Thursday, October 25, 2012

From Ukraine and Liberia with Love

Janice meeting Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
first elected woman head of state in Africa, top center.
Top right, the bookshelf at her school, still there after 30 years!
Photos of Liberian woodcarvings and other artifacts
at our 3rd class on Peace Corps. 
Can you imagine meeting the pioneering president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state in Africa?  Janice Flahiff (RPCV, Liberia 1980-82) met her a few years ago on a return visit to her country of service.  What a thrill!

President Sirleaf was educated in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and at Harvard, where she got a Masters in Public Administration. She is an economist and political activist. Her roots go back to the founding of Liberia by former American slaves, and even before that. A fascinating story. Her family's been involved in politics for generations. Now, Janice indicated, she is bringing a fresh leadership style to the African continent, democratic, informed, compassionate, tolerant.

Janice was so impressed.  "President Sirleaf listened intently and thoughtfully to what we said," Janice remembered.  "She really listened!"  She is genuinely interested in the work of Peace Corps, and she is a great supporter.

It was a highlight of Janice's return to Liberia with other RPCVs for a service project.  She visited her village of Kpain, 130 miles upriver from the capital of Monrovia; met students and old friends; remembered market days at Ganta and the women dressed in lappa's, yards of colorful fabric used for many purposes.    She discovered, to her great surprise, that a bookshelf she had had built at her school 30 years ago is still there, through civil wars and other horrors, she noted.  What a testimony to her efforts!  A young girl, just out of college, a novice feeling her way in a strange land, serious and hard working, left a lasting legacy. I think we all felt closer to Africa with Janice's remembrances.

This was our third class on Peace Corps, and we continued sharing stories.  Janice added photos, more memories and artifacts to the discussion she began last week.  A great "Show and Tell" session.  I call it "From Liberia with love!"

I shared stories about my time in Ukraine, "From Ukraine with love."   It's pretty much how PCVs remember the countries in which they served, challenges and all. 

We met at my apartment rather than at Lourdes, and enjoyed apple cider, cheese and crackers, and other goodies. “Just like we would have done in Starobelsk,” I noted. All that was missing were the enthusiastic toasts made with great gusto!  Ukrainian hospitality is wonderful. And so I segued into my experiences of a lifetime in Starobelsk, Lugansk oblast, Ukraine, about the farthest east you can get without landing in Russia.

With embroiderer Marfa at her home, 
and a gift she gave me
We looked at maps and talked about the location, size, and landscape of Ukraine, and some history.  I talked about our training in Chernigov, the 22-hour overnight train ride to Starobelsk (and transportation in general), learning to work with my counterpart Vera at Victoria NGO, a human rights organization.  I  reminisced about working with the library where we began an English Club and the first English-language book collection (the latter started with books donated by Toledoans, I wanted them to know). I talked about challenges and opportunities, about how one thing led to another, sometimes blindly, with just good faith and hope, and many cups of tea.  

Janice had stressed the "mutual learning" involved in becoming part of the Kpain community, on her part and on the part of the Liberians. It was the same in my village of Starobelsk, Ukraine.  These exchanges and interactions, we agreed,  may be the most important aspect of Peace Corps service, a way of building friendships, step by step, and laying the foundations for peaceful relations.

At Camp Sosnovy, Lymon, Ukraine, with kids from all
over Lugansk oblast, and our trusty Russian-English dictionary!
The cutest, most wonderful kids, 9-16. They led the way.
While our Peace Corps adventures are behind us, they are still very much a part of who we are and how we look at the world. Our memories will last forever.  Peace Corps may be, as it's motto says, "the hardest job you'll ever love," but it's a transforming experience.
A lovely  lunch at friend Olga's after I broke my arm 
(I fell off my bike).
That's a story in itself.  

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