different approach to science than what they're used to. Instead of having stuff to memorize, a concrete set of “science facts,” they're learning a general method, which I'm then trying to make them apply in different specific situations. This requires critical thinking – they have to understand the experiment, and be able to make inferences about why the researcher in question is doing things in a certain way. Even spending most of every class going through different specific examples, the students have had trouble understanding what we are doing at the most basic level. They can't find the answers anywhere in the notes I give them because the answers simply aren't there, and this drives them nuts.

But today!!

Today, we were going through some notes I gave them on Francesco Redi and the idea that life can come from non-life. I knew that the passage I gave them would be difficult, and it was. We started talking about what he did – the observations he made, the questions he was trying to answer. And all of a sudden, BAM!!

A student puts up his hand and asks, “We learn that life cannot come from non-living things, but if I take water and put it in a jar and seal it, it will become dirty. Why is that?”

!! Critical thinking!! Making observations and asking questions about the world!!

We went through it together as a class – students actually listening and seemingly interested in what I was saying, for once. We talked about the idea of there being micro-organisms, too small to see, in the water, that grow into visible muck they are talking about. And then a student put up his hand and asked, “If I boil the water, and then seal it, will it then become dirty?”

I almost cried. Really. I was that happy.

There it was – the scientific method. They were reasoning, asking questions and then thinking of ways to answer them, testing their theories. They could kill the organisms in the water by boiling, and then nothing could grow! Yes!

At the end of class, we went through the steps of the scientific method as they applied to Redi's experiment one more time. The students were totally lost, even though we had just gone over it (Me: “What scientific question was Redi trying to answer?” Students: “Observation!” “Hypothesis!”). But I don't care. On another, more important level, they are getting it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I should be at church.

A little girl came to the window about 20 minutes ago and asked if I was going to church today. “It's Sunday!” she admonished me.

I know that I should go. I should be making more of an effort to integrate, instead of sitting here in my house, playing with my laptop. But I really, really don't want to do it.

I don't like going to church in the US, and I know that the experience here will be especially awkward. Obviously, I stand out no matter what I do here, and I know that, but somehow I'm particularly dreading the idea of having people watch me at church. I'm uncomfortable enough in any kind of church without having that discomfort intensified by being an object of examination.

At the same time, I think that people would really appreciate the gesture. Trying to become more involved in the community isn't rocket science – just making an effort to do things the Liberian way (eating Liberian food, shopping in the market, going to church, and so on) is huge. Of course, having said that, I'm not doing a great job of it. As I mentioned, my housemate and I are paying people to wash our clothes and haul our water, and our landlord told us that people in the community are always commenting on how lazy we are. And while Liberian food isn't terrible, it also isn't great, and I prefer to cook for myself or with my housemate most of the time.

To a certain extent, I feel like I need to take care of my own needs and not worry about what other people are saying. As Peace Corps mentioned to us in training, there are a lot of very bored people here, and monitoring the actions of the Americans is great entertainment. So no matter what I do, I'm sure that there will be some amount of criticism. In light of that, I should just do what I need to do to ensure that I am staying happy and sane, even if it causes some grumbling somewhere.

At the same time, why did I come here if I'm not going to bother trying to be a part of the community? If nothing else, I can think of a myriad of ways in which the effort can pay off for me personally. In a place like this especially, connections are key. For example, there are a lot of things that are only available in the capital, Monrovia. Seeing as how the capital is 9 or so hours away by a very bad road, I'm not likely to get out that way again very often, if ever. But if I know a wide network of people here, then I will have a better chance of getting the things I need from the capital from someone else I know who is traveling out that way. Of course, the more important point is that I can't fulfill any of the three goals of Peace Corps without making an effort to be more involved (the three goals of Peace Corps Liberia, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Peace Corps, are: 1. the work itself – science and math teaching, 2. promoting understanding of the US and American customs in Liberia, and 3. promoting understanding of the Liberian way of life in the US).

