Field Notes from Liberia: November 2016
by: Joan Komolafe
.It’s been a little over three months since I have been in Liberia. The rainy season has ended and the dry season or as I call it, “Dusty season” is upon us. The weather has also gotten a bit cooler in the morning and days are shorter. I have been told that it will “get cold” in late December and continue through about February. Of course, cold is relative because I have seen people walking around in winter coats and flip flops in the rain.
So, what is my job in Liberia? Simply put, I monitor, mentor, and train current teachers who are seeking to improve their ability to teach reading and become certified reading teachers. I also work with several schools in developing their school library. I am assigned to four schools which I visit weekly. During these visits, I observe and provide feedback to my teachers as well as facilitate a teacher’s club (learning community). As with everything else, the education sector was hard hit by both the civil war and the Ebola outbreak. Some teachers have no formal training while others have had some training at Rural Teacher Training Institutes; some are currently in school while others are near retirement, some are referred to as “volunteer teachers”, meaning they are paid by the PTA while others are “government teachers”, meaning they have been hired by and are paid by the Ministry of Education. For the most part, I have found the teachers to be open and accepting of criticism and recommendations which some are beginning to apply. Frequent excuses I hear are; “the class too big o”, “the children loud”; which I cannot argue with as classes range in size from 22 to 96 with one teacher. Also, classrooms are in open buildings allowing both air and an overflow of noise from surrounding classes and street.
Classroom management is very limited if present. As if those challenges weren’t enough, curriculum for grades Kindergarten through fourth is non-existent. There are objectives for all grades, it’s just that the Ministry of Education has not gotten around to providing the accompanying curriculum. Therefore, I also guide the teachers in developing a workable grade appropriate curriculum using available materials. Additionally, this seems to be the first time teachers have a curriculum and they don’t know how to use it. So, I also guide and encourage them as they learn how to use and teach from a textbook. Apart from the challenge of their ability to read and understand the material, I sometimes feel as if there is a culture of admiring and not using a shelf of beautiful books, as no one wants to touch the books because they are “afraid of “spoiling” (damaging) them”. I am slowly (small, small, as we say here) guiding the vice-principal for instruction on how to inventory and disseminate this material to both staff and students. Additionally, the only supply to be found is chalk. Teachers must provide any and everything they need/want to use, including a chair to sit on. Language is also an issue. Three levels of English is spoken – standard, Liberian and simple depending on how educated your audience is.
Another issue is the seeming randomness of school. Teachers do not always show up and there are NO substitutes, students may be sent home (but they linger on campus until the end of the school day) there may not be enough teachers so some classes have less than the six periods of instruction and students are not monitored during these times. Testing is done on a rolling basis through the school – this week grades one through three may be testing and next week it will be grades four through six. Classes are cancelled for the grades not being tested. Teachers may show up, but not teach, and whole days are taken for “activity”. I don’t know what those are yet. Liberians are very aware that there is a lot to be done and for the most part are willing to do the work. They just don’t know how.
I have noticed that the underlining trauma from Liberia’s past is not addressed. People speak of their experiences during the war and with Ebola, often out of the blue, and then continue with the original conversation. Again, the limitations of trained personnel make addressing these emotional issues difficult.
Children also bring many experiences with them. They are not only children going to school, some are parents in elementary grades, (which presents the issue of making the curriculum appropriate for adult learners while still teaching children) some are taking care of siblings, doing housework and selling “on the road” before and after school. Their education is frequently interrupted for these and other reasons.
One thing I am grateful for is that even though schools are open buildings, people selling snacks, etc. do not interrupt class to do so. They sit under a shed or tree and wait until recess before any selling is done. During that time, you can get anything from water to a hot cooked meal. Teachers supplement their income by selling snacks during recess.
I had occasion to attend a traditional wedding recently. I was very humbled by the seriousness of this event.
The ceremony began when the groom’s representative approached the bride’s family to formally ask permission for her to join his family. This was followed by much negotiation regarding the bride price and who should be compensated for her removal from their family. Once settled, the procession began. “We have to get your flower from across the water; we need $$ more. The canoe has a hole and must be patched”,
“We need to get a car to bring your flower here so we need $$ more, etc.” wish I could attach the video. Several imposters were paraded in. The required $$ was paid to reveal her identity only to discover she was not the right Flower. And the process began again.
When the correct flower was presented, and the lappa covering her was removed, a declaration was made – “we the … family are giving you our daughter. We have trained her . … are not a family who beats our women so we do not expect you to beat her”. The conditions under which she is brought into this new family was laid out including how to handle disputes.
A gift of kola nut was presented by the family to the bride as a symbol of prosperity. The amount of strings tying the bundle represented the level of prosperity for the new family.
The nuts were broken and shared to be eaten first by the family signifying unity then by well-wishers. The nuts are bitter at first, but become sweet as chewed and swallowed. Signifying the bitter and sweet experiences of life. This concluded the ceremony.