Doors are Opening

This past month has been very busy and exciting — new opportunities have been popping up for me left and right, and it’s been all I can do to hold on for the ride!

There’s a lot here, so I’m going to just start with an outline that briefly sums up each project I’ve been working on and then links to the longer description further down the page.

Master Isaac’s Shop: Master Isaac, the electronic technician I’m living and working with, has almost completed his shop! I’m hoping we’ll be able to start working there by the new year. Read more…

Importing Used Electronics: I’m in the process of trying to figure out how to import used electronics from the states for my friend Master to sell in his shop. If it works, maybe I’ll found a nonprofit! Read more…

Building School Computer Labs: A local Liberian NGO has requested my help in renovating a school computer lab! Read more…

Educational Research: I’m partnering with Universal Outreach Foundation (UOF) to develop novel educational programs here in Liberia as well as try to study and diagnose the challenges in education we’re experiencing here. Read more…

I’m super excited about all these things brewing! But I could really use your help! Here are some needs that I have right now that you might be able to help me with:

  1. Do you enjoy reading my updates on this blog? If so, consider supporting my operating costs on my Patreon page!
  2. Do you have any old laptops, cellphones, tablets, AC laptop adapters, monitors, SD cards, or USB drives that you don’t need anymore? If you can get items to my parent’s house in Santa Clara, I can take care of the shipping from there! Please let me know!
  3. Do you know any Liberians in the SF Bay Area? I’m trying to try to find a “container share” (a collective of people that all go in together on a shipping container) from the SF Bay Area to Liberia — if you know any Liberians in the SF Bay Area that might have friends that do this, please let me know!
  4. Do you know any Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs)? I’m looking for people in academia to help oversee research here, specifically multicultural SLPs. If you have any connections in this area, please let me know!

Thank you for your support!


Master Isaac’s Shop

I’ve been continuing to spend most of my time living and working with Master Isaac, my electronic technician friend. (He earned the name Master as a kid after he built a radio station for his home county from scratch). I’ll sometimes help with people’s computer problems when it is needed, but for now my typical day is mostly spent writing emails and networking for my other projects while Master fixes people’s TVs and phones.

As I mentioned back in October, Master is building a shop for us to work out of in his yard. (Right now we’re in a temporary structure). Master has been putting all his resources into finishing this shop — any money he gets from repairing people’s equipment goes directly into the building. This means we’ve been living very simply, struggling to make ends meet. But the construction is nearing completion, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to start working in there by the New Year!

Finishing the shop will be a big milestone for us because we’ll be able to start business in earnest. We’ll finally have a proper workbench to do our repairs, areas for customers to sit, and space for students that can work for us as we mentor and train them. When I originally met Master two years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer he was operating in this way — many customers, many students — but an unfortunate series of events (including the Ebola epidemic) cut him down and so he’s been struggling to rebuild ever since. For Master, finishing this shop means getting his old life back!

Importing Used Electronics

Master has been talking to me a lot about wanting to import used electronics from the states to sell here in Liberia, and so I’ve been researching how to go about this, trying to learn about business licenses, taxes, customs, etc. so that I help make this possible.

There are so many things that we throw away in the states that people can use here — even simple things, like laptop AC adapters are in high demand. I’d love to be able to start a nonprofit in the states that could collect and ship things here to be refurbished and resold (and then I could use the profits to support my other educational efforts here).

So if you’re in the states right now reading this and have old laptops, cellphones, tablets, AC laptop adapters, monitors, SD cards, or USB drives please let me know! If you can get items to my parent’s house in Santa Clara, I’ll take care of the shipping from there. I haven’t established a nonprofit yet because I’d like to first try to ship some things independently for my friend to try selling here on a small scale just to see what the process is like.

My main challenge right now is that I am looking for a “container share” to ship items out of the SF Bay Area to Liberia. Container shares allow a group of people to come together and share the shipping costs of a container when they don’t need the entire space. I’ve found people who run container shares on the east coast, but if anyone knows of any Liberian container shares operating in the Bay Area (or people who might know how to find one), please let me know! I really appreciate it!

Building School Computer Labs

I was recently approached by the members of Techno-Education Liberia (TED), a local Liberian NGO in Kakata that wants my help in their dream of building and managing computer labs in Liberian schools.

