Welcome to Liberia- My dad visits Liberia!

My dad came and visited us last month! Here he shares his thoughts about coming to Liberia for the first time, hope you enjoy!

Welcome to Liberia

By Scott Glenn

“Welcome! Welcome to Liberia!” This is a greeting that I heard many times during my five-day stay in Liberia to visit my son, Nathan, and his wife Anna. This was inevitably followed by a Liberian hand shake; which involves a normal handshake, followed by a thumb grip, and ending with our two hands clasping with fingers cupped and our thumbs firmly behind the other’s middle finger. When the hands pull away quickly, the thumb and middle finger come together and snap. That is if you do it right. It took many practice attempts for me to get it right. But they patiently worked with me and smiled. They were always smiling. The greeting would almost always end with, “You are very welcome.” This was genuine. Nathan and Anna have made so many friends in Liberia that I must have gone through this routine 100 times. And each time they made me feel like they were happy that I was there. They made me feel welcome.

On my 24-hour trip home, I decided to write down a list of unique things about Liberia that I did not want to forget. My list grew to over 200 memories before I finally dozed off. Obviously, I cannot cover my entire list in this blog, so I have decided to concentrate on what impressed me the most; the people. I was told by a few Liberians that I met at the school that the people of Liberia were lazy. However, I did not find that to be the case, just the opposite. Everybody I saw was working hard to survive. Many people were selling something; fabric, toothbrushes, flip-flops, fresh meat, or vegetables. Families would walk miles to get to the markets with the products that they wanted to sell in baskets balanced on their head. I saw men standing on the side of the tar road (the only paved road through Liberia) dangling fish or a civet that they caught, hoping someone would stop and buy it.

Those that weren’t selling something were often in the transportation business. Taxies were old, manual-shift cars. Unless you are willing to buy out the other seats, if you hail a taxi they will have you wait until the car is filled. Filled, typically means seven to eight passengers in a five-passenger car. Sometimes passengers ride on the back of the car or the roof. Liberians call these the VIP seats. Some cars are used to haul products to the market. They will be packed to the ceiling with produce and there will be a four-foot stack of materials tied to the roof. Occasionally, you will see passengers riding on top of the stack. Then there are the motorcycles. They are everywhere. They dart in and out of traffic, often with two or three passengers behind the driver, or sometimes they will be carrying something like a mattress wedged between the driver and the passenger. This is a typical business day in Liberia.

The heat and humidity in Liberia that I was warned about lived up to its billing. We have days like that in Maryland, but when I get too hot I just find air conditioning. You don’t have that luxury in Liberia. The combination of sweat, dirt from the dirt roads, and only a daily bucket bath, often left me feeling like the character Pig Pen in the Charley Brown comic strip. Yet, the Liberians always seemed fresh and clean. I think I figured out their secret. While driving down the tar road I saw numerous Liberians in the waterways along the road all day long, bathing, washing clothes, and washing their motorcycles. Some even hauling water on their heads back to their house which could be several km away. These are not lazy people. These are people that are finding a way to make it work under difficult circumstances. Liberia suffered through two horrific civil wars. As the second war ended and the country began to recover an Ebola epidemic broke out. These events not only caused many deaths, it isolated Liberia from the rest of the world. This has significantly stymied recovery.

As an agriculturalist, I see Liberia as a fertile country that woefully under produces. Much of the food sold at markets is shipped in from neighboring countries. Many of the youth that I met strive to be politicians, preachers, or in the military; not farmers. Yet, only through improved food production can Liberia break the bonds of poverty. It will take volunteers, like Nathan and Anna, and organizations like AgriCorps to turn this around and get Liberia on the path toward sustainability.

When travelling through Liberia we would weave in and out of heavy traffic, avoiding people darting across the street with carts full of wares to sell and the large holes that peppered the roads. All this with no traffic lights, stop signs, or crosswalks. I felt a sense of accomplishment, and frankly relief, when we made it safely from point A to point B. But the Liberians have developed a strong sense of self-reliance and cooperation so they make it work. I met an outgoing, young man who was a student at Booker Washington Institute, where Nathan and Anna teach. Almost immediately after finishing our Liberian greeting, he told me that he was going to become President of Liberia one day. Imagine that, a society that allows an average citizen to realistically dream of becoming President. That sounds to me like the makings of a great nation.

fresh juice

500 Liberian Dollars = 5 US Dollars

learning how to drink from a water sachet

Gifts from the Maryland FFA program

learning the Liberian hand shake/snap

Hope in the Harvest

Back in October as part of our monthly in-service training with AgriCorps, Nathan and I visited this place called “Liberia International Christian College (LICC).” Partnering with the school was an international NGO mission called “Hope in the Harvest” whose mission is to “cultivate Christ’s hope in underdeveloped and impoverished areas of the world through agricultural and personal transformation.” Their vision is simply “generating Christ-centered economic growth.” The NGO and its amazing founders, Gina and Travis Sheets, have been partnering with the school since 2011 by helping to run the agriculture department and demonstration farm. The work that they have done in this short amount of time is unbelievable and unlike any other organization I have seen in Liberia; that is of course why we were brought to visit them in the first place!

The ARC (Agricultural Resource Center). This is where the agriculture classrooms are, the agriculture lab, agriculture demo sites, and our apartment is up on the top floor!

As we got a tour of the agriculture department and the agriculture practical site, we kept getting blown away by all that we were seeing. There were so many things we had never seen in Liberia before, things we didn’t even know existed because they are so rare here. For example, there were fields full of pineapple, peppers, and corn, cages filled with chickens, turkeys, pigeons, quail, rabbits, geese, and dairy goats (the only herd in the country so I’m told!) There was also a miniature zoo to educate students and community members about species that were native to Liberia’s habitat but that hardly anyone knew about or cared about after the war destroyed so much of their habitat. I saw monkeys, crocodiles, civets, pottos, parrots, iguanas, deer, and more. In addition, we met staff who were knowledgeable about so much and clearly eager to teach and to learn more themselves. We also met students who were equally as eager to teach and to learn.

We were in awe of everyone there and everything that the mission was doing. And when we heard the story about how it all began and their vision for how they saw this place growing and continuing to make an impact in Liberia our hearts were stirring because we could see it too! As we went through the weekend, I secretly dreamed about being able to work here next year, or maybe somewhere like this place in the future. Working at a place like this would give the opportunity to work in agriculture internationally and use that as a venue to share my faith…something I have always dreamed about and felt led to do. I let the thought cross my mind, but I was cautious not to let it grow into anything too big…besides, in my mind we weren’t nearly qualified to work at a place like this. I also couldn’t imagine being able to try and fill the shoes left behind by Gina and Travis, even though Travis once said in a casual conversation “you know you could work here, you guys would be great.” I shrugged and said the place was amazing and chalked the offer up to just him being friendly, but not serious.

Well after the weekend trip up to LICC, Nathan and I got to talking. He too thought the place was amazing and when I told him I dreamed of working at a place like that he agreed that he felt there was definitely a God-sized reason we had visited but what that was we still weren’t too sure. We thought that maybe God had brought us there just to meet the Sheets, or maybe just so that we could see Him visibly at work in Liberia, or maybe so that we could become donor/advocates for the mission, or maybe it was in order to give Nathan a vision of what he hoped to accomplish one day himself (he has spent a lot of time these past few years thinking about business/NGO ideas that would allow both of us to work in agriculture and share our faith through that venue). As we were contemplating these things, we received an email from the Sheets asking us if we had ever thought about mission work and if so what about working with Hope in the Harvest?

