Monthly Archives: June 2011

“This too is Liberia”

That’s what Jerry, one of the workshop facilitators for the Lutheran Church’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation program, told me as we made the less-than-smooth transition from paved roads to a rutted, muddy mess that passes as the international highway between the Ivory Coast and Liberia. We were on our way to Nimba, a frontier county that abuts Guinea and the Ivory Coast, to conduct conflict resolution workshops for Ivoirian refugees and their host communities. Assuming I had not yet experienced the joint-rattling potholes of rural roads, Jerry wanted to clue me in.

But I saw something else in Nimba, something besides treacherous roads, that deserved to be pointed out as Liberian. In Kranplay, a small town 10 miles from the Ivory Coast, a group of children played soccer in an overgrown field. At the sight of a foreigner with a camera, they came running. The result? Your stereotypical “Africa” photos of grinning children, snapped by every volunteer and tourist on the continent. Being stereotypical, though, doesn’t make the grins any less adorable. And for me, it doesn’t make the scene any less – dare I use the word? – inspiring. After all, the kids were a mix of refugees from the Ivory Coast and children from the local host community, playing together while their parents sat in a conflict resolution workshop. And eight years ago, children their age were given drugs and guns and told to kill.

In Kranplay that afternoon, those things had no impact. The kids were just kids, just playing. Though it’s sometimes hard to see through the decay and corruption and poverty and violence here, they too are Liberia.

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Whose rights are they?

With all the noise from the UN and NGOs about child rights, it’s easy to assume that all Liberians are agitating for those protections. After all, who wouldn’t want their child protected from the threat of violence? As I discovered in Nyehn village, the answer is lots of parents.

As I sat on the porch of the home of Gbanjan Dohn, the village leader, two young sisters lay on a mat nearby. The younger sister kicked the older one. The older sister retaliated with a hard slap. The mother responded with a spank. “In Africa, we have our own ways to controlling our children,” Dohn commented.

The other villagers crowded around the porch, escaping the downpour, nodded in agreement. With the NGO and UN-initiated push for children’s rights, though, they are afraid of losing their ability to raise their children as they see fit – and losing their children in the process.

The children of Nyehn

“They come around here and tell us that we can’t make our children carry buckets on their heads, or make them cut bushes with cutlasses, or carry water from the pump to our house. They say we can’t spank our kids,” complained one mother. “So we can’t control them, because if we do, the police could come around and say we aren’t giving our children rights. But then what can we do?”

Dohn agreed. “They’ve got all our children talking about their rights,” he explained. “But since we can’t punish them and raise them the way we used to, they’re not close to the community. They run off and do crime or drugs or get pregnant. We can’t do anything about it.”

The mother clucked and nodded in agreement. Her daughter, who became pregnant at sixteen, now lives in Monrovia and rarely visits her family.

Whether or not the push for children’s rights actually contributes to Liberia’s youth delinquency, this set of parents in Nyehn feels trapped. Nobody in their community has pushed back against the UN or NGOs, nor does Dohn know of anybody who has. The reason, he explained, is that they fear if they reject the push for children’s rights, the NGOs and UN will halt aid entirely. For a place so dependent on foreign assistance – almost every road, school, clinic, and community center in Liberia boasts a sign with the logo of the NGO that provided funding – the prospect of losing money from the international community is terrifying. So, even for a community like Nyehn, where foreign aid has not been adequate to meet the village’s needs, the residents still accept the choiceless decision placed before them: with aid, it’s all or nothing.

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Cost of Living

A few questions stumped me before I left home for Liberia. What would I be able to buy in Liberia? What do they eat? How do they get around? What does it all cost? As I’m quickly discovering, almost everything is available here, and my wallet tells me that a day in Monrovia doesn’t cost much. The following is a list of some of the things I’ve bought, along with their prices in US dollars.

 

  • A night at the Lutheran Guest House, running water not necessarily included: $25.00
  • A plastic baggie of water from one of the many coolers that line the roads (I’m crossing my fingers that its not just tap water): $0.14
  • A roasted plantain: $0.40
  • A Manchester United umbrella: $3.75
  • Flip-flops imported from China: $1.75
  • A shared taxi downtown, with a minimum of five people in the backseat: $0.30
  • Tea at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an air-conditioned, ornate expat hang out: $2.00
  • Tea at a roadside stall: $0.40
  • A Snickers bar from the Lebanese grocery store: $3.00
  • Local dinner – a heaping plate of rice and Liberian eggplant stew: $2.00

 

With a grant from Yale – or a generously playing NGO job – one can live pretty comfortably here. Now if we could just get that water running in the guest house…

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Trouble in the bush

Nyehn is as idyllic as villages come. An hour and a half outside of Monrovia, the settlement of about 500 people is perched on a hilltop, with mud brick and thatched roof huts nestled among palm trees. Chickens and children run over the rust colored earth, through patches of cassava and down to the river. At night, friends gather to watch movies in the two houses that have generators. On Sunday mornings, the sound of drums floats out of the town’s medical clinic, where the Lutheran church holds its services. It is, at first glance, the very picture of quiet country life.

