Zwedru: One Seriously Epic Journey

This week, I was on a five-day trip to Zwedru for my work with the U.S. Embassy/Monrovia State Department.  Since I did not have access to the internet for most of the trip, I kept notes on my phone of the experience.  These notes became journal entries. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

A 5:21 am wake-up call from a rooster somewhere outside.  “Cockaroo,” it says, still half asleep and seeming to only begrudgingly carry out its role.

I am in Ganta, a small town about a five-hour drive Northeast of Monrovia.  My colleagues Paul, Belvis, and I are on our final field visit for my educator training series at the Embassy’s American Corners.  Ganta was our layover on our way to Zwedru, still six more hours southeast.  Because of the underdeveloped road system, we had to go northeast and then southeast to get from Monrovia to Zwedru rather than simply cutting straight across Liberia from one city to the other (see map below).  Along the way, we will be stopping in the city of Saclepea so that I can offer a training seminar to 45 area school principals.

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Mural #44 @ Zwedru by Phillip Martin

Here in Ganta, we are staying in Jackie’s Guest House– the most luxurious place I’ve stayed in while in the field. The room is quaint but has everything one could need to feel perfectly comfortable, the restaurant is welcoming and has a decent menu, and there is even a well-stocked store with everything from batteries to brand-name shaving razors to Cohiba cigars.

 

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Inside the compound at Jackie’s Guest House

 

 

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My room at Jackie’s Guest House, Ganta, Liberia

 

Last night I laid in bed when we arrived at Jackie’s, watching National Geographic — one of the five channels available on the TV.  (My other choices were two soccer games, an Arabic news channel, and a Bollywood movie with Arabic subtitles.)  Nat Geo was showing a documentary called Lion Kingdom, a three-part series about three lion prides in an area of Mwagusi River, Tanzania known as “The Glade.”

As always, I was enthralled by the dichotomous power and gentleness of those big cats; but I also thought to myself, “How strange it feels to be finally on the same continent where documentaries like this are filmed, but still feel as far away as ever.”  Travel out of Liberia is so expensive that we haven’t yet made it to East Africa or South Africa.  Definitely one day.  But for this year, one country in Africa will have to suffice.

I called Andrew after dinner. We hadn’t been apart since my field visit to Buchanan a month ago. For us introverts, time apart is always welcome at first. It gives us time for self-reflection and time to miss each other so that we appreciate the little things about each other that couples tend to become blind to once they cohabitate.  Especially because we love being around each other so much, time apart comes infrequently, but we know it is good for us.  The feeling of exuberance that comes with not thinking of anyone else is enjoyable for a couple of days.  And then we miss each other, our routines together, and how much laughter and fun we share and are ready for life to return to normal.  How lovely it is to be married to one’s best friend!

With Lion Kingdom turned down low so as not to disturb other guests in the house, I fell asleep around 11:00 pm to the “tink-tink-tat” sound and rhythm of raindrops on the tin roof.

The rainy season has begun in Liberia.

“Cockadoodledoo!” I hear the rooster crow.  There you go, little guy.

It is now 6:00 am. Time to get this day started. I’m going to shower and try to track down some hot water for my cup of Gold Roast coffee–my new favorite instant.

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We will leave Ganta in about two hours to arrive in Saclepea by 9:00am.  From there, we will depart by noon to arrive in Zwedru by 6:00 pm.  I am told that the roads are pretty awful, and there are sections that pose a significant challenge for vehicles.  I am optimistic, however, that we are in good hands with our driver Clifton.

Here are some photos (below) of the most difficult sections of road.  After about five hours of the bumpiest journey I’ve ever experienced, I was exhausted both physically and psychologically.  For the last hour, I had to focus on my breathing to keep from sounding like a toddler in the backseat: “Why aren’t we there yet? This is too bumpy! I’m tired!  How much longer?”


 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

6:30 am.  My alarm wakes me, and my neck is so sore that I can’t turn my head.  I woke from a dream in which I was newly pregnant, and Andrew and I were joyful in the good news.  I am lying here missing him.

Yesterday’s seven-hour journey on the extremely difficult clay-dirt road from Ganta to Zwedru took its toll.  Before fatigue started to wear on me, though, I joked with Belvis that this is the kind of thing people in the US do for fun.  We just call it “off-roading” or “mudding.”  He and our driver Clifton laughed at this.

