Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock, Part II

I've been home for two weeks now, and it feels GREAT.

There is not one single thing that I miss about Liberia at this point. It's fantastic to be clean and groomed and feeling like a human being again, not some strange exotic animal on display. It's wonderful not to wake up frightened in the middle of the night because of strange noises. It's amazing to eat fruits and vegetables every day, and not a few times a month.

I've been outrageously lazy since I've been home, spending most of my time sleeping, watching TV, and participating in other mindless and unproductive activities. Liberia feels like a distant dream at this point. The peaceful order of Pennsylvanian suburbia -- the green rolling hills, the neatly manicured lawns outside of the quaint two-story houses, the comforting summer smells of cut grass and outdoor grilling, the well-monitored kids and well-fed dogs playing outside in the perfect 75-degree weather -- feels like the only blissful reality in the world. It's easy for me to forget about the Liberian mud, the stench of Liberian litter, the discomfort and frustration and tragedy of Liberian living.

And I want to forget it. When I think about the past nine months, I experience a little shiver of unease. I want to believe that when I got on the plane and traveled back across the ocean, the Liberia I was living in disappeared, that only the happy little world I am now inhabiting remains. I don't want to think about poverty. I don't want to care about the insoluble difficulties of international development.

The scary thing is, for the most part, I'm succeeding at not caring. Somewhere, behind my childish relief at being home again, I want to want to care. Instead, I find myself questioning whether I really want to work internationally again. Why be a glutton for punishment, especially when I have doubts about the ethicality and efficacy of international development work? Why not stay home and pursue the American dream, the house and the yard and the pool and the kids and the dog and the white picket fence?

As my overwhelming sense of relief at being home begins to subside, these little nagging doubts and conflicts in the back of my mind are starting to creep toward the front. I'm realizing that I am actually embarrassed to talk to people about my experiences in Liberia -- embarrassed, perhaps, because they did not live up to the reality of what I think others think a Peace Corps experience should be. To be perfectly honest, I'm firmly convinced that I did not "make a difference." The best I can hope for is that I didn't actually make things any worse; I have no illusions that I actually made things any better for any of the people I was supposedly "helping." But people don't want to hear that. They want a neat little sound bite about the experience, want me to say that "it was hot and buggy and challenging, but so rewarding! The best experience of my life!"

So I feel awkward and artificial, trying to process and package my experiences in a way that makes them acceptable, without denying the very real challenges of international development or belittling the accomplishments of people who do international work. I also feel ashamed when people say (as they often do, perhaps through lack of anything else to say) things like "That's very impressive! I could never do something like Peace Corps!" I feel like I have a dirty secret to hide, a secret about my ineffectiveness, a secret about my frequently less-than-charitable thoughts and actions, a secret about my failures as not only a teacher but a compassionate and caring human being.

I suppose this is reverse culture shock, although it seems to be manifesting itself in strange ways. On the surface I feel only relief, yet I find myself fretting inordinately over little things. Last night, I was up until 3 AM worrying about meeting my fellow first-year medical students in the fall. How can I face them, I kept thinking, when I know what a fraud I am? How can I gloss over the past few years of my life to make myself seem normal? How can I talk about my experiences truthfully without being off-putting, condescending, and/or boring?

The reality is, if I could go back and do the whole thing all over again, I absolutely would. The experience was eye-opening, thought-provoking, and otherwise invaluable. But there are a host of things that it was not -- enjoyable and effective being chief among them -- and I am having trouble reconciling that reality with the ideal Peace Corps experience that, on some level, I seem to wish that I had had.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

It's hard to believe, but this is my last night in Liberia. I'm one day and one official signature away from no longer being a Peace Corps Response volunteer.

I am, of course, incredibly excited to get home and see my parents, my siblings, my friends, and my dog. At the same time, I'm already bracing myself for the reverse culture shock. Hopefully it won't be nearly as difficult returning to the US this time around, as I'm going home after having (effectively) completed my service, instead of being yanked out halfway through. I won't have to deal with the feelings of loss (over my abandoned projects), guilt (over my expensive helicopter evacuation when the Kenyans who were actually in danger were abandoned to their fates), confusion (about just what the hell I was supposed to do with my suddenly unemployed self), and depression that accompanied my unexpected and unwilling return to the US after my Peace Corps Kenya service.

At the same time, I can already feel the subtle effects of reverse culture shock. Watching the overly made-up, plastic looking newscasters on CNN World from my hotel in Monrovia, I once again feel a sense of anger at the vapidity of the Western media. Watching the dumbed-down analyses of world events, watching Larry King awkwardly strut and pose in an advertisement for his show, watching the same 5 video clips played over and over and over again, I am struck by the mind-dissolving superficiality of these “news” shows. I have the unsettling sensation that my plane ride tomorrow will take me not over an ocean, but to another planet – a soft, safe, neatly packaged bubble world, in which war, extreme poverty, and hunger are pictures on a screen and not realities.

One thing I really like about Liberian culture is that it seems much less image-focused than American culture. Maybe this impression is false, a result of the fact that I, as an outsider, am oblivious to the subtleties of Liberian culture. Or perhaps the relative absence of the media here really does make Liberians less image-obsessed. In any case, I remember being extremely frustrated with the American fixation on presenting a perfect image when I returned to the US from Kenya. I have a memory of turning on the TV a few weeks after my return from Kenya and watching a show entitled “How To Look Good Naked.” The host of the show was attempting to convince an unhealthily obese woman that she was attractive in her underwear (she wasn't). Disgusted, I changed the channel, to find myself watching a “Top Model”- type show, in which a rail-thin woman was reduced to tears by a magazine editor who condemned her as “too fat.” Sickened by the shows individually and particularly by their schizophrenic contrast, I turned off the TV, thinking “What the FUCK is wrong with my society? Why must we be so shallow that we turn the most basic thing – food – into something so complicated?!”

Living in Liberia is frustrating, yes. It's irritating to be confronted with ignorance. But at the same time, I can understand why that ignorance exists; after all, advanced (and even very basic) schooling is simply not available to the majority of the population. In the US, it is infinitely more frustrating to be faced with what feels like much more willful ignorance. I can't help but think, when confronted with evidence of American stupidity, “What's YOUR excuse, white man?”

So yes. I'm aware that the transition back might not be as easy or smooth as it seems on the surface like it should be. But I also realize that I'm incredibly lucky to be able to get on a plane to the US, to a land of freedom and opportunity and personal comfort. My dominant emotion right now, by far, is excitement.

I'm going HOME!!!!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Goodbyes and Culture Clashes

And I'm back in Monrovia again. I said goodbye to my site yesterday morning, and spent the next 11 hours in a Dramamine-induced stupor, which was marginally preferable to the alternative – the intense carsickness provoked by extended travel in sideways-facing Land Cruiser seats on unpaved roads.

In the end, it was not particularly hard to say goodbye to my home for the last nine months. Saturday started off well, as I gave away the majority of my things to my neighbors. It was gratifying to see how much they appreciated the few T-shirts and pens and pencils that I wanted to unload, and it was nice to be doing something – for once – that was win-win, instead of lose-lose. They were happy because they got a bunch of stuff, and I was happy because I got to get rid of a lot of stuff that I wouldn't really use in the US anyway. “See? I'm a GOOD person!” I thought to myself. “I give clothes to poor people! I give school supplies to children!” And I tried to forget about my failures as a cross-cultural communicator and my failures as a teacher: the complaining students, the frustration and anger that I often immaturely failed to hide, my fears that some Liberians' accusations of racism were truer than I'd like to admit (albeit in an unconscious and unwilling form).

But in any case, the good feelings lasted about 30 seconds. That is about how long it took for all of the people who didn't receive anything to show up at my door and start demanding I give them something. Even when I closed the door and the windows, they continued to shout through the curtains.

And so I was reminded that nothing about development work is ever simple. Some of the screaming, demanding children outside my window were actually from the family to which I had bequeathed most of my things. I had given everything to one of the two wives with instructions to share them with the other wife and all of the children, but realized later that she had distributed most of the things to her own children and not the children of the other wife. By doing my “good deed,” I may actually have created more problems by inducing friction within the family – friction that might even end in violence, knowing the domestic abuse history of the family.

In the car on the way to Monrovia, I distracted myself from the discomfort of the ride by eavesdropping on some interesting political discussions between other (Liberian) passengers. One man in particular had a lot to say about Liberian politics and culture. He kept coming back to the assertion that Liberian culture is being eroded by Westernization, that Liberia is losing touch with its roots. The man had some really interesting opinions, some of them very insightful, and some of them not quite logical. At one point, he denounced another Liberian for stinginess because that Liberian had failed to bring back gifts to share after a recent trip to America, saying “This is our CULTURE! We EXPECT you to bring things back for us!”

Glaring contradiction and all (how can you be upset when someone fails to bring you gifts from the culture you are criticizing as destroying your own?), I think this illustrates a really difficult and fundamental issue in Liberia and other developing countries. We like to believe that we can have our cake and eat it too, that culture can be perfectly preserved while technological and societal advancement continues. But “preserving culture” by nature involves the maintenance of a status quo, while “progress” involves change. It is a source of frustration for Western aid workers that some Liberians seem to want to take advantage of the fruits of Western culture without being “stained” by Westernization. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to have it both ways. Sometimes sacrifices must be made in the name of progress, and often in the developing world that means giving up certain cultural beliefs and practices.

