Dear LR4

March 4, 2013

Dear LR4,

Welcome to one of the most extraordinary adventures you will ever embark on. I want to wish each one of you the best of luck and some thoughts as you get ready for an experience of a lifetime.

I am sure you have been reading up on Liberia, the civil war and what has and hasn’t been accomplished here since then. Unfortunately, unless something miraculous has occurred in the year I have been away, the internet doesn’t have too many videos that are accurate and about the upcountry Liberia most of us live in. While I can’t say how accurate this is for all of you, I will try to give you some idea of what to expect based on how us LR3s are living.

Most of you can expect to be assigned to larger towns- many even with bread (yay!). Your house is likely to either be cement or mud brick plastered with cement. Sorry, no mud huts unless you’re visiting someone in the bush. The size and flooring both vary, but most are reasonably large and flooring varies from cement to volunteer-installed linoleum to tile if you’re really lucky. Almost all of us have toilets which you flush with a bucket a water. Flushability varies from site to site and the jury is still out on whether it is actually better or worse than having a pit toilet. Most of us take bucket baths rather than dealing with the hassle of setting up a shower. Regular baths are out of the question because you will have to haul all water you use (or pay children to do it for you). How far and whether its from a pump (cleaner but more labor intensive) or a well, is site-dependent. Some of us also catch water off the roof during the rainy season.

Whether you have electricity at night is a personal choice. At some sites, neighbors or landlords with current will offer to supply you some while the generator is running for a fee. At a few sites, the volunteers have chosen to invest in a generator and provide their own current. Many, if not most of us, though, continue to live without our own current and rely on charging electronics at school, celltowers, NGOs, or charging booths.

You will have a cellphone as it is the primary means of contacting anyone in Peace Corps. Almost everyone around here has a phone. Almost all of us have laptops and internet is available through EDGE internet sticks connected to the cellphone towers and is usually hilariously slow (there are many days I wish I had my old 56K dialup connection again). Mail service is almost nonexistent. Packages often will get here weeks or months late and will just as often be rifled through by customs looking for goodies. The only sure way to send letters back or to get something from the States is with someone flying to or from.

Speaking of which don’t waste that 100 pounds of gear. Peace Corps helps with transportation to training and thence to site so no worries there. If you have some extra space pack food. I’ll append a list of good ideas at the end of this post. Of course, if you still don’t want to use all that space, email me or post on the facebook page and I am sure I or some other LR3 will happily have something sent to your house to bring across. I am dead serious on this, we would love to send stuff by volunteer rather than by mail.

Clothing is available readily and cheaply. Dress clothes especially is easy to find or have tailored for cheaper than you can find most non-tailored clothing in the states. The only clothes I would be sure to bring (for guys) are underwear and a couple pairs of jeans. Jeans are available quite readily here but usually are women’s unless you are in Monrovia. If you are really attached to socks you can bring that too since most people don’t wear them here except when wearing dress shoes.

Cooking is over a coal-pot, kerosene stove, or if you really want to splurge, a propane stove. Liberian food is reasonably cheap and not all that healthy. Expect to see plenty of chicken feet, pig feet and dried bony fish. You can buy a minimum level of western food (pasta, flour, oatmeal) to cook with at most sites and this is supplemented by trips to ‘cities’ and Monrovia where you can get- for a price- a wider range of western products. All of us eat American-style food on a reasonably often basis. Some barely ever touch Liberian food, and some like myself eat it everyday and supplement with American food for other meals. Again its a personal choice.

The local drinks here include a noxious beverage called palm wine. The fresher it is the sweeter it tastes and the less it stinks. During training you will be introduced to it and hate the smell. Kakata and its environs do not have good palm wine (for that come to Zoweinta). Most get used to it but still prefer beer. Also available is gana-gana (basically bush whiskey), cane juice (straight moon-shine) and locally brewed beer and distilled gin (often with formaldehyde for kick).