Our stop-over in Saclepea was a success. Here, I spoke with local area principals about best practices and opportunities in leadership.  Encouraging them to continuously lift up others and nurture leadership among their staff and students, I spoke on the incredible support and opportunity I was given as a teacher by my administrators to learn, grow, and improve my own performance.  I also encouraged them to recognize the strengths of the teachers in their own schools and perhaps build them up as leaders by asking them to host professional learning sessions for colleagues from their school and other schools.


It was an extremely short talk: only an hour and a half.  But it lit a fire in me to want to help in the development of professional learning opportunities for teachers in Liberia.  I am disappointed that I won’t live here longer so that I can be involved in something like that.

We arrived at Florida Guest House in Zwedru just in time for a short rest before dinner last night.  Belvis and Clifton took Paul and me to Florida Restaurant, a local establishment that serves a menu similar to Jackie’s Guest House.  There, we met a Peace Corps volunteer named Ryan who is one of those rare individuals who goes above and beyond his responsibilities to find ways to make a real difference.  For example, he was in the process of completing the requirements for one of his students to attend a leadership summit in Washington, D.C. with Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation.


Training at the American Corner went well for our first day together.  The head teachers and school leaders were extremely receptive to my talks and hands-on activities, and we had great conversations about many of the significant challenges for Liberian classrooms.  However, I did not allow the teachers to focus on the problem of not having enough money, having too many students, and lacking the support of the government…  For their homework, they had to develop an engaging, hands-on activity that they could implement with materials readily available to them.  We’ll see what they have to share with me tomorrow.

The only downside to the whole day was the HEAT!!! The room in which we spent the majority of our time was so hot and poorly ventilated that after three and a half hours of leading the workshop, I felt so dizzy that I thought the floor was moving.

 

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Photo credit: U.S. Embassy, Monrovia, Liberia

 

Luckily, the guest house was a convenient five-minute drive from the school, and I was able to eat lunch in my room where the air conditioning was running full blast at 17°C.


 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I did not sleep well last night, and I’ve awakened feeling slightly under the weather.  Too much heavy, unhealthy food.  Not enough physical activity.  A lot of mental exertion on my part.

I’m ready to go home.

IMG_20180408_124837.jpgLast night as I talked with Andrew at the end of a long day, we shared details of our activities and tasks.  The cell reception was awful, and there parts of the conversation that we each had to piece together from what we could hear.  We talked about home life and our relationship.  From the sounds of it, he was very much enjoying his “bachelorhood.”  As we are newlyweds, the worry is sometimes that I’ll go away, and he won’t miss me.  Now that he’s had a taste of married life, he’ll decide bachelorhood was much easier, much more enjoyable, much more desirable.  Relationships are complex. They are things to be built and maintained.  He’s a wonderful husband, though, who tells me that I am his favorite person, that he gets high off of just being around me.  I adore him and have since we met.  So, of course, he makes me high, too.

I suppose, like he used to say: experiences like these — traveling, seeing new things, having adventures, meeting new people — don’t mean as much when you aren’t sharing it with someone important to you.  It makes me miss him although I am enjoying myself and doing good work.  I am an independent woman who also happens to be very much in love with my husband. 🙂  …However, I know he never would have survived this heat! LOL

Today is the last day of my education training.  At the end of our session yesterday, one individual asked how they are supposed to overcome the challenge of not having adequate funding or access to supplies when considering how to implement hands-on learning.  I thanked the gentleman for the smooth transition into the homework I was about to assign them.

I explained to the teachers that I always told my students to never come to me with a problem without attempting to develop a solution.  I also explained that, if we are going to teach our young people to be problem solvers, we must model that critical thinking for them.  I’m looking forward to seeing the results of their efforts.

I have about 30 minutes before I’m supposed to leave for the school, and I am still not feeling well at all.  I hope being busy with the workshop takes my mind off of it.

Wednesday, 5:00 pm

Back at the guest house. The current is off, and Paul and I are trying to stay cool, but we are sweating just sitting here.  This may be TMI, but when I am in the field, I go through 2-4 pairs of underwear each day because of how much I sweat.  Females are not supposed to hang out in damp underwear because it upsets our delicate internal flora (read: we may develop yeast infections). This is just one more factor we have to consider that males don’t. Tsk!

My workshop has concluded, and it was very successful. The teachers did their homework last night, and they shared fantastic ideas for hands-on learning activities at the start of class today. One of the participants (who I started referring to as “Professor” because of his frequent contributions) shared his activity: a homemade balance to teach the equilibrium of forces.

