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Just Like You

May 17, 2014


Sprinting to the end of the semester I have gotten completely lost in field trips, stacks of paper, and a thousand loose ends. I’ve lost some of my perspective and as everything is turning into a blurred mess and I’ve forgotten that I’m here for more than just a job.

My people, do you know that we can change the world? We underestimate each other, but most of all we underestimate ourselves.

Three years ago I was packing to move to Liberia and I was a mess in every possible sense. At 27 I was trying to sell my possessions and separate my life from entangled and painful situations. I’d left a job and a relationship and plenty of people told me it was a mistake, boldly but also silently with their eyes.

The night before I left, my mother stayed up all night helping me pack and in the morning everyone cried as I boarded the airplane. Whatever happened we all knew nothing would ever be the same. But change came faster than I expected. The simple act of taking that first step toward the airplane released strength I never knew I had. Walking through the airport I looked at myself in a mirror and, honestly, did a double take. “That can’t be me! People like me don’t move to Africa. We spin our wheels in Middle America and save up for one big hurrah when we’re 60. Do I know this woman?”

But I came here and I’m still here and I’m staying here.

I cried a lot my first few weeks (including the first time I met with my boss—sorry, Vince!). I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing and I didn’t understand how I could offer anything that wouldn’t seem trite and idiotic. Truth be told, it felt like too much and I wanted to leave. But I kept thinking about what Oprah says: “When you know better you do better.” Now that I had been here and I knew how my brothers and sisters were living I had to do something. At least I had to try.

What if I had been born in Liberia instead of America? Life is a total crapshoot and I happened to get incredibly lucky. It’s one thing to sit down in America and know that but it’s another thing entirely to see that. To see brilliant students who struggle to read and write because they didn’t have a decent school to attend, to see people get sick or die because they can’t access basic medical care.

Liberians feel ‘just like’ Americans and the more time I spent with my host family and my students the more I agreed. But not because of our countries’ intertwined history—because we are all just people trying to lead safe, fulfilling lives alongside the people we love.

At the end of my pre-service training I was labeled “Most Likely to Adopt the Liberian Lifestyle” and, really, at the time I was offended. I was always on the outskirts of my training group and I felt subtly mocked for not being American enough. As if that was why I moved to Liberia… to exhibit my American-ness…

The label turned out to be pretty spot on, though.

Last weekend I threw myself a late birthday party (I had to attend a funeral on my rightful birthday) and it was mostly Liberians with just a handful of Americans. My sewing teacher stood up and made a speech that almost brought me to tears. “I’ve worked with a lot of people of RB’s color. I can say this is the first time I’ve been invited to a gathering like this as a guest and not a cook or decorator.”

When I meet other expats here the talk is always slanted “us and them” and it always makes me uncomfortable. For me there has only ever been… us… human beings.

That’s why I love this new song from Takun J and Famus. It’s about a deaf school that recently opened in Monrovia, but listen to the words and it’s about so much more.

If you can talk with your hands
And listen with your eyes
Then you will really realize that
I’m just like you-o
I’m just like you

No I can’t hear
But I can see
What I see is that you don’t see me
You might not understand the movement of my hands
But you need to understand I still got a plan
I got a dream
I want to be seen
I will be seen
And dreams come true
And not just for you

So I challenge you: when you know better, do better. As you move through this world, listen with your eyes and dare to see what we’re all too ashamed to say. When you realize you can do more, start talking, start doing, with your hands. You’ll probably be amazed at the solutions you can find and the beautiful things you build if you can just start.

Sometimes it’s all a matter of changing perspective.

What a Girl Needs

May 8, 2014

Girl in Classroom

My most interesting class this semester is Rural Sociology and Gender. I’ve been planning to write about it for months, but there is just never time.

There are at least three required courses on the new curriculum that are gender focused. As far as I can tell, they’ve always been assigned to fifty-year old men who snort, “Gender. What’s that? Humph!” in our faculty meetings. This semester an American was supposed to come and take over, but when she cancelled at the last minute I started to work on my boss.

