Thursday, December 29, 2005

My Name

I met yet another old friend today who is appalled that my name is still Elma Shaw. He says he refused to let his wife even hyphenate her name, and could never have married a woman so modern. I, I suppose, could never have married a man so set in tradition.

It's not a common thing for a Liberian woman to keep her name after marriage. In fact, most people don’t even know it’s an option. I know one woman who still says, when she introduces me to someone else, “Sorry, I don’t know her real last name.” She smiles when she says it, but gives me a disapproving look at the same time. She's the kind that would call me by my husband's name if she knew it, despite knowing I have not adopted it. I don't mind at all when people call me by his name, and most times I don't even bother to correct them. But I might mind a bit if people who know my preference choose to ignore it out of their own disapproval.

Women have many different reasons for choosing to keep their maiden name or to take on their husband's name, and all of them are valid. After all, our names belong to us and we should be able to do whatever we want with them.

Sometimes, when people ask, wide-eyed with surprise, "You didn't change your name?" I say "No, and my husband didn't change his either." But really, my decision has less to do with feminist beliefs of equality and more to do with the fact that Elma Lorraine Shaw is who I have always been and who I always will be. It is my name and I am inspired to uphold it for the sake of my family, myself, and my own children. Finally, it is the name I always dreamed of seeing on Honor Roll lists, on diplomas, and in bold letters on books and on screen. As the dreams become reality, I love my name - and the modern me - even more.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Deep Undercover

Rumor has it that my husband is a CIA agent. The only basis for this speculation is that he is a white American who works in Africa. But, since sometimes even wives aren’t supposed to know these things, I am beginning to wonder...

Hhmmm…living here during Taylor’s administration…two jobs that took us to war zones in the DRC and Sudan…a recent trip to LRA territory in Uganda… the tinted glasses he wears, talking about the sun is too bright… Could it be? My Sweetie?

The first time I heard this rumor I was very offended, knowing about our struggles as I do. In fact, Shaun was so frustrated about unfunded proposals at the time that I didn’t even bother mentioning it to him. Things are looking up for next year, so when I heard the rumor again recently, combined with the statement that we are rich, I just had to laugh. This time I told him what people are saying, and asked him to “Show me the money!” He laughed his head off at the whole crazy notion.

My down-to-earth, activist, anti-establishment husband is the most unlikely candidate for a CIA job. If he is indeed an agent, he has got to be either the biggest mistake the CIA ever made, or the best undercover agent that ever lived. But, since even wives don't always know the truth, I’ve taken to calling him “Agent Sweetie” – just in case.

"The name is Pie -- Sweetie Pie"

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lucky Ticket

Monrovia and its suburbs are alive with activity and fun and games as Christmas approaches. The crowd here is playing a game of chance they call "Lucky Ticket" even though there's no ticket involved. Some call it "Gain and Loss" because, as a young boy explained to me, "sometimes you gain and sometimes you loss." For $5LD you get three metal hoops and a chance to win things like soap, pasta, juice, plastic bowls, biscuits and footballs. I watched for a long time and gave a boy four hoops to play for me while I played two myself. It wasn't our lucky day, but it sure was fun!
(Jacob's Town, Monrovia, LIBERIA)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Firestone Questions

(Dr. Owl from today's Daily Observer)

There's another Firestone story in the paper today. Firestone's been in the news a lot lately, beginning a few weeks ago with headlines accusing the company of practising slavery on its rubber farms in Liberia. The complaint is coming not from rubber tappers and their families, but from a group of lawyers and human rights activists. The lawyers say the tappers are too afraid to speak for themselves. I say if not one tapper out of thousands is willing to sacrifice his job by speaking up for the cause, THERE IS NO CAUSE. Lawyers and activists have important roles to play in struggles for justice and fair treatment, but they cannot lead someone else's revolution. Where are the tappers who will speak up and tell us where they stand and what they want? Are they silent because they are afraid? Or are they silent because Firestone provides them housing, medical care, schools, and salaries that far surpass what the Liberian government pays? Lawyers, please bring your witnesses to the stand!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Trouble Brewing

Ma Edith came to work late this morning. She said there was trouble in her Chugbor neighborhood last night, and along Old Road and Tubman Boulevard near CDC Headquarters. These are all places that surround our house, but we didn't hear anything during the night. George Weah came back to town last night (after a trip to South Africa) and Ma Edith says his supporters vandalised cars and beat up several people - including some policemen. She and her neighbors stayed up until 4am worrying. "Sis Emma," she said, "the place where I eh, sleep still in my eyes. If it wasn't for my Old Ma I would pack all my things and move back to Ivory Coast because ahn like for things to worry me." A bit worried myself, I asked Shaun to drive Keyan to school although I normally take him. Half an hour later they were both back. No school today because of the trouble brewing.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Just Play With Me

This is the dashboard of the taxi I rode in this afternoon. The producers of the sticker meant well, but really... (-:

Thursday, December 01, 2005

You Can Stop HIV/AIDS: A Call to Action!

December 1st is World AIDS Day. I wrote this article for the Nov/Dec 2005 issue of Destiny - an 8-page youth-focused HIV/AIDS newsletter that I publish as part of my work with the Liberia Hope Fund. Even if you are no longer a young-un, read it and take heed :-)

Do you know what the Millennium Development Goals are? You should, because they were set so that you and your children might have a better life and a secure future. Imagine for a moment: Where would you like to see yourself in the next ten years?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, for short) are a set of goals designed to improve the standard of living of the world’s poorest people by the year 2015. Among the goals is one that pertains to HIV/AIDS: By 2015, we should have stopped and reversed the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The MDGs were adopted by world leaders in 2000. It is now 2005, and, according to a recent progress report, Liberia is probably not going to reach the HIV/AIDS goal. Well, 2015 is 10 years away. If we are not making good progress, let’s do everything we can to get on the track to success!

What do you need to do?

• Learn the facts about HIV/AIDS. Know the modes of transmission and the methods of prevention.
• Stop behavior that puts you at risk.
• Learn about testing issues, treatment, care, and what to do about stigma and discrimination.
• Send your children to school. Support education. A study by the Global Campaign for Education shows that by the time someone completes primary school, they have all the skills necessary to understand HIV prevention messages, and the confidence to make good decisions in their relationships and lives.
• Hold world governments (and your own!) to their promises regarding funding for HIV/AIDS research and care.
• Organize, collaborate, and work hard to save yourselves and to protect those who already have HIV/AIDS.