You will be “white man” or “white woman/ fine girl/ mah ju (my juice)” in any large town you go to. At any smaller site, you will be called the name of the previous volunteers. Frankly, we all look alike to most of them. They see white skin and don’t see much past it and white skin is anything from northern European to Chinese to almost every shade of Hispanic. In the same way Americans lumped anyone not European into the ‘colored’ class, anyone who is not dark African is ‘white’ here. Even if you are black, expect to be called white by many people here since you will speak like an American. Also, don’t expect to just walk by like in America either, you are a celebrity so everyone will talk to you and you are in West Africa so its expected you will at least respond.

The roads are the worst you will see pretty much anywhere. Don’t be fooled by your initial drive in to Kakata, that is some of the nicest road in the whole country. Beyond Gbarnga going towards Ganta it gets real nasty and past Ganta pavement is nonexistent. If you get assigned to Nimba, Lofa or the southeast, you will probably become fairly immobile during parts of the rainy season. When you do get out it will usually be crammed in a bush-taxi which feels insanely unsafe and uncomfortable the first few times you take them.

In the end, don’t worry about packing too much. Most things are available in country (if expensively) and while Liberia may be incredibly poor, people here like their luxury as much as anywhere else, so at least physically, life will probably be easier than you expect. Its the mental that will get to you, so make sure you spend time with family and friends before you go. Calling may be cheap, but its not the same and things can be hard when you are thousands of miles away in a world apart.

Liberia will not be easy and it will change you, hopefully for the better. The less mental stressors you bring over the better, because you will have plenty here, especially in PST. Just getting through those first few months is a battle in itself.

Best of luck and I hope to see you this summer.


Foodstuffs to think about (Remember its always almost 80-90% humidity and hot, so it better be sealed well and packed full of preservatives):

-Meat (Jerky, pre-cooked bacon, pepperoni, summer sausage, tuna packets, etc)

-Cheese (Kraft cheese powder, parmesan cheese, maybe even a couple small sealed blocks of ‘processed cheddar cheese’ stuff)

-Dried fruit and nuts (Any nuts/legumes other than peanuts, and any fruit that isn’t tropical)

-Imitation Maple Extract (You can get Aunt Jemima’s, Log Cabin, etc in Monrovia, but it costs almost as much as a similar volume of real maple syrup would cost in the US (at least in New England anyway). So it is nice to be able to make your own and a little extract goes a long way).

-Candy (M&Ms, gummy bears, life-savers, pretty much anything you really like. You can find it here, but its expensive. If you really like chocolate, stop over at Trader Joe’s and grab a pound bar or two. During a really bad week it is nice to drown your sorrows in chocolate. Oh and dark chocolate lasts in the heat better than milk chocolate).

-Soup, gravy, chili, etc mixes (Ramen is common here, but beyond that soup mixes are expensive here and lightweight to bring).

-Most importantly, something that reminds you of home! (For me that was a small bottle of real maple syrup. Its New England in a bottle for me and was worth every ounce when I opened it up with my new Peace Corps family at Christmas time.)


Trouble on the Beach

February 26, 2013

I would like to suggest to any LR4s reading this: bring an xacto knife in your checked baggage to Liberia. Seriously, I am so glad my roommate has one because it makes bush surgery so much easier. Also, don’t sleep at the beach in Buchanan. You’ve been warned.

About a week and a half ago, I was down in beautiful Buchanan enjoying the sun and surf with a slew of other PCVs. The water was warm, the sand was soft, the waves were delightful, and the cider was cold (some miners were at the beach with a decent supply they were happily willing to share).

Everything seemed set for a repeat of my previous two beach experiences. Night fell and we were camped around our fire enjoying hot dogs, including a pack of real ones(well they had some beef in them so real enough). One of the volunteers went back to check the tents and discovered the netting slashed and the bags gone. It turned out that two of the tents had been robbed. The only personal bright side, was that by sheer, stupid, procrastinating luck, my bag was elsewhere rather than in one of those tents. I usually store my gear in other folks bug huts at night since it is safer just sitting under my hammock. That of course ruined the night.

The next few hours were spent searching around the area, notifying the local village, locating our ‘security’ who were conspicuously absent during the theft and reporting the incident to the police and United Nations security forces. We circled up the tents as close to on top of one another and the fire as possible.

