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.