Well that was all it took and our minds were racing with excitement thinking about all the different ways we could use our own experiences, passions, and skills to help further the work of Hope in the Harvest in Liberia. We could teach, train teachers, train extension agents, help students do research projects, help share agricultural information with the government’s Ministry of Agriculture from our own experiments, help preserve unique species, learn about new areas of agriculture ourselves, lead bible studies, disciple students, work with youth development programs like 4-H and FFA and help their impact spread even further, and work with local farmers in conducting Farming Gods Way trainings. This felt like the natural next step for us and it was so clear. We were only 3 months into living in Liberia and already it felt like we knew what we were supposed to do after our time with AgriCorps was finished, it was so exciting! But then, a few weeks after the initial excitement though doubts started to set in fast. Can we handle being away from our friends and family again? Do we really want to stay in Liberia for 2 more years? Are we wasting our “youth” by not chasing after a “normal career job”? How will we raise the $20,000 needed for our combined salaries? Do we really have any skills/experience that are useful to the mission there? Do we have what it takes to be a “missionary”? What are our motives for wanting to do this, to try and earn the favor of God, to be admired by others, to further our careers, or to really work alongside our friends here for the good of Liberia? Is this what God wants us to do? Is this where He is leading us?

And so we’ve spent the past 6 months talking with each other, talking with family and friends and most importantly talking with God in prayer. And the more we tried to debate with each other and play devil’s advocate and come up with reasons for why we shouldn’t stay, the more reasons God showed us for why we should stay, why this is exactly where He wants us. We knew it from the beginning, the first time we visited there was something drawing us to this place and to this work. And so now here we are feeling so at peace, ready and excited to commit another 2 years to living in Liberia! Ready to move north to a new town, meet new people, work with new students, encounter new challenges, and stretch our minds and hearts even further in our pursuit to see His kingdom come to earth. We couldn’t be more excited to share the news with you! We cannot do this alone though and so we ask that you please join us in prayer for the following things:

  • Prayers for Gina and Travis as they wrap up their time with the mission in Liberia. They have dedicated an incredible 5 years to the mission and their vision is what started this whole thing!
  • Please pray for us as we wrap up our time in Kakata with AgriCorps, that we would continue to work hard and not grow weary; continue to challenge and encourage the students and the FFA.
  • Prayers for us and the Seebalds (another couple also joining the mission in September) as we all make preparations for this next big life change.
  • Prayers for the students, workers, teachers, and staff at LICC that they will stay strong in their faith and hold fast to the mission of the school.
  • Prayers for Nathan and I as we set out to start fundraising the money needed for our salaries (more updates on how you can help in the next blog post, for now all we ask is for your prayerful consideration).
  • Prayers for our trip back to the US in July and August that it would be restful as well as productive.

Bill and Holy Seebald (the other family coming) and us! This is the team for next year!

Africa Doesn’t Matter

I was sitting in the soil science lab grading papers when one of my Liberian colleagues struck up a conversation with me. It started out with him noticing that I was once again wearing a lappa outfit (lappa is the African fabric) and him teasing me and saying how much of a Liberian I have become. I dress like a Liberian, I can cook like a Liberian, I understand the Liberians when they talk, and I can even talk like a Liberian small small (Liberian for “a little bit”). He said when people see you wearing these clothes and talking like you do now they will ask “why have you changed? Where is it that this woman has come from? Then he asked me “when you go back to America, what will you tell the people about what you have seen here? What news will you share? What is your favorite thing about this place that you will carry back?”

There are so many things I love, but the first thing that I thought of naturally was how generous everyone is and how welcoming people are, I mean strangers will offer you food if you happen to walk by and they are eating. My colleague agreed with me and then went on to keep giving examples of how generous and caring people are here. If you are about to leave a taxi and then realize you forgot to bring enough money with you to pay, someone else in the car will step in and pay. If you see someone on the side of the road crying, a Liberian will stop and see if they are ok and do anything to help them get back on their feet again. If someone asks you for food, you will not think twice about sharing. I agreed of course with everything he was saying and I continued to list off more things that I love…the clothes, the music, the food, the street vendors, the scenery, the jokes, the traditions, little Liberian sayings, and so much more. It was a jovial conversation, he and I were just laughing about all the beautiful things in Liberia and how he could see I had slowly grown accustomed to his way of life. He didn’t say it, but all throughout the conversation it was easy to see how proud he was of his country and perhaps how glad he was that I saw it too.

But then he got serious and he asked me in a very slow and thought out way “Fefe (my Liberian name meaning “breeze”), why don’t people in your country know about Africa? Why don’t you learn about Africa in your schools growing up? Does the news not cover Africa in your country? We in Liberia learn all about your country, your history, and your traditions and we always know the news going on in the US, so why don’t U.S.-Americans know anything about Liberia? It was clear that to him, the idea of how a continent with a culture, tradition, history, landscape, and people as beautiful and as rich as this could be unknown or ignored, is simply and honesty incomprehensible, inconceivable

Taken aback by the directness and frankly the rawness of his questions, my confident little self just wanted to fill the silence with words and so I just started mumbling out a series of half-truths that I thought might be able to reasonably explain why the United States seemingly doesn’t have interest or doesn’t know about Africa.  Sure we all know about one part of Africa- the poverty part- from all the iconic photos/commercials of starving babies with swollen bellies covered in flies lying in a mud huts. But that’s not all Africa is, that’s not the whole story. What about the other parts of Africa? The good parts, the beautiful things, the rich culture, the music, the fashion, the art, the science, the businesses, the life-changing ideas, the creativity, the boldness, the kindness, the deep love, the unbelievable faith, the beautiful traditions. I tried to explain myself, I tried to defend my country and the fact that I didn’t learn about any of these things with just a series of excuses… “Oh, we just don’t have time to learn all that, we just have so many things to learn about” and “and “it’s not that we are purposely leaving Africa out, it’s just that we don’t spend a lot of time…..” And then I just had to stop myself and say “I don’t know” as if I was just as confused myself why a lot of the world didn’t know about Africa. But the truth is I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe I did know…

I sat there and a flood of guilt washed over my consciousness as I realized that the only answer that kept coming to my mind was “because Africa doesn’t matter.” I was shocked when I heard myself think those words.  I cringed as those words kept creeping up in the back of my mind and like a person who had just had all their intimate belongings accidentally spilled out on the floor of a public place awkwardly rushes to pack everything back up before someone sees it, so I too hurriedly and awkwardly tried to shove those words “because Africa doesn’t matter” back down into the depths of my subconsciousness and run away as fast as I could from my own mind.  Where did those thoughts even come from? How did they get there? How long had they been there? Did I put them there? Do I really believe that? How long did it take for those words “because Africa doesn’t matter” to form in the back of my mind? Less than a millisecond! It was already there somewhere inside me, ingrained in me despite the fact that I’d been talking about the importance of Africa for years in school and at church, despite the fact that I thought I was just talking about how much I supposedly loved Africa, despite the fact that I live in Africa….What?? How?? Why???  But, back to the real problem at hand, how do I answer that question now? How do you tell someone to their face it’s because they don’t matter?

You don’t, obviously and it’s not true, obviously. But it got me thinking…is it that Africa really doesn’t matter or is that many of us just don’t know about Africa and therefore it seems that Africa doesn’t matter? Should we be expected to know (or even desire to know) everything about every country in Africa, or even the world? Surely, it’s not possible! I know that! And is the fact that we don’t know much about a continent saying that we don’t care? Because if that’s true, then that is saying that I don’t care about a lot of people in a lot places because there is ohhh so much about this big big world that I don’t know! What is it then? Why did those thoughts “Africa doesn’t matter” even appear in my brain? Is there a part of me that believes that Africa doesn’t matter? Why?