The rest of the night came and went without incident (or much sleep) and we returned to our beachgoing antics the next day. We weren’t going to let one bad night ruin our vacation. Evening came again and we planned on staying, having earlier decided to keep all the tents within spitting distance of the fire and putting a backlight on the area to cast shadows on anyone approaching. Even my hammock, without anything of value in it was moved into the clustering.

As dusk approached, some other NGO workers arrived- one of whom I had previously met and befriended at the Christmas beach party in Robertsport. We warned them about the theft the night before, so they parked their vehicle right next to the fire and popped up their tents right next to the fire.

Again we settled in to enjoy some alcohol, hot dogs, and fireside antics. We had already planned on sentry shifts for the night to keep an eye on everything. Nevertheless, it happened again. From less than ten feet away in a matter of ten minutes that they were away from the tents, the NGO workers were robbed. Again the night was ruined. Again we set out searching, alerting the village (including a quick trial of the people we were paying to stay at the beach), the UN and the police. The big difference this time is that as we were unable to alert the local security officer directly, the UN in Monrovia became involved and things took a definite turn for the dramatic.

At around midnight several vehicles pulled up unloading scores of soldiers, the security officer and the head of the local police with his own contingent of officers. Soon we had soldiers prowling all over the beach with searchlights. We were questioned by the commander for personal information and details of the crime. After assessing the situation, including an offer by the village chief and elders to sleep at our camp and guarantee our safety, we agreed to be evacuated by the UN to the home of the security officer. The night after that was delightfully uneventful. We were able to enjoy his hospitality including air conditioning, real futons, and running water. We went back to the volunteer house in Buchanan for the rest of our mini-vacation. I never enjoyed seeing the familiar window bars of a volunteer house so much.

So there you have it. While I would still recommend a day trip to the beach in Buchanan (without bringing too many valuables mind you), I would never again recommend staying there at night. So you ask, whats the deal with the Xacto knife? Simply put, jiggers.

[Warning, this part is best not read while eating food] You can find out all about jiggers (not chiggers like we have back home) on the internet, but suffice it to say they are a small flea that likes to burrow and lay eggs in your skin. Specifically, they tend to attack the feet. I knew none of this when I first got back from vacation and noticed some blisters on my feet. After about a week it became apparent that these weren’t normal blisters, especially given the little targetlike speck in the middle. So with a little research, I found out all about my body’s newest inhabitants. Here is where it gets ugly.

The only reliable way to deal with jiggers in Liberia is to cut them and their sack of eggs out. So I have now gotten to practice bush surgery, excising a small chunk of flesh and a gelatinous pile of small white eggs from each of my feet. It was not particularly painful, since the flesh inside and around the blister can’t feel much. Its just a weird and disgusting operation to perform on yourself. Suddenly, the tumba fly doesn’t sound so bad, at least that one comes out with a little vaseline and tweezers.

So enjoy to all those back in the States, enjoy that temperate climate, tropical diseases in the developing world are numerous, mysterious and often disgusting.


My Liberian family

February 6, 2013


THANK you! With that, my ‘niece’ grabs the tiny chocolate bar out of my hand with the sort of smile you would expect from an American child if you told she was going to Disney-world. This was her fifth birthday and we were celebrating it in the best style that my friend and his family can afford. Everyone is treated to a couple bites of bread, a small package of sweet biscuits and bag of kool-aid knockoff. Her mother pulls out a radio and connecting an SD card with the same 20 songs you here everywhere in Liberia, places it on a stump in the middle of the yard. The dancing and party begins.

I admit that even after being here for 8 months it amazes me how happy a little thing like a chocolate bar will make some children here. Back in America, you give a child a fun-sized chocolate bar for their birthday and they would feel incredibly slighted. Here its the best thing about her birthday. My evening ritual is to go to their house for dinner and I will often bring a jar of life-savers or peppermints-one for each child and my hosts (No mom and dad, I’m not getting fat on the 20 pounds of candy I brought, just bribing small children to love me). But now chocolate, that’s special. The chocolate only comes out on special occasions and for a child who almost never gets anything like it, it is an amazing treat.