It’s a very exciting prospect — technology in education is a fast developing and exciting frontier. Many resources have been developed that can turn a regular computer lab into an educational resource that rivals even the most well-stocked traditional library: Offline versions of Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and other online research and learning resources can be downloaded and provided to machines without internet connections. (Check out the RACHEL project, for example)

Most schools in Liberia do not have computer labs, so oftentimes people will come in from outside and provide a school with a computer lab only to find they did not properly develop the local support systems to insure that the lab is being well used and maintained. This is the gap that TED Liberia aims to fill. They can provide the support on the ground in a way that someone from the outside cannot: the founding members come from both a technical and Liberian background and have all worked in the education sector, making them uniquely equipped to anticipate and address the challenges in providing computing resources to schools in Liberia.

We’re starting by trying to rehabilitate the computer lab at one of the public schools in Kakata. TED Liberia has already run two computer training programs at the school for teachers and community members (and they ran the training without outside support — TED members paid for the training with their own money), and they are currently running a small, before-school computer literacy class in the lab for students that can afford to pay a tuition that keeps the generator running. They’d like to scale the number of students up, so that they can drive down the individual cost per student.

Unfortunately out of the 48 available computers in the lab, only 18 are functioning. They have two generators, but the newer one needs repair before it can provide power and the older one is on its way out. So we’re to putting together a plan and proposal that we can use to find the funding we need to get the equipment running and a sustainable computer literacy program started at the school.

Educational Research

I’ve been talking a lot recently with my friends at Universal Outreach Foundation (UOF) about my interest in developing novel ways to boost education levels here in Liberia.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I worked as a clinician at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, a research-based program for boosting fluency in children and adults with challenges in literacy. This was the first time I saw how education could be approached and developed in a scientific manner — we don’t have to rely on opinion and anecdote when designing programs, but we can test our intuitions with scientific method.

In the states, when a child is having trouble in school, we give them tests to help diagnose what is happening and to design an intervention that can best help them succeed. Sometimes issues go undiagnosed and manifest in unexpected ways. For example, say your child is doing poorly in their classes — your first instinct might be to give them extra tutoring. But what if their problem all along was that they’re nearsighted and simply couldn’t see the whiteboard? If you simply make interventions without trying to diagnose your problem first, it’s easy to make mistakes.

In Liberia there are huge educational gaps, especially in literacy. Our instinct might be to try to implement phonics programs for children in schools… but are we sure that these programs (that were developed outside of Liberia) are the optimal way of addressing the problem for Liberians? Liberian English is not Standard English; there’s overlap, but it’s basically a second language. Even the phonetic sounds in Liberian English are significantly different from Standard English. How does this impact the efficacy of a phonics program? Do we need to teach phonics in Liberian English before we move to Standard English, for example? We need to study this!

And there’s all kinds of other considerations — In addition to educational disruption, this country experienced widespread malnutrition and physical/mental/emotional trauma during the civil crisis. Has this had an effect on the learning potential for people in certain demographics or geographic locations? If so, how dramatic and widespread are these effects and how can we mitigate these challenges?

So I’ve been reading up on educational research in these areas and starting to reach out to professors and other people in academia that might be interested in partnering with me and UOF to run some studies here. We have all the resources to support a research program, we just need people in academia to oversee our efforts! I’m especially looking for multicultural Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs)… if any of you have connections here, please let me know!

In the meantime, I’m beginning to start working on literacy in the evenings with Master Isaac’s children to start to get some hands-on intuition of the challenges we’re facing and get a head start trying to develop a custom Liberian literacy program. Wish me luck!


Thank you to all who made it to the end of this blog post! I appreciate all for your well-wishes and support… I’m so happy to be here and see all my interests and passions coming together in a wonderful web of projects. I’m excited to see what will start happening in these next coming months!

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Visit to Marshall

(Quick update: thank you to all who are participating in my Patreon campaign to help me pay my internet bills here so I can continue this blog! You make image-heavy posts like this possible!)

Early last month I paid a visit to Marshall, my old Peace Corps site.

The last time I had visited I was working for Samaritan’s Purse, and had taken one of their cars. This time I was back in a Liberian taxi, just like old times. It felt good to be a “small man” again. (Having access to a private car is a big sign of status – especially the kinds of cars that NGOs use)

I went straight to my old principal’s house, stopping to greet people on the way.

I found my mother at the house, and it looked like she had been crying. Another woman was with her, and wailing. She stood up, quickly pulling herself together and told me her father had just died. She had just come back in town from arranging the burial.

