We have been living in Liberia for about a month and a half now, and are just over the halfway point of pre-service training (PST). Nick and I have shared small stories about training, our family, and a taste of our adventures as we get to know the country we now call home. But our days are long and full, and so much more has happened. LR-7 (the 7th class of volunteers in Liberia since Peace Corps came back after the war) have been busy little trainees, and we are doing our best to prepare ourselves for the day we ship out to work in our own communities across the county. Here are just a few of the things we’ve been up to, and a bit (more than a bit) of background…
Coming here, I was surprised to learn that foreign aid in Liberia is rather ubiquitous. NGO’s, and other aid organizations, have had a consistent presence in Liberia for decades, and have provided much needed relief in times of crisis. Often this relief comes in the form of money to buy food, rebuild infrastructure, and provide emergency medical supplies. This is the type of foreign aid many Liberians know and expect. Peace Corps is a bit different, and we have to continually stress that we do not have any money to dump into our communities to magically fix their problems. We simply have ourselves, our knowledge, our hearts, and a desire to help in every way we can.
The core tenet of Peace Corps’ approach to development is assisting people in improving their own lives. Volunteers work within their communities, using community resources, to build capacity and inspire sustainable development opportunities. Our goal is to inspire both men and women to take ownership in developing their skills, and to empower them to continue paying it forward. Teaching obviously fits nicely into this approach, but the Liberian PCVs have many opportunities outside of the classroom to work as development professionals as well.
PACA- Participatory Analysis for Community Action
One of the focus areas during our technical training has been learning, and practicing, skills and tools that will help us with this once we get to our site. One of these tools is called PACA. The acronym stands for participatory analysis for community action. PACA provides a framework for community analysis, and needs assessment, to identify opportunities for development projects. Some of the strategies for applying PACA within communities include community mapping, daily activity mapping, seasonal calendar development, and priority ranking and needs assessments. These tools are intended to help different groups share their perspectives, prioritize among their many needs, and identify the resources available in the community for solutions.
The trainees recently had the opportunity to go out and get some functional practice applying PACA in a local school. In small groups, we prepared a session outline lasting about two hours to guide a group of school representatives through one of the PACA activities. Nick went to a public high school, and I was at a private one. Though we both used the priority ranking and needs assessment tool, and we both visited high schools, our experiences we very different.
Each school assembled administrators and PTA, teachers, and both male and female students, and we led them through several spirited discussions about the biggest needs for the school in the upcoming year. Some of these discussions were particularly hard to listen to, but parts were very encouraging. Our objective was to unite each of these subgroups around at least one issue that they all believed in, and brainstorm ways that they could work toward solving it on their own. The tool is not called PAVA (participatory analysis for volunteer action), and we had to really work to remind them that they had to take ownership in their issues. It was clumsy, but we tried. I will likely never see most of the students or teachers again, but I hope we gave them a voice in some small way that could spark a bigger change long after we are gone.
Boys and Girls Clubs
In our copious free time on the weekends (wink), Nick and I have each been working to establish two different youth clubs with the children that live around our host family. Interestingly, Nick (along with two other PCTs) is working with a girls club, and I (with the help of two trainees as well) am working with a boys club. We did have some choice in the gender of the club we wanted to work with- boys or girls- and decided together to stray from the obvious path. Pre-service training is all about learning, and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and skills.
When is comes to addressing early gender issues/stereotypes, and challenging the typical roles of women and men in traditional Liberian homes, male vs. female volunteers can play a very different role. As a female volunteer, I hope to serve as an advocate for education and equality, and set an example as an educated female scientist in this country. I want to learn how to gain the respect and trust of men in this community, and how to challenge them in every way that I can. As a male volunteer, Nick hopes to become an advocate for lifting women up as well, and he may serve as a more effective one than me. By default, his voice will have more power than mine, and he will have the opportunity to set an example as a man who supports women.
