Vacationing in Liberia: Libassa Ecolodge and Wildlife Sanctuary

While we were in Liberia for almost two weeks we were busy almost every day, from doing engineering activities with Kim’s students to shopping in the enormous Waterside Market in Monrovia. For our last full day in Liberia we decided to relax by visiting the Libassa Ecolodge, about an hour away from Monrovia and not far from the airport. We called a taxi driver we had used previously during the trip to take us to the resort directly, instead of doing the less expensive, but much more time consuming traditional way through various taxi stations.

When we checked in our room wasn’t ready yet so we dropped off our bags and headed to the poolside. Before jumping in the water we relaxed under the warm sun and sipped on our complimentary fresh coconuts. The resort has a multiple swimming pools, a lazy river, a lagoon to swim in plus lounge chairs along the beach. We dipped in the various pools and floated in the not-so-lazy river (the pump was broken at the time so the water was still). After the pools, we headed towards the beach to walk in the sand and dip our toes in the water–a first for me on this side of the Atlantic!

On the same property as the Ecolodge resort is the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary. The recently opened sanctuary is home to wild animals rescued across the country from people that illegally kept as pets. Our wonderful guide, Angie, led us around to the different enclosures and explained the progress of various animals towards being reintroduced to the wild.

We saw many animals including different types of monkeys, mongooses, a small deer and the cutest little pangolin. Pangolins are actually the most sought after animal for poaching in the world because their scales are believed to have healing properties. We were surprised to learn that the small deer, technically called Maxwell’s Duiker, had been rescued from the beach front restaurant in Monrovia we ate at the night before! The poor deer were so overweight from a diet of pizza and beer that even though they had been at the sanctuary for four months, they still looked obese! The sanctuary was an eye-opening experience seeing the types of animals native to Liberia, as well as discovering the extent that some people go to keep them as pets.

Visiting Kim’s Classroom: Marshmallow Structures

For our second day helping Kim teach at her school, our lesson was all about structures. For anyone who missed the estimation activity last class, Mom and I reintroduced our selves. We explained how we are both engineers and a little bit about all the different types of engineering. Since we are engineers, we wanted to bring an engineering activity to do with them. Kim started the lesson with a few vocab words like structure, cube, tetrahedron (pyramid shape) and strength. The goal of the activity was to see which type of structure, the cube or tetrahedron, could hold the most weight.

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To start the activity we split the class into small groups and gave them their building materials we brought from the US: toothpicks and marshmallows! Each group was tasked with making one cube and one tetrahedron. We made some examples for them to use as a reference and walked around the room helping out the different groups. After a little help each group was able to make their own structures.

To test which shape is the strongest we combined four groups together and had them put all their tetrahedrons together on a desk. Next we used their “copybooks”, or notebooks, to see how many the small structures could hold. The students gingerly placed a copy book on the structures one at a time until the structures fell, then repeated the process for the cubes. The cubes fell with just one copy book placed on it while, the tetrahedron could hold more weight, falling on the second copy book. In later classes, we switched to seeing how many notecards the structures could carry instead of the copy books. This way instead of falling right away under the thick copy books the whole process was more suspenseful and fun having the students place notecards one by one.

 

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At the end of the lesson we revealed to the students that marshmallows are actually candy! They don’t have anything similar to them in Liberia so every student stared at us in disbelief. They wouldn’t eat their building materials until they saw Kim eat one to prove they were edible! Even then they were skeptical, but once they tried them they kept begging for more!

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After doing the activity for three different classes we invited any students who wanted to do more to stay after school for another activity. During class earlier, they learned that structures using triangles can hold more weight than one built with squares. With the the knowledge they’d learned in class, we challenged the students to build the tallest tower they could, with the same materials. We split them into teams then gave them twenty minutes to work before measuring to find out which group could build the tallest structure. The students seemed to really enjoy it and were proud to show off their final towers (even if a few of the groups had to hold theirs up). From all the classes the tallest free standing tower measured at 22 cm and the winners from each grade got a prize!