Finally, a special call to women and young people: This battle against HIV/AIDS is for you. More than two thirds of young people with HIV/AIDS are girls and women. Around half of people who get HIV are infected before the age of 25. How old are you now? How old will you be in 2015? Will you be free of HIV? If you are HIV positive will you have equal rights and adequate treatment? Your destiny is in your hands. The battle against HIV/AIDS is for you, and the campaign must be by you.

This is your call to action. Don’t just imagine a better future…create it.

Monday, November 28, 2005

New Skills and Terminology

Not too long ago, after years of using candles at night, I learned how to light a kerosene lantern. I jumped for joy when I did it, and was quite proud of myself until I thought "Wait a's 2005. I should not be rejoicing about this." But the fact is we live like past generations and so must learn those old ways of life. With no electricity we must cook on coalpots, light lanterns to see at night, and use coal irons to iron our clothes.

Today, my son came home from school with his Grammar notes. Topic: How We Use Capital Letters. In the chart of examples, along with the name of a classmate and the name of his school, was this entry: "Tiger generator". He is only 5 years old, but every kid in his class knows what a generator is. (Only the adults know how frustrating the Tiger brand can be). I suppose our kids are the lucky ones though. When I visited my old elementary school in 1996 I saw a list of terms on a classroom wall that included ECOMOG and CO. I had to ask what CO stood for. "Commanding Officer," I was told.

The Easiest Way to Light a Coalpot

Find a candle that is almost finished. Maybe one about an inch long or so. Fill the coalpot with coal, and place the little piece of candle deep down somewhere in the middle of the pile. Light the candle, and arrange two or three pieces of coal so that they surround and touch the flame without putting it out. That's it. The coals around the flame will get white hot and spread the fire to the others. No fanning necessary.

(OK - this is the easiest way to light a coalpot when you have no lighter fluid)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

At Criminal Court

I went to Criminal Court today, but there was no hearing for Isaac, Wleh and Prince—my street friends accused of robbery. The clerk told me that he would have to assign a hearing date, that the boys would get a lawyer at the hearing, and that I would have to “bring something” to make this all possible. So, I asked him, if I don’t pay you these boys will never be assigned a hearing date? After a long pause he told me he would assign the case, and I should call at 2:30 in the afternoon to make sure it was ready.

I called at 2:40 pm and was told the assignment was ready. (Wow!) “Can you make it here by 3?” the clerk asked. “You’ll need to go with the sheriff to the prison with the assignment.” No problem. I was there at 3 o’clock on the dot. But there was no assignment, no Sheriff, no trip to the prison. Just another attempt, by the clerk and the judge, to get me to file a costly bond. This time the cost was lower than the last quote, but still beyond my means and against reason: why should I have to pay anything when a court-appointed lawyer could (and should) get them out?

I was told to return on Monday, when all the prisoners will be brought to court. But I’m already tired of the runaround and I’m beginning to wonder if my interest in these boys might actually keep them in longer than necessary.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's Official...

It's official! Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 23rd President of the Republic of Liberia, and the first woman in Africa elected as Head of State. All Hail, Liberia, Hail!

I was in a taxi in the middle of town and a traffic jam as the ceremony took place at the Centennial Pavilion. We cheered as we listened to it live on the radio and watched people on both sides of the street dancing and rejoicing for blocks and blocks. A beautiful and uplifting experience.

I am at home now, and still dancing.

USA Today Cartoon

I love this cartoon from USA Today. We are on top of the world!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"We the Good Boys"

I spent some time in town today, meeting with several guys from the A-Team* and with people who I hope might be able to provide pro bono legal aid for three imprisoned street boys accused of robbery.

Just out of curiosity, I asked Patrick, one of the leaders of the A-Teamers, why he hadn't taken advantage of the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation & Reintegration Programs offered to ex-combatants. He could have gone to computer classes or to academic or vocational schools through the DDRR.

"I ran behind it, but no way," Patrick said. "We the good boys couldn't get any help. You had to turn in a gun in order to get the ID card, so only those who fought or those who hid weapons from the last war could get it."

What a shame. Thousands of ex-combatants being rewarded with education and opportunity while the boys who listened to us when we said "Please don't fight anymore" get nothing but a clear conscience.

*A-Team is code name for "the street"

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Other Side of Justice

It’s so easy to rant about the criminals that slip through Liberia’s justice system without retribution…until those criminals happen to be downtrodden people you know and care about.

For the past couple of days I’ve been advocating for three young men I’ve known since 1999 when they were just young drug-addicted street boys on the hustle. I helped design a residential rehabilitation and vocational training program for them at the Boys Town campus in Schiefflin. Over a hundred boys participated in that program during the two years of its existence. Funding ended partly because of the political climate at the time, and after Graduation exercises we placed some of the boys with carpenters, masoners and farmers to work as apprentices. Others—mostly the youngest ones—were reunited with their families and sent to formal schools. But in the end, some of them, like Isaac, Wleh, and Prince were discouraged by the lack of job opportunities and returned to the streets.

On Monday, November 14th, according to witnesses and police, a friend of Isaac, Wleh and Prince stole a handbag from a lady and ran off to their Carey Street hangout with it. The three defendants then gathered around him and fought to grab items from the bag for themselves. The three were caught on Tuesday, and the actual perpetrator was caught on Friday—the same day I heard about the arrest and visited them at Central Police Headquarters. I was told I could take them then, upon paying a fee “as a guarantee”, but I had no money at the time and none until today. Unfortunately, I arrived at the courthouse just in time to see the boys being led by UNMIL police to the minibus that would take them to “South Beach”—Monrovia’s prison. I told them not to worry—that I had just spoken with the complainant’s representative and with the police, and that I would now be able to sign for their release. But the courtroom judge, who had not even heard the defense, refused to release them in my care. He said a lawyer will have to file the papers to bail them out. The cost to do so will be six times what I had been asked to pay on Friday.

Where is the justice? The victim wants to know, but so do I. Why is the focus on Issac, Wleh and Prince, when they did not plan or carry out the actual crime? Why does the Writ of Arrest accuse them of conniving to snatch the purse when everyone involved agrees they were minding their own business when the purse happened to come their way? Why have these boys been kept for a week with no change of clothes and no access to either a private or a court-appointed lawyer? And most puzzling, why was the purse-snatcher released today? What sense does that make? Could it be that he, somehow, had the cash to get himself out?

The court case is set for Thursday. Maybe I'll get some answers there.

