Welcome to Ms. R's Blog!

A big shout out to my old students from Savannah and from Duluth! I miss you guys, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to travel and see a very different part of the world.

The teacher in me can never resist a teachable moment. So, as you read my blog about living and teaching in Liberia, I hope you absorb some new knowledge. Please comment on my posts; feel free to ask me questions and to answer the ones I’ve posed. I want this blog to be a place of dialogue!

I’ve got a list already started of things to write about, but I would love your input. What do you want to hear about?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Field Trip...African Style

Yesterday, the Pre-K through 3rd graders at my school went on a field trip to Marshall, a city in Liberia about an hour from my school. Marshall is on a river that feeds into the Atlantic ocean.  While on the field trip, we took a boat ride.  The ride passed a small fishing village, which you can see in the first two photos.

The boat ride also took us past Monkey Island.  

Before Liberia's civil war there was a research institute that did pharmaceutical tests on chimpanzees.  These tests were illegal in the US, so companies performed the tests here and send the results back to the US.  When the war started, the institute shut down.  They left the chimps behind on 6 different islands; people still bring them food 2-3 times a week.  

As the boat approached one of these islands, the kids in my class began making loud "monkey" sounds.  Slowly, about 8 chimps came to the coastline.  They wanted to be fed.  They even used hand motions to show us they wanted food.  Unfortunately, due to the low water levels, we could not get the boat close enough to the shore to throw the chimps the bread we had brought for them. These showed us their displeasure by  jumping around and pounding their fists on the sand.  As we watched the chimps on this island, we could hear the sounds of monkeys on other nearby islands.

It was amazing to see these animals out in the wild, but a little scary too.  Their size was massive!  And, the echoes that carried across the water of the other monkeys on the surrounding islands was a tad creepy.

Can you find all 7 chimps in the last photo?

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I do a little cheer in my head any
time I get to eat food from home.
On Thursday, I celebrated Thanksgiving at the US Embassy with about 200 other Americans here in Liberia.  The meal was more traditional that the one I would have had if I were back home in Louisiana, where my family ate seafood gumbo and crabmeat au gratin.  At the Ambassador’s residence, I had ham, turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc.

View from the Ambassador's pool
However, if it weren’t for the traditional food and the “Thanksgiving” marked on my calendar, I do not think I would have remembered it was a holiday.  First, it is a balmy 80-85 degrees here every day.  Second, my view from the table was of the ocean!  Third, the rest of the country went on with work and school in a normal way.  After all, it was not the Liberians’ Thanksgiving.

Liberians celebrate their Thanksgiving on the first Thursday of November.  For them, it’s a national holiday.  The businesses and schools close.  Families go to church, but I understand that’s about the extent of their holiday festivities.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
and me
Sunset on Thanksgiving
This event was my second opportunity to meet Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is a Louisiana native.  She hosted the teachers from my school last month at a poolside BBQ at her house.  Though she is the second most powerful woman in Liberia (second only to President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson), she is remarkably approachable.  Plus, she does not mind getting her hands dirty.  For both the barbeque and the Thanksgiving feast, the Ambassador was in the kitchen busily cooking for the events.  She could just as easily have left the cooking and cleaning to her house staff!

This week, I had Thursday and Friday off for the Thanksgiving holidays.  In the past, the days I had off of school for Thanksgiving were much anticipated.  This year, however, I feel different.  During the month of November, I have not had a full week of school with my kids!   It seems like every time we get back into the groove of being at school, there’s another holiday.    

We had off November 3-4 for the Liberian Thanksgiving.  On November 7-8, school was closed for the presidential run-off elections, which Madama Sirleaf Johnson won by a landslide.  November 11 our school observed the American holiday of Veterans’ Day.  The next week, there was some political commotion; only four students from my class showed up.  By the middle of the school day, everyone in the school had been check out.  Next week, we will not attend school on Tuesday in observance of Tubman’s birthday.  (William Tubman was president of Liberia for 27 years!) This holiday is also referred to as Goodwill Day.

If you were counting, you would have realized that I have only had 13 days of school this month!  Now, the countdown begins to the Christmas holidays…

P.S. It’s been ages since I’ve updated the blog.  For those of you who’ve been checking regularly to see if I’ve added anything, I apologize.  Sometimes, I worry that I’m writing these blogs more for me than for others.  So, please make comments on the posts and let me know that you are out there…reading!

How would you like it if this little guy showed up at your table?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Do not try this at home!
Part of the Unity Party parade

Over the past month, Liberia has been in a political frenzy.  The country is hosting its first back-to-back presidential elections in 50 years.  This presidential election marks the 2nd election since the country’s bloody civil war that lasted 12 years (the length of the war varies between 10-14 years depending on who you ask).