 

We adjusted a few things from class to class, learning along the way, but overall the activities were a hit! We were only slightly exhausted at the end of 5 sessions, but the students seemed to enjoy them and hopefully learned something too! Plus we got to share an American treat with them: My absolute favorite part was the reactions on the students faces when they saw us eating the marshmallows! Our activities with Kim’s students are something I’ll never forget.

​Life in Liberia: Market Day!

Here in Liberia, grocery shopping is not as easy as jumping in the car and heading to the Kroger around the corner! Unless you’re in a big city with a supermarket, buying food and other things takes a little more work!

I’m fortunate to live in a big enough community that I am able to buy most of my food and necessities throughout the week. My landlord, who lives in the house right in front of mine, has a pretty good-sized shop, mostly of dry goods like rice, beans, onions, spaghetti, tomato paste – enough that I knew from day one that I at least wouldn’t starve here! And in the first few months, I slowly figured out where to buy other foods – there’s a shop near the school that sells bread, a house on my walk home that sells “cold sausage” (frozen hotdogs bought from nearby towns earlier that day) and a house across from mine that often has eggs (though for a few months there was an egg shortage in the country and they were very hard to find!).

So if I plan my day right, I can pick up everything I need to make my dinner on my way home from school. I also keep an eye out as I walk around town for other things like plantains, cassava or African potatoes and whatever fruits are in season – these are most often found in small amounts outside anyone’s house; people will sell the small amount from their own gardens that’s left after feeding their own families.

And then on Tuesday, we have Market Day! Once a week, people come from miles around to buy and sell in our town’s market. So every week, I’ll keep a list of things I want to make sure to pick up on the next Tuesday. Throughout the rest of the week, the market sits almost completely empty, with the exception of a few local market women selling a few various foods. But on Tuesday the place is packed!

You can find the same foods that are there throughout the week, but also a lot more: there’s a whole aisle of “wheelbarrow shopping” – clothes in wheel barrows or piles, most of which was sent over from the states or Europe, that you can sort through to find what you need.  There’s another area with people selling produce – whatever seasonal fruits and vegetables they’ve grown (though you have to get there early for the good stuff – I often miss out because I teach in the morning and don’t get to the market until the afternoon).

You’ll find people selling lappa fabric or pre-made clothes, sandals and slippers (Liberian English for flipflops), packaged cookies and snacks, soap and hair products, small electronics and more. I’ve made friends with a man named Boikai (who’s name I can remember because it sounds to me like “Buckeye”) who comes to my town every week from Kakata to sell bags – backpacks and the colorful plastic “Ghana-must-go” bags.

In addition to the different stalls set up, there are plenty of people walking around selling food! I always look for plantain chips or popcorn, freshly made shortbread or donuts, and find the woman who sells fried plantains and sometimes fried chicken legs! You can also find people selling more traditional meals of soup and rice or Liberian spaghetti.

Even on weeks that I don’t really have a list of things to buy, I always try to go take a walk around the market, see if there are any surprises to be found and say hello to my friends who are selling!

First Day in Liberia: Walk About Kim’s Community

After 27 hours of traveling we finally made it to Liberia! After finding Kim at the airport (!) we spent our first night at the luxurious Farmington Hotel right across the street. After a much needed night’s sleep, we met a taxi driver in the morning to take us on the bumpy hour long ride to Kim’s site in Montserrado County.

Once we reached Kim’s house we saw the wonderful welcome sign Kim’s neighbor made for us on her door. After dropping off our bags, we headed out on a “walk about” to explore Kim’s town. The people in her community are the friendliest people I’ve ever met! Since there isn’t air conditioning, everyone congregates on the porches as they are the coolest areas in the house. This makes it easy for everyone to say hello, throughout our entire trip we never passed a house in Kim’s community without greeting everyone along the way.

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We started off walking the dirt road to the market area, which was mostly empty since it wasn’t market day. As rainy season was just beginning, the path got fairly muddy at times and we had to wait out the rain a time or two. We stopped at a house by the market to buy some African corn on the cob. Different from the sweet corn in the US, it was slightly harder and tasted like popcorn!

