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.)