End of a Chapter

(Three months ago, in the notification I sent with my last blog post over email and Facebook, I explained that I was heading back to the States the next day. My grandfather had recently passed away, and I had decided to take the opportunity to come back for some R&R. I mentioned that I was planning to stay in the States for a while to develop a stable base for future projects that I’d like to do in Liberia.

I promised to write a detailed post on my future plans soon after, but upon arrival to the States I quickly became swamped with traveling, visiting friends and family, and getting myself situated to live and work here for the foreseeable future. Now that I have more of a routine and rhythm, I’ve finally found the time to write this post. Sorry for such a delay!)

As I look back on my experience in Liberia for the past three years, I can see that it’s been quite a wild ride. I first arrived in June 2013 with the Peace Corps as a math teacher until I was evacuated fourteen months later in August 2014 due to the Ebola outbreak. I returned to help fight the outbreak with Samaritan’s Purse in October 2014 as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer and worked through April 2015, by which time the outbreak was largely under control.

Then most recently, I returned to Liberia on my own in October 2015 without a supporting organization with the idea of “living immersed in a community like a Peace Corps Volunteer, but with added the challenge of supporting myself”. As I wrote in a previous post:

I have found that being too self-sufficient or getting too much outside support can be a hindrance in relating to people. Relationships in Liberia are built on co-dependence, common struggle, and mutual benefit — so I think that having to “hustle” along with everyone else will allow me to gain a deeper trust, equality, and status in the community that has the potential to create some interesting opportunities. I’m excited to see what will happen in this new context!

As I had hoped, when I returned to Liberia I quickly found that my unique position allowed me to become a part of Liberian life in a much more intimate way than I had ever experienced before. I found the deeper trust, equality, and status in the community that I was looking for. But with that I also came to personally experience some of the challenges and struggles of poverty in ways that surprised me.

In the Peace Corps and Samaritan’s Purse, I had a buffer between my own life and the challenges of the environment around me. Sure, I had to deal with instability on a daily basis — but it was always insulated from my personal livelihood. When a generator broke down, for example, it was just a frustration… it didn’t mean that we wouldn’t be able to work and make enough money to eat a full meal that day.

And so I found that trying to accomplish things in poverty is like swimming with weights tied all over your body. Any dreams or aspirations of getting somewhere are quickly put on hold in favor of trying to just keep your head above water. As I wrote in this post:

When you’re living hand to mouth, energy is a luxury. From the outside, we can identify all kinds of ways that people living in poverty could possibly improve their situation. But we need to understand that these people are hurting. When you’re struggling just to see the next day, any future beyond that fades.

Before my personal taste of this reality, I honestly believed that upward socioeconomic mobility was something that could be individually achieved with the right education and hard work — the narrative of the classic “American Dream”. I believed that with the right ideas and “grit”, you could pull yourself up in the world.

I’m seeing now that the real world is much more complicated. Yes, education and hard work are necessary, but not sufficient. Money, power, and social circle play a much larger role in life than I realized. Upward economic mobility seems to be as much or more a function of your environment and connections as it is of your personal input. And as it turns out, this notion is well-supported by academic research.

The same holds true when it comes to starting business. As this article points out:

The most common shared trait among entrepreneurs is access to financial capital —family money, an inheritance, or a pedigree and connections that allow for access to financial stability. While it seems that entrepreneurs tend to have an admirable penchant for risk, it’s usually that access to money which allows them to take risks.

And this is a key advantage: When basic needs are met, it’s easier to be creative; when you know you have a safety net, you are more willing to take risks…

“Following your dreams is dangerous,” a 31-year-old woman who runs in social entrepreneurship circles in New York, and asked not to be named, told Quartz. “This whole bulk of the population is being seduced into thinking that they can just go out and pursue their dream anytime, but it’s not true.”

I suppose this should have been obvious to me from the beginning, but in my experiment to forgo outside support and return to Liberia as an individual, I was leaving behind a lot of privilege that I took for granted. While leaving this behind allowed me to connect with local people on a deeper personal and social level, it also meant that I shared more in the limitations of their environment. And it quickly became apparent that it’s hard for ideas and “grit” to go anywhere without access to privilege.

Before having this experience, I saw my privilege — my education, socioeconomic background, gender, race, etc. — in a negative light because of the distance and inequality I felt like it created in my relationships. But trying to minimize these parts of myself doesn’t change the major role these things play in our broken world. Rather than running from these advantages I have inherited in the random lottery in life, I’m realizing I can just be who I am and use whatever I have to help others.

This means looking critically at the direction my life is headed. When I graduated college five years ago, I felt burned out on the idea of pursuing a career. It just felt so unfair to me that I could make money by having fun programming on a computer all day while others couldn’t find a job that would pay a living wage. I turned down engineering jobs that would have been great career opportunities in favor of volunteering and exploring the world. I wasn’t interested in money as long as I had food to eat and a place to stay — in my mind, money just got in the way of connecting with people. But now I see how access to money creates stability and opportunity to help others.

