Wrapping Up

This is officially my last weekend in Liberia and my feelings are far more complicated than I would have ever expected. I am, of course, very excited about returning to the US and getting reacquainted with the comforts of my life there, including: constant Internet access, potable tap water, non-instant coffee, 24-hour electricity, and food that isn’t either rice or Lebanese. Life in Monrovia is at times surprisingly lovely and often a bit wearing, especially when it’s been raining for days on end, your legs are covered with mud and mosquito bites, the office has no power, and someone suggests rice and sauce yet again for lunch.

That said, on the whole, I’ve had a tremendous experience in Liberia. The folks at the Ministry of Gender could not have been more welcoming nor could they have entrusted their summer interns with more interesting work. On Tuesday I’ll present the main findings of the MoGD capacity assessment to the Ministry and then lead a discussion on the five-year strategic plan. Given the sensitive nature of the capacity assessment and the controversial proposed shift in strategic direction (from a hybrid role of advocacy and project implementation, to the being primarily a gender mainstreaming / advocacy / monitoring agency that does not actually implement), Tuesday should be a bit difficult. Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this kind of wrap-up and am hopeful that this will be the first of several conversations about both documents.

On the internet front, we’re close to signing a contract for Ministry-wide connection for the next year. I would be thrilled if that happens before I leave but things always take longer than expected here…

Otherwise, all is well here. I’ve been running around getting clothing made from the beautiful lappas (the tailors here are talented and scandalously inexpensive) and saying my goodbyes. We’re at the cusp of a mass exodus of summer interns: within two weeks, the ex-pat community in Monrovia will shrink by about 25%.

My next update will likely be from the US. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few pictures from last week’s “Second Annual All-Liberian Women’s Summit” at the City Hall.

 

The President giving welcome remarks (…3 hours after she was scheduled to who appear, but who’s counting?)

Minister Duncan-Cassell making the President laugh… very impressive given how infrequently she seems to smile!

They LITERALLY rolled out a red carpet in anticipation of the President’s arrival.

A few of the 200+ participants, many of whom were beneficiaries of microloans

 

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Some Relevant Reading

On women’s representation in Liberia

On women in the Olympics

An awesome (albeit slightly long) article about women’s amateur boxing, the newest sport at the Olympics:

On other African Olympic athletes 

All is well here — very busy trying to finalize the MoGD’s five-year strategic plan, a draft of which will be discussed during a Ministry-wide workshop next week. Tomorrow I’ll attend the MoGD’s second annual women’s summit, a gathering of several hundred prominent women in Liberia (including the President). Very much looking forward!

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Tour of a Rubber Plantation

 

 

 

 

 

 

A group of HKS interns and a few ex-pat friends toured the Morris rubber plantation in Kakata this weekend. A fascinating experience — I’ll let the pictures do the talking. 

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One of 600 employees on the plantation tapping the tree. Tree tapping is a “man’s job,” we were told, more so for cultural than practical reasons. The women get a chance to demonstrate their mettle in the nursery, where they’re responsible for grafting genetically-modified rubber tree shoots onto infant rubber trees. 

 

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The rubber begins as a white liquid, which is later forced to coagulate through the addition of acid. It flows out of the tree into buckets, which are then emptied into large bassins (below). 

 

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Rubber in the basins – looks a lot like frothy milk. Employees are paid by the weight of the buckets they collect.

 

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Processed rubber cakes! We thought the compressed rubber (which is then sent to factories in the US and Eastern Europe) looks an awful lot like dry banana bread. The factory smelled so bad I could barely stand to take pictures inside. 

 

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Equal Rights? Not Quite…

On Thursday, Liberia took another step in its campaign to restrict the rights of homosexual individuals and couples. From allAfrica:

The Liberian Senate Thursday passed into law an anti gay bill seeking to prevent same sex marriage in Liberia. If concord by the House of Representative, the bill will be forwarded to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for perusal and subsequent signing into law.

