Lean On Me

So I’m sitting at my home just outside Monrovia, I should be working on my research.  I still have about five interviews to type up, and I need to do it tonight, before I forget all of the details of what people said, and how they said it.  But I’m feeling tired and, for some reason, I get the strange urge to read the speech that I wrote for my high school graduation.  I don’t know what compelled me to open that document right then.  I had some recollection of what I wrote about, but couldn’t remember it exactly.  Maybe it was all of the graduations that I attended this past weekend that made me think of it.  Maybe I wanted to remember something from home.  I don’t know how it happened, but there I was, sitting in my house in Liberia, reading about the Belfast Area High School Class of 2009.   Pretty ridiculous, right?

I had written about kids playing four-square, the overdramatized antics of school dances, the agony of homework, the glory of sporting events; all the things we did to pass the time, growing up in Belfast, Maine.  I finished reading, and I guess it was refreshing.  Nice to read about things that were so familiar to me.  I thought about the past week and all of the very unfamiliar and unexpected events that I experience on a daily basis here.

The rainy season has added a new dimension of excitement to my life here.  I’m very busy now with my research and also finding new students to take on scholarship for the Liberian Education Fund, so I leave the house around 7 am, and usually don’t return home until around 7 pm.  Figuring out how to get around in the pouring rain and accomplish all the things you want can be borderline impossible.  Let me try and describe it to you.  Monday I woke up, and no surprise, it was pouring rain.  So, I tie my laptop and my research documents up in multiple plastic bags, hoping that I can manage to keep them try.  Then, I leave the house and start down the rough dirt road, which involves wading across a stream that goes up to my knees.  Once I make it to GSA road, I hail a motorbike off the street to carry me to Tubman Boulevard.  After the 10-minute journey on the motorbike, I am completely soaked.  From the boulevard, I hail a taxi going into town.  Now taxi cars, while they are the same size as taxis in the U.S., if not smaller, are considered full only when 4 people are sitting in the back, and 1 or 2 people in the front seat.  If the other people in the taxi are small, it’s not too bad.  If they are big, I can expect to loose all feeling in both my legs within 3 to 5 minutes of getting into the taxi.  Today I am not so lucky, and end up in a car with two very large women who are upset with me because I am soaked and getting them wet.  Once I reach town, an hour later, I have to walk to an office, where I am planning to conduct some interviews.  As I am stepping up onto the curb, I loose my flip flop in the water that is flooding the streets, and have to start running down the street in my bare feet, trying to stop my shoe before it reaches a gutter.  Finally I get it.  I look up to find that most of the people on the street are watching me, laughing.  I had to laugh too.  I wring a bunch of water out of my skirt, and step inside the office.  The others in the office somehow appear to be dry, and here I am, dripping all over their floor.  Someone looks at me and smirks, “Oh! You are so wet! You people can’t stand the rain here in Africa!”  And I think, damnit, this is Liberia kicking my ass.  That “you people” means “you white people” and times like this it can really sting.  I am in your country, using your transportation, and eating your food, and I still get put in the group with “you white people who don’t know how to live in Liberia.”   Sometimes I wonder whether I can every really be a part of this community.

It gets hard to go to places and be treated differently than everyone because of your skin.  For example, Saturday my brother at the house, OG, graduated from senior high school.  It was a great day, OG was so unbelievably happy.  But we come home from the graduation, and the family had been working since morning to prepare food for his graduation party.  The family prepares a plate for me, and tries to serve me first, before any of the other 30 guests have eaten.   Literally, I am sitting in the room, with many people much much older and wiser than me, and they try to give me the first plate that is served.  As if I am going to sit and eat this plate of food, with 30 hungry people just watching me.  I refused it and waited in the kitchen until they gave me something to do.  I helped serve plates for an hour, before I finally consented and went to eat.  The respect that I receive on account of being white, that is undeserved and unfounded, can be so hard to take.