I will never claim to be the most productive or integrated volunteer. There are certainly many volunteers I could name who far surpass me in both respects, but I do have my niche. Evenings have become a highlight of the day for me. Sometime between four and six, I get a call to go over to my friends house where I join him, another teacher who lives there during the week, and usually a guest or two to eat some rice and soup. Eating Liberian style means all the adult men gather around one small table and eat out of the same large bowl of the rice. The adult women, children, and boarding students each have their own bowl respectively. Sometimes if the mother has no guests, she will eat with the children, but as the adult still gets the choicer pieces of meat and fish.

After the meal we sit back and lecture (talk together) for a while. Sometimes there is fruit- pineapple, watermelon, papaya, whatever my friend found; other times there is tea (really ovaltene) with a piece of bread (if anyone has been to Gbarnga recently); and if it is early enough, there may be a game of ludo, checkers or dominoes. Recently, if I am in the mood (usually that means my roommate is away), I will fetch my laptop and we will gather around to watch a nature documentary.

As I mentioned in my previous post, they really get into the nature documentaries. For many of them, their English is not the best, so the visuals are brilliant and expose them to many things they would never have even known existed otherwise. I may not be able to carry them to America to see a whale or a bear, but at least they can see them. This is such a sharp contrast to the world in America where nature documentaries are often something to put on in the background or to settle on as a good compromise that no one really dislikes.

Plus its not just an educational experience for them, but for me as well- Liberians have a very different understanding of the world and interpret the shows in ways I would never have thought of so I come away from every showing with at least one nugget of new thinking even if it is just from trying to explain something that seems so fundamental to Americans. Try describing the feel and essence of snow to a Liberian or why we would let such big animals like polar bears, whales or sharks live, rather than just eating them. Oh and even Liberians can feel particularly blessed. After watching a show on deserts, they were struck with utter disbelief at how anyone could live in such a place. Here they always have water and such things seem fundamental to normal living- sure you may have to conserve a little during the dry season, but its never in doubt that there will be water to drink.

So go give someone a hug and look at the world through Liberian eyes for a few minutes- its an amazing place out there.


Christmas on the Beach and Visiting in the Land of Ice and Snow

January 27, 2013

A little over a month ago I was happily sunning myself on a beach in Robertsport, Liberia, enjoying the bathwater temperature waves and eating fresh fish the size of small dogs (or large cats, if you know my cats in America). It was vacation certainly, but also the most extraordinary holiday I have ever celebrated and I have celebrated many weird holidays- on the Appalachian Trail, the Mountain to Sea Trail, in the deserts of California, even abroad in Chennai, India. While my parents and friends back home were freezing their butts off in subfreezing temperatures, I was sleeping in a hammock on a fairly deserted tropical beach (or would have been minus the dozens of us Peace Corps Volunteers). I spent Christmas eve sitting around a fire with a local Liberian, a couple Ukrainian UN workers, and a some passed out PCVs. It was certainly no traditional New England white Christmas (unless you count the color of the sand), but it was perhaps the most meaningful Christmas I have spent on this Earth – Thousands of miles from home in one of the poorest countries on earth, passing around bottles of crappy wine, beer and vodka with people from almost every corner of that earth.

Now, as mandated by my best Peace Corps friend in Liberia, here’s my quick review of the two main beach destinations accessible to most PCVs in Liberia. Robertsport, where I spent Christmas, is a slightly more built up destination, meaning it has more services including a little inn near our campsite, a full-time campsite caretaker, and a even a fellow with a lodge down a bit who offers surfing lessons. Buchanan, on the other hand, has a public beach near the place where we usually camp, but that is rarely used other than Sunday afternoons and otherwise there are no real services right on the beach. It does have an ERA supermarket about an hour and half walk back which is a true godsend and the only real supermarket I have seen outside of Monrovia (keeping in mind that a supermarket over here is nothing in size compared to the ones back in America, and the one in Buchanan is not quite as good even as the ones in Monrovia). Honestly, transportation being equal, I think the beaches are equally good. They have nice white sand, delightfully warm water, and dangerous riptides you have to check for before going too far in. Buchanan is certainly easier for me to get to, living as I do on the east side of Monrovia and so will remain my top choice. Besides, they have cheap pizza at the ERA!

