Friday, April 13, 2018

Life in Liberia

By the end of the second week of teacher training, I was used to living in Liberia. I was happy hauling all my water from a well, bucket showers seemed normal and loved the food from the moment I got there. What I found more difficult to cope with was being permanently covered in orange road dust, seeing copious plastic pollution absolutely everywhere (apart from a pretty town called VOA – more on that later…), and the constant night time noises that seemed to amplify in the concrete yard before shooting through my glass-free window and pounding into my earholes.

Street in Kakata
A road just outside Kakata, near the compound.
Some noises were a joy; the Mosque’s calls to prayer and the various rounds of frogs and toads calling in unison in the vegetable gardens – some hooted, some croaked, some sang. It was quite comedic at times, as they would start off and build to a crescendo before falling silent after about 10 minutes of putting all they had into making their own special noise.

Less enjoyable sounds included church clapping (the same rhythm several times a night), repetitive drumming, wailing, chanting etc at any time of night; security guards talking outside my window from 5:30am; lorries hooting from 6am.

After a while I started to find the insanely loud bar music - consisting of the same five Nigerian hits with autotune – comforting. It went on until about 11pm every single night; 2 or 3am on national holidays, of which there are many in Liberia.

Meals were best bought from the expert street vendors and brought home to serve with home-prepared salad items. My favourite street food dishes (and the only proper cooked ones available) are sweet potato/yam leaf stew, cassava leaf stew and peanut stew. All of them come with rice, are spicy and contain both chicken and fish. I also enjoyed spicy beans with ground cassava (the same as Brazilian farofa but moist and with flavour enhancers; called garri in Sierra Leone) and sometimes the odd bit of fried plantain or chicken. And the fufu (fermented cassava root pounded to a dough) was absolutely delicious, served with a very spicy, smoky, tasty soup containing smoked fish and smoked meat (unidentified), and a chilli-peanut sauce. These were all great with cucumber-based salads dressed in fresh lime juice and salt. 

I did not enjoy the weird processed ‘sausages’ available everywhere, that were tasteless frankfurter-style packets of lips, fat, colouring and arse. Also, the plain spaghetti coated in neutral oil was boring beyond belief.

Out in ‘The Field’

In terms of work, a colleague and I were tasked with designing and implementing a research project into the effectiveness of the organisation’s small business and savings scheme. The aim of the programme is to enable parents and guardians to save the money for school fees and send more children to school. Girls at risk of dropping out due to early marriage are also identified and hopefully prevented from leaving school.

The work was intense and took us to see more than 50 families between the two of us, in under two weeks. We were always accompanied by the charity’s local experts who support our survey participants and know them well. We followed a heavy schedule of survey interviews, separated by very squashed and sticky public taxi drives, long walks in midday sun and dusty motorbike rides, sometimes seemingly straight through people's back yards. By the end of each sweaty, dust-coated day we were exhausted, but it was just such rewarding and interesting work.

After a long survey interview in hot sun, this cool canoe
crossing was very welcome.

The families were scattered over a large area, and we went to a diversity of settlements, even though all were very deprived. My favourite was VOA, named after the defunct radio station that planted an enormous mast there. The town – one of the worst-effected by Ebola in Liberia – has wide, clean sandy streets and spaced-out houses made of mudbrick, corrugated iron and woven wattle. The residents keep their town litter-free, and it was particularly picturesque due to all the natural building materials – not many water-stained concrete blocks here. The local expert and I sat under a huge mango tree and hung out with a load of little kids while we waited for a survey participant. A man was fixing his fishing nets. It is a calm, tranquil place.

Football and fixing fishing nets, VOA
On International Women’s Day, we went to see a mother of 13 who lives in Love Island, an area made up of lots of tiny ‘islands’, or mounds of land just big enough to fit a dwelling or two, surrounded by filthy water and connected by very rickety walkways. During rainy season, inhabitants have to constantly bail water out of their flooded homes. It is called Love Island because you really have to love someone to visit them there. When we arrived, we found a grief-stricken family – the woman we had come to see had died. Her husband had abandoned her and all the children when he acquired a new wife, and our local expert had seen her health deteriorate under the strain of feeding her large family.

