It’s the new year, and I get to start it fresh in Liberia! This has been the first holiday season I’ve spent away from my family and country!
I spent Christmas at my site, with my Principal and his family in the morning, and then spent the rest of the day visiting other members of the community. All the children were walking around “bluffing” (that’s Liberian English for “showing off”, in case you don’t remember) with their new clothes. I saw a couple toys here and there, but unlike America, the main focus of gift giving in Liberia seems to be centered around families giving their children new clothes.
My New Year’s was also spent at site, and I stayed up with my Principal’s church for the new year “watch”. It was pretty much organized like a regular Sunday church service, except we rung the bell at midnight.
Many of my fellow volunteers did a bunch of traveling during this two week break from school, but I’ve been spending most of my time at site (except for the weekends; I’ve had work to do in town). It’s not that I’m trying to be a “good volunteer” — travel just takes a lot of energy out of me and I’d rather use my time to recharge and connect with my community. (I’m sort of making up for lost time with my neighbors. Because of all of my housing problems at the beginning of the year, I never got a chance to bond with them before school started).
In the past week I’ve felt myself sliding into deeper levels of integration and connection with my community. It started last month as I noticed the children at my site starting to call me “uncle” or by my Liberian name instead of “white man”. (Calling a caucasian “white man” is not considered offensive here… in fact, many children genuinely thought it was my name). But this last week especially I’ve started to feel much more like a “human” and much less of a “novelty” in my community.
I’m sensing my own walls and barriers starting to dissolve too as I’ve figured out how to relate to people. I’ve been surprised at how long the process of developing trust takes (not just their trust, but mine too!). It’s making me start to see a lot of wisdom in the Peace Corps idea that your first year should focus on integrating, developing trust and connecting with people in your community, and not expect to “get anything done” until your second year.
As I’ve been feeling more secure, I’ve started to feel comfortable venturing out to haul my own water and do my own yardwork…tasks that members of the community have encouraged me to get my students to do for me (and sometimes they send their own children to work for me), because they saw me “above” such tasks. Americans (especially caucasian ones) like myself are almost universally seen as “having money”, and the societal expectation for people “have money” is that they can’t or won’t do any of their own hard work (especially something like hauling water, which is usually reserved for children). I’ve been slowly starting to try to wear down this stereotype, because I actually like the exercise. And because getting my own water is easier than trying to find some students or neighborhood kids and making them do it.
(While I did have kids hanging out almost constantly when I first moved into my house, they stopped coming so frequently when they realized that I make them work as much as any other Liberian in the community… Just because I’m American doesn’t mean I’m going to give them free stuff all the time! But they still like to pass by to say “hi”, draw pictures for me, read books or just hang out while I do my work)
As my neighbors have started to figure out that I am genuinely interested in their lives, want to eat what they eat, and do what they do, we’re starting to share more of life together. Two days ago one neighbor showed up on my doorstep with a squirrel in a box and excitedly told me how we were going to fatten it up to eat later. I was also super excited. (Sadly, when I asked about it yesterday, I learned it escaped). Just last night, I helped the same neighbor shovel dirt on a pile of wood and sticks he was getting ready to burn into charcoal. I happened to have a shovel in the house, and brought it outside to work with him. He didn’t understand at first, he thought I was offering to let him use my shovel, but got a big smile when he realized I wanted to actually work.
As is usual whenever I try to do any sort of manual labor, I got lots of “thank you”s and compliments on how strong I was from bystanders (and there was a lot of exclamations of surprise when they saw I knew how to operate a shovel). But as I said before, at least with the people I was working with, it felt like the novelty of my presence in the community is wearing off and I’m starting to be seen as a regular guy. 🙂