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.

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