The Daily Talk, started by Alfred Sirleaf in 2000, uses a simple formula: write the news each morning on a blackboard on Tubman Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in Monrovia. Commuters and pedestrians – some too rushed, but most just too poor to regularly access newspapers and the internet – can get their daily dose of local, national, and international news. For coverage of happenings within Liberia, Sirleaf relies on a team of volunteer reporters who come to him with stories. For international news, Sirleaf accesses sites like the BBC in an internet cafe; he does not own a computer.
Such simple mechanics, though, hide the many challenges facing grassroots journalism in a place like Liberia. Sirleaf started The Daily Talk in the midst of Liberia’s fourteen-year-long civil war. During the fighting, Sirleaf’s coverage of the war’s atrocities angered militias, and they assumed he was related to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an outspoken critic of Charles Taylor (and now Liberia’s president). Militias destroyed Sirleaf’s blackboard several times, and he went into exile for a period.
Operating The Daily Talk in post-war Liberia has been less tumultuous, but not without its share of obstacles. For one, Sirleaf aims to make his news accessible for all Liberians – which means finding a way to convey stories to the 25% of men and 60% of women who are illiterate. To reach those who cannot read, Sirleaf has devised a series of pictures and objects to symbolize the news, including a blue helmet for the UN and its peacekeeping force, a white handkerchief for Obama, and a hubcap for President Sirleaf, known as the Iron Lady of politics. Sirleaf’s most consistent problem is funding. Though he and his project have been covered by the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, and has its own wikipedia page, the funding Sirleaf requires to continue operating The Daily Talk and expand to new neighborhoods has not been forthcoming. (To support the operation and development of The Daily Talk, please consider donating through the Paypal link under the “Donate” tab.)
Sirleaf’s resolve and passion have not faltered. According to Sirleaf, lack of access to information fanned the flames of Liberia’s fourteen-year-long civil war. Leaders like Samuel Doe, and later Charles Taylor, controlled and manipulated information for their own ends, brutalizing the population in the process. After the war ended and a fragile democracy took root, broad access to news became even more important. As the general elections scheduled for this fall approach, only the second round of elections since the end of the war, Sirleaf believes that citizens must be informed to make meaningful choices on their ballots – and to help their democracy survive and grow. In his eyes, grassroots journalism initiatives like The Daily Talk are the key to preventing a new round of civil war.