With this in mind, I’m changing my focus now that I’m back in the States. Before I try something in Liberia again, I need to build myself a stable financial base. I’m still interested in using business as a self-sustaining way to fund my work instead of trying to raise support or save money from an unrelated full-time job. If I can make a business successful here, where I have a stable environment and more resources available, I can use it as the base for returning to Liberia in the future.

To that end, I’m dusting off my programming skills and teaming up with my sister, Katie Stevenson. For the past five years, Katie has been a private tutor for students in middle and high school struggling with writing and study skills. In her work she has has developed specialized techniques and curricula that break down complex tasks like essay writing into bite-sized skills that can be isolated and practiced. With my technical skills, I’m hoping to help Katie find ways to scale up her approach so that she can reach more kids in a way that is even more affordable to parents.

In this project, I get to both work towards a potential financial base and develop all kinds of skills, technical infrastructure, and experience that I’ll be able to apply in the future work that I want to do in Liberia. Katie’s program has huge potential to be adapted for the Liberian context in ways that could fill some of the major gaps in education that I’ve observed in my experience working with students there.

So rather than running from my privilege, I can try to leverage it in a way that will allow me to create stable programs that can help people in the long term: I can live in the Bay Area with access to all kinds of talented people and resources geared towards building a successful startup, I can tutor math and science part-time to generate enough income to live on, and I can stay with my parents to avoid high living costs. And if this venture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere after a year or so, I can look for a job in the tech industry — by then my programming skills will be back up to date. Privilege doesn’t guarantee success by any means, but it can sure help tip the odds more in your favor and act as a safety net to reduce the cost of failure.

My experience in Liberia these last three years has had a profound impact in my perspective and direction in life. The people I came to love there will always be on my mind and in my heart. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye. The day I left Liberia, Master Isaac and his family presented me with this African shirt:

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My coworkers at TED-Liberia presented me with a certificate of their appreciation (and an African shirt, not pictured):

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And when I got to the airport, I was surprised to find that Mark, the Peace Corps Volunteer that replaced me at Marshall, had brought a bunch of my close friends and coworkers from Marshall to see me off:

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I was so touched to feel the depth of these relationships that have grown while I’ve called Liberia my home.

It’s hard to leave Liberia and enter this next chapter in my life, but I know I will find my way back there one way or another. I’ll add a link here once Katie and I have created a website for our project, but other than that, this is my last update on this blog. Thank you to everyone who supported me on Patreon — I closed the account when I returned in May.

Thank you all for your support, prayers, and encouragement these last three years!

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Marshall Honey Harvest

Way back in February 2014, when I was still a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was lucky enough to be selected to go to a Peace Corps beekeeping training in the Gambia. (Check out my blog post on my experience here!) When I got back from my training, I made a beehive with some friends in Marshall and we put it in the bush. Our hive was colonized by bees, but then Ebola came and I was evacuated — I thought I would never see the honey. But as fate would have it, I’m here now in harvest season, and so I got to be a part of the harvest!

To harvest the honey, I introduced my friends at Marshall to Liberia Pure Honey. LPH is a Liberian-owned social enterprise started by my friends Kent and Landis at the Universal Outreach Foundation. They host workshops to train Liberian Beekeepers.  They offer to visit the farmers’ apiaries to help them harvest.   Then they will buy any honey that the farmers produce (at a very good price) which they package and sell in supermarkets in town.

My friends in Marshall could harvest the honey on their own, but by partnering with LPH they get training and a guaranteed buyer for their honey supply (at the best price you can find in Liberia!). It’s a super great deal for everyone involved!

I traveled to Marshall with Daniel and Aaron, two extension workers for LPH. Their job is to visit farmers and help them harvest and process their honey. They packed their motorbikes and we all headed toward Marshall.

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I hopped on the bike behind Daniel.

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When we got to Marshall, we looked for Dolo and Robert, the two friends I had started the hive with during Peace Corps. We met Dolo at the school house, but Robert had some other business to attend to so he was unable to attend.

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We got all our supplies ready: We found some buckets to hold our harvest, then lit the smoker (smoke subdues the bees), put on our bee suits, and then went into the swamp to visit the hive.

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Daniel took the lead operating on the hive, while Aaron smoked the bees. I walked around taking photos while they worked.

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The hive was a little bit in disarray. Since the hive was hung with wire, and when the bees started filling it with honey, it got heavy and shifted. Many of the bars fell into the box, and the bees ended up spending a lot of extra energy to work around the the problem.

The hive was also severely “cross-combed”, that is, the bees constructed the combs in a slightly different direction from the top bars, meaning that we could not easily remove and replace many of the combs.