Overall, the attitude of the country is one of optimism and excitement.  People are happy and proud to exercise their right to vote.  In a country of 3 million people, over 1/3 of the country died in a war fighting political oppression.  The people that remained alive are excited to be a part of the rebuilding process.  They want their country to remain peaceful and to remain on an upward growth pattern.

In preparation for the elections, many political parties hosted parades.  These parades are not like the Thanksgiving parade and Christmas parades I’ve been to back in the states.  Rather, the parades are made up of thousands of people marching in the streets. 

President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson
I was amazed at the throngs of people that showed up for the Unity Party’s  parade.  The current president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is up for reelection and is the UP’s candidate.  As people marched and danced in the streets, they gave thumbs-up signs, saying “Up with Ellen!”  I quickly got caught up in the merriment of the day.  The support of the president surged throughout the campaign, especially when Madame Sirleaf was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was one of three women honored with the award for aiding women and democracy. 

The mood, while mostly jubilant, has been tense at times.  After the initial election results were announced, someone set fire to a Unity Party office.  Madame Sirleaf received 46% of the votes and the runner-up received over 20% of the vote.  Because no one had the majority of the vote, a run-off will be help on November 8.

In the country, you can see more peacekeeping UN troops.  UN stands for United Nations. 

Question: What is the United Nations?  What is its purpose?
Police from Nepal
The UN was very conspicuous, or
easily seen, during the elections.

On Monday, we celebrated UN Day.  To celebrate, our school invited members of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).  The UN presence in Liberia is largely a peacekeeping body.  They are helping Liberia build and grow.  They also have helped oversee the election process to make sure all the voting is fair. 

Visiting our school were members of the US Army and Navy, policewomen from India, and policemen and women from Nepal.  Each group has a different uniform, but they are all working for the UN. 
Challenge: Check out the flag of Nepal.  It’s unlike any flag I’ve ever seen. 

The visitors brought bulletproof vests, binoculars, telescopes, and walkie-talkies for the kids to try out.  They talked about their jobs, especially their roles in the recent elections. 

Playing dress-up on UN Day
Random Information: No guns are allowed in Liberia.  The only people allowed to carry weapons are those UN police, who guard the president and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As all of our students were assembled to hear the UN representatives talk, I looked over the student body and was amazed at how diverse our kids are.  The students are from over 20 countries including United States of America, Brazil, Ethiopia, Nepal, Lebanon, Cameroon, Zambia, Canada, France, Gambia, India, Finland, Sweden, Korea, etc.  The school is like its own united nations!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dr. Doolittle

It’s 5 am in the morning.  You hear a rustling noise.  Something is in bed with you, scurrying across your sheets.  You turn on the lamp on your bedside table only to find yourself in bed with a gecko! 

What would you do?

Once upon a time, I probably would have run screaming from the room.  I might have even been tempted to grab a broom and hunt that gecko down so that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to snuggle up again in the late hours with me.

On that early Sunday morning, however, I simply swatted the reptile out of my bed, rolled over, and went back to bed without blinking an eye.  Africa sure has changed me!  I’m no Dr. Doolittle; I can’t talk to the animals.  However, I seem to tolerate, or put up with, them more and more. 

The reason I don’t kill the many geckos that get in my apartment is that they serve a bigger purpose.  They kill mosquitoes!  I’d rather have geckos than mosquitoes any day.  Plus, mosquitoes in Africa carry malaria. 

If a mosquito bites a person with malaria, the blood they suck is contaminated and can be transferred to the next person who is bitten.  That is how malaria is spread.  Malaria is like getting the flu times ten.  Your body feels weak, you get a fever, and feel very exhausted.  Some mosquitoes carry a type of malaria that can cause your brain to swell, leading you to die.  That’s scary stuff!  (Don’t worry about Ms. R., though.  I have plenty of insect repellent, bug spray for my house, and anti-malarial medication!)
Can you imagine the reaction of the first grader
who sat down to find this spider by his chair?

As for other animals, there aren’t a lot roaming through the school compound.  Mostly, we have geckos, lizards, spiders, millipedes, and cockroaches.  There are spiders as large as your hand, flies as big as a nickel, and cockroaches as big as your longest finger. (It’s the smaller spiders you really have to watch out for; they bite.)  I find that that bigger the insect is the slower it moves and the easier it is to kill the thing!

