Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Liberia

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Liberia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Liberia. Homosexuality is one of these areas. It exists but is not openly expressed.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Liberia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Liberia[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in Liberia recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Female Volunteers who are single are often considered an oddity because most women, particularly in rural areas, are married, some with children, by the time they are in their 20s. Single women also face what in the United States would be considered inappropriate advances from male colleagues, supervisors, and acquaintances. Gender roles have changed drastically over the years in the United States; it can be a challenge to adapt to a culture with more traditional roles and to know how to effectively set boundaries. Unwanted attention, and even harassment, can be one of the greatest frustrations as a female PCV.

Above and beyond traditional gender roles and possible harassment, is the possibility of sexual violence. The rate of sexual violence against women is high in Liberia. Rape was used as a weapon of war and the government has launched campaigns to address this problem with the hope of reducing its occurrence. Domestic violence is also a possibility in this post-conflict country. According to police, most acts of sexual violence occur between people who know each other. Female Volunteers must exercise caution with their consumption of alcohol and going out in the evening unaccompanied. Volunteers will learn what is and is not acceptable in the Liberian culture, such as when it is and is not advisable to invite men into their homes. Often, Volunteers must take an even more conservative approach than their Liberian friends and colleagues.

Strategies to deal with these issues are discussed in training, and the Peace Corps staff can offer help in resolving any problems.

Volunteers should report any concerns or incidents to the Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) or country director (CD) immediately.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

African-American Volunteers may be treated according to local norms because it is assumed they are African. However, once an American accent is detected, Liberians realize the Volunteer is American rather than Liberian. African-American Volunteers may have a different experience in Liberia than in other West African countries due to the history of America and Liberia and because Liberians understand more about the history of African Americans.

Asian-American Volunteers have expressed frustration that some Liberians will call them “Chinese” no matter how they explain their ethnic origins or status as Asian Americans. They may be teased by children and asked if they know kung fu or karate. While in the capital, they might be confused with Chinese workers who are involved in different infrastructure projects.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Varying Ages[edit]

In Liberian culture, people respect age as bringing wisdom and experience. Volunteers in their 20s sometimes find they have to make an extra effort to be accepted as professional colleagues. Older Volunteers, in contrast, are automatically accorded respect. In turn, older Volunteers might find that almost too much is expected of them because of their age; or conversely older Volunteers who are used to living independent lives may at first feel frustrated by the fact that younger Liberians want to do things for them.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Most cultures in Liberia consider homosexuality taboo. Homosexuality certainly exists in Liberia, but there is no open homosexual community.

Volunteers who are lesbian, along with female Volunteers who are heterosexual, will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Some female Volunteers wear an “engagement ring” to avoid unwanted attention; while this practice might be helpful, it might also create complications.

Volunteers may not be able to freely discuss their sexual orientation with new friends and family; this can obviously be very difficult. Peace Corps staff is aware of this challenge and will offer support as you navigate through your new culture.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Liberia is tolerant of diverse religions, therefore most Volunteers find Liberia welcoming of their religious preferences. Volunteers not accustomed to practicing a religion may be challenged to explain their reluctance and invited to attend local events. Most Volunteers find ways to address these issues and feel quite at home in the religious diversity and tolerance of Liberia.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Liberia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Liberia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

As a result of the protracted war, there are many amputees in Liberia, with a concentration in Monrovia. Many support themselves by begging, so a Volunteer with disabilities may receive more requests for assistance.