Adventure in Liberia

Communication was probably the biggest change in Liberia this time around. The variety in shopping was so much wider.  We used to only be able to buy beer or Coke, both warm.  There were too many choices - all cold! -  to count now.  The only candy once available was a eucalyptus cough drop.  I saw Butterfingers and Mars Bars!  You can imagine the selection available if those items were in rural Africa.  But, changes in communication were game changers.

When I was in the Peace Corps, the fastest communication home was one month.  It took two weeks for a letter to get home, and if people wrote that same day, it took another two weeks for a letter to return.  Nobody ever wrote back that fast unless I told them about having malaria.

But, things they were a changing.

For starters, everyone had cell phones.  And, it appears that no matter where people have cell phones, they can be annoying.  My personal pet peeve is phones at the dinner table.  When you sit down to eat, for twenty or thirty minutes, the most important people in the world should be the people you are eating with.  End of discussion.  Any other crisis should be able to wait that long.  I realize that most cell phone owners absolutely disagree with me, but they are wrong!  Alas, even in Africa, when friends sat down at restaurants, phones were out and on the table top just in case they might miss a ring.  And, there were rings.

My pet peeve aside, I loved how telephones could help.  The embassy provided a phone for me while in Liberia.  Drats!  Yes, they wanted it back.  But, there were occasions when I needed it.  None of those occasions were over a meal.

Even in Zorzor, I saw a guy on a motorcycle checking his cell phone!  I promise you, nobody could check their cell phones and drive at the same time on the unpaved roads to Zorzor or Zwedru.  Yes, I realize that most cell phone users are too stupid to realize they shouldn’t text or phone while driving, but the roads in the interior were so bad that they demanded constant attention.  Hmmm . . . I never thought about terrible road conditions preventing texting while driving before.

There wasn’t much of any kind of electricity in Zwedru when I lived there unless the president was in town.  (I loved those occasions.)  But, on my return trip, there was electricity, refrigeration, and even satellite television!  But, radio was still king of communication in Liberia.

There used to be four government radio stations in Liberia.  They have long since gone under while private community stations were flourishing.  I happen to know this because one of the four radio stations in Gbarnga thought I was newsworthy material.  I was in Gbarnga about 16 hours.  Yet, in that short amount of time, I visited one of the radio stations for a live half-hour interview.  It was a new experience for me.  I’d been on television in Albania, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico, and Estonia for brief interviews, but nobody ever considered a half hour of me as newsworthy entertainment before.

I heard the radio announcer discussing me almost as soon as I arrived at the station.  He mentioned how I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1988 and 1989. They wanted to know about my work, why I came back to Liberia, and about my reactions and observations this time around.  I was briefly coached by the Public Affairs Officer to mention the US Embassy and to say the purpose of my murals was to alleviate some of the stigmatization against Ebola survivors.  I was not supposed to make up any false news stories like, “The US Embassy declares that Ebola is now air-borne!”

The interview room was kind of what you might expect.  It was a small room with a round table.  There were four chairs, each before a microphone on the table.  I sat down and even got to put on headphones to listen to my interviewer.  He was in the other room behind a panel of glass.  I don’t know what it was like in his room, but my interview room was like a sauna.  The Public Affairs Officer took a few photos of me, but he saw no need to swelter in the room any longer than necessary.  I had a full half hour to perspire, and none of it was due to nervous energy.  Under the circumstances, I was very glad it wasn’t a television interview.

All questions were pretty standard.  If you’ve read my blog or website, you already know all of the answers.  Only one question was a little tricky.  I was asked what I thought were the lasting effects of my assignment with the Ministry of Education.  Yes, I wasn’t sure what to say, and the Public Affairs Officer knew it.  I had a stupid job (in my opinion) sponsored by the US Agency for International Development.  They devised a program that was supposed to be incompetent teacher proof when they should have devised a plan to make competent teachers.  I told them so.  They didn’t agree with me.  They didn’t really like me so much, but it had to be told.  However, it didn’t have to be told on the radio.  To handle it, I glossed over the reality that the program was no longer in use, so I didn’t see lasting effects.  However, I stressed my visit to the teacher training institute in Zorzor where I sat in on five classes.  Teachers were being trained to engage their students, to get them to participate, and discuss the information they were presented.  Liberian teachers were in the process of learning how to shape, mold, and educate the future leaders of their country.


I felt like I did well.  The half hour went so much faster than I expected.  The Public Affairs Officer was so pleased that my positive message about the embassy and the anti-Ebola stigmatization program reached an audience of 600,000 people across Liberia and Guinea.  And, he said I had a great radio voice.

The interviewing process continued in Zwedru.  One teacher at Multilateral High School was a Zwedru correspondent for a Monrovia radio station that broadcasted globally.  Imagine!  He sat me down in an area with a slight breeze for a tape recorded interview.  There was no swelter or sweat on this occasion. But, I appeared to be a lot more newsworthy in Gbarnga.  This interview was a few minutes.  However, what Zwedru might have lacked in the length of the interview, they more than made up for with endurance.  Five days after the dedication, my news story continued to repeat on local radio.