Blog by Macy Alexander (Hope in the Harvest Intern, 2019)
I was looking for a unique and impactful summer internship, I found everything I wanted and more at the Agricultural Research Center (ARC) in the Liberian Christian College (LICC).
I began working and acquainting myself on the farm on June 6th and immediately fell in love with the farm and everyone working on it. I was lucky enough to have my first few days here overlap with the last few days of the trip of some of the University of Maryland’s staff. On June 6th, they had a meeting with Dr. Kiamu (LICC President) about how he views the relationship thus far with University of Maryland (UMD) and how they can help further. Though this meeting didn’t pertain to me, it was very good to sit in on and learn more about the partnerships that can happen between big universities like UMD and colleges within countries like Liberia. The biggest shock for me was that LICC being a Christian College didn’t create any friction with UMD. The “separation of church and state” is deeply integrated within my American mind and so it was quite refreshing to see an American University that isn’t christian work so well with a college that was.
The second half of my first day was when I truly knew I was in the right place. The staff from UMD and Anna Glenn partnered up to form a class called “Global Agriculture”. This was a course at UMD and at LICC where students learned about different issues in agriculture inside and outside of their communities. The two classes would call each other about once a week or so and discuss their readings/lectures from that week or projects they were working on. While the UMD staff was in Liberia, they worked with the LICC Global Agriculture class. When I arrived they had already formed three groups within the class. One group worked on ideas to develop a local radio show that would discuss problems and potential solutions in local agriculture. The second group worked to connect the laboratory at the ARC and the local farmers. The laboratory could help local farmers figure out the quality and deficit of their soil, water quality, as well as identifying pests and diseases and potential solutions. The third group worked with local high schools to improve their agriculture programs and start school gardens. Though each and every group had amazing initiatives and made it very difficult to choose, being an agriculture education major, I thought the third group would be the best fit for me.
The group was very welcoming and told me to chime in if I had any ideas. They were trying to plan activities within the high schools that would impact their communities in a positive way. As they were discussing, they were having trouble organizing their ideas in a way that would effectively cover all the areas. This led me to remember the “three circle model” that is used in the National FFA Organization. The FFA three circle model is basically a venn diagram that includes “FFA”, “SAE” (Supervised Agricultural Experiences), and “Classroom instruction”. Obviously this model wouldn’t work the same in their context but it could definitely provide an organizational idea for their initiatives. I briefly explained what the parts of the three circle model stand for and provided some ideas as to how they can create their own three circle model to fit their needs. As a group, we came up with “hands-on activities” to replace the FFA circle, “mentorship” or “at home” activities to replace the SAE circle, and we kept the “classroom instruction” circle. Using the newfound three circle model, we were not only able to better organize their ideas but we also used it to create more ideas for the school that bleed into the community.
The following day, the Global Agriculture class split into their designated groups again and performed the survey portion of their projects. Each group went out to different parts of the community to do their surveys and I of course chose the high school agriculture education group again. This was my first close up experience seeing local families in the community surrounding the school, also known as “Royal Community”. The students were the ones doing the surveying but I bounced around and listened and tried to understand as much as I could. Firstly, the students wanted to understand the stigma that people in the community had on agriculture and agriculture education. They surveyed the parents, teenagers, and some of the older children if they were willing. They hypothesized that most people would say that “farming is a poor person job” or “no one will want to be involved in farming because it is very labor intensive.” To everyone’s surprise, people in the community, specifically those who were around high school age (or in high school) had an interest in agriculture. They simply didn’t have any resources (educational or physical). They said that some schools have agriculture teachers but only if they are lucky and the ones that don’t have one simply go without agriculture instruction. Many schools have such a scarce amount of teachers that they are literally asking for people to volunteer their time to teach (which means teachers aren’t required to have higher education). Secondly, the LICC students wanted to know how the high school age students and their parents would feel about them having a garden at home. Most everyone said they would like to have a garden. They discussed some of the problems with having a garden but everyone wanted one despite the problems.
