Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Liberia
Mail may be sent to:
Peace Corps Volunteer
P.O. Box 707
Letter mail may be received at the above post office box number. Parcels may also be sent, but delivery is not reliable. If parcels are sent it is recommended to keep the tracking number for reference. Please keep in mind that mail delivery is nearly nonexistent in Liberia, so Volunteers should not count on receiving a lot of mail. Email is the best bet, but access will vary according to location. There will be a computer available for Volunteers in the Peace Corps office in Monrovia, the nation’s capital, but trips to Monrovia are infrequent.
All of the telephone lines were destroyed in the war and there are no hardlines available. All calls are made by cellphone. The cellphones in Liberia are not “locked” into a particular provider, as they are in the United States. They use SIM cards, so if you bring an American phone, please be sure it is multisystem and is “unlocked.” Otherwise, you may purchase a phone here. Phones cost about $40 and usage charges are based on the amount of minutes used. Phone cards are sold for $5 per card and these basic costs have been calculated into your living allowance.
Peace Corps will provide one satellite phone to each warden for a clustered group of Volunteers. It is for emergency communications and Peace Corps business only and is not available for personal calls, incoming or outgoing.
If you have your own laptop, a solution that may be of interest is the use of a data card. Several cellphone companies offer Internet service through cellphone technology. You can purchase a data card and it calls a nearby cellphone tower for service. It is slow, but works in most towns. The data card is currently available for $129 and the monthly fee is $59, but this may go up. The bandwidth is around 64/32 kbs. If you have a newer laptop that requires the more sophisticated “smartcard” then you may need to buy a compatible cellphone that can attach to your computer or you may wish to bring a separate data card reading device. Some of the major cities have limited wireless locations. There are also small Internet cafes opening in Monrovia and a few of the major cities.
Housing and Site Location
Housing is in short supply in many regions of Liberia, so be prepared for very basic housing.
Volunteers are assigned to work under various ministries, but at the comunity level. Volunteer housing is provided by the host country; the ministries collaborate with local school authorities, community leaders, and partner organizations to secure housing. Some of the homes are equipped with electricity that may be provided for several hours daily, usually in the evening. Some homes will not have any electricity. Water will be available, but usually from nearby pumps and will have to be carried to the house.
Most Volunteers are assigned to schools and organizations in rural towns. Your workplace will be within walking distance of your home, but it might be a long walk! Dependent on community need, Peace Corps makes every effort to cluster Volunteers within reasonable distances of each other in order to promote collaborative efforts and minimize isolation. Some Volunteers might be placed in the same community. In this situation, Volunteers might have to share a house. You must be prepared to accept the living conditions to which you are assigned as you will be living under the same conditions as the people with and for whom you work. Peace Corps inspects all potential housing to ensure it meets our standards for health and safety.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers will receive a settling-in allowance to purchase the basics they need, such as bedding, dishes, etc. The price of purchasing a local cellphone has been incorporated as well. In addition, you will receive a monthly living allowance for your food and other expenses. It will be important to budget your funds.
The banking system in Liberia is rebuilding from the long period of war. There are not a lot of bank branches up-country and there are no ATM machines. The banks intend to open them over time, so this may happen during your tenure in Liberia. Until that time, you will likely have to travel some distance to banking facilities in another town.
Liberia is a cash economy and credit cards are not accepted. There are a few retailers in Monrovia who will cash a U.S. personal check for a fee. You may bring travelers checks, but there are only a couple of places that take them. Peace Corps/ Liberia is able to lock up any Volunteers’ traveler’s checks and credit cards for safekeeping so you can use them when you travel internationally.
Food and Diet
In Liberia, rice is the staple. If someone does not have rice to eat in a day, the person may feel as if he or she has not eaten. Other favorite foods include plantains, fufu, and dumboy. The latter are paste balls made out of various root vegetables and have a consistency of tapioca.
The typical meal is a sauce called “soup” or “gravy” poured over rice. They can be thick stews of vegetables (such as okra or greens) with meat and/or fish or more of a broth with meat and vegetables. Frequently a combination of meats is used in the soup. The meat is not trimmed the way Americans are accustomed, so there are frequently bones or cartilage. The variety may be beef (“cow meat”), chicken, or “country meat” (which is usually game). Fish may be fresh, dried or smoked.
If meat or fish is not available, peanuts are always a good source of protein. There are not a lot of vegetarians in Liberia, so most cooked dishes will have meat in them. If you have the ability to remove the meat and eat the rest of the dish, then you will have more dietary choices. Strict vegetarians and vegans will be challenged.
Liberians love their hot peppers, so they can be cooked into the soup, added whole, or made into a pepper sauce.
Liberia is graced with wonderful fruits. The pineapples are sweet and bananas are plentiful. Papaya, coconuts, and mangos are also grown locally. In season, fruits and vegetables are a good buy. Out of season, specific fruits may be unavailable and also unevenly distributed across the nation. It can be challenging to eat a well-balanced meal during some seasons and the variety of foods may be limited.
Access to western style foods may also be very limited, so you will have to adapt your diet (and tastes) to local foods. Normally, you will do your shopping at the local market every few days, but some items might have to be purchased at a larger town nearby.
Liberia is a country with chronic malnutrition. The worldwide food crisis has created higher prices for rice, but it is still available. There is local rice production and “country rice” is delicious. The country is fertile and there is a governmental program to promote farming to enhance food production that was interrupted by the war.