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We went through comb by comb sorting the “capped” honey from the uncapped honey. When bees finish filling a comb with honey, they will seal it with a cap to preserve it. The capped honey has the lowest water content and will not spoil after it’s been harvested. Uncapped honey, by contrast, will start to ferment. Here’s a comb with a bunch of capped cells:

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As we went through the hive,

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We even found a queen cell! This cell is specially made to hatch a queen.

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After going through the hive, we left a few combs behind (so the bees didn’t have to start from scratch) and put the box back together.

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Back at the school house we all rested and started to munch on some of the honey. We were all soaked in sweat after being in our bee suits.

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Here’s all the capped honey we harvested!

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We went back to Dolo’s house to process the honey.

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Daniel and Aaron brought a honey press with them, which we used to extract the honey.

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We used a refractometer to check the water content of the honey. Our honey had a 21% water content, which was unfortunately too high to sell to LPH. (They only buy honey at 19% and below). But Dolo didn’t mind, as he already had all kinds of friends and family he wanted to bring the honey to. (And he also uses the honey to make traditional medicines).

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We shared little bits of honeycomb with the children around too! We had quite the crowd.  Aaron and Daniel shared their extensive knowledge about honey and beekeeping with the local community, even talking about how Egyptians used honey as a part of a certain embalming process.

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The next day, we processed the wax. First we boiled it in water:

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Then we strained it through a mesh into a water filled basin.

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Then, after it cooled a bit, we took the pieces and remelted it.

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And then finally poured the wax into a mold:

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LPH will buy wax from the farmers too, but we left the wax with Dolo so he could use it as bait for more hives as he built them. Wax is a great way to attract bees to hives and encourage them to colonize!

Finally, Daniel and Aaron packed everything up and went off to their next harvest while I stayed behind at Marshall (I wanted to visit some more friends).

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Dolo was so appreciative of the whole experience. “Today is a great day for me!” he kept saying. He was so excited to incorporate some of the methods shared by LPH into his traditional beekeeping. Daniel and Aaron took down his contact information, and told him he’d be added to their registry of beekeepers so he can continue his relationship with LPH. Dolo told them he had big plans to scale up the number of hives he was operating, and he looked forward to working more with them in the future.

For me, I was just happy I was able to see this project through to the harvest. There was something very healing about it for me — when I was uprooted from Marshall because of Ebola, it was a traumatic break in my relationship with my community, friends, and projects here. Even putting on the bee suits triggered a sort of flashback to the PPE (the white protective Ebola “space suits”) that I became so used to seeing during Ebola time. But in coming back to Marshall and reconnecting in this way, I’ve been able to find a sense of closure, a sort of tactile experience and reassurance that the cycles of harvest and growth are continuing post-Ebola.

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Big Hearts and Big Heads

A friend of mine recently used an expression in Liberian English that I believe gives a profound insight into Liberian culture. The expression was “He/she has a big heart”.

In Western culture, having a “big heart” is seen as a good thing. In our minds, our heart is where our love comes from. If you have a big heart, you have a lot of love. In Liberian English though, saying someone has a “big heart” is a pointed insult. It means you’re saying that they’re prideful, and that’s a serious accusation in a culture where friendliness is one of the most valued personality traits. (In Liberia, friendliness is valued even above basic personal honesty, which can often be a difficult perspective shift for Westerners to wrap their minds around).

I was introduced to this expression during my Liberian English courses with the Peace Corps when I first arrived in Liberia. But two years later, I still hadn’t heard a satisfying explanation of why Liberians saw a big heart being a source of pride. So I asked my friend if he could give me an explanation.

“Well,” he responded, “if I see some people who don’t have a lot of money sitting down somewhere, and I feel it in my heart that I am too big for them, I will not choose to sit with them. I will be prideful.”

As he told me this, he placed his hand on his chest to show where the feeling came from.

The puzzle pieces started to fall into place.

I recalled something I had read many years before… an excerpt by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung as he described his encounter with the Native American chief of the Taos pueblos in New Mexico in 1932:

“See,” Ochwiay Biano said, “how cruel the whites look, their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.

“They say they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.

In Western culture we are very intellectually oriented. We value objective truth. We value rational process. We exercise these values and skills as the “right” way to solve problems and make decisions. Our culture tells us to make decisions with our “head”, not our “heart”. Liberian culture, in contrast, seems to be “heart” oriented, just like the Native American tribe that Jung visited.

We actually have an expression for being prideful that exactly mirrors the Liberian one: “He/she has a big head”. “Big-headed” is the western version of the Liberian “big-hearted”. In the Western frame, we say that a prideful person “thinks” that they’re too big to sit with certain people, whereas in the Liberian frame, they’d say that the prideful person “feels” that they’re too big.

