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.