I’ve been so bad about keeping in touch that I thought I’d start a blog. Seven years now I’ve been running around the world with this very strange job, and I’ve been so busy I’ve never really kept track of where, when, how long, why, or – the important one what’s it like. I thought I’d make an attempt to write at least one thing a week.
Today I’m in Monrovia, Liberia. I got in last weekend, Friday night. After leaving the stormy snowy Washington environment, bitter winds and icy roads, it was a shock to land here. It’s hot, sticky and humid. It feels like a blanket when you don’t want one on you. I’m here to train data collectors and take them to schools in rural areas, to gather information on school life for girls. Girls drop out here much earlier than boys, and there are lots of early marriages. The US government will enter into a compact with Liberia to help them develop if Liberia can raise the girls’ enrollment and attendance rates.
The training is just about done. I had twenty data collectors in a classroom together for two days, and today the team split into three groups and went to practice what they’d learned. They’re at schools here in the capital – very different, probably, than those in the rural areas where the teams are headed. Sadly, the schools in the capital are generally much better, though often more overcrowded. “Overcrowded” means 101 preschoolers in a classroom (with an actual enrollment of 150 and counting), half the kids sitting on the floor, and no textbooks, not even to share. Most did have a pencil and notebook, though, and there were chalkboards – so not completely deprived.
Everything’s slower and more difficult at the school when I go on these first days after training. Me being white, I attract a lot of attention. They fall in around me like so many octopuses, with their hands all outstretched for a shake. They wave, giggle, shrink away when I lean toward them. One girl in the hallway had bent over to see up my skirt – I’m not kidding – to see, I think, if the white went all the way up.
Today I watched one of my trainees lead her first focus group, with kids in grades 2, 3 and 4. Not an easy first focus group – it can be hard to get kids to open up, especially little ones. She did well, as far as I could tell. She led the group in “Liberian English” which has lots of common words with American English, but the way they speak is so different. Anyway, I could tell by her animation and comfort level that she has worked with kids before. She got each one to talk at least a little. We had a boy and a girl from each grade. But the age difference! There was an 11 year old in fourth grade and a 9 year old in third grade…fine, right? Then the two second graders were 15 and 14. So many kids here missed years during the war, they’re trying to catch up. The idea would be to teach them some sort of accelerated curriculum, but it’ fairly difficult just getting the basics. I asked the 9-year-old third grader to add 7 and 3 for me. She got it, but it took a long time. Reading speed in Liberia has been “clocked” by my peers in another project at about 17 words per minute for grades 2 and 3. That means, if she read for an hour a day every day, it would take her 576 days to read War and Peace. It would take her nearly an hour to read The Cat in the Hat. That’s a bit daunting for a kid who has lived through what she has.
Aside from that I’ve had a little time for socializing and whatnot. I have a friend named Rebecca living here with her husband Morris, so we met up on Sunday for margaritas and a football (that is, soccer) game. She has a cat – loved seeing that! I hope to take Saturday off this weekend and go to the beach. If it’s going to be so hot, I at least want to stick my feet in the water.
My sister told me that the U.S. Embassy sits at the edge of the water – quite right. As in many countries, the Embassy is being replaced by a big ol’ concrete American fortress, a bit further inland. My driver, Tony, said that he saw some of the construction and that there was no wood involved at all – only iron and concrete. He told me, “That iron was as big around as my thigh!” He also said the reason it was being built inland was because the current embassy is actually out on a point, Mamba Point, from which the Chinese Embassy can see in from their strategic point further down the coast. I never know if this stuff is rumor or truth, but it’s fun to spread it around either way.
Tony the Driver is Ghanaian but has lived here two years. He likes Ellen Johnson, the president here – the first woman president in Africa. I asked him what “people” thought of her, and whether she’d get reelected, and he said she’s much beloved, stays at the office till 9 or 10 at night every night, does what she promises. But then he looked at me a bit sideways and I guess he understood that I wanted more story, so he said, “You like politics?” and I said I did, so he turned on the radio and we listened to some sort of talk show (shouting match) for awhile. The President is not, as it were, universally beloved.
I am really exhausted tonight. I almost never get jet lag – but this time, I have it in spades, even five days later. My head has been pounding today because I didn’t sleep enough last night. I’ve been laying awake at night thinking of the things I need to do the next day. Anyway, I’m glad today is almost over and I can get dinner, watch a little TV (one of the four channels must have something on, right?) and get some real sleep.
By Keri Culver