A Ribbon of Red Runs Through the Jungle

I’ve been on bad roads while driving to hiker trailheads in Colorado, but six hours trying to keep my head from pock-marking the roof of the Pathfinder I was riding in topped them all. The road I’m talking about is in Liberia, Africa, where I served for one month as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV). My first stop in country was the capital, Monrovia, then all PCRVs and PC Trainees traveled to Kakata for orientation and training, two weeks for PCRVs and two months for PCTs. After orientation and swearing in of our six PCRVs by the US Ambassador to Liberia, Ruthia, a fellow PCRV, and I attended a workshop on Education Development Centers in Zwedru. The road from Kakata to Ganta was paved (co tah roa in Liberian English, cold tar road in Standard English), but from Ganta to Zwedru it was a ribbon of rusty clay sliding, winding and bounding through the sylvan green jungle. Since Liberia is currently in the rainy season, the road had deep ruts. The view was interesting for the first few miles, then all the mud huts with thatched roofs and the hundreds of eight-foot termite mounds started to look the same. Multicolored goats sleeping in the road near villages provided some periodic entertaining moments as we dusted between them at whiplash speed. ‘Hey, White Man’ After a full day in Zwedru, which is near Cote D’Ivoire, I had to come back on the “ribbon of red” to Ganta, about a mile from the Guinea border, then on to Gbarnga, where I lived and worked in a learning resource center (LRC). I arrived there on Liberian Independence Day weekend, so lots of people were in town. I only saw one other white person, though, and he was driving. Since the local kids didn’t know my name, they yelled, “Hey, why mahn.” Then they gave me a smile, thumbs up, hand shake or hug. This white man’s job in Gbarnga was to help promote the library (one small room of books) at the LRC, support the lab of 8 computers (five work) and foster stronger organizational skills of staff members, local teachers and students. Liberian educators are well aware of the tremendous task ahead of them to rebuild their educational system from scratch after it was neglected during the civil war. I was hoping to impact teacher subject knowledge and teaching strategies to assist their efforts. ‘You Trying to Eat My Eyeball?’ During orientation for the six PC Response Volunteers, we had to take Liberian English lessons, though most Liberians understand Standard English. The language problem in Liberia is that there are 16 tribes, each with a different language. Liberian English facilitates cross-cultural communications. Only five percent of the population represents Blacks with American colonial heritage, so the rest are from Liberian tribes or the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, and other African nations. One fieldtrip took us to the open mahkay (market), where we picked up a few spare items. Our instructor, Luther, told us to ask the price. If we thought it was too much, we should say, “Fren, can you hep me?” If the seller persists with a high price, you can say, “You try’n ea my eyebaugh?” In other words, you’re accusing the vender of overcharging. That became a catch phrase and an inside joke among PCRVs and our Liberian teachers. If you don’t want your neighbors to see what you have bought, you ask for an opaque plastic bag—which costs extra—and is called a mine yo mou bag, or mind-your-mouth bag. It keeps people from knowing your personal business and gossiping. If you want fast food, you ask for co bo, which is a cold bowl. Liberians drop word-ending sounds the way the French do. A road can also be a dusty roa (dirt road) or mota cah roa (motor car road). Many roads are barely more than dirt paths that cars still drive on, but walking paths meander all through towns and villages of the beautiful countryside. Learning the Liberian Handshake After a month I was still learning the Liberian handshake, which is made up of a regular hand shake, rotated into a thumb shake, collapsed into an all-finger grip, which is slid into a one-finger snap. My snap was more of a “snup,” so I got lots of laughs and lessons from people I met. The Liberians are friendly and understanding of our lack of knowledge of local customs. Public transportation is mostly by motorcycle in Gbarnga, but there are some taxis that do long-hauls to Kakata and Monrovia and probably Zwedru. Peace Corps Liberia forbids volunteers to drive any vehicle or ride on a motorcycle taxi, so I walked everywhere in town. Besides, I saw one of the motorcycle taxi drivers wipe out right in front of me on one of Gbarnga’s dusty roads. He got up fairly quickly, but he was doing a high-stepping dance and shrugging vigorously to reduce the pain of assorted sore muscles and road rash. I understand another thing. Taking a Pathfinder to Zwedru and back was double torture, so taking one of the little, shockless local taxis over the ribbon of red clay to Zwedru would be like taking a dozen trips over Niagara Falls in a 55-gallon steel barrel. I didn’t need any headaches or chipped teeth, so I was glad I didn’t have any more meetings in Zwedru.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.