It’s important to note that there will be individual variation within a culture. You can find Liberians that gravitate towards being more intellectually oriented, in the same way you can find Westerners that value following their heart. When we talk about a “culture”, we’re talking about trends, about averages, about the cultural narrative as a whole.

You might already be familiar with the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. While it’s true that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator doesn’t really have any scientific basis for psychometric research, I found it to be a helpful framework to discuss certain aspects of personality, like whether an individual tends to be head-oriented or heart-oriented. In the Myers-Briggs framework, a more head-oriented person is given the letter T for “Thinking,” and a more heart-oriented person is given the letter F for “Feeling.” After a little bit of research I found that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test was heavily influenced by Jung’s work on “Psycological Types”, which doesn’t come as a surprise. And I think it’s safe to assume that Jung’s work on psychology was heavily influenced by his multicultural experiences.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator doesn’t just measure an individual’s “head/heart orientation”, it also includes three more spectrums for characterization:

“(E) Extroverted / (I) Introverted” – Does a person feel “recharged” after group activities (extroverted), or after being alone (introverted)?

“(N) Intuitive / (S) Sensing” – Does a person prefer to work abstractly, with ideas and possibilities (intuitive) or concretely, with practical hands-on experience (sensing)?

“(P) Perception / (J) Judging” – Does the person like spontaneity and to go with the flow (perceiving)? Or do they prefer to be well-organized, with structures and schedules (judging)?

There are all kinds of online tests to help you find your own individual Myers-Briggs personality type. Some have slight variations in terms, but in general, they all follow this general idea.

In case you’re curious about me, my personality is pretty flexible: I am an INTJ when I’m working, an ENFP when I’m having fun. (As I mention at the end of this post, I don’t believe personality in this sense is fixed — I think we exercise different parts of ourselves in different situations)

But let’s take our conversation back to our original topic: Liberian culture. What happens when we characterize Liberian culture through the Myers-Briggs (and Jung!) personality framework? Even though the Myers-Briggs wasn’t designed to be used in this way, I think it provides some useful insights. What is the Liberian cultural personality?

From what I’ve experienced here, Liberian culture is very strongly ESFP: Liberians are extroverted, sensing, feeling and perceiving. They love to be surrounded by people and hate being alone, they work with concrete details and “the way things are” instead of abstractions and possibilities, they are “heart oriented” instead of “head oriented”, and they “go with the flow” instead of scheduling or budgeting.

When you put these pieces together and read a full description of the ESFP type on a site like this, you have the best description of Liberian culture that I have ever seen. Seriously, take a look. It catches everything from their sense of aesthetic and sensitivity to others’ feelings, to their difficulties in planning long-term. It’s rather mind-blowing how well it all fits.

Before I went abroad, I had the idea that entering a new culture would be something radically different from anything I had ever experienced before. I imagined that there would be ways of thinking that I couldn’t comprehend and ways of acting that would come at a complete surprise. And on one level, it’s true: I have had to adjust to different ways of living and seeing the world. But really I had already seen and experienced these elements and values of the Liberian cultural personality in friends and family at home.

Before I came to Liberia, I already had relationships with people who were very friendly and liked to “go with the flow”. But I always considered them “exceptions to the rule”, sometimes falling short in areas that we value in Western culture like making logical decisions or planning for the future. What I see now is that there is no “rule”. While it’s true that Liberian culture and other ESFP-leaning people could benefit in some endeavors from more logical decision making or skills for future-planning, those of us in Western culture and on the other side of the personality spectrum could learn a thing or two about friendliness and “going with the flow” as well.

Our current culture and personality type don’t have to hold us back. We can exercise these other parts of ourselves without losing our cultural or personal identity. A Westerner can learn to be more friendly without losing their ability to plan for the future. A Liberian can learn to plan for the future without losing their ability to be friendly. If you say “Oh, this is just the way I am” and stop there, you’re missing out on a whole other world of possibility and experience in life. Through self-examination we can look at our personal tendencies and deliberately decide to exercise other parts of ourselves. If we want to advance as a society, we need to learn how to encourage diversity in personality and culture, not locking people (including ourselves) into a stereotype or expectation. The more we can do this, the more we can experience humanity in all its fullness and potential.

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An Hour of Code

Earlier this month I was approached by my friend Hattie Okundaye of Silvanus International to facilitate a two-day computer programming workshop for a group of students in Monrovia. Hattie has been in Liberia for the past 15 years, teaching, training teachers, and working in administration. She runs computer literacy programs as well as regular literacy classes. I’ve been interested in technology and education in Liberia for a long time, and helping to facilitate a workshop like this was an exciting opportunity for me!

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(Hattie was moving around so fast during the workshop this was the only picture I managed to grab of her… And even here she’s in mid-blink!)