After Christmas at Robertsport, I got to enjoy a terrific present, traveling back to the good ‘ole USA for three weeks. They warn you that you will have culture shock going back to America, but it really is hard to prepare for it. To walk into a supermarket in America after living in rural Liberia for months is like drilling a technicolor movie straight into your skull. Its wonderful, painful, and mystifying all at the same time. I nearly had a panic attack. Watching my friends gripe over their daily problems was quite hysterical to me, and admittedly so was customs when they told me I should have washed my shoes in a shower (also FYI to US Customs, no I don’t have good internet to check your website to know I need to wash my shoes, deal with it), but I was thankfully able to bite my tongue for the most part.

The hardest part of going back to America wasn’t so much the culture shock (although I did nearly strangle the person I saw throw out ¾ of her cheeseburger), but rather realizing that everything is the same and yet you are so different. Its an incredibly odd feeling. You encounter the same situation and want to act completely differently knowing of course that doing so will only further throw off those around you. Further, most of the people around you honestly have no idea what you have been through and through no fault of their own, have no way of really understanding. It all sounds pretentious, but there it is.

Anyway, enough about my angst in America and back to the show in Liberia. About a week ago I got back on the plane to Africa loaded down with a good hundred pounds of jerky, pepperoni, cheese mix, candy and all sorts of other culinary delights. On arriving here I realized just how much a home Liberia has become for me. It all felt so familiar, so ordinary. Customs was great; they wanted to check through all my bags until I said those magic three words (“Peace Corps Volunteer”) and they grabbed my bags and helped me straight out to the taxis with just a short conversation on the way about where I was teaching, how long I’d been in Liberia, etc.

Arguing with the taxi drivers at the airport was a trip. Being a white guy with giant bags, they immediately thought they had a mark. After a while I gave up fighting and just payed up their exorbitant rate, although when my ‘helper’ complained about getting only a 20LD tip because its “not even enough to buy a soft drink” I turned back and told him “well its good enough to buy some fufu for breakfast, so enjoy it and stop complaining.” Instantly, I had a new ‘best friend’ who wanted to know all about this weird white guy who ate Liberian food for breakfast.

After a short night in Kakata, including an obscenely large bowl of popcorn (Thanks ya’ll!) and a movie, it was back to Zoweinta and the ‘ole homestead. Stepping out of the taxi I was accosted by a mob of neighbor children, hugging, grabbing, and of course hoping for ‘short fare’ (in their case, candy).

I have since gotten back to the normal routine of teaching, grading, hauling water, and wishing I could stop sweating. The end of this week brought an encouraging event, an English and math competition between the local elementary schools. My friend, a Sierra Leonean working with USAID, ran the event. He has been helping local teachers with phonics and basic math (see previous posts). I ran the math portion for the first grade teams and have to say it was so gratifying to see children of the right age able to do real addition and subtraction. I just have to hope that the trend continues and in ten years, they will be entering eleventh grade ready for real algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Its a dream, I know, but I hold dearly on to such dreams every day I spend teaching my eleventh and twelfth graders how to do basic arithmetic. There is hope for Liberia, I just pray that we, their schools, and their government don’t let them down.

While getting on the plane for the second time was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, being back here just feels so necessary. I hear the hopes of friends as they discuss how things can be, smile at my ‘nieces’ joy to get a couple gumdrops after dinner, and laugh to myself when their mother shouts with excitement at the video of a polar bear jumping in what she thinks is sand (she has never experienced snow). Africa gets in your blood and not just by clogging your arteries with red oil.

P.S. To all my friends and family back in America, Thank You All So Much! I had no idea just how many people care about me until now. Three weeks was just not enough; I am sorry if I was unable to reach you in person and promise I will try to pay everyone a visit when I get back to the States.

Please enjoy America for me and please please please find something extraordinary to do!