Friday, November 18, 2005


Today, little Elma came to see me for the first time since her birth on October 8th. She is the granddaughter of my children’s nurse, Edith. Ma Edith named the baby after me with no objection from the parents, who came from Harbel today to present my namesake to me.

It was both amusing and beautiful to hold a tiny girl in my arms and call her by my name. Elma. There are not too many of us in this world. Here, in Liberian English, I am often called "Emma." Some funny versions are "Edmon", and, by one little boy long ago, "Yellowma."

The day Ma Edith asked me to write my name down so that they would get it right on the birth certificate (thank goodness!), I taught her how to pronounce it, and smiled at the memory of a naming disaster avoided...

After a recent Teacher Training Workshop at which I was an instructor, a participant said he admired me so much that he was going to name his first daughter after me. I was flattered. “Yes,” he said, nodding, “I’m going to call her Elegant.” My smile got even bigger then, and I had to explain to him that my name was actually not Elegant. On the first day of the workshop everyone had chosen adjectives to go along with their first names. Where had this guy been? Did he really think our names were Mighty, Progressive, Hardworking, and so on? Or did he not mind naming his daughter with an adjective? Anyway, I was glad we got it straightened up in time to save that future little girl the stress of having to live up to her name; Lord knows what a hard time I had trying to be elegant for ten days in a row.

My namesake will come to see me every day while she is here in Monrovia visiting her grandmother. It's funny--Ma Edith calls her Elma, but still calls me Emma.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pamper Yourself

Go ahead—when was the last time you got those hands and feet done? Pamper yourself with a "mellicue" and a "pellicue"…you are worth it! Just don’t expect to see any cowboys or liquor at the Saloon.
(Benson Street, Monrovia, LIBERIA)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Woman in Charge: Ellen's Song

It’s fun listening to the comments about what the new Liberia will be like with a woman in charge. Most jokes center around the idea that we will become uncontrollable and bossy, and that men will become subservient. One repeated lament is this: “The way my woman can already talk to me—what thing she coming say na? No use of me talking again sef.” (Rough translation: my feisty woman is about to become even feistier).

I must say, having Ellen Johnson Sirleaf win the presidency does indeed put an extra spring in my step. How could it not? But while my fellow Liberians wait for her to bring us electricity and running water and wow the world with her achievements, I’m just living for the day when that asinine rule that says women cannot wear trousers in the Executive Mansion and other government buildings is declared null and void.

What on earth do our clothes have to do with what’s in our brains? Without that dress code women are not suddenly going to start wearing 'dig-my-back' halter tops and hot pants to the Mansion. In fact, we will probably still prefer to wear lovely dresses; we just do not want to be told that we have to.

In my recurring daydream, Ellen strides through the Executive Mansion one day soon, wearing a beautifully tailored La-Vonne Classique trouser suit. She is moving to the beat of a song that is rocking the corridor so powerfully that even the 22 presidents in the portraits that line the walls seem to be moving their heads in time with the rhythm. Yes, this is a woman in charge, and this is her song...
Woman in Charge
(sung to the tune of Stayin’ Alive, by the Bee Gees)

Well, you can tell by the way I walk
I’m the President: no time to talk
Made it through the thunderstorm
I’ve been groomed to lead since I was born
And now it’s my time. It’s UP.
Let’s unify this sweet country
Everyone must understand
It’s time to lend a helping hand

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a father
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Feel Liberia movin’ and everybody groovin’
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge

Well now, some are mad, and some are sad
But I know someday soon they will all be glad
Got the wings of Heaven on my shoes
I’m a Harvard Grad and I just can’t lose
Oh yes, it’s my time. It’s UP.
We all have made history
Everyone must understand
It’s time to lend a helping hand

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a father
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Feel Liberia movin’ and everybody groovin’
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge

I’m in the Mansion…my people help me!
My people help me o!
I’m in the Mansion…my people help me!
My people help me o…

Saturday, November 12, 2005

CDC Protest

The people cheer as CDC leaders arrive at Headquarters with UN blue helmets escorting them

"We want David,we na want Goliath! We want David, we na want Goliath!"

A determined cry: "No Weah, no president! No Weah, no president!"

Riot police on guard at the National Elections Commission (NEC) on Tubman Boulevard and 16th Street in Sinkor

Hundreds of CDC supporters head back toward Headquarters after a protest at the US Embassy in Mamba Point where they were tear-gassed.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Oh Happy Day?

What an exciting and strange day!

We woke up to the news that Ellen was leading in the polls, and everyone had stories about CDC friends who were shocked and confused. E-man, the boy who fills our barrels with water from the well every day, was visibly sick.

By noon, I was in town hearing jokes about women ruling, and stories about empty polling centers. Where did all those numbers come from? people were wondering. In fact, at my own polling station (St. Peter's Lutheran School and Church) I was the only voter there at 3:15 pm. Not a soul in front of me, and not a soul behind. I didn't ask, but I suspect the only excitement all those National Election Commission workers, Liberian policemen and UNMIL soldiers had at St. Peter's on Election day was the fight with me about how much indelible ink they would put on my left index finger.

By far the busiest vendors in town today were the street photocopiers. They were surrounded by people wanting copies ($5 LD each) of the three latest Election joke flyers. These ones made fun of George Weah, when before, they had made fun of Varney Sherman and others who had been so sure they would win on October 11th. (Oh, the fickleness of our people!)

I returned home hearing little murmurs of dissatisfaction here and there, and still more concern that the perceived low voter turnout ended up with such high numbers from the polling stations.

Shortly after 7 pm, I heard that large crowds were gathering at CDC. Well, off I went, just in time to see three tanks roll past the headquarters heading toward Oldest Congo Town. At CDC Headquarters, armed UNMIL soldiers stood along the sidewalk while inside the yard, groups of people stood around discussing the same thing...asking the same question: How is it possible? They were not whiny, poor losers, but heartbroken people who felt cheated after putting so much effort into the fight of their lives.

Last week, on the day I saw the small CDC group on Benson Street marching past the unimpressed onlookers (see "Dwindling Numbers?"), I came to one conclusion: that a lot of CDC people had already defected in their hearts or would do so at the polls. But tonight, when I asked the people around me if that was a possibility, they shook their heads adamantly. No way! they said, No way! In fact, they had a story about a CDC observer who was given pre-marked ballots when he was mistaken for a Unity Party (UP) observer, and that is the evidence of cheating to which they clung.

After listening to several groups, I sat on the CDC fence and joined in a conversation with some teenage boys who assured me they were indeed voting age. When one of them shook his head and said "Damn it, ba! You mean we will be toting Congo people load forever?" I thought of E-man, and tears came to my eyes. I took it as a rhetorical question, but I wish now that I had said something to assure him of a brighter future.