The local pastor and his wife

But appearances can lie, and Nyehn, like many areas in rural Liberia, is stuck between a violent past and a difficult present.

During the war, rebel fighters moved into Nyehn. According to Gbanjan Dohn, the General Town Chief, rebels stole supplies and food from the village – even hot meals that women were preparing for their families. To transport the stolen goods, they enlisted local men to carry the supplies on their heads to the next camp; once, they made Dohn carry an entire sugar cane mill for ten kilometers. As Dohn explained, “Nobody could say anything. If you did, they killed you. It was a complete breakdown of law and order.” The rebels killed and enslaved men, raped and made bush wives of women, and enlisted children as child soldiers.

After the war, the village was destroyed and local rubber plantations had stopped production, leaving the people with no homes and no source of income. To rebuild, Dohn said, they started small-scale charcoal production and subsistence farming; with their profits, they rebuilt most of the village. To heal the community, they held a series of reconciliation meetings and discussions.

Today, the only evidence of the war that destroyed this community is the occasional concrete skeleton where a home once stood. But, as Dohn and other community members explained, Nyehn has a long list of problems. Although there is a clean, functioning health clinic in the village, there is no ambulance or vehicle for the nurses to use. There is a one-room police station, but they don’t have a car or motorcycle either. There are only two water pumps for 3,000 people in the area, and the local surface water makes children sick because, lacking latrines or a sanitation system, the villagers must go to the bathroom in the bush.

The rebels stole the zinc roofs of houses, leaving them to crumble in the rains.

Outside of Monrovia, about a million Liberians live in villages like Nyehn. Here, amid the palm trees and bird calls, it seems these communities cannot escape hardship.

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“Women, oh, women!”

Nobody here is in the dark about the upcoming elections for president and congress, but plenty of people – registered voters included – are unaware of the constitutional referendum that comes first. On August 23, voters will go to the polls to vote yes or no on four proposed changes to Liberia’s constitution: reducing the residency requirement for presidential candidates from ten years to five, increasing the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, changing the date of the general election from October to November, and choosing winners in congressional elections by simple majority.

Candidates for office have been campaigning hard, but it is up to the National Elections Commission (NEC) to publicize the referendum, and by most accounts, they have done a poor job so far. So, to spread awareness, a local journalist from the Liberia Media Initiative has created a unique platform to bring the referendum to the people. At the bustling Rally Time market in downtown Monrovia today, John Kollie carved out a space among the stalls, setting up chairs, speakers, and microphones. With the help of a megaphone-toting, arm-waving assistant, he drew a crowd, holding their attention with thumping music, dancing, and free referendum posters and brochures. By the time the 6 panelists arrived – a mix of politicians, NEC officials, and professors – the crowd was ready for a debate.

Audience members look over free informational posters

The program is called Ducor Debates, using the Bassa-language name for Monrovia that was used before the settlers arrived from the US. Each week, Kollie chooses a crowded location and arranges for a group of panelists to debate the referendum and other political topics. Each panelist is allotted three minutes for their remarks, a time limit to which Kollie adheres strictly. “Otherwise,” he explained, “they’ll just use this as their mouthpiece. You’ve got to keep them on the issues. They’ll try to use the debate to attack each other.”

Today’s panelists chose different angles, from the NEC representative’s rundown of the referendum’s logistics (“You won’t be voting for people this time. There won’t be pictures on your paper. Its yes or no on August 23!”) to a former Chief Justice’s argument in favor of all the reforms (“You get more experience and more knowledge when you get older. Why do you want to make a judge step down when he’s just getting the most wisdom?”). At the conclusion of the formal speeches, audience members jumped at the chance to ask questions. Ideally, the audience members take their brochures, informational posters, and knowledge back to their communities, disseminating the information informally.

This week’s debate was aimed primarily at women, who have been influential in Liberian politics in the past, but still lag behind their male counterparts in terms of literacy and political awareness. Neither the government nor the NEC has found effective methods to reach out to women and other members of Liberia’s poor to spread the word about the referendum. To fill the void, a number of grassroots efforts, like Kollie’s Ducor Debates, have sprung up around the country. Ducor Debates, though, is regarded as one of the most effective, and its clear why. The debates are broadcast on 42 radio stations around the country, and the crowds love it.