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While walking the streets we were amazed by the number of houses that were actually shops. Any house you pass may be selling something! Kim filled us in on a way some shop keepers let you know what they are selling: they hang an empty package label of what they are selling on the side of the porch. For example the house we bought sausages (really just hot dogs) from had an empty packaged tacked outside.

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After a fifteen minute walk from her house, greeting everyone along the way, we arrived at Kim’s school. The buildings were empty but we got to see the rooms she teaches in and where we would be helping with activities the next few school days.

Once we were done exploring the school, we walked across the street to a house selling bags of cold water. In Liberia, it’s not safe for Westerners to drink the water (it’ll make us sick). Liberians are able to drink the water because their bodies have adapted to it. Bottled water is super expensive so instead they sell cold water in 0.5 liter plastic bags! You bite off the corner then suck on it and squeeze water out into your mouth.

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To end our walk about, we stopped at a few more shops to pick up some food for dinner. Kim doesn’t have electricity so that means no refrigeration, so each day dinner is decided by what foods people are selling when we walk through town. We were lucky our first night that we could get eggs and bread. Eggs are somewhat scarce and bread is made then sold until they run out but not necessarily baked each day. For dinner Kim made us scrambled eggs with onions that we ate on our bread. The rest of the evening we spent relaxing in the cool air on Kim’s back porch and getting ready for our first day at school!

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The Season for Plums… and Workshops!

In the last couple of months, in between teaching, celebrating my birthday and enjoying plum (mango) season, I’ve also had the chance to attend a few different trainings that I wanted to share!

 

 

Workshop #1: Literacy and Phonics Training

At the end of March, I had the chance to attend a workshop put on by Peace Corps Liberia’s literacy committee! Literacy is a challenge here – in 2015, only 48% of people age 15 or older could read and write in Liberia, lagging far behind the 86% of the world’s population and even its own continent, 64% in sub-Saharan Africa.  Along with some fellow PC volunteers and Liberian teachers, we spent 5 days learning about literacy and how to teach Phonics. We were trained to use a phonics toolkit developed by volunteers here specifically for Liberia, to teach children to read by recognizing sounds and letters, rather than memorizing words (which is unfortunately how many children learn to read here!).

 

 

At the end of the training, we also had a chance to practice teaching phonics lessons at a local school! I co-taught with a Liberian counterpart, Hawa. In addition to the phonics lessons, we also talked about how to incorporate literacy and critical thinking into math and science lessons – I’ve already tried some of these strategies in my lessons at back at my school!

Workshop #2: Student-Friendly Schools

In early May, I went to a workshop put on by Peace Corps about how we can make schools more “student-friendly”.  At a school, there are many more stakeholders than just the Peace Corps volunteers, so each of us got to bring along others from our schools: I brought my vice principal, my PTA chairman, and a male and female student. We spent two days discussing topics like gender stereotypes, gender equity, corporal punishment vs positive discipline and how to create a positive learning environment.

 

 

At the end of the workshop, each school had to come up with an action plan for how we would bring back what we learned from the workshop and implement it in our schools. I could tell that all the counterparts I’d brought from my school had really gotten something out of the workshop but was unsure if our action plan would really be carried out once we returned. I was happily surprised that just a week later, without even having to remind him or urge him myself, my vice principal had already started! The topic he’d felt strongly about was the idea of positive discipline instead of corporal punishment, so he had briefed the principal about what he’d learned. He then made copies of a booklet of positive discipline strategies that we’d received from the workshop and began distributing them and having one-on-one conversations with the other teachers!

Workshop #3: Science Lab Workshop

And the last workshop, a Science Lab Workshop, was just last week! Many schools here do not have science labs – including mine! – making it challenging to do experiments and creating a big challenge for students taking the WASSCE graduation exam, which has a practical component for the sciences. I do not have a strong background in science but lucky for us, there’s a Peace Corps volunteer here in Liberia, Kristen, who I was able to invite! Kristen has found ways to improvise chemistry, biology and physics experiments using materials that can be found locally and spent two afternoons teaching us about them.

