Liberia’s Nobel Win

After an abrupt end to my summer blogging (thanks to a computer theft in Monrovia) and a long period of adjustment back in the US, I’m back to blogging about Liberia. The Nobel Prize committee announced the winners of the Peace Prize last week, and the recipients included two Liberian women: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and  Leymah Gbowee, a female community organizer. The following is a reposting of a piece I wrote about the award for the Globalist website:


Women and soldiers await President Sirleaf's arrival at Liberia's Independence Day celebrations in Voinjama, Lofa County

I was shocked when the New York Times announced the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Liberian women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President, and Leymah Gbowee, a female grassroots organizer. Liberia is one of those overlooked spaces on the map, a country of three million that consists only of Monrovia – the ramshackle, tin-roofed capital – and the dense, sparsely-populated bush. On one hand, its absence from world headlines is a blessing for Liberia, which for more than a decade only made news for the warlords, child soldiers, and brutal violence of its civil war. Those years of terror are gone now, and Liberians are working to maintain their tenuous peace and repair their economy, infrastructure, and civil society. Viewed from the outside, Liberia’s slow rebuilding process and remaining poverty don’t make for sexy headlines or front-page news.

At least, that’s what I thought before I arrived in the country to spend two months working with a local journalist. I’d read everything I could find about Liberia and had come to the conclusion that Liberia was like every other developing country I’d visited: poor and lacking in basic services, but not remarkably so.

Upon arriving in Monrovia, I quickly discovered my mistake. The country has no electrical grid, piped water, or traffic lights. Roads outside the capital are unpaved, making it next to impossible to transport crops to markets, patients to clinics, and students to schools. Eight years after the end of Liberia’s civil war, bullet holes still tattoo buildings in the capital, and squatters live beneath tarps in the shells of homes and offices destroyed in the fighting. When it comes to poverty, underdevelopment, and disrepair, Liberia is in a category of its own.

The UN and international aid community recognize this, and they flock to Liberia in droves, but when I tell friends where I spent my summer, I receive only half-hearted responses of “cool” or “where is that again?”. American politicians and media don’t show any more interest. It doesn’t help that Liberia’s neighborhood, while war-torn and impoverished, isn’t exactly considered a geopolitical hotspot like the Middle East or South Asia.

This is precisely why Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is so significant. One can’t grasp Liberia’s many challenges and desperate poverty without spending time there, but this prize has the power to turn the spotlight onto Liberia and grant a voice to those working to rebuild the country. My hope is that this new awareness won’t stop with Gbowee and Johnson-Sirleaf’s accomplishments, though. Johnson-Sirleaf may have made strides towards relieving Liberia’s international debt and promoting development, but she’s widely criticized by Liberians for failing to deliver on her promises of paved roads, working education and health systems, and a clampdown on corruption.

Instead, my hope is that the prize announcement will inspire journalists, politicians, travelers, and the generally curious to seek out and listen to the voices of Liberia’s market women, refugees, former child soldiers, and subsistence farmers – the people who not only live the consequences of Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s actions, but who will determine whether Liberia remains peaceful or slides back into war. Having had the opportunity to hear these people’s stories, I can attest that they deserve to be heard. And with elections scheduled for this month – only the second time since the end of the war – they are stories we can’t afford not to hear.


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The literature of poverty

Given the lack of street lights and the high crime rate in Monrovia, I don’t feel safe walking after dark. After the sun sets, I usually whole up in my guest house and scour the internet for good reads; I’ve recently become hooked on the online archives of Lapham’s Quarterly. It seems a bit incongruous to be reading essays on the website of a high-brow “magazine of history and ideas” while in a country where most people cannot read and even fewer have internet access. Tonight, it felt even more unnatural when I clicked on a piece about Charles Dickens, whose work seemed to me more fitted to the Gothic buildings of Yale than the streets of somewhere like Monrovia. But George Packer’s piece Dickens in Lagos proved my assumption wrong. Packer relates the 19th century poverty of Dickens’ world to the slums of developing countries today, with a convincing comparison that never would have occurred to me. It reminded me of the world I see on a daily basis in Liberia, and it’s worth a look.

Happy reading!

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Soldiers of not war, but fortune

Liberia’s instability and violence in the past two decades may have ruined its infrastructure, suppressed its economy, and killed its people. But what they didn’t manage to destroy was Liberia’s image, at least in the eyes of the adventurous, as a place of opportunity. For different people, though, that opportunity takes different shapes.

