Tuesday, December 29, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Christmas Ramblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holidays Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Education in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009


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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Seen recently:

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fevers and Baby Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

UN Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Student Government

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

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

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

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