 

 

During the two days, Kristen showed 7 teachers, 11 students and myself how we can improvise using materials found here in my town – plastic water bottles that can be cut to make beakers, coal pot instead of a Bunsen burner, and straws or syringes in place of droppers.  She showed us how to create an acid-base indicator from red flowers, as we had no litmus paper. We learned about heat capacity using balloons (one with water inside and one with only air) and candles. Groups made their own electromagnets and tested local foods for starch (using iodine from the local medicine store or pharmacy). Other experiments included testing for CO2 in limewater, creating and testing for oxygen and a demonstration of using atmospheric pressure to crush an empty pop can!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The workshop was definitely a hit! My principal and other teachers asked Kristen when she would be coming back to share more experiments with them.  While we don’t have plans for another workshop, Kristen did leave a few copies of the workbook she developed with dozens of experiments for the teachers at my school to use. Though this school year is almost over (and the graduation test has already passed), I hope that next year the science teachers will be able to do more hands-on experiments in class!

 

Teaching in Liberia 

As an education volunteer, my main assignment in the Peace Corps is teaching at the local high school. I’m teaching math to the 10th and 11th graders. It’s hard to believe but I’m already more than 2 months into the school year!

The school where I teach

It’s my first year teaching and my first observation: teaching is hard work! And teaching at my school here in Liberia presents its own challenges. Like most places in my community, the school doesn’t have electricity, so there’s no smart board, no overhead projector, no computers or photocopiers, none of the things that you’d expect to find in an American school. Everyday we teach with chalk on a blackboard!

Even with the limited teaching resources, one of the more pressing needs at my school is something you wouldn’t encounter in schools in the US: there are not enough chairs for all the students. Every school day begins with devotion, where the students line up in the courtyard by class, to say the pledge of allegiance, sing the national anthem and hear any announcements from the principal. As soon as the students are released from devotion, it is like a stampede of students running to their classrooms to claim a chair before they’re all taken. Some students bring their own chairs from home, but even so, every class has at least a few students sharing chairs or a couple of students standing in the back. The school is working on the chair situation, already they’ve been able to bring some more chairs and are working with the community to fundraise to buy more.

Students line up for Devotion every morning before school

Another challenge at the school is getting textbooks in the hands of the students. We have a library with textbooks for most all of the different subjects and grade levels but when I first arrived a couple months ago they were all in boxes! The principal (who is also new to the school) had them all unpacked and put on shelves before the school year began. Now they are at least more physically accessible but there’s not an effective process for students to check them out. So besides a handful of students that come in to read or study during recess, the books are sitting unused. That poses a challenge for me as a teacher because it means the students only have the notes and practice problems that I provide to them on the blackboard; I can’t reference a reading from the book or assign homework from it. But when it comes to the library, the school is making progress “small small” as they say here in Liberia, a little bit at a time.

 

 

 

Something that’s been hard for me has been the size of my classes. I have about 60 11th graders in only one section, in a classroom that fits 30 comfortably. And in 10th grade, I have nearly 100 students – luckily the school was able to split them into 2 sections, but still around 50 students per section. To me these feel like very large classes, but I’m actually middle of the range – some of my fellow volunteers have classes of 80 or even 100 in one section! But I’m learning how to manage so many students at once and figuring out what I can and can’t do with classes of this size.

An additional challenge that comes with big classes is a wide variety of ability levels among my students. In my 10th and 11th grade classes, I have some very bright students who are right on track with their grade level, while others struggle with some of the basics, unable to do multiplication without a calculator or add negative numbers. This can make it tough to keep up with the curriculum and plan my lessons. I’ve found that the best way to accommodate majority of students is to incorporate quick reviews into my lessons as I’m teaching the curriculum – for instance, a short review on exponents before learning pythagorean theorem.

One of the most frustrating things I’ve run into here is the “spying” or cheating! While there’s a “no spying” policy, it’s not really enforced so students have gotten used to being able to cheat – everything from turning around to look at each other’s papers, copying homework, talking or passing notes during tests, anything you can think of! They tell me that in Liberia, it’s good to “share ideas” during a test (though the principal will definitely tell you otherwise!). So I’ve been working to make it harder to spy – creating multiple versions of tests and quizzes and walking around during the test and marking their tests if I see any fishy activity. They like to joke about it – “Miss S can minus!” – but I’m hoping when they see how it impacts their grade they’ll stop doing it so much.