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Another teacher shared his idea to use actual plants with roots, stems, branches, and flowers to teach the parts of plants.

We also did the catapult challenge, discussed successful school leadership and school-community relationships.

As the educators collaborated, I had a thought as I observed them: I think being a teacher has been the biggest factor in my being able to maintain such optimism.  Yes, people are capable of pretty terrible things, but I frequently witness the best of humanity in my profession: one individual’s growth and progress, another’s willingness to help a peer; someone else who wants to make a difference in the world by supporting a cause or pursuing a profession of public service; a student’s curiosity and love of learning; and an acceptance of others that sometimes surprises even me.

Each time I host a workshop, I am invited back; and although I put on a smile and nod my head at the idea, my heart is sad that I know I will not be able to return.  Regrettably, my time in Liberia is coming to an end, and it will be time to look for new opportunities to share my love for education.

Tonight, however, Belvis, Paul, and I will celebrate the completion of our activity with some of the locals.  Then tomorrow, I will take my first ride in a Cessna plane over the interior of Liberia as we make the hour flight from Zwedru to Monrovia (much better than an 11-hour drive!).

Wednesday, 10:00 pm

We had a wonderful dinner at Florida restaurant to celebrate. The representatives from the school presented Paul with a traditional African shirt to thank him for his three years of service to Liberia and for what he has done for the American Corners.

Peace Corps Ryan joined us, too, and taught me that five beers equal “an epic night” in Liberia.  I asked him what four beers equal.  He said, “A normal night.” LOL I think this needs to be changed based on a person’s weight!  I drank three Club Beers (Liberian brewed and bottled), and thought I was done for the night.  Then, Belvis informed me that our flight does not leave until after 12 pm tomorrow.

I had one more. I am ready to be home.  Have I said that already?

Speaking of Belvis, he and I had a side conversation in which he commended my program and assured me that I had made a real difference in my short time here. He said that he can tell how the audience responds to and respects me because they are absolutely quiet when I am talking and refer to me as Ms. Greene or Madam Greene rather than “that woman,” which is more often the case when facilitators come.

He also told me that he would like to invite me back as a visiting professional to present at the Corners again with a similar but more intensive program for the teachers. Especially if we could involve the same educators who participated in this year’s activities.

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I hope this happens. I hope I can continue to help improve the education system in Liberia. (Belvis joked and said he blames Andrew for not bringing me here sooner.) He knows I wish I had more time…

He also said that I have impressed him with how strong I am and that I have traveled more throughout Liberia that most FSOs who are posted here.  We looked again at the map on the wall mural, and he pointed to each city (or where the city should be located but was absent): Zorzor, Gbarnga, Robertsport, Monrovia, Kakata, Buchanan, Saclepea, Ganta, Zwedru.  I have crisscrossed a nation.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

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It’s 8:30 am and I am sitting on the front porch of Florida Guest House while drinking my second cup of Gold Roast this morning.  This is the first time on the whole trip that I’ve been able to appreciate how much cleaner the air smells here in comparison to Monrovia.  The temperature and humidity level feel, indeed, like a Florida morning before the sun gets too high and too hot.  As the breeze blows across the courtyard, it feels like a cool-ish 82°F.

Birds are twittering and hopping gently and lightly through the tangles of barbed wire that stretch along the top of the compound perimeter wall.  These birds look similar to mockingbirds and finches in the South, and the familiarity puts a grin on my face.  Lizards the length of my forearm lie in the patches of sun on the ground and practice their pushups as they wait for a meal to pass by.

It is quiet here.  Not like Monrovia.  It is peaceful this morning.  Only the occasional sound of a motorbike passing outside the compound, a baby crying for a moment off in the distance, locals shouting comments or insults at each other from time to time.

Thankfully, the sky is clear, only blemished by a smattering of clouds. Our flight will hopefully at least leave on time.

Three hours till flight check-in….

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An hour later than expected, but we boarded, flew, and touched down safely!

 

Some things from this trip that made me smile or laugh:

 

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Hey, Mr. Rhinocerous Beetle!

 

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Lover Pizza?  What’s ON THAT?!

 

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When you don’t have a spoon but need coffee

 

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I was so excited about watching tv and then I realized… it was just there for decoration

 

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Cessna Passnger Briefing Card.  (Pumba’s voice) “Hakuna kuvuta: it means no smoking!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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