Zorzor Part 2: Beauty & the Heat



Bucket baths….  

My initiation into new experiences while in Africa seem to begin with a baptism by what I affectionately call “bucket baths”: those daily ablutions that occur with a limited resource of hot water that has been carried to the shower in a bucket or pot (depending on whatever vessel might be available) and enjoyed immensely in the knowledge that one is lucky to have the opportunity to wash away the day’s oil, dust, and dirt to make way for a restful night and a fresh adventure the next day.

The night I arrived in Liberia for the first time in August of last year, I was too tired to take a shower, despite having been traveling for 30+ hours.  The next morning, there was no hot water.  Andrew opted to shower at the Embassy since he had to go to work anyhow.  “TIA,” I smiled and sighed to myself, immediately adopting the famous “This is Africa” phrase that softens one’s expectations while living here.  Ever resourceful, too, I made the best of the situation by grabbing a pot, heating some water on the stove, and taking a bucket bath.

Last week, I wrote about my journey to Zorzor, Liberia where I would have my first in-the-field experience for my education consulting contract with the U.S. Embassy.  This is a continuation of that story.  And it begins, appropriately, with a bucket bath.

Bucket Bath

After a dusty drive down miles of dirt road, an attempt at relaxing in our hot and stagnate room, and an evening of hanging out in the field near our guest house to watch a local football (American soccer) match, I desperately needed a shower.

Andrew tested the hot water after the generators had supplied electricity to the house for a couple of hours.  The guest house where we were staying was the newest in town and was said to be the best because it has running water.  It also has hot water and air conditioning while the current is on, which is luxurious for Zorzor.

My husband emerged from the bathroom with an update: “So, the hot water heater isn’t working.”

“What?” I asked, my tone threatening.  I was tired, hot, and dirty.  So, my reaction was more dramatic than it should have been.  When a guesthouse promises certain things, though, and you are looking forward to those things, it is only natural to feel slighted when they aren’t delivered.  “Listen,” I said to Andrew, “if I were camping in the middle of nowhere, I could start a fire; heat some water; and give myself a nice, warm bucket bath with no issue.  But I can’t do that because I’m stuck in this compound with no air, so I need a way to heat up some water in this house.”  I paused and blinked.  “Please,” I ended with a forced smile.

He watched me, expressionless, as my emotions got the better of me.  When I was done, he blinked and said, “I’ll be right back.”

I could hear conversation in the common room just outside of our door between Andrew and a couple of the people who run the guest house.  It went quiet for a few moments, and then Andrew returned to our room with a plastic bucket, a blue and green striped one that is typical of the style here.

“It turns out that the water heater works.  It’s connected to the sink, but not the shower.  So…,” he trailed off.

“So, bucket bath!” I smiled, relieved.  I retrieved my washcloth from my suitcase (they typically aren’t provided here), headed straight for the bathroom, used the smaller dipping pot to transfer hot water from the sink faucet to the bucket.  As I did this, Andrew came in to observe the process, and after a moment he said, “It looks like you’re preparing for someone to give birth.  I don’t know why all of those things happen — with the hot water, and the towels, and all of that.”  I started laughing.  A little uneasy, he finished with, “But, that’s what it looks like in here right now.”  Then, without further comment, he turned and left the room.  

I continued to laugh as I peeled off my clothes that had been drenched in sweat and air dried several times throughout the day.  Then I climbed into the shower and enjoyed every last drop of water as I washed and rinsed my body clean of the day’s travels and activities.

Next morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. just as the generator cut off to prepare for the day.  

Bread MyJoyOnline.JPG

We knew food would be difficult to find, so we brought dry provisions with us for breakfast and snacks.  Of the most important items were packs of bread rolls we bought from a street vendor during the drive up.  These are sweet, white-bread, sandwich rolls that many vendors sell; but we only ever buy them for trips Upcountry.  In addition, we took apples, bananas, Clif bars, crackers, date bars, nuts, and hummus.  Really, I just thought about what I would take if we were hiking or camping, and packed that kind of food.  I also anticipated needing coffee, so we also brought instant Bustelo espresso that we had left over from a recent trip to Manhattan and powdered creamer.  To make breakfast, we used hot water from the bathroom sink and Bustelo and creamer mixed in empty water bottles from the day before.  We also split the bread rolls in half and added broken up banana to make a sandwich.