Of course, that is easy for me to say. I’m not being asked to give anything up, and it is my Western culture that is responsible for the outright (through the colonialism of the past) and more subtle and insidious (through the domination of world markets and media today) destruction of the traditional African way of life. Still, I think that those who wish to “preserve” culture fail to take into account the changeable nature of culture. Culture is always adapting, and to oppose change for the sake of “maintaining a connection to one’s roots” is opposing a natural and inevitable progression. I think that anyone who has spent time in a modern African city such as Nairobi can agree that African culture can maintain its integrity even as it changes. Nairobi is a far cry from traditional Kenyan village life, yes . . . but it is also a distinctly African city, in its own right.

In any case, I think that part of me wanted a nice, neat little goodbye, a happy scene in which I bid farewell to Zwedru and the people of Zwedru express their heartfelt thanks for my generosity. But just as the relationship between Western and Liberian culture in general is complex and ethically nuanced, my own relationship with my Liberian neighbors could never be that straightforward.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

T Minus One Week

So it's finally settled – I will be leaving my site on Saturday, and flying back to the US next Wednesday. Two days left at the school. Two precious days, each one a beautiful memory yet to be made. Peace Corps bills itself as “the toughest job you'll ever love,” and it's so true; I love being here and I wish more than I can express that I hadn't decided to leave early. If only I had a few more weeks in Liberia, a few more weeks with these precious, lovely children . . .

HA. Just kidding. Since the students know that I've already calculated their final grades, they have no motivation whatsoever to do any work and are more disruptive than ever. Today, I spent 10 minutes trying to get the 8th-grade class to shut the fuck up so we could review the answers to their last homework assignment, only to give up and storm out of the class in tears, after lecturing them about what disrespectful, ungrateful, thieving little shitheads they are (I didn't actually say those exact words) and telling them how happy I am that I'll never see them again (I did actually say those exact words). I then broke down sobbing in the principal's office, whining about last week's theft of my phone and the disrespect of the students.

So on top of the mess of feelings that I was experiencing before, I can add a healthy dose of shame and embarrassment. I could just see myself, sitting there, the poor self-pitying white lady preparing to fly back to her rich country, crying because a bunch of parent-less, self-supporting, half-educated teenagers WERE MEAN TO ME. Waahhhh!! Waaahhhhh!!!

And because I complained to the principal, all 200 of the 7th and 8th grade students are now being punished by being forced to do manual labor tomorrow, cleaning the campus. Some of the good, responsible students in the 8th-grade class came to me to complain about the punishment, and, pettily, I refused to listen and told them their class was rude and disrespectful and SHOULD be punished.


To be fair (and as I tearfully kept trying to explain to the principal in between denunciations of the students), I know that part of why I was so sensitive to the students' misbehavior was because part of me IS genuinely sad to leave. This HAS been an incredibly educational, beneficial, and rewarding experience, and I would not hesitate for a second to do it all over again if I had the chance. There are a lot of wonderful, wonderful people here, and I do feel a great deal of affection and sympathy for the students.

But I'm ready to GET THE FUCK OUT.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Emotions running higher and higher as I prepare to leave Liberia.

Friday, one of my students stole my phone. The idea of it more than anything is what gets to me, that one of the kids I've been fighting to teach for the past 9 months would turn around and do something so backhanded. But although I was really pissed about it for a day, the sympathy of community members – including other students – made me feel much better. It seems like every Liberian I know heard of the theft within 24 hours of its occurrence, and made sure to express their outrage at the student thief's actions. And while it's annoying to be phone-less, I really can't cry about it too much; it's only a phone and I wouldn't have used it in the States anyway.

In general, the students have been driving me absolutely up the wall lately. I've essentially finished teaching, and have been returning my classes' final grades to them, which has resulted in a great deal of whining and begging. I don't know why the students haven't figured out yet that the more they complain about their grades, the less sympathetic I become, but I'm less inclined than ever to listen to their complaints.

In addition to the pressures of school, I've been stressed about the details of my imminent travel back to the US. I still don't know exactly when I'll be leaving town, how long I'll be in Monrovia, and when I'll get home; it all depends on whether or not I can find a ride to Monrovia with an NGO. I know that the school is planning to have some sort of going-away program for me, which puts me in a crunch because they want to hold it at the end of the week, while I want to peace out as soon as I find a vehicle traveling to Monrovia . . . but I know I can't leave without letting them have their formal goodbye. So even though I'd really rather just sneak off without a big fuss (though I am very touched that they want to thank me for teaching here), I know that I'll have to adjust my travel plans around the party and try to enjoy it as best I can.

Anyway. I'm sorry for the whiny, repetitive entry, which I realize is probably very boring to you. As you may have guessed from the fact that I've now written three entries about essentially the same topic, I'm having a little bit of trouble these days seeing past my own very mixed emotions. While I'm eager to get back to the US because of all of the things I just listed, at the same time, each day brings a new little reminder of all of the things I love about living here. Yesterday, the neighborhood kids spent a good hour trying (and failing) to teach me to shoot marbles, and it almost broke my heart to think that I will probably never see most of them again. Everything – my affection for the kids, my worries about getting safely back to the US, my regrets at leaving Liberia, my irritation with the students, my discomfort with hearing people half-jokingly ask me (over and over again) to take them to America, my guilt at the fact that my little adventure in Liberia is coming to an end while those who are really suffering are stuck here . . . all of this is making me into a big old emotional mess.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Score

Let's add up the score from the past few days, shall we?

Yesterday morning, I had a fantastic class with the 8th-grade students, who almost started a full-out brawl over the differences between a physical and a chemical change. (The fact that everyone was screaming at each other was not so great, I guess, but the fact that they were fighting about science made me super happy). They asked some really, really thoughtful questions and were genuinely interested, respectful, and fun to be with. Point Liberia.

Yesterday afternoon, I Gchatted with several friends in the US (a rarity – often the internet is too slow), which made me homesick. Point America.

Yesterday evening, I gave the bulk of my baggage to two Peace Corps staff who happened to be passing through town, and who kindly offered to take my things back to the Peace Corps office in Monrovia to await my departure from the country. Bringing all of my stuff out into the yard caused all of the neighbors to gather around and say super nice things about me, expressing their sadness at my leaving. Many points Liberia.

Yesterday night, I spent another in a series of nights with very little sleep, waking with heart pounding at every little sound and finally getting up at 4 AM to investigate some very strange and ultimately inexplicable noises. Point America.

This morning, I was awakened by the sound of pouring rain, and ended up walking to school in the mud through thick clouds of flying insects. Point America.

This afternoon, I showed some of my students a picture of myself with my siblings and they commented on how nice my skin looked in the picture, unlike now when “the mosquitoes are really biting your face.” Point America.

This evening, I had bread, eggs, and cocoa for dinner for the fourth night in a row. Point America.

End result: A tie, in which somehow I am both a winner and a loser . . .

Strange to think I'll only be playing this game for another week. Somehow, the closer I get to leaving, the more I want to get home, and yet the more reluctant I am to leave.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Aid Mentality

Since I've been here, I've had a lot of conversations with other expatriates about the so-called “aid mentality” in Liberia. The idea of the aid mentality goes something like this: Because there is so much aid money pouring into the country, and that money is so poorly monitored, and the perception of the West as an infinitely deep well of finances is so firmly ingrained, many Liberians have grown used to the idea of relying on charity. After years of receiving something for nothing, there is little motivation for people to invest their time and energy into various projects, because why should they bother to work when the West can just give them what they need for free?

Whether or not I agree with the idea (and we'll get to that in a minute), I can definitely see why the concept of the aid mentality is so widespread among frustrated foreign aid workers. It never fails to amaze me how open people are about begging here. When (as happened this morning) a child walks up to me on the street and screams at me to give him my umbrella – with his parents egging him on in the background – I can't help but think, “Have you no shame??” We as Americans have a certain horror of asking for charity; beggars are looked down upon by our society. We pride ourselves on being an independent nation where every man can make something of himself if he works hard enough. But here, there is little to no negative social pressure against begging or accepting charity, and so people feel free to ask – or demand – whatever it is they desire, whether or not their request is reasonable by anyone's standards.

So in part because of many Liberians' willingness to demand resources without qualifications, many Western aid workers end up frustrated with what they perceive as Liberians' reluctance to invest a lot of time and energy into various business, educational, or agricultural endeavors. “They have so much LAND and they don't FARM it!!” I hear expatriates complain. “We try to teach them to farm and they don't want to learn! They just want us to GIVE them food!” And while I am disturbed by the vaguely racist undertones of these arguments, at the same time I feel a similar frustration with my students, as you, dear blog reader(s?), well know. “Why don't they CARE?? Why won't they WORK??” I keep asking.

But I think it's important to remember that in the past 20 years in Liberia (the civil war began in 1989), long-term planning has not exactly paid off. Perhaps it's no wonder that many people are hesitant (either consciously or out of habit) to participate in activities requiring confidence in the long-term stability of one's government. Why invest in a farm if the legal system cannot guarantee ownership of one's land? Why invest in one's education if one cannot get a job with a college degree? In America and other developed countries, there is a certain amount of truth to the fact that hard work leads to success (although of course things are not nearly as fair or as simple as we would like to believe). Here, cause and consequence are not necessarily connected. In a corrupt, dysfunctional system, hard work may lead to nothing at all. A person may work her ass off only to see another person promoted because of nepotism, or to see her house robbed by the desperately poor.