My favorite animals on the compound are the large lizards and the snails.  The lizards like to play dead.  They lay flat against the concrete, very well camouflaged, and look like plastic toys.  When you get close to them, they like to show how macho they are by doing push-ups!   The snails like to shimmy across my back patio in the morning, after the heavy rains.  If I open my curtains, I can usually spy at least six of them at a time.  My mother joked that I should buy a wheelbarrow and open a business (many people eat snails here).

Question: What’s the difference between a gecko and a lizard?
After a heavy rain storm, snails this size and
bigger are abundant on the sidewalk.

Question #2: Where do snails’ shells come from?  Do they grow on the snails back or do they trade shells when they get too big to fit in the one they have?

Remember that I do not live in the rural, or country, part of Liberia.  I do not see elephants and lions walking the streets of the city.  Therefore, the most exotic animals I’ve seen are monkeys.  Some people keep them as pets and tote them around like babies.  They dress the monkeys up in diapers and feed them from baby bottles.

It’s sad to say that there are very few dogs and cats in the country.  Dogs and chickens roam the streets freely.  I don’t know if the flea bitten things have any owners.  I’m told that cats and dogs are food here.  Again, that’s another reason I always have to ask what type of meat is in my food before eating.

The animal I dislike the most are the bats.  The school compound has many empty rooms and bats like to “hang” out in the one empty room across the hall from my apartment.  They use the hallway to the staff’s apartments like a landing strip.  One ran into me the second week I was here!  I thought that a bat’s sonar was supposed to keep it from running into things and people, but I had no such luck.  Sometimes, when I walk up and down the hallway, I can hear the bats squeaking away.  It’s a bit creepy for my taste.

Monday, September 26, 2011

At the Cook Shop

I was able to Skype with a class in Duluth, Georgia last week.  They asked many questions about the food that I eat and the animals I see in Liberia.  So, the next two blogs will be focusing on these two topics.

Admittedly, I am not an adventurous eater.  You won’t find me on any game shows that require consuming intestines, livers, or bugs.  In that respect, I apologize that you will not be able to read any gruesome tales of my dinner table. 

What has intrigued, or interested, me most about Liberian cooking is the method of cooking at local cook shops.  These are places owned and frequented by Liberians.  (There are other restaurants owned by expatriates, people from other countries where you can go to get more “American” style food at a more expensive rate.)

WARNING: Local cook shops should only be frequented if you’ve been taken there by someone you trust.   The locals may not cook with clean water, which is a no-no if you want to avoid nasty stomach problems and typhoid.  

There is a local cook shop across the road.  Notice, I did not call it a restaurant.  When I say local, you should just go ahead and imagine a dilapidated, old and falling down, building.  The building is divided into two rooms – a kitchen and a dining room.  The kitchen has many women sitting on the tops of jugs of oil, stirring in pots.  There are no ovens.  Rather, the women cook over hot coals!  The dining room has about 6 plastic picnic tables and chairs, and the flies are abundant!

True Liberian food is accompanied by rice.  The sauce or soup served atop the rice is usually very oily and EXTREMELY spicy.  I’ve tried cabbage soup; it was red, surprisingly.  There’s another dish I tried that had cassava leaves ground up in it.

If you want to know how much to pay for the meal, you ask, “How mow?”  That’s like Liberian English for “how much?”  (Side note: Liberians speak their own FAST dialect of English.  I cannot understand it…yet!) 

A meal with rice and soup and drinks for three people costs $350 LD, which is $5 US!  If you get to know the cook, you can begin to make requests for what you want to eat and can bring Tupperware containers to fill up and take home for dinner!

I definitely want to get to know the cook and let her know that I’d like to stick to chicken or fish.  I’m told that most times, the meat is “bush meat.” Quite frankly that means that whatever is killed in the bush is what ends up on your plate.  I’m not ready to be a connoisseur of rat meat or whatever else might be thriving in those weeds.  Last week, I almost ate pigs’ feet.  In another dish, I found cow skin!  

Cabbage Soup and Rice (with fish)
Christine's Cook Shop
The Kitchen
Challenge:  Look up fufu.  What is it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Market Place

Here's an excerpt from my journal about the local marketplace.  The market is about 1/4 of a mile down the street from my house.  The market IS NOT the same as a grocery store.  The grocery stores are more like small American supermarkets.  The market place is where local Liberians sell their wares to one another. 


Accurately explaining the market place really requires pictures.  I don’t know if I can adequately relay the sights and sounds of that place. 

First, I must say that the markets are located behind the street vendors I had been seeing on the sides of the streets.  There was no indication that these stalls went back so far!  Street vendors sell things from roughly hewn tables or wheel barrows (I saw one guy selling large snails from his wheelbarrow!) and make stands out of tin roofing material turned on it’s side and covered with cloth for its roof. 