So what do I do? I think that the key is to find another way to become more involved, one that I'm more comfortable with than going to church. I really need to find a way to volunteer in the community hospital – I think that doing that would accomplish my goal of more community involvement in a way that works better for me personally.

Of course, it's easy to say that now. But it doesn't help me feel any less guilty about staying home today. In a more general sense, I think that this dilemma illustrates one of the most difficult balances to strike as a volunteer: how do I stay happy and mentally healthy enough to do my work effectively, while still pushing myself to have the greatest impact possible during my time here?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More Classroom Management

OK, I spoke too soon. There are definitely 80 kids in most of my morning classes. 80 kids, most of them male, the average age appearing to be in the late teens/early 20s.

Let's look back at the week, shall we?

Wednesday, 8th grade class: I am lucky enough to have the class right after “recess.” Recess is 30 minutes long. I go to class on time, and there are about 40 students in class (in these schools, like the schools in Kenya, students sit in their classroom most of the day and the teachers rotate around). The other 40 students trickle in over the next 20 minutes. I warn them that the next time they come to class late, they will not be allowed into class.

Thursday, 8th grade class: Once again, students show up 20 minutes late for class. True to my word, I refuse to let them in. The 30 or so students who actually showed up on time are amazingly quiet and respectful. The other 50 of them bang on the door and beg to be let in until I barricade it with a desk. I am stupid and allow one kid in who claims he was at the nurse's office. Ten more kids show up behind him with a random assortment of pills, demanding to be let in (“I was with the nurse! See these tablets!”). The second the bell rings (side note: there is actually a bell – a hand bell – which sometimes is rung when class is over, occasionally is rung randomly in the middle of class, and often is not rung at all), 50 kids force open the door and literally leap over the barricading desk into the classroom.

Friday, 8th grade class: Students are so loud that I am forced to yell at the top of my voice to be heard over them. Half of the noise is from bored students chatting and the other half is from students complaining about the noise from the first half. 30 minutes into class I get fed up and almost decide to leave. Instead I threaten to send the next person who speaks out of the class. They continue talking. I pick one random student and force him to leave. They quiet down somewhat. I turn to write on the board and they start talking again. I whip around and pick another random talker to toss out. The students are now silent and start actually copying notes. The two who are thrown out stand by the door looking miserable. I relent, tell them I'll let them in if they're quiet, and let them go back to their seats. The rest of the class passes in blessed quietude.

I'm resigned now to the fact that every day is going to be a struggle to maintain order, and that classes are going to be a lot more autocratic and a lot less interactive in nature than I would prefer. Hopefully, the administration will soon complete the class lists (right now I don't have anything to tell me who is in my classes), and I can use that to organize the students into groups. I do think that I need to divide and conquer – use student leaders to regulate themselves. This will not be easy – there is a great deal of fluctuation with respect to which students actually show up on a given day. But it's certainly worth a shot.

It's tough too because there really isn't that much leverage to get the students to behave. There are just way too many of them to even monitor something simple like who is in the class. With 80 students, there's no good way to give individual attendance points or deduct them for lateness. The only thing I can really see to do is threaten to throw them out of class, and obviously I want them all to be there learning.

I'm wondering if part of the problem as well is that kids just aren't that closely regulated at home or at school. For a lot of them, there has never been anyone saying “Sit down and do this.” As a result, the attention spans of a lot of these students is generally pretty short – the ability of focus in it of itself is an important learned skill, and one that a lot of them have missed out on. Students complain when I give them work to do in class – they want me to give it to them as homework. I suspect this is partially because they frequently copy off of each other. For that reason, and because they also often just don't do the homework, I like to force them to do the work in class. But this is a painfully slow process. At the end of the day, dealing with the students reminds me of a phrase I've heard once or twice -- “like herding cats.”