“Really. I can do it. If you’ll let me teach soil science why can’t I do this?” He said they needed someone with a master’s degree, but I insisted, “I know this doesn’t mean anything to you, but I’m a Bryn Mawr woman.” Finally, they had no choice and agreed to let me co-teach with the elderly gentleman.

This was colossally awkward until I earned his respect by fixing his computer.

He is teaching all the rural sociology and I’m handling all the gender. (The highlight of his unit was when he pretended to be a ol’ ma crying because she had no grandchildren.) A different gender professor visited from America last semester and left materials with me in the Resource Room. She had started outlining the curriculum for this course and she dropped all of it in my lap. It’s fascinating!

For example, did you know there is a strong correlation between women’s rights and food security in a country? When women are respected and taken care of everyone is less hungry.  We’re covering everything from gender in agriculture education to the conflict between breastfeeding and infant formulas. I have found myself moderating and leading vicious debates about everything from rape and sexual violence to wife beating and household decision-making.

As with any class like this, there are the one or two men who raise their hand with the inevitable, “Sis RB, this is a gender class not a women’s class. I hope you will also talk about men’s rights.”

The most heated days are when I bring in statistics about Liberia. For example according to the 2007 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, 59% of women think it is acceptable for their husbands to beat them for either burning the food, refusing to have sex, going out without informing them, arguing, or neglecting the children. Only 22% of married women who work outside the home say they hold decision-making power over that income.

“You don’t understand our Liberian setting!” “That’s our culture and our tradition!” the men yell. If I hadn’t already been in Liberia three years I wouldn’t have the confidence to laugh and challenge them. “Don’t argue with me, gentlemen. Argue with the UN and the IFPRI.  I didn’t dream this research last night.”  I’m not sure I ever thought I’d have the confidence to stand in front of fifty Liberian men and shoot off my feminist mouth… but here I am doing it three days a week.

The most rewarding part has been watching the girls slowly speak up. Most days the class is primarily me arguing with the loudest mouth boys interspersed with cheering, clapping, and yelling. The girls are listening though. I can see it in their eyes and in their smiles and some of them are starting to open up, even telling off the boys. Tuesday men were arguing that if a woman gets educated she won’t want to get married and one of my usually quiet girls flung her arm in the air. “I did not come to college to get a husband. I came to college to get an education and whether or not I get married has nothing to do with that!”

You go girl.

Maybe I’ll get through to some of the men and they’ll have more respect for their wives and partners, but I’m really doing it for the girls. I want them to hear what no one else here is going to say: that they deserve more and it’s ok to demand it, that when men are idiots you can tell them, and that they can be whatever they want, whether it’s a mother, a scientist, or both.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  I am humbled to have the privilege of being an American girl and a Bryn Mawr woman.

“A state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm.”
~Jostein Gaarder

Great books I’ve read for this class:

The Politics of Breast Feeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business by Gabrielle Palmer

Complementary Feeding: Nutrition, Culture and Politics by Gabrielle Palmer

Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

Don’t Touch Your Friend!

May 1, 2014


We’ve had a little Ebola in Liberia. Maybe you’ve heard. It’s a nasty thing with no cure that kills almost everyone who gets it within a week. And it’s not easy. You have diarrhea, vomit, and bleed to death internally… then give it to the people who lovingly cared for you in your dying days.

I was worried for about ten minutes until I did some research. See, you only get Ebola by taking care of someone about to die from it. I work at a university not a hospital so (thankfully) my contact with diarrhea, vomit, and blood is pretty limited. My expat coworkers, however, convened a meeting and demanded the office provide body suits for us to wear in the market and while teaching.

I haven’t worn an Ebola suit but I am loving this hit song:

Ebola in Town
D-12, Shadow & Kuzzy of 2Kings

Something happen
Something in town
Oh yeah the news
I said something in town

Ebola in town
Don’t touch your friend!
No touching
No eating something
It’s dangerous!