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2012


Well, I hope ya’ll had an extra piece of turkey for me or better yet, some delicious pie or pastry loaded with enough carbs to keep you going for days. Thanksgiving here has been delightful. Obviously, I currently have access to the internet (yay!) and better yet, we were able to enjoy the gastronomic delights of Thanksgiving courtesy of the US Embassy in Monrovia. Big thank you to all the folks there that decided to let us destroy their spread of food.

I also got to enjoy the wonders of modern electricity, plumbing and television whilst overnighting at the country director’s house, so that of course was wonderful. Among other embarrassing follies, I managed at least twice (I won’t admit to anymore than I was caught…) to walk into a dark room and flip on my cellphone flashlight rather than flicking the lightswitch, because after all, who bothers with electric lighting in their homes anyway?

So it is now almost 6 months into my Peace Corps experience and life is well… interesting… certainly worlds apart from life in Kakata and many more worlds apart from life back in America. Unfortunately due to the trials and tribulations associated with a certain world’s dummest cat, my laptop screen is cracked, so I have been doing little with it but checking email for a few months now. I don’t intend to cover now all those items I have missed in the following months, but felt I should hit on a few points.

First, since it is now November and almost December, I want to welcome to anyone who has been lucky enough to receive an invitation to join us crazy folks out here in Liberia. I know we should be receiving another group of response volunteers here in a couple months, which is of course exciting, especially since it means an increase in the number of sites open in country.

However even more exciting to me is those few of you who have received your normal volunteer invitation to Liberia god-awful early (or received it later and have managed to find this in the archives) and now have over half a year to wait until they ship ya’ll out here to the land of powdered milk and overpriced honey. You are in for one of the most difficult, insane and perhaps, just perhaps most
life-changing adventures you will ever experience. Liberia is not an easy country to work in as it is both desperately poor and still feeling the effects of the civil war even now. I won’t lie, there are definitely times when I envy other volunteers who have far more ready access to the amenities of modern life (even if only in the capital city), but then we didn’t choose Peace Corps because it would be easy, right?

That being said, I hopefully will come out in the coming months with a short guide to packing and planning for life in Liberia. I would also like to make an offer to any of you invitees to give me an email sometime with questions you have. I will be visiting back home soon for a few weeks and would be willing to chat on the phone if you so desire. The offer is on the table. It’s up to ya’ll to take me up on it.

Moving back to our regularly scheduled program… For your perusal and entertainment, in no particular order here ten things I hope I will never take for granted again:

Having my own seat in a vehicle- On the trip here (a good trip mind you since there were no breakdowns and I got to ride in the right hand side of the front passenger seat), we had 11 adults with plenty plenty bags, 5 children, 1 chicken, 1 goat, and a pig crammed into and on top of a normal taxi. That’s 4 people up front, 5 in back with children sitting on their laps, one standing on the back bumper, the other seated on the right front of the taxi holding on to the frame of the passenger side window. The goat was tied to the back and sat on top of our bags (my carry-on duffle still has the wonderful scent of goat piss [sorry mom…]) and the chicken tied next to her. Finally, the pig was tied to a board wrapped to the roof of the car.

Driving on roads that are paved and have only minor potholes at most (minor in the Liberian sense, American roads don’t have truly major potholes)- There is nothing quite as painful on the butt as riding in a hardtop down the coal tar north of Gbarnga and nothing quite as frustrating as a road that has turned into a mudpit.

Being able to withdraw money quickly and even better being able to use a credit card- Right now to get money involves a 90 minute to two and a half hour trip into Gbarnga and then a further 15 minute taxi ride out to the university where the bank is. Then it can be anywhere from 5 minutes (if the ATM is working) to 5 hours to get my money. I am averaging about 2 hours or so. Then there is the wait for a taxi to come past on its way to Gbarnga which can be anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours.

Running water- In the rainy season it is not as bad since I can get water off the roof which although dirtier than what comes out of the pump is at least passably clean for washing and drinkable after its been through the filter. In the dry season on the other hand, hauling water is an ordeal that can take hours of labor each weekend.

