My hope was that I wouldn’t be blogging much about Liberia. Rather, I had hoped to train as many Liberians how to blog as possible and then simply point to what they have to say. Unfortunately, because of lack of infrastructure outside of our cushy hotel, it looks like I won’t have much of an opportunity to do so. Which means, get ready for a week of blogging about Liberia.
Michael Keating at the Liberian Ministry of Information
I am here with Michael Keating of the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Democracy and Development. The center, with a grant from the U.S. State Department, organized a program which in June brought a delegation of Liberian professionals to Boston for a two-week tour.
Now it is the second half of that program. That’s us. Michael has gathered a number of journalists (and me) to come to Liberia to report on what is happening here and to help train local Liberian journalists.
Liberia’s history – and specifically its relationship with the United States – is fascinating. The country was founded and colonized in 1847 by freed Black slaves from the United States. By 1867 more than 13,000 Black Americans moved to independent Liberia. In an article published last year by Vanessa Gezari, one of the four journalists here in Monrovia with me, she describes the divide between the Black American settlers and the indigenous Liberians:
Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, lured by the promise of black sovereignty and encouraged by slave owners who feared revolt. But the settlers brought America’s inequalities with them. Their letters speak of “uncivilized” indigenous people who stole their belongings. They named their communities after slave-holding states – Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia – and set out to convert Africans to Christianity. Their leaders wore top hats and suits despite the tropical heat, and smoked cigars.
The settlers married indigenous Liberians and raised and educated indigenous children, but they retained a firm grip on money and power. In the countryside, people stayed poor and sent their children to “bush school”: secret societies that perform circumcisions and tattoo the skin of boys and girls with tiny incisions, marking them for life.
Vanessa Gezari at the Liberian Ministry of Information
Fast-forward 130 years:
In 1980, after riots broke out over the price of rice, a group of soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe broke into the executive mansion and disemboweled President William Tolbert. Doe became the first Liberian of indigenous descent to lead the country, and his first act after the coup was to gun down 13 members of Tolbert’s Cabinet on the beach. His ascension sparked a backlash against Americo-Liberians, as the settlers’ descendants were known, and many fled.
Meanwhile, at little Bentley College in Massachusetts, a young Liberian man was studying economics and protesting the leadership of William Tolbert, the former president murdered by Doe. That young man was Charles Taylor, one of Africa’s most notorious warlords, who is now on trial in The Hague, charged with five counts of war crimes, five counts of crimes against humanity, and with recruiting child soldiers.
When Doe took control of Liberia, Taylor returned to Monrovia, changed his name to ‘Ghankay’, and was put in charge of the government’s purchases.
Four years later, in 1984, Taylor was arrested by two US Deputy Marshals in Somerville, Massachusetts for embezzling $1 million, which was supposed to buy machinery for the Liberian government, but instead wound up in his US bank account. The following year Taylor, along with four other inmates, escaped from prison in Massachusetts by sawing through the barred window of the laundry room. I mean, talk about the stuff of Hollywood thrillers right?
But wait, it gets better. While all the other escapees were tracked down, Taylor somehow made his way to Libya where he underwent guerilla training and became a protege of Muammar al-Gaddafi. (The movie also gets a cameo by Taylor’s business partner, television evangelist Pat Robertson, who was wrong about the end of the world in 1982, but turned out to be prescient about this year’s stock market crash.)
In December 1989, Taylor launched an armed uprising from the Ivory Coast into Liberia to overthrow its government, which led to nearly 14 years of civil war, 200,000 deaths, and millions of displaced Liberians. Today those 14 years of civil war define just about every aspect of Liberian life. We are talking about a country of just 3.5 million people, roughly the population of Connecticut. Everyone knows everyone else and those horrific memories are fresh wounds with fragile scabs.
Today was our first real day here in Monrovia. We paid visits to the Ministry of Information and the Press Union of Liberia, both of which I will describe tomorrow. I will also do my best to publish an overview of the current Liberian blogoshpere, which so far is completely made up of Liberians living abroad and development workers living here. (Hopefully we’ll be able to change that this week.)
I am joined here by Vanessa Gezari, a freelance foreign reporter; Jessie Graham, who trained radio journalists at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Iraq and now works for Human Rights Watch; Gregory H. Stemn, a Liberian photojournalist currently living in Boston; Kathleen Flynn, a photojournalist at the St. Petersburg Times; and Bill Glucroft who is currently working at the Mossawa Centre in Haifa, Israel.