This workshop was a pilot for Hattie as she explores the idea of teaching computer programming to Liberian students. Software engineering is a rapidly growing global field, and it has the potential to create all kinds of job opportunities in developing countries. As our world becomes more connected, the ability to code becomes almost like a superpower: it gives people the tools to create and engage with their environment in powerful ways. It’s easy to forget that software is not just used by our computers, phones and tablets, but it’s shaping all areas of our daily lives.

Hattie is especially passionate about inspiring young girls to consider software engineering as a potential career. After getting her degree in electronic engineering, and before starting work in Liberia, Hattie worked as a field engineer at Eastman Kodak. Throughout her schooling and professional career, she has been all too aware of the gender gap that exists in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Even though many of the early computer pioneers were women, somehow the idea that “computers are for boys” took hold in our global culture. Hattie wants to change this (And I do too!).

Our workshop was hosted by the Young Ladies in Waiting, a mentoring program for young girls founded by Rev. Princess C. Knuckles of the United Methodist Church in Liberia.

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In addition to enlisting my help, Hattie invited her friend Barbara Lloyd, a pastor and a teacher here (who spent years working in the school system in South Carolina). Hattie also brought two of her top computer students to serve as teaching assistants.

We had 18 students in our workshop, 13 women, and 5 men. There’s a school for the deaf close by to our venue (a Methodist school called “Hope for the Deaf”), and students there were invited to participate too. We had 5 deaf students attending our workshop, as well as an interpreter to translate for them.

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We started the workshop by introducing basic computer skills — in our pre-workshop survey, we found that 13 out of the 18 students reported never having touched a computer before! None of them knew what coding was, either. So we introduced the names of the computer parts (monitor, keyboard, trackpad, etc), and then had them all work through an online lesson that taught them how to navigate using the mouse (drag and drop, etc).

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Some of the students had never used a track pad before — their partners helped show how to move their fingers.

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Before we started programming, we talked to the class about “thinking like a computer”. Unlike humans, computers cannot guess what we mean — they can only do what we say. To illustrate this, we did a demonstration where we had our teaching assistants pretend to be computers while the class gave them instructions on how to make a sardine sandwich. (This is a common activity for introduction to computer science classes in the states, except usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are made… we adapted the lesson to our cultural context 🙂 )

Our assistants would take everything the class said literally in ways that would create hilarious results. For example, when asked to “put the sardines to the pan”, thinking that the assistants would empty the sardines in the can, the assistants followed his instructions literally (like a computer would) and put their the entire unopened jar of sardines onto the pan. The class quickly realized they had to specify every detail, every movement if they wanted the “computer” to do the proper action. This kind of thinking is at the core of computer science.

After the demo, and once the students were comfortable navigating their computers, we helped them create accounts and log into Code.org’s One Hour of Code challenge. The One Hour of Code challenge is a movement that started in 2013 to generate awareness and interest for computer science by teaching basic programming using interactive puzzles and games. (I highly recommend trying it out for yourself!)

We had them start with the classic “Angry Birds” lesson — the students had to write code to help the “Angry Bird” catch the pig that stole his eggs.

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As you can see, the code was built using little puzzle pieces that would give the bird instructions. Each one of these instructions is a line of written code. After each level is complete, the student can press a button to reveal the code that they had just written through the puzzle pieces. The challenges get harder and harder as students complete more lessons.

The students were tentative at first, but enjoyed the funny sounds the birds and pigs would make. As the puzzles increased in difficulty, groups would form around computers as everyone shared ideas and approaches.

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My favorite parts were the cheers and smiles that erupted when an individual or group completed an especially difficult challenge.

We continued to work on One Hour of Code through the second day of the workshop. Students that finished all of the challenges moved on to other parts of the website and tried new coding puzzles. At the end of the day, we handed out certificates and took a group photo:

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It was so much fun to see the enthusiasm of the students in the workshop. In our post-workshop survey, all 18 students reported that they were interested in programming as a possible career. When asked about their favorite part of coding, the students responded: “the tough thinking part of it, because it help me to think critically” and “it helps one to think very hard in solving [problems]”. All of the students said they’d recommend the course to a friend — one even wanted it to be a course he could take at his university. One student wrote, “[Coding] is everyone’s business”, another said “I want others to learn like I am learning”.

I was very pleased with the success of our workshop, and hope it paves the way for future efforts of this kind!

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Peace Corps Literacy Workshop

In the last week of January, I went to a week-long literacy workshop hosted by the Peace Corps. There seems to be a movement within the Peace Corps’ administration that is working to recognize the challenges of teaching in populations with low literacy rates. Since Peace Corps education programs usually focus on the secondary school level, this creates a challenge when a significant number of students at that level still can’t read fluently. I was so thankful that I was allowed to be a part of the workshop to learn and contribute my own experience in this area even though I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer!