Other times, it is the inability to carry out simple tasks for myself that gets to me.  For example, I was traveling, and I jumped down from the car to buy water.  I ask some people on the street where I can get some, they say they don’t know and point me down the street.  Then I find a place with a cooler, so I know they have water.  I ask for water, and they tell me that they don’t have any.  I know they have it, but they are assuming because I am white I don’t want to drink bagged water, and will only drink bottled water.  I spend another minute convincing them that bagged water is what I want.  By this time, some man has found me and is trying to literally hold my hand and help me, because he thinks I will tip him for it.  By the time I’m getting back to the car, the people I was traveling with have jumped out to yell at this man, and they tell me that I should have let them buy it for me, it would have been easier.  Jesus, I know I am white, but I have lived in Africa—I know what kind of water they have, I know where you can buy it, and I know how much it costs.  Yet, somehow in trying to get a drink of water, I managed to cause a scene.  At times, stuff like this just seems funny.  Other times, it makes me think, what impact am I ever going to be able to make in this country, if I can’t even do simple tasks like this on my own?

Don’t get me wrong- I love living here and I am having a great time, and learning so much.  I feel genuinely good about the work that I’m doing, which is awesome.  But these are the challenging parts.  When I’m trying really hard to be respectful and find my place in this community, and people notice and point out how different I am, sometimes it can feel isolating.  But, I think it’s important to keep fighting the stereotypes.  I am only one person, but if each time that people try to put me on a pedestal because of my skin color, I resist, maybe someday people here will stop doing it.  If I keep trying to do things for myself, people may realize that just because I am from America, does not mean I cannot use my own hands and do things for myself.

And sometimes this fight pays off, and I feel for a minute like I’ve really got the hang of things here.  For example, when I get into a good argument with a motorbike driver.  Usually when you are getting on a bike, they will drive you to your destination, and then they will call a price for you.  It’s your job to know what the price should be, based on the distance and quality of the roads.  So like this morning, I got off the bike, and confidently handed over 20 Liberian Dollars, and started to walk away.   The driver calls me and says, “Dat one 30.” I turn and say in my best Liberian accent, “Ah? Dat small small distance, 30 dollar?  No, no dat one be 20, how you go tell me dat 30 dollars, you think I nah come dis way before?”  He smiles and shakes his head disapprovingly, acknowledging defeat.  Ah, there is nothing like thwarting the swindling efforts of a 16-year-old motorbike driver to boost your confidence.

Anyways, I think I realize now why I wanted to read this graduation speech from so long ago.  It was all about fitting into a community- when I was graduating, I just wanted us to remember all of the things that made us a group, that kept us connected.  Here, I am on a similar mission.  In my experiences in Africa, I’ve seen a lot of NGO and agencies doing work that isn’t very effective or beneficial, because they include foreigners and locals, who are members of two distinctive communities.  Yes, of course they come from different backgrounds, have different cultures, languages, and practices, so it would make sense that they don’t form one community.  But I think as long as they are separate, they won’t be successful.  I want the Liberian Education Fund, above all else, to be one community of people.  Although it’s made up of people from America and Liberia, I think we have to find the things that we have in common, before we can figure out how to help each other.  And I’m trying my best to use my time here, to make the connections and provide the tools that will allow this unique community to grow, despite the distance and difficulties.

Figuring all this out is challenging, and takes time.  It was definitely easier to find common ground within a graduating class of Belfast Area High School, than it is as a lone white girl in Liberia. But I still think it’s the same basic idea.  A few nights ago I was sitting outside the house with my brother OG and one of the LEF students, Yassah.  OG was fanning the fire, and we were just sitting quietly, not having too much to talk about.  OG started humming, and I was surprised to hear a familiar tune.  Most people here love gospel music, so I don’t usually know the songs that they sing.  But tonight, OG starts singing… “I just might have a problem that you’ll understand, we all need somebody to lean on…. ”  I laugh, thinking, hey I know this one, and join in, and soon we are all clapping and singing along as loudly as we can.  And I’m happy.

Sometimes, it can be hard to find things in common.   But we’ll start with Bill Withers, and see where we can go from there.