It was at that moment that I realized that just because it might have been an answer- “because Africa doesn’t matter”- doesn’t mean it was necessarily true. Plenty of people know that Africa matters, I know that Africa matters and I know that if you are reading this blog that you think that Africa matters too. But unfortunately,  it is my belief that there are other forces telling us that Africa doesn’t matter and sometimes we can be tricked into believing the lie, a lie that part of me still maybe believes to some small extent. This lie doesn’t just come from one source and this lie isn’t something that is always obvious to see, but nonetheless, it is my belief (maybe I’m wrong) that it is still there like an undercurrent steadily beating beneath the surface of our society, unrecognized and unknown…this lie that “Africa doesn’t matter.” A lie that we have been told subtly by the media who never really spend any time covering African news (no it’s not entirely the media’s fault…I wish it were that easy to explain); by our education systems that are often lacking when it comes to teaching us about countries other than our own (the world has only recently begun this rapid globalization phenomenon and so can they really be blamed? Besides, I think that this is already changing in schools now); by the economic systems that always seem to inadvertently oppress and forget about Africa’s needs; by our international policies that say “America first,” which, perhaps driven by our own fears of the unknown, might lead us to conclude that one person’s life and well-being is more valuable then another person’s just because of where they were born; by our our own shame used to hide/cover up our complicated history with Africa;  by our trade policies that exclude rather than include; our aid/charity agendas that sometimes are manipulated to serve our own needs rather than build-up the people with whom we are working with; by our ethnocentric culture that tends to think our way of doing things is the best/only way, etc, etc. Not one of these is any more or less responsible or dangerous than the others and certainly there are plenty other things that contribute to us buying into the lie (maybe lie is too strong, misunderstanding, shaded truth, half-truth, false truth? I don’t know). But regardless, all of this combined together with our own sinful human nature (with its naturally self-seeking with self-prioritizing motives) has led us to believing a lie, a lie that we have accepted as fact, a lie that I didn’t even realize I still believed until the moment when my colleague’s seemingly innocent question basically asked me to my face why he and his people don’t matter or aren’t known (other than as charity cases) to the rest of the world. Again, maybe I’m wrong and maybe I’m being way too hard on myself (happens a lot), but it’s still something to think about…

So back to his question, “Why don’t people in the United States know about us in Africa?”  What I probably should have done rather than be embarrassed or overwhelmed with guilt, spewing out a mixture of lame, but seemingly plausible excuses to explain it all away and sweep it under the rug, was to just stop talking and say “I’m sorry.” And then, like a surgeon with her scalpel removing an infectious tumor, get to work on digging out and removing that lie that “Africa doesn’t matter” from the depths of my consciousness because with that lie, or anything resembling that lie still in my brain, I cannot, in good consciousness, truly appreciate, work efficiently with, or claim to really love all of these things and people in Africa that do matter. 

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I thought I had gotten rid of that belief a long time ago when I first visited Africa and decided to dedicate my career to working with the people of this continent, but it turns out I still have a lot of work to do and though overwhelming and hard to recognize this in myself, I’m so thankful that God in His grace continues to open my eyes to the ways in which my thinking is still a bit flawed and areas where I still need to grow in order to honor Him more.

This blog was really hard for me to share, I debated posting it every day for about 2 weeks and I’m still debating it now just minutes before I post because 1) I didn’t want anyone to think that I was judging them and 2) I didn’t want anyone to judge me either! Please know that I’m not saying that everyone has to know as much or dedicate their lives to Africa in order to say that you care about Africa, because I know that you do care (none of you are monsters!) and I know that we each have our own unique purpose/calling in this world, many of which are far from Africa and that’s OK. But I shared this blog because I wanted to be honest in sharing my short-comings and struggles in case there is anyone else out there who might struggle with these same types of thoughts. Is there any small part of you that might also believe this lie? If so, I understand, I understand completely. But rather than letting yourself feel guilty and burying those feelings deep down so you don’t have to deal with them, I encourage you too to try, alongside of me, to do everything you can to dig out this infectious belief from your subconscious, if it is even there at all. Some ideas: really get to know someone from Africa living in the US, learn about a new country each week with your family by watching the news or a documentary, read a biography of one of the amazing men and women from this continent (I am adding a list of good reads to a different page on this blog), make an effort to purchase African-made goods, double check your motives/heart when donating to charities, don’t be afraid to explore the deep parts of your consciousness and re-evaluate if needed, examine stories about Africa with a critical eye asking yourself “is this the whole story or only half the story?,” pray for God to change your heart and open your eyes wider to the real vision He has for humanity, and pray for the people here to be seen and to be known by more of the world. And if at any time you feel overwhelmed by all that there is to know and understand and decipher in this world, know that I am right there with you in all the confusion, but trust that God has it all under control and all you can do is what He has called you individually to do.

From my first trip to Africa in 2011. I went to Botwana with Cru and worked in an orphanage and doing evangelism on a college campus. This little girl Kebuele was quiet and reserved when I first met her but later became a little ball of energy and smiles!

Tanzania, 2016. Being presented with a kitenge by one of the village elders after working with farmers on sustainable agricultural practices for 3 weeks.

Now, living in Liberia I have had the opportunity to form truly lasting relationships with some pretty amazing people. Ma Daisy is one of the hardest working, most determined, strongest women I have ever met in my life!

Just Believe

If you know me really well, you probably know that I tend to do this thingggg where I come up with an idea or I decide to do something and I’m all psyched about it for like an hour or maybe a day or a month and then when a few little things goes wrong, I immediately let my doubts overcome me, start freakinggggg out, and begin questioning everything, everything I tell you! I’m not the only one who does this, right?? It’s completely normal…totally healthy…

Well that’s how it was with this whole “Agriculture Extension Workshop” idea. About 6 months ago I signed up to teach a class called “Agriculture Extension and Rural Sociology” for the post-secondary students in the National Diploma in Agriculture (NDA) program. This program is a 2-year program and it is for high school graduates wanting to pursue further education in a specific trade area(for example, agriculture). As I was going through the curriculum for the course, I saw that I was to assign 50% of their grade to “practical experiences.” Sure, that makes sense, this is a vocational program anyways and so of course 50% of their time should be spent doing hands-on things. For the swine class that means taking them down to the piggery and practicing giving shots and for the aquaculture class this means digging a new pond and filling it with fish. But what exactly should the practical look like for an Agriculture Extension class? The curriculum gave me no indication as to the types of projects/activities that my students should do and so I started trying to come up with some ideas. I thought maybe I will have them go out and interview farmers one day to practice talking with farmers, but then what, what to do after you’ve interviewed them? Just say thanks for your time and then never get back to them with any useful information? Just use them for a class project? No, that didn’t seem quite right…so I kept thinking. And then it hit me, my big idea: the students should go interview farmers and then based on those interviews they should put on an agricultural extension workshop for local farmers where they (the students) were the organizers, facilitators, and teachers for the event. Yes, I admitted to myself, it would be hard, but we could do this!

And so naturally I started running full speed ahead with the idea, making sure to plan the semester out in such a way that I would be able to prepare the students for the big task ahead. Some topics that we covered throughout the year included history of agricultural extension, importance of agricultural extension, extension models, communication strategies, learning styles, the experiential learning model, the “5 E method” of lesson planning, how to conduct farmer surveys,diffusion of innovations, program development models and steps, writing objectives, and more. Throughout the course, students knew that their final project would be to put on an agricultural extension workshop where they themselves would conduct the farmer surveys, create the program objectives, do the program planning and implementation, facilitate the teaching of lessons, and lastly complete an evaluation of the program. Students worked on different parts of the program throughout the entire semester as group projects, individual assignments, classwork, and homework.

