Life in the U.S.A. and Liberia: Some Reflections from a Former Saint Teresa’s Convent Schoolteacher

By Evans Duncan

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 19, 2007


Well, I woke up this morning and I've been introspecting and I have been a bit nostalgic. It is strange that I have not been homesick for nearly a decade, at least not that I remember. Maybe I feel this way because of my renewed sense of hope for the future of Liberia. It is difficult to walk through the world on a day-to-day basis without a sense of hopefulness. Or, perhaps I feel this way because I have been consumed with trying to plan a visit back home some time this year to see what is going on, visit family and friends, and see how best I can help in the national renewal process. I do not have a lot of money but I do have a reasonable education and there is certainly something I can do to help. I have read inspiring stories of people with far less education and financial means than I making a difference in the arduous task of national healing and renewal that attend a post civil war nation. The folks at home are a very spiritual people on whom an unwarranted tragedy has been inflicted. They are not playing dead; they are helping to rebuild their lives and their communities amid overwhelming odds. It is this resiliency that never ceases to amaze me. People in the States with a fraction of the pain people at home have endured would commit suicide in a heartbeat. I hear stories of people committing suicide out of disillusionment with life on the evening news all the time.

Anyway, I am wandering here in my thoughts. Perhaps a little bit of that while introspecting is good for the soul. Perhaps, it is the Episcopalian in me that thinks so. As I plan my trip back home, I have been repeating my favorite Albert Einstein quote that I adopted years ago as my personal motto: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile." I am also humming in my mind’s eye an A. Momolue Diggs’ rendition of this wonderful song:

If I can help somebody / As I travel along
If I can help somebody / With a word or song
If I can help somebody / From doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain.

This morning I thought about the days I spent teaching high school algebra at Saint Teresa's Convent, an all-girl school in Monrovia, Liberia. I saw in those young ladies idealism, zest for life, curiosity to learn and to know, and the desire to discover. That "can-do" spirit that is difficult to explain but when someone has it you just know it. Then I thought about my college students who I currently teach computer science and realized that only about 10% or so of them have that "can-do" spirit. Contrast that with 90-95% of the kids at Saint Teresa's who had it. Now, grades are not the yardstick that I am using to measure that spirit. I have always felt that grades are simply a tool we use to evaluate students because we haven’t found a more intelligent way to do so. At Saint Teresa’s the kids who did not do so well in terms of their grades were the most eager to nag you on why they had certain things wrong and what they could do to improve their scores. They wanted a second chance at an exam and they will tell you all the problems they were having at home that were impeding their progress. Here, it’s different. Students change majors, teachers and schools like they change clothes. These are students whose material circumstances are far superior to the kids at home.

One thing that strikes me is that it is strange how the more your material circumstance improves the poorer you become, lacking even the basic discipline of persistence. The irony is I see parallels in my own life, albeit not in those terms. I worry about things that I would ordinarily not worry about at home. Now, this is a great country. The only angst I have about it is that for the most part there are more selfish people (not by choice) than selfless people. To be fair to them, you don’t expect people to help their neighbors down the street when they are only a pay check away from being evicted. Talking about a sense of community and selflessness may sound strange coming from someone whose country is literally in tatters due to a brutal civil war. However, it may not seem ironic when one considers that you had about three percent of the population inflicting the pain on the rest of the people. At home, you knew that nine out of ten persons truly "felt your pain", to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase. In the States, everyone is busy trying to make the mortgage payment, car payment, day care fee, utility bill, cable bill, phone bill, etc. I think you get the point. You cannot blame people for being too busy to care about what is going on in the lives of others. So it seems the richer people get the poorer they become. Perhaps it is just me but I feel the better one’s material circumstance becomes, the less selfless one becomes.

It finally dawned on me why some Liberians would risk their material circumstance to return home to a place that some, until perhaps recently, saw as a God-forbidden place. I can see why my late father returned home some ten years ago in spite of our plea that he wouldn't have access to the medical care he had in the States. He went home and died but I take comfort in the knowledge that he died a happy man, in a place where there were people who cared. He died where even people who never met him in life mourn his death. He died where strangers and passers-by came to console my mother and relatives. He died where people truly believe that everyone's "death diminishes" them, to paraphrase John Donne's line in "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

I miss the rustic life at home, the evergreen forest, the tropical sun, the monsoon wind, and the simple things in life. I miss the sense of community where my neighbor's loss was mine and where my loss was his. The only thing comparable to life at home that I have seen in this country is the life of the Amish. Theirs is a rustic life of hard work, plain clothes, horse-drawn plows and no electricity, all by choice. But that is an anomaly. By and large, it is different here: Being “neighbors” simply mean that you live next door to the person. So your “neighbor” is a complete stranger to you. Liberians who have lived all their lives at home will find it unfathomable. At home, a neighbor was anyone with whom you have crossed paths; that could include anyone who lived within a five-mile radius of your home. You definitely didn't need an invitation to come over to visit your neighbors; you just went over and said hi, chatted with them, found out how their kids were doing, and talked about some of the vicissitudes of life they were facing.

About the author: Evans Duncan is a Liberian living and working in the Louisiana, USA. He formerly taught mathematics at Saint Teresa’s Convent Catholic High School in Monrovia, Liberia.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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