This is a post that has been in the making pretty much since I arrived in Liberia.
When one travels to a location for an extended period of time, it is inevitable that she eventually compares her destination to her city or country of origin. The time frame is different for everyone; but, once the excitement and stimulus of being in a new place fade just enough, the individual begins to consider how THIS place is different from THAT place.
So, over the past 10 months, I have made some mental notes about the facets of life in Liberia that compare to life in the United States. Some of these are completely subjective. Fortunately for me, the experiences I’ve had in my life have made me feel more at home in Liberia than perhaps others may feel when they are posted here. Parts of life here that have struck me as particularly comforting or curious may not seem so to you as you read. And that’s perfectly normal. If you have been to Liberia, I’d really love to hear your take on some of these points–especially if you disagree with me. 🙂
So, here we go!
Growing up in the southern U.S., it was typical that the weekends were “yard work” days. The soundtrack of a Saturday or Sunday was a mix of white noise from leaf blowers and motors from lawn mowers. A manicured lawn is often a point of pride for Americans in the U.S. In Liberia, a yard is just a part of the compound that needs to be maintained, and (just like everything else) it is done so pragmatically: with a machete. I have watched out the window at the front of our apartment as men in the compounds across the street from ours hack away at blades of grass with the blades of their machetes. I’ll notice them; then I might happen to notice again 30-40 minutes later that they are still slicing away, perhaps grateful for a task that needs completing since (a result of high unemployment) so much of their time is spent sitting and waiting for something to do. As I briefly watch them work, I wonder how much time is spent sharpening the machetes: what tools are used, how often it must occur, etc. How does one start that conversation, though? “Excuse me, sir, I have some questions about your machete.”?
This is a tool and weapon that has a complicated history in developing countries. In Liberia — a country that is only 15 years removed from the civil wars that devastated its people and infrastructure — it is common to see individuals (male and female) who must use crutches or wheelchairs for the rest of their lives because one of their legs was hacked or shot off by a soldier. Here, when seeing someone using devices for mobility assistance, it is assumed that they have a war-related injury. Additionally, it is common to see individuals with slice marks on their arms or back from being “chopped” by attackers. When the wars were raging and soldiers threatened or tortured people, they would ask them if they wanted to be able to wear long sleeves or short sleeves, meaning, “Do you want me to take your hand or your whole arm?” So, asking someone about his personal relationship with his machete could be a conversation loaded with unspoken history and trauma.
On a lighter note, let’s discuss the restroom situation. For those of you who have traveled to a developing country, I’m sure you are familiar with the squat or pour methods. Or both! Because I did not travel much until I was an adult, my first squatty-potty experience was just a couple of years ago when I traveled to Morocco. My husband and I were driving from Casablanca to Marrakech and we stopped along the way to fuel up and use the restrooms. When I walked into the women’s restroom, there was a grated ceramic plate in the middle of the floor where my feet should be placed next to a hole into which I was supposed to do my business.
So, I shrugged, squatted, and went. 🙂
In Liberia, unless you are in a building or business that also caters to the expat community, you will likely find a bathroom experience that you wish you had been better prepared for. Especially for women, there is frequently a lack of consideration for all of the activities we must engage in while in the restroom. What I mean is:
- There is often an absence of toilet paper. This is especially bad for females since we must wipe after urinating to prevent urinary tract infections and kidney infections. After encountering this absence of basic sanitation materials, I now carry a small roll of TP with me if I’m going to be away from home for more than just a few hours. In fact, I’ve become a TP hoarder. If ever I am somewhere that offers it (a guest house or hotel, for instance), I take one of the rolls with me. (I actually found myself eyeing a stack of rolls in a museum during a recent trip back to the States. “Look how many rolls!” I thought, and then had to remind myself that I did not need to hoard in the U.S. Haha!)
- I squat and hover over toilets all the time now. Perhaps you’ve done this for years, but it’s a new development for me. Because female physiology dictates that we must crouch or squat, and because lavatories here are often unsanitary, I’ve become accustomed to the “squat and hover” no matter where I am. I actually have to say to myself, “This one is clean. Just sit,” when I am in a building that caters to expats. I’ve also become very comfortable with crouching outside because I’ve often found myself in the interior of the country without access to a toilet. Not a big deal…because I carry my toilet paper! 🙂
- There is no easy way to deal with menstruation in a developing country. I honestly don’t know how local women handle this, and I’m too shy to ask. I’ve been using a menstrual cup for the past few years, and this has been very beneficial during trips upcountry when I’d have to go most of the day without access to a sanitary location where I could “handle my business.” It’s difficult to use tampons while in the interior (and even in many places in and around Monrovia) because the toilets operate not by flushing, but by the user pouring small buckets of water into the bowl to force a flush by creating pressure. I have to say that of all the choices available to women for menstruation control, I’m really glad that I use a cup. It has been the cleanest and easiest method for this lifestyle, in my opinion. (Ladies, check it out.)