Sometimes things went great, and sometimes things didn’t go so great….sometimes everyone did their assignments and seemed to have understood the concept of the week and sometimes the whole class would show up having completely forgotten about their homework. Some days the class was quiet and respectful and eager to learn and sometimes I questioned whether or not I was teaching middle schoolers because the talking was just out of control. Sometimes I had class on time as scheduled and sometimes I would show up to class and find 3 students because the rest of the class had decided since there was a football (soccer) game later that day that they did not have to attend classes in the morning. Some days they understood my American English accent and I understood their Liberian English way of saying things and then some days it was as if neither of us could understand a thing the other person was trying to say. Some days you could tell that they had put effort into practicing their lesson plans and public speaking techniques and some days it was clear to see that they weren’t taking any of this seriously at all.

Every week for the duration of the semester my emotions were up and down and up and down, a wild roller coaster ride. This workshop was a great idea, the students are going to do great….this workshop was a terrible idea, the worst idea I have ever had (dramatic much?)….this workshop will be such a good use of the school’s money and I’m glad I asked them to support this program financially, this workshop will be such a waste of the school’s money and I regret asking for money….this workshop is going to really help the students feel confident in their knowledge and teaching skills, this workshop is going to embarrass us all, it will be so bad AgriCorps will probably fire me (again with the drama, Anna). They can totally do this, they can’t do this at all…I can do this, I can’t do this.

Nonetheless, I’m sure you can image how I was feeling in those last couple weeks leading up to the workshop. It was getting down to the wire, and just like all of the extension workshops that I had planned back home, there was always a million little details to stay on top of and complete. Only, this time, I wasn’t the one in control. I had given control over to the students, this was their workshop, their responsibility to complete. Giving up control like that, especially for a self-diagnosed control-freak like me, was no easy thing. I was constantly battling in my mind the degree to which I should step in and help complete tasks, the degree to which I should let them learn from their mistakes versus stepping in early enough to prevent any problems. I wanted them to feel the weight of the responsibility they had to complete this task, but I also didn’t want them to think that I was absolving myself of all responsibility in case things went south because we were in this together. I wanted to see them come up with creative ideas, take risks, and find ownership of the program, rather than having to rely on me for all the ideas, to-do lists, and next steps. I wanted to step back and show them that I believed in them by letting them do it all themselves, but I also didn’t want to stand so far away from it that I couldn’t actually do any teaching, nudging, encouraging, motivating, reminding, correcting, guiding, or facilitating. Learning how to give constructive criticism while still being encouraging. Finding that balance is hardddd and I struggled almost daily throughout the entire process, but I hear that’s a thing that all good teachers, parents, bosses, leaders, etc struggle with, so I hope that means I’m doing at least something right!

The morning of the event came, and as you can probably tell from my Snapchat video (link below), I was still a taddddd nervous. Students started arriving and I could tell that they were a bit nervous themselves, but also excited. They were all dressed up in their finest lappa or suits, dancing around, and snapping a million Facebook-worthy pictures of each other posing as teachers, pen in hand in front of the dry erase board with their notes. Despite the jovial attitude, I could definitely tell they were taking this seriously, that they were proud of what they had put together, and that they couldn’t wait to show off to the farmers, administrators, other students, and members of the press. I finally started to relax and sat back and got ready to enjoy the day. There was no going back now, was there?

The day turned out to be a great success! Students presented their lessons professionally and confidently and came well prepared with all their notes and diagrams clearly written on flip chart paper, farmers were engaged and asking questions, the press was taking lots of pictures and doing interviews, and members from the administration of the school came and stayed the entire time even though they definitely did not have to!

On Monday in class after the workshop, I did a little reflection activity to help students think about what they did well and what they or the school could improve on for next year. I think it is clear to see from the compilation of student quotes below, how proud they were of themselves, how much they learned from the activity, how thankful they were to have been given the chance to showcase their knowledge, and that the administration (and Nathan and I, their teachers) had shown that we believed in them. And as I sat there smiling and feeling proud as I read their reflections to myself, I started to feel guilty and ashamed as it occurred to me that I had almost given up on them. Partly because I didn’t think they could do it, but mainly because I didn’t think I could do it, too much stress and too many unknowns! The mind is a tricky tricky place, but I am so glad that for this time at least I didn’t let my crazy anxious, overly critical, sometimes pessimistic, control-freak, flip-floppy mind bail on this whole idea. Because if I had actually thrown my hands up, given up on them, caved into my doubts and stopped believing in them, and just walked away (like I swore to Nathan I would do after I had just had another rough day of teaching) they might not have ever gotten this experience to truly shine, to fly, and to prove to themselves and to each other just how great they are and all that they can accomplish if they just put their minds to it.   I can’t wait to see where these talented students go from here! They are the future agriculturalists, extension agents, and agricultural teachers of Liberia and I’m so honored to have had a chance to work with each of them!

You’ll never know what someone is capable of if you never give them the chance and believe in them. Don’t let your own broken wings keep someone else from using their own wings to fly.

Me, Mr. Wowah (NDA program coordinator), and my students after the workshop 🙂 Super proud!

Student quotes from their reflection activity (be still my heart…<3)

  • “I felt encouraged when my Extension and Beef and Dairy Instructors (Mrs. and Mr. Glenn) smile at the facilitators while they were teaching”
  • “I was encouraged when I saw one of my teachers looking at me during the presentation and was happy with my presentation”
  • “I felt encouraged when I saw the farmers smiling at me”
  • “ I did well because I really studied my lesson notes ahead of time”
  • “I was encouraged when I saw the farmers accepting my new ideas. I was encouraged to want to teach the farmers more and more”
  • “I felt encouraged when I saw members of the administration, the department chair, and representatives from AgriCorps in attendance”
  • “I did well because my Extension Class taught me those techniques in presentation”
  • “I was encouraged when people praised me and told me that I did well in my presentation”
  • “I am very proud of myself and the class”
  • “I am very proud of myself on Saturday for standing among many people from different backgrounds and talking and telling them about the importance of agriculture.”
  • “I was encouraged when the farmers were asking me questions and my teacher told me that my answer was correct”
  • “I am very proud of myself when I saw myself presenting to such people on my knowledge that I have in agriculture. I described that day as a memorable day in life and a gateway to my academic journey”
  • “This program showed me that I am a good teacher if I will focus and commit myself”
  • “This program showed me that I am capable of teaching local farmers about what we have learned in the field of agriculture”
  • “This program showed me the skills I have and this program also gave me the motivation I need in presentation (public speaking)”
  • “This program showed me that after my graduation, I need to teach more farmers on how to grow their crops well, to be self-sufficient in terms of long-term food security.
  • “This program showed me about public speaking and that I want to work as an Extension Agent in the near future”
  • “This program showed me the best way to present in the midst of different people from different levels of understanding”
  • “This program showed me how do to a presentation, how to conduct a workshop, and how to improve my speaking ability.”
  • “This program showed me how important facilitators and extension agents are to the communities, societies, and nation.”
  • “This program showed me that I am good at teaching”
  • “This program showed me the value that is already within me”
  • “This program showed me that I have something inside me that is about to come out.”
  • “Next time I want to put away fear- which caused me to talk less”
  • “Some things I want to improve next time are spending more time researching the topic better so that I can answer questions better”
  • “I wish I had more time to conduct another workshop that will enable us to do more than the first”

“Let’s Eat-Oooo”

“Let’s Eat-Oooo.” I’ve heard it said so many times since I’ve been here. I heard it from my neighbors as they ate breakfast out on the porch and they ripped some bread off for me to eat; I heard it from my friend Comfort as I passed by her stand and she was eating palm butter with her daughter Angel; I heard it as I walked by a woman in the market as she was eating with her friends (I had purchased a knife from her stand in the market about 5 months ago and she says hi every time I pass through and she told me her name once but I can’t remember and am too embarrassed to ask for it again); I heard it as I walked by the house of one of our FFA members and his little two-year old boy waves frantically at me as I walk away; and I heard it at night as I walked into our house and saw my Nigerian neighbors cooking their dinner meal downstairs in the shared kitchen. “Let’s Eat-Oooo.”

