To get to Buchanan, Peace Corps chartered a bush-taxi for us. Bush-taxis and motorbikes are the standard form of transportation in Liberia. However, as Peace Corps volunteers, we are only allowed to take the taxis, as motorbikes are outlawed because of obvious safety concerns. (Although you can get safety training to use them if you live at a site that cannot always be reached by taxi).
These “bush-taxis” are standard cars designed to seat 5 people (including the driver). Here in Liberia, they squish in 7-8 people. That means four in the back, a pair in the front passenger seat, and (sometimes) a pair in the driver’s seat. Add to this baggage, and sometimes livestock. I’d heard one story of a volunteer being peed on by another passenger’s pig.
These cars drive over poorly maintained dirt roads and often break down or get stuck in the mud. It gets especially bad during rainy season (which we’re now just entering). However, my trip to Buchanan was probably the smoothest out of all of the other site exposures that my fellow trainees went on this week, because we got to travel on a highway that was just built this past year by China. (Liberia gets aid from all around the world). It is likely the nicest stretch of road in all of Liberia right now.
Peace Corps chartered the taxi so we didn’t have to catch it ourselves. We fit eight people in the taxi. In addition to myself and the driver, there were two other trainees headed to Buchanan with me, and then three trainees and a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader headed to “Compound 3”, the site right before Buchanan. (“Compound 3” is the name of the town; it’s not an actual compound).
Rather than squeezing two people into the driver’s seat, John (our Volunteer Leader) made a little nest for himself in the back of the car with our luggage:
(John has some good posts on Liberian taxi experiences, one of which you can read here)
Our driver got a little hassled at an immigration checkpoint for having an extra person in back (they look for any excuse), which meant he probably had to pay a bit larger of a bribe. When you take a taxi somewhere in Liberia, your fare includes the bribes that your drivers have to pay sometimes. Lucky for the driver (and us, I suppose), we didn’t have any problems at the police checkpoints.
We arrived in Buchanan at about 11a after about a three hour journey. Nimu and Alex (my two fellow trainees) and I were dropped off in a small neighborhood with the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) Ben and Angie:
Ben and Angie were a part of LR-3, the group of Peace Corps volunteers that came last year. (I’m in LR-4). They’re one of the two married couples currently serving in Liberia. Ben teaches math, and Angie teaches English at “Grand Bassa High School” in Buchanan.
We spent the afternoon chatting with them, asking questions about their lives, what it was like to live in Liberia, and their experience being PCVs in Buchanan. They showed us how to draw water at their well, light a coal pot (for cooking), and how to make Liberian beans and rice for dinner.
(Here Angie is teaching us all how to light the coal pot — but unfortunately I’m blocking the coal pot in the picture. I’ll do a post on cooking later) The food was delicious, and learning how to light the coal pot was a blast.
The next day, (Monday), we shadowed Ben at school.
This was their last week of of the school year, and so we helped Ben administer a math test by walking around with red pens and writing “Spy” on student’s papers that were cheating. (“Spying” is the word Liberians use for cheating. Doug, one of the LR-3 volunteers has some great writing and work on the subject here)
There was quite a bit of cheating going on. The class had about 40 people in it and even with the four of us we couldn’t really control the students. We wrote spy on the papers of a few students (invalidating their tests), moved others around, and just generally did our best to minimize the damage being done. Even with the four of us monitoring the room, cheating was impossible to eradicate. The idea of having to oversee a test in a classroom all by myself seems completely impossible.
The cheating issue seems to be one of the largest and most discouraging problem that volunteers face at their sites. Since sharing is so ingrained into Liberian culture, it seems that NOT giving answers to fellow answers during a test is seen as a greater evil than the dishonesty of cheating. It makes me wonder if part of the difficulty volunteers face is due to the fact that the standard classroom structures and procedures that we are trying to use have all been designed for a culture that has those values reversed: we westerners generally value honesty and personal integrity over sharing. I’ve already started brainstorming alternative testing procedures and classroom structures that would use the Liberian value of sharing and community to strengthen the system, rather than undermine it. I really hope I’ll be given the freedom to experiment in my classes!
After helping with the test, Angie and Ben gave us a little tour of Buchanan. We got to see the market, complete with all the chicken feet, pig feet, and other random cuts of meat. I was told the meat was all shipped to Liberia from Europe – we get the rejects of all the animal parts around the world. And even getting that is lucky: sites further in the interior of Liberia don’t see any meat except for the occasional bush animal.
We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where I had a dish with goat and rice. It was delicious, but very spicy and oily. The meat had a lot of fat and cartilage, but Liberians eat it all, and I do too.
That evening, Ben and Angie’s close Liberian friend Bill came by and showed us how to make a dish using cassava, smoked fish (they call “bony”), and the Liberian peppers. It was delicious, almost all carbs, and very spicy.
The next day, (Tuesday), we helped Angie administer a test. She was testing both of her sections at once, which meant we had to give a class of 180 an 11th grade English test. Even with the four of us helping, there was rampant cheating. I thought it was pretty fun though, trying to catch students in the act. At one point, I asked a student I of suspected sharing answers if they were done, and they said they were almost finished – so I told him to go to the back of the class to finish it. He gave me a guilty smile, and said he was actually done, and handed in his test.
We also helped take a picture of Ben and Angie with their students that day:
That afternoon we went for a on a a walk on the beach and had picnic at an abandoned lighthouse that was on the beach. We didn’t dare try swimming though – we were told the ocean was full of poop from the years of people doing their business on the beach.
On our way back, we walked through “Fantytown”, which was a large community of fishermen from Ghana (referred to as “Fanty” people). Here’s a picture of them in their boats:
Walking through Fantytown was a little bit sketchy. I was glad I wasn’t there alone, and it wasn’t dark. Still, it was a good experience to feel a contrast to the relative safety I’ve enjoyed moving about Liberia so far.
There were some amazing ruins along the way. I’m not sure what kind of building this used to be before the war, but it’s now got a giant wild garden inside of it:
That night, we all celebrated our first week in Liberia and Ben and Angie’s last day of school with a wonderful bottle of Sangria (we got it chilled in a refrigerator at the local supermarket!). Ben and Angie were such wonderful hosts!
Finally, on Wednesday, we made the trek back to Doe palace, where I’m at right now. We’ll have some more training the next couple of days, and then on Sunday I get adopted by my host family, the people I’ll be living with for the rest of my training!
I’m still feeling as enthusiastic as ever about being here in Liberia. The people here are wonderful, and I love this way of life. (And don’t worry, I’ll do a future post on the amenities that I have here). I’m a little bit apprehensive about the big things out of my control: my host family, my future site, and future (possible) roommate, but I know that I’ll be able to make the best of any situation that I am put into 🙂
I can’t wait to start teaching!