I offered my sympathy, and sat with her and other people there. It was nice to just sit. Liberians understand presence and silence in a way that is hard to find in American culture.

After a while we began catching up on each other’s lives — and then the principal joined us (he had been on some errands) and I got to get an update on the school. He told me they were doing great, and that their new Peace Corps volunteer was still getting adjusted and was going to start teaching the next week, at the start of the next grading period.

(The Peace Corps has slowly been resuming their program in Liberia — they’ve started with a few returning (response) volunteers, and will hopefully be training a full new group of more than sixty come June)

I asked if they had given him a name yet, and they told me it was “Blojay” or “because of the nation”, meaning that they were in crisis and he was sent to help them. I was so happy to hear everything was going alright. I knew him well — he was originally a part of my volunteer group in Liberia. I went through training with him, was evacuated during Ebola with him, and I couldn’t ask for a better person to come after me in Marshall.

I was just about to ask how he was integrating with the community, when I got a call from him. “KYLE, you need to get over here right now, we’re trying to kill a snake!”. From the sound of it, he was integrating quite well. I excused myself from my family and jogged in his direction.

I found him in the middle of a huge crowd of people surrounding a huge fallen branch that one man was hacking into pieces and slowly clearing. Blojay was there in the thick of it, filming on his phone. I took my phone out, and started filming too:

Apparently, the snake had been in the tree, so they cut the tree down to get at it. I was told they had been at it for over an hour. It was some kind of tree snake, very poisonous, and capable of jumping from limb to limb. Liberians hate snakes.

Finally, the snake appeared… all the children screamed and ran, and all the men rushed in with sticks to beat it.

It was rather exciting. As you can hear in the video, I couldn’t stop giggling. Blojay even got to hit the snake with his stick. So much fun!

They severed the head so we could get a close look.

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And then we all inspected the body and got pictures (notice that even the Liberians have their phone cameras out… technology is really becoming commonplace, even in rural areas!)

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That night my Ma cooked Blojay and I a wonderful crawfish and red oil gravy. So good!!

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I spent the night at Blojay’s house (which used to be my house, back when I was with the Peace Corps). It brought back so many memories — I got to see my old buddy Christian and all the kids I used to hang out with.

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And the moringa tree that I had planted from a seed was BIG!

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Can you believe it? That’s only a little over two years of growth from a seed!

The next day we went down to Fanty town (the community that lives on the beach) and got some egg sandwiches.

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We stopped by the docks and watched the fishermen hard at work

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(click for full-size panorama)

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I happened to run into one of my old co-teachers that taught science at the school.

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He also was also interviewed in this VICE documentary about Monkey Island. (Warning: contains Liberian war violence) See if you can recognize him!

When I first watched the documentary I was pretty tickled because VICE makes a big deal about how remote the area is, when in fact I was one of the least remote Peace Corps Volunteers. It took me under two hours to get to the capital, where for some of my brothers and sisters, it would take two days (including driving all night).

We went back uptown and the scenery here as beautiful as I remembered.

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From there, I took my usual route around the community visiting neighbors and friends.

My neighbor UJ was still making his mats:

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The grandmother next door was making soap:

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And someone had made a little bush house next door for the children to play in:

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I spent some time at my old co-teacher Mayson’s place, and was happy to find people still playing scrabble.

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The principal was there too, and we sat around and chatted while we ate plantain chips.

It was so wonderful to see everyone at Marshall — it’s really a second home for me now. I’m so happy to be back here in Liberia!

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Back to Liberia, Round 3

I’m writing this post using a keyboard I’ve connected to my phone while I sit in my friend’s outdoor electronics repair shop in Kakata, Liberia. Obligatory selfie:

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IT IS SO GOOD TO BE BACK!

As soon as I got off the plane and took my first breath of the heavy tropical air I was struck by how much I feel at home here now.

We still had to wash our hands and get our temperature taken after getting off the plane and before entering the airport, but the fear and the tense atmosphere was gone… Instead, I found the easygoing friendliness that I will always associate with the people here.

It is such a wonderful thing to be able to shake a person’s hand and not let go. And to have extended eye contact while smiling and laughing together as you ask about their family and health. Oh, to see old friends again! It’s food for my soul.

This is the Liberia I remember!

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And the freedom I feel here! I can go anywhere, and I don’t have an organization to report to. It’s the same feeling I’ve had the couple times I’ve gone on hitchhiking adventures in the states… the feeling that I can go anywhere and take the time to connect with anyone along the way.