Here in West Africa, and many parts of the world for that matter, community is valued above all else and sharing meals together is a big part of experiencing and living within a community. Above money, above time, above schedules….if you are eating and you see one of your friends walk by, you invite them to eat with you “Let’s Eat-Oooo.” It doesn’t matter if perhaps that means you yourself eat a little less than expected, it doesn’t matter that perhaps you didn’t have money in your budget this week to be sharing your food, it doesn’t matter if inviting them to eat means that lunch will now take 30 minutes longer than you had expected. If you are eating, and you see a friend walk by, you cannot let them pass by without inviting them to share in your meal. It might even be seen as downright rude, actually.

“Let’s Eat-Oooo” is such a simple yet beautiful phrase. It’s not a question, it’s a statement, an invitation that is not often rejected.  Even though it is such a beautiful gesture and I admire this aspect of the Liberia culture so very very much, the phrase sometimes causes me and my American Type A self an internal battle, so much stress. Each time someone says “Let’s Eat-Oooo”, these are just a few of the thoughts that run through my mind…..

  • “If I stop and eat, will I have time to make it back to the house and do all the grading, lesson planning, cleaning, organizing that I had on my to-do list today? It will through off my perfectly outlined schedule for the day entirely!”
  • “What if I’m eating and the food hasn’t been prepared safely and I end up getting sick?”
  • “What if the people I’m eating with are sick and we are all dipping our spoons into the same bowl? I don’t want to get sick!” (BTW yes, I am a germophobe)
  • “I’m not really particularly hungry…I shouldn’t eat if I’m not hungry…isn’t that what they tell you? I will ruin my appetite for the delicious thing I had planned for dinner later”
  • “I don’t deserve this, I have done nothing for you but smile and say hi everyday….and for goodness sakes I can’t even remember your name! I definitely don’t deserve this generosity”
  • “Will they think I’m being rude if I decline their offer? Will they stop offering if I say no too many times? What is the limit? I don’t want them to stop offering…”
  • “I want them to stop offering…it makes me feel pressured to stop what I’m doing…mess up my schedule…I wish they wouldn’t ask”
  • “Do they actually want me to come and join them or are they just being friendly? What if I sit down and they don’t actually want me there? Won’t it be awkward?”
  • “I can’t take their food, they are too “poor” to be sharing their food with me…it would be wrong for me to accept”
  • Is this person only giving because they are hoping to receive something later from me? What’s the catch?

And lastly the thoughts “I owe this person, I owe this person, I owe this person” run frantically through my mind. Each time I lift the spoon of rice filled with oily and spicy goodness to my mouth a tally is made in my mind, keeping track of who I owe what…a weight is dropped on my shoulders, burdening me with the feeling that I need to repay this favor back as soon as possible… to even out the scales. Naturally the first thing I would think of is to cook meals for everybody that has offered me meals but the trouble is 1) the number of people who had fed me is too high and some live just too far away to make it feasible and 2) well, I’ve found that they aren’t quite as in love with American dishes as I am.  Agggggg so much, stress! “How can I let this happen, that my friends, people who have much less material wealth than me, are the ones to whom I am indebted? I need to fix this right away!” I thought. After all, wouldn’t we all much rather be the one to whom things are owed rather than the one who owes? One is a position of power and control and confidence and the other is a position of weakness, of dependence….

Last week I was reading a book called “Assimilate or Go Home: Stories from a Failed Missionary” by D.L. Mayfield who describes her experiences working with Somalian Bantu refugees in the United States and she talks about the exact same feeling that I was experiencing as it relates to all the free meals and the inability to pay them back and the guilt that it was causing her. But then she writes that it was only when she was able to step back and embrace the inequality of the situation [herself being the one that was indebted to her friends in such a way that she could never pay back] and allow herself to be served was she finally able to find peace. Why is it that so many of us from the developed world, especially those in the line of missions or international development, have such a difficult time with this? We are so used to giving, giving, giving and thinking that we are the only ones “rich enough” to give (rich being associated only with money of course), subconsciously putting ourselves on pedestals to which the rest of the world must look up to for support, money, and “wisdom” and feeling the weight “to save” everyone, thinking that we alone are the only ones with anything worth giving, we alone are the only ones with ideas worth sharing. This complex or way of thinking is often referred to as the “savior complex” and it is something I currently battle within my own mind, something that we should all be on the lookout for in our own lives. Because this way of thinking is dangerous, leading to patriarchal oppression disguised as seemingly innocent acts of charity, and destroying the honest and pure nature of giving which in its truest form promotes unity, equality, and a shared humanity.

“Let’s Eat-Oooo.” It’s not about giving something and hoping for something in return. It’s not about guilt, wasted time, money, germophobic thoughts, or messed-up schedules….those things are so tiny in comparison to what it’s really about. It’s about sharing food, the thing that sustains and unites all life. It’s about giving freely, for it is in giving that we truly receive. It’s about giving and trusting that the god that you believe in will care for your needs if you care for the needs of others. It’s about relationships, taking time to spend with loved ones. It’s about being thankful for what you have and wanting to share it with others, no strings attached. It’s about a tradition of giving, a tradition that runs deep and permeates every aspect of life here in Liberia. It’s about sharing one’s staple food, a giant steaming pot of rice fresh off the coal pot and an oily, spicy soup to be served on top; the food and recipes that you and your ancestors have eaten for hundreds and hundreds of years, the food that has sustained your people through times of war, disease, poverty, and death and also fed your babies as they grew up big and strong. It’s, as D.L. Mayfield realized, about wanting to share this part of who you are, this part of your history with a foreign friend and hoping that he/she too loves it and appreciates the food for its taste, rich culture, beautiful history, and tradition, as much as you do, knowing that they probably will not but hoping to show them a bit of who you and your people are in the process nonetheless. It’s also about wanting to be known and understood, not just for the things that you don’t have but for the things that you do have. It’s about wanting to be the person who gives for once, rather than the person who is always expected to receive. It’s about mutual respect for one another, and our ideas, culture, and way of life. It’s about restoring balance and equality. It’s about dignity. It’s about community. It’s about so much more than my narrow-minded, young, schedule-oriented, guilt-driven, and often-times-stressed-out American mind can comprehend. But I want sooooo badly to try and understand.

So, I say “Let’s Eat-Oooo!”

Rice with palm butter soup on top

 

 

 

 

GlennsGoGlobal Youtube Channel

Hello friends,

Just wanted to update everyone that Nathan and I now have a YouTube channel called GlennsGoGlobal! If you want to subscribe to get email updates each time we upload new videos you can do so by 1) clicking on this link which will take you to our homepage and then 2) clicking on the red “subscribe” button in the top right-hand corner.