Ebola in town
Don’t touch your friend!
No kissing!
No eating something
It’s dangerous!


I woke up in the morning
I started hearing people dem yelling
“Da what thing happen? What thing happen? Ma pekin what thing?”
Eh man!

They sit down grab me
They say something in town
That thing that in town it quick to kill
That me scary-o
Ebola. Ebola in town.

I started yelling
I started running
What place I will go?
I go to Guinea
I went everywhere
Ebola. Ebola there.
I’m not going anywhere.
I’m right here.
I’m not going nowhere.
I’m right here.
I know the medicine.
That distant hugging
I said distant shaking
Distant kissing
Don’t touch me!


Something in town-oh
Something in town-eh
Ebola. Ebola in town.
It’s dangerous-o.

Ebola is very wicked.
It can kill you quick quick
Be careful how you shaking hands-o
Be careful who you touch
Ebola is more than HIV/AIDS
It can kill you quick quick
It can kill you fast fast

Don’t touch your friend.

I say it will kill you-o.


My pa Jehovah
Please save us from Ebola
Nowhere to go
Nowhere to hide
And I ain’t come in town
My people, ya’ll please take time
Take time before you get that disease
Don’t overlook it
That thing it quick to kill

Don’t take it for joke
My people, I saw it before
Be on the safe side, you hear me?


If you like the monkey
Don’t eat the meat
If you like the baboon
I said don’t eat the meat
If you like the bat-o
Don’t eat the meat

Liberian Check Rice

April 21, 2014

Liberian Check Rice and Gravey2

Cuttington gave us a long break for Easter so I’ve been brushing up on some of my domestic skills. During the week I don’t usually get home until about 6:00pm so I want quick no-frills food like pepper soup that I can throw in a pot and leave for an hour. Sometimes I miss the variety of food I used to get in Sanniquellie, though, so on breaks I like to cook different things.

This is a recipe I got from Serena and the ol’ ma at Club Universe in Sanniquellie. They disagreed about some of the procedures and quantities of ingredients so feel free to adjust things to your preferences—this is just the way I usually do it.

Generally, Liberians don’t care about quantities and measurements the same way Americans do. In Kakata I used to drive my Ma crazy learning to cook. I’d sit and watch her with a copybook and it was always, “But how much should I put in?” She’d just shake her head and laugh, “How much do you want, Leela?

So if you love onions or garlic or hot pepper don’t be shy—put it in! The only thing you are forced to use a lot of in this recipe is oil. If you skimp in that you won’t have any gravy and your rice will be dry.

Expect the whole process to take 90 minutes to 2 hours depending on your skill at multitasking.



1 Liberian Cup of Rice                                              ($25LD)*

1 bunch Palava Sauce                                              ($10LD)**


1 small can tomato paste                                         ($25LD)

1 small plastic natural peanut butter                     ($5LD)***

2-3 small white onions                                             ($20LD)

1 clove garlic (optional)                                           ($5LD)

1 chicken Vita cube                                                   ($5LD)

hot pepper to taste                                                   ($5LD)

salt and black pepper to taste


Oil for frying

Chicken, beef (“cow meat” in Liberia) or fish as desired. To be really Liberian use all three.


* A Liberian cup is not the same as an American cup. It’s measured using a standard tin can like you’d buy vegetables or beans in and is about 1.5 to 2 American cups. I measure my rice with a coffee cup and fill it to the brim. This makes three normal size servings or two very large serving.

** Palava sauce is a slippery leaf that can be cooked as its own dish or added to another like we’re doing here. You probably won’t find it in America but you could fake your own using frozen spinach and okra.

*** Peanut butter comes in a large bucket but market women tie spoonfuls of it off in tiny pieces of plastic for retail sale. For this recipe you need about a tablespoon.