I’ve been here almost a week and a half now — I arrived on the 11th, and my friends at Samaritan’s Purse graciously let me stay with them while I got my bearings and visited friends in the area.

Samaritan’s Purse is no longer doing Ebola relief, now that the epidemic has passed. They’ve transitioned to development programs (their area of work before, but all new projects). But it was exciting to see some of the systems and tools that I made during my time there not only still being used, but extended and improved. I’m so happy to have been able to have made a positive and sustainable contribution! In this kind of work it is such a challenge to build things that continue to work after you leave.

Last week I also spent a few days in Marshall, my old Peace Corps site. There’s a new volunteer there now — Peace Corps is starting up again!  I’ll give that visit a post of its own 🙂

If you remember back to last April, I said my plan was to come here and start working with a Liberian friend of mine who repairs electronics. That is still the plan! I’ll give more details as I go, but for now here’s some pictures of where I’m living and working.

Our outdoor office:

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Close up on the TV being repaired:

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Eventually we’ll move to this new building (still being constructed):
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The house we live in is right next door:

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Here’s my room, right before I moved in:

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As I said in the April post, my goal is to be able to become self sustaining here, without outside financial support. By jumping in with just my own saved money, I’m hoping I will be able to find a closer sense of partnership with the people that I’m working with.

That said, if you want to help contribute to the costs associated with staying in touch with all of you and documenting my experience here, I would definitely appreciate your help there. I can use that extra income to buy the bandwidth to keep this blog running, back up the pictures I take, upload videos, and make calls to the states.

If you’re interested in supporting me in this way, check out my Patreon for more information. Even just a dollar a month makes a big difference!

Thank you all for your continued love and support!

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Flat Stanley Visits the Ebola Fighters

A few months after I arrived back in Liberia, I was joined by Stanley Lambchop.

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He was mailed to me by my cousin Nicholas, who is currently finishing the third grade.

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Stanley got flat when a bulletin board his father mounted over his bed fell on him during the night. He quickly discovered that being flat offered certain advantages, like being a kite or fitting in envelopes so he could be mailed around the world. He has a series of books that chronicle his many adventures.

Stanleys have been mailed by schoolchildren to all parts of the world, but to my knowledge my cousin’s Stanley is the first (and only) Stanley who has visited an Ebola outbreak.

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Stanley tagged along with me and made lots of friends while I went about my business. He met some pretty amazing people. Here he is with Dr. Rick Sacra and Dr. John Fankhauser while they were getting ready to clean Nancy Writebol’s house:

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Dr. Rick was the third American to be infected with Ebola in this epidemic, after Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol. Thankfully, they all recovered thanks to the efforts of heroes like Dr. John. After helping care for Dr. Kent and Nancy, Dr. John had returned to America to take a break, but when he got the news that Dr. Rick tested positive for Ebola he interrupted his break to go back to Liberia to care for his friend.

Stanley also enjoyed meeting other kids and doing things with them. He helped pump water,

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fix a generator,

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and even got to play some tetherball:

Stanley also accompanied me on some of my trips into the field.

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Whenever we crossed county borders we were all required to get out of the car,

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wash our hands,

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and then get our temperature taken:

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Stanley even made friends with some of the guards at these checkpoints:

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On this trip, Stanley got to help prepare some of the Infection Protection and Control (IPC) kits that we were distributing. These kits were basically hand-washing buckets that were distributed to communities along with bleach, soap, gloves and training so that people could help prevent Ebola (and other sicknesses) in their communities.

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Here’s Stanley helping some people measure bleach for the IPC kits:

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By the time I left in April, Samaritan’s Purse had distributed over 60,000 of these kits across seven counties in Liberia!

Stanley also got to fly in our helicopter! Here he is with Captain Mike before and after takeoff:

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Stanley was very fascinated by all the instruments and controls inside the helicopter:

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It took a couple tries before he figured out how to properly use the headphones:

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Stanley had a little bit of a scare while looking out the window:

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On this flight into the bush, we visited a Community Care Center (CCC) that Samaritan’s Purse was managing. These care centers, along with Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs), were a part of Liberia’s national strategy to stop the spread of Ebola. Samaritan’s Purse managed four of these CCCs in three counties in Liberia. (Two of the four were constructed by Samaritan’s Purse as well).