At about 8:55 pm, people began heading toward the stage, and we jumped off the fence and followed. A strategic meeting! I thought. (I'm not a member of CDC or the Unity Party, but I voted for Ellen knowing that in doing so, I was ultimately voting for Weah's supporters). At this point tonight though, I was on a quest for truth and justice.

The meeting turned out not to be an organized session after all, but a couple of rally cries from two partisans who stood on chairs to address us. The first, surprisingly, was a white woman in a sleeveless CDC T-shirt who told us the UP was stealing the election and would soon begin stealing all Liberia's resources. She's been married to a Mano man she said, for 12 years, and was struggling like all of us. Her language was sprinkled with the "F" word, but she did warn us not to resort to violence or UNMIL would "kill [our] black ass." The second speaker was a former member of the Wild Geese, who, in contradiction I thought, declared he was reclaiming his war name.

I came home with doubts on my mind - especially when taking into consideration my own voting experience. But then different questions began to pop up: "Weren't there CDC people observing at each polling station? Didn't they sign to attest that the count was correct?"

In the end, I figure all is as it should be: If Ellen wins we'll have a competent leader, and with so many seats in the House and Senate filled by CDC candidates, the people will be well represented. As the NEC banners around town tell us, "We Are All Winners."

Oh happy day.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Eve of History

I took this photograph on Golden Beach today,
as the sun set on Liberia's past. As the sun
will rise again tomorrow, so may this nation
rise to the challenges of a new beginning.

Question of the Day

I keep hearing broadcasters talk about the absence of violence today. Why is it so "remarkable" that there is no violence on Election Day? Why would there be? It's Results Day that we need to be worried about!

A Fair Chance

Every time I say I’ve decided to vote for Ellen in the run-off, my friends laugh at me—sometimes quite hysterically, bless their little hearts. But really, since during the entire Elections campaign I never once heard what Weah had to say, I thought it was only fair to give him some consideration before making a final choice. So – three times in the last two weeks, I found myself traipsing over to the Congress for Democratic Change headquarters dressed casually in jeans and a plain shirt so that I would fit in with the unpretentious crowd.

It’s an impressive place, CDC, compared to some of the other party headquarters we’ve seen around here. I had been there once before, on the day George Weah’s Million Man March left me open-mouthed with awe and certain that he would win. The quarters consist of a large two-story building and a huge round raised platform topped by a conical roof—both set way back from the busy Tubman Boulevard in a yard several acres big. I went now, wanting to sit under that big palaver hut-like structure and hear what it was people had gathered there to hear so often before the October 11th elections that Weah won with 28% of the vote. But I guess I picked the wrong days or the wrong times: twice there were children dancing to quiet African rhythms played on a radio, and once there was an excellent band playing as a man sang in a dialect I didn’t understand, while two teenage girls danced and jiggled their butts—and just their butts—for the crowd. I had expected consciousness-raising and strategic planning for the first 100 days after inauguration. I’m sure they had it and I missed it, but go ahead people: laugh at me.

Walking around the yard during my visits there, I did meet a number of nice people. Among them: Theresa, who said she was there so that the children of uneducated people could have a better future (and who made me admit that I didn’t see any unruly behavior among the young people gathered there); Julia from the medical team who said she enjoyed talking to me because my (too-American) accent reminded her of her daughter who lives in Michigan; and Emmanuel, a young man who was a “trainee’ in a program I once helped run at Boys Town for street children and former child soldiers. Most of the people I met gave me dreamy-eyed spiels, some of which were alarmingly naïve and showed a lack of knowledge about politics and a dangerous misunderstanding of what Weah’s role and responsibilities will be if he becomes President. (No, life is not suddenly going to become a bed of roses, and Weah will not be your personal savior!)

In the end, my experiences at CDC headquarters are not what led to my final decision. It was taking the time to listen to Ambassador Weah himself, on a radio program, and realizing that he, too, has insufficient knowledge about politics and about what his role and responsibilities will be if elected. George Weah is a good man, and I will never forget that during the civil war, as we sought refuge in foreign lands, he was our one source of pride. I think I gave him a fair chance, but tomorrow I am voting so that all of Liberia's children will have a better future and a well-run country.

Monday, November 07, 2005


All Set for Tomorrow - Daily Observer

Final Battle! - The Forum

Big Tuesday: Nation's Fate Hangs
- New Democrat

'King George' vs. 'Iron Lady' showdown tomorrow in historic election - New Standard

Ellen or Weah?
- Liberian Express

and, unbelievably:

George Manneh Weah Awaits Inuagaration: Common People On Board Again - The Parrot (that spelling of inauguration is theirs, not mine)

Meet Liberia's 23rd President - The New Broom (with a photo of George Weah below)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dwindling Numbers?

Caught a really small crowd of guys running up Benson Street today, chanting "Weah in the Mansion! Weah in the Mansion!" Most onlookers seemed unimpressed. The Education issue has gotten so large it is literally the talk of the town, and many people are wondering why George Weah was allowed to run for President when without a high school diploma he's not even qualified to be a Policeman.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

African Writer's Block

There's no end to the interesting things happening around here, but sometimes things are simply too sad - or too unbelievable - to write down. Instead of documenting the unspeakable, I often find myself putting out fires, removing my own life from among the stories to share, or getting too involved in creating long-term solutions to save us all.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Countdown Begins (Again)

Who will we choose on Tuesday November 8?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or George Manneh Weah?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Student March

A large group of neatly uniformed students marched through town today, starting at the Ministry of Education on Broad Street. On their T-shirts: YOSE – Youth in Support of Education. I thought it was a classy response to the rising sentiment among quite a number of George Weah supporters that education means nothing. However, I know those Weah supporters do want their children to be educated; I think what they are actually trying to say is that even without formal or higher education, a person can still do wondrous things. And isn't that true?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

In God We Really Trust

This morning I went to the Ministry of Finance with Shaun to get our new car registered. We arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles (located on the ground floor of the Ministry) just as "Devotion" was about to begin, and so had to wait in the hallway outside the office for a good while before we could begin the numerous steps needed to process the documents. The windows were curtainless and open, so we could see and hear it all as ten men and one woman sang several lively songs—standing and clapping and swaying to their music. The praise was followed by a scripture reading from the book of I Samuel, and then by the kind of preaching that could make a rogue repent.

