On Flag Day, which is Liberia’s independence day celebration, we ended the day with old fashioned American s’mores. Earlier we had a traditional dish of rice and peanut butter soup, and the s’mores were a sweet end to a fun day. (Look for our Day 6 post soon!) The s’mores were a big hit, although 4 family packs of chocolate bars disappeared in short order, even before the fire was hot! Edith, one of the L-SWE founders and camp committee members decided to try a plain marshmallow as a “cultural experience” after the s’mores were finished.
Today, we had engaging activities and discussions focusing on strategies and challenges of collaboration, focusing on working together as individuals and in teams.
First, we re-introduced ourselves by playing another name game. So many new students had arrived in the past 2 days, so we played a game where everyone had to say the name of everyone else in the circle, along with a little dance. In addition to the new students, we had two Peace Corps volunteers, Kris and Brian, who joined us for a few days of professional development. Both of them studied engineering in college in the U.S. and were now serving as math teachers in rural schools in Liberia.
To start off the workshops, Sahithya led us off with an engaging game of “Barnga.” Barnga is a way to teach about cultural differences and to facilitate discussion about working with people from different cultures. All the students sat in different groups to play a card game. They could not talk, they could only play the game. Every five minutes, the winners of each group would get up and go to a different table. But unbeknownst to the players, the rules of the game were different at every table. Let the confusion begin!
In our debrief, we talked about culture as being a set of rules that most people who are part of that culture know. We came up with 5 tips for cross-cultural communication and cross-cultural relationships based on everyone’s experience in the Bangra game:
1. Be tolerant
2. Concentrate on the end results
3. Be aware of different mindsets
4. Do what you can to learn the “rules” of each culture. Ask and try to understand why those rules are important to the culture.
5. Have a common goal
How can we accept people of a different background into our culture?
1. Make the person feel comfortable
2. Make them feel “not wrong”
3. Communicate your own culture and clarify any “rules”
4. Know why they are there
5. Talk to them and get to know them as an individual
6. Don’t pass judgement quickly
After the game, Sara led off an interactive workshop on cultural differences. All the students got into small groups to put on skits based on scenarios of everyday life, work and skill. In each scenario, a group had to portray the situation as it might happen in a different culture. For instance, students acted out how people in a masculine culture might interview a prospective applicant for a job, while another group modeled how a feminine culture might conduct an interview for the same job.
After each scenario, the group discussed how the scenario might play out in Liberian and American cultures. It was quite interesting to learn about all the different cultural differences, and also to see the similarities. It was important also to see how these cultural difference might influence how camp participants interacted. For instance, although the UM grad students are “in charge,” because American university culture is “low-power distance” we don’t adopt the same authoritative attitude that the students are used to with a professor or teacher in Liberia, which is a “high-power distance” culture.
Identity and Privilege
Following the scenarios, we dropped down from the group level discussions about culture to talking about individual identity. We started off by having students describe themselves in 5 words. Everyone put their words on a post-it note, pasted it on a wall, and then as a group we created categories that describe what the students thought defined them as a person.
We talked about these categories – appearance, relationships, career– along with standard internationally recognized identity categories, like gender, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. In addition to learning more about each other, it was also an opportunity to talk about the concept of privilege. Privilege, in short, is an advantage that an individual has as a result of being a member of a particular group. It is not earned, and usually it is taken for granted. In our discussion, students identified categories in which they were all the same, but also that they did not think about much. These were ability status and sexual orientation. In Liberia, sexual orientation is a contentious issue, especially given the Christian and Muslim majority, but all the students voiced similar thoughts and opinions. The students also pointed out that although many of them knew a person, sometimes close friends and family, that had a disability, none of them had any physical challenges that made it difficult to participate in everyday activities. The Peace Corps volunteers also pointed out that our students seemed to be much more economically stable and highly education than young people in the communities that they were teaching in, which pointed to different class statuses. To conclude, we thought about how each of our identities enabled us to be successful female engineers, and if there might still be people who are excluded from the opportunities these women had.
To wrap up the day, Sahithya introduced our first engineering competition! On Day 3, which was a Saturday the students would work in teams to build and test bottle rockets! The students found out their team members, and were instructed to come back to the classroom at 9am the next morning to get their materials and start working.
