Time passes at a different speed in the Peace Corps. The general consensus among volunteers is that the days go by slowly, sometimes excruciatingly so. But the weeks, the months, our two years of service will pass in a blink. Nick and I just passed the seven month mark living in Africa. I feel like we just left, and I feel like we’ve been here forever.
Sometimes I feel like we have been left behind, like we are missing out as the world passes by us. Sometimes I feel like we’ve been through more adventure in a single day than some will experience in a year. Or a lifetime.
So much of our service is a juxtaposition, experiences and feelings that are in direct conflict with one another. Seeing so much beauty, and so much sadness at the same time. Feeling hope and hopelessness. Balancing joy with heartbreak. Gratitude and guilt. Love and anger. Pride and embarrassment. Peace and fear.
As PCVs, we sort through these emotions daily. Looking back on our time here, however, this tension seemed to become most apparent around the holidays. Especially early on.
The first big day we celebrated here was my birthday. A milestone birthday. And the conflicting emotions on that day were an immense feeling of love, and my first real taste of loneliness.
Love started first. My African ma, Ma Comfort, called me sometime around seven in the morning (Liberians have a different concept of the appropriate time to wake someone up…). I answered the phone to my entire host family screaming happy birthday to me. Liberia has some very colorful ways to wish birthday love, one of my favorite phrases being “Happy escape from the womb day!” We still sing happy birthday here as well, to the same tune as in America, but Liberians add bit of extra flourish at the end. It’s a bit like a buzzer sound, followed by many more verses wishing success, long life, and all the best in the future. And I felt truly loved in that moment. My Ma remembered my birthday, and made sure she was the first person to share in it with me. She had a beautiful lappa skirt tailored as a gift (with a matching one for herself, of course) and promised to send it down with some of her pepeh sauce that I’ve been missing dearly.
As the day went on, however, the loneliness settled in. The realization that I was away from my born family, my African family, my friends, and everything I felt I needed to make my birthday complete, sunk in. No cake, no fancy birthday dinner and drinks, no balloons, no friends or family. Just me, and Nick, and the spiders, in the bush. My birthday fell during a time when PCVs were not allowed to travel in the country, and we had only been at site for about two weeks, so we didn’t yet have a support net in place. My first birthday in Africa wasn’t grand, but rather quiet, a touch sad, and very small.
But we tried, as that’s all you can do. We didn’t have fancy drinks, but we found some boxed wine. We didn’t have cake, but we had cookies. And we didn’t have friends or family here in person, but we had them remotely and replaced them with adorable children who love us unconditionally. As far as presents, Nick surprised me with a radio. When we got it working, the first song we heard was 7 years, a song that contains the words “…soon I’ll be 60 years old”, and the second was Forever Young. Thank you Mama Liberia, like I wasn’t feeling old enough already.
Next came Halloween. And that was… odd. Two of the three goals PCVs work toward focus on cultural exchange. Bringing American culture to Liberia, and Liberian culture back to you all at home. Holidays have been one of the most exciting cultural pieces to share, as they are such a huge part of our identity and perspective, but also one of the more difficult.
Having to introspectively review why and how America celebrates certain days- reflecting on the historical origins and modern cultural significance of our holidays and traditions- and trying to explain them in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculous has really pushed us at times. It all seems so normal until you’re forced to think about it, to rationalize it, to view it from an outside perspective. As a lighthearted example, how would you explain Groundhog day to someone who knows nothing about it? As this is one of Nick’s favorite holidays (Google Jimmy the Groundhog if you’re curious as to why) I have seen him attempt this more than once. The fact that Americans devote an entire day to celebrate a weather predicting marmot sounds a bit absurd, especially in a country that would rather eat Punxatawney Phil than watch his shadow. Groundhog is delicious, by the way, and I highly recommend it in bean soup with red oil.