We will post videos of FFA activities, soccer games, walks around campus, trips to the beach, agricultural practicals with our students, church services, and much more!  I will also try and include links to specific videos in future blog posts so stay tuned.

Here is one of our videos that’s on the site now. We had an FFA officer training a few months ago and did a team building activity where the students had to move a marker from one end of the room to the basket at the other end of the room. Each of them could only use 1 finger at a time and they could not walk while touching the marker so they had to work as a team and hold onto it together and pass it carefully down the line. This is their last attempt out of three attempts and it was finally a success!

Miss you all and good luck with that big snow storm coming in today! Meanwhile it’s sunny and 95 here 😉

Nathan and Anna

The Trouble With Tradition

People had been talking about this day for months. Since, the first week of school I had been hearing about this day. People said it was going to be “super” and other people said it would be “great.” I heard it would be a celebration and a day of joy and fun….a day of tradition. And yet I also heard snippets of others joking and saying “it won’t be easy” or “they will give them hard time” or “they will get no rest” or “they will be sure to cry-oooo.” And so we waited and waited, not really knowing what to expect.

The week leading up to it we saw the campus preparing for their arrival. The dorms were cleaned, the streets were swept bare, and the clothes were washed and hung out to dry. Excitement was brewing all around us, but underneath all of the excitement there was also a growing yet unseen fear among some of the students. The day came on March 3, 2017. It started out just like any other day. Everyone woke up, bathed, got dressed, went to classes, and then ate lunch. After lunch though, classes were cancelled and everyone- students, faculty, and even neighborhood children- went to go stand out on the side of the road by the school gate to wait……the seniors were coming.

As we waited for the seniors to arrive on their buses coming from Monrovia, the Juniors took charge and “got everything ready.” They lined the freshmen up in lines…boys in one and girls in the other. Then, they wrote signs on blank pieces of paper for each freshman to tape to the front of their shirts. Other sophomore and junior students had signs saying “welcome seniors” or “to God be the glory” and so I had just assumed that’s what the freshman signs said as well. And then I took a closer look and saw that they said things like “stupid and lazy dog” or “sexy dog” or “bad dog.” That’s when I found out that the freshmen weren’t wearing welcome signs, they were wearing name tags, dog tags to be specific. Then I noticed their belts and the odd way that they were wearing them. Rather than being looped through each hole of their pants they were tied to just the back loop and hanging/dragging down behind them. They were their “tails.” The freshmen were no longer freshmen, they were no longer boys or girls, they were no longer seen as human… they were dogs. And pretty soon, I was about to be reminded of how dogs are treated in this country.

When the buses finally made it to Kakata and drove past the gates of the school the crowds went wild, absolutely wild. The students cheered, the drums banged, and the cymbals clashed. The noise was deafening. The senior students, all dressed up in their new bright red shirts and caps, leaned out the windows of the buses waving as younger students chased after them down the street. The excitement was contagious and I caught myself smiling and thinking about what a nice tradition this was, forgetting temporarily about the dogs and not realizing what might await them when the seniors actually got off the bus and on campus.

As the buses drove on into the city of Kakata for what I will call a “victory lap,” everyone moved back onto campus and assembled on the football field. Then, 10 minutes later the seniors arrived and the place erupted into chaos yet again. Seniors students got off the buses and some of the smarter freshmen students started running the opposite direction but they didn’t get very far. I thought it was a joke, part of a skit that was played out every year, but then I actually looked into the faces of some of them running and there was fear, a real fear in their eyes, and even tears. I looked back toward the crowd and saw some (not all) seniors pushing freshman to the ground and then sitting or standing on top of them for pictures. Often times one foot was placed on the head of the freshman and while they were posing for pictures they pretended to push their heads into the ground. They stood on top of the freshman and posed for pictures that made them look as though they had just conquered some sort of wild animal. Imagine the photos with a hunter standing proudly next to his kill….that’s how it was…except the “kill” was a freshman student being treated like an actual dog. Other seniors made gestures and movements that mimicked animals humping each other, just like animals do when they try to assert dominance over each other. Some of the freshman complied ever so obediently with everything and others ran, but no one really fought back….they were all too humiliated, demoralized, and dehumanized….and they knew there would be retributions later if they did. My stomach was in knots, my mind racing, my heart breaking, my anger boiling.

Thankfully though there were some teachers, administrators, and concerned community women there who were willing to fight back on the children’s behalf. When they saw freshman being taken advantage of they jumped right in and started trying to restore dignity to the freshman by pulling them up of the ground, throwing the seniors off of them, and yelling with a voice so serious, “run.” I don’t know why these women came to campus that day, if they were just passing through or they knew the horrors that awaited the children that day, but I thank God for brave women like them willing to stand up and fight for what is right. Meanwhile, other teachers stood back and did nothing, contributing to the injustice with their inaction.  Still, others though were laughing and discussing with each other about how “it was just tradition, the seniors were only giving back what was given to them three years ago.”

The word tradition stopped me in my tracks. TRADITION. Liberia is a country full of tradition. Most of them are absolutely beautiful and should be cherished and passed down from generation to generation. Like the way they celebrate new life and unions with elaborate naming ceremonies and weddings, or the clothes that they wear, the food that they cook, the songs that they sing, and the way that they hold the family/village/community unit above all else. But this, is this really a tradition? Is this really part of culture as some people have tried to explain to me? Or is this just another spin on the never ending cycle of oppression, of the thirst for power, the need to control, the need to feel respected, the desire to be vindicated. Another example of the brokenness of humanity existent in every culture, in every time period, in every country around the world…

It’s an interesting phenomenon when the slave becomes the master, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, or the abused becomes the abuser… but it’s a phenomenon that has seen itself manifested throughout history in all parts of the world. Liberia being one of the most remarkable examples. Did you know that Liberia was a country created by freed slaves from the United States? Did you know that many of those same people who came to Liberia in pursuit of freedom and an escape from their former oppressors then become the oppressors and even slave traders themselves? How is this even possible? Why is the cycle of oppression so strong? How can we break it? Who will break it?

In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire writes about this complicated cycle of oppression and talks about how unfortunately the oppressed, even though they may hate/fear/resent their oppressors, they eventually end up becoming oppressors because to them, based on their experiences, to be “a man” or ”human” or to be “someone who has made it” or “respected” is associated with oppression and so those are the actions they take as well to show others that they are serious, or powerful, or worthy…of love, respect, attention. Also, the idea of paying back what was given to them rings true in many situations of oppression. But how can they turn around and oppress the same exact people that they were oppressed with, don’t all the oppressed share some sort of special bond? One might think, but no. As Freire explains, the oppressed have only known a life of oppression and therefore their identity is more intrinsically linked to their oppressors as objects of oppression rather than as actual human beings…. people who have the capacity to build relationships and form bonds with their fellow oppressed people. This is how then the idea of any sympathy that the once oppressed may have had toward their fellow oppressed, is suppressed underneath the even stronger desire for retribution, desire for power, recognition, a chance to feel “human” themselves rather than an object of someone else’s oppression. But the truth is, it is not just the oppressed who have been robbed of their humanity (human identity, humanness) through the act of oppression; the oppressors themselves have also been robbed of their humanity. Neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others was in the plan when God created mankind. And yet, sin has tangled up the once beautiful masterpiece that God created in the beginning and now oppression is only evidence of our brokenness.

