july 26: liberia

One of the main reasons I started a blog is to document memories of the journeys I have already taken. So far, that has been very difficult. I will start with the trip and the people I still think of most often.

A year ago this month I took my first trip to the African continent and landed in Liberia.

90 mph in the rain

90 miles per hour in the rain

Before the trip I knew only that my country had helped contribute to many of the problems in Liberia (first, by sending free Americans to Liberia in the 1800’s and “giving” them already-occupied-land so the US could continue slavery with less of a fight, the subsequent colonization of Liberia by these people and more recently, in 1985 by allowing Charles Taylor to “escape” from a US jail and eventually return to Liberia…). I had seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell as it was shown on college campuses across the US. Generally, I knew very little about the country and people who live in Liberia. To help increase my understanding, I looked for books on Liberia and after beginning a few dry, dated ones written by westerners I found these three much more interesting and helpful:

andstill1 Helene Cooper_the house at sugar beach Leymah Gbowee_mighty be our powers

Our plane landed late afternoon on a breezy, grey, surprisingly cool day and the air smelled faintly of burning wood. We waited for a while to get through immigration. Officers looked stern and asked each person a series of questions after being greeted by friendly security who joked with people, asked where everyone was from and welcomed us one by one. I was starting to see that my arrival card which is always marked with “vacation” as the purpose of my travel is appreciated much more than those who state their purpose as “business” or “work”. A driver met us outside immigration, led us through a crowded and chaotic parking area, helped us load our bags into the office vehicle and whisked us away down a nearly empty highway. Many of the arrivals were taking a motorbike or walking to their next destination.

We arrived at the hotel which not only had running water and electricity but also wi-fi.
I had no idea yet how uncommon each of these things were. Just off our room was a common balcony where I watched the first downpour of our trip while listening to the music that projected through the heavy rain from the club across the street. That club would provide our evening soundtrack during the time we stayed in Monrovia.

We were in Monrovia to be present for the launch of a report on youth created by young Liberians and a few university students from the US. The presentation, which took place at the Ministry of Youth and Sports at Samuel Doe Stadium, was impressive, professional and showcased the large amount of evidence collected solely by young people. (The data from this report helped to highlight infrastructure and job needs in the country which in turn has resulted in thousands of new jobs for Liberians.)

Samuel K. Doe Stadium

Samuel K. Doe Stadium

mural of women leaders

After a few days of office work and meetings we were able to use our free time to travel around and see a bit more of Liberia. The best aspect of tagging along with my spouse for work-travel is that I get a more realistic view of each place by visiting with the people who live there. We are always welcomed more than I ever expect and I have found, like anywhere else, people really want visitors to see and understand their country. Here are some of the highlights of the trip which I continue to think about:

  • The first day my Liberian English was tested by the young adults who created the report. I failed their test miserably but was able to answer a few of the questions directly, which impressed a few, and caused a lot of laughter for everyone.
  • There were multiple attempts to teach me the Liberian handshake. I made many happy in my attempts (so happy they could not stop laughing…).
  • I was so impressed everyone was able to identify where I was from as, “Hey, American!!” was yelled as a direct greeting. Then it was explained that this greeting was synonymous with ‘Hey, there’s a white person!”. I bet all the European workers are thrilled about that.
  • I read through anonymous surveys the young people had collected and one question was, “In the last three months…how many times have you or your family gone without food?” Almost everyone responded: Never. The next question asked, “How many meals do you have a day?” and most responded: One.
  • One smile could break the most stern-faced person into a grin. Liberians are resilient and some of the toughest people I have ever met but a simple question or a smile seemed to soften almost everyone. During our first walk to the coast in Monrovia we found the beach access blocked by a large group of young men. Being a teacher, a large group of young people rarely causes concern but I was a bit nervous (I had read too many exaggerated travel warnings). We asked if we could get access to the beach, they said sure, we started talking and one of the men escorted us to the beach. He pointed out things of interest (most importantly, ways to get past the seemingly endless wall blocking the beach from the community as the tide quickly came in) and asked where we were from. We received handshakes and laughter after he suggested a well-known ex-pat bar for dinner and we asked for something more Liberian. As we exited the beach the same way we came the rest of the group shook our hands as we walked by.
  • There is an Ivorian restaurant in Sinkor that makes great fried fish but I have talked plenty about food here. During an earlier trip, my husband (promising to eat healthy meals) visited so often that the waitresses joyfully remembered him and began to joke with him… immediately dispelling the myth that he ate there, “only once or twice”. His cover had been blown.

