Phew! The past two weeks have been a blur. Transitioning from training to our permanent site has been no small thing-o! Let me do my best to fill you in…
Leaving on a Jet Plane- Getting to the Southeast
Two weeks ago, 16 newly minted PCVs were about to take the long journey from training down to the southeast of Liberia. Over the past few months, it was interesting hearing the current volunteers (LR-6) talk about the southeast like some far off exotic land, considering the small size of Liberia. But it does feel a little different down here. And we do feel more isolated. Assuming good road conditions, we’re a two day drive from headquarters in Monrovia, the Peace Corps medical staff, and many of our friends in this country. And that is intimidating. The running rumor is that they only put strong volunteers in the southeast, which I will take as a compliment. Note: it seems the only people spreading that rumor are the southeast volunteers :0)
So, as PST came to a close, off we went. Six volunteers drew the short straw and loaded up in the Peace Corps cars on Saturday to drive. The rest of us were able to fly out of Monrovia early Monday morning. This meant we had a few extra days of showers, current (electricity), ice cream, and fish tacos on the beach. All things I am missing dearly at the moment, by the way.
The flight was short (about 45 minutes) and wonderful. What an awesome opportunity we were given, to fly together over such a beautiful country- so low you could see towns, and jungle, and people fishing in rivers. And what an awesome opportunity to avoid the two day muddy/ bumpy road trip! The plane was tiny, which was a new experience for me. I was surprised when we got to the airport and were each weighed, along with our luggage, before we were able to get on the plane. I briefly regretted the extravagant dinner from the night before in Monrovia while standing on that giant scale :0P but getting comfortable being uncomfortable is an unofficial Peace Corps motto here, so we took a deep breath and rolled with it.
Since the day we learned of our acceptance in the Peace Corps, I’ve been waiting for the overwhelming moment when it would feel “real”. And it didn’t come. It didn’t happen while locking the door on our home in Columbus for the last time, or the day we arrived in Africa, our first night with our home stay family, or even at swearing in. But that morning, flying over the African jungle, I caught a glimmer of that feeling. And it was incredible, and beautiful, and absolutely terrifying. I found myself thinking, “Wait, what did I get us into?” And I’ve been asking myself that question quite a lot over these last few weeks…
While the other volunteers were getting settled at their sites in the north, the southeast volunteers were forced to wait in suspense a few days longer before we got to our homes. As a group, we attended a two day supervisor’s workshop with our future principals.
Peace Corps staff facilitated the training, where we discussed student friendly schools, corporal punishment, and gender. It was training the PCVs had already received, but it was likely new to most of our principals. We collaborated to develop strategies for our schools that would promote positive discipline, encourage young women by raising them up to overcome the many barriers they can face while pursuing their education, and so much more. There were moments during the group conversations that were encouraging, and moments that left me speechless. I was proud of the principals for sharing their stories and willingly listening to new ideas. I was also incredibly proud of my fellow PCVs for speaking up and standing their ground on some difficult topics. I am surrounded by a group of strong, passionate, intelligent volunteers, and they inspire me every day. In the end, I think everyone left with an attitude for change and (hopefully) some new perspectives- now it’s our job to keep this momentum going!
It was great to meet the people we would be working with for the next two years, and to finally ask the questions we’d been wondering about since site announcement: What’s the school like? What will I be teaching? How big are the classes? What’s the town like? Is there a market? Every day? And specifically for me and Nick, I heard there was pizza, where is it?
Nick and I are teaching at two different high schools in our town. The campuses are very different but they’re both nice, should have enough desks for each student, and Nick’s school even has a library (mine is in the works, a project I hope to assist with once the school year gets going). Our principals are both very supportive of us and the Peace Corps, and have been very welcoming. Nick is at a school with a long history of Peace Corps volunteers (even going back before the war), while I am the first PCV at mine. I will be teaching two sections of 10th grade Biology and 11th grade Chemistry, estimating a class range of 55-85 students in each class. Nick will be teaching 10th and 11th grade Physics, with much larger classes of around 100. We have a market every day (which means we can get fresh food), and the pizza is about a 10 minute walk from our house.
There’s No Place Like Home
Wasting no time, the next morning we were packed up and driven to our house. If it wasn’t feeling real enough before, it certainly was the moment the iron front door to our house slammed behind us.
