Three airplanes, five airports, two Peace Corps buses, two training facilities, a Peace Corps car, and a bush taxi. That’s what it took to get me to my new site, but here I am. Nestled between two French NGOs and facing a UNICEF made latrine my house sits enclosed by half a bamboo fence. I say half because the rest of it is either missing or in the process of falling down. Made entirely of cement it is a far cry from my housing back in Guinea. There are four bedrooms, three common areas, a bathroom, and a porch. The windows all have screens and everything is shaded by a ring of palm and coconut trees. When my principal showed us around the place it took all I had to keep my mouth from hanging open in shock as I mentally compared it to the mud and thatch hut I so recently called home.
If my new house was a surprise then the town follows suit. Sitting on the main road connecting Monrovia to the Eastern part of Liberia it’s one of the largest towns in Nimba County. The markings of development are visible as you approach by car as not one but three cell phone towers make themselves visible over the horizon. As you role into town you begin to see the signs for every international agency that contributed in rebuilding the community after the war. USAID, UNICEF, the EU, Action Against Hunger, Doctors Without Borders...
After you leave the car and begin to walk through the center of town you see three huge walled compounds surrounded by guard shacks and barbed wire. Now you’re in UN territory. UNMIL (The United Nations Mission in Liberia), UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and WFP (The World Food Program) all have regional centers in the town. I can’t tell you how weird it is to stroll past them at night looking at the rows of spotlights that illuminate the electrified compounds and think back to my old village in Guinea where the closest thing was a string of Christmas lights my friend put up in his small shop.
Of course with the UN compounds come UN employees and all three regional offices are headed by expats (non-Liberians). A Bangladeshi man who everyone calls Major heads UNMIL which is in charge of maintaining the roads to ensure supply lines can reach UN troops up country. Jason, an American, heads UNHCR which mainly seems to concern itself with the large Ivoirian refugee camp just outside the town. Finally Laura, another American, heads the WFP which is currently distributing food to schools for a school lunch program intended as an incentive to draw more students to class.
I got to spend some time with the three of them when I first got to town. Fed, my housemate, and I got invited to a staff party at the WFP being held our first night here. After gearing myself up for getting back into the slowness and isolation of village life it was quite a wake up call. Specifically, you’re not in Guinea anymore.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention another big change. As you can see, I’m not alone out in the bush anymore. I have a housemate and another site mate. Fed, my housemate, is one of the other volunteers who transferred from PC Guinea with me. He’s a chemistry teacher and we’re both going to be teaching at the same school. Roz, a former volunteer from PC Costa Rica, is staying in the WFP compound and will be working with them in some way that involves parent teacher associations. I’m not really sure.
So yeah, I guess the over arching theme of this whole thing is that things are different. In some ways that’s going to be a good thing, you are certainly benefitting from the cellular internet I have now. In other ways though, it’s going to make the rest of my service more challenging. Peace Corps is not the UN. We don’t shut ourselves up behind barbed wire compounds, we lay on our hammocks behind tumbling bamboos fences. I need to be in the community talking with people to do my job. So I need to make sure I don’t get caught up in the universe of international aid that has landed here in Liberia.
Like one of the PC Liberia staff members said during our quick orientation; other organizations bring money, but Peace Corps brings people. So, I need to remember to be a person.