Hello everyone! I thought it might be nice to talk this time about the more commonplace and mundane aspects of our lives here. Most of the below is the sort of thing we see and experience quite regularly and take for granted, but never thought to include in part of a blog post. However, since we flatter ourselves that we may be your only inside source of information regarding life in Liberia, now seemed like a good time to tell you about it.
We’ve written in previous posts about how Liberians tend to greet each other when they are out and about. This is true, we meet many people when we are walking through town. Some are previous acquaintances, some are total strangers, some are friends. In any case, the interaction begins the same way. There is a universally known handshake that is used in this country. It consists of a standard handshake, then an adjustment to holding each others thumbs, then a kind of grasp with just the forefingers, then it ends with a kind of snap of the middle finger against the other person’s middle finger. Someday we’ll upload a video of it. Small side note – when I first learned this handshake from a Liberian, I thought they were teaching me their own specific shake that the two of us would be using. I was not aware I would be using this shake every single day. In any case, the point is that we come across a great many people each day. They are not the only ones we encounter, however.
As is common all over Liberia, there are many chickens. They are not contained in pens or coops, they simply have free run of the town. It had been something of a mystery to me after we got here, how ownership of these chickens was both maintained and made known – like by other people who also have chickens, how do they know whose is whose? As it turns out, they usually have a small scrap of rope or string in a certain color tied to the chickens leg, that serves as an identifying mark. Very often when my walks about town take me past high grass, I will hear a rustling sound coming from the grass as I am passing. Slowly I turn, expecting to see a snake, a lion, a velociraptor like poor Robert Muldoon in Jurassic Park (incidentally, there are no lions in Liberia, or velociraptors that I am aware of), or some other horrifying apex predator, and I find the source of the noise. A chicken. It is always a chicken. Nearly five months we have been in this country, and only once has it been anything other than a chicken. The point is, we see chickens constantly.
The one time the noise in the grass was not caused by a chicken, it was a goat (scary right?). Goats wander this town, seemingly of their own accord, and again I have no idea who owns them, or how that ownership is maintained. It seems that, among the goat-owning population, there is an understanding about which goat belongs to which person. There are about 15 of these goats that live in our area of town, and often we will find them sheltering themselves from the rain or the sun under the edge of our roof. We see them so frequently that we have started to name them- if you ever come to visit we will introduce you to Jareth, Black Phillip, Oreo, the Doublemint Twins (baby goats!) and the rest of the gang. Also, near our house is a 3-way intersection, and for some inexplicable reason all 15 of these goats will crowd together and lie down right in the center of this intersection each morning around 8:30, causing the motorbike drivers to swerve to avoid them.
Chickens and goats are typical all over our town. What are less common are pigs. However, there is about a 50 yard stretch of my route to school that seems to be home to roughly 10 pigs. The first time I walked to school, I was quite caught of guard by this – pigs are not common in Liberia. I was walking down the road, minding my own business, and looked up and saw four pigs crossing the road in front of me and disappearing into the tall grass. I kept walking, and saw several more. Like the rest of the animals here, there were no fences or anything else, apparently just an understanding between owner and pig that they will return home each night. That’ll do.
The exception to the free wandering animals policy is cows. Presumably because of their immense size, capacity for potential destruction, or perhaps just their monetary value, the cows do not get to roam free (the exception to the exception is the time I was walking to Amy’s school down a back road, and one cow burst out of the tall grass behind me and galloped past, mooing and I believe trying to locate the heard it had been separated from). The cows are provided several human escorts when they take the road. When this happens, their route passes the house 🙂
The other critters we see all the time, and I do mean ALL THE TIME are lizards. There are small lizards, roughly 3 to 8 inches in length, everywhere. More rampant than squirrels are in the US. They’re quite skittish, and we don’t mind them because they eat bugs. We actually have a very small one that seems to live in the ceiling – he’s not big enough to eat roaches but he can get some of the smaller spiders, as well as flies. He disappears for a while every time we bug spray the house.
The last creature I’ll tell you about is snakes. Liberians HATE snakes. They cannot abide them. During pre-service training the staff told all of us, if you ever see a snake, yell ‘snake’ and Liberians will come to take care of it. We witnessed this twice in the same day a couple of weeks ago. We were reading on the front porch, and a man was passing by our house. He was just past the edge of the porch, and he stopped at the bush next to the house. He looked up at us, pointed at the bush, and said ‘snake.’ Within 30 seconds, two men had appeared with large sticks (both about 5 or 6 feet in length), and a crowd of 20 or so had appeared to address the situation. They managed to kill it with the large sticks, and it was quite the spectacle. All of this for a green snake that turned out to be maybe two feet ling. It is good to know that people will come take care of it if it happens again.
That’s enough about the wildlife. I also wanted to talk small (a Liberian phrase meaning talk for a bit) about some of the businesses in our eclectic town. There are many different types, and most are no bigger than a bus stop in the states. There are many ‘barbing shops’ around – they usually have one chair, and they are geared primarily toward men. Most of them have names like ‘Dapper Man Barbing Shop’, or ‘New York Barbing.’ I’ve not patronized one of them, and may refrain from doing so as I’m told they have difficulty cutting hair like mine.