    palm butter

    palm butter

One of the office workers sacrificed time (paid, of course) away from his family when he offered to take us around to places we wanted to see. He drove us through the Firestone Plantation past Gbarnga, to Phebe Hospital area, almost back to Monrovia, to Robertsport and back again. He was our companion, guide and our negotiator for days. He spoke of the country’s history and his own (very few do), plans for the future and pointed out places of interest all along the way.

road through village to Kpatawee

road through village to Kpatawee

Kpatawee ecotourism site
(waterfalls are here)

Red Light district

Red Light Market district

a home outside of Monrovia

a home outside of Monrovia

Firestone Plantation

Firestone Plantation

Firestone Plantation

Go to School!

Go to School!

  • Our enthusiasm over the beauty of the lush, green landscape during the rainy season was contrasted against everyone else’s worry of the sanitation and disease issues that come along with too much water.
  • Outside Monrovia, hotel rooms were more expensive and did not have electricity or running water. The extra cost covered all the gas used to run the generator from 9pm-2am and hopefully gave a little extra to the young men who moved a large, full trash can of water from a well to our bathroom each day.

    collected water for bathing & flushing

    collected water for bathing & flushing

  • The town of Robertsport (where Lake Piso and the Atlantic Ocean join) is unforgettable because of its stunning, natural beauty and the surprise of seeing so many old buildings. Many houses are modeled in similar fashion to those in the deep south of the US. So many structures had been simply abandoned and it was fascinating but heartbreaking to see the decay and wonder what had happened to the people there.

    Meeting an old man and possibly his grandson outside of the Pure Bar and Restaurant. Both were clearly very sick and very friendly and both reached to shake our hands and welcome us to town. After we shook hands and exchanged greetings the old man thanked us and quickly disappeared but the boy ran back and forth on the porch, flashing a grin and exchanging funny faces with us each time he passed the door, as we sat down for our meal of the day.

  • Seeing evidence that remained after the war was incredible. I was unprepared. Nine years after the last civil war ended not only had all the electrical wires been removed in most areas, so had all the electrical poles. Only some evidence of electricity was seen in Monrovia and most of that was the loud hum of generators in the areas of town that could afford the luxury. Evidence of battle is still easy to see on many of the buildings. Many animals that fled have not returned; we saw only a few birds and lizards. There are so many abandoned homes and so many who need housing. When asked why someone doesn’t move in to an empty house we were told simply, “That is not their home. They know it does not belong to them.
  • Walking into the YMCA to see the summer camp that was taking place transported all of us back to our own YMCA days. We watched kids playing basketball, working in the computer labs, settling in to view a movie, a few were picking up something to eat from the snack station and many were just ‘hanging out’. We agreed that the Y doesn’t seem to change much no matter the country. It was chaotic, loud and there were smiling kids everywhere.
  • I heard over and over again that despite struggles and difficulties the people face that everyone is tired of war. Even if circumstances get worse before they get better: no more war.
  • A., a generous young man who is a rising star in radio, spent an entire day showing us parts of Monrovia we would have never seen without him. He took us to see a girl’s school that was started by an American who has returned home to Liberia. He showed us the Ducor Hotel (once the highest rated hotel in west Africa) which had been looted and abandoned and was going to be fully renovated by the Libyan government until Gaddafi’s death. From the view of the Ducor, one can see West Point, the largest “slum” in Liberia. We drove to West Point and walked around the neighborhood as A. pointed out things that must improve. Only afterward did he tell us that most Liberians had not been to West Point and that was confirmed by a few locals the next day. We saw what was described as an “Independence Hall” where there is a memorial to the founding settlers of Liberia. This is also where some of the festivities take place each year on Liberia’s day of Independence.

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  • Preparing to leave to return home I felt the duality of Liberia within me. I was exhausted yet inspired. I had learned so much yet still knew so little. I wanted to return to my easy lifestyle but no, I was sad that we could not stay, felt I had adapted well to the daily routine and knew there was (is) so much more to learn. There were ways I could help support young people; one more foreigner did not need to come in and tell people what to do in their own country. The students in Liberia could benefit from all the resources in my classroom; my students would benefit even more from being in Liberia and learning from the students there. I wanted to stay to see the people I met succeed at the amazing things I know they will accomplish; not one of these people needs my recognition or approval to push forward and accomplish great things.