Around 7:30, the drivers gave us the signal that they were ready to go by firing up the engines of the Land Cruisers.  Andrew headed out to inspect his roads in Voinjama (about 60 miles from Zorzor), and I headed to Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute (ZRTTI) where I was invited to guest lecture for three days.  Each day, I would talk about two topics for one hour each, and I would give the same talk to three separate groups.  This meant I would be presenting for six hours each day.

In preparation for this task, I collaborated with Mr. Stephen Swymer, a new friend I happened to make during our trip home from holiday travel in January.  Stephen was on the same shuttle bus from our hotel to the airport in Morocco, and we struck up a conversation about education (he is a retired principal) and teacher training (he is now with Global Trainers and was coming to Liberia for that purpose).  After he completed his work here in Liberia, Stephen was kind enough to make time to train me a little and answer my questions about what to expect during my first sessions here.  Our conversations helped calm whatever nerves I had and helped me to feel very excited about this new experience.

My project coordinator Belvis and I piled into our vehicle and headed toward ZRTTI.  


On the drive to campus, the road was dusty and bumpy, but Kelvin handled the roads LIKE A BOSS.  As I was jostled around in the back seat, I watched the scenery pass by.  Children sitting and standing near the road, feet bare and legs dusted with orange dirt, smiled and waved at me sometimes, and I smiled and waved at them, too.  I gazed at the beautiful rolling hills in the distance, covered in tropical trees and shrubs that I often recognized as the same that grow in Florida where my parents live.  Mist hung in the trees and had yet to be evaporated by a sun that was already clouded over.  And as we passed various communities, I enjoyed glimpsing the activity happening in and around the cinder block houses with tin roofs and was especially surprised to see how many dogs and chickens ran freely everywhere.


Belvis commented, “I guess you don’t find much bushmeat here.  These dogs are all well fed!”  Kelvin and I laughed.

When we arrived at the ZRTTI campus, Belvis gave me a tour of the American Corner at Zorzor: this room is supposed to act as an extension of the education services offered at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.  This includes computers with internet access for research, reference books and DVDs, and a small library of fiction and nonfiction books.  The center was extremely well-organized, and it was evident that great care went into its planning.  The coordinator, Yoel, was visibly proud of the work he had put into making the American Corner into what it had become, and he was warm and hospitable as he accompanied Belvis and me from the Corner to the Meeting Hall where the students, Dean, and Director of ZRTTI were awaiting me.


There was a brief opening ceremony during which I was officially welcomed to ZRTTI and I shared with everyone how much it meant to me to have been invited by them to assist in the training of their student teachers.  “This is a lifelong dream for me: to assist teachers and schools in countries around the world.  You are my first group of teachers, and ZRTTI will forever be a special place to me because of that.”

Upon the conclusion of the opening ceremony, Yoel officially turned over the floor to me and invited me to begin my lecture.

My adrenaline rush started to calm as I began speaking to the crowd, and I felt at home in front of a crowd.  It has been eight months since I was at the front of my own classroom, and I was nervous that I had gone a bit rusty without practice.  Fortunately, this wasn’t the case at all. I spoke to the teachers-in-training about the importance of integrity in community leaders like teachers and administrators and the impact they have on both individual students and communities.

Something that surprised me about the collection of faces in the crowd was that the majority of the teachers-in-training were male.  In the United States, education has traditionally been a very female-dominated profession.  It is quite the opposite in Liberia.  When I mentioned this to Andrew, we talked about how more boys than girls in developing countries have the opportunity to be educated, so there will be mostly men who are qualified to teach.  

