“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Liberia. When I think of my previous expectations and stereotypes with the word, the country, I think of war, Charles Taylor, violence against women, and instability. I think- is this a good place to send our interns? Is the infrastructure sufficient to run a program? I honestly feel nervous about my trip. Flying into Monrovia I’m struck by the fact that our flight is the only commercial airplane there, whereas I see about 6 UN helicopters. Standing in the tiny terminal (smaller than Sierra Leone, and that’s saying something), I’m thinking- well, this will be an adventure. I get through customs, out into the blazing heat, and am greeted immediately by the smiling faces of Orlind Cooper, Programme Coordinator for Development Media, Inc. and Mark Marvey, Coordinator for NAYMOTE, our partners and friends in Liberia. I feel an immediate sense of safety, of excitement.
The drive from the airport to Monrovia takes about 30 minutes. It’s absolutely beautiful- the countryside is lush. I’m shown the school that Orlind attended as a child, and the neighborhoods and areas that were his “stomping grounds”. It’s in these moments that I really love my job, and love what we do. There is no awkward taxi ride, there is no separation. It’s an immediate push into the culture, the vibrancy, and most importantly, the people.
I was asked by one of our interns in Ghana what my favorite thing about the region is. Without hesitation, it’s the human connections. It’s the social fabric. It’s the “humanness” one feels when in West Africa.
In the car we are immediately immersed in conversation about education, politics, and gender relations. It’s loud, everyone is talking, laughing, joking. We pull into the city and I immediately notice that it’s rather flat (the skyline). No big buildings here. It’s also a bit more spread out than Freetown or Accra. More small stores, less infrastructure.
I have this inherent fear/suspicion coming into Liberia. I am “ready” for a negative experience. My first night in Monrovia, my host asks me if I’d like to walk to our restaurant. He’s Liberian, so I trust he knows that this is safe. Walking around, at night, with only 1 companion, I feel safe. We had a fantastic meal (spicy kidney beans and rice); sitting outside on the side of the street, talking and watching the people go by.
There’s a depth to a place that has experienced prolonged conflict. The conversations I had throughout the entire week were real. People are present. People are open. People in civil society, who we partner with, are passionate about protecting and expanding the notions of peace and security for ALL Liberians.
Our program in Liberia is shaped by this mentality. Every single one of our partners work together to collaborate and raise their voices in advocacy at the grassroots and national level. I’m struck by this. I’ve worked for six years in international development, and cooperation between strong-minded NGO’s almost never happens. If it does, it’s often surface level. Not in Monrovia. Our partners share computers, office spaces, grant proposals, programs. They literally split up the country so as to reach all counties with limited resources, and they run the gauntlet in terms of their programming, from media to women’s rights to anti-corruption legislation to family counseling to education. These are dynamic, intelligent, interesting, and creative organizations, and the people who run them are true mentors.
I had the opportunity to travel outside of Monrovia and conduct fieldwork with Development Media and WOMSUD, and the experience in the rural parts of the country drives home those classic debates about “center-periphery” development and land rights and protection. We found that palm wine plantations are causing female farmers to have to go to the next COUNTY to be able to produce food for their families, as they’ve bought up all of the land. The government views the land as “public” since it is under customary law, and no one technically “owns” it. DEVMEDIA and WOMSUD are documenting these cases in an effort to bring the rural voice to Monrovia.
On International Women’s Day, I was invited to attend a breakfast organized by WOLPNET, another
one of our partners, led by the women who sat for peace to end the war in Liberia. We discussed the new Gender Equity Bill and the proposed Domestic Violence Act. Top level government ministers and agency officials attended this breakfast, sitting down with civil society leaders to jointly craft the legislation and shape its implementation plan.Without question, the rhetoric of civil society leaders and government officials is inherently rosier than the lived experience of the greater public. Is there extreme poverty in Liberia? Yes. Is there domestic violence in all forms? Yes. Are there security issues for ALL people? Yes. Is that security threat more present for Liberians than it is for foreigners? Yes. Does infrastructure need to be developed? Is corruption a huge problem? Are the basic water, sanitation, and health facilities in desperate need of construction and strengthening? Yes, yes, and yes.
I guess that my point is we, as individuals interested in partnering and working ALONGSIDE our partners, have to understand that our negative perceptions of a place frame the lens through which we experience it. We are quick to point the finger at other societies and we have a real fear of these places because of their histories, their conflicts. We forget our own role in shaping the conditions where people find themselves in extreme poverty. We forget that the political economy of corruption bleeds from a past of intervention and violence against human beings, supported, stimulated, and partially caused by the developed world. I’m convinced that the strength of a place lies in its people. I haven’t met many stronger.
“Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”