Lebanese merchants have been a staple in Liberian society for decades, dominating the import-export market and operating most of Monrovia’s larger stores. They arrived when Lebanon was in turmoil, and quickly became wealthy bringing in the many manufactured goods that Liberia couldn’t produce for itself. Since the war, a number of Indians have joined the Lebanese, mostly operating hardware stores. “Why would I go to the US or Europe?” questioned Karan, a 21-year old Indian, in what is a commonly heard refrain. “It’s so much easier to make money here. You just sell it and they just come.” Karan, who worked for his uncle’s business in Ghana prior to moving to Liberia, plans to run his hardware store for several more years before returning home to marry.

Karan may supply many NGOs with the materials they need to construct schools and clinics, but altruism certainly isn’t his motivation for operating in Liberia. I won’t repeat his more racist comments here, but suffice it to say that he doesn’t hold Liberians or their country in high regard. “This place is shit,” he said, gesturing at crumbling buildings and tin shacks. “But you can’t beat the money here.”

Luckily, foreigners with dollar signs in their eyes aren’t the only ones who have come to take advantage of Liberia’s opportunities. As the country tries to rebuild after the war, a number of Liberians educated in the US and Europe have returned to contribute to that progress – and, if all goes well, perhaps make a profit. Fabio Velanet is one such Liberian, who, armed with a degree in International Business and Economics, set about producing rice commercially on his family farm in Kakata. “I could be making a lot more in the US,” he explained. His company, Fabrar Rice, has annual profits of only around $10,000. But he continued: “You gotta understand that Africa is my home, though. Liberia is my home.” He taps into the knowledge of his neighbors to increase his rice yields and purchases surplus rice from local farmers, providing them with income and a way to sell rice that would otherwise rot. “I mean, if I’m not helping people there’s no point in doing this. There’s so much potential for this country and for these people,” he commented. Eventually, Velanet envisions a Liberia that produces its own rice, rather than importing it from abroad, and he hopes his business is one step along the way.

This is not a place for the faint of heart, and it often seems that just as many people want to leave as choose to come. Nevertheless, in a somewhat twisted way, the very things that make life difficult here also work in Liberia’s favor. In a place still trying to mend its fractures but still lacking even the most basic goods and services, there are seemingly endless ways to make a buck – or a change.

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Not your average day in Washington

It’s been 10 days since the official start of campaigning for the general elections to be held in the fall (the referendum in August will determine whether Liberians go to the polls in October or November), and candidates have hit the ground running. The senate chamber was emptier than usual on Thursday, with many senators out on the campaign trail rather than in session. Campaign posters – mostly of the homemade-looking, 8.5×11″ variety – have appeared on walls and the trunks of palm trees around town. The major Liberian dailies have begun running campaign ads and National Elections Commission public service announcements alongside news coverage of the candidates.

Signs urging Liberians to vote President Sirleaf out of office have popped up around Monrovia in the last three days.

In many ways, campaigns here look similar to those in the US. Candidates have offered a slew of campaign promises. President Sirleaf has pledged to continue to develop Liberia, claiming that voters would be unwise to vote her out just as reforms are gaining speed. The leading opposition candidate, Charles Brumskine, recently promised to equip each village with an ambulance and provide Liberians over 65 with a monthly stipend. And as in any campaign, neither side hesitates to criticize the other’s policies or point out missteps. Sirleaf’s critics portray her  as a darling of the international community who has failed to ameliorate some of the most basic problems at home. Brumskine’s detractors argue that he his plans are unrealistic and vague. The debate is on.

For outsiders like me, so far there has been only one glaring difference between campaigns here and at home: the accusation that Prince Johnson enlisted a witch doctor to assassinate one of his potential opponents. Yet for Liberians and academics who have studied politics and culture here, such claims aren’t without precedent. Secret societies, headed by zoes who allegedly possess supernatural powers, are a prominent part of the traditional Liberian society, especially in rural areas, and superstition played a major role in the civil war. (Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy offers great insight into the role of secret societies and traditional beliefs in Liberian culture.) The accusation made headlines, but for the end sought rather than the means allegedly used.

Campaign signs wallpaper lamp posts and tree trunks

What truly makes this election unique for onlookers and voters alike is that it is only the second election since the end of the civil war. That is also what makes it potentially volatile.  Although Liberia has a blossoming civil society and seemingly strong democracy, experts point to the Ivory Coast as an example of how easily elections can go awry. In the streets here, despite public service announcements calling for peaceful elections, there is still a palpable tension. Many of the Lebanese and Indian merchants here say they are keeping their inventories low until the election has passed, and several have purchased plane tickets to leave the country during elections.