In any case, it's true that an “aid mentality” is a perfectly logical explanation for the attitude of many aid recipients. Human beings are selfish and lazy creatures; if we have a choice between working for something or being given it without working at all, we will certainly choose the former. But that “aid mentality” is not necessarily the ONLY explanation for why people behave as they do, and believing too firmly in its truth may be detrimental. After all, the logical way of dealing with people who have become overly dependent on aid is simple: cut off the aid. That way, people will be FORCED to work. But what if the “aid mentality” is a myth, or if there are other complicating factors at play? Mightn't cutting off the flow of aid in this desperately poor country actually exacerbate some of the problems that so frustrate Western aid workers? Logic does not equal truth, and I think that Westerners need to be careful about accepting the gospel of the “aid mentality” simply because it seems true on the surface.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Tired and emotional lately, but not in a bad way. I'm inclined to sentimentalization and romanticism these days, perhaps because it's really starting to hit me that I'm going home and I won't be back. The students seem especially sweet and funny – this one saying he will miss me (replying, when I tell him that Peace Corps will send another teacher in July, “But we want you!”), another thanking me for teaching them (“There are only two teachers in the school who care about the students and you are one of them. The others just want money”). I still can't connect many of the kids' faces to their names, but there are many that I do know, and their little quirks and jokes and even their behavior issues seem very endearing. So even if I'm dismayed to realize just how little material I've covered and how poorly many of the students have mastered it, and even if I recognize that a large part of the students “missing me” is more about missing the novel entertainment of a dorky white American than missing my stellar teaching, I'm still not feeling quite as cynical about being here as I have at certain times.

I've also been feeling sentimental for different reasons. Everybody here has a sad story about how the war has touched their lives, and it's very easy to become callous to them, even if I believe their truth. When someone comes up and begins pouring out a tale of woe – you know my mother and my sister died and I had to flee my home and then there was no food and I lived in the bush for eight years and now there are no jobs and I have no money and my three children are sick and I need money, could you give me money? -- I feel (I'm ashamed to say) more repelled than sympathetic. “God, not another sob story,” I find myself cynically thinking.

But then someone will tell their story in a way that penetrates through the thin shield of involuntary indifference, and it's heartbreaking. One of the teachers sat down with me at lunch the other day and told me his: about fleeing to Ivory Coast, about his wife leaving him and returning to Liberia with his five children, about being reunited with them 9 years later, about how two of the children had died and one had been forced into service as a child soldier, about how the other children were completely illiterate because their mother had kept them home to use as labor instead of sending them to school, about how he blamed his wife for ruining the futures of all of his children. It was strange and sad and somehow enlightening to hear this man sitting across from me tell me in a straightforward, almost upbeat manner “My children are wasted. If my woman had sent them to school then I could enjoy them now that they are grown, but I am sad to say that they are wasted.” I couldn't help but think – no wonder people here sometimes seem to me to act in crazy, strange, illogical ways. They have been forced into crazy, strange, illogical situations that no human being should have to endure.

My emotionality has also been enhanced by the fact that, by telling people that I am going home soon, I have opened the floodgates of request. It's awkward, annoying, heart-rending, and sometimes darkly humorous to hear the things that people expect an American to be able to do for them. People who see America as the golden land of opportunity ask me for things that are both pathetic and completely unrealistic – for example, that I buy them a plane ticket and allow them to live in my house as a cleaning person. When I try to explain that it doesn't really work like that – that America doesn't exactly open its arms to immigrants with less than a primary school education and that Americans don't particularly like relative strangers squatting in our houses -- I am often met with disbelief. A security guard with a local NGO wrote his full name and address down on a piece of paper and asked me to find him a wife, and when I told him that most American women probably wouldn't be too keen on marrying someone they had never met, he told me that there were plenty of American women who “needed an African man” and that I could find them on the internet. He would look himself, he told me, except that the internet at the NGO blocked all of the most promising sites for finding American wives.

So yes. In the waning days of my service, now that I know that home and comfort and family and friends are just around the corner, I'm seeing things in a more positive , sympathetic light. I'm doing better at recognizing the humor in different situations instead of being annoyed (as when the other day someone told me I was looking SO FAT that he almost didn't recognize me on the street). And while I'm happy that this whole (to use a horrible cliché) crazy roller caster ride is coming to an end, I'm already missing some aspects of life here in Liberia.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


It's odd to realize the extent to which we lonely, individualistic Americans are connected in a digital, if not a literal, sense; whether or not we want to be, we are constantly inundated with information from and about other people. Even without owning a television or a radio or subscribing to a newspaper, a person living in most parts of the US can't help but be informed of major national and world events (although whether we listen to what is being reported or understand it in a broader context is a different story). Information is everywhere – on the radio or TV or computer monitor at work, in the restaurant, the bar, the doctor's office waiting room, the airport lounge, the bus, and so forth.

Liberia is, for the most part, cut off from that sea of information. There are several national newspapers here, but they are of laughably poor quality and rarely make it to the cities and villages outside the capital (the only ones I have seen in my town have been several months outdated). And while there are quite a few satellite televisions in my town (which is, I should emphasize again, the county capital and thus one of the largest in the region), I have never seen them tuned to anything other than soccer or African soap operas. I do hear people listening to BBC Africa reports in the morning, but relatively few people own radios, and poorer-quality radios (such as my own) cannot pick up the station. So along with the majority of the population of Liberia, I am pretty well disconnected from the rest of the world, with the exception of the few times a week that I plug my brain back into the internet or phone my family to actively seek out what is happening in my home country and abroad.

The funny thing is, I don't really miss the constant connectivity, and I don't feel particularly disconnected. The massive flood of “information” that we are exposed to in the US is, I can't help but feel, mostly bullshit. News stories are marketed fast-food style to a population that expects our media, like our meals, in attractively packaged, bite-sized form, but devoid of any substantive value. When I get online, I usually log into Google Reader and quickly scan through the most recent of the thousands and thousands of media headlines from the New York Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine, my hometown's local newspaper, Scientific American,, the BBC,, the Associated Press, CNN, NBC, and any number of other random news outlets that I've subscribed to at some point or another. Out of those thousands of headlines, there are usually about 5 articles that are actually worth reading . . . and then only about the first 2 sentences of those generally have anything of substance to say.

This may all sound self-evident to you (who are probably a little bit faster on the uptake than I), but the sheer ridiculousness of the tiny substance-to-information ratio – even from well-established and -respected media organizations – did not strike me until my forcible disconnection from US society and the web.

The other (probably obvious) thing about the Western media that did not really sink into my brain until I spent a significant amount of time away from it this: it is incredibly biased. I think that because I know we live in an open society, a society ostensibly built upon the values of open discourse and free speech, I unconsciously assumed that our media is relatively accurate (as long as one avoids the one-sided sources, the Fox News and ilk). I kind of figured that, although there was a lot of unnecessary crap and “fluff” out there, the “real” news that was reported – particularly from sources such as the BBC and the New York Times – was relevant and reasonably accurate. But what is “relevant” to our population is not necessarily what is relevant to the rest of the world, and what is “accurate” is often totally one-sided, if not completely wrong.

There is, of course, a lot going on in the world, and we are a very busy nation. So it's not too difficult to understand why we like our reports on international events to be pre-digested, with the “good guys” and the “bad guys” clearly identified (since, after all, it's not like we have time to fully understand every nuance of every occurrence in the world; give us the gist of things and forget the rest). In Kenya, immediately following the December 2007 elections but prior to my evacuation back to the US, it surprised me to hear the ways in which the widespread tribal violence was being reported in the States. One friend informed me of a “human interest” special he saw on TV portraying one of the tribes, the Kikuyus, as victims (which they were, in the sense that British colonialism really fucked them over) . . . but which failed to emphasize that the incumbent president of Kenya, whose rigging of the elections provoked the outbreak of violence, was a Kikuyu and that the Kikuyus were in modern times regarded by other ethnic groups as one of the most powerful tribes in the country. (This is not to say that the Kikuyus were to “blame” for the post-election violence – since as far as I could tell they were not any more or less culpable than any of the other tribes that participated – but only to illustrate the fallacy of sacrificing accuracy and completeness to create interest).

Other reports I read suggested that the violence in Kenya might be the first signal of a start to another Rwanda – an inappropriate parallel, given the scale of the events, the number of tribes in Kenya, and the complexity of Kenyan tribal interactions (no single tribe represents more than around 30% of the population in Kenya). In the interest of making the Kenya conflict “marketable” to Americans, the media managed to skew it in a way that obscured its true significance – as a tragic manifestation of long-standing and complex (though previously mostly dormant) ethnic frictions, and a reminder that, in a population that is struggling with massive poverty and eking out a frustrating existence, any spark can provoke a flare-up of senseless violence.

Still, at least the Kenya violence was reported. When I get online, I usually do a quick search for articles on Liberia, to see what the rest of the world thinks is going on here. For the most part, this does nothing but reinforce just how unimportant this country is to the West; if Liberia is disconnected from the international news scene, then the international news scene is equally as unconcerned with Liberia. Aside from a few articles on the trial of Charles Taylor, there is rarely anything at all about Liberia. Events that I would expect to merit at least a minimal amount of coverage – online if not actually in print – receive nothing or next to nothing. For example, a few weeks ago, an outbreak of religious or tribal violence in the northwestern Liberian city of Voinjama resulted in the death of at least one Liberian (and the evacuation of several Peace Corps volunteers). This event resulted in one lonely newspaper article in, two paragraphs long, which said only that UN peacekeepers were being deployed to the region. Strange to realize just how much there is going on in the world that we as Americans will never know about, despite the paradoxically overwhelming flood of information we receive on a daily basis.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cheesy Realizations

I started writing an entry about student absenteeism (attendance is around 30-40% right now) and the mix of emotions it produces in me ( . . . relief that I don't have to deal with the kids, shame at feeling such relief, irritation and boredom at having nothing to do, frustration that it will be very difficult to fairly assign grades for the final marking period, exoneration of my guilt at leaving early . . . and so on). I wrote “I feel terrible about wanting to go home so badly and caring so little about what happens to my students, but at the same time I can't help but feel incredibly cynical about my work here as a teacher.”