Transportation will be as challenging as any Peace Corps country, with Volunteers primarily using public transportation. Up-country, there are small taxi cars, medium-size taxi buses (minivan types), and trucks. In cars, there are usually two passengers in the front passenger seat and four or more in the back seat. In minivans, there are five to a row and an extra row has been added for a capacity of 20.
Motorcycle taxis have become widely used in Liberia. Due to safety concerns, Peace Corps Volunteers are not permitted to use them. If Volunteers wish to purchase a bicycle, they will be provided with helmets and instructed on the bicycle safety policy.
Vehicles from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies (WFP, UNHCR, UNICEF) traverse the country and sometimes are good options, based on relationships and friendships. Volunteers should avoid using U.N. Peacekeeper military transportation, unless it is an extreme emergency, to avoid any appearance of an association between the military and the Peace Corps.
When coming to Monrovia, Volunteers should try to travel in pairs. Once in Monrovia, there is a special transportation policy and a list of trusted drivers that Peace Corps Volunteers may call upon.
Geography and Climate
The climate, especially on the coast, is warm and humid yearround, dominated by a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. The dusty and dry harmattan (desert winds) blow from the Sahara to the coast in December, bringing relief from the high relative humidity. Deforestation and drought in the Sahel have affected the climate, lengthening the dry season by almost a month in some areas.
Mean annual temperatures range between 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 Celsius) in the northern highlands to 80 F (27 C) along the coast. Rainfall is irregular, and the rainy season varies in intensity and begins earlier on the coast than the interior. The greatest amount of rainfall, 205 inches (5,200 millimeters), occurs at Cape Mount and diminishes inland to about 70 inches on the central plateau. The interior has hot but pleasant days and cool nights during the dry season. Source: http://www.britannica.com
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
While the heat and humidity might make casual attire preferable, there are certain dress standards that must be respected.
Peace Corps Volunteers are professionals who bring their expertise to assist Liberian institutions. As such, a professional demeanor and appearance is expected. This can be challenging to Americans, who often pride themselves on individuality, but appropriate dress, both on and off the job, is required.
Being neat and cleanly dressed in a culturally appropriate manner is a sign of respect and pride. Worn, dirty, or ripped clothing is unacceptable. While clothes may have quite a bit of wear and tear due to rough washing, transportation, and manual labor, great care should be taken to be neat, clean, and presentable.
Long hair and long beards are not normal for men in this society. While there is no restriction in place, please be aware that a male Volunteer with long hair or a long beard will attract unwanted attention and might have to work harder to prove his professionalism. Shorts are normally worn by boys or students rather than men. It is appropriate to wear shorts for sporting events or around the house and yard; otherwise, pants or jeans are appropriate.
Short skirts (short is defined as anything above the knee), tops that expose your stomach or lower back, low-rise jeans/ pants, backless dresses, spaghetti strap tops, and shorts (outside of sporting activities) are considered inappropriate for female Volunteers. If shorts are worn for exercise, they should be longer shorts – preferably to the knee. Slacks are acceptable for women, although most women will wear skirts or dresses. All dresses and skirts should cover the knees, even when sitting. For women, inappropriate dress could attract unwanted attention and even be a cause for harrassment.
Visible tattoos and body piercing may attract unwanted attention and commentary. Earrings and nose rings on men may create concerns among supervisors and counterparts, or minimally, bring several questions and unwanted attention.
Going barefoot or wearing flip-flops outside of one’s home is not acceptable in Liberian society and considered unprofessional or even disrespectful. Sandals and closed-toe shoes are best. In the rainy season, there is a lot of mud, and in the dry season, there is a lot of dust. Shoes that can be washed are ideal.
Village attire and city attire might differ. If you are unsure about how to dress in a certain situation, it is better to be over-dressed rather than under-dressed. You may also ask Liberian friends, counterparts, or staff members for advice.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is in the “Health Care and Safety” chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Liberia Volunteers are likely to complete their service without incident. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Liberia. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Each staff member at the Peace Corps is committed to providing Volunteers with the support they need to successfully meet the challenges they will face to have a safe, healthy, and productive service. We encourage Volunteers and families to look at our safety and security information on the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov/safety.
Information on these pages gives messages on Volunteer health and Volunteer safety. A video message from the Director is on this page, as well as a section titled “Safety and Security in Depth.” This page lists topics ranging from the risks of serving as a Volunteer to posts’ safety support systems to emergency planning and communications.
Rewards and Frustrations
Your greatest reward will be basking in the wonderful reputation of Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia. Your predecessors have created a legacy that will help you as you work, live, and travel in Liberia. Liberians genuinely love Peace Corps Volunteers. Anyone over the age of 30 likely had a PCV teacher. You will find that younger Liberians may not be as familiar with Peace Corps as their parents, so you may have to explain it to them.
As a foreigner, there will be a perception that you are wealthy and people may ask you for money and favors. These may range from small requests to borrow items up to paying for a college education. You should be honest and tell people you are not in a position to help someone financially.
The infrastructure of the country was destroyed by the war, so you will need patience. Simple tasks take longer, like making a phone call when the call is dropped or the service is temporarily unavailable. Transportation is a huge challenge, with the difficult roads and shortage of public transportation. Also, since this is a newer post, it will take time to work out all of the systems, policies, and procedures. You will need to be patient.
Life for a Peace Corps Volunteer can be in a “fishbowl”; everyone will be curious and interested in all of your activities. You will need to manage all of the attention you receive, be it welcome or unwelcome. You will need to be sensitive to the fact that you represent Peace Corps 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You will need to consider your actions so the Volunteers who come after you will benefit from the same excellent Peace Corps reputation that you will enjoy.