Electricity- Being able to just plug in your phone to charge or flip on a lightswitch is a luxury that is hard to truly comprehend until you have to worry about how much charge is on your phone and whether you need to run it over to charge or you have tried to light a house with crappy candles and even crappier lanterns.

Fresh meat- Chicken that’s been sitting out in the heat and flies for hours- yes indeed that’s what’s for dinner and you better count yourself lucky, at least it’s something other than chicken feet.

A proper stove- I am lucky I have a gas range, but even then there is no oven and to get the gas out to Zoweinta is no easy chore. At least a couple times a week I will cook over the coalpot and that is always a test of my Liberia-trained patience.

Bread- I have now found at least a hundred ways to cook flatbread, pancakes, shortbread, anything to try and approximate that essential western food that is unfortunately not available in Zoweinta except only occasionally at the Friday market. If you think this is trivial, I challenge you to go two months without consuming any bread including pancakes, muffins, cake, or anything that is mainly flour based.

Dairy products- Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream… what I wouldn’t give for thee. The PakBatt out in Gbarnga has become beloved of many of us local volunteers for the simple fact that you can get fresh milk there on top of the pretty awesome Pakistani food.

Sleeping under a blanket… make that just being able to not sweat- even as I sit here typing this out, I am bathing in my own sweat and that is all I really want to say on that subject.

So give thanks that you are allowed these seemingly small conveniences that really aren’t that small, because even as one of the richest fellows in Zoweinta, I still can’t get bread every day.


Hooked on Liberian Phonics

September 6, 2012

My second week at site (tenth since arriving in Liberia was a fairly uneventful affair spent mostly in commuting to (read walking for about 40 minutes) and attending a workshop in a town just up the road from Zoweinta on the way to Monrovia called Green Hill Quarry (more commonly referred to as just Quarry). The workshop was put on by USAID for the local principals and select teachers in the public elementary schools. The goal was for them to learn how to teach phonics.

Phonics may not seem like a terribly significant part of learning to an adult American, but is actually a surprisingly invaluable skill. How do you know how to say the words written on this page, better yet, how do you guess at the sound of an unknown word- you sound it out- in other words, phonics.

The problem in Liberia is twofold: first, most Liberians can speak Liberian English, but are at a loss with how to pronounce words in Standard English; second, most students in modern Liberia learn to speak English the same way one would learn Chinese- that is, each word is its own unique sequence of squiggly lines and that is associated with its own set of sounds not necessarily directly related to the pattern of those squiggly lines in the way that we assume that letters have certain sounds associated with them.

To return to Liberian English: I have previously covered some of the interesting facets of the language and I am sure that I shall return to it once more in later writings. For now, I will leave you merely with a few examples of why Liberian English can create such confusion in pronunciation. Here is short list of words and how they sound in the local Liberian English: Monrovia – Morovia
Three – tree
it- eh
that – da
hello- ha-lo
R – arra
idea – ideal
Ivory Coast- (Seriously I’m not even going to try here, it sounds almost like a foreign language and they are certainly not saying Cote d’Ivoire either)

And all that doesn’t even begin to touch on accents or the weird amalgamating of British and Standard English that is common due to the proximity of Sierra Leone.

Now to the more important problem: While Standard English will certainly help Liberians to communicate effectively with foreigners (“The language of success”) and is a necessary test taking skill (It would be hard to answer a question on the WAEC if you can’t even understand it), the current system of learning inhibits the very ability of Liberians to learn and ream. Most students learn words by memorizing the word and its associated sound as I mentioned before. This means that rather than learning a few sounds for each letter or special letter grouping, they must learn thousands of word sounds. Needless to say this is a far more time-consuming and difficult task leaving the students baffled when confronted with a new word, even if they know the word in its spoken form.

Sadly this is no passing phenomenon. Even university students here often know all their words in this rote manner. This is ignoring the even more egregious, but thankfully, less common cases of university students who can’t read at all.

