Saturday, February 27, 2010

Town Makeover

Big news in town: the President of Liberia is coming next week.

This has resulted in a great deal of activity. The thick undergrowth along the sides of the roads has been cleared away and burned by armies of machete-yielding workers. Everything that can possibly be painted is getting a new coat of paint (including the sidewalk curbs, which, if the quality of the work is any indication, were painted by the town's under-five population). School is closed on Monday so that the students can beautify it for the President's visit to the campus on Wednesday.

Of course, everything that is being done is completely superficial. Potholes are temporarily being filled with dirt. The new paint jobs only cover up rust and general deterioration. The whole town is essentially being whitewashed, with little to no actual improvement of basic facilities.

Still, it's exciting that the President is coming, and it's nice to see even the minimal improvements that are being done. Stay tuned for updates on the Presidential visit itself.

In personal news: I heard back from that third medical school, and I was accepted. It goes without saying that I'm incredibly excited, thankful, and relieved (that the whole process, with the crazy cross-country interview tour, was not for naught). It's nice to finally feel like I have a direction in life. Having said that, I'm still so, so glad, for so many reasons, that I took time to work and do Peace Corps. If nothing else, I now have a much better appreciation of how lucky I am to be given this opportunity. (I only hope that I can remember that when I'm a stressed, overworked, and debt-ridden student).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Liberia is an angry place. I've mentioned this before.

Of course, it is a gross exaggeration, but it is nonetheless true in many respects.

It's angry in the sense that many people make little effort to disguise their feelings when they are upset. In the US, outbursts of anger in most environments – particularly when one is among strangers or in a professional setting – are considered inappropriate and indicative of an emotional immaturity. Here, displaying anger seems to be a way of commanding attention and respect, of proving that one has power and authority in a given situation. Thus, public shouting matches are not at all unusual, and even (or especially) respected authority figures participate; I often witness loud arguments that originate over anything from a taxi driver's inability to make change to a teacher's failure to show up at school regularly.

As I alluded to in a recent entry, I'm starting to feel as though this might be partly the source of my classroom management issues at school. Authority figures are expected to be pushy, loud, angry, and bossy. I, on the other hand, endeavor to be none of those things. I don't want to scream at my students. I don't want to treat them like wild animals who need to be controlled. But I'm feeling lately as though that is what I'm being pushed into doing. The students are used to responding to shouted commands instead of rational pleas for good behavior. My forced patience, my quiet reminders that their disruptive behaviors are harmful to themselves and their fellow classmates – many of the students interpret this as weakness (as my principal and several fellow teachers have pointed out to me).

So, these days, I yell. And I scream. And I rip up test papers when I catch the students talking or cheating during exams. And I try to make the cheaters I do catch as publicly humiliated as possible. And I don't feel bad about it, except that I feel bad that I don't feel bad.

Because here's the thing: Even if this is a culture that respects public displays of anger as an indication of authority, and even if I am being forced to work within the confines of that culture, I still don't believe that displaying every little negative emotion is an effective way of doing things. I think there is a reason that controlling one's feelings is valued in the US. Getting into a shouting match is not a great way to get things done. And so I'm stuck – do I bend to the system, and yell and scream along with the angriest of them, or do I try to stick my ground and lead by example, even if it means losing the battle of classroom management?

As I've said, lately I've been doing the former, but I'm disturbed by the vague feeling that this is mostly due to an exhaustion of patience rather than a rational decision to try to be more authoritative. I'm also disturbed by the fact that, on some level, I think I might actually like it. I'm not a naturally patient person – my inner redhead does come out sometimes. So I have a guilty suspicion that I may be channeling my frustrations with life in general – medical schools, Liberian culture, and so on – into anger toward my students.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Life in a foreign country is full of little mysteries. Some are solvable. Others continue to baffle the foreign mind, even after the foreign mind has lived in that country for months or years. Overall, a state of perpetual mild confusion becomes the norm.

For example – why do people here regularly shout “Thank you!!” at me when I am jogging past? (“Thank you” for moving by so quickly, because you are sweaty and gross? “Thank you” for providing us with entertainment, because you look so ridiculous when you run?) Why do the children continue to shout “WHITE WOMAN WHITE WOMAN WHITE WOMAN,” even after I've waved and said “Hello?” (What response, exactly, are they looking for? Or are they simply showing off their powers of identification?) And why is the standard silverware here a fork and spoon – never a knife, despite the fact that most meals include large chunks of very tough meat?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


The thing about teaching, which somehow I always forget, is that there is rarely an “aha!” moment. Even in something like mathematics, which it seems like you would either understand or not understand, the process of learning is more of a slow and painful slog (with plenty of backsliding) than a steady progression with plateaus of understanding.

