Malaria is one of the biggest health challenges here in Liberia. It’s the leading cause of death in Liberia and young children and pregnant women are at an even higher risk than the rest of the population. (Some statistics are in this post that I shared last year.) But malaria is preventable! So we’re working to spread the word about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets and getting testing and treatment when you’re sick.
Back in March, volunteers from Peace Corps Liberia’s malaria committee put on a workshop about how to spread awareness about the disease. We were encouraged to invite both an education and a health counterpart from our communities, so I attended along with the junior high science teacher from my school, Chris, and my good friend from my neighborhood, Patience, who is studying at university to be a nurse.
We spent the first two days of the training learning about malaria: We talked about how you can get malaria – from a parasite transmitted to humans when bitten by a female mosquito carrying the parasite. We learned about how to prevent malaria (sleep under a mosquito net!) and what to do if you think you have it (get tested at the local clinic). We learned about the increased risks for pregnant women (or in Liberian English “big belly women”). Then we discussed techniques to raise awareness in our own communities and were given tools to teach about malaria.
On the last day, we got the chance to practice teaching at a nearby school! We had a few hours to prepare the evening before and then taught four different lessons to a 7th grade class. Using interactive posters, we taught about the biological transmission of malaria, the importance of testing and treating, “Big Belly Ma” malaria and the economic impact of getting malaria. It was great working with Chris and Patience! They jumped right in and were more than willing to put in the practice time to make sure we were prepared.
Their enthusiasm didn’t stop when the workshop finished either! Since going back to our community, Patience has been having conversations with people all around the neighborhood, emphasizing the importance of sleeping under a bed net. Plus Chris and I have already held a few sessions with the junior high health club at our school. We’re hoping to also do some lessons with another school in our community as well before the end of the school year.
In partnering with Patience and Chris, I’ve seen the importance of finding passionate counterparts. On top of their enthusiasm, as local members of the community, they have a bigger network of people to reach out to and know how to communicate information in a way that is most effective in Liberia. Plus people are often less likely to listen when the message comes from me as an outsider, so they bring credibility to our work. I feel so lucky to be able to work with them!
Here in my community in Liberia, the houses can be close together in a way that to my American eye seemed disorderly at first — not all the houses are on an actual road and they can be built just feet away from another house. Unlike in neighborhoods in the US, you can’t distinguish which yard is for which house; rather it’s more fluid communal yard that people from all the houses use.
And it’s in the yard where a lot of daily life happens: people wash their clothes, cook their meals, draw water from the well and bathe in bathrooms shared by those living around the yard. And the children are generally free to roam wherever they want within the yard. And because these young neighbors often find their way to the Peace Corps volunteers’ porches in their yards, we affectionately refer to them our porch kids!
I’ve written a little about my porch kids before but they’ve become such a big part of my daily life here in Liberia that I want to share more about them! Within the last few months, I’ve started having a regular “study class” with my porch kids at 4:00 every afternoon.
The daily class started by accident one day when one of the girls, 7-year-old Grandma, came to the house when I was in the middle of something so I told her she could come back at 4:00.
Yes, you read that correctly, a 7-year-old named Grandma! Here in Liberia, a person can have what is called their yard name, the name everyone calls them around the yard, as well as their school name, which is their official name. For children who aren’t in school or have only just started, they usually go by their yard name, especially at home. Some of them sound to me like they could also be a school name, while others will definitely go by a different name at school! Even teenagers and adults go by their yard names at home– I was very confused to realize that my friend Patience is still called by her yard name Darling Girl at home, and she refers to her teenage sister Marthaline by her yard name Nujo sometimes.
Anyways, that day I told Grandma that she could come back at 4:00, not really thinking about how time is not viewed the same here (it’s more of a loose guideline in Liberian culture compared to the exact measurement in the US). She had no way to know when it was 4:00, or “after 4” as they say here. So the only way to know was to ask me and ask me and ask me until it was finally time.
Somehow the 4:00 time stuck and now every day I have half a dozen kids asking me all afternoon, “Miss S, it after how many now?” or “Miss S, it 4?” or even now just using hand signals, holding up their fingers so I can respond by showing the hour on my own.