Anyway, such is life. It's good to be busy in any case, and the students actually are really funny. I'm exhausted at the end of every day, but I'm optimistic. As I mentioned, we've gone back to 3rd-grade-level math in my 7th-grade classes, but with a week of practice, the majority of students can now multiply many-digit numbers by single-digit numbers, and many of them can multiply by double- or triple-digit numbers as well. So progress can occur!

I somehow can't think of any little stories to conclude with today . . . Have I mentioned before that there is a little boy next door named Obama? That family with the 17 children apparently named all of them with O names – we have Otis and Othello, among others, and Obama is the littlest. Unfortunately he's terrified of white people; he starts crying whenever I get close. I'll have to write more about the kids some other day – they're amazingly sweet and funny and incredibly obnoxious by turns. Mostly the former. When it rains, they don't want to get their clothes wet, and so they take them off and play soccer naked in the mud. But more on them later.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reading Skills

Well, the good news is, I don't think that my classes are going to get all that much bigger. I'm sure that students will still be trickling in, but I think the ballpark number is going to be much closer to 50 than 80 or 100. They are still noisy and disruptive, but 45 noisy and disruptive students is still a hell of a lot better than 75 noisy and disruptive students. And that's just the morning classes – the afternoon ones are still very small, between 10-20 kids.

I'm already coming to realize a couple of things that I think will help me. First off, a part of the student behavior issue stems from the fact that the students' reading and writing skills are, overall, very low. So, when I write instructions on the blackboard (which I've been doing a lot because I'm afraid they won't understand my accent), they just simply are not able to read and interpret them. I can spend all the time in the world breaking things down into small, easy steps, but if the students can't read and understand the directions I'm giving them, it's all moot. Furthermore, trying to explain my writing as I go is impossible; most of them do not possess literacy skills at a level that allows them to read, write, and listen all at the same time.

It is pretty distressing to realize the extent to which these kids are lacking in very basic skills (and when I say “kids,” I'm pretty sure some of them are older than I am . . . the range of ages appears to span from 13 to 30 or so). How am I supposed to teach anything about anything if the students have trouble with critical reading? And how can I teach factorization or algebra or any other math when students can't add, subtract, and multiply? (Side note: I'm pretty sure that a lot of kids don't understand what numbers mean on anything but the most basic of levels, which kind of blows my mind. We were practicing multiplication today, and with a problem like 25 x 7, students were pretty much randomly choosing which digit to carry over – the 3 or the 5 – after calculating the product of 5 x 7).

Having said all of this, these are bright kids. And having realized that the writing itself is an issue, I'm making more of an effort to write concisely and explain things out loud. Having a very structured system – students come in, copy limited notes off of the board, and then listen as I explain – is going to help as well. Of course, there are still issues – some students' skills are much better than others, and I have trouble with the idea of keeping them back with this very, very basic approach. In addition, it's maddeningly difficult to keep students on task. I have to patrol up and down the aisles (which in the more crowded classrooms is impossible) just to make sure they are actually copying what they are supposed to be copying, and not simply talking or staring at the wall or the white lady.

Plus, of course, there's the issue that these are still (mostly) teenagers, and there are a lot of them, and I am different. Remember that high school teacher who smelled funny, or dressed funny, or had the pit stains? Remember how hard it was to actually learn anything with the distraction of their weirdness? Well, I'm that teacher now, only instead of smelling funny, I'm white and talk in a squeaky American voice (as many of them so hilariously imitate behind my back – or directly to my face).

Anyway. As much trouble as they are, I see a lot of positive tendencies that give me hope. A couple of times, someone has asked a really thoughtful question – something that clearly came out of their head as they process information, not just an exam question that they copied out of a book. In addition, most students generally seem to be retaining information pretty well from day to day, and are able to think about and apply information when they are asked to (though I don't think they have frequently been asked to in the past).

Before I go, my “what the fuck?” moment of the day: As I was walking home from work, I ran into a woman who lives on my compound. I was standing there talking with her when a UN truck drove by, containing a few members of the Indian police force (there is a base in town). The truck pulled right up next to us and stopped, literally about 5 feet away. Without saying a word, the driver rolled down the window, stuck his camera phone out, and took my picture.

