When I was younger, I dreamed of Africa. I craved the adventure of it. The mystery of it. The exoticism of it. As a girl, I envisioned myself as an adult, bringing change to the continent in my own way … which just happened to evoke brilliant smiles that surrounded me in appreciation and mutual connection. That dream never left me. Six months ago, I joined my husband in Liberia and had this very vision in mind.
I suppose a cynic would say I’ve had the typical “Western savior” dream that inspires so many to become involved with international, non-profit, and humanitarian work: we aspire to help others so we can simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for being such “good people”. Those who know me or have met me, however, know that my heart is devoted to nurturing and supporting others. So, I am still the idealist who thinks it is possible to make this world a better place by taking the bottom-up approach: making big change in consistently small but sustainable ways.
In the past, I fulfilled this desire to make a positive impact in the world through my career as a teacher. With each student, I saw the opportunity to instill a sense of empathy and social awareness in the next generation of thinkers and doers. Over the years, however, that old adage of “those who can’t, teach” haunted me. Was I content with trying to inspire others to take action in defense of the causes I, myself, believed in? Was it enough to teach others to be involved while giving secondary importance to my own involvement? “No,” the voice in my head responded. It was a whisper at first; but over time, it became a thunderous pronouncement. “NO!”
As my fantasy of international work evolved, it was influenced by the work of organizations like UNICEF and UNHCR, by images I saw on the news of aid workers and vehicles in the field (those iconic, white Land Cruisers and Land Rovers became fixtures in my imaginings), and by what I continued to learn about the international stage and global events.
By the time I reached college and chose to minor in international issues, I knew that my path would one day lead me to help others in faraway places. Places that had grown more detailed and complex with my greater understanding of the world through books, documentaries, and travel programs, but — more importantly — through my involvement in non-profit organizations that assisted refugees and internally displaced people.
This week, my lifelong dream came true. Through my work with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy here in Liberia, I was invited to the U.S. Embassy/Liberia’s American Corner in the rural town of Zorzor to assist in the training of its teachers through a series of workshops.
This will be the first in a series of three posts that tell of that experience.
As with so many experiences in life, the journey can often be just as important as the destination, itself. In preparation for this particular journey, I learned through conversations with others who had made the same trip that I should arm myself with Dramamine if I am plagued by motion sickness. Thankful for the advice, I immediately saw the embassy physician and obtained the medication that would hopefully prevent me from making this trip memorable for the wrong reasons.
This was the right move.
We set out at 9 a.m. Surprisingly, the first hour of the trip out of Monrovia was the worst of it for me. This portion of the roads is extremely undulating: an attribute that wreaks havoc on my motion sickness. Luckily, I heeded the doctor’s advice and took Dramamine about an hour before I got into the car so the medication had time to take effect. It helped quite a bit, I’m sure, but I still had to lie my head down and try to sleep for about an hour to escape some dizziness.
Once we got passed the Coca-Cola plant in Paynesville, the road straightened out, and we were on our way “Upcountry,” as we say here in Monrovia when we travel inland. Gbarnga (pron. bong-a) was our lunchtime destination. As our driver, Kelvin, challenged the limits of how fast he could go before Andrew told him to slow down, I watched out the windows as typical sights flew by: roadside vendors selling everything from petrol in glass bottles to teatime biscuits; women dressed in colorful, lapa skirts walking with platters of fruit on their heads; groups of motorbikes belonging to young men who had gathered to chat; and children wandering around seeming oddly self-sufficient while so young.
The farther we got from Paynesville, the fewer people we saw, and the smaller and more scattered the towns became. But I slept through much of it. Unfortunately, when I woke around 11:30 a.m., we witnessed an accident scene. As we approached another town, drivers of oncoming vehicles stuck their arms out of their windows to signal for us to slow down. At first, I assumed it was because Kelvin was still imitating “Speed Racer.” Then, I noticed something crumpled and black lying in the road about 500 feet ahead. It was large enough that it made me feel cautious upon our approach, and I felt anxious as I noticed people’s concerned faces as they moved quickly from their homes and business toward the road. There was a lone motorbike parked off to the side, and as I observed each of these things, I said aloud, “Something happened.” I continued to read the people’s body language and facial expressions. “Something happened,” I repeated, concerned.
As we drew nearer, the form on the road took shape. It was a boy.
Wearing a black, button-down shirt and black pants, the boy, who looked about 12-years-old, was sprawled out and flat on his back in the middle of the road. As we passed him, I noticed his dazed eyes looking straight up at the sky. We drove slowly next to him, Kelvin driving carefully now, and I was relieved to see the boy’s arm moving, hand inching up as if to touch his chest or face.
My own eyes couldn’t look away until we were far enough away that I couldn’t see the boy around our vehicle. My head turned, and my eyes locked onto Andrew’s, searching for answers or comfort or both. His eyes told me that he knew I needed help in processing this scene. I knew he would say something that would offer some form of aid. “That’s too bad,” he said thoughtfully as he looked back once more. His left arm wrapped around my shoulders and his hand stroked my arm. “Well, …you see that sometimes out here.”
