January 17, 2010

Things I've thunk

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.

January 4, 2010

Liberia ho!

Well, here I come back to you all like a dog with his tail between his legs after my shameful absence from updating. A thousand apologies, things got moving pretty fast during the evacuation and once it was over I sort of lost the motivation to blog. But I'm making my triumphant return with keyboard in hand and I'm looking to right my wrongs by filling in the gaps and pushing onward to brave new territory.

So the evacuation turned into quite a hectic experience (surprising right?). For most of our stay in Mali there was no information to be had and we volunteers chose to spend our time spreading any scrap of rumor that came our way. Things got pretty out of control for a while, I think the best two were that Michael Jackson was dead and that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Ridiculous.

Life continued like that for what seemed an eternity (but was probably closer to a week or two) when information started coming in all of the sudden. One day we woke up to find that the Peace Corps Guinea program was closed indefinitely, we were homeless. Soon thereafter Peace Corps Washington started flying in a small battalion of representatives to process the 100 volunteers milling around the compound. This is where things really started to heat up.

Within the span of the next week we had a slew of administrative loose ends to tie up and we had to decide our next step from an array of options including transferring to a new country, closing out our service, or reenrolling. Keep in mind that we didn't actually know what countries were available to transfer to and for the most part we didn't really have much say as to where it would be. I must say the whole experience was rather flustering and that week saw the preferred volunteer activity shift from rumor spreading to intermittent screaming and frantic resume writing.

In the end though my options came together pretty well and I decided that I wasn't really ready to leave Peace Corps yet. So I decided to transfer and now I'm headed to Liberia to teach math again and hopefully participate in the training of new volunteers.

Before I could transfer Peace Corps needed to set up my new site so I was sent back to the U.S. for a couple months to give them time to get it all in order. I'm certainly not complaining, I can think of worse fates than having a two month vacation during the holiday season to see friends and family.

I took full advantage of the break and traveled around the country to visit people who were inconsiderate enough to move away from my hometown. I spent some time in D.C. (which is just crawling with former Peace Corps Volunteers) and also made my way out to San Francisco. It was really great seeing so many people I hadn't seen in so long and it was a good time for me to sort of reevaluate my long term plans and get excited to continue with my service.

But all good things must come to an end and after two months of being a professional couch surfer I am shipping out again on January 9th to my new home sweet home. I'm really excited to see what's in store for me in Liberia. I think it'll be a much different post than Guinea was for a lot of reasons. First off it's an English speaking country so I can say goodbye to French for the time being. I've also heard that there's a huge international aid presence in Liberia which is certainly the opposite of my experience in Guinea. There are even still UN Peacekeepers there to keep the post-civil war peace on track.

So I'm heading in to my new post not knowing what to expect. I don't feel like village life will be incredibly different than it was in Guinea, but then again I don't really have anything to base that on. I guess I'm just gonna have to wait and see.

Anyways I'm back now and I'm hoping to update this thing a lot more than I have of late. So for any of you who are still reading, keep watching the skies and I'll let you know how it all turns out.