The real Love Island, and the start of the footbridges that
stretch long distances between all the dwellings. They are
very wobbly in places and I was lucky not to fall in.
We passed kids zooming over them on their way home
from school.
We also found success stories of women who had lost their husbands, often to Ebola, and others whose male partners had simply disappeared, but the women had managed to not only create a successful business and send their children to school but also adopt additional children who were all in school as well. With lots of orphans in Liberia and parents who are unable to provide for their kids, adoption or fostering is extremely common.

Ma Mary with the yellow dreads is doing so well,
she's mentoring other business owners.
Our research uncovered areas of strength of the scheme (the local experts) and plenty of areas that needed improvement. I’m still finishing off the final report, but we have already managed to get some of our recommendations signed off. Due to this research project and some other work I did in Liberia, I was able to leave the country feeling that my time there had been worthwhile: I felt I had made a positive difference the charity’s operations and to a tiny degree to people's lives. As that was the whole point of my career change, I felt I was finally on the right path.

Weekends Off

At weekends, we had the chance to go to Monrovia’s incredible indoor market, the eerie abandoned Ducor Palace Hotel, Libassa Ecolodge, Kendeja beach resort and another trip to Tropicana...

Monrovia’s covered market is a vast network of alleys, with distinct areas for different types of product. In the new clothing area (as opposed to the second-hand clothing area), the walkways are lined with displays of clothes and beautiful bright lappa material. The alleys open out into little areas where people sit working away on old whirring Singer sewing machines, and there’s a lovely light falling on everything through gaps in the roof.

Built in 1960, Hotel Ducor was once the epitome of splendid luxury. It was the only international class hotel in Liberia and for ages was one of the only five-star hotels in Africa. On top of a hill, it has panoramic views of the sea and West Point slum (one of the areas I visited for the survey work). It was closed then damaged and looted during the war. Squatters were chucked out in 2007 and then the Gadaffi regime made moves to buy and redevelop the hotel in 2010. For obvious reasons, the redevelopment never happened, and now it is guarded by a couple of men who prevent new squatters and ask visitors for a fee to enter and a further fee to be allowed upstairs. As volunteers, we managed to negotiate free basic entry.

It was spooky, imagining the luxury and the people in the pool and at the bar. We even role-played and imagined the seafood display on the plinth behind the bar.

Credit: Liberia 77

View from the Ducor over West Point slum,
where I visited families for work.
Credit: could not find a link - please contact me.
Credit: Around the World in 80 Clicks

Credit: Liberia 77
Credit: Jefferson Mok

For Libassa Ecolodge, I’m going to risk duplicate content (apparently not such an issue these days..?) and paste in my 'spoilt Westerner' TripAdvisor review:
Absolutely beautiful surroundings but the food situation is not good. Came here for the day, and it's worth a bit of a road trip to get there. It's $10 (US) to get in, but the surroundings are like a tropical oasis. Lovely bird sounds, paths through trees, a beautiful, tranquil lagoon (until the afternoon...), stunning beach, clean pools surrounded by trees and a lazy river to coast around - I swam round it really fast in the current, which was fun :-) 
I didn't want to pay what I thought was an obligatory extra $5 for the adjoining animal sanctuary, but it's a separate charity and you just pay what you can. The guy running it is a volunteer. When I heard about my friends' experience there I wish I had joined them.