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This CCC hadn’t had any patients yet, and so Nurse Kathy had the CCC staff give her a walkthrough of the facility to make sure everything was set up correctly. The layout of the CCC is very important: if you don’t have everything in the right order and in the right place, health care workers are in danger of getting exposed to the virus.

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Nurse Kathy also spent some time reviewing the “donning” and “doffing” procedures with the CCC staff. “Donning” and “doffing” refers to the steps that you take to put on and take off your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) whenever you go into a CCC or ETU to care for Ebola patients. It is a many step process that you must follow carefully so that you do not expose yourself to the virus!

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Finally, it was time to go, and Stanley got this great selfie as we took off:

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For part of the way back, Captain Mike followed a river. Captain Mike was trained in a special kind of low altitude flying while he was in the military and so we had an exciting ride:

Stanley loved it in Liberia! So much so that he decide to stay — he’s still there now, having more adventures!

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Travel Woes

(As I mentioned in my previous post, I had quite an adventure trying to get back to the States. I spent over 58 hours in transit and faced many challenges including ticket problems and people trying to squeeze money out of me. It’s a long account, but so was my trip…)

As soon as I arrived at the airport in Liberia I started to have problems. Even though we arrived at the airport 1 hr 40 min before boarding, the check-in had shut down for some unknown reason. After much arguing they finally let me in. One of the security guards (who later told me his name was “J”) said he could get me in if I find a “small something” for him. I didn’t agree or disagree, but he disappeared inside clearly assuming I had agreed.

They finally let me inside (some manager named “C” said they’d make an exception for me) and started checking me in, but there was a problem with my ticket. They made some calls, and finally got me checked in. I would later learn (in Ghana) that the problem was that I had been routed through LAX, but LAX is not equipped to receive people from Ebola countries — instead you are required to go through JFK, ORD, etc.

After I got everything checked, I started filling out customs info. The employee that had been walking me through the check-in process and had helped convince people to let me through, hung around and started asking me for money (he wanted $10-20 USD, which is ridiculous) to “make sure my luggage got through”. But you can’t say “no” to that without risking your luggage disappearing… so I quickly agreed, but then as I reached in my backpack for some money I pretended to have left my wallet in the car. I had him give me his full name so that when I returned to Liberia I could “find something for him”. We became great “friends”. But really, I’d rather call the hotline I saw on a poster in the airport for reporting people trying to extort money…

Also, J (from earlier) came back to tell me in passing that I was going to buy him a soda. I told him to meet me after I got through security. Security became a little bit more stressful after one of the supervisors made a joke about taking my laptop…

Finally, when I was all through and I was sitting with all the people waiting, I started looking for J. I saw him come through security and I waved for him to come over to me, but instead he motioned that he wanted to meet near the bathrooms. So I went over and explained to him that I had “lost my wallet”, but I told him I could write his name down and help him when I get back. He put his hands up and said to just forget about it. Smart man.

I was pretty surprised to go through all this — I haven’t had this much trouble in Liberia before. But then my troubles continued after I landed in Ghana.

As soon as I landed in Ghana they rushed me through all the lines so that I could make my transfer to British Airways. I collected my luggage (and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally saw it coming through), and then hurried to the departure lines. But again, I had the problem with my ticket — I needed to change the airport through which I would enter the U.S. So they referred me to the British Airways office at the airport and we started trying to figure out the problem.

But by the time we figured out what was going on, the entire airport had shut down. So now I’m stuck in the Accra airport with no phone, no internet (the internet cafe is closed), no food, no local currency, and no water. The woman I was working with in the kiosk gave me $10GHS (Ghanaian currency) and wished me luck.

I used the money to buy phone credits and then I started finding people to let me use their phones so I could call the 24-hour Samaritan’s Purse travel hotline. The woman on the hotline helped me book a hotel and arranged a shuttle to get there.

However,  when I got to the hotel, they told me it had been booked for the past two weeks and they have no idea what sort of reservation I had. But at least I had internet in the hotel now, and could try to figure things out with Samaritan’s Purse. Somehow nothing worked and so I was in limbo. Finally, the receptionist told me they had a suite available and they’d just give it to me for the price of a regular room, so I went for it.

The next day in Ghana was uneventful except for the moment when I bent down to tie a shoe and I tore wide open the crotch of the Liberian pants I had been traveling in. Solomon, my Liberian tailor, really needs more practice… I’m getting holes in the pockets too. I got a needle and thread from the hotel and spent an hour sewing up my pants.