Second, the market is – well – imagine the dirtiest flea market you’ve ever been to and multiply it by 100.  The roof is tin and held together with string and/or held down by rocks.  The tables are blackened by the same filth that’s on the floor.  The dirt here isn’t hard-packed.  Rather, it’s fine and gritty and impossible to keep out of your shoes.

The stuff sold at the tables varied from spices, peppers, fufu, vegetables, and fruits.  It was when I caught sight of a massive amount of flies that I realized there were also tables with meat – pig feet, chicken feet, livers, fish, etc.  The smell was awful.  I tried to hide the fact that I was gagging and had to put a considerable distance between me and the meat tables until the urge to faint finally subsided, or went away.

Third, the people in the market are interesting to watch.  Some are like vultures, wondering if I will be their prey.  I always have to look to my friends to see if the prices I’m quoted are reasonable.  There are children playing in the mire and muck on the floors.  I’ve noticed that many of the toddlers are taken care of by children only slightly older than themselves.  Older women have no problems falling asleep on top of their tables, while younger women might be seen slaving away using mortars and pestles to grind what looks like butter or cheese.  There aren’t many men here, but one kind guy did let me take his picture as he used a meat grinder to process some cassava leaves.  (I had to promise to print a picture and bring it to him.)

After I made my way home with my meager, or small, purchases of bananas, oranges and sweet potatoes, I set about the task of scrubbing my flipflops.  There’s so much trash mixed in with the dirt that I can’t stand the idea of carrying that filth in and around my apartment.  So, part of my nightly routine is scrubbing my feet and my shoes with soap and water.  I bought a special brush for the purpose.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Water, water, everywhere. And not a drop to spare.

Living in Africa this past month has really made me stop to think about the natural resources I use.  Sometimes, I find myself feeling very wasteful.

Today, for example, the girl who helps clean my house saw that I had thrown some eggs away.  I had assumed that the eggs were bad.  They’ve been in my refrigerator for weeks.  (Eggs in Liberia do not come with an expiration date on the side of the package like the ones in the United States do.)  She, however, said she’d take them home and try them.  I instantly felt guilty.  Here I was throwing away five eggs having failed to at least crack them to see if they were still good or not.

Another way in which I am constantly reminded how different my life in Africa is from the US is in the consumption, or use, of water.  Last week, we ran out of water several times.  That’s right…ran out. 

Let me explain….

I live on the school property.  We call it a compound because there are several people living within the gated area.  The water on the compound is driven in on trucks and stored in huge containers, which hold about 500 gallons each.   The water does not flow directly from those containers, so it must be pumped into a water tower. From the tower, the water flows to the classrooms, apartments, and offices.

There is a leak somewhere in the pipes.  At first, it was a slow leak because it took two weeks to drain the tower.  Now, we have to fill the water tower every two days.  The staff who live on campus had gone a few consecutive days without running water, so you can imagine that I desperately needed a shower.   I followed the suggestions of water and collected rainwater in barrels, adding a few drops of bleach to kill any nasty germs.  I used this water to bath and to wash my dishes.  I would have had to boil it if I needed to drink it, but I have already bought some bottled water for that purpose.

One morning, I figured What the heck!  What’s the purpose of taking a bucket bath when God has given me a natural shower – a rain shower.  In Liberia, we are experiencing the rainy season, so it rains here every day (most of the day).  I donned, or put on my swimsuit, and headed out in the rain with my shampoo, conditioner, body wash, towel, and washcloth to get the job done!

I have to admit that it was reinvigorating and refreshing!  It was even fun!

However, the luster of the rain shower was soon washed away.  I realized that there are people in Liberia all around me – across the street, even – who don’t have running water.  They must pump their water from a well they share will others in the neighborhood and then bring it all the way home.  They have to worry about the bacteria in their water.  Nasty stuff, like typhoid, can grow in the water and can make you sick.  They never get to take showers, but use bucket baths all the time.

Science Challenge: How much water do you use everyday?  Keep a journal about your family’s water use.  Don’t forget to include the water you use for cooking, washing hands, flushing the toilet, washing dishes and clothes, mopping, drinking, and bathing. 

Math Challenge: Now, imagine having to transport that water, walking from your house to the pump.  How much water could you carry in each trip?  How many trips would you have to make each day? Each week?

Writing Challenge: Write a letter to your local water treatment plant thanking them for keeping your water clean and safe for drinking!  I bet they don’t hear that enough!

I suppose this whole experience has taught me not to take my water, its availability, and its cleanliness for granted.  I also have a greater appreciation for the people who do without water and those who walk miles to provide water for their families everyday.