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Monday, January 23, 2012

Surfing Liberia for Christmas? Yes, please.

Just before Christmas break, Holly and I finally made the trip to Handii (Hen-dee). Handii is a small town north of our site. The other direction goes on to Kakata. Everyone at my site talks about Handii’s market and we finally had time off to see it. Market day is Tuesday which is why it was hard to visit, normally that’s a school day for us. We did some good shopping there and I bought many Christmas presents. I saw an antbear (anteater) and crocodile for sale. The St. Paul River I crossed up in Lofa County passes by Handii. There are long canoes carved out of thick tree logs that carry passengers across the river. No bridge here. :) Next time, I plan to pack a lunch and go across and explore.

December 22nd started my holiday vacation. Holly joined along as did little Naw wei. Naw wei didn’t much like the taxi ride into Monrovia nor when we had to walk through Red Light. Red Light is the area just outside of Monrovia where the taxis leave for all locations past there. There is also a large market and basically, it’s complete chaos. I took Naw wei to the only animal vet in the country. He had some mange on his ears so that got treated. He got his DHPP shot and a rope bone from me to make up for the shots.

On the 23rd, Holly, Dani, Anjulie, Ryan, Naw wei and I chartered a taxi from Monrovia to Robertsport (the iconic surfing location preferred by local surfers). We encountered a small hiccup getting past Klay. The government had hired people living along the roads to clean them. And well, those people had not gotten their Christmas pay yet. They rioted. Road blocks went up all over. Suddenly our taxi was forced to stop; the rioters were throwing rocks, sheet metal, and ladders into the road to make them impassible. There were two blocks in front of us, many many more behind us. The situation was charged with emotions and angry Liberians. They would not let any cars pass. I have to be honest; there were a couple moments where I feared it was going to turn from aggressive to violent. But the LNP (Liberian National Police) showed up and got the protestors calmed down. The road blocks were stripped away and after 50 intense minutes of waiting and worrying, we were allowed to pass. These situations are not common but not uncommon. The country is still working its way out a bad civil war and situations can be risky. But we were traveling in a group and the Police took good care of us.

Once on the road again, we picked up Nora and her dog, Milo, at the junction on the way into Robertsport. We got a good look at Lake Piso and a face full of dirt from the dusty road along the way. Robertsport is quite large in size, not population. Some of the roads are in good condition and it’s not hard to picture how nice of a place it was before the war tore it apart. There were sidewalks! The town stretched out for some time and we finally reached the Robertsport Community Campsite. (***shout out to Prince who runs the campsite: He’s amazing, trustworthy, knowledgeable, and knows good customer service. I recommend staying with him.) We pitched our tents and jumped into the surf. 0.05 seconds later I realized I’d lost my glasses in the ocean. Go me. That first night, I let Naw wei sleep with me in my tent. He was a little nervous about all these new places and tired from traveling. He made a good pillow and the extra warmth was nice considering it gets rather chilly on the water at night. Something we had not really thought about before leaving.

I went surfing with Ken and Sam (a little Liberian boy who is a waaay better surfer than me) on Christmas day. The waves were small, good for getting back into the groove of the sport. I took a mid-day break to take a nap in the sand and we all ate fish and rice later that night. Naw wei loves chasing the little crabs in the sand on the surf. This made for fun night walks. My arms were sore, but I found myself of the surf the next day as well. I found Liberian waves (at least during the dry season) are tamer than the 7 or 10 footers I had been trying to learn on in Australia. I know I’ll be back, the area is just ‘too fine’. :) We wrapped up the week with a game of Ultimate Frisbee and more marshmallow roasting.

We left Robertsport and headed to Tenii in Grand Cape Mount. We went swimming and ate some fabulous burritos at Nora’s house. That’s where we got Peep, the little land tortoise. He’s got a bum leg, but he’s a mad banana eater and is pretty darn cute. Nora has chickens….made me want chickens. Possibly just because I want to name one ‘McNugget’. :) After dinner Nora’s adorable neighbor girl told us Liberian stories and after that we drank palm wine out of an old motor oil jar. The palm wine drinking was accompanied by loud singing to Disney songs such as ‘I’ll Make a Man out of You’ from Mulan.

Dani and Anjulie followed Holly, Naw wei and I back to our site after stopping in Monrovia. More palm wine was to be had with Liberians and Dani and I did some stargazing.