Though I worked with the Global Agriculture class for those two days, Cedric (a UMD teaching assistant that was visiting) and the rest of the group told me about the club they started called “Roots Africa”. Though the club and the class are two separate things, the club will be carrying out the high school agriculture education initiative with or without the class. Not only is Roots working within the local high schools, they are working with local farmers. They plan on going to survey the farmers and find out their issues and also bridge the gap between the farmers and the lab at LICC and other NGOs that would be helpful to them. When I initially heard about Roots Africa, I thought it sounded like an awesome club and right up my alley. I was a little bit scared to ask if there was some way I could be involved because I didn’t know if it was exclusive. Luckily, Cedric saw right through my fears! While walking in between little villages for surveys, Cedric asked me about my plans for the future and if I had an interest in continuing along the path of international development. I told him that I would love to but I struggle finding the best outlet for my passions. He then told me more information about the Roots Africa club and said that he had been wanting other universities to join in and he asked me if I would be interested in starting a Roots club at the University of Arkansas. While I’m not sure how much I will be able to get involved with Roots Africa just yet, I am very excited about it and I believe that mine and Cedric’s time in Liberia overlapping was God’s doing.
The next few work days, I spent my time getting my hands dirty and getting to know some workers on the farm. One day I worked with Micheal pulling weeds for some of the day and planting corn seeds for another part of it. Micheal took time out of his busy day to walk me around the plots that he tends to and show me how he plants them and cares for them and he introduced me to his interactions with Farming God’s Way. Within Hope in the Harvest is a program called “Farming God’s Way”. Which basically provides people in the local area with practical knowledge about agriculture and how it relates to God. Micheal having been through the program told me all about it. My favorite example is the use of what they call “God’s Blanket” which is trimmings of grass and leftover materials from harvested crops that create a covering or “blanket” to place around the plants. It is amazing at holding moisture for the soil and keeping sunlight off of competing weeds all while also giving nutrients to the soil.
The following day, Micheal and I turned the compost pile for the first half of the day. It was hard and humbling. The second half of the day, I got to go to the market in Ganta for the first time and got to see the community. It was a culture shock to say the least but I was humbled to see local families trying to make their way by selling market goods.
The next day, I worked with Meshach in the greenhouse. This was one of my favorite activities! The first half of the day, we planted seedlings into bigger planters and pulled weeds out of the seedling trays. Though there wasn’t a ton of new agricultural knowledge from this day, it was absolutely amazing to talk to Meshach. Meshach is around the same age as me but was raised completely different so it was great to talk to him. After the market the day before, I won’t lie, I had a pretty poor impression of Liberian men. Unfortunately, Liberian culture allows men to feel as though they can ask any question no matter how personal. Some men in the market would outright ask for you to be their wife without even knowing your name. But
Meshach wasn’t like the some of the Liberian men I had come in contact with previously. He asked me questions about my job back home, the agriculture in America, my walk with the Lord, how I came to like agriculture, and my family life. Instead of stereotyping me as a rich American girl with no problems and endless amounts of money (which is the stereotype I got 95% of the time), he treated me like a human being. I told him about some of my personal struggles as did he and we had a genuine and helpful conversation. Then he discussed with me how he actually wants to be a veterinarian but there is essentially no path for him to obtain a degree in veterinary science in the country of Liberia. Even though he has no route to obtain the degree he wants, he still works on his agriculture degree to make a better life for himself.
Another thing I learned while talking to Meshach was that tomatoes are extremely difficult to grow in Liberia. The ARC is working hard to figure out how to successfully grow them because tomatoes are in high demand. I told
Meshach tomatoes grow pretty well in Arkansas and my mom grew many of them most every summer when I was growing up. He was extremely interested in knowing exactly how we planted them to make them successful and I had no idea what to tell him. I told him my extent of knowledge on growing tomatoes (which was pretty basic) and then told him my mom did most of it. So I decided to ask my mom in our family group chat if she had any tips. Though he had pretty much already tried all of them, the plant spacing tips somewhat helped. I was amazed at what he knew about soil and plant science just from trying to get the tomatoes to grow.