So that was my second week at site. In many cases, I played the sounding board for how English was supposed to be pronounces; in a few others, how even Americans don’t speak exact Standard English. That weekend I made my first banking trip to Gbarnga and was able to enjoy the sumptuous deliciousness of french fries for the first time in months. Currently, they are the best fries I have tasted in my entire life. Separation does make one miss the comforting foods of home. In any case, more on that is a couple posts when I return again to the delightful topic of food in Liberia.


Welcome to Zoweinta

August 31, 2012


to Zowienta, Wotata Clan, Kpaii District, Bong County, Liberia: population about 3000. At least that is what I am told. The

truth is it is a very hard thing to know any demographic statistic with precision here. The town is in a state of immense growth and behind the volunteer house here are dozens of newly built homes- enough for hundreds of new residents. Such construction can be seen taking place helter skelter around the outskirts of the town.


as might be expected things got in the way around here and prevented me posting this earlier. but the house has been thoroughly improved (more on that in a later post) and the cell tower is working again (yay!). As for today I hope to give you a basic picture of what my little corner of Liberia is like as that was the foremost issue in my mind during the first full week of August- my first week at site.


Zowienta as a town is not particularly notable. In fact paraphrasing my sitemate (an LR2 volunteer) “you may hear me complain a lot more about Zoweinta than say things about it, but really its a nice town.” Zoweinta is like that, not really bad, but also not possessing anything truly exceptional or extraordinary. We don’t have the city life of Gbarnga, Ganta or Kakata. Nor do we have a massive NGO or UN presence like Zwedru or some of the Nimba sites. In fact, we have almost no NGO presence at all, certainly nothing permanent. Honestly, we aren’t even that remote once you consider the sites out in Lofa, Nimba and Grand Gedeh.
About our only real claims to fame are that the trains which run right through town on their way to Buchanan laden with iron ore from the mines up in Nimba Country and the fact that we are in a weird linguistic borderland.


a half dozen times a day a train comes thundering down the line with sight of our house. Once of my favorite groups of people to spend time with are the security guards who are tasked with closing the road any time a train comes down the track. Most of the time we just talk (‘lecture’ is the term used in Liberia), listen to the radio, share food and at least for one lucky individual, enjoy I would argue is once of the most comfortable seats in all of Zoweinta.


see most chairs here are basic. You have your normal straightbacked wooden chairs, plastic deck chairs, benches, school desk chairs and a couple unique woven reed or wooden chairs, like the two Adirondak chairs that are being made for our house. Now you will notice that no where in that list is there a mention of recliners, coaches, or even those plastic reclining lawn chairs. In sum, there are almost no padded or ‘comfy’ chairs in upcountry Liberia. The reason is simple: such things would be very expensive to purchase here and difficult to transport up here. So it should come as no surprises that this is hardly a priority in one of the world’s poorest countries.


it was a wonderful surprise to find that the security shack has a nice piece of dense foam core places ideally on the corner of two boards that serve as benches along the walls. Sitting down you can throw your arms back around the zinc walls pop your feet up an old tire rim and really settle in. In a land without couches, I tell you THIS is heaven.


on to the languages. During

training I was assigned to learn Kpelle- my first hint that I would be sent to a site in Bong County. The trouble with all this is, as I found on site exposure, that Zoweinta, while officially in Bong Country, is hardly true Kpelle country. Many of my friends instead speak Mano, a language officially spoken just a couple miles and over the border in Nimba County. Several others speak Bassa, official language just down the rail line in Grand Bassa country. Still others are native Guineans and speak French. To compound matters, while there is a large contingent here who speak Kpelle, it is not quite the same dialect that I had to fight with back in PST. One bright note in all this is that will all there languages mixing here, Liberian English has become a very dominant Lingua Franca, or common language, and seems to be spoken here at least as often as in the cities.


every other way Zowienta is exceptionally unexceptional small-town Liberia. There is market once a week on Fridays, a few half-decent stores, some cook shops, and of course the one public high school in the region. It has good palm wine and not so great beer. There is no radio station in the town, but two cell towers which are down sporadically. In short, Zoweinta is pleasant, but except for its being in a foreign country and the site of my Peace Corps service, it possesses little to write home about.