Category Archives: Writing and Reporting

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

Play, not puddles

In Tuesday’s senate session, Senator Gloria Scott waxed poetic about her childhood in the 1970s. With grand gestures, she spun a tale of a rustic, carefree lifestyle. “When I was a child,” she began, “I would play in the dry season [roughly November through March]. The weather was nice, so we were always outside together, playing. Always playing. We also could help our parents with the harvest, and go to the market with them to sell it.”

In the 1990s, things changed for Liberian children, preventing them from enjoying summers like Scott’s. There was, of course, was the civil war, which robbed children of their playtime and replaced it with guns. Yet it was another, more subtle change that Scott believes harmed Liberian youngsters and continues to negatively affect them today. That reform was the change in Liberia’s school calendar, which switched the school year from February through November to September through June. The Liberian parliament is currently debating an education bill that will, among other things, maintain the current school calendar. The bill is expected to pass, though not if Scott has her way.

“Now they have vacation during the rains,” complained Scott. “They can’t play outside! It’s so important for our children to play, but they cannot.” After experiencing nearly four weeks of Liberia’s rainy season, I can’t say I disagree. It rains almost every day, ranging from a passing drizzle to an all-day downpour. At best, the paved streets flood; at worst, dirt roads become impassable mud puddles that trap cars for hours on end. And although Liberia lies north of the Equator, technically making it summer here, Liberians consider the rainy season their winter. Temperatures may be moderate by my New Englanld standards (high seventies to mid-eighties most days), but Liberians find it chilly, and winter coats are for sale in many roadside stalls. The dry season may be hot and humid, but nearly all Liberians agree that it beats the rain.

As Scott continued to list the drawbacks of scheduling summer vacation during the rainy season, though, her reasoning changed. What began as a push for children’s welfare became a glimpse into Liberia’s national psyche. “Our neighbors modeled their school years off of their colonial masters. Their masters in the West made their school years so their children could play in the summer. But Liberia is not Europe or America, and their summer is not our summer,” she proclaimed. “We should not have just copied them. It’s important for us to know why our laws are the way they are.”

Liberians freely admit that they are reliant on Western aid and NGOs, moving to Europe or the US remains the ultimate sign of prestige, and Liberians love to remind me that their country was established by Americans. Still, Liberians are fiercely proud of their country, and beneath the veneer of foreign influence here, Liberians are not ready to trade their culture for that of the West. Especially not when that means playing in the torrential, cold rains.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

Break it down now

English may be Liberia’s official national language, but yesterday’s round of Ducor Debates was bi-lingual in an unexpected way.

Before an audience of primarily men, panelists from timber companies and the national legislature stood up one by one to discuss the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), the subject of the morning’s debate. In May, the European Union and Liberia signed the agreement, which seeks to ensure that all timber exported from Liberia to the EU has been logged legally.

Isaac Manna, one of the panelists, summarized the agreement’s benefits, arguing, “this will rekindle our reputation! It will help with capacity and human resources building! It will help our economy!”

When he finished, Kollie invited a volunteer from the Liberia Media Initiative to the microphone to “break it down small.”

“You’ve got a group of white people called the European Union,” the volunteer said. “The trees you have, the big trees, its called ‘timber’, and it’s good. It’s really, really good. The other group of people, the VPA, goes between the white people group, the European Union, and the people in the timber industry, the big wood industry.”

The men in the audience nodded, and the man continued. “So my people, you are here, you understand the message. Go tell other people the message that our government is making the laws, the laws to protect the country. So when people cut the trees to bring to the white people’s country, they do it with laws.”

The man spoke in “simple” or “pidgin” English, translating the formal language of the panelists into more basic terms for audience members to understand. In Liberia, written English is nearly identical to that used in the US or the UK, but the language spoken on the street and used in public service announcements is markedly different. When landowners want to prevent pedestrians from urinating on their property, they spray paint “No pepe here!” on the potential restroom. (Men using the bathroom on the side of busy streets is not an uncommon sight here.) Anti-AIDS campaigns urge lovers to use protection during “man-woman business”, and signs prohibiting bribery exclaim, “No money business!”

Unfortunately, understanding both formal and informal English is not a two way street. While educated Liberians use both with ease, their counterparts who never made it past primary school – or who never made it to school at all – cannot easily follow formal English.

Glancing around at his fellow audience members at the debate, Chris Nippy, a local student of Political Science, argued for the importance of using simple English. He explained, “Not everyone is a college student, so pidgin English is the best. It’s the English that the common Liberian can understand. You’ve got to bring the English down to them so they can share it with their friends.”

That’s exactly what Kollie attempts to do with his bi-lingual debates, and what the government and NGOs strive for with their pidgin public service announcements. With the current state of its education system, Liberia is unable to give all its citizens the skills needed to understand the country’s official language in its formal sense. So instead, grassroots and government groups alike bring the language to the people. It’s a band-aid approach, but for now it works. As the debate concluded, the audience members rushed to the stage, bombarding the translator, not the panelists, with pointed questions about logging and laws.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

The birds and bees of conflict resolution

“How do we make a baby!?” exclaims Varbah Flomo, standing on a cement stage before 40 workshop participants. The participants, a mix of Ivorian refugees and members of their local host community, fan themselves in the midday heat. “How is the baby made?”

A regal-looking woman in a bright lapa raises her hand and stands. “When a man and a woman are good together, when they have the connection, they have sex and God gives them a child,” she explains.

The audience laughs, and Flomo smiles. “I’m sorry for making use of the word sex. But that’s how a baby is made. The day you agree to have the baby, you have it? NO! You have to sleep together, you have to wait nine months, you have to deliver!”

The participants nod, and she continues, “The man wants you, but you may say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ See? The baby’s got roots! Just like a conflict. The conflict’s got roots! It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

The participants murmur in agreement. “Oh ma,” Flomo addresses one older woman in the corner, “Tha’ cleah?” Does that make sense?

The group of refugees and host community members paid close attention to Flomo's stories.

Throughout Liberia, the Lutheran Church’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme (THRP) conducts two-day conflict resolution workshops like these for communities, law enforcement officers, traditional leaders, and Ivorian refugees and their hosts. In their methodology, the workshops look like those found around the world. The facilitator encourages participants to ask questions and offer constructive comments, each topic is defined and discussed, and participants break into smaller working groups to come up with solutions to hypothetical conflict situations. The participants are community elders, teachers, leaders in women’s and youth groups, and other respected figures.

It is their local twist, though, that makes these workshops unique and effective here. Though THRP receives its funding from the Lutheran Church of Sweden and Sweden’s national aid agency, it is run entirely by Liberians, who use their local knowledge to connect with participants. The examples used in workshops include disputes over land given as dowry, the role of local elders in resolving arguments, parents putting their children to work, and, of course, the parallel between conflict to childbirth – all situations in which participants have first hand experience. Even the language is tailored to the audience. In this particular workshop, in rural Nimba County, the facilitator’s explanations are translated into Gio, a local language spoken there and across the border in the Ivory Coast. Explanations are punctuated with shouts of “women, oh, women!” and “oh ma?”, a phrase ubiquitous on the streets of Liberia that calls for attention. Each time those calls echo around the room, participants respond with vigor.

Locally-run initiatives like these of course have problems, predominantly with securing funding. They lack the resources to reach all the communities in need of conflict resolution training and discussion; in Liberia, only the UN and international NGOs seem to have an adequate, constant cash flow. But what they lack in money, efforts like THRP make up for in their ability to appeal to participants and speak to them in their own language. Tha’ cleah, ma?

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing and Reporting

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Writing and Reporting