The lagoon during the afternoon was not the restful experience I was looking forward to; lots of people started shouting and playing loud music, but different types of music at the same time. It was just a total racket. Not sure why people would want to spend time somewhere so peaceful then ruin it with conflicting music playing tinnily on phones, then shout over the top of all the music..?
One of the pools
Walking onto the beach

The biggest problem with this place was the food. What a let down! I thought from the website, the fact that it is an 'Ecolodge', mentions of vegetarian dishes and the French/Lebanese ownership that the food would be good. But it's the same menu as all the other Lebanese-owned eateries in Liberia, so quite boring and meat-based. I ordered fries and some humous as an special treat. The fries were the worst I've had in Liberia (frozen from a bag as usual, but not even crisped or cooked through), and the humous was literally the worst I have ever tasted. I was hungry and kept trying to like it, but the only flavour was sourness. It didn't seem to contain any seasoning. It tasted like chickpeas puréed with pasteurised lemon juice from a bottle. And I think that's probably exactly what it was. How can you possibly make chickpeas taste so horrible? The olive oil did not taste of anything either. Guys, it's not hard to make outstanding humous! Purée chickpeas with a little freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly crushed garlic, lots of salt and decent olive oil. Can't you import high quality extra virgin olive oil from Lebanon? Or Provence?

Kendeja beach was quite weird. You arrive through a swanky air conditioned reception that seems to promise well-appointed comfort, but then you walk past the sparkling circular bar and out the other side of the building into what looks like a run-down 1980’s British holiday park. It’s grim and featureless, with brown grass and few trees. The beach was nice enough, but without greenery or colour, it felt very drab compared to Tropicana, which is a just few hundred metres down the coast. Oops I didn't take any photos - it slipped my mind due to lack of inspiration. $15 sounded a just about bearable amount to get in, as we thought this gave us $15 worth of food and drinks. It’s a swizz! You’re only allowed $10 of food and drink, and as their menu is bonkersly overpriced and very limited on low-cost items, that $10 will get you one plate of chips (frozen, not handcut) and one small beer. It is far better value and far more pleasant altogether to go to Tropicana.

Fabrar Rice

Given the low internet use in Liberia, I was stunned to have my Instagram photos liked and my profile followed by an organic Liberian rice company based in Kakata. Their social media efforts worked a treat, and I went to visit them. It felt like my old food writing days.

An Instagram post from Fabrar

The operations manager, Whykies Mentee, gave me a guided tour. We saw the hulling machinery, rice laid out in the sun to dry, the steel drum cookers sitting over charcoal for parboiling, and the depot full of sacks of rice arriving and being stored. Parboiling is a totally different process than I had envisaged. Rice is not boiled but cooked very gently in water for 12 whole hours. The nutrients are sucked back into the grains and fixed there, and the rice will take less time to cook at home. If you buy rice that has not been parboiled, many of the nutrients will leach out when you boil it. 

Whykies shows me the unhulled rice

Rice dries in the yard, with parboiling going on behind.
In the depot - posing and relaxing
Fabrar Rice is a social enterprise that processes and markets rice. The organisation is trying to give Liberian rice value, because at the moment most of the country’s supply is imported. As Liberians eat rice twice a day, that is a lot being imported that could be grown locally. Fabrar buys from nearby farmers, and actively seeks out and promotes local and slow-growing strains that have a higher nutritional value than regular imported rice, and that would otherwise be at risk of extinction. They supply NGO, Mary’s Meals. Not only that, they are aiming to export this ‘country rice’. The Founder and Senior Partner is Jeanine Cooper, and she apparently runs Fabrar's fabulous social media.

I bought some parboiled red rice, and it had a really good flavour and satisfying bite – an enjoyable change after all the soft, sticky white rice.

My lovely lunch, with Fabrar's parboiled red rice

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Arrival in Liberia and Teacher Training

About my trip:
  • 3 months in West Africa; 6 weeks in Liberia followed by 6 weeks in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
  • Working with a UK charity that concentrates on education projects and humanitarian aid whenever the need arises in the countries it operates in, e.g. during Ebola and after the 2017 Freetown mudslide.
  • My role is mainly researcher to support projects with monitoring and evaluation.
  • Why here? Because the region is my gateway into international development work, having specialised in gender, tradition and participatory action research in Sierra Leone for my recent MA. Sierra Leone was my focus as a previous trip there and my conflicting feelings on development in the country led to me wanting to have a positive impact through finding ways of doing development differently.


Having never been to Liberia before, I was hoping it would be quite like Sierra Leone, although I knew from my studies that there are some significant differences, and was under the impression it is heavily influenced by the US. 