Even after a year of teaching in Kenya, and a semester of teaching here, I'm still amazed by how little material we are able to cover in every class. I'm teaching a section on prime numbers and prime factorization in my 7th grade class now, and one of the topics that we are supposed to cover is something called the Sieve of Eratosthenes. I had never heard of this before, but looking it up online, I learned that it's a neat little system for eliminating all of the numbers in a given set that are not prime. Since it is in the syllabus, and it's a pretty simple little trick, and it has a pretty awesome name, I figured we'd give it a shot.

Big mistake. The whole concept of prime numbers is incredibly confusing to the students. And with so many other topics to cover that are so much more relevant to everyday life – decimals, fractions, and percents, for example – I'm wishing that I'd scrapped this whole section completely. But, oh well. Too late now.

I feel like I make that mistake a lot here. Somehow, having gone through an educational system that actually functions, I'm always surprised and confused when I discover that something that seems intuitive is in fact exactly the opposite. No matter how well I think I've broken a particular subject into easily understadable chunks, I still always seem to end up discovering that I've made some leap of logic that has left most of the students completely bewildered.

In other news, the six-month volunteers who came with me are leaving next week, which is, first of all, a bummer, and second of all, hard to believe. Time flies when you're having fun . . . or, alternatively, when you're teaching a million classes with a million students each . . .

Monday, February 15, 2010


Liberia, like much of the rest of the Equatorial world, basically has two seasons: dry and rainy. Rainy season, according to the handout Peace Corps gave us in training, generally lasts from June to September or October. The rest of the year is supposedly dry season.

I mention this because it rained last night. I can't complain about this, really; the temperature is about 15 degrees cooler than usual today, which is fantastic. Furthermore, the rain has provided a brief respite from the dust that characterizes dry season by coating everything – plants, vehicles, shoes, clothes, hair, feet, lungs – in a thick, dry, reddish-brown layer.

The downside is, the alternative to dust is mud – sticky, squishy, red-clay African mud. No matter how thoroughly I clean myself in the morning, I invariably end up covered with it within an hour of leaving the house. This is particularly embarrassing because Liberians, in general, are very clean and very well-dressed. I am constantly amazed at how well-put-together they are able to appear, whereas I feel like Pigpen from Charlie Brown, with a permanent aura of dirt wherever I go.

There are other negative aspects to the rainy season that had me hoping that I would be done with my service and gone by the time it started again. Students (surprise!) tend not to go to school when it is raining. When it rains during the day, sometimes the noise on the zinc roof is so loud that my voice cannot be heard at all above the roar. And the noise at night makes me nervous – people have told me that rainy nights are common times for break-ins; the wetness keeps most people indoors, and the noise disguises the sound of any intruder. (Though I should mention that, despite my house's lack of razor-wire fence, electric lighting at night, or security guard, which are some of the requirements for UN housing, I still generally feel quite safe).

Still, like I said before I started complaining, I really can't complain. The rainy season at my site in Kenya involved weeks and weeks without a hint of sun, weeks in which clothes never truly dried and the roads were completely impassible. So in comparison, especially considering the fact that I hardly ever travel, this is not bad at all.

In personal news, which you may or may not give a crap about: I've heard back from two out of three medical schools, and I've been wait-listed at both of them (most schools are not outright rejecting people at this point, but instead accepting or wait-listing them, at least until the end of the “interview season”). I'm resigning myself now to the fact that I most likely will not get into school this fall, and will have to reapply next year. That way, if I do get in, it will be a nice surprise, but I'll be prepared for the worst. In any case, once I look past the humiliation of rejection, and the waste of money that this round of applications cost, the prospect of having another year free is actually kind of exciting. Maybe I'll try to find an AmeriCorps position, or another one with Peace Corps Response, or maybe I'll just move to the Pacific Northwest, where much of my extended family lives. The possibilities are, if not endless, at least . . , plural.

Anyway. That's life in Liberia at the moment: wet and muddy, but generally pretty OK.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Patience (The Lack Thereof)

Something that I ate recently caused me to wake suddenly at 5:00 AM and made me decide that, rather than going to school this morning, I should probably stay in the vicinity of a bathroom until the party in my intestines has died down a bit. Oh, the joys of life in Africa.