I met some wonderful kindred spirits from all around West Africa at this workshop (all Peace Corps Volunteers and staff), and had a great time learning and sharing ideas. It’s exciting to me to find people that also recognize the significant need we have here. If you’re outside of this context, it’s easy to assume a certain level of skill in students in a given grade, or even in the population at large. Yet it’s easy to find high school (and college!) graduates who are completely illiterate. and the most recent study lists the adult literacy rate at 47.6% (source). And, like the statistics I reference in my post on food security, that 47.6% is likely heavily biased by a higher literacy rate in the capital and obscures the darker reality in other counties (frustratingly, I was not able to find a literacy breakdown by county to confirm this). Correction 3/1/2016: According to the 2013 Liberia Demographic Survey, the literacy rate here is 48% for women 71% for men. And these numbers are heavily biased by a higher literacy rate in the capital and obscure the reality in other counties:  In Bong, for example, the literacy rate is 20% for women, 53% for men.

It’s popular to think that people will be empowered to learn on their own if given the right resources, that simply providing textbooks or Khan Academy videos will let people use new information to create novel solutions. It’s true, in rare cases this can happen. But for the general population to take advantage of these resources, we first need basic building-block skills that allow us to interact with the information and integrate it into our understanding of how the world works… and literacy is at the core of that.

I appreciated that the workshop emphasized empowering students to interact with the educational text on their own, drawing inferences, making predictions, and relating it to personal experience. The workshop emphasized that, as educators, our responsibility is not to deliver content, but to facilitate a student’s process as they extract and process content from the text on their own. This way, students can grow to become independent learners and can take advantage of educational resources like textbooks or Khan Academy videos. To me, this is 100% the approach that is needed here. I hope it continues to spread!

The Peace Corps workshop also reinvigorated my drive to develop my own basic literacy program for Liberia. For the past month, I’ve been working with my oldest sister (age 15) in the evenings, adapting some of the exercises I learned as a clinician at Lindamood Bell Learning Processes (in CA) to better suit the needs I see in the Liberian context. We’re both enjoying it; she’s learning quickly, and I’ve been gaining insight into how basic literacy teaching can be improved here.

A few days ago, out of the blue, my mother thanked me for my work with my sister. My mother told me that she had overheard my sister reading some of her class work without me, and was impressed at her ability. Before I started working with my sister, my mother had assumed that she was just slow or incapable of learning.

I explained that similar to how some flowers need sun while others need shade, children have different learning needs. If you put them all in the same environment without enough individual attention, you’ll find that some excel and some struggle; if you plant a bunch of seeds in the same area, you’ll find that some grow and some don’t. If a seed isn’t growing, it’s not necessarily the seed’s fault – it might just need different conditions. My mother really liked this idea, and insisted that I “do the same thing” with my next oldest sister, who struggles with reading as well.

I’m excited to continue working with my family and developing my ideas and intuitions. I’d really like to see if I can help my older sister facilitate literacy exercises with my younger sister. I want to make sure that whatever curriculum and material I develop can work in a grassroots community and family context.

As I said in a previous post, I’m still really interested in completing larger studies to try to uncover a more complete picture of the literacy challenges we’re working with. It’s so important to make data-driven decisions in the interventions that we make. Without creating a feedback loop through research, we’re working with our eyes closed.

I’m convinced that someday a well-targeted grassroots literacy program could spread through the country and boost the literacy skills of an entire generation of Liberian children (and perhaps spill over into other parts of Africa as well!). What a dream it would be if I ever became a part of a movement like this!

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Computer Lab Attempt #1

This last month has been absolutely jam-packed for me. I’ve been running all around Kakata with my friends at TED Liberia trying set up a computer lab program at the local public school. Unfortunately it didn’t work out in the end, but it was an amazing learning experience. It’s the first time I’ve really been a part of a start-up!

A few posts back, I mentioned my involvement with Techno-Education Liberia, a local, Liberian-run NGO here in Kakata. TED Liberia has a vision to build and manage computer labs in Liberian schools.  The group approached me in December to ask for my help in planning and organizing a computer training program at Lango Lippaye, the local public school here in Kakata.

TED Liberia has attempted to run programs at this school in the past, but found that it was challenging to make the program sustainable — they spent a significant amount of their own money and worked many unpaid hours keep the program running.

So I joined this team of three Liberians as an advisor and helped them create a budget, business plan and strategy to make the lab self-sufficient. This was a super valuable learning experience for me. I’d never done something like it before! A large component of the plan was generating awareness and interest in the program. We went on the local radio with the principal of the school to announce the program, and also went from classroom to classroom to invite students and their parents to an informative meeting that weekend. We passed around an interest sign-up sheet, and in a week visited 1,545 students and collected 1,182 phone numbers (combined total of students and their parents)!

Then, on the morning before our meeting that weekend, we sent a mass text out to all the students and parents to remind them to come. The response was amazing. I had warned my friend that if we used his phone number he would get a lot of calls, but he told me to not worry, so we did… and his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I was dying of laughter as he desperately tried to answer all the calls. (In future mass texts we would prank other members of the group by listing their number as the contact and making them field the calls… good times).