But then, I went to return my students' exam papers to the 7th and 8th grade classes, and two things happened that made me do a major flip-flop from "cynical" to "sentimental."

My afternoon 7th grade class is a source of constant trouble for me. There is a dichotomy in the class, more so than in any of my other classes; four or five students consistently score around 80-90% on my exams, and the other 45 kids rarely exceed 10-20%. When I returned their exam papers to the kids, most of them – being in the latter category – were dismayed and upset. Please, please come into our classroom and give us extra credit, they begged me . . . and I did, gratified by their interest and also ashamed at their – and by reflection, my – failure on the exam. Walking around the classroom, trying without success to explain math to kids who are completely and totally lost and confused, I realized (or rather remembered) that, despite how things may seem, the kids DO care and they DO feel badly when they fail. Although they are the immediate sources of a lot of my frustrations and so I am tempted to be short-tempered with their behavioral issues, they are the victims. They are the ones who have been failed by the dysfunction of the educational system, and my real frustration as a teacher is with that system, not with the students themselves.

So that was the first thing – a reminder to me that, cultural and classroom management issues aside, my negative feelings should be directed more at the failure of the system than at my students or myself.

The second thing that happened was that one of my 8th-grade students – one of the few who received a very high grade on this past exam – came up to me, elated, shook my hand, and asked if I was happy with her. She failed every other exam this year, but she had one of the highest scores this marking period and wanted me to congratulate her (which of course I did, pleased at her happiness – although I suspected that the high score was due to the probability that she managed to cheat without getting caught. But that's beside the point). And so I was reminded of another very important thing: that the students respond very well to positive reinforcement. That is why my neighbors' kids run up to me when they get their report cards, eager to show me their successes . . . because, although they will be beaten when they bring home a bad grade, there is rarely anyone to say “Great job!” when they get a good one. In my losing battles against cheating and disruptive behavior, I've forgotten how far a simple “Good work!” can go (corny as that sounds).

Sunday, April 18, 2010


When I am jogging, it happens quite frequently that children will start running alongside or behind me, often mocking my speech or yelling things I can't quite understand about the “white woman” as they do so. I used to laugh it off, pretend that I was in on the joke, let them know that I knew they thought it was funny . . . but my patience quickly ran out. Now, as soon as a kid starts to follow me, I immediately stop, frown at them, and wave my hand in a “stop” motion to show that I don't want them following me. It's really irritating, but I try not to get too upset about it, because (as I remind myself with varying degrees of success) they are just kids and don't know any better.

But today, as I was running, a fully grown woman – probably around 30 – started running alongside me. Surprised and annoyed that an adult would be acting this way, I stopped running and turned around.

“Don't do that,” I said bluntly.

“Marg shmar shmargh,” she said – an obnoxious, gibberish imitation of an American accent.

“Fuck you,” I said.

Laughing, she turned to her friends. “The white woman says 'fuck you.' White woman calling black woman names,” she said. “The white woman scared of the black woman.”

“Why are you following me like the little children do?” I said.

“The white woman scared of the black woman. White woman calling the black woman names,” she said to her friends again, ignoring me.

“You're very rude,” I said.

For some reason, even though I knew it was pointless and I should really just forget about the whole thing and walk away, I felt a petty, frustrated need to explain that I wasn't being racist – I just really didn't want this woman following me, aping my movements. I futilely tried to explain to some other people who had come over why I was annoyed – since the woman either didn't understand me or just refused to respond to anything I said – but eventually I simply left. When I was a short distance away, I started jogging again, and the woman sprinted up behind me to chase me again. I stopped running and walked the rest of the way home, and, her fun spoiled, she turned back laughing.

Interactions like this always leave me feeling unsettled and upset. It's a mix of my humiliation at being treated as something vaguely less than human, and my feeling of shame in having acted out my frustrations inappropriately. It drives me absolutely crazy when Liberians of any age (but especially adults) talk about, but not to, me as though I am not there – or worse, make fun of things I am saying or doing as though I can't see or hear them (as I felt this woman was doing). But that's no excuse for me to turn around and de-humanize them the way I think they are doing to me.

It shocked me when I first arrived in Kenya, and then here in Liberia, to hear other volunteers or aid workers talking disparagingly about the attitude of “these people” or making similarly broad, negative statements. It was amazing, I thought, how easy it was for “cultural differences” to become an excuse for a subtle racism. Now, when reading through my own blog entries, I sometimes become fearful that I am guilty of the same thing – that, in trying to understand the very real cultural differences that do exist, I am overgeneralizing, focusing only on the negative, refusing to see another point of view and wrongly extrapolating my limited experiences to an entire country of individuals. When I say, as I did in my last entry, “a lot of people seem to think that it is the responsibility of those in power and not the individuals in the society to maintain order. There is very little sense of personal responsibility” -- am I not being racist myself? Once again, I have to ask: when do I cross the line from an objective, though negative, analysis of national differences into cynicism and prejudice?

In any case, it is because of these fears that I feel so confused and disturbed when I experience a total breakdown in cross-cultural communication such as the one I described here. In my eyes, this woman was mocking me to my face and then refusing to actually speak to me – treating me like a child or even a dumb animal . . . but clearly that is not at all how this woman or the other Liberians interpreted this situation. And I can't help but wonder if I, in my frustration and lack of understanding, am unconsciously reinforcing my own hidden racist tendencies, becoming less instead of more understanding. And that thought terrifies me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


This has not been a good week (. . . and it's only Wednesday . . . ).

Things really started to go downhill yesterday, when a student from my 7th-grade afternoon class sat down in the teacher's lounge and proceeded to tell me about his problems with one of his classmates. Apparently, she has been insulting his father and he wants to “beat her.” (“I will beat her. I will beat her on the campus. I will beat her in the streets.”) When I told him that this was probably not a great idea, he proceeded to inform me that nobody has any respect for me and that the students don't listen to anything I say. He said that I don't punish the students enough, that sending them out of the classroom isn't really a punishment at all because they don't care about school anyway. When I suggested that he could bring the girl in and we could talk about whatever problems they might have, he said that it would be pointless since she wouldn't listen to anything I have to say anyway. Irritated, I told him that if that's what he thought then he shouldn't even have bothered talking to me in the first place, but should go talk to someone who he thinks is capable of dealing with the problem.

So he went to find another teacher, and I sat in the teacher's lounge and thought about what he said. Up until now, I've pretty much been ignoring a lot of the little petty fights that go on in the classroom. The students are always fighting over school supplies (“He took my pen!”) and other stupid shit, and it's usually impossible for me to figure out who is in the wrong. So most of the time I tell them to sit down and shut up and do their work and work it out later. I'm here to teach, I keep thinking, not to babysit a bunch of 14-year-olds, even if it sometimes seems like most of them have the emotional maturity of toddlers.

And I think this whole approach has been completely wrong. I guess I was hoping that the students would shape up somewhat once they saw their report cards. I naively thought they might realize that I was going to give them the grade that they earned (be it passing or failing), and that they would not be able to beg or bribe or whine their way out of a failing grade, and that this would motivate them to pay more attention in class. But as my student pointed out, it doesn't work that way, because a lot of them really don't give a shit about school at all. The students believe that I need to be keeping them in line, and the fact that I let them get away with their petty bickering means that I'm weak and irrelevant and undeserving of their respect or attention.

So as I thought this (and realized that I probably should have made more of an effort to understand the students' viewpoint 8 months ago when I first came instead of waiting until it was too late and I was about to go home), the student came back into the room and started repeating all the reasons that his classmates think I'm a laughingstock. And as he went on and on and on about my incompetence, I started getting really pissed, and (it makes me cringe just to think about this) I cut him off and told him I was sorry he had a problem but I just couldn't talk to him about it anymore right then, and that he needed to leave, and when he stood there and looked at me like I was crazy I said he needed to get out get out GET OUT OF THE ROOM!!

Not my proudest moment. Even less admirable was what I did next, which was to be really, really irritable, mean, and impatient with the 7th grade class as they were taking their marking period exam (“READ THE DIRECTIONS! MAKE A LIST! A LIST!! DO YOU KNOW WHAT A LIST IS?” I kept shouting as 30 kids repeatedly asked me the same question about a very simple, clearly explained test item, which I had just explained aloud to the class. Strangely enough, screaming at them neither improved their literacy skills nor made it easier for them to understand my accent).

In addition to the incident with that student, this week has been particularly rotten because we are giving exams, which are always hellish. I know I've complained many times about the cheating before, but it still just blows my mind that it's not just a few – or a bunch – of bad apples; IT'S ALL OF THEM. The second I walk over to address one cheater, twenty people start exchanging answers behind my back. I've torn up probably 10 test papers in the last few days and taken points away for talking from maybe two dozen more, and it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. The 10th-grade kids actually laugh at me now when I go over the no-cheating policy, because they know that they are just going to go ahead and cheat anyway and that, for the most part, there's nothing I can do about it.

So yeah. I'm frustrated with work in general, and I'm angry with myself for being impatient and immature and taking my student's comments so personally. I'm especially upset because I know he's right: the students' behavioral issues are exacerbated by my inability or unwillingness to deal with them appropriately.