So instead of teaching, I'm sitting at home grading. I just finished a pile of chemistry makeup exams, which I administered on Tuesday, to the great displeasure of both myself and all of the students who elected to take the exam. All except for one of the 15 or 20 students who took the exam failed, many getting no more than 6 points out of 50.

I'm particularly frustrated in this instance because this was a makeup exam, which I not only administered to those who were absent during the administration of the first exam, but to anyone who was unhappy with their exam score and wished to try their luck again. The frustration comes from the fact that the makeup exam was almost identical to the original exam; I merely whited out the numbers in the questions requiring calculation and entered new numbers, and made some other small changes. The fact that the students did so poorly on this repeat exam leads me to believe that most of them failed to actually study the material, or try to understand the mistakes they had made the first time around. (Although, to be fair, it is gratifying to know that quite a few students did at least care enough to re-take the exam).

What's even worse – I had repeatedly told the students that I would give the makeup exam at 1:00 on Tuesday, 1:00 on Tuesday, 1:00 on Tuesday. The majority of the students tumbled in to the classroom laughing at 2:15. When I told them that I had a class at 2:00 that I was already late to, and why in God's name would they show up more than an hour after I said I was giving the exam?, they begged and pleaded and eventually got me to agree to give the exam at the end of the day. Thus already irritated, I was not pleased when they then spent most of the test period trying to peek at each others' papers and discuss answers. So in that way, we all spent a miserable hour together – all of us frustrated, unhappy, and eager to go home after a long day.

Do you know what the saddest part of this whole situation is, the part that is most disturbing to me? It's that, right now, I honestly do not give a flying fuck whether they fail or pass. I don't know what to do with kids like this – students who make little to no effort to study, then beg, plead, and whine when they fail, and genuinely expect me to change their grades to passing. I don't know how to get it through their heads that I am not failing them because I feel like it, or I enjoy making them unhappy, or because I'm lazy. Somehow the idea that a grade is intended to reflect the material that one has actually learned, with students that truly understand getting passing grades and those that don't have a clue what's going on getting failing grades, is not getting across. And I guess it's no wonder – in this system, there probably isn't that much correlation between mastery of material and grades; the students who make it worthwhile (monetarily, sexually, or in some other way) for the teachers to give them passing grades are the ones who do the best on paper.

Anyway, in general, I'm having a really tough time not being extremely short-tempered with the students these days. The strange part is – it actually seems to be helping in terms of classroom management. I find myself yelling almost all the time, in a tone of voice that I had previously reserved for instances in which I've found my dog with one of my more expensive belongings crushed between his teeth. I lecture the kids regularly, calling them rude, disrespectful, thoughtless, and immature, and call out talkers individually in the classroom in attempts to humiliate them into silence. I remind them frequently that a lot of them are failing, and that if they have any desire to reverse that trend, that they should probably shut the fuck up (OK, I don't use those words exactly) and make some sort of effort to listen to what I am saying, even if they have a hard time getting over the ridiculousness of my speaking voice and accent.

And I guess maybe this approach isn't really a bad thing. Part of me does feel bad about it – Liberia is, to vastly oversimplify and generalize, still a pretty angry place, and these students aren't exactly lacking in situations in which they are yelled at, berated, and humiliated. So in that sense, I don't feel like I should add to this by piling on my own abuses. Furthermore, as I've pointed out before, a lot of the students are failing simply because they have a lot of other more important things on their mind, like how they are going to feed themselves or take care of their children. On the other hand, I'm not making the classroom situation any better for anybody by allowing the students who talk and joke and generally distract all the others get away with what they're doing, or by giving everyone passing grades out of pity. In any case, I almost feel like the whole thing is somewhat out of my control – that the patient part of me has somehow been broken, and the irritable, cynical, don't-give-me-that-shit part has come bitching and nagging to the surface.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Teacher Salaries

I'm reading back through my past few entries – particularly the ones from right before and after I came back to Liberia – and am somewhat embarrassed at how negative and how painfully introspective they are. Even after only having been back at site less than a week, the question of why I wanted to come to Liberia in the first place no longer seems like a reasonable or necessary query. I wanted to come because I like this kind of work – it's challenging, thought-provoking, and (more frequently than this blog might incline you to believe) feels worthwhile. Above all – it's interesting, and I feel like I learn a great deal from it.

Anyway, enough of that.