After the holiday break and classes resumed, we got the news that the renovated half of the school was ready to be used. Now if you were not reading earlier posts you should know that we have been operating on half the school because the Chinese working at the Mine are also repainting and fixing up our school. We got all the students to help and moved seats into the new rooms. I will happily be assigning seating charts for the next period so that learning all my students’ names will be possible….and classroom management will improve.
I added a bonus question to my seventh grade exam: What happens if you spy on a test? Correcting them was great. :) I got lots of ‘I will get a zero’ and ‘I will fail’ or the misspelt version ‘I will fall’. Holly Cook (Miss Cook) asked them the bonus question: ‘What is your English teachers’ name?’ and got some good ones such as: ‘Hollywood Cook’ and ‘Mas Colk’ .

Then our Country Director dropped by for a visit of site and a special delivery. My mom and dad mailed two kindles to him when he went to the states for the holidays. We are quite in love with our new shiny kindles and have put more than 1,100 books on them. Time spent reading has risen muchly. :) I also thank you for the chocolate oranges, frontline plus for puppy, and mp3 cord allowing me to play my iPod on my smashingly awesome speakers. Thank you thank you parents!

Just found a safe place to charge my laptop last week. Liberia surprises me all the time. I can now charge my laptop at the cell phone tower across from my school building. I know sometimes I complain about not having running water and electricity, and many returned volunteers like to tell me about how back when they were in Peace Corps it was that way. My only bit of perspective on that is that back then, most people didn’t have access to lots of technology and no one had cell phones. Peace Corps volunteers working in countries like mine grew up on computers and internet. It’s really interesting learning to work and live without them sometimes.

This week the new American Embassy opened with a ribbon cutting by the Secretary of State. I have not yet been there to see it, but I hear good things. Madam President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn into another term of office on December 16th, 2012.

And I finally built my garden! My tenth grader helped out and I have now planted pineapple, watermelon, carrots, peas, and cherry tomatoes. The essentials, ya know ;) Beans are projected to hit the dirt next week and I’ll need to add new goals onto my list. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I fell in love, with Nekerbozo

I eat fufu now! Google fufu and get a visual. It’s fermented cassava with soup that has chicken, fish and or pepper. I hated it when I got here… now I crave it sometimes. Strange how that kind of stuff happens. My neighbor smashed up dried pepper and made me peppe powder. I add it to food that’s not quite hot enough. Those of you who know me will be surprised by this.

I attended a traditional wedding in November. And pictures are in my ‘Got fufu’ album on facebook. The bride and groom wore lapa suits and ate kola nuts. There was /tons/ of dancing and throwing of money on the bride’s head…which I enjoyed. I’ve decided that to deter unwanted attention I will start telling the Liberian guys that my bride price is $10,000 USD. Not sure what I’ll do if someone ends up having that much… but it’s not likely.

My school received a visitor from the Ministry of Education in mid-November. Matthew did a week-long conference with the primary school teachers in the entire area. Subject matter? Phonics. Thank God! Liberian teachers in my area were trained on how to pronounce the whole word and letters correctly. This is key for improving education in Liberia. If young students know the sounds of letters and can sound out words, they will be able to excel in reading. And for me, having a few seventh graders whom cannot read, this program was long overdue. Matthew is sticking around for six months to track the programs progress and our school has landed a big box of primary education books.

We had our IST (In Service Training) in Gbarnga. It was like summer camp…at least the sleeping situation was. I happened to land (by accident) the only bed with springs (which is all Dani’s fault). You’re thinking Ooo spring mattress. It was nice…but it had a pretty bad dip and it squeaked, like, a lot. And when you’re all sleeping in one big room and Steph gets into bed and attempts to ‘get comfy’ it translates into a lot of squeaking. It was then dubbed the sexy time bed. And I was told ‘take time. Small, small tiger’. Regardless, it was a great thing to laugh about and we got some great training during that week. We even got a panel discussion with the Dean of Cuttington University, WAEC (West African Examination Council) representative, and the Deputy for the Ministry of Education herself. Amazing people and we gave them some good feedback and requests.

Thanksgiving was spent snuggled in an air conditioned embassy home with TV and internet, the hot showers were the biggest prize though. We all were invited to the American Embassy for dinner which had really good turkey, ham, pumpkin pie, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and gravy. All Americans in Liberia were invited but me and my fellow volunteers made sure to race up to the serving table to be first in line. Free food? Free /good/ food? We’re not going to wait for the back of the line. We all ate too much food and were very happy. I even got to see the Packer game that night.

