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.