I know, I know. There are so many countries in the world and so few hours in the day. But there are a few special reasons – especially for Americans – to invest some time in getting to know Liberia. First of all, as all Liberians will tell you, America and Liberia have a common heritage and legacy. As I wrote previously, Liberia is America’s first colony. Barack Obama may be America’s first African-American president, but it was J.J. Roberts, born in Norfolk, Virginia, who was the first African-American president of any country. Second, Liberians speak American-influenced English, albeit with an accent that can be difficult to understand for non-Liberians. Third, Liberia is just recovering from a 14-year civil war that absolutely devastated all aspects of Liberian society and poured over into neighboring countries including, most famously, Sierra Leone. Today there are still some 8,000 United Nations troops in Liberia to maintain the peace and encourage development. Fourth, Liberia is one of the least developed countries in all of Africa. More Liberians are unemployed than employed. Foreign investment in Liberia has historically been tied into corrupt warlords, corrupt government officials, and lawless gold and diamond mining areas. Today Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, is trying to attract as much foreign investment and international aid as possible while pushing through policies that create sustained economic development for all of Liberia’s fourteen ethnic groups. Similar to Rwanda after its brutal genocide, just about every major NGO and development agency has an office here in Monrovia. Liberia is often brought up by both sides of the academic debate over whether aid and reconciliation groups promote positive development or unhealthy dependency and unrealistic expectations.
If post-conflict reconciliation works effectively here in Liberia, it can work just about anywhere. If development takes hold here, then it can work anywhere.
In this post I will go through and point to all the resources for information about Liberia that I’m aware of. Given my own area of interest and work, it will often focus on media and technology, but I will also point to other resources that should serve as a starting point for anyone wanting to do further research.
As if often the case, the Wikipedia page on Liberia is a great starting point to understanding some of the basic facts about the country, its people, and how the European land grab for African colonies forced Liberians – both indigenous and immigrants from America – to join the era of federal nation-building. Wikipedia also has a good overview of the first and second Liberian civil wars (which for many people are, in fact, one long 14-year war). But to fully understand the complex dimensions of the conflict and how external factors – including the ambitions of other West African leaders and Western business interests – played a central part I highly recommend Stephen Ellis‘ The Mask of Anarchy.
Let’s start with music in order to provide a little soundtrack to this long post. I had no idea that Voice of America maintained an African music mp3 blog, but sho’ nuff it does. Last year Matthew LaVoie dug up some old Liberian 45s from the 60’s and posted the mp3 files. Here is ‘Amour in Twist’, “an instrumental dance number driven by a loping upright bass and the conga player.”
LaVoie also posts a couple songs by Richard Walker, but doesn’t include his biggest hit from 1992, Kakaleka. Fortunately, I was able to get the song from Tobey:
Photograph of Lucky Bucky at the grave of a member of their group who had died in a car accident while on tour in Sierra Leone by Kathleen Flynn.
Today the most popular genre here in Liberia is called hip-co, derived from “hip-hop and colloqua” (as in Liberian street English). Vanessa has a great piece on hip-co and how difficult it is to get by as a rapper in Liberia in Slate. Here is the track Mora by Lucky Bucky:
Rebuilding Liberia’s Media
It’s hard to believe that we have only two more full days here in Liberia. Five months have passed since I first visited Liberia with Vanessa, Jessie, Greg, Kathleen, Bill, and Michael. On that first visit we spent most of our time meeting with leaders from the various players in Liberia’s media industry. We met with editors, journalists, and broadcasters from the local newspapers and radio stations, and with the leaders of media development groups like the Liberian Media Center and the Press Union of Liberia in order to gauge the state of the media industry here and what their major needs are.
We discovered that dozens of groups – both domestic and international – are involved in rebuilding Liberia’s press corps. Jackie Bischof, a South African graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, wrote an extensive report evaluating the state of media in Liberia for one of her courses:
Journalists in Liberia face huge difficulties. With no electricity, newsrooms rely on the use of costly generators. Travel is not easy, there is limited public transportation and the cost of living is high. The low salaries of journalists leads to issues of ethics and unprofessionalism, says Liberian journalist Bill Jarkloh.
According to [Michael] Keating, a commitment by international donors to the training and funding of a free and open press in Liberia is there, and is critical to sustaining the press, until it can become self-sustainable. “There’s a severe shortage of money in media system in Liberia, and that distorts many different things,” he says. “It distorts quality, integrity and it distorts the ultimate sustainability of independent media. Only with significant outside financial help and technical assistance will the situation stabilize and improve.”
Last month the Center for International Media Assistance put on a day-long workshop on media development. The audio from that workshop is available on CIMA’s website. Voice of America also has a short piece on the workshop.
“Sliding Liberia” follows a group of young surfers to Liberia in search of more than perfect waves. As they travel through the West African country, devastated by decades of brutal civil war, they record the stories of people they meet along the way—-people like Alfred, a young boy who became Liberia’s first surfer after finding a bodyboard while fleeing from rebels. Besides rediscovering a world-class point break that could be the best-kept secret in the surfing world, the surfers find something much more important—-a way to travel responsibly in the 21st century.
Sliding Liberia has a slick website with features on Liberia’s two best known breaks, Mamba Point and Robertsport. The film was directed and produced by two Stanford students, Britton Caillouette and Nicholai Lidow, with an interest in both Liberia and surfing. Nicholai returned to Liberia in 2007 and brought everyone featured in the film a portable DVD player and a rough cut of the film. Sliding Liberia is available on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon. They also have a Facebook app.
Dan Malloy, one of the surfers featured in the film, has produced a multimedia slideshow for Surfing Magazine about their trip.
There are at least two surf camps, Surf Liberia and Robertsport Surf Camp, both based in Robertsport. There is also a Google Group mailing list about surfing in Liberia.