The Anti Gay Bill which probates same sex marriage is sponsored by Bong County Senior Senator Jewel Howard Taylor. According to the Senate’s Chairman on Judiciary, Cllr. Joseph Nagbe the anti gay bill is second degree felony under the Liberian law, meaning it is a baliable crime and violators can pay lower fees or face minimum imprisonment.

Sen. Nagbe said should the lower House concord with the Senate and the bill subsequently signed into law by President Sirleaf, the practices of both lesbianism and homosexuality will be capital offense and violators will subjected to the consequences of the law. The senator warmed that same sex couples visiting the country should abide the laws of Liberia or will bears the full penalty of the law. “If you are gay or lesbian and you having to come here we expect you to behave orderly. That is, stay away from each other until your departure”, he added. (http://allafrica.com/stories/201207200861.html

The bill is sponsored by Bong County Senior Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor (who is currently appealing his war crimes conviction in the Hague). I’m struggling to write a strategic plan aimed at making Liberia more just, humane, and equitable while the government works, unabashedly, to restrict the rights of other.

The current draft of the strategic plan contains the following:

The vision of the Ministry of Gender and Development is an inclusive, just, humane, and equitable society in which the full potential of all Citizens, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, income status, or physical condition, is harnessed for rapid economic growth and social development.

I wrote this knowing that the words “sexual orientation” may eventually be removed. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

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Our Only Company on the Beach in Buchanan

Our Only Company on the Beach in Buchanan

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Weekend Update

The rains seemed to be on vacation this week, which locals tell me is an annual occurrence in Liberia. One or two weeks of dry, lovely weather, and then storms return in full-force for another few months. I’m dreading the moment when the sun once again retreats and the streets once again flood with brown, muddy waters.

I took advantage of this brief respite from the rain yesterday with a trip to Liberia’s third-largest city, Buchanan. Truthfully, the “city” wasn’t any great shakes, just another hectic collection of small markets, petty traders, Liberian restaurants, and “business centers” peddling scratch cards, soda, and bags of water. The city is known for its port, the presence of a few large companies, including Buchanan Renewables, a sustainable energy company, and the reason why we drove three hours, its beaches.

Buchanan boasts miles of untouched, undeveloped sandy beaches, bordered by clear ocean water on one side and palm trees heavy with coconuts on the other. We spent a few lazy hours “alone” on the beach, save for the company of local kids who gathered nearby and watched us as if we were some kind of attraction. While yesterday’s beach reading consisted of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I spent this morning reading the following women-related articles, all of which I highly recommend:

On the Wage Gap in Medicine: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/among-doctors-too-women-are-paid-less/?src=recg

On the Depressing Realities of JFK’s Treatment of Women: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/jackie-and-the-girls/9000/

On the Murder of a Female Politician in Afghanistan: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18832391

On Sexual “Freedom” in Kenya: http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/26/sexual-health-policies-in-kenya/?src=recg

On Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Articlehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/kunal-modi/man-up-on-family-and-work_b_1667878.html

My boss (the Deputy Minister at the MoGD) is away for training this week but I have plenty of work to keep me busy. A draft of the strategic plan is due on Friday, and I need to start planning a presentation/workshop for the MoGD’s annual retreat, happening right before I bid farewell to Liberia.

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On Church Service Led by General Butt-Naked

Well the internet’s still out in the office but I now have the official order to try to re-negotiate the Ministry’s internet contract with Cellcom. As my boss said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the summer intern negotiated a contract on behalf of the government?” Yes, quite. That said, I’m happy that I can potentially play a role in fixing the problem rather than just complaining about it (as has been the case for the past two weeks).

In the meantime, I continue to make the Cape Hotel – with its dependable Internet – my second home from about 3-7pm a few days a week. 