Few dispute that Sirleaf will win a second term, but uncertainty looms larger than poll numbers and campaigns (and witch doctors). There is an ominous sense that as much as Liberians hold their breath and cross their fingers, nobody can predict how the country itself will fare.

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The Daily Talk: Monkeys and baboons and politicians, oh my!

There is a common Liberian phrase that says, “Monkey works, Baboon draws.” The implication is that the larger and more powerful elites get rich on the backs of hardworking poor, who enjoy no returns for themselves. To mark the official start of campaigning for the fall general elections last Tuesday, President Sirleaf made a speech to highlight her achievements and mock her opponents, calling them baboons who continue to exploit working Liberians.

Despite ubiquitous signs around Monrovia urging candidates to focus on issues rather than personalities during their campaigns, the newspapers each day are filled with stories of insults flying back and forth between candidates. Last week, the New Democrat ran a story in which Senator Abel Massaley accused former rebel leader and current senator Prince Johnson of using witchcraft to assassinate him ahead of the election. And we thought Washington politics were brutal…

The following is the Daily Talk’s take on the start of the election:


Ellen: “Let monkey wait small, baboon still working”

Monkey (1) vs. Baboon (0)

Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, threw talks at her party headquarters in Congotown during her “da my area” speech when she made the statement above. “wise political zoes [leaders of Liberia’s traditional secret societies]” strongly believe that troublemaker Sirleaf is referring to troublemaker [Charles] Taylor who once said, “No monkey work…”


Other Headlines:

  • IMF completes sixth review of Lib.’s economic performance under Extended Credit Facility (ECF).
  • Man, 34, businessman Charles Holder, hang himself to death out of frustration on Bushrod Island, Monrovia.
  • CDC [Congress for Democratic Change] Tubman: “We will defeat UP [the ruling Unity Party] flat in first round.”
  • Gov’t set to enforce public smoking law, passed in Sept. last year.
  • “Veteran bill” approved at Capitol Building, ex-rebel generals left in the cold.
  • Citizens of Todee District, Montserrado County sent out SOS call for one ambulance.
  • Senegal Pres. Abdoulaye Wad betrayed AU? Held talks with rebels in Benghazi to unseat Pres. Gadafi.
  • NEC [National Elections Commission] finally blows whistle for 2011 campaigns.
  • Gov’t seized 600,000 bags of rice being smuggled into Guinea, says Commerce Minister.
  • 36 Ivorian rebels arrested in R/Gee [River Gee County] for arms to face court action.

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Cooking Lesson: Collard greens and fried plantains

Nine hungry expats gathered on Saturday morning to learn how to cook traditional Liberian dishes: a spicy stew of collard greens with chicken and fish (should be served with rice), and fried plantains. The setting – a luxury apartment above a sparkling swimming pool – wasn’t exactly your typical Liberian kitchen, but the food was as authentic as anything served up at a roadside food stall. Enjoy!

The finished product

Stew (Makes about 10 servings):

  • 1 large head of cabbage, cut into large pieces
  • 2 bunches of collard greens, cut into thin strips
  • 1/4 cup of chili peppers, diced
  • 2 onions, diced
  • Half a chicken, skinned and cut into medium-sized pieces
  • 5 large shrimp
  • Half a red snapper, cut into medium pieces
  • 6 cubes of shrimp bouillon
  • about 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • about 2 tsp seasoned salt
  • vegetable oil

    Fish comes fresh...

  1. Put the chicken pieces into a large pot with 3 crumbled bouillon cubes, about 1 tsp. each of garlic powder and seasoned salt, a third of the chili peppers, a small handful of diced onions, and 1/2 cup water. Stir to mix and put on the stove to boil.
  2. Cook chicken until the water has boiled off, then add another 1.5 cups of water. Cook for another 7-10 minutes (until browned).
  3. Transfer the chicken to a large pot with about 1/2 inch of oil on the bottom of the pan. Save the liquid from the original pot! Fry the chicken for several minutes, stirring, until each side is crispy. Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and put on a plate.
  4. Cut slices into the fish, and season with the remaining garlic powder and seasoned salt, as well as 2 cubes of shrimp bouillon.
  5. Add extra oil to the pot used for frying the chicken (should be about 1/3 –  1/2″ of oil in the pan), and fry the fish. When each side is browned and crispy, remove the fish and put it on the plate with the chicken.