Firstly, I was surprised at how small and dilapidated Monrovia’s international airport is. After a disproportionately long wait, due to ridiculous inefficiency at passport control, I finally emerged into the night, to find that a group of colleagues were there to collect me, which was lovely. The drive was very bumpy but no worse than expected. I was delighted to note that the air smells the same as Sierra Leone; charcoal and soap. So evocative of my previous memorable trip. It was great to see palm trees again and feel the warmth, having left the UK wallowing in its miserable early February weather.

Arriving at the compound, I was uneasy about staying behind high walls topped with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards, because I didn’t want to be treated differently to ‘poor’ people – it’s only foreigners and rich Liberians who have to protect themselves from poverty trying to grasp at their wealth. But then I was told about an incident a couple of weeks previously, in which a group of men got in, threatened the inhabitants with machetes and robbed them of their laptops. The security firm had been replaced and security stepped up. It’s a difficult quandary: to protect yourself and your expensive equipment so you can do your job and address global inequality, it’s necessary to perpetuate inequality and keep less fortunate individuals - who have little to loose - out.

Cityview compound on the left; view over the vegetable gardens.

Next morning, a colleague walked with me into Kakata (AKA Kak City) to buy a SIM card, change money etc. Leaving Cityview compound, we first go past lush low-lying vegetable gardens, where cassava and potato greens grow, with palm and guava trees dotted around. The constant stream of cars, lorries and motorbikes all hoot, most of the time, to indicate that they are there or about to overtake or are actually overtaking. So it’s pretty noisy. Walking past little petrol stations and shops in shacks we gradually got further into the intense hustle and bustle of the little town. I was excited to see the new covered market, later finding that in another part of town there was a network of streets and alleyways that make up a warren of market stalls, as well as there being an older and much bigger covered market. It’s like a souk but with bamboo and stick stalls, and mud underfoot. After Western Europe, the intense activity in Kakata feels chaotic and so refreshingly full of life.

A couple of days after arriving, I went with colleagues for a Sunday beach day, at Tropicana Beach. To get there, we had to take two taxis, changing at Red Light. Red Light is mental. I was to find out a couple of weeks later, when visiting participants during research work, that away from the main crossroads it has some really nice, calm market streets. But the overall impression when passing through is frenzied and bonkers, with thousands of people, piles of rubbish, black oily mud, hundreds of beaten up cars and taxis, stalls all over the place and people teeming around the vehicles, selling wares and carrying them on their heads. A fight broke out among guys arguing over who had delivered us to a taxi and deserved a payment, even though we had got there ourselves.

Tropicana is an oasis of calm and privilege. I felt very uncomfortable being one of the white people – the first I had seen in Liberia other than colleagues – relaxing at the beach, paying USD for beers served by local women. As in Sierra Leone, many of the wealthiest businesses catering to rich Liberians and Westerners are Lebanese-owned, Tropicana being one of these.

I had my first beer in Liberia, and damn it tasted good! While much of West Africa seems to drink Star Beer, it’s not available in Liberia. Here, it’s Club Beer, and quite strong for larger, at 5% ABV. Apparently it’s more consistent than Star, and comes in thicker bottles that prevent nearby odours (fish; sewage) contaminating the flavour.


After a weekend of getting used to my surroundings, I went on a few days’ trip to Sinje in Cape Mount County, to support a teacher training course. I went via the charity’s offices and apartment in Monrovia. It was the first time I’d been into the capital city, and I was surprised at the state of it. Most of the metropolis is single storey shacks. The poshest and largest buildings are lighting shops (!), government buildings, a couple of hotels and churches. The churches are huge and new, with many under construction. This conspicuous display of hypocrisy increasingly infuriated me during my stay in Liberia, the more I got to know about everyday life.

The lovely route to Sinje is down a straight but heavily potholed road, for about two hours the other side of Monrovia to Kakata. You pass beautiful verdant, tropical greenery, with oil palms, wild bush, cassava plantations and villages made from bamboo, mud bricks, palm fronds, woven palm and corrugated iron.