It turns out that part of the absentee problem last week was caused by a small conflict with regards to teacher salaries. As I may have explained before, the school day is actually broken up into two sessions with two different groups of students – a morning session that lasts from 8-1 and then an afternoon session that runs from 2-6. Theoretically, this should break up the enormous classes without adding considerably to the teacher workload, as teachers should be able to simply repeat the lessons they planned for the morning session in the afternoon. In reality, the morning and afternoon sessions are not really on equal footing. The morning classes are still much larger than the afternoon classes, and teacher and student absenteeism is much higher in the afternoon – perhaps because teachers and students alike are tired by that point in the day, or perhaps simply because it's really, really hot in the afternoon, which makes it hard to concentrate or even stay awake.

In any case, as I understand it, teachers who teach both the morning and afternoon classes have been getting paid twice as much as those who teach only one session. However, this past payday, the government apparently decided not to release double salaries to the teachers, and only released a single salary. In response, most teachers here stopped teaching in the afternoon, and actually instructed all of the students to go home. Fortunately, this issue seems to have been resolved; teachers are again getting paid their full (or rather double) salaries, and so are (slightly more regularly) attending classes, which means that the students are also coming to class more consistently.

I'm glad that the issue seems to have somewhat worked out, but the whole thing just reinforces (again) how fragile and dysfunctional the system is. The teachers don't necessarily care about their jobs – they did not hesitate to screw over the students in this situation – but to be honest there isn't much incentive for the teachers to care. Many of them are not teaching because they love teaching; they are teaching because it's a job that pays money, and I'm sure that ideally they'd rather focus on their own families and children than a bunch of unruly kids who don't particularly want to learn. Once again, it's a catch-22 in which everyone loses: The teachers have little motivation to teach without decent salaries, but the government can't afford to pay decent salaries. The students therefore get a shit-poor education, in which they are not highly invested, and with a poorly educated population, development and economic growth stagnate. With a lack of economic growth, the teachers won't get paid, and the whole cycle continues.

Of course, that is an overly simplistic way to look at the situation. I'm sure there are some or many critical factors that I am overlooking. Once again, I'm reminded of the viewpoints put forward in The End Of Poverty and The White Man's Burden. If I were Jeffery Sachs (author of the former), I would insist that this cycle could be broken by an infusion of cash from the developing world. If I were William Easterly (who penned the latter), I would caution that my efforts as an outsider are bound to come up against a host of unforeseen blockades, and that instead of funneling my cash through the government and the Ministry of Education, I would be better served supporting less centralized, smaller-scale, more “grassroots” endeavors. Fortunately, for more reasons than one, I am neither of those people. Instead, I am a lowly Peace Corps volunteer, and can therefore rest comfortably in the fact that it's not my job to solve the problem of how to develop the country. Instead, I'll just focus on my one tiny part, sympathize with teachers, students, and government officials alike, and be thankful (once again) that I grew up in America and not Liberia.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


After a month of traveling, it's nice to be stationary again and settling back into a routine.

There have been some small changes since I left . One of the restaurants in town now sells Western food (pizza, fried chicken with french fries, hamburgers, and so on). Someone is building a video club on my compound (“video club” meaning essentially a shack with a TV and a generator, and either a VCR or DVD player or a satellite connection, at which people can pay a few Liberian dollars to take in a show). The Ethiopian UN soldiers have left and a new contingent of Pakistani soldiers has come in to replace them. The house my landlord is building behind mine has had its mud walls plastered with cement and is nearing completion.

It's actually pretty cool to see how things can change in such a short time. I would interpret the progress of building projects – even small ones like the video club and the house – as a positive sign regarding the development of the country. People perceive things as stable enough to invest in longer-term projects.

Of course, many people (particularly those who are affiliated with the UN) are predicting that the country will fall apart again as soon as the peacekeeping forces leave (which I believe is supposed to occur completely by 2012 – but don't quote me on that). From my perspective, it's somewhat hard to believe, because my town seems so stable and the soliders seem to do so little other than occassionally walk around town looking intimidating (or, if not really intimidating, at least looking official and armed). But I guess that doesn't really mean anything; the idea of a peacekeeping force in general, I suppose, is to provide a presence that keeps any kind of threat of violence underground. So the stability I witness could be nothing more than a sign that the UN forces here are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing – maintaining peace – and not an indication that the country has actually achieved any kind of lasting stability. Unfortunately, I can't see that there is any way to tell the difference until the peacekeepers actually pull out, and things either fall apart or do not fall apart.