Here in Liberia there is absolutely no separation of church and state. Campaigning from the pulpit was commonplace before the Elections, and it's not unusual at all to walk into an office—government or otherwise—and see religion in action. I once participated in a full Praise & Worship service at the Ministry of Information. (And that service was just one of a series planned by a group of ministries).

Here, we pray before meetings of any kind, and often pray to close as well. In fact, godliness is so widely assumed of everyone that people at a gathering are sometimes asked, without prior arrangement, to lead a prayer. As I’ve not yet become the "Woman of Prayer" that I in January of every year plan to become, I am always terrified someone will pick me someday and thus expose my sometimes flaky relationship with God.

As Americanized as I have become, I love this part of our culture. I love the fact that we all know all the praise songs (which are not written down in hymnbooks anywhere). I love the fact that despite the recent civil war which targeted civilians we still love God so much (if not more!), and I love the fact that when we count our money (yes, the US dollar is ours too) we can look at the words “In God We Trust” and know we really mean it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Police on Guard

Riot police outside the Centennial Pavilion as the final Election results are being announced. Ashmun Street, Monrovia, LIBERIA Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 24, 2005

American Liberian

Today my 5-year-old son had to wear his “national dress” to school in celebration of United Nations Day. When I got the note early last week I asked him, “Keyan where are you from?” “Wisconsin!” he replied with enthusiasm and without hesitation. I must say: I was little surprised, but also amused. He was actually born in Washington DC; his father is from Wisconsin, and that is where we spend our summers boating, fishing, and swimming in Maple Lake. I am Americo-Liberian, with a naturalized American mother (who has lived in America almost all my life) and a Liberian father who raised me right here.

During the course of the week Keyan heard me tell his Daddy and two or three other people about his “Wisconsin” reply and wonder aloud what to do. This morning, in a simply amazing show of maturity, he came to me in my room, still in his Spiderman pajamas, and said—quietly and as if he had been thinking hard about how to reassure me—“Mama, whatever clothes you want to put on me today will be fine with me.” Just like that. Five years old! I gave him a big hug and told him he would wear an African outfit, but parade with the American group at the school program. He was happy with that, and excited about the America/Liberia flag lapel pin he would wear on his shirt.

At the program, Keyan and his little brother Tyne stood on stage with the other American kids (most of them born to Liberian parents) and listened while they sang The Star-Spangled Banner. They don’t know the words to that song yet, but Keyan does know Liberia’s national anthem. Maybe next year my little American Liberian boys will sing with both countries!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Heaven Cried Too

The last time I saw Saah alive, he was at my doorstep delivering keys to me on behalf of his father, a friend and coworker. He had just started college and was very nicely dressed. We attended his wake last night, and today, on this dreary, rainy Saturday as Heaven cried with us, he was buried in a cemetery by the Atlantic Ocean. Saah was only 23 years old and was his parents’ pride, joy and hope. During a rainstorm on the night of October 2nd, as he knelt by his wounded mother’s side begging for their lives, an armed robber ignored his pleas and shot him too. His 10-year old sister was also violently attacked. Saah’s mother and sister lived to tell the story, but they weren’t able to leave the hospital today to attend his funeral. We went to see them there afterwards, but there was nothing anyone could say. All we could do was pray.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Moving On Up

My husband bought us a car today! Ever since we returned to Liberia last December, we have been walking, getting lifts (many times from strangers!), taking overcrowded taxis—and yes, even buses, much to the surprise and amusement of the people inside. For safety and emergency reasons, I am glad for the car with its seatbelts that we will use.

I didn’t mind being without a car, but now that we have one I feel a little more…what? Civilized? Dignified? The worst thing about stopping a taxi, to me at least, is having to use various hand signals to let the approaching driver know where you’re going: point downwards if you’re stopping just a few blocks up the street; point straight ahead of you if you’re going to Old Road; point at an angle towards the right if you’re going to Airfield; and, the worst (my direction of course), shake your hand from the wrist (palm facing out and fingers splayed) if you’re going straight towards Congo Town, ELWA, Paynesville and Red Light. Other bad things are having to wait for ages to get a taxi towards town in the morning; having to watch the drivers face frequent and shameless harassment and extortion by underpaid policemen; and having to fight, sometimes literally, for a place in a taxi to go back home at the end of the workday.

I will certainly miss the public transportation though, because that is where some good stories are. Among the people you hear opinions, feel vibes, get news, and, especially during these 2005 campaign/Election days, hear and see a passion that is inspiring—no matter which presidential candidate has captured the speaker’s heart. Citizens articulate their hopes and dreams, debate the issues, and sometimes engage in arguments so bitter they would escalate to fisticuffs were the people not constrained in the vehicle. The best thing is that we are actually free to say whatever we want. I clearly remember past times in our history (1985 and 2000 in particular) when saying the ‘wrong’ thing could get you dragged off to Central (or worse).

Other good things about riding the taxis are the heartwarming gestures of civility—the sincere greetings when someone new enters the car; the huge effort to make space and welcome overweight people with humorous fat comments that they really don’t mind; the kind-hearted drivers who reduce the fare for poor people who plead in desperation; and the jokes that help us all laugh at our sometimes rather undignified lives.

Come to think of it, I am not going to abandon the taxis. Moving up in that sense would mean moving out—out of touch, and perhaps out of empathy. So, every now and then, when I’ve had a good dose of comfort and convenience, I’m going to stand on Tubman Boulevard and wag my hand towards Congo Town without a second thought about how it looks.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Liberia Votes Round 1

One of the best editorial cartoons of Elections 2005! Published by Levi in today's New Democrat. Though most of George Weah's supporters are not like those depicted here, the ones that can't contain their hate will help give Round 2 to Ellen.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Novel Excerpt


An excerpt of my recently finished novel was accepted today for publication in Liberia Sea Breeze Electronic Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings.

Redemption Road
is a story of recovery, atonement, and the quest for peace in post-war Liberia. The best description of it comes from my father, who tells everyone “This is a book about all of us.” And so it is. Redemption Road is about the masses and the elite, the victims and the survivors, the fighters and the peacemakers. It is about all of us, and it is for all of us as we struggle with our past and find a way to move forward.

The excerpt will appear in February 2006 at

Educated Fools!

I sat in on a class at a little community school today and listened as the teacher taught his class about the People's Redemption Council that overthrew President Tolbert's government in the April 1980 coup d'etat. As he wrote on the board I was reminded of a placard I saw recently that said "Educated Fools! Your education has done nothing for us!"

