Shortly after being made aware of our site placements, the trainee’s day-to-day lives took a turn. Our Liberian English sessions became lessons on the local languages spoken in the regions to which we’d be moving, in our case Krahn. Sessions about teaching techniques became lectures about the specific differences and approaches to teaching larger or smaller classes – which were suddenly much more relevant to each of us now that we knew roughly what our average class size would be. Then there were administrative sessions about vacation days, travel restrictions, and the per-diems we could be paid for traveling on official Peace Corps business during our service. We were all trained on riding motorbike taxis, which are the only available means of travel in some parts of the country due to poor road conditions. Then later, there were logistics sessions about how each of us would be reaching our permanent site.
This was all very exciting, and occasionally overwhelming. In addition to all of this, the time had come to leave our homestay family and live at the training center for a few days. When the morning of the move finally arrived, it was with mixed emotions that we packed up our room back into our suitcases and prepared to leave. We were sad to be leaving our host Ma and Pa, as well as our wonderful siblings. It was also tremendously exciting – the prospect of reaching the community where we’d be living for the next two years. And it was nerve wracking. I can scarcely think of a time when there was more unknown in our immediate future. We would be moving to a city we’d never seen in a county we’ve never been to, filled with people who speak a language we’d never heard of until about a week ago.
We left that morning with what we could carry, with the knowledge that the rest of our effects would be picked up later that day and brought to us in Peace Corps cars. In the meantime, we prepared for what would happen the next day – swearing in. Swearing in is a big deal. It marks the transition from PCT (trainee) to PCV (volunteer), and takes place in Monrovia. All of the trainees awoke early the morning of swearing in, showered, and put on their new lappa clothes for the ceremony. Two buses were waiting at the gate, one for the trainees and one for the host families. We boarded the bus and departed for the long drive to Monrovia City Hall.
When we arrived, we were briefed by our Country Director on exactly what would be happening, then we were herded into the main ballroom, which was all arranged in rows facing a stage at the front. Behind the stage were three flags – the Peace Corps flag, the Liberian flag, and the American flag. It all looked very official, and what was happening seemed to become more real. There were several seats at a panel on the stage. One of them was for the Country Director of Peace Corps Liberia, another was for the Charge D’affaires from the US Embassy. After just a few minutes of talking among ourselves and waving to our host families on the other side of the aisle, the person who would take the seat at the center of the stage arrived.
We could hear as her motorcade arrived outside, and were advised the we were about to be joined by Her Excellency, Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the President of the Republic of Liberia. Since we have been in the country, and in the months leading up to our departure, we learned about President Sirleaf (or Ma Ellen, as many Liberians call her). She is incredible. We can go into more detail about Ma Ellen in a later post, but the fact that she is the first ever female head of state on the entire continent of Africa is amazing in itself.
First the Charge D’affaires spoke to us about the importance of the Peace Corps, then one of our fellow trainees spoke to us about our experience thus far, and what was to come. She explored the next two years of our volunteer service in the context of the twin paradox, which you should look up. Essentially she compared our personal growth in the Peace Corps to what it likely would have been had we all stayed the course in America. Then our Country Director said a few words, and the Charge D’affaires returned to the podium, and we recited the Peace Corps oath. We were (are) officially Peace Corps Volunteers! After that excitement began to wear off, the MC of the ceremony asked us to please stand – Ma Ellen was about to address us. We eagerly stood up, thrilled we were about to hear from Madame President. The MC handed the President the microphone. As Ma Ellen took it in one hand, she made a gesture with the other indicating that we should sit back down (with a look on her face that said ‘don’t be ridiculous, sit down’). She spoke to us about the importance of the Peace Corps in Liberia, and expressed gratitude for what we were doing. She said she would try to visit some of us during her few remaining months in office, which she has done for other volunteers in years past. Nothing keeps you on your toes quite like wondering if the head of state is about to turn up at your door. She concluded by saying “I thank you. And Liberia thanks you.
After shopping briefly in Monrovia, we boarded our buses and came back to the training center. Some last minute packing was done by many of the volunteers, because all but 10 would be leaving the next morning. Amy and I are in that group of 10 that had an extra two days before departure. We both awoke early the next morning, because we knew cars would begin leaving between 6 and 7 in the morning. A few at a time, vehicles were boarded by people who just a few short months ago were complete strangers to us, and if not for the experience we would probably never have met most of them. However – we know them now, and are so happy to call them our friends. Saying goodbye was hard. Since coming to Liberia, we’ve hardly gone more than a day or two without seeing them. They know us, and we know them. We’ve shared experiences, troubles, sadness, stresses, laughter, happiness, joy, and maybe a club beer or two. It was hard to realize that, with only a couple of exceptions, we would not see them again until mid-December. More than a few people cried as they hugged and said goodbye. Like so many of our experiences in Liberia, it was bittersweet. Of course we were all excited for the possibilities ahead, but it is always hard to say goodbye.
As I write this, I am at the training center with the other nine of us who will be traveling to the southeast region of Liberia. Cars are coming for us to bring us back to Monrovia, where we will stay the night and board a small plane to a large city in the area. We will have two days of working with the principals of our schools, discussing priorities for the school, and the subjects and grades we will teach. At the conclusion of this workshop, we will then be taken to our respective sites, and the real work begins. It is scary, but we are so excited to see what the future holds. See you soon Grand Gedeh County, we can’t wait to get started!
P.S. We couldn’t miss an opportunity to get the O-H-I-O picture in with our fellow Ohio State alumni before we go our separate ways, and with football season right around the corner. Thanks Tom and Kim! 🙂
And Go Bucks!