  1. Cut your meat of choice into small pieces and season with onion, pepper, Vita and tomato paste. If you are using chicken or fish you’ll fry the meat then add it to the gravy. Frying will make cow meat tough so if you want to use that option par-boil it with some onion, garlic, pepper, and Vita until it is soft (no need for the tomato). While you are doing this you can start preparing the rice.
  2. Thoroughly rinse the rice in water and add to boiling water. Boil until it’s just soft (10-15 minutes depending on your rice) then remove any excess water, reduce the heat, and let it steam.
  3. While the rice is boiling pick the palava sauce leaves from the steams, rinse them well and roughly chop them in small pieces.
  4. When the rice has finished boiling add a generous amount of salt and the chopped palava sauce to the hot rice and stir slightly. Return the cover to the pot and let it sit. The steam will finish the rice and also cook the palava sauce.
  5. Check the meat. Remove it from the heat when it is done and set it aside.
  6. Add a generous amount (like 3-4 American cups) of the frying oil to a skillet or saucepan to use for the gravy. Dice the onion, garlic, and hot pepper and add to the hot oil. Fry until soft.
  7. Carefully stir about half of the tomato paste and the peanut butter into the mixture. You may need to reduce the heat to keep the peanut butter from burning.
  8. Add about half a vita cube, salt, black pepper, and any other seasoning you enjoy. Continue to fry until it starts to thicken a bit and come together.
  9. Remove from heat and carefully stir in the meat. Let everything rest together for a few minutes so the meat can absorb the flavors from the gravy.
  10. Serve with the rice and enjoy!

New Blooms

April 20, 2014

Medusa Tree2

So much has happened since February. Phone calls, emails, and so so much work. Some things are withering while others, when least expected, are bursting into bloom.

My plans for next year are again uncertain, but it looks like I have another year in Liberia. And that’s ok. Because work continues. Steady pruning only makes dreams come back bigger and stronger. Or at least that’s what I tell myself…

But sometimes big dreams do come true. A few weeks ago two of my students from Sanniquellie won full scholarships to study in America. It’s almost too good to be true! One will study Natural Resource Management and one will study Secondary Education. Just like the two in Costa Rica they are expected to return to Liberia when they finish and work hard to improve the country.

I know they will.

I also know it will be really hard. We’re talking about young men who have barely been to the “big city” Monrovia and now they’re going to attend a major public university in America. Thank god they will have each other for support! Everything will be so… strange.

They were here last week on their way to get travel documents and I sat them down in front of my DSTV. “It’s time you learned about America. There is a lot I’ve tried to keep from you.” Then I put on Jersylicious.

School starts in late August and they are tentatively scheduled to leave three weeks before that. I am planning a vacation around that time and I would love to fly with them. Oh to see their faces on the airplane! I think I will be the one crying.

It’s such a long road. Each of them applied for three or four scholarships before getting this one and for the four students I’ve successfully sent abroad we’ve had close to 200 rejections. My phone rings incessantly with students crying “why not me” and asking for money like I have a magic wand.

It’s not easy, kids.

I keep thinking about a tearful conversation Krista and I had our first year in Sanniquellie. Things were bad at school and Peace Corps told us it wasn’t our place to get involved. It was so unfair and we felt completely powerless. Everyone needed help and everyone deserved help and our ability to do anything was so… small.

But just because I can’t solve the problem doesn’t have to stop me from doing what I can. It just breaks my heart every single day. It takes all my energy to focus and narrow my vision on the people I can help and the things I can do. Some things are out of my control and I have to let them go—excellent students who are one year too old for a scholarship, girls who can’t leave children and husbands—but how do you make them understand?

I’ve had to stop answering my phone… because I have another life at Cuttington.

I went from teaching six credit hours last semester to teaching fifteen now. And soil science is looking like peanuts. I’m still doing that, but I’m also teaching agricultural economics, entrepreneurship and microfinance, and co-teaching rural sociology, gender, and culture with one of my Liberian colleagues.