But thankfully, someone stepped in for us on our behalf just like those strong Liberian women stepped in on behalf the freshman students to break the cycle. It made no sense, Jesus himself was beaten, rejected, turned away, cast aside, taken advantage of and certainly oppressed. And yet, despite the power that He possessed and definite justification to be able to punish and pay back all the wrongs that were done to him, he did something to break the cycle. Something counter intuitive. He did not payback all the wrongs done to him or cling tight to the injustices, allowing them to shape Him or His choices; instead He forgave and wiped the slate clean and broke the cycle of oppression with a selfless act of sacrifice, of true leadership, of authentic love. And in doing so, He restored humanity to the world. He showed us by His example how to break the cycle. So instead of there being a cycle of oppression characterized by the tradition of paying back what was done to you or as the Old Testament preaches “an eye for an eye,” there was freedom. A tradition of freedom to truly embrace our humanity as children of God, which enabled us all to be able to love others in a new and radical way, unconditionally and completely without reservations, without worrying if everything was “fair” because it never will be in a broken world. Once we find our identify in God, it gives us the freedom to break the cycle of oppression ourselves because we no longer feel the need to become like our oppressors, we feel the need to become more like God and extend love and restore humanity back to our world.

In the moment of chaos, it felt that all hope was lost for this campus. But I know that there are more people out there like those brave women who were able to step in and turn the tables of what “should be” and bring in instead this radical idea of what “could be.” What could this campus look like if the seniors stopped “suffering” the freshmen (as they call it)? What could it look like to extend grace and pass down a tradition of love rather than oppression? What could it look like if new traditions were created, ones where we build others up rather than tear others down in our scramble to the top of the pyramid? What could it look like to break the cycle? To start a new tradition?

After witnessing the abuse, one of my extremely self-aware, compassionate, and intelligent junior students said that when he has a child he will not send him/her here because he fears for how he/she will be treated (especially if he has a daughter). That statement broke my heart but, I know that tradition can change…things can change and they can change with him…next year when he himself is a senior.

Living the Dream

As I stood in front of my classroom yesterday, already dripping in sweat from writing the objective on the board, I looked out on my new students actively working on their warm up and I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I thought about how different my life was now. For starters, I walk to work every day rather than drive, I hand write my lesson plans rather than type them on a computer, some days I have to yell over top the pounding rain on the tin roof and others we have class outside because the heat in the classroom is unbearably hot, I have no electricity, no powerpoint, no smartboard….just 45 wooden desks and a chalkboard. But in some crazy way, I am living the dream.

I’ve always known that I wanted to work in agriculture, and as a child showing my animals in the 4-H county fair I had decided at a very young age that there was no other field for me. I’ve always known that I wanted to teach, the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you finally see it click for your students and when you see them actually enjoy learning is one of the most rewarding things on this planet. And like many people in this world, I’ve always known that I wanted to help others and make a difference in my img-20161016-wa0006community. And so I dreamed of becoming a high school agriculture teacher or a 4-H or agriculture extension agent…what better way to combine my passions for agriculture and teaching with my desire to make a difference in this world? I’m sure many of my fellow agriculture educators can relate.

I received my BS in Animal Sciences and Agricultural Sciences, and my MS in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications, and then for two and a half years I worked as an extension agent in my home county in Maryland. It was what I had always dreamed of and yet something was still missing. The truth was that I had also always secretly dreamed of working in a developing country. One international trip in high school and the idea had taken hold in my heart. I saw beauty like I had never seen before and I realized I loved to travel, I loved to be immersed in a culture that was so opposite my own, and I loved making new friends in other parts of the world. But I also saw poverty like I had never seen before and I saw a need, a need for better agricultural methods, a need for building up agricultural leaders within these communities, a need for better opportunities for education of youth, a need I realized I could actually do something about. And so last spring after much thought, I quit my dream job in pursuit of another….becoming an AgriCorps Fellow in rural West Africa.

20160820_112835Currently, my husband (a former Maryland high school agricultural teacher/FFA advisor) and I are serving  as Fellows for AgriCorps, which is an organization whose mission is to “connect American agricultural professionals to the demand for experiential, school-based agricultural education in developing countries.” As AgriCorps Fellows we each have three roles in our community: 1) a high school agriculture teacher, 2) an agricultural extension agent, and 3) a 4-H/FFA advisor. Every week we are still lesson planning, teaching, networking, training leaders, planning events, fundraising, managing volunteers, researching, writing articles, advertising, coaching teams, facilitating discussions, diagnosing diseases, talking with farmers, chasing livestock, laughing with students, and crashing after a long week’s work just like we did back home. Although our current surroundings may look completely different than they did before, our goal is still the same: to educate people about agriculture with the hope for a better tomorrow.

Want to learn more about the mission of AgriCorps or about how can become an AgriCorps Fellow? Visit AgriCorp’s website: https://agricorps.org.

*Note, this blog was posted on the official AgriCorps blog on November 28th, 2016. I have copied and pasted it here again for my records.  Please share it with someone who you think may be interested in becoming an AgriCorps Fellow. Deadline for spring applications is coming up soon!

I Believe in a Poverty-Free Future: A faith born not of words, but of deeds

By Nathan Glenn

You all know poverty. You’ve seen it on TV; you’ve seen it in your region’s city center; you’ve seen it in rural areas; or maybe you’re living in it. The majority of the world’s population live in poverty–3 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. Even I, growing up in an affluent and quickly emerging Maryland county came in contact with poverty quite often. Most of the time the thought of poverty that is close to us leads to a discussion about politics. So often our discussions lead to arguing back and forth about the cause of our local poverty and how government policies can fix it. It is important for us to recognize that there are different and troubling socioeconomic situations for many of the world’s people, but the real concern should be why aren’t we making progress like we should? Picking up my life and moving it to Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has invoked a lot of thought and inner struggle on this very question.

I walk through the market and wonder about how the development of Kakata (our city of about 30,000 people) would progress if they changed the way they did business. I dream of a day where I don’t pass by the market women, ALL fifty of them or all one hundred of them selling the EXACT same things as the woman beside them, competing against each other for customers, and lowering their prices just to make enough to survive. I often wonder about how can we get these women to stop buying produce from a market outside the city, selling at the market in the city of Kakata, and accepting a less than 5 cent profit for every piece of produce. I am by no means an economic development expert, but I wonder what would happen if all of these market stands, all of these Kakata women began to cooperate and incorporate–maybe into a Liberian grocery store or clothing store or supplies store. Everyday I think of different ideas just like this one, and  I research them. I engage my mind in something that could eventually turn into a meaningful poverty solution.

The importance of thinking, researching, and engaging is not that your ideas are always correct, rather that you are engaged and open-minded. By now we know that there is no golden key to fix the world’s poverty cycle or else we would have used it already. What we do know is that the answer is complex, multi-faceted, and requires people to actively be engaged and passionate about finding solutions together, alongside with the people that they want to serve. I guess one of the major things I have learned from my experience so far in Liberia is that I was wrong when I used to talk about poverty like it was only a political problem. Like it was a problem that could be fixed only by policy. Like it was a problem that had a single, political answer. My students, while recently learning the FFA creed (Liberian version), asked me what was the meaning of the line “a faith born not of words but of deeds”. I told them it means that our faith in agriculture should be demonstrated for all to see by the actions we take, not just the words we say. I think it means that we should show faith in mankind’s ability to break free of poverty by taking action. To show faith in the people around you…to see them as people who can create change rather than people who are simply waiting for change to happen to them or for them.  To show your faith by taking ACTION.