It wasn’t long — about two hours into lecturing — that I was reminded of how taxing it is on one’s vocal cords to talk so much.  At the beginning of each school year, I always had a day or two of hoarseness as my throat got used to being used so intensely: my teacher voice is loud enough for all to hear, but also projects a lot of enthusiasm and emphasis on certain words and phrases.  It’s a workout for my vocal cords, for sure.  I was also reminded of how hard on the body it is to be that animated for 6+ hours a day and to stand for that long as well.


The sessions, however, were going extremely well!  The teachers-in-training were receptive to my message of the importance of teachers and administrators setting the example for young people in both their behavior and words, and they were attentive as I spoke on the qualities of successful schools and successful school leadership.  More important than listening intently, however, was the fact that they asked so many great questions throughout my presentation.  Just like the high school students I’ve worked with here, these individuals were hungry for more knowledge, and they were truly grateful for the opportunity to be mentored.  It was evident from the questions they asked that ZRTTI had done a fantastic job preparing them.  The strategies, concepts, and pedagogy we discussed was on track with what we teachers in the U.S. have been learning and practicing.

What was also evident, though, was the concern the teachers-in-training had about the amount of corruption that occurs in schools and lack of value of education that exists in many communities in Liberia.  Some examples of questions they asked are:

“What should you do if a student tells you another teacher sexually harassed her?”  

“Should a teacher stay in a school where the administration does not practice good and honest leadership?”  

“What should a good teacher do if parents try to bribe him to raise a student’s grades?”  

“What if the community does not value education enough to send their children to school?  What can a school do to change that?”

I answered each question honestly while keeping to my message of the teacher as an example in the community of how a moral and ethical adult behaves and the right each child has to an education.  My message, in essence, became a defense of human rights and a challenge to the teachers-in-training to be a cohort of educators who affects positive change in support of education in Liberia.

I was exhausted by lunchtime.

Kelvin and Belvis took me back into town for lunch, and we ate at a restaurant that is typical for that area: a room at the front of someone’s home that has a few tables and accompanying chairs where guests can sit, and the meals of the day are either the traditional pepper soup, potato greens, or palava stew.  These are made with whatever meat is available (chicken, goat, or fish) and meats are often combined.  The dish is served with rice or fufu (a starch made from cassava and green plantain flour).

This day, the meal of the day was pepper soup.  I was tired and hot, and since life in Monrovia is quite sedentary, my back was already sore from standing for four hours.  I did not want to have a spicy, hot, and heavy meal for lunch.  So, even though the soup smelled delicious, I ate only half a bread roll and a Clif bar during my break.

Back at ZRTTI, I completed my sessions with the last couple of groups for the day.  The Meeting Hall got progressively warmer as the day went on and the sun shone directly on the building.  There was also no breeze coming through the open windows or ventilation holes in the walls.  The combination of not being used to standing for so long or talking so much, only a snack for lunch, and the heat left me feeling lightheaded and dizzy at times.  I drank bottle after bottle of water to try to keep myself hydrated and cool.

When I returned to the guest house at the end of the day, Andrew was already back and he met me at my vehicle, eager to hear how the day went.  He opened my door for me and took my backpack after I hugged him tightly.  What a nice surprise to come home to him!

It was a relief to lie down on our bed and stretch out for a little while.  My back was sore and my feet were tired.  But the deafening silence made me restless, so Andrew and I decided to explore our dinner options in town.  I lead his driver to the restaurant where Belvis, Kelvin, and I had eaten lunch, but the food was all gone for the day.  (They typically cook once a day, and when the food runs out, “it is finished,” they say in Liberia.)

As we drove back to our guest house, resigned to a dinner of hummus, crackers, and apples, I saw Belvis sitting outside of a “business center” (basically a shop of many things) drinking a cold Club Beer that looked extremely tempting.  I waved to him and asked the driver if we could stop there.  Having a drink to celebrate my first professional presentation with my State Department contract seemed like the perfect way to spend the evening.

So, he parked nearby, and Andrew and I got out of the vehicle to join Belvis.  And it was such a cool scene.


Belvis was relaxing with his Club Beer, waiting for some pepper soup, and he said that he politely ordered some for us as well.  This would actually be my first time eating pepper soup, so I was very excited!  (Another first!)  