Here are some other comparisons I’ve made:
- In the South, we refer to women as ma’am out of respect. We may refer to friends as “lady,” “honey,” or “girl.” In Liberia, strangers refer to me as “Missy,” “Mommy,” “Madam” or “Sistah.” I have to say… I prefer the Liberian way. 🙂 It makes me smile everytime someone calls me “sis” or “sistah.”
- In the U.S., when an event or activity is scheduled for a certain time, we are used to it beginning at, or very near to, that time. There is such a thing as being “fashionably late,” but beyond 20 minutes, you’re just being rude. RIght? In Africa, if an event is supposed to start at a certain time, it’s casually expected to not actually begin for 20-30 minutes after that time. For this reason, when scheduling something here (especially in the rural areas), we must specify if the time is “U.S. time” or “Africa time.”
- In the U.S., safe sex is a thing we talk about during that week of health class in middle and high school when we’re taught about how our anatomy works, pregnancy, STDs, condoms, and how abstinence is the only sure way of preventing pregnancy and infection. In Liberia, safe sex is a thing that is talked about all the time. You hear about it in songs by Liberian artists and on radio commercials that encourage condom use to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. You also see it on billboards while driving through the country — Miss Liberia, herself, holding up the brand that she prefers to use. With teenage pregnancy being so high, HIV/AIDS being so prevalent, and the lack of adequate healthcare services available to most of the population, it is no wonder that this message is shared with anyone who can be reached. (Getting resources to individuals in the interior is another story, however….)
- Whenever I am introduced to a Liberian or whenever I enter a business, I am told, “You are welcome” with a smile. What a lovely sentiment: You are welcome here — to the country, to the business, to this place. I’ve noticed that some businesses in the U.S. have begun using the “Welcome in!” greeting which is also nice. But most of the time, U.S. society is so rushed that the person saying the phrase doesn’t even look at the person who they are addressing. Even though I am from the South, I have never known such hospitality as what Liberian people display. It is such a warm and welcoming culture. ❤
- Shopping is something of a chore here. I’m not one who engages in “retail therapy,” so please understand that I’m talking about basic, everyday necessities. Like food. In the U.S., we are conditioned to expect everything to be available all the time, of the same quality, and in the same quantity. In Liberia, you take what you can get. Because most farmers are subsistence growers, the fresh foods in the market are typically imports from China, Lebanon, Morocco, and other countries. For example, strawberries — my personal favorite — may be available regularly for about three weeks, and then they’ll disappear for the rest of the year. The quality of many fresh products is also subject to the time it takes to travel from its destination of origin to the single port in Liberia. So, as my son says, “You get what you get, and don’t pitch a fit.”
- Other food-related observations include the fact that the ultra-pasteurized milk will often sit on unrefrigerated shelves here and be perfectly fine to drink when purchased. I’m not much of a dairy consumer (using milk only to splash in my coffee or atop my oatmeal), but this makes me wonder about dairy practices in the U.S. Why does our milk go bad so easily? From what I know of the meat and dairy industries (thank you, Michael Pollan), I can only imagine that it is engineered that way to make us buy more gallons and half gallons more frequently.
While I am not a milk fan, I am definitely a fan of really good bread, which I’ve missed while in Liberia. Most of the bread available here is based on traditional Lebanese recipes which doesn’t include as much (if any) salt and is made with white flower most of the time. I miss a good loaf of multigrain or whole wheat bread on which to slather some butter or make a sandwich. The upside? I’m not eating as much bread (in all its forms), so I’ve lost a few pounds! 🙂
And the last thing I’ll say about food is: I really, really miss Mexican food. While avocados (AKA butter pears, in Liberia) are available, they are not the same variety that we are used to in the U.S. (Hass being the best, of course!). So, my attempts at making Mexican food at home are somewhat disappointing, despite having to access to everything else I need. If I can’t have a good avocado, what’s the POINT!?