Through cheers and boo’s, each politician stood up this morning and rallied the audience with a call and response chant. “Women, oh, women?” they shouted. “WOMEN!” came the instant reply, with more enthusiasm each time.

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The Daily Talk: Investigative reporting?

The main story on the Daily Talk board for the next few days is more of a teaser. In the coming weeks, Sirleaf plans to report on a series of public figures in Liberia, uncovering their transgressions, as well as discussing their appropriate “areas.” The concept of an area, essentially the same as a field of expertise, comes from a popular Liberian song that encourages people to stay within the areas in which they had been trained. In Liberia, that notion has taken on meaning in politics, with critics calling on would-be leaders to stick to what they know.

Watch out

Starting this week, know their “areas” and alleged evils in societies as Daily Talk digs out the truth for unity!

Pres. Sirleaf

U.S. Pres.

Bush, Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia]

VP Boakai [the Vice President of Liberia]

CDC Tubman [Winston Tubman, presidential candidate from the Congress for Democratic Change]

Chief Justice [Francis Korkpor]

Political Vampire: “Ah, ah!” [An unknown figure in politics who exerts influence from behind the scenes]

CDC: Their areas? Weah, Drogba [George Weah and Didier Drogba, both soccer players now involved in Liberian politics]

Varney Sherman: “Weah? No, I for you Pres. Sirleaf.” [Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, famous for switching allegiances from one candidate to another]

PYJ [Prince Johnson, a rebel leader during the civil war who is  currently a senator and presidential candidate]

UNMIL Boss [Ellen Loj, head of the UN Mission in Liberia]

Criminal: “Help me officer, they will kill me!”

UN Backed Ouattara and his rebels

Headlines: 

  • Delta Airlines reduced VP Boakai at RIA [Robertsfield International Airport] on his way to the US through a security search.
  • Man in his 20’s, Junior Malbah, flogged to death in 15 Gate community in Careysburg Dist., Mont. Co., [Montserrado County] after murdering two children.
  • Lofa County education officer says poor education in Lofa is due to more funding being give tradition.
  • Deputy Minister for Revenue at Finance: “Cavalla Rubber Co. produces 78 Mil. USD yrly.”

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The price of a staple

Rice is the staple food in Liberia. It’s usually served alongside eggplant, palm butter, or potato greens, which come in a spicy, stew-y mash that involves some combination of fish, chicken, pig foot, and anonymous bush meat. It’s delicious, though it doesn’t necessarily sound it, and can be had for LD 150 (about $2). Rice on its own, though, is not cheap.

Thai rice for sale at a market in Monrovia

Rice is sold from wheelbarrows on the side of the road and at markets, measured in empty tin cans. A can of rice costs LD 20 (about $0.30), and a 50 pound bag of rice costs $35, a sum seen as exorbitantly expensive by Liberians. The reason? Nearly all rice sold commercially in Liberia is imported, from countries including India, Pakistan, the US, China, Indonesia, and Thailand. The Ministry of Commerce negotiates import contracts with Liberian companies, which bring the rice into the country through the freeport in Monrovia. They then sell it to suppliers, who in turn provide rice to the wheelbarrow-pushing sellers on the street.

When I heard grumbles about the price of rice, I was surprised. Liberia is hot and wet – the ideal climate for growing rice. With rice viewed as such a staple, even called a strategic commodity for Liberia, I had assumed at least some of the rice sold commercially was grown here. I quickly learned, though, that’s not the case. As Immanuel Pratt, a local business student, explained to me outside a dark room filled to the ceiling with Thai and Pakistani rice bags at the market, “You have Liberians in the hinterland, cutting with cutlasses and planting rice by hand and by spade, but you can’t do that on a large scale. They have no training on equipment, or even any equipment.”

As usual, this story comes back to two themes: the war and politics. In April 1979, Liberians took to the Monrovia streets when then-President Tolbert raised the price of rice, imported then as well. More than one hundred protesters were killed, and the event was a turning point that accelerated the decline into civil war. The ensuing fighting pushed many Liberians into Monrovia, depleting the countryside of its farmers. Now, with the fighting over, there are calls for the government to do more to promote agricultural development. As always, criticism is directed at the wealthy lawmakers who award import contracts and the business elites who receive them.

As I’ve come to learn, the outlines of a functioning democracy and developing state are here, but when it comes to the basics – food production and roads, for example – many Liberians are left wanting.

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