IUP Sociology Alumna Shares Peace Corps Experience in Liberia

By Stephanie Bachman

Can you find Liberia on a map? Or talk about its history and how it was founded? How much do you know about the small, West African country similar in size and population to Louisiana?

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Honestly, before receiving the invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I did not know much about the country either. While preparing to leave, many people I spoke to confused Liberia with Libya. They were initially concerned for my safety, thinking I was going to a still active warzone in Northern Africa and not a peaceful country in West Africa. In May 2018, I was one of 45 Americans who departed Washington, D.C. for Liberia to begin what was supposed to be a 27-month experience teaching as an education volunteer. Over 4,300 Americans have served as PCV’s in Liberia since 1962 and I am proud to be one of them.

America and Liberia have a long, shared history. The two countries are so interconnected that Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, is named after U.S. President James Monroe. Other associations exist in names such as Maryland County, Bushrod Island, JFK Hospital, and Firestone Plantation. In the early 1800s, some prominent white politicians and stakeholders started a movement to settle formerly enslaved and free-born Black Americans back in Africa. From there, key figures such as Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and John Randolph founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) on December 21, 1816. In 1822, the ACS funded the first ship that eventually landed in present-day Monrovia. The freed Black Americans who came to Liberia over the next several decades were called Americo-Liberians. On July 26, 1847, the settlers declared Liberia’s independence, making it the oldest and first modern Republic in Africa, which celebrated 173 years of freedom this past July.

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There is more to this story, including severe resistance from the native tribes already living in Liberia who today make up 98% of the country’s population and did not receive the right to vote for 99 years. Although the native tribes and Americo-Liberians had much animosity over the decades, today it will be difficult to find Liberians who do not love the U.S. “Little America” is a common nickname for Liberia and Liberians refer to the U.S. as “Heaven on Earth.” Many Liberians dream of visiting or traveling to the U.S. someday. They play the Diversity Visa Lottery yearly hoping to win a green card for permanent U.S. residency.

The intertwined histories of Liberia and America influence how Liberians today interact with Americans like me and other PCV’s. The first time I was asked, “What is the one thing I wish Americans knew about Liberia?” I wanted Americans to know how much Liberians love and admire the U.S. However, that does not even begin to address the many wonderful qualities about Liberia and her citizens. There is so much more I want others to know. Despite the deep connections between Liberia and America, Liberian and African culture and history are severely lacking in our education system.

What I miss the most about Liberia is the people. It is not what someone expects me to say if they ask, but it is true. Without the people, I would not have had such a wonderful experience. The people are what connected me to my site versus any other community in Liberia. They are why I loved the place so much. Otherwise, it would have just been another small town on a map. That is the difference between visiting somewhere briefly and living and working in a community every day.

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Religion is important in Liberia. It is chiefly a Christian country with an Islamic minority. These groups get along amazingly, and religious tolerance of others is something I deeply admire about Liberians. Despite being religious, not all Liberians go to the mosque or church, but they still identify with the beliefs.

Considering this, it was not surprising when a fellow teacher invited me to attend service with him shortly after arriving at my site. I made friends with the church members there, especially the women. I met the new pastor and his wife, Adora, who wanted to form a women’s group for the church. I liked Adora and the people, so I went to her meetings for support. Occasionally, when Adora approached me, I led meetings using her curriculum. It was not my group. I did not want to overstep, but I helped when asked.

Adora was a capable and independent woman who knew what she was doing. When she learned about a national conference in Monrovia, she organized fundraisers and gathered donations for costs such as transportation and lodging. Adora did all the planning, so, when the time came, she and a few others went to the conference without problems. They returned with a wealth of knowledge and shared it with other members.

By the time I left, several women improved their self-confidence, communication, and healthy relationship skills. This was a testament to Adora’s leadership skills and the great strides she made. Although I am not in Liberia, I know this group will still stand strong because I saw the dedication in the women who came. The group is in good hands.

I miss everyone from my community including the women’s group, but I especially miss the neighborhood children that visited my house. They were “my kiddos” and my porch was a safe space to hang out, play, and just be children. They felt safe because they all knew my rules: no cursing, no fighting, and no football on the porch. That last one sounds a little ridiculous, but there was a field next to my house where I wanted them to play instead of creating a ruckus on my porch by using anything they found such as rotten fruit or rocks as “soccer balls.” The children knew they could come to me if they needed help with something like homework. We did fun activities together, too. On weekends I played movies and shows for them on my laptop, which was a special event because I could count the number of TV’s in my community on one hand. Tom and Jerry was an instant hit, as well as anything with action, especially martial arts movies such as Karate Kid.

I saw the time my kiddos spent at my house as an opportunity to teach them new skills. At first, it was small things such as lending them books or practicing math. I even introduced them to my vast board game collection to help improve their critical thinking, patience, and problem-solving skills. Of all the games, checkers and Connect-4 were their favorites. Steadily, I focused on other skills, particularly financial literacy.