I can just see him back at home. "My Trip To Africa: Here's a picture of the jars of gasoline by the side of the road, and here is the store where they sell teeth, and here is the market, and there is a white person, and here is a dead monkey . . . "

Friday, September 11, 2009

One of Those Days


Wake up at 5:30. Plan lessons. Walk 35 minutes in mud/light rain. USAID car splashes freshly cleaned and ironed skirt with mud. Children literally stop walking to stare at dirt on very white legs. Arrive at school, try with limited success to clean mud off of shoes/legs/skirt with rainwater/leaves/tissues. Go to math class. Disruptive students express doubt in my ability to do math as I (correctly) demonstrate simple arithmetic problems. Go to science class. Very disruptive students try to get under my skin, succeed. Leave class early. Go to town. Buy food. Hear girl in market yelling at me: "White woman, you too UGLY! You too ugly! You butt too flat!" 40 minute walk home in mud. Eat baked goods. Take nap. Drag self out of bed to go back to school for afternoon classes. 35 minute walk in somewhat drier mud. No students anywhere at school. 35 minute walk home.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

School Opening

This week is the first week of school. However, that is apparently not sufficient reason for students and teachers to actually physically come to school.

Even though only a small percentage of my students seem to be showing up, I can already see how much of a challenge this is going to be. Classes are huge and unruly. Students wander into class ten minutes late, and are generally disruptive and disrespectful. This is not particularly surprising, but it is still irritating. The second I turn my back on the class – to write on the board, for example – students completely lose focus, start talking to each other, and begin mocking me. It's bad enough with 40 students in the class; it's going to be a disaster if the rest of them start coming.

I don't want to resort to the techniques of the other teachers – having students spend every class period copying down notes off of the board – but copying seems to be the only thing that will make them shut up. On the other hand, I think that part of the student chattiness is just the novelty of having a white teacher who doesn't do things the way they are used to, and hopefully that will wear off to an extent. I was frustrated today because every time I wrote something on the board, students would start blabbering excitedly, and after a few minutes of mayhem, somebody would ask if they needed to copy it down. “Are these the class notes?” kids kept asking. No, I wanted to say, white people just like writing on stuff. This is how we entertain ourselves in the US. You like playing soccer; we walk into a room full of people and put up notes about the scientific method.

But as ridiculous as the students' questions seem to me, I'm sure that something I'm doing is equally as bizarre and stupid to them. It would be nice if I could figure out what it is so that I could either stop doing it or somehow otherwise address it.

Peace Corps, by nature, produces such a funny mix of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I'm really embarrassed by the attention and gratitude that people have expressed to us here. The national newspaper and radio repeatedly ran stories about the arrival of Peace Corps in Liberia, and everywhere I go, people are genuinely welcoming. I want to say “please don't thank me, I'm doing this for myself.” Because that is the truth – I am 100% sure that I will get far more out of this experience than I could ever give back. I'm skeptical that true altruism exists, but even if it does, this is definitely not it.

At the same time, being here is hard – the heat, the lack of running water, the heat, the dust, the heat, the fact that food items rot and attract bugs almost instantaneously (or so it seems), the heat, the stresses of bartering, the constant attention – and did I mention the heat? So when the very people you are supposedly here to help make a point of laughing at you to your face, and ignoring your efforts, it's hard not to be irritated.

Oh well. I guess it would be far more disturbing if the teenagers here didn't . . . well, act like teenagers. And as funny as I am to them, I would be lying if I said I didn't think some of the stuff they do is pretty funny also. The punk with the huge silver belt buckle and the collar popped on his pink uniform shirt (pink shirts, maroon pants for all students here); the kid trying – and miserably failing – to imitate what I can only describe as a (please excuse my whiteness as I type this) “gangsta walk;” the fact that the local dance club has a giant mirror along one wall and the preferred method of dancing appears to be grinding with oneself – if they can forgive me for thinking that these things are amusing, then I supposed I should find it within myself to forgive whatever the hell it is they think is so hilarious.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


On the same compound where I am living, there is a man with three wives and 17 children.