This was a full day and at the end, we were all absolutely exhausted. BUT, it wasn’t over! In the evening, we celebrated two of the girl’s birthdays. Both were turning 21, and although Liberians usually don’t do much for their birthdays, we threw a big party. Our amazing catering staff (led by Yamah of Monrovia’s Yamah’s Kitchen) made two big cakes, one chocolate and one pineapple upside down cake, and then we danced danced danced all night long to the everyone favorite African jams! Somehow, Gangnam Style ended up in there, and there was a a congo line, and also a runway-style dance-off. Cultural exchange indeed! Check out our Instagram for photos!
After meeting all of the students on Wednesday, we started off the camp workshops on Thursday. The format for each day is to have a morning session from 9 AM to 1 PM and an afternoon session from 2 PM to 5:30 PM. Don’t worry, we make sure to take plenty of breaks.
The first few days of the camp is broadly classified under the theme “Know Yourself.” The idea is that it is hard to be an effective leader when you do not know your own potential. Each and every person has a distinct personality and leadership style. We explored the idea of preferences using three tools – Myers-Briggs Type Index, True Colors, and an adapted version of the Competing Values Framework.
We played a game to understand our preferences for the four MBTI categories. For each category we read the description of each type and had the students move into groups that were of the type. Then, each group was asked a question. Since similar thoughts reinforce each other it made it easy to tell where one generally belonged. We asked these questions:
1. You just won a cash prize from school of a sizable amount. How do you celebrate?
– Extraversion Goup: They wanted to spend the money on their community, save it or establish scholarships for other students.
– Intraversion Group: They wanted to help their families, church, or charity.
2. We have this strange yellow object. What is it? What do you do with it?
– Sensing Group: “It’s yellow silly putty.”
– Intuition Group: “Is it modeling clay? Can we make something with it?”
3. You are coaching a kickball team and they just made it into the Liberian championship. But, you can only take 11 of your 15 players to compete. Who gets to go?
– Feeling Group: “Let’s take the best players. The ones who are the most dedicated to the team! We can raise money for the others to come spectate.”
– Thinking Group: “Let’s take the best players. The ones who are thr most skilled and will ensure our victory.”
4. Plan a trip to Robertsport (a popular vacation area). What do you do?
– Judging Group: “Let’s organize a committee and divide up tasks.”
– Perceiving Group: “We’ll figure it out when we get there.”
The group had a great discussion about the different preferences. We explored how your preferences change over time and by which situation you are in.
We followed up with True Colors and CVF and showed how the three models relate. CVF looked into how organizations can have personalities/preferences too.
We followed up with an afternoon session about personal stories of leadership and engineering. Using the generative interview technique, students told stories about times they had success on an engineering team or other group project. Their partner took notes on the discussion and remarked on what stood out to them. The advantage of generative interviewing is that you can work through a story easily with lots of detail.
The stories in the generative interviews form the basis for writing personal statements. These statements will be used to apply for grad school, scholarships, or jobs.
The Future of Liberia
The last activity of the day was a TED talk from Leymah Gbowee about how to “unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls“. In her TED talk video she explains her experience trying to help young girls succeed. She challenges her audience to think about the potential available in girls around the world just waiting to be unlocked.
“Will you journey with me to help that girl, be it an African girl or an American girl or a Japanese girl, fulfill her wish, fulfill her dream, achieve that dream? All they’re asking us to do is create that space to unlock the intelligence, unlock the passion, unlock all of the great things that they hold within themselves. Let’s journey together.”
This camp is part of that journey to create space where women can succeed. These women are the future of Liberia.
On Wednesday, we welcomed the Liberian students to the camp. They came from across Monrovia and the surrounding areas, and all are undergraduates at the University of Liberia, Stella Maris University, and St. Clements University College.
As we waited for them to arrive, the UM team unpacked our materials and setup the classroom where we would be conducting most of the seminars and activities. A few of the Liberian members of the Logistics team, along with the undergraduate SWE members took a trip to the market to gather some last additional materials for an engineering activity later in the week.
The students came in two waves, with one bus (shepherded by “Boss Lady” Edith) arriving in the morning just before lunch, and the second arriving just before dinner. To get to know each other and start the camp off right, we spent the afternoon playing games to learn each other’s names and share a little bit of culture.
L-SWE SUCCESS at the Peace Corp Training Center in Kakata, Liberia
My favorite, was Lappa: similar to dodgeball, but instead of only concentrating on avoiding the ball you also have to match up and straighten a pile of shoes. When you get hit, you tag in another person from your team, relay style, and they continue the straightening effort. When you finish straightening, you count the shoes (all of them, before the other team interrupts you by throwing the ball). When you run out of players to tag in, the round is over and the teams switch places.