While working with Meshach, I also learned about a plant called “moringa”. The moringa plant is a tree and has amazing health benefits. It is high in protein and has many vitamins and minerals and surprisingly, it thrives in the climate of Liberia. I believe the moringa tree can become a serious commodity in Liberia because of its health benefits. Meshach and I were taking the moringa tree seedlings and transplanting them into the ground. We set up posts and a string to keep the rows straight and we dug holes every foot or so with a hoe. It was pretty labor intensive and luckily there was only one hoe so me and Meshach took turns and both of us got some breaks.
Later that day while digging holes for the moringa trees, a girl comes up to us and asks if she can help us. While working, I start to make small talk and I ask her name. She said “Marilyn”. Come to find out, she was Micheal’s daughter and had come to help on the farm after school. She hung around for a while with me after the work day was over. Since I didn’t know how to make small talk with a 13 year old, I just asked her if she liked to draw. She said “yes” so I ran upstairs to grab one of my notebooks and a pencil. I told her to draw me whatever she wanted and she drew pages and pages of flowers (which were amazing by the way). Pretty much for the remainder of my time there, she looked for me at 3:30 or 4:00 pm to hang out when I got off of work. Even though we didn’t have a ton to talk about, it was amazing to get to know her a little. She was very sweet and though we had a hard time understanding each other, we pushed through the communication barriers by playing games (a lot of mancala), drawing, and getting to know each other.
The next day, Erica, a LICC student took me to her cucumber plot. What started as us chatting and picking cucumbers ended in her giving me a ton of her cucumbers. After that, Anna and I attended a student election that was more spirited than any student election one would find in the U.S.. Though the candidate was the only one running for president, his peers chanted during his speech and carried him on their shoulders when he won. It was kind of funny but also it was amazing to see such passion for student government and making a change.
Then on Saturday, the Peace Corp volunteers that work in Liberia came and visited the ARC and co-hosted a workshop for locals that are involved in agriculture and want to improve their profits. We cut okra and hot pepper and laid them on a pan to dry, made chips out of cassava (which is kind of like a potato), and learned how to make chocolate. Being an intern, I kind of jumped from place to place and helped out where I needed to but that helped me meet a lot of different personalities.
The next day was Sunday and we attended church service at Pastor (and coworker) Konah. The service was truly moving. I’ve never attended church in a building with a floor made of dirt, but I’ve also never attended a church with such spirited attendees.
On that same Sunday, I started to feel very sick. I got a cough, headache, stomach ache, was cold, hot, sweaty, and had chills. Despite my hopes that it was just a cold, I kept getting sicker and sicker. Eventually I figured out that this was no cold and that it was malaria. Anna decided it would be best if I started taking malaria medication. I’m glad I started when I did, because it was a rough few days. Yes, I did take my preventative medication but it is not 100% effective (and I’m kind of unlucky).
I came back to work on the Wednesday after I got sick and had to take it easy but I didn’t want to spend my last few days of the internship in bed. My first day back consisted of me messing with the foldscope microscopes. These were paper microscopes that were kindly donated but no one could figure out how to put them together. It took me pretty much the whole day, but eventually I got them to work. It was amazing to build a microscope out of such simple and cheap materials. I enjoyed teaching the students at LICC how to build it and use it. Even more so, I enjoyed the looks on their faces when they saw the microscope slides.
Later that week, Micheal invited Nathan, Anna, and I over to his house for dinner. His wife and him cooked the most amazing meal for us and gave us a tour of their beautiful land and farm. It warmed my heart to have such a hospitable friend.