The very next day a few of us bused back up to Gbarnga on our way to Lofa County. We were headed for Barziwein. A small village on the Lofa road, Lofa County. We passed by Dani and Anjulie’s site in Salayea and Garrett’s site in Zorzor. I had my first Pakistani meal at the Pakistani UN base in Zorzor that day. Truly good food. We continued onward to Barziwein. Lofa County is beautiful, goats, sheep, the St. Paul River, large mountains everywhere and adorable small village towns along the road. When we arrived, I was almost about to fall asleep. There wasn’t a sign that we were getting close to the village, it just crept up on us. And they met our bus with cheering (which woke me up straight away), crying, singing, and dancing. They were so happy to see us. We got off the bus, after our seven hour ride, and got right to dancing. :) A handful of other volunteers and myself headed off to our overnight stay, a nearby village called Nekerbozo (Nick-a-boo-zoo), after the dancing was over. We drove part of the way and dropped some volunteers of in Midena and continued on to Nekerbozo by foot. Cars cannot reach this place. We were all a little surprised to find ourselves at a monkey bridge (pictures on ‘Got fufu’ album) over a large river. Now, a monkey bridge can be a few well-placed logs that aid cars over a crack or river, but this bridge was only for people. This bridge was made entirely out of bamboo and vines. No nails or metal supports at all. Wonnie (our Liberian staff member) was a bit nervous about this, but she made it across. I took videos and tried not to slip on the curved bamboo. Nora and I stayed with the village chief and they fed us some yummy dry rice with butter pear (aka avocado). *Note: dry rice is not really ‘dry’ it just doesn’t have a soup prepared to mix into it with chicken and fish. The poorer you are in Liberia, you eat more dry rice. We had a traditional song and dance night and gave the small children stories and lectures. Afterward, I took my warm bucket bath in the ‘outdoor’ shower that was surrounded by bamboo poles. There were flat warm stones under my feet, my lapa hung over the doorway and there was no roof. The light rain fell on top of me while I bathed. If you ever want to try something truly amazing, take a warm bath in a light rain with a blanket of a million stars over your head. No light pollution out here, I saw all of them. There is no light at night here. Now, at my site it gets dark but there are still a few generators along the road and video clubs. No generators here. You can bet your socks that I’m going back too. The chief gave us his nicest room to sleep in and the next day (after the stupid goat bleated right outside my window and woke me up) we walked back over the monkey bridge back to Barziwein for the 50th Anniversary program.

Our 50th Anniversary program was based around a previous PCV who taught in the village before the Liberian Civil war. Susan Davey loved her school very much and her former students were present that day. Susan Davey was serving in Liberia when she died in a car accident on a vacation in Kenya. She asked to be buried at her site, where her grave rests still. The grave site was renovated and current students put on a play about her life, and other students sang songs. The Town chief presented our country director with a chicken and Susan’s former students told stories. More dancing followed the program and yummy goat soup. I hope it was the annoying one outside my window. :) We dragged our feet getting back onto the bus, not really wanting to leave. We had a seven hour ride back to the compound in Gbarnga.

Highlights from early November :D

In early November we gave our first exams at school. Liberian students are well known for their talent in spying (or cheating). Sometimes they leave a sheet of notes under the test, others hide notes on the seat between their legs, others (girls) will hide note in their skirt or write on their legs, and I’ve seen notes written on money that can be passed from student to student. They are very crafty, and I love catching them trying to fool me. :) For our first exam, I made three different tests and told my students that spying would not help them on the test. However, some of them still copied from their neighbor, writing down all the wrong answers onto their test. But my students catch on quick and know that if they spy they will lose points, not be allowed to finish the test, and sometimes even get a zero on the exam. Surprisingly, the students who come to class and study/review the material are the ones that pass. Something I always have to explain to the students that never come to class and then show up for the exam expecting to pass the period.

Got another package from home. :) thanks again, mom and dad. Those hand lenses you mailed got broken in by my tenth graders during review week. After me lecturing them and saying that these lenses can make objects look bigger they were so amazed to go out in the field behind the school and experience it for themselves. ‘Miss Stephanie! The ant looks bigger!’ ‘Look, there are little hairs on this leaf!’. We made sure to observe small print text and even Naw wei’s nose before heading back inside the classroom to discuss what we found.