What I have come to realize is that poverty is supremely, a social problem. In Liberia, the entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant in some individuals, but ultimately it is not making the impact that it should. The women in the market accept the small profit margins that they receive, and therefore they accept the poverty in which they live. It’s not necessarily their fault, but it’s their reality. The government doesn’t really believe that they are worth investing in and unfortunately, neither does their society…no one sees them as being able to make an impact, no one allows them to dream, no one enables or supports them to take a risk or to be entrepreneurial.  In contrast, one could say that the U.S. is the world power it is today chiefly because of an impactful entrepreneurial spirit that led Europeans to search for a better life in an uncharted part of the world. Yet, that same entrepreneurial spirit, that belief in the inherent goodness, productivity, and ability of human kind has somehow left behind or completely forgotten large portions of our society in the midst of their poverty. In this way, through inaction and disengagement and lack of faith in people, poverty is a social problem.

New democratically agreed upon government policies are necessary, but without unified social engagement and faith in our poverty-stricken people, whether in your local area or halfway across the world, they will be rendered useless against the power of poverty. Don’t just talk about your local poverty cycle–think for yourself, research solutions, and engage in action alongside those you want to see lifted out of poverty.

 

20160821_144921 dsc02398 dsc02436 20160820_111942

 

Enough…

To anyone looking on, the day had been a series of utter failures….one hit after the other…the FFA meeting had only 2 members show up, the FFA movie night had to be cancelled, and the FFA officer induction ceremony (which I was really looking forward to) scheduled for the next day was forced to be reschedule at the last minute. Watching the disappointment spread across the faces of my few committed FFA officers as I tell them the news yet again of another cancellation was HARD, very hard. But this experience was nothing new, I’ve had this scenario happen many a time here in Liberia…it’s probably why I haven’t had the energy to write anything or blog anything for these past couple months (sorry!). I’ve spent many hours chasing down administrators in order to get approval for a little thing like hosting a small pick-up soccer game, I’ve written countless “letters” asking for things that in my own culture I would have just been able to ask for verbally, I’ve wasted entire days looking for a functioning printer within a 2 mile radius, I’ve watched my well-thought out and beautifully-planned lessons fall to pieces as soon as I try and explain directions to my group of 45 sophomore students, and I’ve sat through so many mindless meetings only to emerge feeling just as confused as I was when I went in there because I still can’t understand all the little nuances of the enigma that is the “Liberian English” language (let alone the number of social cues that I may have also missed). Soooo many days I go to bed feeling stressed, anxious, defeated, and perplexed wondering “Am I good ENOUGH for this? Did I do ENOUGH today? Try hard ENOUGH? Get ENOUGH people to attend meetings? Complete ENOUGH work? Make ENOUGH change?” or “what on earth did I do today? Am I wasting my time?” and “did I even make any difference today?”

Suffice to say, it was an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally and yet something felt different when I fell into bed that night, I felt a sense of peace and a sense of hope wash over me. Why? What was different about that day than all the other days? Why didn’t I close my eyes and worry and fret all over again about the future of the FFA club in Liberia?

Because I was letting go… Because I was learning to TRUST.

TRUST in the process, TRUST in them.

The difference between this time and all the other times? It was the first meeting and first big event that our newly elected FFA officers were given full responsibility to plan. They were responsible this time for getting permission from the appropriate authorities, for reserving the room, for creating the agenda, and for advertising the meeting and making sure that people showed up. To the onlooker, they failed. Only 2 people came. But here’s what you didn’t see….

  • The officers did a lot of advertising for the week leading up to the meeting (they drew signs, they presented in classes, and they told their friends)
  • The officers showed up ON TIME (or within 5 minutes of on time…close enough) and THAT in itself is a huge accomplishment and step forward (sometimes we have spent 45 minutes waiting for just the officers to get there).
  • The officers still had the FFA creed memorized and presented it flawlessly as a team…one person presenting each paragraph. It was great to see them take it so seriously and come together like that.
  • The officers all performed their FFA opening ceremonies with confidence and pride.
  • The president created the agenda and led the meeting entirely on his own.
  • The members practiced parliamentary procedures and it actually worked!
  • The meeting ended on time!!! (only 1 hour!)

Then came the failed movie night….again nobody came. But what you didn’t see was this….

  • Again, the students tried their best to advertise (they made signs, announcements, and told their friends)
  • The treasurer spent 2 days working on printing tickets up so that we could try to sell tickets in advance.
  • The treasurer actually showed up EARLY to help set up the room for the movie night.
  • The vice president went back and forth to many different members of the administration in order to get permission for us to have our movie night.
  • The officers spent ONE WHOLE HOUR not wanting to give into defeat and they walked around outside the movie room for one hour advertising to their fellow students on the street and trying to get them to come to the movie night.
  • After it was realized that the movie night was not happening, they did not jump into a blame game (as might be expected of teenagers in this situation), but they sat and had a meeting about what they could do better next time.

Then came the induction ceremony which had to be postponed due to an irritatingly small technicality (3/4 of the administration offices were informed of the event but we failed to inform the 4th office via letter a minimum of 3 days in advance and so were threatened with FFA being shut down if we proceeded to have the program as scheduled….what in the world?!? I digress…). But what you didn’t see was this….

  • Those FFA alumni had worked for weeks typing up invitation letters and scheduling a program for the day of the event. I will admit, this is the event where I had my biggest doubts about whether or not it would actually happen…it was such a large undertaking. But the FFA alumni working on it really blew me away by how much they were able to accomplish, so many great ideas, so much creativity, so much organization!

Don’t get me wrong, I felt disappointed, sad, defeated, and steaming mad (especially when I found out about the induction ceremony) but I still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face that day because more than the failures of that day, I saw success. I saw students stepping into these new leadership roles and stepping up to the plate. I saw leaders putting all they had into their work, refusing to give up. I saw leaders struggle through the difficulty of the early growing pains that all leaders must go through. I saw creativity bubbling out of them, daring to be bottled back up. I saw responsibility guiding their actions as they steadily discussed ideas and delegated roles to each other. And, I saw in them their determination to succeed, their determination to see the FFA succeed and their determination to see Liberia succeed.

As I sat back and watched them discuss ideas for how to make things better next time, I realized how self-absorbed and arrogant my thinking had been. I was worrying and fretting and asking “Am I enough? Is my work enough?” when the question I should have been asking was “Are they enough? Do I trust them?”

Reminder to self: I am not the one who is going to change Liberia or change the FFA.

And again: I am not the one who is going to change Liberia or change the FFA.

I am only here for a year and I am still and will always be a stranger in this land. They are where the REAL change is going to come from. So instead of wasting time beating myself up every night after days of seemingly endless failures, I need to remind myself over and over again that I am not some sort of “hero,” I don’t have all the answers, I’m going to make mistakes, and my way is not the only way and instead keep building up and encouraging all the heroes around me, listening to their ideas, asking for their opinions, and encouraging them to try new things. Forget about “am I enough?” and focus on are they enough? Are they strong enough to handle disappointment? Do they have enough discipline for this? Are they creative enough? Are they leaders enough? Are they motivated enough? Are they, as youth, smart enough? The answer….the answer is obvious.

They were already enough, before I even set foot in this country, and they will continue to be ENOUGH after I leave. My job is not to convince myself (or you my reader) that I am ENOUGH but to show them that they are ENOUGH and maybe along the way give them some technical skills and trainings that will help them become all that they want to be, connect them with local people who will help make their visions come true, stand by their side as they walk through failures, and smile with them as they meet with success as I know they will. This is the only way that REAL CHANGE can occur.

 

“Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue [necessary for real change] becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialougers is the logical consequence”                              -Paulo Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Below are some fun pictures of various FFA activities we have had over the past few months of blog silence 😉