Are you laughing? I wouldn’t blame you.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

My pet project is a tutoring program. I have thirteen volunteer tutors who staff a drop-in center throughout the week and I’m really proud of our progress in just three weeks. Unfortunately, last week my boss told me they’re taking away our room because a new secretary needs an office.

Do what you can. Find a way to let go of what you can’t. (Even if it means finding a private place to have a primal scream.)


Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson


Taking Root

February 8, 2014


Last week the dorms closed and almost all students and faculty left campus.  I don’t really like to travel, believe it or not, so I’m one of the few ghosts still floating around.  After the tears, drama, and raised voices of finals week it’s a nice change of pace.  There are no classes to prepare for and no meetings to attend.  The books are finally cataloged and the library is arranged.  Every single scholarship application is done and there is nothing I can do but obsessively check my email.  Even my French class is on hiatus for a few weeks.

So I’ve been planting flowers.

I’ve always loved flowers, but not the cut ones from the store, the real dirty thorny ones you grow in a garden.  Flowers are amazingly easy to grow here.  If you see a flower you like, just pull off a branch and stick it in the ground.  Add some water and patience and voilà—Liberian flowers!

By the time I left Sanniquellie flower bushes flanked one side of the big blue house and my passion fruit and pineapple grew under the trees.  I often wonder how they’re doing.  Does my small son, Grandpa, pick the bright red hibiscus flowers everyday?  Did the passion fruit ever bloom?  Does anyone bother to clean the weeds?

But I know their roots are strong and, somehow, they will survive.

The weather is gorgeous right now.  We’re at the end of the dry season so the humidity is right around zero and the evenings are breezy.  I make a leisurely circuit around campus snipping branches from my favorite bushes and then hurry home to put them in the ground.

There is something hopeful about planting flowers, something that says things can be better and things can be beautiful.  My yard is an ugly mess, a broken down bus serving as someone’s storage unit right in front of my door, but flowers look to the future.

Fifteen years ago no one in Liberia was thinking about flowers.  They were looking for food and a safe place to sleep.  But if enough people start believing that things can change and things can get better maybe they will.  It just takes time and encouragement.  Liberia could be a beautiful place.  It should be a beautiful place.

A few weeks ago we sent a lot of hopeful seedlings across the ocean.  Some are already dying, but maybe—just maybe—some will take root and something beautiful will have the opportunity to spring from this dry red dirt.

I’ve got the water.  Just keep the good thoughts coming.

There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

 – Henri Matisse

Stand your Ground?

January 29, 2014

Up to Something

This morning I got to my office early and went through the daily ritual of checking my email and the email of each student waiting for scholarship results.  After days of waiting, George and Grace, my two strongest candidates, each had an email from one of the Canadian universities.


But not just rejected from the prestigious scholarship, rejected from the university and never even considered for the scholarship.  My heart dropped to somewhere below my stomach and, as I sank my head to my desk, I was grateful no one else was in the room yet.

“Failure to meet academic requirements.”

I knew it was a long shot, but to not even get considered?  That was something I, well, hadn’t expected.

But I tried to rally my mood because… what else can you do?  Keep moving forward.

I had a super productive day yesterday so I had all my grades done and was ready to post them.  So I opened my spreadsheet, hit print and posted them on the board in the corridor.

Then all those bad grades started hitting the fan known as student ego and I was sitting on the wrong side.

It was an ugly day, but the absolute low point was a student I’ll call Precious.  Technically she had failed, but I boosted her grade a few points to a 70 because I knew she’d worked hard and I wanted her to pass.  She deserved to pass.  Her friend had obviously studied more for the final and, as a result, ended up with a higher grade.  Precious was furious.  “Sis RB, I never expected this.  How can you do this to me?”  Grades, I told her, are not on me—they’re on her—and I wanted her to do better too.  “How will I explain to my bossman that you got 38% on my final but I sent you a B?”

