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.