Speaking of stability – the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (“Ma Ellen”), announced recently that she will run for a second term, although she had originally promised to serve only one term. I can't say that I know much at all about Liberian politics beyond the fact that they are incredibly, pervasively corrupt, and extremely complicated due to continued problems with tribalism. However, from my completely un-knowledgeable perspective, the President's decision to run again seems like a good thing and a bad thing. It seems good because, as far as I can tell, the President seems to be doing a very good job in what must be an incredibly difficult position. Furthermore, having some continuity in what is still an extremely fragile country seems like it would be a positive thing. On the flip side, this seems like a bad thing because she did promise to serve only one term, and the fact that she has gone back on her word is somewhat suggestive of a hunger for power (although I'd like to believe that she is more altruistically inspired to continue helping her country get back on its feet). In any case, the elections will occur next year, and it seems like that will be the first true test of Liberia's stability.

Anyway. These tests of Liberia's peace – the withdrawal of the UN soldiers and the next elections – will all happen well after I'm gone. But they are quickly approaching, and it's interesting (if fuitile) to speculate on what will happen when they do.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Return To Site

Well, almost a full week after I left central PA, I have finally made it back to my site.

In all honesty, I probably could have made it back here a few days earlier. But for several reasons – some totally within my control and others beyond it – I ended up staying up in Monrovia a few extra days.

I don't envision myself traveling back to Monrovia again before I go home for good, and I have to say, the thought of that doesn't make me particularly sad. Monrovia is oppressively hot, humid, busy, confusing, and yet (somewhat paradoxically) also very boring. Its main appeals are Western food, Western amenities, and a few beaches that are not completely contaminated with human feces, but these things unfortunately also come with Western price tags. It's not really possible to do Monrovia (safely and comfortably) on the cheap the way it is in Nairobi – as far as I can tell, there are no Westernized-yet-tucked-away $5-a-night hostels, such as there were in Nairobi; no reliable and/or comprehensible public transport; no mamas selling beans and rice on the side of the road. The UN presence has jacked up prices on nearly everything to an astounding degree (UN folks generally receive excellent pay and benefits, from what I've heard, and I believe at least some of them also still receive hazard pay in Liberia), and so everything from food to transport to lodging is outrageously expensive.

There obviously must be places to eat Liberian food and sleep in developing-country-quality hostels at Liberian prices, since there are of course many not-rich Liberians who live in Monrovia, but I don't know where those places are. Furthermore, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable staying in such a place. There are plenty of white people in Monrovia, but the city is still not nearly as diverse as Nairobi, and there are none (or nearly none) of the Western backpacker-tourist class that populate the cheap (though still very comfortable) hostels and hotels in Nairobi. As a white girl in a cheap hostel here, I'd stick out even more than usual (and “usual” is quite a lot), and I'm not convinced that it would be in any way safe (particularly since the vast majority of white folks in Monrovia are affiliated with the UN or other aid agencies, and so are quite wealthy by Liberian and my own Peace Corps volunteer standards; thus, the perception of white people as rich is even more exaggerated than it is elsewhere).

In any case, I'm very glad to be back at my site. I'm even glad to be eating Liberian food again; despite the lack of variety and surplus of oil, bones, and strange animal parts, it is still nice to be eating food that is actually made of food and not preservatives and chemicals and whatever else they pack into most packaged “foods” in the US these days. Having some time away and then coming back has also made me realize that I'm doing OK, as far as community integration goes. There are a lot of people I'm genuinely happy to come back to – students, neighbors, co-workers, friends, friends' co-workers, and so on. And they seem genuinely happy to see me (although, “Welcome back!” is often followed by “What did you bring me from America?” -- but I'll choose to ignore that part and believe that they're happy to see me – the actual me, not mascot-white-lady-representation-of-America me).

My guilt at spending extra time in Monrovia (which brought the total amount of school I missed because of my trip home to nearly three weeks) was assuaged by the fact that apparently the students did not show up for class at all the entire first week, and have been trickling slowly in since last week. My classes today were surprisingly respectful and manageable, which I'd like to think was a sign that I've gained a little bit of ground in the battle of classroom behavior. Of course, I think it's more likely that it was due to the fact that classes were still only 50-75% full. It could also be a result of my having exaggerated classroom management problems in my head to the point where I was almost expecting the students to tear apart the desks and start beating each other over the heads at the slightest provocation, making nearly any kind of behavior seem angelic in comparison. In any case, although there was a not-altogether-small part of me that was dreading the return to site, I'm genuinely happy to be back, and to be able to jump right into things.