Wait, what? We are actually alone. In this empty house. In a new city. And we don’t know a single person within an hour drive. Wait, what was that noise? How do I find food/water/a way to charge my phone? Wait, what language are they speaking? Wait, is this outfit appropriate? Why are so many people staring at us?
Learning to get around our new home has been a slow process, but we’re doing our best. Being at a larger site has great benefits (read: access to resources pizza), but it comes with its own challenges that volunteers in more remote areas likely won’t have to deal with as often. Our primary focus these first few months, past finding food and water, will be integrating into our community. Integration was a big buzzword during training, and developing relationships is a key factor in a volunteer’s success, safety, and happiness. In a big city, this can be a challenge at first. My perception is that it’s not unlike getting dropped of in a small town in America vs. a city like New York or LA. While Liberians in general are far more warmhearted/welcoming/generous than many Americans I’ve met, it seems to hold true across cultures that larger cities have a different vibe that is going to take time to adjust to. We also aren’t the only foreigners here. Battling the reputation of having excessive amounts of money, not being invested in or considerate of Liberian culture, or only being here for personal gain, will be a battle I suspect we’ll fight often. We are going to have to prove to this town that we’re here to stay, to help, to listen, and that we love and respect their culture. And we will do it.
We are doing our best to learn the Krahn while improving our Liberian English (both languages are spoken here), to shop in the local market and beg for the las price (bargain), and eat rice every day. And while I certainly don’t feel “integrated” (we probably won’t for a long time) I am getting to know some truly wonderful people, whose stories I hope to one day share with you. If there are angels on this earth, at least of a few of them live here in Grand Gedeh. Our first few weeks here were rough, but the good moments (playing with our neighbors, watching an old ma’s face light up when we greet her in her local language, walking to school with a herd of goats or pigs, or cows) and the love and nurturing of the people we will call family in this town, have always brought us back from the bad.
Outside of integrating, life is starting to get back to normal. Our first few days were completely focused on turning our house into our home. It’s going to be our little oasis. We have been waging war on our creepy crawly roommates, washing the walls, painting, sweeping, and doing plenty shopping.
Speaking of roommates, we’ve had quite a few unexpected visitors to the house. Our first day there, I opened the drawer to the desk our school provided us to find a lizard lounging inside. Unfortunately, I have a feeling I crushed him when I slammed the drawer shut. I’m getting used to the spiders- I don’t mind them as long as they don’t sneak up on me, but I would still prefer them to stay outside. We are also currently thinking up a name for our largest, loudest, roommate who lives in our ceiling. Though I have no idea what it is, thinking some kind of R.O.U.S., it likes to throw crazy parties up there that can disturb me small. I am trying to be as brave as I can, but if this thing falls out of the ceiling on top of me one day, you’ll likely hear me screaming all the way back in America.
We’ve have also been trying to cook on our own. I didn’t realize how lucky we were to have Yamah’s cooking for lunch every day (the amazing cook at our training center) and our Liberian Ma’s homemade dinner every night. The ingredients available here are pretty interesting, and someone more creative/talented than I am could have a cooking field day. But I’m starting small, with a lot of spaghetti, fried rice, and egg and bread. Cooking on a gas stove (I’m not quite African enough to brave the coal pot yet), in a dark kitchen, with limited utensils and no ability to actually measure anything is harder than I anticipated. Nick has been a champion at eating all my attempts though, even when I grossly miscalculated the amount of pepeh to put in some tomato sauce I was trying to make. Sorry yeah. He did cook for me the next night, however, so burning his taste buds off ended up working out in my favor.
Every day so far has been different, some days have been harder than I ever imagined, and some have been literally walking through a field, under a rainbow, listening to the chorus of the animals in the bush (this happened). My memories are already becoming fragments; moments frozen in time that I’ll never forget, good and bad. There are moments that just smack you in the face with emotions you never saw coming. Feeling humbled, anxious, proud, furious, loved, hated, capable, embarrassed, that you never want to leave this incredible country, and how badly you want to go home.
There is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for an experience like this. Nick and I are just trying to hold on to each other, and enjoy the ride.
School starts next week, then the real fun begins!