Hello all! We’ve been living in Grand Gedeh County for about six weeks now, and are slowly beginning to feel somewhat settled in. Our house certainly feels more like home – all it took was a little TLC, a few weekends, several trips to the hardware store, and lots of elbow grease. We’d been told by someone in last year’s Peace Corps class that having a comfortable place to live during your Peace Corps service can have a calming effect when things get difficult, so we made that one of our earliest priorities. One of the investments we made was a pair of bright yellow lawn chairs to take out to the porch in the mornings- as part of our daily routines, we have coffee together outside while the community wakes up. Amy loves watching the children walk past in their uniforms on their way to school (there are several nearby), and it’s a great way to grab some snacks for the day as people walk by selling (donuts, oranges, bread, etc). This is a wonderful way to start the day, and it has helped to make our community feel more like home.
We also have some wonderful neighbors, who have welcomed us into the community. They continue to teach us Krahn, and make sure we aren’t getting dry (getting too skinny). The Ma next door, in particular, can cook! It’s nice to get some real Liberian food, as we are still inexperienced making it. They’ve given us pepeh soup, potato greens, and pumpkin soup. We’ve also made them food a couple of times, with varying degrees of success – both the empanadas and the spaghetti went over well, but we’re not sure they enjoyed the eggplant and ricotta ravioli. Every day we make time to sit small outside the house- whether playing with the kids, helping with homework, talking politics, or just sitting in silence, it’s all valuable time. Liberians in general are very open, and we are learning every day just by sitting and listening to their thoughts and stories. Our neighbors always share with us their knowledge of what’s going on in our town, as well as around Liberia, which has been invaluable given the state of the country at the moment.
That about covers our home life, so let’s talk about work! We’re several weeks into our first semester at our schools. Amy will tell you all about her experience soon, but I’ll tell you about mine in the meantime. My school is one of the largest government (public) schools in Grand Gedeh County. It runs all day, with elementary school in the morning, junior high and high school in the afternoons, and night school in the evenings. My niche is afternoon school, which takes place between 1pm and 6pm. It’s a little strange for 1st period to start at 1 o’clock, but I’m getting used to it. It has a few perks, like being able to get things done in the morning, and not having to set an alarm 🙂 I’d been told by Peace Corps staff that class sizes will generally increase in the weeks following the official start of term, as many students don’t register until after the school year begins. This turned out to be the case and then some. My 11th grade class began at about 35 students, and my 10th grade was around 20 students. About a month into the term, and we are up to 70 and 100 students, respectively. I’ve heard they may go up even more, so we will wait and see. Such large class sizes present several challenges – keeping students quiet, making sure no one is spying (cheating), ensuring that they understand me, and tracking attendance are just a few of the difficulties. Despite this, overall I think the teaching is going fairly well given my, shall we say, limited teaching experience. Also, I think I am becoming a more confident public speaker.
When we’re not at home or at work, we’re usually at our favorite tea shop enjoying an egg & bread with coffee and good company. The owner of the tea shop has become our closest friend in Liberia, and she has been amazing in helping us to get settled. She has helped us with finding a carpenter, advised us on where to find things in town, and even come over to teach us to make my favorite Liberian dish, potato greens. Incidentally, that was one of the best meals we’ve had in this country since we arrived in June. It’s nice to have her looking out for us – one time we didn’t go to the shop for a couple of days, and she sent her husband to our house to check on us, to make sure we were all right! We were caught a bit off guard by this, but so happy to know that they were thinking about us.
The other place we can often be found is the market. Before we arrived in Liberia, I already had some anxiety about the market. I thought it would be crowded, cramped, hot, busy, and loud. Having experienced our market many times now, I must admit I was absolutely right. The market is intense. To make a movie reference just for my Ma… I’m vaguely reminded of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy has just expressed his confidence that his friend Marcus would be able to blend in and disappear, and we cut to Marcus looking both incredibly conspicuous and quite out of place in a loud and crowded street somewhere overseas.
As daunting as that may sound, being in a city with such a big market has its advantages. For one thing, it is open every day. This is not a given, as many towns in Liberia only have their market open one day a week – if they have one at all. Another plus is the selection – we’ve been able to find most of what we’ve needed, for Liberian dishes at least, at some point; however, it can be frustratingly inconsistent and varies by the day. We are learning that if you see something you’d like (for Amy this is cucumbers, for me it’s been chicken legs) that you have to buy it right then because it’s not guaranteed to be there long. The main drag through town is chock full of pharmacies, charging stations (for phones and the like – it’s a small booth with a generator hooked up to about 100 electrical outlets), video clubs (like a sports bar that shows soccer games), filling stations (where you can pick up a large jar of gasoline), print shops, hardware stores, cookshops (like a restaurant that serves one or possibly two food options), and tea shops. This road also houses our cow meat shop/butcher. Whenever we get visitors to our site, this is usually one of the first places they want to go. Cow meat can be tricky to get here in Liberia, and we are spoiled to have access every day. Amy swears that some cow meat, grilled with pepeh and onion, with a few pieces of coconut on the side, will turn a bad day into a good one. And she has used this strategy more than a few times since we have arrived.