Most of the calls were from people who hadn’t read the text and just thought it was a missed call — so I wasn’t sure how effective it actually was. But when I arrived early at the school for the meeting, some students walked by and told me they had received the text and would be back for the meeting. I was so excited to see signs that our outreach was working! And then people started showing up for the meeting… and kept showing up, packing the classroom until we had a significant group sitting outside the door. In all, we had over 120 people attending. At one point, I asked people in the room to raise their hand if they received the text. It looked like about 80% of the people in the room had. I was absolutely dumbfounded. The text worked!

To put this in perspective, you need to understand how difficult it can be to get large groups of people to show up to meetings in Liberia. When I first came here as Peace Corps Volunteer, I was confused when people would talk about how a meeting was “successful” — as far as I could tell, it just meant that the meeting happened. To me, the fact that a meeting happened wasn’t really noteworthy. I mean, how hard could it be to get a bunch of people in the same room at the same time? Turns out, it’s really hard in a culture that has a relaxed concept of time and unreliable communication. Somehow churches are able to do it, but I think that’s only possible because their meetings occur regularly and become habit. For me, this was the first time I’ve seen such a significant turn-out in an educational context. I think a big part of the massive turnout was because of the community’s interest in learning computer skills, but I like to think the mass text played a significant role too.

The problems began when we started finalizing our agreement with the school. Everything had started out as a familial/informal agreement with the school administration, as is common in Liberia. But when I came on board and helped generate so much interest, things started to get complicated. We tried to create a Memorandum of Understanding with the school so that we could explicitly agree on our responsibilities and goals, but after over a week and a half of negotiations, we were unfortunately unable to come to an agreement, and decided to let the project go for now.

Even though the computer program fell through this semester, I am so thankful to have had this experience. Yes, it’s unfortunate that we were unable to come to an agreement, but at least we found that out sooner rather than later. Imagine if we had started the program, and these disagreements emerged while the program was running and students were depending on us! Our team did an excellent job this last month, and it was an honor to work with such passionate and dedicated human beings. Each member of the group worked hard and had something essential to contribute to the conversation and effort. Finding groups like these in Liberia gives me so much hope for the long-term prospects of this country!

Finally, I want to note how wonderful it was to not be running under some grant or organization that was pressuring the computer lab to happen at all costs. From my observations of the developing world, it’s common for NGOs to force their projects to succeed under artificial circumstances (usually by throwing money at the problem). This type of success not only makes projects completely unsustainable, but can also cripple future efforts by warping people’s expectations. Projects need the freedom to fail in order to preserve the natural economic and social ecosystem of the host country. Unfortunately, grants and funding are awarded to NGOs for “successes” and lost in failures, which creates a perverse incentive to manufacture success rather than actually solving problems in sustainable ways.

Since I spent so much time with TED Liberia during the past month, I’m going to take a little break before I help the group in their next venture. In the meantime, I’m hoping to allocate more of my time towards my literacy and education interests!

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Tree of Life

“Have you ever gone to sleep hungry, not knowing if you would find any food the next day?”

It’s a powerful question. If you’ve never lived in poverty, this sort of hunger is an alien experience. It causes an anxiety that not only eats at your mind, but literally eats at your body as well. It’s exhausting. It reduces your ability to focus, to make long-term decisions, to care for others. It’s an oppression that limits your freedom to reach your full potential and instead restricts you and traps you in a cycle of living hand to mouth.

In Liberia, one out of every five households is food insecure. But this national statistic obscures the huge gap between the situation in the capital (where food insecurity is less frequent) and other counties. The disparity is most severe in Bomi county, where over half of its households are food insecure. That’s every other household! (Source)

Food insecurity like this has very serious physical consequences. Children with chronic malnutrition become stunted, causing irreversible brain damage, delays in normal growth patterns, and increases in the risk of chronic diseases later in life. In Liberia, the national stunting rate is 36%. Again, this national statistic obscures the reality at the county level. In Grand Gedeh county, for example, almost half of the population experiences chronic malnutrition. That’s almost every other child! (Source)

So what if I told you that there’s a native tree growing here that has leaves packed with micronutrients and a protein density that rivals soy?

Exciting thought, right? It could be the answer to many of our problems here! This tree is called moringa oleifera — you might remember that it’s the tree I planted outside my Peace Corps house in Marshall:

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Gram for gram, moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, and a protein quality that rivals milk and eggs. (Source)

It grows FAST too. About ten feet every year!

The benefits don’t stop there. Different parts of the moringa tree are used in traditional medicine in India and China and other parts of the world (WebMD has a laundry list of conditions the tree supposedly can address).The seeds can be used to produce a healthy oil, and can even purify water.