Having said all that, I can't help but make the connection again between the “catch me if you can” attitude I see in the students and some of the issues with society here as a whole. The idea that “someone needs to keep me in line” explains a lot, in my eyes. The stealing, corruption, all of that – a lot of people seem to think that it is the responsibility of those in power and not the individuals in the society to maintain order. There is very little sense of personal responsibility. I can only guess as to why this mentality exists and is so widespread, but I think that, to an extent, it probably developed during the civil war. Sometimes – I think because it's just so hard for me to imagine it – I forget just how recent and how brutal the war really was (very and very). If I think about it, I can see how people who have just come through a violent period of anarchy might be more inclined to believe that the ends justify the means, that they should do whatever they need to do to get by, even if it involves law- or rule-breaking.

Anyway. Thankfully, I have only one more exam to give, and then I don't have to face the students again until next Monday. And after that, there are just a few weeks left until I go home. I just hope that I can make it to the end of the year before I discover any more unpleasant realities about how poorly I deal with stressful situations.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Update on the “break-in” I wrote about last week: It turns out that the two men I saw were trying to steal a station wagon that was parked just outside my bedroom window. Thus the loud metallic sound that woke me, which I interpreted as coming from my tin roof, was actually due to the men's clumsy efforts to get into the car. I'm definitely embarrassed to have allowed my paranoid imagination run away with me, but I'm also quite relieved that the thieves had nothing to do with me or my house.


As the end of my service draws near, I've started thinking about what I'm going to do with all of my crap when I go home. I'm definitely going to leave most of my clothes and extra toiletries and all of that with my neighbors; that part is easy. But what do I do with some of the more expensive things -- my laptop, for example, or my old mp3 players? The laptop is kind of a piece of shit, a Linux-based netbook purchased for $150 online just as the netbook phenomenon was starting to take off. But although it's very basic – it can't do much more than run Firefox and a word processor – it's still a reliable, functioning computer, which are hard to come by here. Do I sell it to someone for cheap? Do I give it to the school? Or do I take it back home and continue to use it until it craps out? The problem is, even though I could certainly afford to buy another cheap little netbook, I don't want to leave the one I have with someone unless I am absolutely sure they will put it to good use . . . and I don't know if anyone will.

And then there is the issue of what, if anything, I want to do for the school when I leave. The principal of the school (who I really, really like . . . actually, the entire administration of the school is pretty great) has been not-so-subtly hinting that he wants me to raise money or donations when I get back to the US. A previous volunteer just had seven boxes of donated textbooks shipped over to put in the school's library, and the principal has mentioned this several times and even made me look at the boxes and a couple of the books inside.

The problem is, I don't really want to give anything to the school. It's not because I'm mean (although if I'm being 100% honest, it is partially because I am lazy). I just don't know what I could donate that would actually be useful. The idea of books is nice . . . but the school already has a pretty decent library full of used books, many of which sit on the shelves unused. I'm not sure how useful it is to spend a lot of time and money collecting old unwanted books from one continent and shipping them over to another continent, where they will be equally as old and unwanted. Do the students here really need another twenty copies of health books aimed at American teenagers? I've flipped through a couple of the health books in the library and it's shocking how little is relevant to peoples' lives here. Teens growing up in an environment in which malaria, diarrheal diseases, and malnutrition are still major problems have more pressing concerns than the emotional changes accompanying puberty, which seems to be the focus of a lot of these books. And the passages on relationships and sexual health, which are significant concerns in a country with such a high teen pregnancy rate, just do not apply in a non-Western culture.

So, if I'm not going to seek out book donations for the school, what can I give? When I initially arrived at the school, the principal told me he wanted help building a science laboratory. But I'm not overly thrilled by that idea either, mostly because of my experiences during my first Peace Corps service. My school in Kenya had a pretty well-stocked laboratory, which was the pride of the headmistress and which still figures in my nightmares. Reactive chemicals – purchased and never used – were improperly stored in crumbling containers. The one time I took my class of 35 into the lab to do a practical, which involved nothing more complicated than measuring the temperature of boiling water, the ancient tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas tap caught fire (twice) and two students broke mercury thermometers. Terrified, I ordered the students out of the lab, and henceforth I never allowed them to use anything more dangerous than a magnifying lens. The mere thought of trying to do any kind of lab activity with the unruly 150-person chemistry class I have here makes me break out in a cold sweat.

All of these examples illustrate the fundamental problem with donations. My basic issue is that all of the things it would be easiest for me to obtain are not the things that the school really needs. The school is desperately in need of money and resources, yes . . . but that money really needs to go to the teachers, first and foremost, so that they start coming to class and stop accepting student bribes. Class sizes need to be reduced before the students can really start making use of donated “stuff” -- books and lab supplies and all that. The students could definitely benefit from computer classes, but the few computers that the school owns stand useless throughout most of the day because the school can't afford the generator fuel to run them or the salary for a computer instructor. And none of these are issues that I can easily fix. They have no one-time solution, but require a continued inflow of cash.

So once again, I'm stuck in a situation that has no good solution. I can be lazy and do nothing, despite the fact that I know the school really does need resources. Or I could try to collect donations of books or school supplies in the States, knowing as I ship them that they are unnecessary and probably not all that helpful, and the only reason I'm even bothering is to quiet the little voice in my head that tells me I should be doing SOMETHING.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I saw a great T-shirt today. In sassy lettering across the chest of a large Liberian man, it said: “I'M NOT ONLY PERFECT, I'M ALSO A REDHEAD” (. . . which seemed like unnecessary repetition to me, but whatever).

Both here and in Kenya, everyday attire is a wonderful, colorful mix of Western and African styles. Tailors in Liberia are cheap, numerous, and skillful, and lappa (bright cotton wax-print fabric, mostly manufactured in other West African countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria) is sold everywhere. Many people (especially women) reserve their tailor-made African suits for Sundays and other special occasions, while wearing cheaper Western used clothing during other days of the week.

The women's African suits are absolutely beautiful. There are many different styles, from medieval-looking princess dresses with flowing sleeves, to severe square-cut suits with boxy 80's-style shoulders, to outfits featuring sleeveless tops and skirts that are tight around the thighs but flare out around the lower legs (reminding me of a mermaid tail). They are almost always flattering on every shape of woman, being tailor-made to her specifications. (I adore these outfits, but am far too aware of my whiteness to wear a complete African suit. As a compromise, I often wear a mix of African and Western clothes – like a tailor-made skirt with a tank top – which has the benefit of making me look completely ridiculous by both Liberian and American standards).

The Western clothing is almost all used and varies greatly in quality. Younger women and professional men tend to dress in very attractive, well-put-together Western outfits – cute tank tops and funky skirts or jeans for the girls, and neatly pressed collared shirts with khakis or business suits for the men. Everyday work clothes, on the other hand, tend to be of the Goodwill reject variety. Did you ever wonder what happens to the T-shirts of 14-year-old princesses once their owners grow tired of them? They're here, letting the world know that a Liberian mother of two is “SPOILED ROTTEN.” The “WORLD'S GREATEST GRANDMA” is apparently a middle-aged Liberian man, and, though I wouldn't have guessed it on first glance, there are several people here who would like someone to “KISS ME I'M IRISH.”

Then, of course, there is the massive merchandising machine that is Obama gear. Ugly, poorly printed Obama T-shirts, often an obnoxiously bright red, white, and blue, are everywhere. Obama keychains (many of which appear to be manufactured in someone's basement from pictures they found online), ostentatious Obama belt buckles, Obama backpacks, and Obama flip-flops (with “BARACK” or “OBAMA” printed along the sole) are hugely popular. I've even seen Obama jeans, the “OBAMA” daintily embroidered in fancy script over the right butt cheek, next to an intricately rendered picture of a dragon. Basically, if you can imagine it, someone in African will slap a picture of Obama on it and make a profit. (Who knew that the our national politics would revolutionize the fashion industry a continent away?)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The past few days have been more than usually eventful (. . . although that isn't saying much, given how boring my day-to-day life tends to be). Let me divide it up for you:

THE GOOD: Because of Easter, we had a 4-day weekend, and I decided to take advantage of it to do something I haven't really done since I've been here: travel. I didn't go very far – just to the next county over, River Gee, to visit another volunteer who is teaching there. He showed me around the town and we dorked out and watched nearly a full season's worth of Battlestar Galactica (side note: HOLY SHIT SO GOOD . . . how had I never watched this show before??). I traveled back on Sunday in the “YOU SEE?,” a run-down yellow cab. The trip back was interesting (though not particularly comfortable – 3 hours of sharing the passenger seat with a large woman, trying to make myself as small as possible so as not to get in the way of the driver as he shifted gears). We saw, among other things: a man wearing some kind of small marsupial-like animal around his wrist like a bracelet, an abandoned overturned truck, and several dead monkeys for sale hanging from sticks along the side of the road (if you're wondering what the going rate for dead monkeys is, one of the passengers bought one for 275 LD – about $4).

What really struck me about that part of Liberia was the isolation. The road was a narrow, unpaved, red-dirt affair, cutting through thick, green jungle. Periodically we passed through a tiny village, but other than that, the road was almost completely deserted. And my friend informed me that there are many more villages beyond the small ones we passed – villages that are not connected to the rest of civilization by any road at all.

THE BAD: I'm sick again. Once again, it's (fortunately) not bad enough to really worry about, but it is enough to be unpleasant. I've spent the majority of the last day and a half either in bed or in my bathroom. Of course, I can't really complain, since it's probably my own fault. You would think I'd have learned my lesson by now about eating questionable things, but apparently not . . . although, in my defense, nearly all of the food options here are pretty questionable . . .