We also have cookshops, and we’re trying to hit more of them to see which ones we like most. There is a certain appeal to this, much like in America – in so far as I don’t have to cook or do dishes. It’s not like a restaurant in the American sense. We walk in, and there are a few tables in an open room. The shop owner will greet us, and we ask “you geh soop today?” (You have food today?). All cookshop food is generally referred to as soup, which is served over rice. They respond by saying what kind of soup the have, usually two, but sometimes only one. The common ones are potato greens, groundpea (peanut) soup, jollof rice, and PLENTY palm butter (which is made from pounded palm nuts and is a southeast staple). The serving sizes are usually very good, and it is surprisingly affordable. Usually the price for one person is 100 to 150 Liberian Dollars (0.83 to 1.25 US). It is a terrific option when we aren’t up to cooking.
While we’re on the subject of food, there is a good amount of it for sale from street vendors too. Some of them walk with buckets on their heads selling oranges, apples, bananas, donuts, cornbread, greens, etc. Others push wheelbarrows filled with dried pepeh, or loaves of bread. There are also small pop up stands, one of which we’ve just discovered. There is a lady just down the road from where we live who sells a food called cheke (CHEH-kay). It is made from cassava root, and is similar in consistency to couscous. She scoops it into a bag (about a softball sized amount), and adds bouillon, sliced onion, sliced tomato, pepeh, and of course several spoonfuls of oil. This is Liberia, after all. This is more than enough food for us, and the grand total for this tasty dish is 40 LD (remember $1 US is roughly 120 LD). She also offers additional topping for when we’re feeling a bit more decadent. For a few extra LD, she can add dried fish or sausage (which is really a grilled hot dog). The price to add a hot dog is 30 extra LD, and well worth it. Cheke with sausage has made a lovely addition to our weekly menu in Grand Gedeh.
Another aspect of not just our town, but all of Liberia, is the rain. I’m not sure how much we’ve addressed this in the blog, but it rains here. A lot. Sometimes all day and all night, other times it comes out of nowhere in the middle of the day. It’s made it necessary that we carry an umbrella with us, and I always keep my ‘ducks back’ in my backpack. It’s a kind of waterproof cover that fits over it, we got it from one of the outdoor stores in Columbus before we left. We take these precautions because, when it rains, we still need to get where we’re going. This is not typical in Liberia. Most people stop what they’re doing, and duck under the nearest overhang. It’s amazing, the busiest street in town just clears out as everyone takes cover. They will shout to us as we walk, insisting that we join them under the awning so that we don’t get wet. Some students will even skip school if it is raining, which is not an excuse that I accept on the grounds that I still have to come to school if it’s raining. I’ve been told (by Liberians) that all of this is because Liberians are scared of the rain.
While we’re on the subject of water in its various forms, let’s talk about the water in our house! We do not have running water in the house. All the water we use in the house must be brought to the house. Usually by the two of us ourselves, although occasionally the neighbor kids help us out in exchange for candy. Peace Corps was kind enough to provide us with a barrel in which to keep our water. It’s fortunate that it’s so big – about 20 buckets full can fit in it – because we go through a lot of water each day. We each need a half bucket full to shower each day (or a full buckets if we feel like spoiling ourselves). We use another half bucket to boil water each morning for coffee/tea/to add to the shower bucket so it’s not so cold. Flushing the toilet takes about a third of a bucket. Cooking often requires a half to a full buckets, as does doing the dishes. We keep two buckets for drinking water on hand, which goes into our water filters before we can drink it. The biggest user of our water, though, is laundry. One load of laundry usually takes 3 full buckets of water. I’m sure you get the idea – lots and lots of water.
Almost all the water we use every day comes from the well, which is about 60 yards from our house. The water is pulled up manually (no hand cranks) using what is usually an old plastic jug tied to the end of a rope. Amy is able, like a real Liberian, to carry her bucket on her head. My balance is not good like that, so I still use my hands. As I said, the well near the house is where almost all of our water comes from. However, we choose to work a little bit harder for our two buckets of drinking water. For that, we go up the hill to the pump – the water tends to be cleaner and clearer looking than that of the well. Our filters can clean up well water just the same, but we make the trip up the hill anyway for those buckets. It’s a lot of work getting up there, but there is a beautiful view of the city from the top.
Lastly on the subject of water, we drink a lot of it. It must be something to do with the 85-90 degree heat, the 95% humidity, and the fact that we both come from the midwest that makes us go through water. The good news is, when we are out walking around town, water is never far away. You see, there are several companies around Liberia who package filtered mineral water into vacuum sealed bags. These seem to be prevalent across the country. People buy them in bulk, and walk around selling them out of coolers to thirsty townsfolk. It’s a pretty good deal – only 5 LD for a half liter of ice cold mineral water. You just put the tip of one corner of plastic in between your teeth, bite it off, and it’s sweet relief on a hot day. We always try to make sure we have a few small bills with us in case we need water while we’re out.
I hope this has given you all a glimpse into the less profound, but hopefully still interesting, aspects of our lives serving with the Peace Corps. We will surely write another post like this one once inspiration strikes. We’ll write again soon.