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Mob Violence

I got a phone call around 3:45 today: “Mob violence on 13th Street. Don’t go there.” Well, guess what I did. Picked up my camera and ran over there as fast as my little knock-kneed legs could take me. By the time I arrived on the scene though, most of the crowd had dispersed and an eyewitness told me the police had taken those involved away. “What happened?” I asked. “They say he was a rogue,” she answered. Not the mischievous rascal one normally thinks of upon hearing that word, but a thief. When he was caught, the people in the vicinity began to beat him up.

Unfortunately, mob violence is the only sure form of justice here in Liberia, and it has become a major problem. There is a large billboard on the main road asking us not to engage in mob violence, but when we are attacked and robbed (even raped and killed) our perpetrators are usually not tracked down and not prosecuted. If they are caught, a bribe to a corrupt officer sets them free. Even worse, the “human rights people” sometimes get involved to make sure the criminal is set free if there is no evidence found and no charges made in 48 hours. Meanwhile, the victim lies in fear at home, in pain and fear at the hospital, or dead at the morgue. No human rights people in sight.

We are now in a vicious battle with the worst of the criminals—the armed robbers who come at night taking full advantage of our non-electrified city, and under cover of tropical rains that they know will drown out our screams. Once upon a time the rains lulled us to sleep; now they keep us awake. The robbers come armed with guns, knives, and cutlasses because they know that if they are caught and alarms are raised, they will die. Their options: steal and get away, or steal and then kill any witnesses who might alert the whole pissed-off neighborhood. Our options: pretend we don’t see them, pray they won’t panic and kill us, kill them before they kill us, or catch them and take them through a system that will only further victimize us by making us pay to keep the criminal in custody.

15,000 UNwilling-to-get-involved troops, local police with no weapons, and courts with no conscience. Next time someone calls to warn me about mob violence, I’ll have to think more carefully: take a camera, or take a stick?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tally Talk

Our overcrowded Presidential race is almost over, with a little more than 90% of the votes from the October 11 Elections counted so far. Everywhere on the streets and in taxis—where we are packed like sardines with two in the front passenger seat and sometimes up to five in the back—people are talking about it.

Overheard today, as the results were being announced live on the radio:

“Why did some of these candidates waste their money? Just spoiled the whole election!”
“What kind of run-off? They should just give it to Weah. Give him two years—if he can’t make it we will impeach him.”
“Last time the youth gave it to Charles Taylor and the international community said it was OK. They mustn’t do it this time. Weah is not the one to lead this country. Everyone will laugh at us.”
“If Weah doesn’t win I’m taking my passport and getting out of this country.”
"If Weah wins I'm going back into exile."
“The people love Weah. Let him try.”

Well. We wanted democracy and it looks like we got it. Twenty-two candidates vied for the nation’s top office, and the leaders are George Weah (30%), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (19.6%), and Charles Brumskine (12.1%). In early November there will be a run-off between the top two candidates. Who will be in it? Can Brumskine top Ellen in the tally of the final 10%? And if Ellen keeps her position, who will win? Some say that’s a no-brainer, but it really isn’t clear. In a normal place the Harvard graduate (Ellen) would win the high school drop-out (Weah), but this is Liberia and anything can happen here. One of today’s papers says “Fear Grips CDC” (George Weah’s party). Nothing but hype. The support for George Weah is phenomenal, and after the jubilant and electrifying outpouring I saw on the day of his rally I am positive his 30% will come out again and vote for him in the run-off. The question is this: will enough of the 50% who did not vote for either Weah or Ellen show up to tip the scales in Ellen’s favor?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Newspapers (10/17)

October 17 Newspapers displayed on the ground where vendors sell by the Ministry of Education. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Making History

It's a lovely, sunny day here in Monrovia. Remarkable because we're in the middle of a very rainy Rainy Season. A gentle breeze is stirring through the trees and reaching me easily as I sit in my windowless house. All the glass panes were looted during the war so all we have are mosquito screens and iron bars to keep the thieves out. Not real protection, really, when armed robbers can simply break the door down and saunter inside as if they own the place. Yes, this is the new Liberia we live in. Right about now we are making history in all sorts of ways: most UN Peacekeepers on the continent, highest crime rate ever, only capital city (heck, country) with no electricity and no pipe-borne water, and in just a few days we may have the first female President in Africa. Kevin Sites is in the Hot Zone; I'm in the Twilight Zone.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

In Memory of Simeon

I ran into Isaac today. He’s a young boy I met six years ago. Isaac still spends his days, as he did back then, hustling on the streets of Monrovia. He told me that Simeon, the blind man he used to lead around to beg for money, recently passed away.

Simeon, I am sitting here wishing I had encouraged you to touch me. To rest your hand on my head and know how tall (or short!) I am. To feel my small face, long braids, and thin arms. To “see” me more accurately in your mind.

What did my voice tell you? Only that I am a Liberian woman with a slight American accent. Only that I was always happy to see you. Could you tell I was also sad to see you wandering the streets asking strangers for money to help you survive? How did you lose your sight, Simeon? Or were you born that way? How did you know when someone gave Isaac a little cash for you? How did you know how much there was at the end of the day? Where did you live? Who helped you get ready in the morning, and who helped put you to bed at night? What were your ideas for what our society could do to help the blind? All these questions I didn’t ask, and now you are gone.

I am sitting here thinking maybe now you can see me, from the other side where all answers are revealed and where all things are possible. But who am I, Simeon, and what are the streets of Monrovia when your eyes can now see your own bright smile, majestic angels, the splendor of Heaven, and the face of God?

Friday, April 22, 2005

We Will Remember Them

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the infamous executions of 13 of Liberia's most illustrious leaders. And today, for the first time since it happened, relatives and friends filled every pew at Trinity Cathedral for a memorial service in their honor. We could not do this during the ten years of Doe's regime, and for the last fifteen years we have been at war.

Twenty-five years is a long time to mourn without closure. Even after today, though, I don't know if all hearts can truly be still. But we have done what we needed to do for our loved ones and for ourselves, and we have chosen to focus on love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a new Liberia.

13 men:
Our grandfathers
Our fathers
Our brothers
Our uncles
Our cousins
Our godfathers
Our leaders
Our mentors
Our friends...

We will remember them.

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Hundreds of friends and relatives poured out of Trinity Catheral at the end of the service to head to the memorial site together. The floral wreath is decorated with photographs of the 13 men. The large portrait following is of Richard A. Henries, Sr., Speaker of the House of Representatives.


Mai Bright Urey with the portrait of Cyril Bright, Minister of Agriculture. The portrait on the right is Charles D.B. King, Member of the House of Representatives.


