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
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 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
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.