Liberia’s Tech Community
The sustainability of media isn’t only a concern in Liberia; just about every week a newspaper goes out of business in the United States as well. The internet hasn’t just enabled grassroots voices to emerge; it has also enabled advertisers and marketing companies to create their own viral media rather than piggybacking on the content of newspapers, radio, and TV. With the decline of traditional journalism many observers are hoping that technologists can now supplement the role of journalists by creating new interfaces and tools that aggregate and filter information submitted by ordinary citizens. For example, rather than relying on a local city hall reporter, we now have access to most of the same information as that reporter by using tools like Every Block.
Unfortunately here in Liberia the technology industry has been even slower to get on its feet than the media industry. Erik Hersman, who blogs with fiery passion about technology in Africa both on Afrigadget and White African, was in Liberia the week before I arrived and penned a series of informative blog posts about the current state of technology here. He writes of the many barriers to entry:
Liberia came out of a civil war only a few short years ago. The infrastructure was torn apart (there is no electricity grid, rich people run generators), the university and education system are still trying to catch up, and no computer science degree is available … You can’t get online to get to all the free knowledge. Unlike many other parts of Africa, there are very few internet cafes here … The few jobs that there are in the ICT sector are generally with NGOs, a few businesses and government organizations. Only those with good connections get in, so a lot of smart young people miss. Only those in these jobs are able to get the training and certification to do higher paying jobs because they have to be flown out to the training centers – none are in-country.
Erik also met with the CEO of one of the largest mobile phone operators in the country, Cellcom, and introduced his readers to John Etherton, a student at Georgia Tech who has been here for a year, has in-depth knowledge of Liberia’s mobile networks, and is currently managing a fascinating Story Corps-like project here called The Mobile Story Exchange System (MOSES), which enables ordinary Liberians to document their experiences during the civil war. Glenna Gordon will be writing a feature piece on MOSES soon. Here is an example of one such video testimonial recorded on the MOSES system:
I think that John’s project is inspiring. Imagine all of the stories that will be preserved for future generations. I hope he considers adding captions to the YouTube videos and also hosting them on dotSUB where they can be translated into other languages.
Erik goes on to correctly point out that communication technologists here in Liberia need to form alliances with community radio stations. (He also does a nice write-up of how Radio Gbarpola could use SMS to bring in more revenue.) He documents the sad story of the University of Liberia’s non-existant computer science program. (In the words of Michael Keating, most aid money to Liberia has bypassed the university. Indiana University is looking into providing Liberia’s three major universities with decent internet access.) And, finally, on a story that has been well-documented since 2003, Erik shot a brief video with Alfred Sirleaf who maintains a daily blackboard of news and information in the Sinkor district of Monrovia.
Women in Liberia
Though it was mostly young men who were recruited by Charles Taylor’s army during Liberia’s civil war, Liberian women suffered many of the worse atrocities. A whole demographic of young Liberians today is the result of an epidemic of violent rape that lasted throughout the crisis, and which still persists today. Given that Liberia is home to Africa’s first female elected head of state, it’s not surprising that many development agencies are pouring money into emphasizing and protecting women’s rights. In commemoration of International Women’s Day last week Monrovia hosted the “International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security,” the largest such event the country has put on since its return to peace. Sadly the story was hardly picked up in the media so I’m not sure if it was all talk or if concrete and realistic steps have been put into place. (My buddy Boakai has one of the few pieces about the colloquium. Nadine Hack has a nice summary on her blog.)
With the support of UNICEF Glenna Gordon is working on a project called “I have something to tell you” which features the lives of Liberian girls and will eventually become a documentary by filmmaker Loch Phillips. Make sure not to miss Glenna’s stunning portraits (and the stories they tell) of Ruth, Janice, and Joseta.
Poverty and Development in Liberia
If you’re interested in international development and aid with a focus on Liberia then the blog of Chris Blattman, an assistant professor of political science and economics at Yale, is a must-read. His snarkiness is sometimes a bit over-the-top and there’s an excess of posts about airport departure lounges, but he also has an eye on just about everything related to development in Liberia and how to measure it. He frequently points readers not just to examples of ugly aid dependence and undermining of the local private sector, but also effective programs in creating new jobs for ex-combatants.
About Liberia by Liberians
Almost all of the links I have provided so far point to articles, blog posts, and books written by foreigners. Given all the obstacles faced by Liberia’s media it is no wonder that it is difficult for local journalists to publish their content online.
Over at Rising Voices I just published a video and summary of the blogging workshop we did yesterday at the American Embassy Library. Erik Hersman does have a point when he writes that “bloggers are born, not made” but to discover those natural bloggers in a country like Liberia, new media workshops are still necessary. I have only been able to identify one Liberian blogger, Bill K. Jarkloh, who has started blogging on his own without attending our workshop. Jarkloh’s posts tend to be in-depth and knowledgeable, but oftentimes don’t provide the necessary context for an international audience. That is a common problem with blogs and it’s the reason why the authors and editors on Global Voices add context to the excerpts they highlight in order to make them easier to understand.
One of the intrigues of Liberia is that nobody knows where the country is headed in the short or long term. It is clearly in a much better state than it was five years ago as the country emerged battered and devastated by war, but a long road of uncertainty lies ahead. Will aid and foreign investment continue to flow in? How long will the United Nations Mission in Liberia stick around? Will the university get the resources it needs to train its students for the global economy? Will Liberian refugees living abroad return to Liberia to start new businesses? Will the tenuous peace last through the next election cycle or will the country return to the mind-boddling factionalism that has defined it since the fall of the True Whig Party?
No one knows, but it is worth keeping your eyes on some of the links above to see what happens.