And one last challenge teaching at my school here is that there are often things that come up that impact the school day – whether it’s arriving at school to find out there’s no classes because the students are spending the day cleaning up the campus or there’s an impromptu teacher meeting during recess that runs over so I lose half of my teaching time during the next period. I’m learning to expect the unexpected and to be flexible with my plans!

Even though there are many challenges,  I’m figuring out how to deal with them and learning a lot. I’m enjoying working with the students who are eager to learn and love to see students catch on to a concept that they struggled with at first. At two months in, I’m getting into the swing of things and continuing to learn and adapt as the school year goes on!

Peace Corps Swearing In Ceremony & First Days at Site

It’s been over a month since I last posted from Liberia! Here’s what’s been going on…

Early in the morning on August 18th, we boarded a bus to head into Monrovia to go to our swearing in ceremony, held at the city hall. After 11 weeks of training, we were finally becoming official Peace Corps volunteers! All of the Peace Corps Liberia staff, representatives from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. , representatives from the US embassy and our host families came to support us at the ceremony. Plus the most honorable guest was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia!

During the program, we all raised our hands and officially swore in as volunteers. There were also several speakers: the country director, a fellow volunteer and the President herself! After the ceremony, we had lunch on the pavilion behind the hall, including both Liberian and American foods.

After lunch, we had just a couple hours to go to the supermarket and pick up some last things to take to our sites. I focused on things that are harder to find outside of the city, some cleaning supplies and snacks (Pringles, nutella, etc)! Luckily we had just enough time to get an iced coffee and American donut (treats only found in the city) before heading back to the bus!

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The next day, we all left for our sites! While some of my fellow volunteers were heading off on hours-long or even days-long journeys, mine wasn’t very far as I was going only one county over and the drive was along the paved road (not something found in many parts of the country).

The first day at my site was a whirlwind! I met my principal at my house and after dropping off my things, I was surprised with a trip to the school I’d be teaching at to go to the graduation ceremony for the previous school year’s graduates. I didn’t even know I’d be attending the ceremony and ended up seated front and center on the stage!

The school where I am teaching

Besides the unexpected graduation, I spent the rest of my first day meeting my neighbors and starting to get settled in my house.

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View from my back porch!

The first couple weeks were all about learning my way around and where to find the things I need! My landlord and his family live right next door and they have been very helpful, from helping me with washing clothes to drawing water from the well.

The well next to my house where all my water comes from

Another big thing the first days was finding food! My landlord’s family has a small shop in front of their house where they sell dry foods so right away I was able to buy spaghetti, onions, and tomato paste to make a simple meal. In my first weeks, my neighbors also gave me plenty of fruit too – bananas, oranges, and monkey apples, the small red prickly fruits in the photo.

Bananas, oranges (they’re green on the outside here) and monkey apples!

When I arrived at my house, it was empty, I only had 2 chairs and a mattress. So for furniture, I have been working with the local carpenter to get a bed frame, book shelf, table and wardrobe. I still have more to do to settle in but I hope to share some photos of my house soon!

In my town, we have a weekly market every Tuesday where I can buy many things that I can’t find in town on other days. So far it’s been mostly small things for my house that I’ve shopped for at the market, like curtains and dishes, along with any other foods that I might see.

Entering the market on market day

In addition to my landlord’s family, I’ve also gotten help from a few neighborhood kids to help me find things in the market and show me around town. The teachers and administrators at school have also been really helpful as I get to know the town and the school.

Exploring my community

Another priority for me was finding a charging booth! I do not have electricity here so needed to figure out how to keep my phone charged. I have a small solar charger that I’ve been using but it’s rainy season right now so sometimes it’s not quite enough because there’s not always direct sunlight. So I’m able to drop my extra battery off at a charging station, a house down the road where they have a generator and pay a small price to charge it and then I can pick it up later in the day.

In the first weeks, I also spent some time on my school’s campus as they prepared for school to begin. We’ve now been in session for a couple of weeks, more to come soon about school!