The broth was salty and not spicy at all.  “Pepper soup?” Belvis commented, “No.  Sodium soup, I think!”  Ha!  Also, because the sun had disappeared behind the haze of dust and moisture, the light was low, and I could not make out the type of meat that was in our striped, plastic bowls.  It was dark and gamey whatever it was.  (My first taste of bushmeat?) Furthermore, the restaurant did not have rice to serve with the soup, but Kelvin tracked down some Lebanese flatbread for us, and we shared the loafs among the four of us.  I ate my fill (which doesn’t take much), and when Belvis saw that I still had plenty leftover, he passed my bowl to Kelvin, who we had started calling “the V8 engine.”

Sitting there, watching Zorzor life pass by on the dusty, dirt road was the perfect way to end the evening.  Motorbikes, transport trucks filled sky-high with cargo and people, busses overflowing with passengers, the beep-beep of car horns as drivers signal to other drivers and pedestrians to move out of the way, and pedestrians of all ages.  A beautiful array of life and movement to view while we sat and reflected on the day’s events.

As the sun set, the temperature cooled, and there was a consistent breeze.  I let the beads of condensation from my Club Beer drip onto my shoulders on purpose, and each ice-cold droplet was a treasure that I savored in the moment.

Next day, Andrew accompanied me to ZRTTI, and he stayed to watch my first lecture of the day: Characteristics of Successful Teachers.  While I spoke, he took photos of me in action; and having him there meant so much to me.  It is something we had talked about for a long time: supporting each other in our careers and showing up for each others’ events.  Surprisingly, his presence didn’t make me nervous but made me feel even more confident.  I loved every minute of it and was sad when he had to head out to inspect his project site in Gbarnga then go home while I’d be Upcountry for another day and a half.


Nevertheless, the rest of the day with the teachers-in-training went even better than the first day.  The seminar flowed nicely from the first topic on teacher leadership to the second topic of Record Keeping and Recording — a topic that I thought would illicit boredom, but actually inspired many questions and comments about teacher liability and professional responsibilities that the trainees had not yet considered.

On this second day of training, the meeting hall was even warmer than yesterday because there was direct sunlight for most of the day whereas it had previously been overcast.  So, as the morning progressed, I began guzzling water whenever I could.

By lunchtime, I was so hungry that I actually wanted something heavier in my stomach than a Clif bar.  So, when Belvis took me back to the tiny restaurant where we ate yesterday, I eagerly ordered the pepper soup and rice.

This pepper soup was indeed spicy, more flavorful than last night’s fare, and had big chunks of chicken in it.  It tasted like spicy chicken soup, and it was delicious!  I spooned the broth onto my rice and ate about half of the portion that was served to me.  When I had consumed all that I could, I offered the rest to “V8,” and he accepted it happily.

The rest of the afternoon at ZRTTI went very well, but I could tell that the trainees were growing weary of listening to me lecture.  I had already been figuring out how to restructure my lesson plans for the next day to create a more student-centered class and model the teaching strategies I had been discussing when Belvis asked if I could accommodate 20-30 minutes at the end of the day tomorrow (our last day) for a closing ceremony.  Perfect!  I decided I would talk for 30 minutes on Assessment Types and then spend the next hour walking the teachers-in-training through an actual lesson.  “I can make that work!” I smiled and obliged the request.

That night, I did not sleep very well.  Andrew had returned to Monrovia, and we talked on the phone before going to sleep.  And while I felt safe and comfortable in the guest house, I was now alone for the first time during this trip.  Missing my husband, and without access to technology, I worked until I fell asleep to handwrite a detailed lesson plan for class tomorrow.


It wasn’t pretty (in fact, it was quite a mess, and I made a few more improvements thereafter!), but it was effective.  Most importantly, I knew the Liberian teachers-in-training would gain knowledge of both the content and the strategies I used.


I woke the next morning feeling excited.  I wasn’t just going to spend the day lecturing.  I was going to do what I do best: I was going to teach through active engagement.  I was going to inspire big thinking and greater goals.  …And I couldn’t wait to get started!

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