THE UGLY: I think that someone tried to break into my house Sunday night. I was awakened at 4:30 AM by a very loud noise, which sounded to me as though someone was trying to get up onto my roof. (Although, to be objective, it might have been my imagination; I've been really paranoid lately about noises in the middle of the night. Another volunteer's house was broken into while he was at work not too long ago, and since there was no sign of forced entry, they deduced that the thieves had been able to enter through the gap between the walls and the roof. Ever since then, I've interpreted every little unidentifiable sound – every mouse squeak, every roach skitter – as somebody trying to come in through my ceiling. So it's possible that my half-awake brain interpreted the loud noise as someone on the roof simply because that is what I'm most afraid of).

Frightened at the thought of being locked into my house with an uninvited intruder, I opened the front door and went out onto the porch (noticing that my screen door, which I'm in the habit of latching before I lock my main door, was unlatched, suggesting that someone had been trying to enter through the front door). There, I spied a man with a flashlight hiding in the shadows of my neighbor's house, looking toward my bedroom. He flashed the light on me and then quickly flashed it away, and then casually walked out of the compound towards town with another man who appeared from behind the neighbor's house.

The next day, I asked my landlord if he had any idea why two strange men would have been hanging out around our houses in the middle of the night. He talked with my other neighbors, who had also been awakened by the sound that awakened me and who had gone outside to investigate. Apparently, when they saw the two men and inquired as to what the hell they were doing, the men just walked away without answering.

Needless to say, the whole thing freaked me right the fuck out. I talked with Peace Corps, who talked with the local police, but there's really not much that anyone can do (Peace Corps did offer to ask the police to camp out outside my house, but that seemed like overkill to me . . . especially since I don't know for sure what those shady guys were up to). My landlord reassured me that my house is constructed in such a way that it would not be possible for someone to come in through the roof, which made me feel better. And I'm definitely going to be much more careful now about closing and deadbolting the heavy wooden shutters over my barred windows; I can't imagine that anyone would be able to get in through them without making enough noise to wake me and alert the neighbors. Still, I won't lie – I definitely won't be sleeping as soundly as I have been . . . which between the heat and the mouse, rat, and roach noises has not been all that soundly anyway . . .

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bad Behavior

I've been reading another international development book, by another white man who has worked extensively in Africa and thinks he can solve its problems. It's called Aid And Other Dirty Business, by Giles Bolton, and it's actually quite good. It's much less pompous, more readable, and less reliant on incomplete or anecdotal evidence than The End Of Poverty, and it's more concrete and optimistic than The White Man's Burden.

But I'm not going to bore you with another entry on other peoples' analyses of why Africa is such a clusterfuck. Instead, I'm going to bore you with another entry about ethics. I mention this book only because, nestled among the relatively dry ruminations over why foreign aid is such a mess, Bolton has a page-long side note about a disturbing though interesting topic: the fact that many Westerners take advantage of the thriving prostitution business in Africa.

Bolton doesn't have a great deal to say about this; his point is mainly that many Westerners, despite being perfectly lovely people in their home countries, feel free to engage in morally questionable acts when they are in Africa. He suggests that “it's extraordinary how people and countries will behave when they think no one's looking and they can get away with it”
(the “and countries” is in there because Bolton is using individual expats' bad behavior as an analogy for the way in which wealthy countries often renege on their promises to provide aid to developing countries – at least when voters in the powerful countries fail to demand that their leaders live up to those promises).

It's definitely true that expatriates in Africa can get away with a great deal. In general, expats enjoy more freedom abroad than they do in their home countries. Law enforcement is minimal in many African countries, and the sad reality is that this is especially true where expatriates are concerned (particularly those from powerful Western countries). Beyond that: money equals power, and a little bit of Western money goes a long way here. Many American expats can and do reside in luxurious houses with support staff, a lifestyle they would not be able to afford in the US. In addition, because of the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of many African systems, those with money have the potential to exert much more political control than they would in most Western countries. The result of all this is a place in which expats can and do act according to their whims. And since Westerners who are attracted to the idea of living in Africa are frequently, to put it kindly, adventurous people, and, to put it less kindly, nearly always strange ones, this freedom results in a dishearteningly large number of people engaging in activities that are illegal and/or unethical.

Still, I think that the implication that expats suddenly become willing to do things that they would not dare to do at home, simply because they are not likely to be punished for their actions, is not entirely correct. “Right” and “wrong” are situational, and an action that is unquestionably “right” in the US may be badly advised in a place like Liberia. As an example: although it would be considered amoral to withhold CPR from someone who needs it in the US, it would probably not be a great idea to give somebody CPR here. It would be pointless, since anyone who is at the point of needing CPR is pretty much a goner anyway in the absence of good emergency medical care. And it could actually do the potential do-gooder harm; CPR is a pretty violent act in practice, and could be misconstrued by people who are not familiar with it and do not understand its purpose.

As another example: In the US, we have an idea that, if we witness a wrong act and do nothing to stop it, we are also culpable. But here, where law enforcement is practically non-existent, that doesn't necessarily hold true. One of the reasons that it was so upsetting to hear my drugged-up neighbor abusing his wives when I first arrived was that I kept thinking “I should stop this!” But what could I – a small woman and a recently arrived foreigner – have done, with no police to call to stop the abuse? Doing nothing, while unthinkable in the US, became the only viable option.

Anyway, my point is that living in a foreign country and a different culture inevitably requires a person to think carefully about the morality of his or her actions, and possibly even to act in a way that would be considered amoral in the US. I am not saying that to excuse the actions of Westerners who abuse their artificial power and exploit host country nationals – like the middle-aged European men who are the stereotypical consumers of the African sex trade. Still, I think that it is important to recognize that anybody who lives in a foreign country for an extended period of time is going to end up re-evaluating his or her ethics, consciously or unconsciously. The problem, I think, is when people do the latter – adjust their morals without being aware that they have done so. It is all too easy for well-intentioned people (including not only those sleazy middle-aged white men, but also young, lonely Peace Corps volunteers) to justify behaviors that they would consider unacceptable in other circumstances.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Little Things

Much better today. It's the little things that do it. An NGO worker pointed out a cute little tea shop in town where you can buy fried egg sandwiches for 35 LD (about 50 cents), and the sandwiches are warm and delicious and contain no bones or intestines whatsoever. The kids around my house (the ones I know and like) have been extra enthusiastic lately, shouting out my name as soon as they spot me coming down the road toward the house and running up to say hello and grab my hand. I've had rice bread for breakfast almost every day this week (a not particularly tasty but somehow very satisfying snack made of pounded rice, oil, and bananas; in the mornings, women and children sell bite-sized slices of it out of buckets they carry on their heads, and I always consider myself lucky if I can buy a few pieces before it sells out). And best of all: yesterday, a teacher randomly came up to me and said I was doing a great job, that the students notice I work hard and tell their other teachers that I make them work hard too.

So yes, things are OK.

Classes have been going relatively well also. It's funny how certain subjects are so much easier for the students to grasp than others. The ones I think should be a breeze often end up being incredibly confusing, and the ones that seem tricky are a piece of cake for the kids. In my general science class, the most confusing and frustrating subject we covered was an overview of the scientific method (too abstract, I think). Yet although the students are still hopelessly confused about this topic, they easily grasped my brief introduction to physics and the topic we are covering now, taxonomy of living things. My math students are having no trouble whatsoever with prime factorization, but addition and subtraction of large numbers still gives them problems – not to mention the most confusing topic we attempted to cover, and which I eventually gave up on: multiplying and dividing by powers of ten.

Of course, a lot of this seeming incongruity has to do with the way the kids are taught in primary school. Concrete topics – even somewhat complex ones – are by far easier for the students to understand than ones requiring critical thinking, which is likely due to the fact that many teachers still teach using rote memorization. But what I find more interesting to think about is the ways in which the students' everyday lives affect their comprehension of certain subjects. For example, the reason that multiplying and dividing by powers of ten was so confusing for the kids was that many of them simply don't get what a decimal point means, and so my instructions to move the decimal to the left or right were not helpful (I realized this after I found out some of my students literally could not tell the difference between the numbers .01, .001, .00001, or 1. My pet theory about why decimals are so difficult here is this: The currency here does not use cents. From a very young ages, Americans are forced to learn the meaning of a decimal; 5 cents, 50 cents and 50 dollars are very different things. But here, where the smallest unit of currency is a 5-LD note (about 7 cents), decimals are rarely used.

In any case, decimals are just one example of the ways in which the most random things – like the currency we grow up with – can affect the way we think. It's funny to think of all of the things we learn without knowing, and to realize that the place in which we are raised can change something as fundamental as our reasoning -- our very brains, in fact.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The End Is Too Far Away

It's hard for me to think of things to write here lately, because my internal thought process has been going something like this: “I want to go home . . . I want to go home . . . I want to go home I WANNA GO HOME I WANNA GO HOME IWANNAGOHOMMMMEE!!!”

To be honest, at this point, I'm just sick of it all. I'm sick of the apathetic students, the disorganization of the school, my feeling of complete impotence when dealing with student behavior issues. I'm sick of kids I don't know yelling shit at me from the side of the road or running up to touch my skin with dirty, sweaty hands. I'm sick of finding pieces of cow stomach and other organs in my food. I'm sick of the dishonesty and the dysfunctionality of everything. I'm sick of being made fun of all the fucking time.

