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.

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The Daily Talk: Power of the press

For forty-five minutes this afternoon, Alfred argued with a graphic designer over the layout for The Daily Talk’s new brochure. I was content to sit in the hangar-like room, watching as women prowled the aisles selling mayonnaise and condensed milk sandwiches and plantain chips from buckets on their heads. But all of a sudden, mid-debate, Alfred received a call from the Ministry of Finance, and after a few quick words to the designer, we took off for the Ministry.

It was a call Alfred had been awaiting for weeks. Above The Daily Talk’s newsboard is a sign urging citizens to “Show your love for Mama Liberia, pay taxes as and when due!” Alfred erected the sign as an advertisement for the Ministry of Finance two years ago, for a fee of US $100 per month. The problem is, Alfred never received payment, and the Ministry owes him $2400.

He needs the Ministry’s money to buy new equipment, and after a month of unreturned phone calls, Alfred was done waiting. So, he turned to the media. Today’s big, bold Daily Talk headline reads, “System corrupt? Finance Ministry refusing to pay Daily Talk for publicity of programs. Details coming…” Upper-level officials in the Ministry called Nathaniel Konjay, the Director of Budget and Finance, questioning why the Ministry had been humiliated before the people. Konjay quickly called Alfred in for a meeting.

Once at the Ministry, the debate turned to formalities. Konjay didn’t dispute that the Ministry owes The Daily Talk, but apparently the two parties never arrived at a final contract with both signatures, which the Ministry needs to make an official payment. Konjay left the issue of the Ministry’s prior unresponsiveness unaddressed. Still, he was eager to resolve the matter. While writing a note reminding himself to secure a signed contract, Konjay explained, “The problem has already happened. Embarrassment has already happened for the Ministry. Big embarrassment. I’ll work on this, and worst case scenario, you will have the money by next Tuesday.”

Government ministries here are notorious for failing to follow through with their promises, so whether Alfred will actually receive the money by Tuesday, or at all, is anybody’s guess. What is clear, though, is that the Ministry didn’t respond until Alfred took the issue to the media – even if it that medium was only a chalkboard.

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Trying to get away

When Monrovia gets to be too much, I curl up in bed and relax with my Kindle and iPod. When that’s not enough, I remind myself that in a few weeks I’ll head home to Marion, where, until we start school again, the biggest challenge my friends and I will face is whether we should sunbathe on the dock or the boat.

There is something beyond minor inconveniences, though, that I can’t escape with my books or impending return to the US. In fact, those comforts just compound my anxiety. My main source of stress is the desperation I see, and the feeling that I can’t help in any meaningful, long term way as a student journalist here for only two months.

Catherine, the laundry woman at my guest house, is 35, but she looks twenty years older. She earns US $50 per month and lives in a leaky shack that floods when the rains come. Recently, she’s begun asking my friend to take her picture and show it to people in the US. She believes that an American man will see her photo, agree to marry her, and bring her to the US to start a new, prosperous life. Failing that, she hopes the poverty evident in the picture will prompt a kind soul to sponsor her and help her immigrate. “I’ll be in New York,” she repeats, “and it will all be thanks to my friend here.” She sees my friend, a fellow Yale student, as her bridge to America.

Marcus, 18, is one of the young men who lives in the guest house compound. Last week, he asked me to look at an unsolicited email he received. It was from a company that proofreads green card applications. They charge 170 Euros per application round. “My mom is doing it too,” he told me proudly. “We’re going to come to America.” He had diligently filled out the information form, but was stumped by the page that asked for a credit card payment. When I explained what the page wanted, and that the service did not guarantee a green card, there was no flicker of understanding in his eyes, and his mouth remained in a puzzled frown. “So then you can get the embassy to help me,” he resolved, reading back over all of the information he had entered. Marcus is a literate high school student, but it wasn’t enough to understand the subtleties of internet spam, or the even greater intricacies of the US immigration process.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that people want to escape their lives here and have pinned their hopes on me, or people like me, and that I can’t help them. To be sure, plenty of Liberians live comfortably and want to stay. Moreover, I have met a number of people who have earned college degrees in the US or Europe and returned to Liberia; oftentimes, these are the people who see the most potential in their country, and they work to promote economic growth, education, and democracy here. Nevertheless, just as many Liberians live in the hollow shells of buildings destroyed by the war, squeezing out livings selling peanuts on the side of the road. They see me, an American, and assume that I have the wealth and connections to secure them a comfortable life in the US.

How do I tell somebody that I don’t even have the ability to snag a spot in the seminar I want to take, let alone sweep him through the immigration process? Should I try to explain that while I am relatively wealthy by Liberian standards, I am merely an unemployed college student? And then there is the thought that is the most honest, but also the hardest to confront: that in the US, we are bombarded with appeals for help and images of poverty every day, and one particular Liberian photo or anecdote will probably elicit little more than a few sympathetic words.

White man’s guilt, First World problems – call it what you like. As I try to grapple with the various realities and potential explanations and philosophical thoughts that swirl through my mind, I feel guilty. And exhausted. I would curl up with my Kindle and iPod, but won’t that make me feel worse?

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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.

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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?

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“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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