To accomplish this, I created a quasi-banking system. The children deposited money into an account or earned it doing small activities I assigned. The money could be used however they wanted, but if they earned it from me, they had to wait until “payday” on Friday. They could check their balance on “bank cards,” but if they lost it, a new one cost $5 LD. ($5 is the smallest denomination in Liberia. It is a negligible amount of approximately USD 0.03). Over time, my kiddos learned if they wanted something such as soccer balls or new shoes they had to work for it, and the more expensive it was, the more they needed to save. Sometimes they made me promise not to let them spend their money because they were saving it. Eventually, they did not need to ask because they better understood saving, independence, self-motivation, and accountability.

The other group I miss is my students. Yes, I had bad days in the classroom and sometimes my students gave me trouble, but the good moments outshined the bad. I miss going to class and working with them. In my first year, I taught 10th and 11th grade algebra and physics and later picked up an 8th grade math class. During my second year, I focused on building foundational skills in junior high, which is 7th to 9th grade, by teaching general science and 7th grade English.

My 11th graders were special because it was a small class full of amazing women. In Liberia, as students progress throughout school, the boy to girl ratio becomes increasingly disproportionate. More girls drop out than boys and, like America, it is unfortunately common for girls to struggle – especially in STEM classes, where girls were repeatedly told they were incapable. My 11th grade class was a rare exception. Eleven out of my sixteen students were women including all the top students. They were smart, confident, hardworking, and determined women who consistently turned challenges into strengths. Some students were single mothers with children in elementary school who returned to graduate after giving birth. I was eager to attend their graduation in 2020, but it never happened because I did not finish my second year of service.

My early departure also meant leaving my junior high classes without a teacher. After spending months building a relationship with students, it was tough. Understanding science concepts can be difficult with only notes and lectures. It is a hands-on subject, so labs and demonstrations are important. Although common in America, Liberian schools often lack resources or lab spaces to help students grasp ideas such as density or chemical changes. I had to be creative to motivate my students while reinforcing the subject matter. Therefore, I used local materials to develop low resource labs by creating apparatuses. A water bottle could become a graduated cylinder, or a syringe could become a pipette or test tube.

I did labs with my students about once per week. They loved it and were more engaged with the material. It required extra prep, but the improvements in their grades were worth it. I taught my students about acids, bases, and the pH scale, but I did not have litmus paper. Instead, students brought red and blue flowers to class and I provided local examples of acids and bases such as orange juice, milk, bleach, water, and baking soda. Using a mortar and pestle, they created indicators by grinding flowers and adding water. Then, students used a syringe to test the unmarked samples and identify them.

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Almost 75% of the PCV’s in Liberia were evacuated in December 2019, and I was one of them. I left earlier than anticipated, through no fault of my own. Evacuations are not new for Peace Corps posts, including Liberia, which experienced it twice – once for civil war and once for the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first evacuation for economic reasons. Since the civil war ended, Liberia has been rebuilding itself but now is experiencing a serious economic downturn with hyperinflation, scarcity of money at banks, rising prices of goods, and stagnant wages. People such as teachers, nurses, and civil servants are lucky to get paid once every several months. Although it did not happen at my school, teachers were increasingly “putting down the chalk” in protest. Strikes occurred more frequently. It was difficult for Liberians to find enough money for food for their families.

The banking crisis throughout the country left PCV’s and Liberians alike unable to access their money and led to the decision to send PCV’s home. Especially in communities located farther away from Monrovia, banks, ATMs, and money changers had no money. There was no apparent end in sight despite governmental assurances. This went beyond the hardships PCV’s are expected to endure and we could not effectively do our jobs. We were away from our schools for days while waiting for banks to get more money so we could afford the trip back and food for the month. PCV’s were informed of the decision at an all-volunteer conference. Peace Corps released the message, “Over the past year, Liberia’s economy has faced a number of challenges, including the inability to reliably obtain needed funds from banks. Out of an abundance of caution, the Peace Corps has made the decision to reduce the footprint of volunteers in Liberia in order to better support them.”

With heavy hearts, PCV’s returned to our communities. I still remember entering my principal’s office the following morning to tell him and the administration. I was so distraught I could not sit. Many tears were shed as I informed my classes and friends. That week was spent packing up my house, preparing 2nd marking period grades, and saying goodbyes. It was an emotional and sad time that felt like one of the fastest weeks during my service when I wanted nothing more than for time to slow down.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. Soon I was at the same Peace Corps training compound where I began my journey eighteen months earlier, saying goodbye to staff and fellow PCV’s including the few that remained. We went to the airport together and shared a flight to Brussels. Then, it was more goodbyes as our numbers shrank and we embarked on different flights. I flew with a few others to Chicago and, from there, I was the only PCV on my flight to Pennsylvania. Coming back early is neither what I wanted nor expected. While I was excited to see friends and family for the first time in forever, it was with a sense of remorse and longing for the home I left behind that no one fully understood.

I returned over ten months ago. Dealing with my emotions, readjusting, and getting used to a faster pace of life was not easy, but time helps. There are days where I want nothing more than to be back in Liberia. Reverse culture shock is real and challenging. Talking to fellow PCV’s and my Liberian friends has helped. When I left Liberia, I knew it was temporary. I planned to visit sometime this year, but it is not possible due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, which sent more than 7,000 PCV’s from 60-plus countries including Liberia home early. I intend to visit Liberia again once it is safe. Although I am not there right now and do not know when I will return, a part of me will always be in the country and community I served.

Disclaimer: The content of this blog post is the opinion of the author’s alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Liberian Government.