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 . . .