Much like Groundhog day is an important holiday to my husband, Halloween is my absolute favorite day of the year. And when I say favorite, I mean I walked into our office conference room in an inflatable T-Rex suit on Halloween last year, and I pretended to be a dinosaur during a meeting. Like Groundhog day, Halloween is not well known or celebrated here in Liberia. I spent several days trying to figure out how I could teach my students and my neighbors about a day that holds a very special place in my heart. And I struggled, because I never really thought about it past coming up with crazy costumes and eating as many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as possible. I wasn’t prepared to answer the “why” questions. Why do we put on costumes? Why do we allow children to threaten us with tricks if we don’t given them treats? Why do we enjoy frightening each other with ghosts, witches, fake blood, and scary movies? I didn’t have any good answers.
Not only did I struggle to understand the holiday, I struggled to justify it. Nick and I have established in our community that we don’t believe in witchcraft, but believe in science, so why do we celebrate a day for spooky things that many Americans don’t actually believe in or fear? And how do I explain this celebration in a way that is sensitive, accurate, and fair to both cultures. Nick and I are living in a country where violence, gore, and blood, are not gimmicky or funny. We are living in a country where witchcraft can be taken seriously, and is respected. While Americans are so detached from it, find entertainment in it, many Liberians still feel pain or hurt around war, death, and the unexplained. And while I am very proud of my American traditions, I find some insensitive or embarrassing at the same time. On Halloween I felt love for my culture, and anger that it could take fun in things so real and unfunny to many others.
In the end, I settled for a middle ground and taught a biology lesson on decomposition (which was VERY well received) and attempted a chemistry experiment where we stabbed pencils through a bag of “blood” (red juice) without the water leaking out. By next year, hopefully someone will mail that dinosaur costume to me and I can do more. Next year, I do not want to let not having good answers hold me back from sharing parts of life back home that I love.
Through this struggle, I learned I don’t have to love everything about my culture, and that I am allowed to open my eyes to unknown perspectives and grow from them. So I tried to go into Thanksgiving with a more open attitude about sharing. Talk about feeling embarrassed. Liberians actually celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving as well, and in a way I find absolutely beautiful. On Thanksgiving in Liberia (which is the first Thursday in November), many take the day off to spend at church. They give thanks for their lives, their families, and their blessings, none of which are to be taken for granted even for a moment here. In America, we too get together to give thanks, but mostly to eat until we’re sick. It’s a day for family and friendship, true, but also indulgence and excess, with an almost mandatory nap, followed by a day of equally indulgent and excessive shopping. So how honest did I want to be? Instead of going into too much detail, or overthinking things like I did on Halloween, I tried to focus on the positives when telling my Liberian friends about American Thanksgiving. We celebrated the holiday here by sharing coconuts and bananas with our Liberian friends, and personally expressing gratitude for their presence in our life in Africa. We also had a PCV Thanksgiving feast that included palm wine, sweet potatoes, Irish (regular) potatoes, corn, pineapple, and a delicious pig roast.
Speaking of traditions, and Thanksgiving, we could never forget about football. Real football, none of this soccer business. Nick and I have been doing our best to follow along with our favorite teams all season, despite the lack of power (let alone a television). Necessity being the mother of invention, we’ve been using a chalkboard to “watch” the games as they unfold. Fun fact, the hash lines on the chalk field are to scale. My terrible towel is with me in Liberia, and you can bet I was waving it with the Steelers in the playoffs.
Because I love real football more than soccer (the sport of choice here), I have been slowly brainwashing teaching the kids who live around our house about the sport. We started with YouTube videos of highlights from the Buckeye/Packers/Steelers games each week. We explained the rules (as best we could in Liberian English) and that you use your hands instead of your feet to carry and pass and catch the ball. We inflated the football we packed, and held mini training camps in the yard outside the house. It felt good to finally be better at a sport than my neighbors, even the little ones here are crazy good soccer players. We showed them how to position their feet, how to bring the ball back, how to step into the throw, and how to follow through. We taught them how to catch a ball, what coverage looks like, and continually reminded them to use their hands, rather than their feet, to stop the ball. The best player is our young neighbor, Blessing, who threw a perfect spiral on her first attempt. I’m scouting for ya Pittsburgh, look out for the class of 2025.
If you’re keeping up with holiday progression, you know Christmas comes next.