Last night, he came home drunk. Yelling, screaming, threatening the wives. The sound of a woman's terrified crying woke me and the rest of the compound after midnight. Angry yelling, with a few intelligible words and phrases -- “ugly,” “stupid,” “I will slap you,” “I will chop you” -- was punctuated by the sound of physical violence and the uncontrollable wailing of women and children.

Another man eventually talked the husband to a state of calm, threatening to call the police. But what threat are the police here, really? They have no arms and no real power, and likely no desire to help in a case of domestic abuse.

There is nobody here to help the helpless.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Settling In

So. The end of my first week at site, and second week in Liberia, approaches.

My housemate and I are finally starting to settle in somewhat. We set up a system with our landlord whereby we will pay him and his wife to haul our water, wash our clothes, and clean our house once a week, which is a huge relief. I feel a little bit guilty about doing this, particularly because there was an extremely well-loved volunteer who lived in the house before us, and she apparently did all of her own work. And she was 65 years old. But I also can't help but feel that I have more important ways to spend my time – aside from writing lesson plans and finishing medical school applications, I also want to have the time to pursue secondary projects. Anyway, I get the impression that it is a mutually beneficial situation – I think we are paying quite a bit in Liberian terms for this work, so they are glad to have the income, and we are certainly happy not to have to do it by ourselves.

Our landlord came over last night and talked with us for a long time. We discussed a lot of different things (or rather, for the most part he talked and we listened), but one thing that struck me as particularly interesting was something he told us about Liberian businesses. He told us that, especially in our town, most of the shop owners are from other countries or at least other regions of this country (this seems very true from what I have seen – among others, I know there are local business owners from Ghana, Nigeria, and Lebanon). The reason for this, he says, is that it is difficult to own a local business because there is a cultural assumption that property is communal, particularly between family members. Thus, if a man owns a business, he is expected to provide goods for free or on credit to family members. Given that family structures tend to be large, this is a significant problem for any potential businessperson living in the same region as his or her family members.

From what others told me, I think that a lot of the frustrations that business development volunteers in Kenya faced stemmed from this sort of a mentality. Property and ownership are more fluid here (and in Kenya), which in some ways is a very positive thing. As a whole, I think the society is less materialistic than that of the US, and people are generally quite generous in terms of giving and lending. But the negative side of it is what our landlord spoke of – it can be a major hurdle in business. The question is, while this is true at the individual level, what are its effects at a society-wide level? Is this approach to property and enterprise enough of an issue to significantly affect development? More broadly, can the path of development in these countries follow the pattern of the US and other countries, or will it proceed through in some other direction? To what extent is the path to development universal, and to what extent does it depend on societal and cultural concerns?

I don't know enough about business in general, or about development in non-Western countries, to be able to give much more thought to these questions. And I certainly don't know enough about Liberia just yet (and will not in the short time I have here) to really be able to understand these issues. But, anyway, within the limitations of my cultural and economic understanding, these are some of the things I wonder about.

One little story before I go: The adventure with meat continues. The other day, my housemate and I went to a restaurant in town. We asked what they had to eat (no menus here – every restaurant has a little sign that says “Food Is Ready” on one side and “No Food” on the other, and they hang it on the door with the appropriate side out, but “food” is whatever they have available that day). The owner told us that they had soup with cow meat, or eggplant with bush meat. Eggplant sounded tasty, so we asked what kind of bush meat it was, and were told that it was deer. Fair enough; I don't mind eating deer. So they brought us the food and we started eating, and I started noticing hard little pebble-sized objects in it.

Upon closer inspection, these turned out to be rodent-sized vertebrae. The ribs in the dish, and the piece of skull my housemate found in hers, were also definitely not deer-sized bones.

We're cooking for ourselves now. Vegetarian.