Off the main road through town is the entrance to the main market. This consists of rows and rows of booths under a massive tin roof, continuing for about 100 yards or so until it opens into a massive open area filled with tables covered with food for sale. In there, one can find all manner of items for sale, food related and otherwise. In the front area with the booths is an assortment of odds and ends – we’ve seen toiletries, dishes, glasses, matches, school supplies, phone cards, laundry soap, liquor, cigarettes, and an enormous selection of lappa. Continuing through the front half of the markets, we reach the back half where the food is. This can still be overwhelming – where to start? We’ve learned not to go without a list because it requires some pretty serious focus to get what we need and get out. It’s sensory overload, and people will try to convince us to buy whatever it might be that we’re walking past. And there are a plethora of options. Vegetable oil sold in used plastic water bottles, sacks of salt, flour, sugar, and rice sold by the cup, pepeh, eggplant, cabbage, pasta, onions, garlic, tomatoes, eggs, okra, bitterball (we’re pretty sure it’s just very young eggplant), pumpkin (which is more like squash), oranges, plantains, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, dried fish, regular fish, chicken, dik-dik (which is a small deer), and what we think might be monkey are just some of what we have seen in our market. It can be overwhelming, but at the same time there are people there who can help you. I have a tomato lady, for instance, and I wouldn’t dare let her catch me buying tomatoes from someone else in the market. She would be vexed (angry) as they say in Liberian English. I also have an oil lady – one of my first purchases there was a 1.5 liter bottle of oil. I found out on my next trip through the market that when a bottle of oil is sold, there is an expectation that the customer will return said bottle once it’s finished. This caused a bit of an issue, as I am an American and thus it takes preparing more than one meal for me to use a liter and a half of vegetable oil. Almost every time I pass through the market, she demands to know where her bottle is, and I’ve yet to have it with me at the time. Not to worry though, I’ll get it back to her eventually 🙂
The other amenity we have that could make some other volunteers jealous is a mini-mart. Actually, we are blessed in our particular town to have two of them! Emphasis on the ‘mini’ by the way. The one we shop at most often is only about a 10 minute walk from our house, and stocks quite a few items that are difficult to find in the market. They tend to stock instant coffee, cream of wheat, cereal, peanut butter, jelly, canned vegetables, canned sardines, canned corned beef, lemon juice, candy, crackers, instant rice, pringles, knockoff pringles, toilet paper, and dish soap. They also have a large refrigerator that contains cold Club Beer and Sangria, in addition to an assortment of sodas and bottled water. I should clarify, though, that much like the regular market it is wise to buy now if you see something you need. The inventory is not the most consistent – in fact we have a volunteer in a neighboring town who came to shop one day, and bought the last eight cans of corned beef. That was three weeks ago, and we’ve yet to see more corned beef there. Point is, we never really know whether there will be stock of whatever it is we’re looking for, so we try to take advantage whenever possible. Nonetheless, it is a very helpful resource to have, and a nice supplement to the market.
The other mini mart is considerably further away from our home, and takes about 25 minutes to walk to. In a pinch, though, it is helpful. This one stocks bug spray (potent stuff by the way, almost certainly illegal in America), candles (very useful since night falls at about 7pm), and a solid wall of boxed wine. This collection of the 3 essentials has made it Amy’s favorite store in our town. The last time I patronized the store, I was only looking for candles and bug spray. I arrived to find the proprietor and a bunch of her friends drinking out front, or having ‘jolly-jolly’ as they say in Liberian English. As she was bagging my items, she reached into the cooler and placed a large Club Beer in the bag with my items. I told her no, just the candles and bug spray today. She replied “no, today is my birthday and this beer is a gift for your wife.” I accepted (didn’t want to be rude, did I?) and walked home, wondering if giving people beer when it’s your own birthday was a Liberian norm that was somehow never brought up during our cross-cultural training. Or perhaps, she was just in a very good mood that day. It any case, Amy was quite pleased with her someone-elses-birthday present.
I hope this gives you a picture of what life in our town is like. As I said earlier, it is beginning to feel more like home. It’s difficult not to look too far ahead, because every day here is a gift that could easily be taken away, but I am looking forward to the comfort and familiarity the future will bring.