“But Sis RB, I’m on scholarship.  This was the class I worked hard in.  My other grades are bad and I was counting on this one.  I guess I’ll just sit down from school next semester…”

Then she started crying.

I’ve had people cry and beg before.  I’ve had people scream before, but I’ve never… felt so devastated myself.  It was true she had worked hard.  She came into the Resource Room early in the morning several days each week and stayed for five to six hour until it was our class time.  Her writing skills are remedial but she trudged her way through every single one of my assignments.  Like I said, I wanted her to pass.

And now she pulled out every last stop.  She tried to pull her crying together (it’s pretty embarrassing to cry in Liberian culture) but she didn’t leave.  For almost 30 minutes she stood next to my desk silently.  This is a beautiful tactic I have often employed in banks and government offices.  It exploits the fact that someone won’t be so rude as to actually throw you out of their office so you just stay until they’re so uncomfortable they help you.

Finally I was about to cry, but as Jason always said there is no crying in teaching (although I would amend it to there is no public crying in teaching).  “Come back tomorrow morning,” I mumbled and, putting on my sunglasses, I went for a walk.

Part of me wants to help her by giving extra work like I did on the midterm, but the other part of me says to stand my ground.  As I tried to explain to her, before she started crying, I myself had to retake courses and she doesn’t even have to retake this one!  I took calculus three times before ‘graduating’ out.  I took it as a junior in high school and got a D.  Then I took it again my senior year of high school and got a mediocre AP score so I took another semester in college where I finally got my A.  If they had caved and passed me the first time I got a D I wouldn’t have fallen in love with calculus and gone on to get my degree in math.  I would have been too over my head!

But she hasn’t failed.  She doesn’t have to repeat the course.  The question is if her transcript says C or B and if she keeps her scholarship.  Is it unfair to allow such a big margin for make-up work when they come in with such disparate abilities?  She really did work her butt off.

My job tonight is to make a plan.  I think I have to do something for her—by telling her to come back I’ve already forced myself into that corner.  But it can’t just be a stupid assignment she can flounder her way through in an hour.  I’m thinking about making her have weekly meetings with me next semester to get extra tutoring and accountability.

I feel like I say this all the time, but why is this so hard?  What would you do???  (besides not cave in the first place)

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston Churchill

Getting it Wrong

January 28, 2014


My soil science final was scheduled at 7:00am this morning.  I drug myself out of bed and had just enough time for coffee before making the dark two-minute walk to the graduation stand.

I was nervous.

The test was pretty hard—all short answer with complicated calculations—and only two people had come for help since our class ended ten days ago.  They were all smiles, though, and afterwards one even proclaimed, “It was so easy!”

He failed.  A lot of them failed.

Everyone who has been a teacher has been there.  You write brilliant lessons and deliver them with enthusiasm.  You focus on all the right things and make it as clear as possible what you expect.  You are an awesome teacher… so why don’t they get it??

Ok, so maybe my lessons weren’t brilliant.  They were well-intentioned, good faith efforts by someone in way over her head.  I didn’t cut the greatest path because I wasn’t exactly sure not only where we were going, but where we even were.  (I’m already restructuring things completely for next semester.)

But still, as a teacher I always want to see my students succeed.  When they don’t my first thought is, “What did I do wrong?  What should I have noticed sooner?” not the perhaps more obvious, “What’s wrong with them?”  (Ok, there’s one student who only attended class four times… what’s wrong with him?)

I find solace in the fact that as many people got A’s as F’s and two of the girls must have burned the midnight oil studying because they scored well enough to pull their final grades up to B’s.  One of them was the girl who, the first week of class, told me she couldn’t come on time because she was a girl.

You go, girl.

A man can fail many times,
but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.
~John Burroughs

Signed and Stamped

January 22, 2014

WAEC Certificate

On January 15 we submitted the last of the scholarship applications.  My count was 16 and I know Alex, my partner in dreams, did twice that.  We both heaved a sigh of relief and did a half-hearted victory dance before going to take a long rest.

