Liberia can be a difficult post for some.
As a new acquaintance recently explained to me: there are about five things to do here, and you just keep redoing those things, which gets old very fast. Beaches, restaurants, embassy events, browsing in local shops, and whatever hobbies you might have and can practice here about sum it up. My husband, especially, has had a difficult time as an athlete with the lack of access to adequate access to places where he can cycle or run for miles and miles like he’d prefer. Being in a place where physical activity is limited — particularly outdoors — can take a toll on physical, mental, and emotional health.
Last weekend as we lounged under the thatched huts at Tropicana Beach, I commented to Andrew about how sitting around seems to be the most common activity here — for both Liberians and expats alike. It is quite common to drive down the street and see handfuls of Liberians here and there, dotting the urban landscapes of Monrovia and Sinkor in front of businesses; at their produce stands; students gathered together; friends passing time; ladies chatting while the children play; security guards talking politics with each other; car washers waiting for potential clients; and young people taking a break from pedaling their fruit, nuts, clothing, or accessories.
Andrew — his arm draped across the back of the sturdy, wooden couch with red indoor/outdoor cushions we were sitting on as I scooted close to him — replied by saying, “Well, if we were in DC, what would we be doing on a drizzly day like today? We’d go to a museum, to a movie, to a coffeehouse, to a cultural event; or I’d take you to a bookstore to browse. You don’t have things like that here.”
When I recounted this to some new friends recently, and one of them laughed and said, “Well, you can do ONE of those things here!” At this comment, I found out about the Royal Grand Hotel in Monrovia where they not only have a coffee shop but also have a spa where I can get my waxing done! 🙂 (As a dark-haired, pretty hairy, Hispanic woman, this particular aspect of my rather minimal beauty routine was a concern of mine that didn’t actually occur to me until my last appointment in Atlanta. I was prepared to do without, but am happy to say that I have found my new favorite beauty spa! Plus, they give complimentary coffee and cookies. Paradise.)
Furthermore, after a workout at the embassy fitness center a couple of weeks ago, I tried doing my usual stretches after a cardio workout, and I actually cried out at how tight my hamstrings were. When I told Andrew about it later, he said, “It’s all the sit time, babe. The same thing happened to me when I first moved here. My body wasn’t used to all the sitting I do in Liberia. There just isn’t as much opportunity to get out and do things.”
All the sitting.
Yes, this did threaten to become an issue for me. I mean, I’m an active girl, and I like it that way. 🙂
Over the past few weeks, as I have met and been introduced to people here at the Liberia mission, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is always served with a hint of sympathy: “So what are you doing while you are here?” This has sometimes been followed up with, “Do you have enough to do to keep you busy?”
Andrew says when people ask him these questions about me, they are often shocked when he responds with how much I am enjoying my time here already. I know how fortunate I am, though.
Per a White House memorandum issued on January 27, 2017, there is currently a federal hiring freeze in place which is preventing many Eligible Family Members (EFMs) from finding work as they trail their spouses to post. Oftentimes, an EFM arrives at post hoping to find a job in the embassy — jobs that typically include clerical work or community outreach. Not having these positions available is difficult for those of us who prefer to stay busy, to feel like we’re contributing something, and to socialize regularly with others.
In my situation, the stars aligned: education is a transferable skill, and being in a developing country lends itself to opportunities for me to become involved with projects and organizations that I have heretofore only fantasized about.
Some of these opportunities may include:
- Leading STEM-focused project-based learning sessions for the students at More Than Me academy, an all-girls school here in Monrovia with an amazing story (watch the short video on their homepage); also working with some of the teachers at More Than Me to integrate more student-centered instruction and activities
- Teaching sessions on improved technical writing skills for those in the embassy who would like to attend (This is in response to specific requests for this type of support, which I’d want my former students to know. Even professionals discover that they still need writing instruction from time to time!) 🙂
- Working with WE-CARE Foundation to help students improve their writing, reading, and problem-solving skills. This was suggested to me by a new acquaintance involved with the Peace Corps, as she listened to my professional background with eyes that seemed to grow wider with each detail. Lol
- Participating with the education sector of USAID/Liberia to bring STEM-focused activities to secondary education students. Since I was a partner with Cathedral Catholic High School last year, I’ve been asked if I’d be the liaison to that school for this particular project.
Each of these is just a possibility for right now. In the meantime, I’m staying incredibly busy with school work for a master’s degree in Education Policy. The program is Global Studies in Education, and we are currently focusing on the internationalization and globalization of education: concepts that I have been aware of and even participated in (especially recently with Cathedral Catholic HS), but never knew the language to define. Only one week into my course work (semesters are a short 8 weeks), I’m excited about what I’m learning and thrilled to be able to study these concepts in an area that will provide me with such unique circumstance to tailor my research and experience so specifically to my interest in education in developing countries.
When I arrived here, I already knew a few people, already knew my focus, had heard countless stories from Andrew about the city, its people, and the surrounding area. I was prepared and had a plan for how my time in Liberia would be spent. My heart goes out to those trailing spouses who are not so lucky, and I am realizing increasingly how integral spouses are to maintaining a happy and well-run post. Furthermore, as an article in the July/August 2017 edition of the Foreign Service Journal explains, this lack of opportunity blows a hit to individuals’ self-esteem, and their growing frustration at the lack of purpose is not good for overall post/mission morale.
For a little more information, Communicaid recently published a post about the challenges faced by expatriate partners, citing finding a job in the couples’ new country as key for helping to build a network and adapting to life in a new place. The site even warns about the worry of “losing one’s identity” when he or she doesn’t have a defined purpose or mission at post. Honestly, on days when my workload is slow, and I’ve been lazy for more time than I care to admit, I wonder about my fellow trailing spouses who may be in these situations. How are they spending their time? Are they finding other activities to keep them happily occupied? If not, do they have support for any emotions they might be dealing with?
As for my time in Liberia, a year sometimes doesn’t feel like enough time to accomplish everything I want to do. Luckily, my interests do not have to stay focused on education in this country and will transfer to whatever post we go to next.
And as I spend more time here, I am hoping to find more adventures, discover new places, and meet more people. So far, some promising activities include monthly bird watching excursions, yoga on the weekend, and Friday lunch with other mission wives so I can learn from their years of expat experience. Happily, these are all activities that I would have enjoyed back in the States, too.
Andrew says I’m his catalyst for getting out and doing more things. If you know me, you know my energy and determination to make the most of each day. I wonder if he’ll regret telling me that one day…. ❤
Today I sat a lot: required online discussion, school work, letter writing to my son, letters to friends, school reading, blog writing, movie watching. I did squeeze in a 30-minute cardio session and 20 minutes of stretching, though.
Tomorrow (*fist raised to the sky*), I vow to not sit …as much. 😉