I thought Sinje was a village, because it is all one storey and has no electricity or running water, but local people corrected me – this is one of the main towns in Liberia. The pretty houses are built from mud bricks and beautifully woven wattle screens, with roofs mainly being constructed in corrugated iron but some have palm thatches. The houses are dotted about with lots of space around them and wide, sandy streets.

In the evening, the place turns into a party town. Generators power sound systems for little nightclubs and bars. Sitting in a bar to drink a Club, I noticed a big road sign next to where I was sitting, pointing to the Ebola treatment centre. There’s also an old UN-built refugee settlement here, where Sierra Leoneans were housed during the war and have stayed on ever since. People have been through a lot here in recent years.

Sinje - the view from our accommodation.

Teacher Training

Our lift was one and a half hours late collecting us, so my colleague and I arrived very late at the three-day teacher training in Sinje – not a good look. Everyone was waiting; around 60 teachers and five trainers. The school was a lovely, restful campus, with a constant breeze flowing through the classrooms. 

Despite our tardiness, we were still given a fantastic breakfast of spicy fish stew and rice, before the training began. Children begged for our leftovers. From then on, I stopped eating much of my meals in Sinje – we were given a lot of food, including piles of rice every lunch, which I didn’t want anyway as it sends me to sleep in the afternoon. One headteacher told me he didn't enjoy the free food, because he knew his kids were going hungry at home.

Potato greens for lunch at the training workshop

At breakfast, I met all the teacher trainers, who are permanent local staff and were running the workshop. My role was to assist them with anything they needed support with, help organise cash for the teachers’ expenses, act as an unofficial observer and then provide recommendations for improving the training.

Everything started out great, with singing to focus everyone’s minds. However, I became increasingly shocked by the behaviour, lack of knowledge and inability of the teachers. I had been warned we were starting from a low standard. But these guys – 90% men, because most girls didn’t and still don’t finish school – were chattering like teenagers almost constantly, despite frequent reminders of the ground rules everyone had agreed to, including only speaking ‘when recognised’ after putting their hands up. I felt like they were being treated like children but they were also acting like them. I’m not sure which is a result of what; bit of a chicken and egg situation. 

When it came to teachers signing the register to receive expenses, it dawned on me that some of them couldn’t read well enough to recognise their own name in print, and a few struggled to reproduce their signature. Could that really be the case?

Er… yes. Tragically, that is the reality in Liberia. The teachers were learning about lesson plans, child protection and so on, but when we got to phonics, a large number of them couldn’t pronounce the alphabet. It turns out that a lot of teachers literally can’t read or write, so the charity and the country has its work cut out. Following the training workshops, the trainers will be going to every school that the charity partners with to give extra tuition to the teachers, on reading, writing and teaching methods.

Of course, there are some inspirational and talented teachers who are great at their job and manage to hold on to their deep passion for teaching, but the fact is that they are in a very small minority.

I should have been prepared for this situation, having read lots about education in Liberia, but perhaps the inevitable ignorance of not having been to a place meant that I didn't fully take on board the reality.

An Education in Sex Education

The ‘Say No To Sex For Grade’ sticker above the blackboard brought home to me another reality that I had previously only read about. When the topic was mentioned by a trainer and the teachers starting giggling like adolescent boys, my blood began to boil. It’s not a laughing matter. We had just been learning about child protection and now they seemed not to realise that sex for grades is about child rape. It is an officially imprisonable offence (without bail) to have sex with anyone under 18 in Liberia.

When the topic of sex education was suggested, which prompted more giggling, one male teacher said it should only be for boys. When the only female trainer tried to explain why it should also be for boys, she was shut down by that teacher, who repeated his own position on the topic over her voice. The other trainers did not support the woman and the topic was dropped. Lack of learning on human reproduction, respect and positive gender roles seems to be having a profound impact on teachers’ viewpoints and gender relations in the classroom. This results directly in sexual exploitation by teachers and pupils and perpetuates inequality in every new generation.