At first, I couldn’t believe how unfeeling that sounded. I couldn’t believe we weren’t going to stop and help in some way. I couldn’t believe Kelvin just kept driving without even so much as a reaction to what we were seeing. But then I realized: of course, it happens sometimes around here — people ride on top of cargo piled high on car roofs and in truck beds and perch precariously on the backs of junker motorbikes as they bump their way down dirt roads. Of course, we couldn’t stop — we were both on diplomatic missions and neither of us is specifically trained to assist with medical emergencies. And finally, of course, Kelvin didn’t respond emotionally — he is trained to protect us and to remain level-headed during stressful times. I was conflicted, but I understood the reality.
As we neared Gbarnga, and we arrived just in time for a lunch break at Passion Hotel.
Andrew’s suggestion of the chicken sandwich was surprisingly light and flavorful. It was actually a toasted wrap filled with tender chicken and fresh cabbage, and with the sauce they included, it tasted more like an egg roll than a typical chicken sandwich! I planned to only eat half, but I devoured it and ate most of the French fries, as well. Also, because it is difficult to find dinner fare in Zorzor, Andrew and I got two take-away chicken sandwich meals to enjoy that evening.
As we left Passion Hotel, the paved road came to an end, and the dirt road began. The dirt is actually more like the red Georgia clay with which I am so familiar, and it filled the air with clouds of dust as we zoomed farther down the path.
Fortunately, the bumpiness of the roads didn’t bother me. Also, I am told that I don’t even know what bumpy is … compared to what the roads used to be! Road rehabilitation is actually one of Andrew’s projects, and this road was the reason he was able to accompany me on this particular field activity. Thickness of gravel, thickness of sublayers, compaction, and grading. He had to check on his project, and we were able to coordinate our trips just like we had always wanted.
The further Upcountry we went, the more the scenery changed. Building styles changed. I am used to seeing cinder block buildings and compounds in Monrovia, so it was interesting to see small homes made of mud bricks and thatched roofs. Streets lined with walled compounds and markets were replaced with roads lined with palm trees and rubber trees. I felt like I could breathe a little deeper … and would have had it not been for the dust that seemed to find its way through the air filtration system and grooves around the doors. Everything in the car was coated in a fine layer of orange powder.
Upon arriving in Zorzor, we were ready to be out of the car, so we unloaded our things as soon as Kelvin parked us at the guest house. We knew ahead of time that there would only be electricity from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. (we paid for extra time), but we thought it would be cool enough in our room to make due until then. We were wrong. The air was stagnant and stuffy, and this made my husband very unhappy. We tried opening the windows for some fresh air, but this didn’t work because the guest house was inside of a cinder block compound.
The sky was overcast, however, and I could see the leaves of the banana trees trembling and swaying in the breeze. So, I suggested a couple of times that we go out for a walk. After about thirty minutes of lying on the bed and trying extremely hard to not think about how hot and miserable we felt, we heard what sounded like a coach’s whistle. “Sounds like a soccer game,” I said. We decided to check it out and were relieved to feel about a 10-degree difference in the cooler temperature outside.
Andrew sat on the wall of the compound, and I stood beside the road to watch the young men who gathered to warm up for the game. I asked if I could take pictures of them as they played, and this seemed to make some of them very happy. So, as the guys ran laps, stretched, and started the match, I took pictures of them and the beautiful hills and jungle-like setting of the backdrop. For a few of them, my photo taking was not rapid enough, and they instructed me to snap more of them. One of the young men even called me over and asked if I wanted to be the referee for the game! I declined, but it was just as another young man approached so he could fill the role.
As we watched the match, plenty of other people walked by us on the road — headed home after fishing or hunting, or making mud bricks. One group of teenage boys asked me to take their photo. And a group of children walked by, casting curious glances at me until I asked them if they wanted me to take their photo, too. Their smiles lit up, and their heads nodded happily.
We passed an hour and a half outside like this, and by the time the sun had disappeared enough into the dust that it felt like nighttime was setting in, we were ready for our dinner. We sat on the bed and unwrapped our chicken sandwich take-away meals from Passion Hotel. Remembering the French fries, I asked Andrew, “Do you think I’d be able to find some ketchup at any of the stalls in the market up the street?”
He looked at me, stone-faced, and shook his head like, “No, absolutely not.” (He so often makes me laugh at how matter-of-fact he is.)
I grew a little disappointed that my French fries would be so lonely. The ketchup is the best part!
“But there should be some in the container,” he continued. My eyes shot open wide in surprise. “They usually include it.”
I opened my styrofoam box, and sure enough, there was just enough ketchup to enjoy a little on each fry. I picked up my egg roll-flavored chicken sandwich and munched happily as we talked about what the next day would bring: my first professional training session in the field.
To be continued…