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.