How much of my role in Liberia is to change cultural norms? I’m an anthropologist, right? But I believe there is a role of an outsider to ask why certain things are done and if there is no good answer, to continue asking why. For instance, women do the rice farming here (the staple food is rice, so that means women do 90% of the farming), if I were to say, why don’t men help women with the rice farming? Would I be a cultural imperialist? The trainers at DEN-L encourage men to help their wives and daughters in the rice fields but I don’t know if I can. And whenever there is a dispute about why something is done, it’s brought back to “tradition.” I had a professor once who gave a farewell speech about how there comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to decide if they will continue eating the food of their parents or change what they eat to fit what they want, understand, and experience in life. He was much more eloquent and I wish I could be quoting him right now instead of butchering his words, but basically, do we continue traditions in our culture just because we’ve always done it? Or do we change how we think to fit a changing world? And if we change how we think, then what’s the role of me, in this context, as an outsider.
Another example. We were driving back from Jorwa (a small town near the Guinean border) and B stopped to buy a goat. The driver proceeded to tie the goat to the roof of the truck and drive over what is indeed the worst road I’ve been on in Liberia (here’s a picture!). I was convinced that this goat, who was tied by his neck to the roof of the car would be hanging off the side and spreading blood all over the windows in no time. I mentioned this. As we drove, and I heard the goat screaming help, remarkably goats sound like their saying help when they’re really upset, and mentioned it again. I did not put my foot down. I did not insist that the goat sit in the front with me so that it would arrive at its destination in one piece with little damage. I felt bad for the goat, but after a time I realized that they were right, the goat wasn’t going to die on the journey. He didn’t even break a leg. He found a way to sit and while I’m sure it was not a comfortable experience and he likely had some bruises, he survived without any broken skin. So I expressed my displeasure without being a pain and I admitted after halfway through the journey that the goat was stronger than I expected. What about PETA? What would Brian Boitano do? (How do you spell his name?).