The first day I was at home in the morning (I’m usually at school in the mornings), I thoroughly confused Grandma and six-year-old Felecia, when I told them it wasn’t after 4 yet, it was only 10. Being in ABC class (pre-kindergarten), they know how to count but had never learned about time…. 4 comes before 10 so how could it be 10 if it’s not after 4?? I totally blew their minds when I first explained that time goes 10-11-12 then 1-2-3-4!
When it’s finally “after 4”, we have what the kids like to call “study class.” First I’ll read a book or two with them and then we write. I have 4 girls who come regularly: Grandma and Felecia who will practice writing their ABCs or spelling, and T-girl (another yard name) and Pauline who are around a kindergarten to first grade level so we usually do spelling or math with addition or subtraction flashcards. Sometimes their siblings (like T-girl’s twin brother whose yard name is T-boy…can you guess what the “T” stands for?) or other kids come too and I try to fit them into one of these two groups–it can be tough sometimes to cater to the different ability levels!
Some days we’ll do another activity for after we read, like a literacy game or a puzzle. Last week, we colored Easter coloring pages!
One day after our study session, the kids surprised me with some fresh corn from their family’s garden and taught me how to roast it on the coal pot.
Spending time with my porch kids and seeing them learn and grow has become one of my favorite parts of the day here!
What does a typical day look like for a Peace Corps education volunteer in Liberia? While every volunteer’s experience is different, here’s what a normal weekday looks like for me…
My alarm goes off at 6:30, though I’m often awake sooner, hearing the roosters crowing and my neighbors at the well right outside my window, beginning their day as soon as the sun comes up.
I get up and get ready for school and around 7:00, I head outside to say hello to my neighbors and find some breakfast – either rice bread (which is made of rice and bananas so it tastes similar to banana bread) or shortbread. The two breads are sold by different women at nearby houses, so it varies which I get by day, depending less on my preference that day and more on which of the two baked their bread that morning!
I sit on my front porch, reading or finishing lessons for the day, while I eat and say hi to students and other neighbors passing by. Then by 7:45 I head to school.
The school is about a 15-minute walk away, and that’s accounting for stopping to say hello to everyone on the way! By this time, everyone is already outside and its expected that you greet everyone you pass by.
I get to school by 8:00 and the students are usually doing devotion, where they line up by class in the courtyard to sing the national anthem, recite the pledge of allegiance and listen to any new announcements.
I’m scheduled to teach math to 11th and 12th grade during 1st and 2nd period, so after checking in at the office, I start teaching as soon as devotion finishes. For more about teaching, see this post and this post.
The periods are 55 minutes each so I finish second period at 9:50 and according to the schedule I’m finished for the day. But usually I stick around for a while after that. Sometimes if one of my classes doesn’t have a teacher during a later period, I may do some extra math practice, bring LRLs (reading comprehension practice), or for the 12th grade, bring an extra topic that could come on the WASSCE, the national graduation exam.
I also go to “sit small” at some of the houses around the school. One is a shop owned by the mother of one of my 11th graders, where I can buy some of my essentials like eggs and bread, and also sit with her as she cooks or prepares “snaps” of homemade peanut butter or mayonnaise – snaps are single servings tied into the corner of a plastic bag. There’s also Ma Vivian who sells cold bag water and has an adorable one-year-old daughter who waves when she sees me coming. And the place where I spend the most time is the tea shop run by Ma Mamie and her two sons, where I buy shortbread for my mid-morning snack.
I stay nearby at least through the recess hour at 10:45 so that I can be available if students have questions that they want to ask. Once a week I stay until school ends at 2:30 (though depending on attendance, it often wraps up sooner), for a girls club meeting (hoping to share more on that in another post soon!). But otherwise, I usually leave after recess around 11:45.
On the walk home, I keep an eye out for food being sold on the way – whether for a meal like plantains or potatoes, or just a snack like fresh fruit of the season (right now bananas and cucumbers), corn bread (yes, more bread!) or plantain chips. Tuesday is market day so I always make a trip to the market where there’s much more selection than the rest of the week! Depending on what I find on the way home or at the market decides what I’ll eat that day!
Once I get home I usually spend the afternoon on my back porch. Most days I have some school work to do, like lesson planning and grading. Some days I have students come over for extra practice or tutoring or to make up a quiz or assignment.