That evening, I headed back to the airport for my rescheduled flight and visited the British Airways woman and returned her $10 GHS with a little more and thanked her for her help. We’re friends now! Then I went to try to catch my flight.

But then, I was going through immigration and they told me I didn’t have a visa. I told them I was transferring. But they took me to a back room to some immigration officials who would only talk to me between plays of the soccer game that they were watching. They told me I needed to give them $50USD for a transit visa. Really?? I told them I had no cash, but they insisted. They wanted me to go to an ATM.

So I tried to leave, but on my way out, the official watching the line wouldn’t let me leave unless I gave her my passport. I told her that was ridiculous. So I asked her for her name so that I could find her when I got back. She wouldn’t give it to me. She told me her shift was going to continue for a while and so there would be no problems. I read her name off of her name badge and told her that I knew her name now.

An airport-friend I made earlier from the British Airways area helped me get to the ATM and withdraw money. It was all in GHS. He suggested that I pretend to have only $120GHS and to try to get them to help me with the rest. I thought that was a fine idea.

I headed back to discover that the woman with my passport was gone. Of course! Good thing I got her name. Her coworkers told me she was going to be right back. About a minute later she came. I gave her a hard time about leaving and joked with her that she made my heart stop. I managed to get a little friendliness from her.

She asked what I needed and I explained — and she passed my passport off to someone else who went to one of the desks and got all the stamps I needed. Then she asked me for some money. Ha! I explained that I needed a receipt and that she needed to take me to the official office. But my passport had already been stamped, so I had the upper hand now.

So I went back to the official watching football. He was on the phone apparently arguing with a family member about some other money matter. After he finished putting me on hold I offered him the $120GHS, pretending to misunderstand the exchange rate. He said it wouldn’t make it, and that I needed $185GHS=$50USD. I didn’t let on that I had more money with me and instead acted exasperated — “You mean you want me to go outside AGAIN??” “I just want to leave here! Give me a break!”

He asked me what I was doing in Liberia, and I explained I was doing humanitarian work there. He said “why can’t you do something for Ghana?”. And I replied “Oh, so stopping Ebola can’t help Ghana?”. He liked the comeback, and considered my situation. Finally, he agreed.

I thanked him profusely, then asked him for a receipt. Now he was getting exasperated. “You can’t get a receipt if you’re not paying the full amount!”. But I told him I really needed that receipt. He motioned for me to go to the woman at the desk in the corner of the room and for her to make me a receipt. But now nobody knew what to do. They discussed it for a while and then just told me to go. I asked if they needed the money. “No, your passport is already stamped. Just go.”

What an adventure! It only took three days… but now I’m here in one piece and in good spirits! But I’m still stuck with my Ghanaian currency… I can’t find anyone who can make the exchange here. (Those guys from Ghana somehow found a way to squeeze me even from way over there!!)

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Back Home!

Well, my time at Samaritan’s Purse has come to a close and I’m back home to California! It’s been quite the battle to get here: I took off from Liberia at 7:30p on 4/20, and touched down in San Jose at 10:40p on 4/22… that’s over 58 hours in transit. I might write up the whole story in a future post; it’s been nuts — I experienced more attempted extortions and flight snafus than I thought could be possible in a single trip. But I’m happy to report that I manage to weasel myself through without paying a single bribe! And they didn’t even steal my luggage!

I’ve been quite impressed with California’s reasonable 21-day policy. As someone who never did any clinical work or interacted with Ebola patients (which means basically zero risk of Ebola), they only require that I record my temperature twice a day and check in with them on the phone once a day. They even provided me with a phone and minutes that they’ll let me keep after the 21 days! I was pretty excited about the phone… who knew you got a free phone with each ticket back from Liberia! I need to make this flight more often!!

In case you haven’t been following the news, Liberia has been doing excellent for the past while on the Ebola-front. The last confirmed case was on March 21, 34 days ago. Praise God! I’m so glad I was able to stay long enough to see this epidemic in Liberia through to its last little bits. It’s been quite the experience.

Sadly, Sierra Leone and Guinea are still struggling, and so of course Liberia won’t be in the clear until the whole region has calmed down.

It’s hard to say why Liberia has done so well compared to Sierra Leone and Guinea. Personally, I think it’s because the bulk of transmissions happen due to traditional burial practices and somehow Liberian culture was more open to making the behavior changes necessary to stop the spread. An alternative theory I heard that I liked was that the huge concentrated spike of cases in Monrovia in September was drastic enough that it sent ripples throughout the country and turned the tide of public denial and inaction. Sierra Leone and Guinea, by contrast experienced a slower burn that didn’t create such a strong shock. There have also been differences in the way the response has been managed in the three countries. There could be any number of reasons — there are too many variables to know anything for certain.