Most of all, I'm sick of myself. More than ever, I feel hideously unattractive lately, both inside and out. I'm cynical and negative and I can't be patient with the students anymore. The more they make fun of me, the more irritable I get, which just adds fuel to the fire. I'm lazy; it's a real effort for me to force myself to grade the students' half-assed homework attempts, and I find myself escaping from school to use the internet more and more often. I'm unnecessarily cranky with people I don't know, and withdrawn, quiet, and boring with people I do. I'm frustrated and unhappy with my total incompetence at work and in my social life.

So yeah, that's where things stand right now. Now that the end is in sight (less than 2 months to go), I'm constantly fighting the urge to just give up and say: “Sorry, Liberia. Sorry I failed. Sorry I suck at life. Sorry your country is so fucked up. Good luck with all that, but I don't want to deal with your problems any more.”

Friday, March 19, 2010


In Kenya, public transport vehicles are often outrageously decorated. A minibus might not have seat cushions, windows, or brakes, but it will frequently be covered in colorful artwork, including a boldly lettered name emblazoned across the front or the back of the car. Sometimes the name makes sense, like “ROAD WARRIOR,” although more often it is completely non sequitur. Inside, it is common to see English and Swahili bumper stickers, many of them religious in nature (“JESUS IS ALIVE” or “THIS VEHICLE IS WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB”). The fanciest vehicles in Nairobi contain a small TV (always blasting music videos) or colored neon lights.

While there are far fewer public transport vehicles in general in Liberia, the majority of the few that I see around town also are externally decorated with names (“BILL 2000”) or – even better – slogans. “DON'T BE CORRUPT” is one that I saw printed across the door of a pickup truck, and “NO WORK NO RESPECT” or variations thereon seem to be popular (which is, as a side note, somewhat bizarre in a country in which over 70% of the population is unemployed).

But my all-time favorite slogan – one that I think perfectly captures travel in Africa – is one that I saw today. The back bumper of the dilapidated, overloaded station wagon simply said (and I quote exactly): “THIANK GOD WE MADE IT.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


So I just read the book Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Basically, it's one woman's analysis of marriage in Western culture. Although I wouldn't recommend it, it's not terrible – it makes some interesting points – and it has gotten me thinking about cross-cultural relationships.

One of the things that I find the most profoundly confusing here is Liberians' approach to relationships and marriage. (Of course, to be fair, I find romantic relationships profoundly confusing in the US as well. But that's another story, and not one for this blog). As Gilbert debates seemingly endlessly in her book, we as Americans are inundated with all kinds of confusing messages about what a spouse and a marriage should and should not be. But somewhere inside the relatively superficial discourse on gender roles in, the influence of religious and traditional values on, and the legal issues surrounding marriage, there is one basic supposition that affects our views on relationships: our romantic partner should be someone that we like and get along with.

That fundamental assumption doesn't necessarily hold here. A spouse, in many cases, is a work partner, someone to produce and raise children with, to run a household with – not primarily a companion. Companionship comes from other sources in the community – friends and extended family. Of course, with the ever-increasing influence of Western culture, this approach (like everything else) is changing. Still, my conversations with Liberians on relationships often leave me thinking, “what the fuck??!”

A good example of how dissimilar relationships here are to those in the US is the marriage of my landlord. When I first arrived in Liberia, he was living with his 10-year-old son and a young woman who I initially assumed was his daughter. I and my roommate soon discovered, however, that she was his wife. About two months after my arrival, my landlord and this woman got into a screaming, shouting argument (actually, I think the wife was the only one shouting), punctuated by the sounds of the wife punching the doorframe and perhaps also her husband. The next day, the woman packed up and left.

Here's where things get confusing: The next week, a new wife arrived – an extremely large, solid, bad-tempered, and very capable woman. Apparently, the young, attractive “wife” who had left was not actually a wife at all, but a woman he had semi-permanently shacked up with. This wife (who arrived with his 9-year-old daughter in tow) was his real wife, although she had been living somewhere else for the past God knows how many months or years.

So yeah, in addition to being based less around companionship and more around necessity, relationships here are also relatively fluid. I'm constantly surprised at how open many people are about infidelity. Actually, I'm constantly surprised at how open people are about sex in general. Yesterday, when I walked into my seventh-grade class, most of the kids were holding big packs of condoms, which some NGO or other organization had distributed that morning (which is great from a public health standpoint, but slightly distracting when one is trying to teach division).

In any case, because of all of these factors, I personally would be extremely hesitant to enter into a relationship with a Liberian. Admitting this is not easy; to be honest, it makes me feel like a terrible racist. I wince every time a Liberian man asks me “Why won't you marry a Liberian?” or, even worse, “Why don't white women marry black men?” It's not only the outrageous rudeness of the questions that gets to me, but the small part of me that has to admit, “Maybe it's because I am/we are horribly prejudiced.” And yet, I can't envision entering into a relationship with someone who doesn't share my most basic outlook on relationships, someone from a culture that has totally different standards of morality, someone from a place in which lying is standard practice and women are still often second-class citizens. Beyond that, as I said before, the actual and perceived wealth differences between myself and the majority of people around me are very large; this, combined with the fact that many people see marriage to an American as a golden ticket to the land of plenty, is enough to make me very suspicious of anyone's intents.

And yet, even after acknowledging that there are most certainly exceptions, that there are without a doubt attractive Liberian men who would make wonderful husbands by Western standards, I still can't help but feel uneasy as I read over what I just wrote . . . because it sounds eerily similar to every racist argument that's ever been made against any cross-cultural partnership (“they're just too different, it could never really work out” or, even worse, “I think they're wonderful people, but I wouldn't marry one myself”). So I wonder, at what point does being realistically cautious about a situation cross the line into being closed-minded and prejudiced?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bad Decisions

I'm irritable today.

It might have something to do with the fact that a medium-sized rat has taken up residence in my room. Being woken up at 3 AM by vague but very loud rustling noises, and knowing that you cannot simply turn on the lights but instead must wander blindly over to the vicinity of the unidentified intruder to light a candle, which then might or might not illuminate something terrifying . . . contrary to what you might think, it's not fun. But after 3 nights of hiding in my bed with my music turned way up to drown out the scary noises, I had finally had enough of my unwelcome visitor, and last night I decided to grow a pair and deal with it.

So let me tell you how not to deal with a rat in your room. Don't spray it with insect poison, even really strong and effective insect poison, because it won't kill the rat. What the poison will do is linger in the air for the rest of the night, prevent you from sleeping soundly, and provide you with a nasty headache in the morning.

Of course, most of you are probably smarter than I am and wouldn't even have considered this tactic. In my defense, it was a desperation measure;. I have not yet found traps or rat poison available for sale in town, but instead only an extremely ineffective and messy product called Rat Glue. The alternative to Rat Glue, which I tried before I resorted to the insect poison, is attempting to manually eliminate the rat, which in my case involved chasing it around for an hour with a broom by candlelight and unsuccessfully attempting to smash its brains in on my concrete floor.

So yeah, the whole vermin situation certainly isn't helping my mood (although, thankfully, the bats have been vanquished; my landlord installed a screen over the hole in the ceiling that prevents them from flying into the house). But there are more important reasons I'm in such an awful mood lately, and they all relate to several decisions I've made that are now coming back to bite me in the ass.

The first decision I made was school-related. This period, I flat-out failed any student who showed any evidence of cheating on this period exam, giving them the lowest possible grade for the period (the Ministry of Education specifies that all students must receive at least a grade of 50%, even if they do 0% of the work). I also decided that students who failed the exam would not be given the opportunity to take a make-up exam. And, furthermore, I took 10% off of the grade of every student I heard or saw talking during the exam, whether or not there was any sign they were actually cheating.

From my American perspective, this does not seem like an unreasonable approach. And I clearly warned the students beforehand of what I was going to do. But because cheating is so widespread, and the kids are so used to getting away with it, this zero-tolerance policy has resulted in a LOT of trouble with the students. In my 150-person chemistry class, 21 kids received a 0 on the exam, and about a dozen more lost points for talking. The percentage of kids in my class who are failing is extraordinarily high, well over half.

So my students are confused and hurt and blame me for their failures. Two students came to my door at 8 AM this morning to argue with me about their grades. And while I spent the better part of an hour explaining to them that, yes, the evidence that they were cheating was irrefutable, and no, I wasn't buying their lame explanations, and yes, they were going to fail this period, and no, they could not have a second chance, and no, they should not blame ME for giving them a 0 when they were the ones who had made the stupid decision to cheat after I expressly warned them what would happen to cheaters . . . this clearly wasn't getting through. I'm pretty sure that, regardless of what I was saying, what they were hearing was this: “I am the teacher and I have the power and I am the one making the decisions, and you are fucked because I have decided to fail you. Sucks to be you!”

So yeah, even though I don't know what else I can do, I still can't help but feel that maybe I'm being too harsh, that being such a stickler isn't really helping anybody. If the students are taking away nothing but anger toward me, I haven't accomplished anything.

The other decision I made recently that has not worked out so well is more administrative in nature: I am going to leave before June 26th, my official end of service. I made this decision after I found out that the school year, for all intents and purposes, ends in mid-May. There are two weeks in May during which no students are allowed on the campus (during this time, the seniors will be taking the standardized national high school examination). Students then return to school the first week in June to take their final exams.

Following this schedule would mean that I would basically sit around for half of May and most of June with nothing to do. This sounds horrible to me, and anyway, I have things to do back in the States – such as being in a good friend's wedding and preparing to start med school in July. So, I talked to the principal and he agreed that, instead of waiting around, I can give my exams on the last day of class in May and then peace out.