So why are we doing these short term clubs during PST? Practice, practice, practice. That’s the theme of almost all of the activities we are working on outside of technical training. We are hoping to start our own clubs once we get to site, and we need to figure out how to do it. Clubs provide another opportunity, in a small way, for Liberian PCVs to shape the lives on youth outside of the classroom, and I cannot wait to get going. Youth development is so so important for the future of the country. Club meetings are focused on leadership, self-esteem and self confidence building, financial literacy, gender awareness, team building, sexual health, gender based violence, and critical thinking. Last week, our boys discussed “What does it mean to be a man?”, and played a blindfolded football game with a hidden message on peer pressure. The girls club wrote and performed short skits on different types of leaders, and said positive affirmations about themselves.
Although preventable and treatable, Malaria is the second leading cause of death for adults in Liberia, and the leading cause of childhood mortality. The effects of malaria here are absolutely heartbreaking. Despite its prevalence, and its deadly impact on the country, malaria is not really feared in Liberia. It’s perceived with the same indifference as a common cold, and is just accepted as part of life.
Misinformation on malaria is common, e.g., you can catch it from eating plums (aka mangos) or drinking dirty water. Even more common is resistance to preventative measures like sleeping under a mosquito net. Many Liberians believe the nets are too hot, which I find funny considering it’s already far too hot here and the mosquito net doesn’t make it any worse.
Peace Corps is one of the many organizations in Liberia working hard to fight this disease. PCVs are continually developing educational activities for communities, and each volunteer puts together at least one event every year. Volunteers are distributing/hanging bug nets, spray painting educational murals, and giving demonstrations for pregnant women at clinics, just to name a few activities.
Speaking of pregnant women (in Liberia they’re called big belly women), children under the age of five and pregnant women are at the highest risk for contracting malaria by far. Malaria contracted during pregnancy can cause anemia in the mother, low birth weights, and higher rates of infant mortality.
Many of you know that my heart is in health information and outreach, and malaria prevention is something I am becoming extremely passionate about. I strongly believe that if we can save one person because they started sleeping under a bug net, or one child’s life because their Ma took preventative medication during her pregnancy, the sacrifices over the next two years will be worth it. I am going to fight to make it happen, and we are learning exactly how to do it.
A few weeks ago, the trainees (with help from the staff and a dedicated group of LR-6 volunteers) turned the training center into a carnival- a malaria carnival. Trainees designed and built educational and interactive carnival games to increase malaria awareness, bust prevalent myths, and encourage use of preventative measures.
My team ran the Big Belly Ball Toss booth. We put together a ball toss game that moved participants closer to or further from their buckets based on whether or not they were taking preventative steps in scenarios we assigned. FYI- these steps are taking ITPs (an intermittent preventative treatment medication that is supposed to be available for free to pregnant women), sleeping under an insecticide treated bug net, and properly diagnosing and treating malaria and anemia early. The highlight of my day was listening to the kids earnestly tell me they would tell all the big belly women they saw to go to the clinic for ALL THREE doses of IPT, and make sure they were sleeping under a mosquito net.
Nick’s team set up a Tic Tac MosquiToe game. Kids were split into two teams to play a giant game of tic tac toe laid out on the floor. Each team was asked a true/false question about malaria prevention, and if they got it correct they were able to place a piece on the board. If they got it wrong, they lost their turn. Nick was really impressed with the amount of malaria knowledge many of the kids had (probably because they live with/around Peace Corps trainees who like to talk about it), and enjoyed the teaching moments when they were unsure.
4th of July
We are BUSY, but there is still time for some fun. We finished training slightly early on the 4th of July to have a trainee cookout (with burgers and mac and cheese) and volleyball/soccer tournament. Nick’s volleyball team made it to the finals, but sadly they were defeated. Sorry Purple Butter Pears (team name), better luck at the rematch. Butter pear = avocado. And the avocados are huge and delicious in Liberia. They are also still green, not sure where that purple came from.
Independence is something Liberian’s are very proud of (their Independence Day is July 26th) so it was a special experience to share America’s Independence Day with them. Plenty people wished us happy 4th, and we even got hot dogs for breakfast from our ma. Hot dogs for breakfast aren’t that rare, but it felt perfect that day.
I really just added this last bit in to mention to you all that I finally got some cheese. God Bless America 🙂
Sending our love ♡ Muah!