I asked my partner - who is from Africa and has taught men on the continent sex education and about gender issues - why grown adults were giggling at about serious issues. He explained that while Europeans can get over embarrassment or taboo of talking about sex that may have been instilled during childhood (e.g. girls made to feel that sex and periods are shameful by segregated sex ed at school), due to seeing it on the internet, TV, films, pop videos etc, most people in Africa simply do not have regular access to these. So, the taboo sticks, even when it comes to child protection issues.

Over the next few weeks I was to find that lots of parents and guardians in Liberia do not know about the biology of human reproduction. So how are they supposed to protect their children?

The Internet

I tried to encourage the trainers to talk about the internet with teachers, suggesting that they could find out literally anything they want from it, watch videos on phonics, learn about teaching methods etc, but the trainers don’t seem to fully appreciate the wonders of the internet either. Wifi effectively doesn’t exist, so everything online is done through mobile data, and the coverage is not good in rural areas – a bit like the UK. There is no habit yet of referring to the internet for everything, and with only 3.8% of the population using the internet, this should not be surprising. And, of course, if you can’t read or write, the internet would be very difficult to navigate. This explains what I can only describe as a general ignorance about geography, other countries, other cultures and food ...the food here is very limited indeed, even though gorgeous ingredients are abundant.

Teachers Not Being Paid Due to Corruption

Teachers’ lack of knowledge is the tip of the iceberg. Serious structural issues heavily impact teachers’ ability to do their job and their attitude to work. The charity works closely with the Ministry of Education, especially to tackle the two most pressing problems facing education:
  • ‘Ghost teachers’, who are usually relatives of officials at the MoE and are allocated a school and sent a salary, but are not actually teachers. This is corruption and is such a regular occurrence that it is draining $millions every year from the Ministry’s coffers.
  • Real teachers not being paid regularly; many teachers being volunteers without a salary at all or a token income.
There is currently a drive to root out the ghost teachers, but clearly this is not easy, because it requires cooperation from officials who are benefitting financially from the racket. It’s a slow process.

The irregular pay issue for genuine teachers will hopefully resolve as the ghost teachers are removed from payroll, and other forms of corruption tackled. Currently, even principals face the worry of being evicted with their families from their rented rooms every month. This does not make them feel valued as professionals! The headteachers at the training course still take pride in their work, but it is not easy for them when it is a constant battle to be paid and provide for their families.

Volunteer teachers in the schools the charity is working with are methodically being given the training and basic teaching certificate required to get them on the payroll. The charity is then working with the MoE to actually put them all on the payroll. This is going really well, with rapid progress being made, so principals can feel their staff are finally being looked after and respected for their work.

But what about the teachers at schools not covered by this programme? And the children whose education suffers as a result?

Another financial issue facing schools is the dire lack of equipment. The charity is trying to encourage PTAs to fundraise for sports equipment (like footballs), but even the basics such as chairs are missing. One headteacher complained during the training that his pupils have to sit on the ground, which is wet during rainy season. There should be the money to resolve this, as enough is allocated to the MoE, but it is currently flowing out into corruption.

In every school, donated IT equipment lies broken and covered in dust, because there were never the resources or expertise to maintain it. But without chairs or books (or the internet), it seems pointless to chase after sustainable solutions for the lack of ICT.

Drunk Police Officer

On the way back from Sinje to Monrovia our car was waved through a checkpoint by a very drunk policeman. I've never seen a drunk police officer before. He could barely stand up and was staggering about amongst the vehicles in the midday sun. I wondered why his sober colleagues who were standing nearby hadn't taken him to safety and let him sleep it off, but maybe they have done in the past and now can't be bothered. The Director of Education who was sitting next to me just shook his head and said, "uselessness".

During the training, the teachers had been instructed not to turn up drunk to work. I thought it was strange that this was necessary, but am told that drunkenness in the classroom is not rare. Hopefully it's becoming rarer.

Sustainable Development Goals - World, Seriously?

As we drove back into Monrovia, we passed the heavily secured UN building, with its flashy (relative to surroundings) display of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It seemed like a sick joke. It feels unethical to advertise these global agreements in a country that is so very far from achieving any of them. Why isn't the world improving things in Liberia? There are countless UN vehicles driving around Monrovia the whole time. The various UN agencies must spend $billions in Liberia every year. Why isn't it having more impact?