Philip Parker waiting to march in the procession with a portrait of his father, P.Clarence Parker III - Chairman of the National Investment Commission & Treasurer of the True Whig Party.


At the memorial site in the Palm Grove Cemetery on Center Street where the men were buried. We stood staring at those portraits for ages, some of us wondering about what could have been. My grandmother's house is opposite the cemetery, and I clearly remember us watching the mass burial from her front window in April 1980.


Several people walked up and wiped the faces of their loved ones or whispered words from their hearts. Here, a woman wipes the face of C.Cecil Dennis, Jr., Minister of Foreign Affairs. The only time I have ever seen my Dad cry was when we heard that Cousin Cecil had been killed.


Yvette Chesson Wureh passing out Liberian flags meant to symbolize love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and "Liberty and Justice for all" in a new Liberia. The portraits (l-r) are of D. Franklin Neal, Sr., Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs, and James A.A. Pierre, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.


The Right Reverend Edward W. Neufville II officiated at the memorial site. In the portrait on the right is Joseph J.F. Chesson, Sr., Minister of Justice and Attorney General.


We Will Remember Them

Cyril Bright, Minister of Agriculture

Joseph J.F. Chesson, Sr., Minister of Justice and Attorney General

C. Cecil Dennis, Jr., Minister of Foreign Affairs

Richard A. Henries, Sr., Speaker of the House of Representatives

D. Franklin Neal, Sr., Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs

P. Clarence Parker III, Chairman of the National Investment Commission and Treasurer of the True Whig Party

James T. Phillips, Jr., Former Minister of Finance, and Former Minister of Agriculture

James A.A. Pierre, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia

John W.F. Sherman, Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Transportation

Frank J. Stewart, Sr., Director of the Budget

Frank E. Tolbert, Sr., President Pro-Tempore of the Senate

E. Reginald Townsend, Chairman of the True Whig Party

Our grandfathers
Our fathers
Our brothers
Our uncles
Our cousins
Our godfathers
Our leaders
Our mentors
Our friends...

We will remember them.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Decoration Day (Photos)

Miss Joanna with her daughter and grandaughter.
Decoration Day is a family affair.

Whitewash boy. 50 Liberian Dollars per grave.

Yes, this was "Decoration Day"

Dancing on the Graves

Decoration Day, to put it mildly, is not what it used to be. The day set aside to honor loved ones, relatives, friends, and public servants who have passed away, has now become a carnival of sorts. I don’t know how long it has been this way, but I first saw the new Decoration Day five years ago—back when there was not yet a memorial set up at the Palm Grove Cemetery for President Tolbert and the other civil servants who lost their lives during the 1980 coup.

Today, as has become the custom on the second Wednesday of March, thousands of people throng to the cemetery on Center Street early in the morning to eat, drink and be merry. They will be entertained by musicians and comedians, stirred up by preachers of the gospel, and fed by vendors who are there to sell liquor, frozen Kool-Aid, roasted meat, and a variety of snacks.

Only a small fraction of the crowd is actually here to clean graves, pay their respects, and lay wreaths or flowers. Among this group are small parties of young people who have lost friends. They wear uniform T-shirts that say things like “We miss you” and “Why so soon?” But these young people are not here to be solemn; they are here to dance on the graves of their buddies, commemorate the good times they had together, and celebrate their own volatile lives. To an outsider, or to the old conservative families who bought the first plots at Palm Grove, the whole atmosphere might seem charged with unruliness and disrespect. But life is short, and the dead are in a much better place. Who are we to tell anyone not to rejoice in the face of death?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Madina: Portrait of a Liberian Village

My family and I spent half the day here in Madina, a Vai village in Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County. We came to be with our friend Kadalla, who recently lost his sister. Today is the seventh day since her burial—and, the people here believe, the day her soul loses its ability to see what is happening in the world of the living. The entire village is partaking of the traditional rituals—sharing a meal, presenting monetary gifts to the family, and remembering the young woman who grew up in their midst. It is not a sad occasion, and we are happy to be far away from the hustle and bustle of Monrovia.

Kadalla tells us only about 40% of Madina’s population remains here, on their ancestral land. Some of the people have become refugees from the civil war. (Klay, which was the site of several battles, is less than ten minutes away from where we are). Others have moved to the city in search of jobs and higher education. There is a beautiful school here, at the end of a long uphill path lined with evenly spaced palm trees on each side. But the school only goes up to 9th grade, and most Madina girls and boys end their formal education here. Kadalla says there is not one Madina girl yet who has graduated from high school. Kadalla was one of the lucky ones; he was educated by Peace Corps volunteers, won a scholarship to St. John’s High School in Robertsport, and eventually graduated from the University of Liberia. He is also one of the rare ones—a village son who has never forgotten or deserted his roots.

I like Madina with its close-knit families, outdoor kitchens, and solid mud houses—some of them decorated with patterns and handprints. There are a few small convenience stores around, a large market close by, and a clinic run by World Vision, an international NGO. The residents who show us around keep apologizing for the rocky hills we have to climb and descend, but to me, the rocky hills are a major part of what makes the place so appealing. There are houses on the hills, fruit trees and lush green vegetation all around, and, in the valley, a large creek that has been fed by the Lofa River “since time immemorial” as we like to say here. There’s no running water in Madina, so the creek is vital to the lives of the people who live here. Typical of the organization evident everywhere in the village, one side of the creek is reserved for women and children, and another side for men. Today the creek is less than half its Rainy Season depth, and the children of Madina are frolicking in it as their parents and grandparents did before them. Many of them will leave this idyllic setting someday, in search of something better. But today, for them and for me, Madina is the best place to be.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A Woman's Grace

Today is the beginning of the Liberian Women’s National Political Forum – a 3-day discussion about the challenges and opportunities out there for us as we head to October elections and a chance to change our lives and our nation.

The ballroom of the Monrovia City Hall is full of women in colorful lappa suits with matching head-ties. The atmosphere is lively and full of excited chatter. We are the same women who helped to bring an end to the war, and we are here to make sure our voices remain loud, clear, and effective.

Our keynote speaker is Dr. Nemata Eshun Baiden, education and training consultant, and founder of the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone. She tells us she was absolutely overwhelmed by the invitation to address Liberian women on this historic occasion. “After all the muddy water under the bridge between our two countries and their civil wars,” she says, her voice full of emotion, “we still see each other as sisters.”