The final weekend of my trip, Anna and I went to Lofa county to visit a cocoa bean farm. I might be able to write a whole blog on just this trip because it was so impactful and eventful. Without a doubt, the trip to Lofa was one of my most memorable and tellable parts of my internship. Just the drive there was a journey. We began with a 45 minute drive to Bong county where we stopped to meet Ebenezer (or Eb) and Janelle (they owned the cocoa bean farm) . After getting a market fresh coconut, we met up with Eb and Janelle and started our 2.5 hour journey to the cocoa bean farm. The comfort of the paved road was short lived after leaving the Bong county market and then we were on red dirt. Our vehicle being a very early model toyota land cruiser, we had no A/C. Since we were following them to the farm, we had to ride behind them. It seemed as if that strip of dirt road was literally the only place in Liberia that it hadn’t rained that day because the dust was uncontrollable. After parking, Anna and I rubbed our faces and saw literal lines where we had rubbed a layer of dust off. My nose was blowing red dirt for days!
Despite the irritating and constant clouds of dust on the ride there and back to the farm, the scenery on the drive was indescribable and well worth its burden. The dirt road was pretty hilly and curvy and so there were some astounding views.
Then we finally arrived at our destination and the views at the cocoa bean farm were even better. When I heard that I was going to a cocoa bean farm, I was expecting to see rows and rows of cocoa bean trees. Instead of seeing a farm in my version of traditional, I saw something so much better! Cocoa bean plants thrive in shade so instead of clearing the forest, they integrate the cocoa bean farm into the forest. This provides an essential canopy for the plants while not participating in deforestation.
To get to the fruit bearing cocoa plants, we had to take a hike that I was NOT totally prepared for. But it was well worth the exhaustion, the sights and the experience was amazing and I learned so much about cocoa bean production. The visit to the cocoa bean farm in the forest was nothing like I thought it would be, that’s for sure. But I can honestly say it was one of the most unique and amazing experiences in my life.
Eb and Janelle are teachers that reside in Minnesota. Eb is from Liberia but moved to the U.S. after meeting Janelle. They teach in the U.S. and own a cocoa bean farm in Liberia that is ran by members of Eb’s family. Since Eb has family here still, he frequently comes back and Janelle comes with him sometimes. They have a guest house that they were kind enough to let Anna and I stay in. After eating dinner, we sat around and talked for a while. Eb and Janelle told us the amazing and heartfelt story of how they met and got together and since Eb is from Liberia, he told us some powerful stories from his childhood. The Liberian civil war was devastating to the country and its people. I sat there in almost disbelief as he told stories from how he persevered through the struggles that were dealt to him by the war. Despite their struggles in the past, Eb and Janelle are doing amazing things to make positive impacts in Liberia and I’m excited to see all that they accomplish.
On the way back from the cocoa bean farm, we stopped at the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute (ZRTTI). We were given a tour by some of the Peace Corp volunteers that helped us a couple weeks back. The shortage of teachers in Liberia is so severe (especially in rural areas) that high school teachers don’t need to obtain a degree, they can be trained to teach by someone with a degree. While this isn’t the perfect situation, having a trained teacher with no degree is better than having a random volunteer. The trainers were Peace Corp volunteers or anyone else with a bachelor degree in education in their specialty.
Some outsiders might think they have all the answers and solutions to every problem in Liberia. They think they can simply go there, teach people, and then they’re done. But that’s not the case. Not only do Liberians know what Liberians need more than the outsider, Liberians learn and can communicate better with a Liberian. That’s what I love about ZRTTI. They want to give locals ideas and knowledge they need to train and teach high schoolers. It is much more effective than just teaching a high school class and it reaches more people in the end.
The last few days of my internship, I spent time helping the LICC students put together the foldscopes and I learned how to make Liberian food with Marie. It was Cassava Leaf Soup, which is very tasty. Unfortunately we don’t grow cassava in the U.S.. Regardless, it was so much fun learning from her and hearing her life stories. I also spent a lot of time the last few days working and brainstorming with the Roots students, which was exactly where I wanted to be.
When I searched for a summer internship, I had no idea that it was possible to have an internship experience like this. Despite the malaria, I had an amazing experience. I still don’t have a clear picture of what my future looks like but I know that I loved doing this work to glorify God.