When I talked to Peace Corps to see if they could move up my official close of service date, since I will have completed the project I came here to do, they sent me a series of unpleasant emails implying that I was uncommitted, that I was disappointing Peace Corps and my school by wanting to go home early, that I had some ulterior motive (??), that it was “inappropriate” for me to give my exams early, and that they absolutely would not grant me an early close of service. This, shockingly, did not change my mind about not wanting hang around in Liberia for an extra month, chasing rats around with brooms at 3 AM. Of course, Peace Corps can't physically stop me from leaving, but this means that I will essentially have to “quit” and accept the fact that, in Peace Corps' official eyes, I was not a “successful” volunteer with a “successfully completed” service.

So although they didn't make me change my mind about leaving early, what the emails did do was make me feel shitty about everything I'm trying to do here. Of course, it doesn't take much to make me feel shitty about that, especially given the situation with the students lately. There's a part of me that knows I wouldn't be nearly so upset by all of this if I were 100% confident that I was making the right decisions – that the fact that most of my students are failing doesn't mean I'm a total failure as a teacher, that my rigidity with cheaters is totally justifiable, that my desire to go home early doesn't mean that I'm a terrible person or a flake. But I'm not confident of any of those things. There's a little voice in the back of my mind that keeps saying, “Peace Corps is right. You signed up for 10 months and you should stay for 10 months. You're lazy and you're finding excuses to go home early. If you were more committed, if you were more understanding, if you were a better teacher, your students would not be doing so poorly and you would be able to do something constructive with your time outside of school.” And I can't quiet that voice because I have a nagging sensation that it is correct.

Monday, March 8, 2010


I've been entering my students' grades into my laptop, and thus have spent a great deal of time lately looking at long lists of student names. So I'm finally inspired to write about something I've been meaning to address for awhile: Names and naming.

Traditional African names (to make a vast over-generalization) generally have a specific meaning. Sometimes the meaning is relatively trivial. At my site in Kenya, with the Kalenjin tribe, children were usually named after the time of day during which they were born. This, in my humble opinion, is not a great way of doing things. In a class of 40, I generally had 10 “born-in-the-mornings,” 10 “born-in-the-afternoons,” and 10 “born-in-the-evenings, with a few strange ones thrown in (my favorite being Chepchirchir – born-when-there-was-a-lot-of-activity-and-everybody-was-running- around-like-crazy). Most people had a “Western” name as well – Judith and Daisy were popular girls' names – and then a family name.

Here, it seems as though a lot of people also have an African name, a family name, and a Western name, but most people go by their Western names. The funny thing is, although these names are certainly recognizable to Americans, they are unusual and sometimes unintentionally hilarious. Names with meaning are popular: “Princess” and “Prince” are by far the most common, while “Promise,” “Patience,” “Precious,” “Love,” and “Secret” are also frequently encountered. There are a few names that seem outrageously pretentious by American standards; for example “Glorious,” “Wise,” and “Holy” are three of my students. Archaic and Biblical names are also very popular (names that I personally had previously associated more with cranky elderly white folk than strapping young West Africans). I have an “Ebenezer,” an “Ezekiel,” and several “Emmanuels,” “Ophelias,” “Reginalds,” “Alvins,” “Melvins,” and “Sylvesters.”

The traditional African names in this region, from what I've been told, seem to have relatively complex meanings. The principal gave me the Krahn name “Zarkpa,” which he tells me roughly means “someone who is making up for the shortcomings of his predecessors.” Apparently, this name is frequently given to children who have had older siblings that died. (The reason the principal gave that name to me is somewhat less morbid: In the past two years, the school has had two Peace Corps volunteers who each stayed for only six weeks before going home; hence, I am making up for their departures. No pressure or anything).

And then there are a few names that, as a white American, make me somewhat uncomfortable. There are several “Browns” in my classes (I always think “thank God my parents didn't name me 'Pink'”). And one kid in my neighborhood simply goes by “Black Boy.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The President's Visit

I just met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia. She shook my hand, thanked me and my sitemate for our service to Liberia, and posed for a picture.

Too fucking cool, right??!

One of the bizarre and interesting things about Peace Corps is that sometimes it allows you to be more important than you actually are. Even though we're the lowest of the low on the international service totem pole, we represent something that everybody can love. It's hard to argue with Peace Corps in the abstract, even if the reality of it doesn't quite live up to the ideal.

And so by virtue of our status as living symbols of goodwill, we sometimes get paraded around in front of people who are much more important than we are (“Look, poor American volunteers!!! See how great the US is for sending these?? Ain't we somethin??”). Tonight, I was lucky enough to attend a relatively small dinner at the Chinese UN compound, where some of the guests included the American Ambassador to Liberia, the Chinese Ambassador to Liberia, and the President of Liberia herself. The whole thing was awkward and intimidating (thank God my sitemate was there as well) – but at the same time, it was an incredibly cool and unique opportunity. (Also, it was tasty – a nice change from plantains, cassava, peanuts, and rice).

To back up a little bit: The President arrived in town on Monday evening. Wednesday, it was announced that she would be visiting my high school and the adjacent midwifery training school. The principal thought she would be arriving around 10:00 AM; however, nobody was able to confirm a time. At 8:00 AM, I and the students arrived at school as usual. By 9:00, everyone had piled into the auditorium. Three hours later, word arrived that Her Excellency was on her way. A dozen or so Indian UN police appeared on the campus around 12:30, and several (strangely casually attired) security members began a short and extremely pointless sweep of the front quarter of the auditorium. Shortly thereafter, the President and her entourage (rhymes with “encourage” in Liberian English) appeared.

The ceremony proceeded in true Liberian style, with prayer, singing, speeches, and of course lots of requests to the President for money and resources. It ended, however, in a somewhat more dramatic than usual fashion. Just as the President was preparing to exit, a teacher from the high school stood up and shouted that he had a BURNING ISSUE TO ADDRESS with the President. After a short and very embarrassed period of confusion, the President allowed him to take a microphone and present his complaints, the chief of which was: Most of the school's teachers have not been paid in over a year.

After hearing this (extremely valid) concern, the Minister of Education took the microphone and explained that they are aware that some teachers are not getting paid. He also explained that they had issued some checks that were supposed to have gone to the teachers and, gosh darn it, they just couldn't figure out where all that money ended up; it seemed to have disappeared somehow. But rest assured, they were doing their best to track it down, and if the teachers could just be patient a little bit longer, they would all get paid in the near future. (OK, I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it).

In any case, the whole thing was very exciting. It also reinforced the precarious position of the President – a lot is demanded of her, and the Government's resources are very few. Foreign countries are (rightly) becoming more and more loathe to lend or give money because of the rampant corruption. It's difficult to make any headway of any sort without resources, and people are quick to blame the President and the Government of Liberia when they do not see immediate and dramatic improvements in their everyday lives. (Of course, to be fair, I suppose that all of these problems exist, to a greater or lesser extent, in every government; witness all of the flak that Obama is taking these days).

Anyway. In any case, I should go to bed. With the thrill of meeting two Ambassadors and a President, not to mention the excitement of eating Chinese food, I've had about all I can handle for one evening.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I'm supposed to be giving an exam right now. This particular exam was scheduled to be given last Thursday, and has now been postponed twice – once because school was canceled for a soccer match, and again because school was canceled to clean up for the President's visit. Now, the exam is going to be delayed a third time, because three-quarters of the students decided not to show up for school today (apparently, again, because of the Presidential visit tomorrow).

I am no longer surprised by any of this. I will, however, allow myself to cynically observe that the whole situation beautifully illustrates the priorities here: Soccer first, then politics, and then, -- falling way, way below those and a score of other things – education.

I won't lie; I am especially cranky because life here has been particularly uncomfortable lately. I didn't think that the heat could get much more unpleasant, but somehow it has. Whereas previously it had generally cooled off in the evenings, it has been unbearably hot at night during these past two weeks or so. Even though it still cools off somewhat outside, since I don't have electricity (at least not consistent electricity that I can keep on all night) and don't know where I could buy a fan even if I did, there is no way to make the air circulate through my living quarters. Thus, my room is hot and stuffy and very difficult to sleep in.

To make matters worse, all manners of creepy-crawlies have been infesting my house. I found a mouse in my oven mitt last night. Some kind of maggoty little bug got into my flour. There are roaches in every room. I have, fortunately, had some help combating the roach problem. Unfortunately, that help has come in a form that is even more unpleasant than the roaches themselves: large spiders and bats (which eat the roaches in a way that would be more helpful if it were not so disgusting, and if it did not involve leaving lots of small roach parts about).

Out of all these things, the bats are definitely the worst. They enter the house through the roof, and then fly down through a hole in the ceiling and hang from the laundry lines or ceilings in the bedrooms (though, thankfully, they have only invaded the unoccupied bedrooms – my own is still bat-free). And they shit on everything. The worst part is, the hole in the ceiling through which they enter is in my bathroom, where I generally do private things that should never, ever, ever involve flying mammals, particularly fast-flying mammals that have a habit of swooping down in a sudden and surprising manner.

Still, when I think back to the image I had of Africa before I came, things are not that bad. I had envisioned huge and hairy tarantula-like spiders, thick clouds of monstrous flies, and all manner of venomous snakes and scorpions (the latter two of which I do see, but rarely -- and when I do, they are usually dead, and never in my house). I pictured giant rats in my bedroom and hordes of loudly buzzing mosquitoes keeping me awake at night (thankfully, there are very few mosquitoes, though I still religiously take my Lariam and sleep with a net). So in comparison to that, what's a few roaches, some spiders that rarely leave the dark corners of my house, a cute little mouse, and a bat or two that usually stay confined to my attic . . .?