Over the last three months, even as the numbers in Liberia were dropping, Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) and Community Care Centers (CCCs) were continuing to be built and operated. Many facilities have still never even seen a single Ebola patient. The reason behind this is that grants have been slow to adapt to the fast moving epidemic. By the time the paperwork would go through, the outbreak had already moved on. Resources allocated for one purpose couldn’t be reallocated without updating the grant, so even if you have a bunch of doctors sitting around because there are no Ebola patients (for example) you could not use them to fill other health gaps in the community until you got it approved through more bureaucracy and paperwork. It makes me really appreciate how MSF gets their funding — most of it is from private donors which gives them a lot of flexibility to adapt to changing situations quickly.

People will cite these low numbers and extra ETUs and complain that all that money was wasted, but I disagree. The money flowing into communities to build ETUs also bought essential trust and awareness that was desperately needed to stop the outbreak. Remember that when the outbreak started, many people did not believe Ebola was real? America’s decision to commit so many resources to Liberia was a powerful statement of solidarity and investment that brought hope and trust into the chaos. I believe this hope and trust was a major factor in bringing about the behavior changes needed to halt the spread of the outbreak.

That said, it’s been interesting to watch as all the money flowed into the country. It never occurred to me that there was so much profit to be made in humanitarian aid. It’s an industry in itself. I’m still deciding how I feel about all of that… not to mention all the resources that fall through the cracks. (Other countries have these challenges too). But it’s a discussion for another time.

The most constructive commentary on the effort I’ve seen recently was released by the WHO. It’s pure gold. We need to take these “lessons learned” to heart, and make the necessary changes to our global systems sooner rather than later. New diseases will come that will make Ebola look tame and easy to contain by comparison, and we need to be ready.

(On a side note — we’ve got similar lessons to learn and work to do in the areas of climate change and growing economic inequality, just to name a few… We’re in a number of slow-motion train-wrecks that are going to start getting really bad really quick in my generation’s lifetime.)

As the situation improved in Liberia, I progressively got more freedom to move outside the ELWA compound. I also got a little bit more free time as my workload was reduced. I made a number of visits to my people in Marshall (where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer), and my host family in Kakata (where I did my Peace Corps training) and was happy to find everyone in good health and good spirits. I started learning how to surf (which might strike some people as a little bit silly to start doing in Liberia, considering I’m from California), and now I’m addicted. I even was baking sourdough bread for awhile like I used to do when I was in the Peace Corps. (But It’s much easier with a refrigerator and oven, let me tell you).

We’re still not touching in Liberia, but gradually Samaritan Purse’s policies are changing — shoes and car tires are no longer being sprayed before you walk into the office (but the handwashing and temperature taking is still required). And we only have to record our temperature twice a day instead of the four times that we had to do back in October. The families of SP staff are going to be allowed to return in June. Life outside the fence seems to be going back to normal, too — the Liberian handshake isn’t quite back yet, but the usual hustle and bustle on the streets has gone back to pre-Ebola levels, and schools have reopened.

My time with SP has been an extremely valuable learning experience for me. I’ve learned how to integrate myself into “international development / NGO” culture, as well as urban Liberian culture. I’ve been able to watch how aid programs are designed and funded, how NGOs and government organizations work together, and how internal and external politics drive decision-making processes. My work in monitoring and evaluation has given me a better understanding of the challenges associated with collecting data in the field, and ways those challenges can be addressed. Near the end of my time I began to help develop new tracking and record-keeping systems for our HR, logistics and finance departments, so I got to see in close detail how an NGO is run and managed. All this knowledge and skill I have collected will be invaluable if I want to make my own NGO/business/something in Liberia someday. (Which is a direction I think I’m headed — more below).

It’s been hard to leave. I found a wonderful community here and became an integral part of the SP Liberia team. But it’s clear to me that it’s time to go. In the short term I’m going to be getting ready for my sister’s wedding which is happening next month, and after that I’m going to be a camp counselor at a camp for kids with chronic medical issues (something I’ve always wanted to do since a friend told me about it three years ago).