Afternoons are also when my porch kids visit! Many of the neighborhood kids like to come by, sometimes just a quick stop to say hello and tell me what they learned at school that day, and other times to sit on the porch with me. I have several children’s books (thanks Mom!) so I’ll often spend some time reading to the younger kids or helping some of the older kids to practice reading the books themselves. Most of the children in my town don’t have a lot of exposure to reading – some of their parents can’t read and books are a luxury. So I try to give them an opportunity to practice reading and enjoy hearing a new story.
At some point in the afternoon, I have to eat! The main meal here is rice with soup (more like a thick sauce over the rice, than what we think of as soup in the US), often heavy with peppeh. However, most days I cook for myself but as I haven’t mastered any of the local dishes, it’s usually “American” foods, like eggs, spaghetti or potatoes, any of them with “sausage” (aka hotdogs) as that’s one easy source of protein here (they sell chicken in the market daily but I’m hesitant to buy it because by the time I get home from school, it’s been sitting out for several hours). About once a week, a friend will send over some soup and rice for me or I’ll eat at a cookshop to get some Liberian food.
In the evening, I often sit small on the porch with my friend Patience. She’s close to my age and her family lives a few houses down (though she’s started at the university in Kakata so spends half her time there). If the porch kids are still around, she’ll help me tutor them, or we’ll just sit and talk into the evening.
The sun goes down at 7:00pm and I don’t have current (electricity) so I try to do all the things I need daylight for by then. That includes washing my dishes and taking a bucket bath – much easier to do in the day light than by my small solar lights!
Once the sun goes down, I usually spend some time reading (so thankful for my kindle and its good battery life!) before getting ready for bed.
And that wraps up a typical day for me as a PCV here in Liberia!
In Liberia, outside of the capital city, Monrovia, most people do not have running water – including the Peace Corps volunteers! Here’s how I live without running water in my community….
Most communities usually have either a pump or a well, or both. At my site, I have a well right outside my house that all the surrounding houses use. Peace Corps gave me a big blue barrel to hold water and one full barrel lasts a couple of weeks. My neighbors are quick to help me fill it — if they see me drawing water from the well myself, they rush to come to my aide and don’t usually let me do it myself! Often the kids will work together, with one pulling up the water from the well and one or two more hauling the buckets inside to put in the barrel. I definitely appreciate the help–it takes a lot of effort to draw water and I’d be worn out after just a few buckets!
Kathryn trying out the pump on her visit
The well outside of my house
Well water is typically not as clean as pump water, but the pump in my community is about a quarter of a mile away. Many of my neighbors use well water for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, and cooking but will make a trip to the pump each day for their drinking water.
For me, the well water is fine for drinking because I have to filter my water before drinking it either way, using a water filter that Peace Corps gave when I moved in. As an American, my body is not used to the bacteria in the water here so accidentally drinking it could make me sick. After filtering the water which gets rid of the bacteria in it, another precaution that you can take is to put a couple drops of bleach in it and waiting 20 minutes for it to dissolve, which will kill any viruses as well (while this is recommended, you may be fine without this step!).
One alternative to filtering water is to drink “bag water.” Here in Liberia, they sell sealed bags of safe drinking water. Usually you can find cold bag water, half a liter for only 5 Liberian dollars (LD), less than a nickel! For me, I usually drink filtered water at home but when I’m out and about or when it’s really hot, I’ll buy some nice cold bag water.
When it comes to cooking, as long as I boil the well water first it’s fine to cook with. But I always use filtered water when I’m not boiling it or if I’m cleaning fruits or vegetables from the market.
Besides drinking water, obviously you need water in the bathroom. In my house, I have a bathroom with a toilet and a bath area, but no running water. So I have to “bucket flush” or pour water down into the toilet to flush it. It takes some practice to make sure it flushes–it takes a certain twist of your wrist when you pour the water at just the right speed!
No running water also means no shower, so I take bucket baths. I use a bucket of water along with a cup to pour the water on myself to bathe. There’s a bathtub sized area in the bathroom that has a drain where I bathe so the water doesn’t splash everywhere. It doesn’t take too many bucket baths to figure out just how much water you need to take a bath. It’s crazy how little water I use compared to taking a shower!
While I have a bathroom in my house, most of the people in my town don’t have indoor bathrooms. They have outhouses and bathing areas set up in their yards, that are often shared by several households.