After an afternoon of games, we started orientation in the evening. After introducing the camp and its purpose, every planning team gave a short presentation about their part of camp logistics. Some students opted to join a couple of the planning teams to continue helping out with camp throughout the next couple weeks. It looks like it will be a great few weeks!
*”Now now”: Liberian english for right now… like, really we actually did it this time. Now now!
Cold showers. Spicy spaghetti. Cloudy skies. Sunny smiles. An afternoon of children’s games. Wifi!!
So starts the first day of the L-SWE Success Camp! We were so excited. Finally, after over two years of anticipation, preparation, and a few setbacks, the leadership camp for women engineering students in Liberia was finally underway. We’ll chronicle our experience over the next few weeks on this blog, as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. How We Got Here…
It’s kinda a long story– read our previous posts about the very beginning.
In this chapter, the U-M team arrived on Tuesday evening in Liberia after over a day and a half of travel.
Fortified by Maggie’s scones, we beat Chicago rush hour to arrive at the airport with just enough time to check our 12 pieces of it’s-only-51lbs-please-don’t-charge-me bags and boxes, return the rental SUVs, and get all twelve of us through security in time for boarding. Our flight to Brussels took off on time at 5:55, wonderfully half full because a connecting flight was delayed. (bad for them, good for us!) After a bumpy 7 hours, we arrive in Brussels around 8am, where we met Allisandra, coincindentally doing laps around the terminal to stretch her legs. Most of the team had never met Bre or Allisandra in person before the day of the flight, but somehow it was like we’d been together all along.
After a couple hours wait, we boarded the plane for Liberia, and after another 5 hours, landed safely in Monrovia.
Somehow, we lost Allisandra as soon as we got off the plane. But the airport had only one gate, so we were pretty sure we would find her at some point. We all got through immigration and customs with no problems (it might’ve helped that we had USAID prominently duct taped to all our boxes).
We were reunited with Allisandra outside, who had been rescued by Sahithya and Edith, who had been waiting outside with the bus we would be using for the camp. We also bid farewell to Allison, who unfortunately had to cut her trip short to return home to be with her family (see Allison and Sahithya’s post about the L-SWE Advance Team!).
With all our luggage packed on the bus, we rode into the sunset (literally!)
On a personal note, it was surreal for me to finally be on Liberian soil. After having traveled to Sierra Leone in 2013, being back in region felt like returning to a familiar place. The air, the trees, the houses, the people– it all seemed so comfortable, as if I had never left. I hardly felt like I had left the US, although the palm trees and “Ebola is real” signs everywhere beside buckets of soap and water indicated otherwise.
We picked up several of the Liberian students on the camp planning committee on our way to our campground.
Sara and Sahithya greeted old friends, and some people who had become Facebook penpals got to meet each other for the first time. The UM team was dead-tired after our long trip and the time difference, but the Liberian girls were so excited that it gave us a tiny bit of energy (but, I’ll admit, I fell asleep during the ride.) After dark, we finally came to our camp site, the Peace Corp Training Center in Kakata, a suburb of Monrovia.
The kitchen ladies were patiently waiting for us, with dinner hot and ready. Delicious spiced chicken, plantains, and green salad awaited us, with a side of pepper sauce. We all dug in as if we had starved for days, and finished up *convinced* that, if nothing else, the next 3 weeks would be delicious.
After dinner we got a short orientation around the Peace Corp campus and stashed our bags in our rooms. For all the families of the UM team reading, this is a NICE PLACE!!! Comfy dorm style rooms fit 12 girls each, 2 bathrooms with hot water, showers, and pressurized toilets, plenty of “pure” drinking water (cool for drinking & hot for tea), and most importantly for this generation– reliable power and wifi. The enclosed campus contains the dorm, a dining hall, housing for the staff, a classroom, a couple gazebos for outdoor lounging, and plenty of green space for outdoor activites, and– most importantly for our beloved parents– 24 hour security guards to keep your babies safe.
After our orientation, most of us, myself included, impatient for the hot water took cold showers and it was lights out on our first day. Sara and Sahithya, ever diligent, stayed up for a couple more hours to do some logistics planning. We were expecting to hit the ground running, with the first batch of Liberian camp participants arriving the next morning at 11:30am.
See how Day 1 goes in our next post!