From there, I am hoping to return to Liberia in September or so. This time, I’d like to go independently. I want to live immersed in a community like a Peace Corps Volunteer, but add the challenge of supporting myself. I’m planning to start by working with a Liberian friend in Kakata who’s in the electronic repair business (cellphones, DVD players, laptops… you name it), and then see what opportunities present themselves from there. I won’t need to earn much — living costs will be super low because I’ll be living minimally, and while I’m figuring out the details I’ll be easily supported by the money I saved from my time with SP.

It’ll be an interesting experiment. I’m excited about the idea of participating in the local economy, which I wasn’t allowed to fully do as a PC volunteer (we could not accept money under any circumstances, for example). While I understand the reasons behind PC’s policies, I have found that being too self-sufficient or getting too much outside support can be a hinderance 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!

In the meantime, message me if you want to visit! 🙂

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No Touching in Liberia

(I wrote this post back in November, but I got so busy I never got around to posting it. But here it is now!)

I don’t spend much time outside of the compound. Traveling is discouraged because of infection risks. I’m not allowed to take any public taxis or walk around in market areas. It’s quite the opposite of my Peace Corps experience.

We have a strict no touching policy as well — that means no shaking hands, hugging, no pats on the back, etc. It’s less because of a fear of getting Ebola and more just because we can’t afford to get sick. A 24-hour flu is terrifying when you have to isolate yourself and wait to see if any other Ebola symptoms pop up.

The effects of going without any kind of physical contact is a little weird — when I watch someone rest an arm on someone else’s shoulder in a movie my stomach jumps and I want to yell “WATCH OUT!” to the people in the movie. Even in my dreams I find myself observing our no touching policy. There’s no escaping it.

Some people take it harder than others; for me it hasn’t been so bad yet. I think that because I’m such a tactile person, I’m used to living without the levels of physical human connection that I would choose for myself. The few hugs you get in American culture have never cut it for me, so life without them isn’t much worse. It’s only been when I’ve lived with dancers and clowns that I felt my needs met on that level.

The Liberians aren’t shaking hands anymore either. It’s tragic, because the Liberian hand shake has always been a major part of their national identity. Before Ebola, if you did not greet someone and shake their hand, it was considered rude. It was essential for communicating trust and friendship. But now it’s gone, and it makes all social interactions feel off-kilter.

Other cultural practices have conspicuously disappeared: Before Ebola, two friends might have eaten rice from the same bowl, but will not risk it now. Burial practices, of course, are also no longer able to be observed. All of these practices that used to express love, respect, and togetherness are no longer safe.

My team lead here at Samaritan’s Purse who’s lived in Liberia over ten years told me a sad story from her time working in an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) here before they were evacuated. She was lamenting the loss of the Liberian handshake when another international nurse who had not been in Liberia before the epidemic happened to overhear. This nurse excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, I know the Liberian handshake! It’s this right?” and instead demonstrated the elbow bump that people were doing in lieu of the real handshake. For anyone who’s spent time in Liberia, that should hit you right in the feels.

Aside from the no touching policy, we also are constantly taking our temperature. When I got here, we were taking our temperature twice a day; now it’s four times. We’re supposed to log all our temperatures and send it back to headquarters. My temperature right now is 36.7°C, in case you were wondering. It might seem a little bit excessive, but Samaritan’s Purse has wanted to send the message to the public that we’re taking every precaution here.

Even when we go back to the states, these precautions continue. Before we’re allowed to go home and live with our family and friends, we are required to observe a mandatory 21-day isolation first. For the people who have left their families back in the states, this is a real hardship.

But even with these strict policies and the fact that none of our international staff is working in high-risk zones (over and above what any other organization has in place right now), there’s still public backlash. One of my coworkers, who left his family to come here, told me that parents in the states were not allowing their kids to play with his kid for fear of Ebola. His kid hasn’t been in Liberia in ages. Maybe people think you can somehow catch Ebola over Skype?

My fellow Peace Corps volunteers are feeling the stigma too even though we were evacuated way back in August. One of my friends was refused medical care. This blows my mind a little bit. Of all people, I would expect doctors to know how this disease worked.

Even with all my work, I was finally able to break away from the compound last weekend and visit Marshall, the community I lived and worked in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was bittersweet, because I couldn’t hug any of them or shake their hands. All my stuff I had left behind was still safe in my house, and the kids told me they were cutting the grass and minding the place while I was gone. They’ve been unaffected by Ebola so far, and were all in good spirits. I can only pray that it stays that way.

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