Thanks for including sandals in the box you sent. My giant-sized feet are hard to shop for in Liberia. I wear size 11 in US and 73 in European sizes. It makes finding large sandals that I can teach in hard to do. My last pair was finally tossed out. I used super glue on them so many times it stopped helping. But at least I got all the use out of them. Not as embarrassing as my study abroad in Australia when I duct taped my shoes to avoid paying for new ones. Priorities man, I wanted to go bungee jumping more than buy shoes.
I bought Naw wei a rabies vaccination in Monrovia in November. The only hitch? It needs to be refrigerated… and I have to transport it back to my site using bush taxi. I got an empty medical kit, filled it with ice and ice packs and set out for site. It was still cool when I arrived four hours later, but the ice was melted. Naw wei disliked this because as soon as I got there, he was held down and Holly stuck him in the butt. But now he’s protected from rabies.

I did more stand-up comedy at Tides Bar over Halloween and dressed up as Justin Beiber last minute because I didn’t plan ahead and gather a costume. I was in Monrovia for a PSN training. Peer Support Network is a volunteer run program that aims to act as a support system for our fellow volunteers. So whether they need to vent, brag, complain, cry, or hear some uplifting words, we are here to help. We got some excellent training on active listening and forming a support network from a big boss man in D.C. And so I was voted into the position of secretary and our group is well on its way to forming events that facilitate support of each other no matter what we are having troubles with out at site.

So you know the insides of tires? Those seemingly useless tubes? Well, they’re sold here and are quite perfect as inner tubes out on the lake at our site. We started with one, now we have three. They’re just great for floating around and being lazy. I also managed to salvage a plastic chair from our swimming hole. One of our Chinese friends knocked his chair into the water while fishing (he’s kind of a klutz). But all I had to do was dive down twelve feet and swim back up to the surface with it. Now it sits in our house and I didn’t have to pay $8 to get it. Small win. Our house is one more step closer to being furnished.

On October 28th we had a program/fun day planned for school. The school brought out the generator and the kids watched a pretty terrible (but very hilarious) Nigerian movie while we held a ‘meet you fellow teachers’ meeting in the reading room complete with peanut butter cookies made on our coal pot. I found out most of my fellow teachers were born or raised in Lofa County and was happy to tell them I was headed there for the first time later in the month for Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration. The Nigerian shows were followed by a killer football game. New students vs Old students. During the game my fellow techers found it important to tell me I had to root for the New students since I was a new teacher. And hence the playful banter between us as the score changed throughout the game. It ended in a tie and I was pretty proud of my athletic twelfth graders. They did well. After football was the school dance. Yeah…. I thought I was finally too old for these. Seems not. I fear for myself when I have to dance back in the United States. The Liberians think I’m a really good dancer and I feel like these West African hit songs are not helping my already bad dance abilities. But you can’t say no when Africans ask you to dance. And so, we made an appearance at the dance and I got to scope out which of my students were dating whom (what?! I know it happens). And show them up on the dance floor. Shakira’s Waka waka is relatively common here but I’m still trying to master that dance. Beiber is also common which is rather odd, Katy Perry and Lady GaGa are not heard of which slightly saddens me. And I couldn't tell you what’s hip now. But if any of you friends feel like enlightening me with the current hot and hip music from home please put it on an SD card or USB port. My snazzy music player saves battery by only using these and my mp3 plug which lets me play my iPod. My laptop does not have a disk drive.
Naw wei, my little African mutt is growing fast. He’s finally lifting his leg to pee (and doesn't have to look like a strange chicken-legged squatter anymore) and enjoys peeing on all kinds of things. He’s also coming of age and noticing all the lady dogs around the house. However he’s not sure what to do and I don’t speak dog which means that while you are watching CNN or BBC at night I have Lady and the Tramp doggie romances going on from the view of my porch. He’ll figure it out at some point, but it’s highly entertaining for us. His collection of tricks has gone up to include ‘wave’, ‘speak’ and ‘roll over’. Even some of my students are now visiting and going up to him ‘Naw wei, speak!’ They think he’s amazingly talented for an African dog.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What you missed in October O.o

