Guest Post by Hannah Garrard
Bong County, Liberia: The bass player in the Pentecostal church band is wearing a bright green shirt. It has Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s face printed on it— the president of Liberia. Ellen is wearing an elegantly twisted head-wrap, black and gold, and she is smiling at me. Beneath her benevolent expression, the caption reads: ‘President of the Republic of Liberia 75th Birth Anniversary, Diamond Jubilee.’
I was advised not to discuss politics when visiting Liberia. Let old wounds heal, they said. Charles Taylor, architect of the Liberian civil war, became president in the 1997 election, and child soldiers sang their allegiances to ‘Papay’ in the streets of Monrovia: ‘You killed my ma you killed my pa I’ll vote for you.’ A decade into peacetime, Liberia is recovering and rebuilding. UN peacekeepers are a ubiquitous presence. But government, the past—the war—and the concerns of the future was all people wanted to talk about when I visited earlier this month. Liberia is dressed from head to toe in the fabric of its politics.
“What do you think of the state of Liberia?” Liberians asked me. And: “What do you think about Liberians? Of Sirleaf? Can we do it? Can we rebuild?” Swept up in the spirit of optimism that peacetime brings and the abundance of plantain, mango, cassava and ginger that grow freely in the rich soil, I replied “Of course!” Where the ground is deep red with iron ore, onions and other edible roots thrive. It seemed as though the country could only go forward, and nobody should ever go hungry here.
There are buoyant messages written over every blank space: on walls, shop fronts and on the sides of taxis. A warm energy, like a munificent skin, is stretched across the country. As you drive along Tubman Boulevard into Monrovia, you pass a wall on which someone has painted ‘If You Can Read This Thank A Teacher.’ The value of education and investing in young people is the central narrative drive of Liberia’s post-war ‘story.’
These public service messages and maxims write the story of Liberia’s development goals all the way from the Red-Light taxi rank in Paynesville on the coast, to Gbarnga, in the centre of the country to where my Liberian friend took me— to show me his hometown. My seat by the window in the bashed up Toyota we traveled in was the ideal spot from which to read the story so far. On leaving the crowded market strip, a public health message marked out our farewell: ‘Get Tested, Get Support, Get Care. AIDS is Real!’
NGOs, the majority focusing on female empowerment, advertise their work on the roadside where the small communities and villages reside: ‘Joint Program For Adolescent Girls’ at Kakata, and maternal health advice at Salala: ‘Give Birth In Hospital To Avoid Fistula.’ Driving home messages that are counter to the attitudes that evolved during the war is a way of owning up to the past: ‘Don’t Hurt Women Respect Them!’ reads a hand-painted public notice as we pass through another community.
Black metal triangles with yellow writing become familiar signs at each town we come to. They all bear the same message: ‘This is a WISE community. Report GBV!’ (gender based violence). Domestic abuse and sexual violence was, and still is in some areas, a taboo subject; if spoken of, the damage to the victim apparently exacerbated. More than the rebels’ AK-47s and grenades, rape was the most widely used weapon during the war, used as a way of breaking the fabric of society. Sirleaf, in her inauguration speech, spoke openly about the sexual violence inflicted on women and a new culture of frankness towards it is evolving. ‘Always Report Rape!’ a poster on the checkpoint reads as we leave another village.
Messages like these, that promote exposure of human rights violations, are designed to change the habits of a culture renowned for its secrecy: for centuries, native Liberians have been initiated into secret Bush Societies—the Poro for men and the Sande for women—when coming of age. Although the focus of the societies is to educate and develop communities, some practices are abusive. Ritualistic murder and human sacrifice were routine in some counties, and endemic during the war. Grisly symbolism— human entrails draped by rebels across illegal checkpoints—prevented people from fleeing their villages. Accidentally ‘discovering’ one of these secret societies in the bush meant that the intruder must be initiated into it, and if resisted, sometimes murdered by the Poro members.
Signs for USAID sponsored programmes are familiar in each market town we pass through, suggesting renewed interest in the country’s progress. But at Kakata we pass a hand painted sign that says ‘Every road leads to Firestone.’ The US owned Firestone Tyre and Rubber plantation is where thousands of tons of latex are bled from trees and shipped to the USA to make car tyres and other rubber products. Nothing gets made in Liberia; all profit ends up in America. Every road leads to Firestone. Can Liberia achieve sustainability if its principal resource is leaving the country?
I notice how tall and copious the sweet corn grows, but the crops are planted in the foundations of abandoned buildings—of which there are many— that give shelter to tall crops from the wind that the monsoons bring. They are all homes that could not be financed to their completion. Vines emerge amongst the sweet corn and clutch the empty window frames. These derelict shells look grey and grim on the hillside and occasionally I see washing, women’s brightly printed lappas draped over the walls, suggesting that families live there anyway in full exposure to the elements. Women selling at Salala market, dependent on passing trade, thrust charred corncobs through the window of the Toyota and curse when I don’t buy from them.
The driver switches on the radio: “And now for the Liberian news in simple English,” announces the broadcaster. There’s scandal in Sirleaf’s Unity Party cabinet: three finance officials have have been sacked for corruption. In unison, my fellow passengers let out a censorious cry. “But this is progress,” my Liberian friend chimes in. “They are exposing dishonesty, before the war, we knew none of this.”
“But nothing really changes,” adds the driver.
Finally, my friend and I reach our destination in Gbarnga, the geographical and political heart of Liberia where all county senators meet to discuss the future. We are tired; the journey was long and rough on the unpaved roads. “This was Taylor’s county—he called it ‘Taylorland,’” my friend tells me as we walk to the house we will be staying in. “He is everywhere. People still love him and his wife is now running for senator.”
The night is still and our steps are silvery and moonlit across the red ground. My friend stops for a moment. We are surrounded by the silhouettes of palm and mango trees that look like figures lingering in the darkness. “I remember this place,” he says. “This is where Charles Taylor’s rebels hid. You couldn’t pass here for being shot. They wouldn’t let you walk anywhere.” His words haunt me, as the past does him. A taxi parked on the roadside has a forbidding statement written on its bumper: ‘No Weapon Against Me Shall Prosper.’
My short visit to Liberia confirmed that there is no time for polite avoidance of unsavoury political topics. Engage with and listen to those who want to talk. And if you believe in the values of your country’s leader, don’t be shy of wearing her portrait on your shirt, as if it were a second skin.
Hannah Garrard is a nonfiction writer and youth worker from the UK, whose writing focuses on community narratives at home and abroad. She has written for literary journals: Newfound, Literary Traveller, and Going Down Swinging and has blogged for New Internationalist. Hannah is currently doing youth work in rural communities in England and is studying for an MA in Biography and Creative Non-fiction at UEA, where she is researching and writing her first book about Liberia.