Another important thing we need water for is doing laundry! To wash clothes, we have a large wash bucket, a wash board and several other buckets of water. Washing clothes by hand on a washboard is no small thing – it’s hard work! Lucky for me, I have my friend, Patience, at my site who helps me wash every week. We have to scrub all of the clothes with soap in the big wash tub and on the washboard. Then once we’ve scrubbed them, we wring out the water and soap as good as we can and then put them in another bucket of water to rinse them. Finally, we’ll wring them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry. All of this takes time and technique so I’m glad to have Patience to help me–and to always coach me when I’m doing something wrong! While it takes a few hours each week to wash, it’s become a time I look forward to–while we wash, it’s also a time for Patience and I to hang out and catch up on each other’s weeks.
With everything that I need water for, I use a bucket or two of water a day and all of that has to be carried into my house! Anytime there’s a heavy rain storm, I put my buckets out to catch rain water falling from the roof. During rainy season (April to November), I can manage to save many trips to the well this way!
December was a busy month so I wanted to share an update about where I spent the holidays!
The last week of school before Christmas vacation was a pretty slow week. Attendance was low as many students (and teachers as well unfortunately) decided to begin their breaks early. But the students who were there kept asking me, “Miss S, where my Christmas?” Here in Liberia that’s a way of asking “where’s my Christmas present” or “what’d you get me for Christmas?” As the holidays got closer I heard more and more people around town jokingly asking each other that. So when my students asked me, I’d point to the blackboard and tell them I brought their Christmas notes!
School closed for the Christmas break the Friday before Christmas and I spent the weekend in my community. As I wouldn’t be there on Christmas day, my friend made me my Christmas meal a few days early: Liberian barbecue and a cabbage salad. The barbecue was delicious: chicken and cow meat in a sauce made of country peanut butter and, of course, Liberian peppeh (peppers). And the salad was a treat as finding any fresh vegetables (besides cucumbers when they’re in season) is not easy in my town!
On Christmas Eve, I headed into Monrovia to spend a few days with some fellow PC volunteers. I was bummed to miss Christmas at site, when all the children would be running around in their fine new Christmas clothes playing with balloons and noise makers–though I’d already heard plenty of noise makers in the weeks leading up to the holidays!
What’s usually a quick trip into the capital was a bit crazier than usual: from my community into town, I first take a car to an area called red light and get a different car from there into town. Red Light is a big parking hub where you can get taxis to many different parts of the country. It’s also a huge market and being the day before Christmas it was packed–like the equivalent of going to the mall on Christmas Eve! On top of that craziness, I was in a car with not only 7 human passengers, but 7 goats in the trunk along with my suitcase!
After the trip into Monrovia, I was able to spend a couple relaxing days there with Peace Corps friends. We went out to dinner on Christmas Eve at one of the fancy hotels in town, where we took bluffing photos in front of the Christmas tree! And we spent Christmas day hanging out by the pool.
Then the day after Christmas, I headed to the airport to catch my flight… I met my mom in Rome for a week! It was a great trip: we visited the Colosseum and Roman Forum, took a tour of the Vatican and saw the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.
We took a couple of day trips to see the ruins at Pompeii and Ostia Antica.
One of my favorite things we did was taking a cooking class where we learned to make homemade pasta–it was delicious! Plus, of course, we ate plenty of pizza and more pasta, drank some wine and got gelato even though it was wintertime!
After a great trip, I’m back in Liberia and have been getting back into the routine of things at school, as we’re getting close to the end of the first semester!
Teaching is hard work! I recently posted about starting my 2nd year of teaching here in Liberia and some of my challenges. From classroom management issues to figuring out what’s most important to teach, there are days that are really frustrating. But I recently had a conversation with some of my 12th grade students that reminded me why I’m teaching and really motivated me to keep at it despite the challenges, so I thought I’d share.
In preparing my 12th grade students to take the WASSCE, the graduation exam here in Liberia, I’ve been teaching many topics that are fundamental in math because I want to make sure they have a good understanding of those before starting a new topic that builds on these fundamentals. For instance, this year, I started with basic algrebra of solving for a variable and then moved to the coordinate plane (both topics that come in the curriculum in earlier years of school).