On this Independence Day I hope there is happiness across Liberia.
May opportunities continue and may there be more and more to celebrate.

*If you have access to any pre-war photos taken in Liberia,
please consider posting them here: http://liberia77.com/ 

icebergs

If students could understand that we all are floating along, showing everyone just a small part of who we are, that we too struggle with fear and uncertainty, that there is so much left below the surface that we hide…they may feel better. It’s not just them.
We all ache and feel discomfort and question our purpose and this pushes us into the next decision, the next success or failure and into our next day. We are motivated by the promise of something better which, eventually, does come.

We lost another one of our students to suicide and the student body was stunned into silence today. In contrast our community is loud and has started to blame. “There is something wrong with the school.”  ‘The school’ doesn’t refer to the building. The community blames the administration, the counselors and the teachers. All of us. Nevermind there are other issues below the surface for anyone who makes that choice. Nevermind that mental health issues will rarely receive as much treatment and attention as a broken bone or a case of the flu. What cannot be seen must not be there.
Nevermind that no one knows how many students we help and ‘save’ each week, month and year. No one counts the kids who come back to us, the ones who become safe after long, long periods of very hard work.

We are all hurt. Today we all hold the blame and wonder what could have been done better while knowing, not one of us made that choice for him.

hooray!

1. Today is Friday

2. “Cat” is doing well.

3. Monday is a teacher workday which means all the work I would normally bring home is sitting on and around my desk. It all really can wait until Monday.

4. I have only met one person (ever) who shares my birthday. I recently found out one of my students also shares my birthday. When we discovered this fact we both turned, looked each other in the eyes, simultaneously raised our eyebrows and couldn’t stop laughing. I know we were both thinking the same thing: “THAT person is crazy!
We have come a long way since September.

5. I have received a scholarship (briefly mentioned here) from the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine and will be attending a week-long workshop on turning this summer!

 

 

this is a test. this is only a test.

We have been testing this week. As you can see from the schedule below, we test a lot.

testsAs the week began, I was annoyed because I was asked to proctor during my “planning“** time. [**Planning time is spent responding to parent emails, writing narratives for counselors, loading/unloading kilns, documenting and grading student work, completing student-information reports for suspension hearings or the honor council, fixing broken equipment and trying to unclog whatever it is that students put down the drains of my sinks. Preparing information and planning for classes takes place during evenings and weekends.] I am fortunate enough to make all the proctoring lists when many of my colleagues seem to always be forgotten. I arrived at my testing site, the gym, by 7:10 that morning and helped a few other teachers by logging on to the computers so students could begin their test immediately. At each row of tables there were 20 laptops. There were 16 rows of those tables arranged in each of the 2 columns. I was in one of four testing locations at our school that morning. After an hour and a half of trouble-shooting tech problems, reassigning students to new computers, passing out paper, pencils, tissues and generally staring at already-self-conscious teenagers taking tests…my replacement proctor never arrived. 

Later in the day, I discovered one of my AP ceramics students had a work stolen the day I was away. Based upon observations of students rummaging through her storage space during class (in a room that is locked all other periods) the suspects have been narrowed down to two. We are hoping ‘lost work’ posters, announcements to each class about the missing work, calm explanations of various ways the work can be returned anonymously and threats of locking up every item in the room should the piece not show up, will encourage the return of the missing ceramic bowl. My students may be lazy and entitled but they are not thieves— everyone and everything used to be safe. I am getting increasingly doubtful as time passes and dread the day the students will have to be pulled for questioning if the work is not returned. Especially since I receive adamant emails from the main suspect that she never saw the work and doesn’t have it. Especially since the main suspect has a long history of mental illness and depression. Especially since, no matter what happens, these young women have to share the same classroom until mid-June.

Another test this week was the unexpected news that a beloved colleague passed away suddenly. We worked together for three years and shared a classroom. I helped him learn the curriculum and get organized and he helped me to “lighten up” and be more flexible. He always made me laugh. He was playful and genuine and had an open heart. He was one of the most creative men I have ever known. The news of his death, just like the news of students passing, was completely unexpected and delivered in a now-too-common way: via work email among a large distribution list.
Everyone has a phone but no one seems to remember how to use one.

There have been many tests this week and I really hate testing.

 

minneapolis

I took my first trip to Minnesota this weekend to attend a conference held on the campuses of Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I was impressed with the diversity, openness of the communities, friendly people, support of the Arts and I was happy to see the remnants of winter weather which I have been missing the past two years.