- In the U.S. we get used to seeing airplanes in the sky at all hours of the day. Coming or going, they criss-cross the sky and give children another reason to marvel at the wondrous things that occur far above their heads. In Liberia, one flight arrives at Roberts International Airport each day. If you are along the coast between Robertsport and Monrovia at any time around 7 p.m. on most days, you’ll see the airplane inbound from Freetown, Sierra Leone (a quick stop along the way). This is typically around the time Andrew and I would be eating dinner, and if we are at Mamba Point Hotel or Golden Beach (our two favorite restaurants in town), I have a ritual of calling out “Fresh meat!” to Andrew when I spot the plane.
“Fresh meat?” you ask. Let’s face it, life here is hard. Even for expats, there is a lot of discomfort and anxiety because of a number of different factors that I’ve chronicled through my postings. So, when an inbound flight carries individuals who have never been here, have no idea what to expect, and will probably only be here a short period of time (especially TDY-ers), “fresh meat” is my challenge to them: let’s see how you do here. Let’s see if you see as much beauty and charm and fun as I do.
In a way, I’m proud of the fact that most FSOs will never know the Liberia I know — a Liberia that is probably more familiar to non-profit workers who are in the field the majority of the time. I am grateful for and humbled by the experiences, and I feel accomplished in what I have been able to do for the students and teachers here in the 10 months I’ve lived here. It is a small thing, to be sure, but I know I’ve made a difference in the lives of individuals. And that means everything.
- In the U.S. we are taught from an early age not to litter; we are taught to recycle. In fact, the act of littering in public places carries with it the penalty of a hefty fine. In Liberia, it is common practice to toss garbage to the ground wherever you are. For instance, portable water here — sold on the street by vendors or in Liberian restaurants — comes in little square plastic bags (not in plastic bottles, as we are used to). It is typical to see someone sipping on a bag of water that is hanging out of their mouth, and then watch as they toss the bag to the ground when they are finished.
It is habit to toss away garbage wherever one is standing, and the heavy pollution of the urban environment carries the evidence of this behavior. Trash piles up along the roads, in abandoned building compounds, along the beaches and shores, in ditches, and even in the center of outdoor marketplaces. (Especially regarding plastic bags of all colors and sizes — they are everywhere!)
Piles of trash are routinely burned; and in the rural counties, I’ve watched as these ashes are spread in gardens as a kind of compost.
I used to believe in recycling. Now, seeing the amount of pollution here and knowing what I know about how inefficient and ineffective the recycling process is, I truly believe that the best thing we can do to cut down on the amount of waste we produce around the world is to cut down on the amount of single-use plastic we all consume. It never really goes away, friends. And when it’s burned, it creates toxic fumes. This is what we are doing to the planet and to each other. (Coincidentally, National Geographic will soon begin a year-long campaign to raise awareness about the devastating effects of single-use plastics. More info here.)
- Last, but certainly not least, one of my favorite comparisons: the role of the car horn in U.S. versus Liberia. In the U.S., we tend to use our car horns as a form of reactive expression.
Cut off in traffic? *Beep beep* “HEY!”
Someone walks out in front of your car? *Beep beep* “Get out of the way!”
It’s all very self-important, isn’t it? In Liberia, however, the car horn is used as a proactive warning.
Driving down the street, about to pass someone? *Beep beep* “I’m going to pass you now.” Rolling along and see kids playing on the side of the road? *Beep beep* “I am approaching, so don’t run out in front of me.”
It really is quite polite and effective. And again, I tend to prefer the Liberian way of doing things.
Now, some may argue that this takes away the responsibility of the pedestrians to “look both ways before they cross” or “check their mirrors before they merge,” but those things are taught with proper instruction from parents and driving instructors. That type of lesson-teaching just isn’t common here. When one is taught, “Just do what you are told and follow me,” one does not have to learn for him- or herself to, for instance, look both ways before they cross a street. Rote memorization doesn’t just happen in school. It happens in socialization, too. We are all programmed to some degree by the behaviors that are modeled for us as we grow, and critical thinking is one of those behaviors that sorely needs nurturing in Liberia. This, from the mouths of even the teenagers I have the pleasure of guiding during the STEM education enrichment sessions I plan and facilitate at the embassy.
I hope you have enjoyed reading these observations. As of this writing, Andrew and I only have about two more months remaining of our time here. I hope to have at least a few more stories to share, and — of course — plenty of pictures, too.
Until next time, cheers!