So as promised, here’s a brief recap of last Sunday’s events: 

I had asked my colleague Brenda if she would take me with her to church one weekend. Brenda is my age (25), engaged, and has an adorable one-year old daughter. She works as the Deputy Minister’s secretary while also attending university part-time, as the war delayed her earlier studies. A regular church-goer like most Liberians, the highlight of Brenda’s weekend is church — it’s all she tells me about when I inquire about her weekend. She agreed to take me this past weekend and dispatched her fiance to fetch me + my roommate Jess from our apartment in Sinkor.

Brenda is Lutheran and attends a large church in Paynesville. While ~200 people attended this past Sunday’s service, she says that attendance is so great during the dry season that it’s difficult to find a seat. The most noticeable difference about the church was the music: not only were there two choirs (one singing in English, one singing in a local dialect), but a band with an extremely enthuasiastic drummer, a guitar, and a smattering of maracas and the triangle (remember that from grade school?!) The group was decked out in colorful lapas and at least a few church-goers were also wearing “JESUS” earrings, necklaces and pins.

To be honest, the first part of the service was pretty tedious — it was the church’s annual “Youth Day” so we had to sit through two hours(!) worth of mumbled awards to particularly active youngins’, along with the customary bestowing of plastic flowers to the church’s new “Youth of the Year” (although to be fair, he also got a pretty awesome crown to wear). And then things got interesting. I half-understood the introduction to the guest preacher for the service, a man who, as I understood it, is an evangelist preacher who now travels around to different churches delivering sermons about evil.

As he was being brought onto the stage, Brenda turned to me and whispered “I’m scared.” In hushed tones, she explained that the preacher’s name is/was General Butt Naked (I’ll refer to him as GBN) and that he was one of the most feared warlords during the first civil war. A large, muscular man bounded onto the stage, interrupting her whispers. GBN erupted into one of the loudest, most dramatic sermons I’ve ever seen, during which he screamed, bellowed, panted, and shouted about the dangers of succumbing to evil, the way he had been saved by Jesus, and how Liberians need to invest in the “quality” of their children before increasing their “quantity” (this part sounded suspiciously like a push for contraception and family planning…) 

The only thing stranger than seeing an absolutely heinous warlord deliver a sermon was watching the congregation’s reaction. People seemed to be LOVING GBN. Many in the crowd were out of their seats, arms raised to the heavens, clapping and yelling “AMEN” when a particular point resonated. As he left, there was a rousing ovation for a man who is accused of murdering over 20,000 Liberians just 15 years ago. 

And then there were the teenagers GBN brought alongside with him — a group of former child soldiers who live in the township of West Point and are now under his tutelage / mentorship, a part of GBNs efforts to repent for his sins. They too seemed to idolize this man — a man who once drugged young boys and sent them into battle naked, high, and terrified.  

Brenda, meanwhile, sat there stone-faced and told me she still hated and feared GBN and didn’t believe a word he said. I have to believe there were others like Brenda in the crowd, although it was difficult to identify the skeptics among so many enthused Liberians.

I’m still not sure what to make of this experience. Liberia is unique in its decision to err more on the side of reconciliation rather than justice and retribution — a decision that resulted in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than a tribunal. The more I read about GBN, the more I despise this man. HIs crimes were beyond atrocious (he’s admitted to mass murder, cannibalism, human sacrifice, drug use/trafficking, sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers) and I simply don’t believe that such evil should ever be forgiven. GBN said he’s willing to be tried to the ICC, which is precisely where I think he belongs.  

And yet, the argument that President Johnson-Sirleaf and many others put forth is that so many Liberians are implicated in the civil wars that “justice” is impossible and potentially even destructive to the fabric of society. Such individuals advocate for a healing process of reconciliation, whereby perpetrators admit to their sins, apologize, and then move on. Certainly there seemed to be many in the church who support this idea and were ready to forgive GBN for his sins. 

I’ve never considered my self to be the punitive, justice-loving type, but this experience has thrown that classification into question. And if nothing else, it’s offered an interesting lens into the mindset of today’s Liberians and the confusing, protracted process that is reconciliation. 

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