Our experiences impact our perspective on life, on the world, on our dreams for the future, and our passions at the moment. So, I'm collecting my experiences and my memories as I continue to figure out who I am in this world.
While in college, I lived in Ivory Coast for a semester. I lived with two Ivorian families, one in Abidjan, the capital, and one out in the western part of the country close to the Liberian border; so close to the border that the town had doubled in size because of the refugee population fleeing their civil war. I taught 7th grade science to those refugee children – a classroom with ages that spanned from 13 years to 20 years because schooling had been so disrupted by war. I tried my best to teach, with one book for the entire class and one notebook for each student. I was strict, wanting to do a good job with these students who knew they were privileged to be in school, but also distracted with having a white American girl teaching them. There was lots of laughter and teasing and trying to get out of homework and tests. Looking back, I think that perhaps, though schooling was important, maybe just as important was the fact that they had a routine, they had somewhere safe to be, they had stable adults and expectations they could count on each day. Maybe the grade they received in their life science class was the least of the goals for the school…
I was overwhelmed with the Liberian population. I knew of the country – recognized the name, that it existed somewhere on the continent, recalled a vague connection with the U.S.…that’s about all I knew. And yet, when I arrived I was faced with hoards of kids and a group of teachers who threw questions at me constantly. You see, Liberia was originally settled by slaves from the United States. Their capital is Monrovia (named after President Monroe), their currency is the dollar, and the national language is English (though I struggled at first to understand what they were saying as much as I did my French speaking family). The questions weren’t about where I was from, how many siblings I had and what I ate – I was prepared for those. The questions were about U.S. politics, upcoming elections, what did the American people think about their civil war, how up to date were the politicians on their situation, did the American people know how much the food aid we were sending was helping them, were they collecting money to help with the civil war?
How do you tell a people so intimately connected with your country that, actually, less than 1% of the population probably even knows of their country’s existence, much less the historical connection between the two countries, or that we were even sending aid (food and possibly other aid? I have no idea.)? I stammered through my answers, trying to tell the truth diplomatically without crushing hope – that excited hope I saw in their eyes.
It’s not that we don’t care, I know this. It’s that we don’t know. There’s so much to learn about history and current events, we can’t know everything but it was still humbling to see the visceral connection they felt with my country and know that it wasn’t returned. My time with my students, their families and the Liberian community was happy and humbling, inspiring and depressing. I watched soccer games, joined in church services, and attended the end of the school year celebration. I struggled to teach students my age who had more experience with horror than I will most likely ever accumulate in my lifetime. I received thank yous for my meager teaching skills (not what I was studying to be) and admonishments to keep my community (so disconnected and isolated compared to their own) educated about their country.
I was taken to the food distribution center and saw my own students in line for their weekly ration of rice, corn, and oil. I walked through the warehouse and saw the stack of bags and rows of cans, all stamped with “United States”, ready to be doled out to those who had no other resources, dependent on others for their survival, hoping to go home to restart their lives and make it on their own.
It’s a complicated world and I can easily be cynical about the United States’ position in the world. So many of our government actions speak of selfish interests and blind ambition that I get discouraged, and even the good things we do around the world start feeling tainted. But, I don’t want to believe that every act of kindness, relief, or fight for justice is purely selfish. Sometimes the desire is right, even if the action gets skewed and doesn’t play out exactly as we’d hoped. Mostly, it comes down to being personal. Because when it's personal the giver can be sincere, the recipient can be thankful, and much of the "politics" are covered with grace.