We have been asked quite a bit if Liberians celebrate Christmas, and the answer is that many do, and it’s a blast. Similarly to an American Christmas, a Liberian Christmas is focused on children. About a week before, our market transformed. Shops were selling new things, different clothes, and cute little toys. On Christmas here, most children get a new outfit and a new hairdo to match. For young girls, its a different pattern of plaits (braids) which often includes some beads or baubles to round off the look. Young boys, as they keep their hair short here, will dye a portion of their hair lighter to complete their festive look. Donned in their new outfits, the children walk about town, bluffin’ their way from house to house and asking for their Christmas. Bluffing is kind of like the Liberian word for swagger; it describes a way to walk, to pose, to move, while totally rocking whatever you happen to be wearing. “Where my Christmas?” is the Liberian way to ask for your Christmas present. Children are given small gifts, candy, small money, or little toys as presents.
So how did Nick and I celebrate? Much like school in America, Liberian schools take a holiday break that spans Christmas and New Years. Nick and I took advantage of this time off to travel, and see a bit more of Liberia. We went just about as far away from our site in the southeast as possible, and traveled up to Robertsport in the northwest to camp on the beach. We spent our vacation relaxing with other volunteers from across the country, lounging, learning how to fish, and surfing falling off a surf board.
Robertsport is beautiful and peaceful town, full of long deserted beaches, rocks to climb, and new places to explore.
It’s funny, in a post about holidays, that I don’t have much to say about our first Christmas in Africa. I was shocked to discover that Christmas never really felt like Christmas. I never realized how deeply American’s celebration of Christmas is tied up in the “season”- the cold, the incessant Christmas music, red cups, holiday lights, and mall Santas. When you take that all away, December seems like any other month, and December 25th seemed like any other day. We sat on the beach and watched the adorable kids walk around in their Christmas outfits. We also hid from this guy….
Rounding out the year, we spent our last day of 2017 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Monrovia holds a special place in many Liberian volunteer’s hearts, as it has ice cream, showers, bagels, fancy cocktails, and did I mention showers? What better place to ring in the new year, our first full year in LIB, than the country’s capital, surrounded by friends (and ice cream, specifically cheesecake ice cream). On New Years Eve many Liberians go to church, some even spend the night there. If you haven’t picked on the trend, they spend the time giving thanks for the blessings and successes of the year and praying for a future of the same. Walking around the city, we saw many people headed to church in some of the most beautiful lappa dresses I have ever seen. We went the American route of celebration, in contrast, and hit the town.
Oddly enough, my homesickness didn’t really hit until midnight on New Years eve. Everything I have missed over the last seven months, or will miss in 2018, suddenly seemed very vivid. Much like Christmas, I never realized how much of my holiday experience was wrapped up in the “vibe”. No ball drop, no parade, not much of a countdown, and no Auld Lang Sine. But I keep reminding myself that there is so much more to our holidays (and my traditions) than music and lights and champagne and parades. When all of that is taken away, you’re forced to hold on to the spirit of the day. Surrounded by my new PC family, living in country I feel deeply loved and welcome in, doing work that matters… there is plenty to celebrate on this of side of the earth.
Looking back on the season, I realize that what I want to cherish and share with Liberia about American holidays are the parts that come from our hearts. America’s love for family and friends, making room a few times a year to play in imagination and frivolity, the value of taking time from life to express gratitude and selflessness, and the optimism that every new year is a chance for change and growth. Nick and I are heading into 2018 wiser, stronger, and ready to take on the challenges of the year to come. I have so much to share, and to learn. Many tears to cry and smiles to capture. Many more moments of embarrassment, and moments where we do things we never imagined possible.
Keeping true to my NYE traditions, I have already broken my resolution- to update the blog once a week. Sorry yeah. So much has happened over the past few months, we will do our best to catch up. Stay tuned for a shift in content and some rapid fire posts.
We also identified the mystery creature living with us/running across our feet. He is a country rat, his name is Grimace, and we are halfheartedly trying to kill him.
-Happy, merry, all the things,