Grace. It is the first word that pops into my head, and the best word I can think of to describe this readiness to choose love over hate. Another example of this kind of grace comes to mind. Just last month I met a quiet, young teenage girl. While fleeing the fighting between government and rebel forces five years ago, she was abducted, raped, and never again reunited with her family. Nine months after the traumatic incident, all alone in this world, she gave birth to twins. “What are their names?” I asked her. She smiled and answered, “Blessed, and Blessing.”


Of course we still see each other as sisters – women from Liberia and women from Sierra Leone. Our sisterhood is a fact that cannot be erased by bitterness, greed, or any of the things that make humans hate each other. Together we gave birth to nations, together we suffered the brunt of the atrocities in our wars, and together we still hold up half the sky.

It is breathtaking to imagine what women’s full participation in politics could do for Liberia. We would reconcile our people, stamp out corruption, protect our environment, feed our nation, and educate all our children. That would just be the beginning. Too optimistic? No. With women, nothing is impossible – we have the power, and we definitely have the grace.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

At the Rivoli

I’m at The Rivoli Cinema on Broad Street for the first time. What a pleasant surprise. The screen is big – a real, full-sized movie screen in perfect condition. Some of the seats are not too sturdy, and some have tattered upholstery, but they are all in place. It’s a real movie theatre, and, thank goodness, six of the 13 ceiling fans are working.

I am breathless with anticipation. Upon This Rock is the first Liberian film I am going to see. The film poster says “Zayugar, The Most Feared One Can Destroy And Kill Anybody, Anytime. Can His Wrath Stop Father Peter From Constructing The House of God?????!!!!!!” I have attended FESPACO three times and seen films from all over Africa, but never one from my own country. Liberian documentaries, yes, but narrative films, no. All those question marks and exclamation points have raised my hopes.

The show is supposed to start at noon. At 12:40 someone in the sparse audience yells, “Your start de sho na!” A few minutes later, someone else yells “Your please hurry up!” By one o’clock people in the audience start begging the projectionist to change the first show. “The first show?” I ask the two friends who came along with me. They tell me yes, there will be a movie before the African feature. Apparently, many people have seen the first show before and they’re complaining that it is too long; we’ve already lost an hour of our afternoon and we’re anxious to see this new Liberian film on its opening day. I consider leaving and coming back. Some people – including me – want to just cancel the first show.

Unfortunately, the projectionist doesn’t listen to us.
Fortunately, it is an Indian movie.

I love Indian movies, and it’s been a long time since I saw one. Today we are going to see Baghban, by Ravi Chopra. (Tagline: “Can you depend on your family?”). The color isn’t coming through too sharply, so for the first ten minutes people in the audience complain loudly. My favorite is the girl who yells angrily “Day can’t break in dis sho!” I don’t mind the noise too much because the film is subtitled. My eyes are glued to the screen and by the end of the first song, I am totally enthralled. I love the poetic language and the melodrama. The story is captivating, the people are beautiful, and I consider (just for a moment) incorporating some cute dance numbers into the screenplay I am writing.

An hour into the movie the projectionist fixes the length problem by skipping a huge chunk of the movie. But it’s a smooth transition and I only know what he did because the people who have seen the movie before make sure to tell us all. Soon, I am jolted out of my mesmerized state by someone in the aisle asking, “Cold soft drink? Cold Vimto?” Later someone else comes by disturbing us with plantain chips. It’s easy to ignore the sellers – until someone comes by offering Jollof rice. Jollof rice?! At the movies?? I have to laugh out loud. But by the time the girl selling milk candy comes around, I can’t laugh even if I want to. Raj Malhotra and Pooja are being treated terribly by their selfish and ungrateful children, and I am crying too hard. Dis Indian sho sorrowful o! I am so glad I stayed.

A full four hours after our arrival at the cinema, after we have cheered the Bollywood actors with thunderous applause, Upon This Rock finally begins. The footage is so jumpy and grainy it almost looks artsy. I am optimistic. But the audience knows better. They begin their loud complaining again, and this time it doesn’t subside. The film is not subtitled, but I don’t mind the noise this time either; I probably wouldn’t be able to make out the dialogue in the film even if I was the only one in the theatre. Perhaps it’s because the movie was shot on VHS in Slow Play mode, as the data on the screen reminds us every now and then. As people trickle out of the theatre – including the two friends who came with me – so does my optimism. I stay until the tape freezes at the halfway mark and then, while the projectionist fiddles with Part II, I walk downstairs and out into the bright sunshine vowing two things: 1) that I will never show a film of mine with anything by Ravi Chopra, and 2) that I will be a much better daughter to my parents, for they are indeed, as Raj Malhotra says, the soul of my life.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Opening Song

In the SKD Stadium, where less than two years ago thousands of internally displaced persons lived after rebels shelled them out of their homes, thousands again crowd the stands--this time for a free concert organized by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), a new cell phone company, and Music for Peace & Reconciliation. It is a national holiday--Armed Forces Day--and we are here to say, according to a flyer being passed around, “Guns No!! Elections Yes!!” I am smiling already.

As I passed by the long lines of people waiting outside for their turn to trickle into the stadium, I wondered if they remember…if standing and walking together like that brings back memories of the civil war that made this concert necessary. But of course they remember. What all of us are here to do is make peace with the past and pray silently that history does not repeat itself.

Some of the featured artists at the peace concert are impressive: Nawassa Wassa from Guinea and Savan Alla from Côte d’ Ivoire are truly stars. But Nigerian actress Patience, known fondly as Mama Gee, elicits the wildest applause from the audience. For me, the local artists shine brightest: I love Tokie Tomah, the traditional dancers and drummers, The Peace Crusaders, King O’Brien, and a character named Boutini. Boutini’s trademark costume is a jester’s hat and a pair of giant glasses that looks like it’s made out of cardboard. He is my generation’s “Bullshitter” (international readers: think Mr. Bean with a voice and an attitude).

As the concert is about to end--without any major unruly incidents as so often happens at SKD--I take my leave to try to avoid the crowds and increase my chances of getting a taxi back to town. No such luck: People are already streaming out and heading towards ELWA junction like an army of ants. I fall into step with them and trudge along. It’s impossible not to try imagining the death marches of Liberia’s recent past, when fleeing civilians had to pass through checkpoints where inevitably some would be randomly picked out of line to meet their end. I have a lot of time to think about it, because already all the public transportation is full to the max--inside and outside as people climb to the roofs of the vehicles or stand on the bumpers. I thank God though, because “peace” is here; I only have to walk to Sinkor--not to Sierra Leone.