Lee Anthropology Students Experience Post-Ebola Liberia

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For three weeks in May, five anthropology majors and their professors, Dr. Arlie Tagayuna and Dr. Murl Dirksen, interacted with the people and culture of Liberia. They were part of a larger Lee University team effort, which was organized by Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, director of the Center of Excellence.

The academic purpose of the trip was to record the distresses caused by a 14-year civil war and the Ebola pandemic by hearing and collecting survival stories, aiding in the needs assessment of the Phebe Gray Orphanage, and studying a traditional rural African village.

The cultural experience of civil war and disease were made a reality to the students in a number of ways. The group was housed in the guest quarters of the Samaritan Purse Ebola Treatment facility where they heard from the facility’s doctors and other staff members.

At the orphanage, the students interviewed staff members who operate the children’s home and learned how, during the epidemic, every minute of every day was a matter of prayer and faith, and taking special precautions of ‘washing hands, washing and more washing.’

In the bush village, the goal was ethnographic research, understanding the way of life of a bush village, by spending time with the elders, youth and experiencing daily life.

These types of field studies are part of the anthropology program at Lee, but this was a unique international trip and students were specifically selected for the research project. Two of the team of anthropology students had already lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa. Rachel Richards had spent two years in a village in Mozambique and Spencer Smith had been in rural Sierra Leone for two summers.

Although not in Africa, Barbara Curran had lived in East Timor with Youth With A Mission, and Georgia Wright and Abigail Christopher had been with Dr. Dirksen on the Colorado archaeological excavation. Ms. Christopher was awarded a Ledford Summer Research Fellowship from the Appalachian College Association to help fund her participation in the Liberia trip.

All team members were very familiar with anthropological research and the project director. Although there were certain dangers associated with this type of experience, precautions were taken to ensure physical safety.

In May, Liberia had not had any new cases of Ebola in 42 days and the World Health Organization declared the country Ebola-free. Liberia had over 4,700 deaths, with Ebola claiming more than 11,000 lives in the region. The team’s purpose there was to learn what a series of national crises can do to people, and to show solidarity with the people of Liberia.

As Dr. Carolyn Dirksen remarked on a nationwide radio interview, “It is our moral obligation to be here. As an ex-slave colony, Liberia is really part of the United States; and we must stand and support our fellow citizens as they rebuild their country.”

Liberian people are resilient. The students found that one major factor of national recovery and development is education; and most Liberians want more educational opportunities.

Dr. Murl Dirksen remarked, “I have traveled with a lot of Lee student groups, but anthropology majors are the best to take internationally because they understand the dynamics of culture, want to engage with local people, and recognize that this is part of what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. In Liberia they were wonderful! They sincerely enjoyed worshipping and praying with fellow believers, playing with children and spending time with the orphanage staff, and sitting and visiting with the folks of the rural community.”

Dr. Murl Dirksen will have two more field schools this summer continuing the excavation at Eagle Rock Shelter near Delta, Colorado. Also this summer, Dr. Richard Jones begins his survey and test excavations of the North River basin near Tellico. (Source: www.thechattanoogan.com).

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