    Frying the fish (now scaled and gutted and looking much more appetizing)

  6. Add more oil to the same frying pot if necessary, then add in the remaining diced onions and the rest of the chili peppers. Cook until the onions are golden.
  7. Add the collard greens and cabbage to the pot, as well as two more crumbled cubes of bouillon. Mix well and sautee for several minutes.
  8. When the greens have cooked down a bit, add the liquid from the chicken (step 2) to the pot and stir. Let simmer for 3-4 minutes.
  9. Add the chicken and fish pieces to the greens and stir. Let simmer uncovered to let the liquid boil down (about 10 minutes).
  10. Taste for flavor, and you’re done! Serve with rice.

    Stewing away

Fried plantains (pretty self-explanatory):

  • 4 large plantains
  • oil
  1. Peel plantains and slice diagonally into 1/2″ thick pieces.
  2. Fry in about 1/3″ of oil
  3. …told you it was easy. Plantains aren’t sweet, so you can add sugar or cinnamon.

Lots of frying involved


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Let’s call them “quirks”

I am now halfway through my time in Liberia (!), and I thought reflecting on what I have learned would be a useful exercise. The following is a list of my favorite facts, life lessons, and common occurrences from Liberia. They aren’t necessarily the most important things I’ve learned, but they are what make Liberia Liberia. In no particular order, they are as follows…

  • Mosquito nets are not like princess canopies. When I was little, I dreamed of sleeping in a lush, white four-poster bed with a princess canopy above me. I tried to make a canopy myself, but it wasn’t as glamorous as I envisioned, and hence rather short lived. I’ve discovered that mosquito nets are poor substitutes for princess beds. The net not only blocks the breeze of the fan, turning my bed into a stuffy, humid cocoon, but still manages to allow biting insects inside.
  • All generators will fail. When the entire country is powered by generators, this becomes a noticable fact of life. The guesthouse generator fails. The generator at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an  elegant expat hang out, fails. All of a sudden, entire buildings plunge into darkness. But hey, those are the lucky ones, the ones who have generators to begin with.

    Fact: All generators will fail. Glad I brought that headlamp.

  • Crabs will make the 300 yard trek from the beach to my hotel room. Specifically, my bathroom. They will lurk in the corner and launch sneak attacks on my unsuspecting toes while I sit on the toilet. An umbrella, I discovered, is the best tool for removing the wayward crabs, though each crab is replaced by one of its larger friends several days later.
  • Men peeing on the side of the road, in full view of all passing pedestrians, will not hesitate to wave and yell hello. This is one quirk I have not, and will not, get used to. Though it is not as bad as the children…
  • Children squatting to use the bathroom, also on the side of the road, will run up with their pants still down and rub their hands on any exposed patch of pale skin within reach. They giggle and say hello while doing this, and their parents look on with smiles. I do my best to manage a weak smile in return. This would be cute, except that it is compounded by the lack of running water in my hotel.
  • In four weeks, the number of showers I have taken remains in the single digits. I am residing, mind you, in a well-regarded guest house popular with Americans and Europeans for long-term stays. During my first week here, I was puzzled and pissed off when the water failed to run, and merely satisfied when it did. After several days of this, my mindset underwent a gradual change. Now, I am unsurprised and unbothered when the tap refuses to produce even a trickle, but overjoyed when I hear the gurgle of water coming up through the pipes. On the bright side, the measly supply of my favorite shampoo and conditioner that I brought from home probably will last until I return to the States.
  • The Delta Airlines office will not accept credit cards from any organization or individual other than the US Embassy. Everybody is expected to pay in cash – no easy feat, given that tickets to the US cost upwards of $2300. I managed to get around this rule by flirting with the Sri Lankan accountant in the office, though this has led to half a dozen phone calls from him each day asking me to spend time with him. But at least I got my tickets.

And finally, here is my favorite fact about Liberia, one that I think does a great job of summarizing this crazy place.

  • There is not a single traffic light in this entire country. When people ask about Marion, my hometown, I explain that it is a New England town so small, it has only two traffic lights. I think Liberia is the only place with fewer lights. Monrovia, the only city in Liberia with intersections busy enough to warrant lights, had several traffic lights before the war. But the city has been without a fully functioning electrical grid since the war, making traffic lights impossible. On the streets of Monrovia, the green light goes to whoever exhibits the most confidence.

A pre-war stoplight, now out of commission.

My Liberian friends frequently apologize for these “flaws”, but I wouldn’t dream of accepting those sorries. These facts may change from hilarious to inconvenient depending on my mood, but they are all part of the adventure – and that’s what I came here for.

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