Yeah, right! Ha. Ha.

New Training Workshop, Kakata.

The following week, I had a similar role at another teacher training workshop, this time in Kakata. The school had cabbages growing in bags all over the place, for school dinners, and food was being cooked fresh, over charcoal. All very sustainable! I'm sure Jamie Oliver would give it the thumbs up.

Kakata is in a different county to Sinje and the next group of teachers seemed more enlightened, better behaved and better educated. They even brought up sex education themselves without so much as a snigger in the class.

I asked around among the trainers and other charity staff, as to why they thought there was such a difference between the teachers in one county compared to the other. Nobody seemed to think there were any significant socio-economic factors that would explain the varying attitudes and levels of knowledge, or which could affect conduct so markedly. I asked whether one was more rural and whether that could be a factor, but was told that the two areas are the same in that respect. The only suggestion I could get from one trainer was that there are more Muslims in Cape Mount, meaning that they have suffered more discrimination and their behaviour is consequently defensive. This may also explain why taboos around sex are trickier to tackle. Muslims in Sinje are also likely to refugees from Sierra Leone.

Teacher and trainers at the end of the second workshop

Religious Tolerance

I don’t want to downplay discrimination faced by Muslims in Liberia, but I do still want to highlight the relative religious tolerance in the country, which is lovely to witness after being in Europe. I had experienced it in Sierra Leone (it is even more accepting and respectful there, where Muslims and Christians often marry) but I didn’t know what to expect in Liberia. In the first teacher training, in the area with more Muslims, we had Christian prayers and songs one day; Muslim prayers the next. Everyone joined in with both. Everyone knew the words and hand gestures for both. It wasn’t just respectful, it was loving. I am trying to be more tolerant to Christianity here, but it is hard to feel respectful for what I feel is the continued colonialism of people's minds.

Overall First Impressions of Liberia

Am I qualified to talk about Liberia as a whole? Or any part of it? Not as an expert on Liberia; I can only give my view as a privileged (spoilt) Westerner visiting for the first time, with input from Liberians I've spoken with. My mental image of Africa is not a homogenous expanse of stereotypes that expose the people who hold them as ignorant. I was expecting, therefore, to give a nuanced account of Liberia, and my preconceptions were that it would be a diverse country like any other, and that it would be full of beauty. However, I have found that my honest descriptions and genuine reactions to the country run the risk of perpetuating and confirming negative stereotypes of the whole continent. I just want to say that Liberia is clearly not representative of Africa - one country obviously couldn't be.

My first impression of Liberia was that the country is frankly a mess. I am writing this caveat six weeks later, when my surroundings have become familiar and everything seems normal, but I still feel Liberia is a wreck. I have met inspiring Liberians who are calling for change, and others who I massively admire but are too busy fighting for survival to do anything about national issues. Because so few Liberians access global media, people don't generally seem to realise what a state their country is in compared to others. That might be a good thing, and anger over poor education and lack of opportunities previously sparked the bloody war, but I have found myself wishing people were less accepting of politicians and their behaviour, and could join together to create peaceful change.

Now that I've been here a few weeks, and got use to the way things work, I'd be happy to stay for a long time. Especially because I worry that international charity work and development can feel like unwanted interference, but in this context and working with people who ask for help, it is easy to use my position to make a significant positive difference - at least temporarily. I am very fortunate.

Next time on this blog… out in ‘the field', surveying past beneficiaries of the charity’s small business and savings programme, that aimed to increase the number of children in school. I learned lots about life in Liberia, the effects of Ebola and rapid inflation. Also, nice nighttime noises, plastic pollution, rants on religion, Ma Mary, Monrovia market, tropical snacks, the eerie abandoned Ducor Hotel and Libassa Ecolodge. Sign up on Bloglovin to get updates automatically.

For more food focus, follow me on Instagram, @foodiegem.

Thanks to B for helping me write wiser. x.