Done!  …or so we thought.

Just a few days after the final emails Alex was contacted by the only American school we applied to saying that his children’s 9th grade transcripts and WAEC results had been rejected.  If he didn’t correct the situation by the end of the month their applications wouldn’t be read.

The end of the month?  When I traveled home in December I carried and mailed carefully signed and stamped documents for all the students.  And now they were rejected?  To mail even a few sheets of paper out of Liberia takes a trip to the capital and around $100USD at DHL.

I began checking my email twice an hour, three times an hour, hoping for an update on my own four applications.  But nothing.  Then I logged into their online accounts and saw that one was rejected and three of the applications had been passed from “pending” to “under review.”  I threw my arms in the air and literally shed tears at my desk.  I knew their applications were good and I knew that even if they were not ultimately selected they would at least be seriously considered.

So I emailed the office to ask about the one that had been rejected.  He wrote back, basically, “Whoa, sorry.  Just because the system says they are being reviewed doesn’t mean they won’t be rejected later.  It sounds like what you sent was completely unacceptable for all applicants.  So, sorry, but try again.”

What had I sent?  They needed 12th grade WAEC scores for all my students so I printed out their online result and enclosed information explaining they didn’t have certificates but that the scores could be validated online using scratch card codes I enclosed.  (I even stapled an actual scratch card to the letter so they would see it was a real thing.)  This is the gold standard for WAEC results and actually more than I usually send for an application.

“Absolutely no online result will ever be accepted.”

Can I have the WAEC office stamp and validate the online result?  No.

So Tuesday Alex went to the WAEC head office in Monrovia and asked them to validate his students’ 9th grade certificates and explain, somehow, why my 12th graders didn’t have certificates.  After some prodding the man admitted that the 2012 certificates hadn’t been printed yet.  No problem.  Could he write a letter explaining that?

“Now that will cost money.”

This is the sixth university I’ve helped students apply for.  Granted, it is the first one in the United States, but I have been shocked at how, well, deep their lack of understanding runs.

The scholarship is targeted at poor African students.  Beautiful.  I wish there were more.  But, the entire application has to be completed online and original documents have to be snail mailed to the admissions office.  The only time I’ve ever had to take something to DHL was for a visa application after the student was admitted.   Most applications are filled out by hand, scanned, and emailed (itself a feat in Liberia.)

I was already planning to visit the States over the holidays, though, so we rolled our eyes, but did it.  My documents trickled in to the Cuttington main gate, carried by travelling students and passing bush taxis.  It worked and I couldn’t believe it!  We got everything and I mailed it in a big envelope before I came back to Liberia a few weeks ago.

Not good enough.

The thing these admissions people don’t get is that a stamp and a signature make nothing more official here.  I can go into Gbarnga right now and have someone make me a stamp that says “WAEC Liberia” or any ridiculous thing I want.  I can pay anyone who happens to have a stamp to stamp any piece of paper I want.  (Someone in Monrovia was actually busted last year for forging Ma Ellen’s presidential signature on things—now that takes balls!)  The funny thing is the first documents we sent were actually signed and stamped by the correct people… it just wasn’t real enough for some reason.

“We’re trying to do this the right way,” Alex wrote back to them in feigned calm.  “We’re trying to show that you can do the right thing and still be successful.”

But why is that so hard?  Why is honesty not always the best option?  Why can’t they believe the people who are here instead of a company that collects data on international education and hasn’t been to Liberia recently, if ever?  We are real people really living in Liberia.

I dream of a world where we can find a way to believe each other and find a way to do the right thing even when it takes a bit of faith.

Wish us luck.  The revised documents should arrive next week and, heart-breakingly, the guy helping us always signs off his emails, “Hope this works out.  Your students sound like exactly what we’re looking for.”

It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.