It’s hard to believe that malnutrition is so prevalent in Liberia when moringa is freely available. Why are people malnurished with a tree like this literally in their backyard?

It’s simple. People don’t eat moringa here. Why? Based on what I’ve seen, people aren’t used to it, so they don’t eat it. Change is hard.

But that was a difficult answer for me to swallow. Surely there’s a catch? I resolved to start eating moringa every day to see what would happen in myself and in my family. My younger siblings knew of a moringa tree in the bush by our house, so I had them start to collect a branch for me to eat every day. They’d bring it back, strip the leaves off, and mix them in my bowl of rice while it was still hot:

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My Liberian family thought I was crazy. “You’re eating raw leaf?!” They were afraid to try it, perhaps because cassava leaves and potato greens (which are commonly eaten here) have significant cyanide content if they are left uncooked.

I countered by telling them that if they really wanted to visit America someday (and everyone wants to go to America), they needed to be willing to try new things. “What if someone gives you a bowl of raw leaves in America for your food?” I asked them, “In America, we call that a salad. Will you refuse to eat it?”

They still seemed skeptical, so I had them look at the pictures in an American cookbook they happened to have lying around their house. “Raw leaf!” I said as I turned the pages and looked at the pictures, pointing out all the leaves Americans put in our diet.

I told them that eating moringa leaves was just like eating meat. I told them that, contrary to the commonly held Liberian belief that white rice meets almost all nutritional needs, they would get “dry” (Liberian English for weak and underfed) if they ate white rice alone each day. But if they added moringa to that, I said, they would get “strong.” My family liked the idea, but nobody seemed to be willing to put it into practice.

It took a while for my family to realize that I was serious about eating moringa every day. But eventually we got into a routine, and I started feeling great. The moringa leaves tasted good in my food too! With a cup of leaves added to my rice, I could eat about half of the rice and soup I usually ate in a meal and still feel stuffed.

My mother thought something was wrong with me. “Why aren’t you eating?” she’d ask me. I’d tell her that I was eating, but thanks to the moringa, I needed less rice to fill me. Again, this was confusing for her at first (Liberians love their white rice!).  But I explained about the different building blocks in foods: carbohydrates, protiens, fats — how rice was a major carbohydrate, but we need protein in the form of meat or moringa in order to be strong.

I went on to say that meat was expensive, so incorporating moringa into our diet here could lead to major savings in food costs. She was very receptive, asking questions and nodding as I talked. I told her how many fewer people would have to go hungry if they cultivated and ate moringa. Nobody would have to be “dry” in Liberia.

She laughed. “That kind of change is too hard”, she told me. I asked for an explanation; I thought it must be possible somehow.

Her answer completely changed my perspective. She told me that when war started in Liberia, she would go to the market and buy fishheads instead of regular meat so that she could stretch her money further. She would scrimp and save to make ends meet. But she got tired after years of saving and never seeing results, she explained. Saving for the future seems pointless when you don’t see a future. When you might die from a stray bullet tomorrow, suddenly your life today seems more important. And so if you get money today, you spend it so that you feel like you’re coming up in the world, even if the feeling only lasts for a day.

Change takes energy. And when you’re living hand to mouth, energy is a luxury. From the outside, we can identify all kinds of ways that people living in poverty could possibly improve their situation. But we need to understand that these people are hurting. When you’re struggling just to see the next day, any future beyond that fades. When you don’t know how much time you have left, you spend all you have in the present moment to ease suffering for you and your loved ones.

This mindset is not unique to poverty in Liberia; it’s a shared struggle throughout the world. It’s in your backyard too. I recently read this except from a book chronicling one woman’s experience living in poverty in America, and her take on “why poor people do things that seem so self-destructive”. (I highly recommend reading the whole thing). This quote stood out to me:

“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.”

So I told my mother that I believed her situation was changing. Even though Ebola set Liberia back for a season, Liberia is on its way forward. Her husband is building a shop in her yard; we’re going to start business there soon. We could start saving for the future — we could work together now to try to change our situation.

About two weeks after I had this conversation with my mother, I noticed flecks of green in my little siblings’ bowls. Moringa! On the days we weren’t buying meat, my mother had started adding moringa to everybody’s rice, not just mine. I ran to her and gave her a big hug.

Then about a month after that, I walked past my little sister preparing our food. “Moringa finished”, she told me. “What do you mean, moringa finished?” I asked her. It turns out, we ate the whole tree. There was no moringa left. We were back to square one.

It seems my mother was right after all: Long term change is always harder than it looks from the outside.

(Update 1/9/16: we found a different tree, and this time we’re pacing ourselves as we eat it. Today I happened to overhear my little sister day while eating some moringa, “the moringa sweet-o” which is Liberian English for “this moringa is delicious”. Yay! Music to my ears!!)

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