At first I was concerned that students may be offended that I’m teaching them topics that they’ve already learned. But I’ve found that those who’ve seen the topics before welcome the review and many students have not seen them before (or don’t remember learning them). After teaching my first lesson on the coordinate plane, I asked a few 12th grade students if the new math notes seemed familiar to them. Instead of just finding out if they’d learned them before, I got some answers that surprised me:
One student said, “Miss S, I like the way you teach us math. Even though we saw that same math in junior high, I really didn’t have idea on it. After today’s class, I have a better idea on it now. The way you teach us step-by-step helps me to understand it. Even the math you taught us last year, if I see it on the WASSCE, I still have idea on it and could do it today.” (The phrase “have idea on it” is a Liberian English way to say that you understand something).
Another student added “Like the math you taught us last period, they’re doing that in 9th grade at the other school. Some students showed it to me yesterday and I’m glad you taught us it because it would be embarrassing if I’m in 12th grade and can’t do the 9th grade math. I could solve all of their math problems, but couldn’t have done it before. You taught it so that I could really understand it.”
That conversation with those two students really reminded me why I’m here. Even with all the obstacles in teaching in Liberia, the students are the reason for teaching! While the big looming challenge is preparing my students for the WASSCE, even just the little things like finally understanding how to graph a point in the coordinate plane or being able to help your younger brother with his junior high math are important too. And it’s in these little things that I’m finding the most motivation!
With one year of teaching under my belt, I’ve started my second school year here in Liberia! We’ve finished the first of 6 marking periods and about this time last year I wrote my first post about my experience so far teaching in Liberia. So it feels like a good time to write an update, reflecting on what I’ve learned in my first year and sharing what’s new this year.
I started this school year feeling so much more prepared than last year. One thing I struggled with at the beginning last year was where to start! I was meeting all new students, many coming from different schools (as my school is the only government high school in the area) with a wide range of ability levels. But this year, I was able to follow my students: last year I taught 10th and 11th grade and this year I’m teaching the same students in 11th and 12th. So rather than spend too much time figuring out where to start, I at least know what they learned in math last year and could pick right up where we left off!
I’m also feeling more confident in my lesson planning, as I have a better idea of how much we can cover in one lesson and can better predict what questions my students might have (but not always!). Plus, with the exception of a few who are new to the school, my students are used to me–the way I talk, my teaching style and the procedures I follow during class. I’m already seeing it when I compare this year’s 11th graders (who I taught last year) to last year’s 11th grade class. With teaching the same material as the year before, I was able to get a little bit ahead and fit in an extra topic in the first marking period that last year I didn’t get to until the next. I don’t think it’s because one class is stronger than the other but because we, the students and myself, can better understand each other after a year.
With a new school year also came some new challenges for me. One is that I’ve got bigger class sizes this year. Last year, my biggest class was the 11th grade with 60 students. This year they’ve grown to about 65 in the 12th grade this year, not too big of a difference. The big change is in this year’s 11th grade. Last year, the 100 10th graders were split into two sections of about 50 each. This year, they’ve become about 85 but they’re all in one section because the school doesn’t have enough classrooms to split them into two (the school actually already converted the library–the only available space–into another classroom to split one of the junior high classes that was even bigger). So my classes of 50 and 60 students are now 65 and 85, and let me tell you, those 25 extra students make a big difference! So I’m working on figuring out what still works with larger classes and where to make adjustments in how I manage the classroom.
Teaching 11th grade for the second time makes my planning for school a little easier–with just some small adjustments, I can use the same lesson plans and follow the same sequence of topics as last year and don’t have to start from scratch. But teaching 12th grade is a different story! The 12th graders will take the WASSCE graduation exam in April. The WASSCE is an exam taken across West Africa and the students must pass it to graduate. The list of math topics that can show up on the exam is extensive and I know that we won’t be able to cover everything during class.
My principal and vice principal have given me free rein with the 12th grade to decide what to teach from the list, rather than having to follow a specific curriculum. It’s a pretty daunting task, but I’ve decided to focus on areas that seem to come on the test each year (I’ve got a couple previous exams I’m using as a resource) and make sure to cover the fundamentals. I started the year with a basic algebra review, making sure they’re able to solve for a variable, as so many areas of math rely on this skill. I’m also trying to do extra review sessions outside of school to review topics they may not have seen since junior high (like fractions).
The new school year has brought new challenges but with my experience teaching last year, I feel prepared to tackle them. And I’m excited to work with the same students again and to continue to watch them grow!