-Babe Ruth


January 19, 2014


My reading habits the past few years have come and gone like West African seasons: all or nothing.  I started reading at the St. Louis airport, on the way back to Liberia, and I haven’t been able to stop.  During my last ‘rainy season’ I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun.  It was haunting and beautiful and I stayed up late devouring it by candlelight during my last stretch in Sanniquellie.

When I discovered Adiche had two more novels I found a way to jam them in my return luggage.  She’s been called the 21st century daughter of famed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and she’s won a MacArthur Fellowship along with numerous literary accolades.  If you haven’t heard of her, though, perhaps you’ve heard of TED and Beyoncé. My internet is too slow for me to actually watch her TED talks, but the most recent one on feminism and women’s right hit such a chord with Beyoncé that she sampled it on her new album.  (That’s pretty cool.)

The thing about Adiche, though, is that her books are like drugs.  You need them and want them and somehow love them, but they don’t always make you feel good.

This is particularly true of Americanah.  A young girl leaves Nigeria in her third year of university because of teacher strikes.  She is accepted to a college in Philadelphia and, well…. shit happens.  This book was really hard to read.  I stayed up every night unable to put it down, stopping only when the current cut out at midnight.  “I hate you!” I would yell, chunking it on the floor.  “Why is life so damn unfair?”

The hardest part was knowing that, even though it’s a novel, everything could be true and somewhere is someone’s reality.  Many someones’ reality.  I went to college in Main Line Philly where some of the darker parts of the story are set and I could imagine every nasty bit of it.  I thought about the friends I made working my dining service job for four years.  All of them black, many of them West African, they took a long train to the suburbs everyday to wash our dishes.  It hurt then, but it hurt even more reading about it here, on my porch, in Liberia.

So many of my students dream of going to America.  “Ms. RB,” they say, “America is heaven.  People don’t have problems there.”  Of course that isn’t true and I try to gently explain that, but as I send out batch after batch of scholarship applications I always find myself wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

It will be so…. hard.

My mom has asked me several times if we could find a way for my students to come study in America and I’ve always just shaken my head and said no.  But the guilty truth is I’m not sure if I want them to.  I don’t want them to be changed and hardened and made to feel that, somehow, they weren’t good enough the way they were before.  I’m sorry, America, but I’m not sure I trust you to take care of them, to make them feel welcome.  (Heard about Darrin Manning in Philly?)  So, of the nearly 100 scholarship applications I’ve helped students with, only four of them have been for study in America.

In December I contacted the University of Missouri, in my hometown, to ask about admissions from Liberia.  After a month, when I’d given up on them, I got a strange email.  It had a lot of exclamation points and asked where I went to high school but was unswerving in its misunderstanding and unhelpfulness.  They said that even though my son speaks English and did all his school in English he has to take the TOEFL.  They said that even though mail is almost non-existent and extremely expensive we have to send original official documents.

“Hope this helps!!!!!”

I passed through the campus a few times while I was in Columbia, looking at the high-rise condo-style dormitories and the spray-tanned blondes clutching lattes as they ran between buildings, and I deleted the email.  I imagined the way people would treat him and the person he would become, would have to become, to survive, and I wanted more.

After her initial difficult transition, the protagonist of Americanah finally pulls her life together but struggles to find her place as a non-American black, eventually starting a blog about the sticky maze of race in America.  These were the most difficult parts of the book to read as I mentally cast my students in the situations and could, without difficulty, imagine them playing out.  Situations with titles like: “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism” and “Traveling While Black.”

I thought about the airline workers who, in Accra, told one of my sons en route to Costa Rica, “You’re Liberian.  Just get on the plane and go back where you belong.  You will never go anywhere else.”  And that was in West Africa.

“But, Ms. RB, America is heaven.”

Americanah will force you to think about race, immigration, and even normalcy in America.  It won’t be comfortable, but we’ll all be better for it.  So highly recommended.

Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

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