You may already know about this, but I’m kind of a big deal in Monrovia’s stand-up comedy crowd. Actually I just started, but my response was warm so I’m giving it a go. I did my first night on October 2nd. I was in town with some fellow volunteers and we went out to Tides Bar. Once there, we discovered it was open mic night…and it didn’t take much peer pressure before I was added to the list.
Holly and I have folding lawn chairs now. That was our big splurge this month. They are perfect for lying under the stars at night and admiring the Milky Way. We’ve also seen quite a few moon bows. Yeah, never knew that was a real thing. But they are pretty beautiful.
I met a new good friend while waiting for my taxi home in early October. Christina is a Liberian with a bachelor’s degree who teaches science to senior high students. Can you say science-geek-talk-ensued-for-several-hours? It was pretty awesome to see a lady doing what she does.
That taxi ride home was pretty funny. It had rained a lot before and the rode was a weird mix of a roller coaster and a slip and slide. You know when the other taxi passengers are complaining about the lack of network coverage and the terrible road conditions to you (which you shrug off) that you’re adjusting quite well.
I eat more pepper than I ever thought I would now. My neighbor makes a mean peppe calla (not sure how it’s spelt) and I try not to eat too much. I also have an official Kpelle teacher at site. Winnie comes over or I visit her house and my kpelle book is getting revamped and expanded. I also have a Kissi (another local dialect) and Chinese copybook. Who would have thought I’d be learning Chinese in Liberia? O.o
On election week I did a lot of baking on the coal pot with my neighbors. Thank you mom for the cookie recipes! The sugar cookies were good and the peanut butter cookies were the biggest hit. I’ve already had to make more. Also on Election Day we hung out at the Chinese base and played strange video games and cards all day. Be warned that if you do play cards with the Chinese, there are punishments involved. And not your typical alcohol punishments… I would have taken whiskey shots…trust me. The favored punishment that night was taking a bite or raw garlic. We had heartburn and bad breath for a few nights after that. The Chinese think that eating raw garlic is good for your health…I think they just like to see how many people they can wipe when they breathe on you. They have also treated us to their Chinese food. Once again, Chinese food? In Bong Mines? I still don’t really believe it.
I also have discovered my saving grace for dry season. It’s the most amazing swimming hole I could possibly ask for. I will add a picture to facebook at some point. I also hurt my back a little and the inflammation is taking its good sweet time. So I had to give up running and switch to swimming. :) I love it. I now keep a swim bag in the reading room at school, because I’ve kind of become addicted. Naw wei is turning into a swimmer as well (he’s got to be if he wants to still be my dog) and so he joins along with some of my 10th and 12th graders.
I had palm wine two weeks ago. My 12th graders convinced me. It made for a funny morning (because I taught them the cards game ‘spoons’). I also tried ant bear soup that week…aka anteater, which is surprisingly ‘sweet’ (as my landlady Fumata said).
I made my favorite Liberian soup (eddo soup) for my principal and teachers at my house last month. That was the day our bed frames were delivered and so there was much excitement that afternoon. Holly and I are *officially* not sleeping on the floor anymore. Thank goodness. I pulled out my new bed sheets that my mom had washed back in the states. I had kept them in a vacuum bag until the night I got my bed frame. I tried not to question my own sanity when I went to bed, sniffing my sheets (cause they smelt like home) for a good hour before falling asleep.
So on the weekends, when I do wash out on the porch with the rest of my neighbors, I listen to CRI radio. Aside from the quirky random words I learn to say in Chinese, the radio station plays our favorite morning music show /ever/. The Shuffle, plays music from the 70s, 80s, 90s and last week the DJ ‘Stephanie’ played ‘shark in the water’. (This part of the story will only make sense to my gang back in Superior. Angie, this story is for you) And yes, Ang, I sang along, danced and told Holly about your shark dance (which I hope you are still doing).
I got mail from mom and dad again! Thank you for the scandals. I can’t find my size here (bothersome…).  The butterfingers are being eaten as we speak and Naw wei thanks you for another ball to chew on.
I pimped the guest room this month! So you should come visit. :) I also visited Salala this week. Slowly but surely I will see all or most of Liberia.
For variation sake, I’d love for you, my friends and readers, to let me know what types of things I should talk about or include more of. Sorry for the lapse in blog entries! I have been teaching one of my twelfth graders how to use a computer and that has been taking up my battery life. :)