The Talk of the Town

February 1, 2010 • Journalism, Theme • Views: 824

by Jessica Shor:

In the early morning, before the streets of Monrovia, Liberia, fill with the bustle of everyday life, one man has already begun his day. By the time the city awakens, he has prepared the news for all his countrymen to see. This experiment in grassroots journalism, a news outlet called The Daily Talk, lacks an office, paid staff, and even a computer. Instead, Alfred Sirleaf disseminates the news in Liberia’s capital city using the simplest of tools: a blackboard and a piece of chalk.

Liberia is a nation in recovery. After enduring more than a decade of civil war, the country has emerged as a tenuous democracy. The Daily Talk is Sirleaf’s contribution to his country’s newfound stability. Sirleaf hopes that with free access to the news, his fellow citizens will become informed and engaged, turning to politics and debate, rather than war, for answers.

Nicknamed the analogue blog, for 10 years The Daily Talk has empowered Monrovians through access to free news. (Courtesy Alfred Sirleaf)

A Legacy of War

Since May 14, 2000, Sirleaf has spent each morning on the side of Tubman Boulevard, tirelessly writing stories of interest on his blackboard. Some news, especially international stories, comes from the Internet, which Sirleaf accesses at a local café. But more often than not, the news is generated on the streets of Monrovia itself. Sirleaf works with a number of volunteers, each of whom brings him information for local stories. Though this team of tipsters is small and unpaid, it is well organized. Only after receiving information for a story from at least two volunteers does Sirleaf post it on The Daily Talk. “I have several different people covering the same story, so we get different view points,” explained Sirleaf. “No two opinions on a piece of news will be the same, but this way we can ensure we get accurate information.”

Sirleaf’s desire to provide free access to accurate information stems from witnessing first-hand the horrors of his country’s lengthy civil war. Fighting first began in 1989, and with the exception of a brief ceasefire from 1996 to 1999 when former rebel leader Charles Taylor served as president, war raged until 2003. By the time the second ceasefire was signed, the country had been ravaged. The fighting destroyed much of Monrovia’s infrastructure and left most of the country without electricity for nearly 14 years. Disease, violence, and starvation killed 250,000 people, one out of every 12 Liberians. For those who survived the war, life expectancy dropped to 44 years, infant mortality rose to more than 10 percent, and GDP per capita fell to just $500.

According to Sirleaf, the causes of his country’s turmoil are clear: “One can trace the war back to misinformation. Those with information used their own machinery to misguide, misuse, and oppress the people without information. They denied the people of information, so people believed whatever they were told to believe.” Experiencing the oppression and atrocities of war, Sirleaf said, inspired him to create “a new medium of communication, so people can be informed about local, national, and international issues.” That new medium of communication was The Daily Talk.

Something for Everyone

To reach a maximum number of readers, Sirleaf strives to keep The Daily Talk a community-centered, grassroots project. He selected Tubman Boulevard, a street running through central Monrovia, for his blackboard to ensure that his information would be displayed in a high-traffic area. As a result, The Daily Talk’s readership includes a diverse group of Monrovians of all ages, classes, and education levels. Luke Davis, a 22-year-old law student and self-proclaimed “Daily Talk admirer,” said that Sirleaf’s service plays an especially important role for the young people of Monrovia: “It brings to light the issues and challenges young people face and informs us of our country’s direction. Youths are more and more politically and socially active in Liberia, and we must have access to news.”

The illiterate, who comprise 40 percent of Liberia’s adult population, is another demographic that Sirleaf seeks to reach. To deliver the news to those who cannot read, Sirleaf devised a system in which he hangs objects on The Daily Talk’s blackboard to symbolize the topics of the day’s news. Frequently displayed objects include a gun representing Charles Taylor, a hubcap showing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – known as the Iron Lady of Politics – and a blue helmet symbolizing the U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Liberia. And just as the news is never static, neither are Sirleaf’s symbols. While a white handkerchief, implying peace, usually represents President Obama, for example, a red cloth was displayed after his announcement of a troop surge for Afghanistan. This system, Sirleaf said, helps him “reach all levels of people in society: educated, semi-educated, and uneducated.”

Perhaps The Daily Talk’s greatest accomplishment, however, has been providing the news for free. In a nation where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many people cannot afford televisions, newspapers, and internet access. For unemployed readers like Joseph Johnson, The Daily Talk may serve as their sole source of news. According to Johnson, “Without The Daily Talk, we would have no access to information. It focuses on us, the readers, and helping us stay informed.”

Beatrice Mategwa, a broadcast journalist working with the United Nations in Sudan, explained that many impoverished Africans like Johnson must prioritize daily necessities, often at the expense of access to information. “People need to get food on the table and meet their basic needs,” Mategwa remarked, “so they don’t buy a newspaper that day. The reality is that people need to make choices.”

Yet in Sirleaf’s eyes, ensuring that Liberians do not have to make the choice between food and news is fundamental for the survival of his country’s democracy. “We can’t just have a few informed people ruling the rest of the country,” he explained. “That’s how we ended up fighting and killing. We’re talking about a democracy. We need freedom of speech, freedom of information. We need to get the necessary information to the people. With The Daily Talk, we make sure people are educated and can take part in society, especially the poor and uninformed.”

A Man with a Mission

Such a bold undertaking, however, was bound to encounter problems and face opposition. Not long after creating The Daily Talk Sirleaf was targeted by political leaders seeking to stamp out what they perceived as a source of dissent. His surname, shared by President Johnson Sirleaf, though the two are not related, proved most problematic. President Johnson Sirleaf was a vocal opposition figure during the civil war, and political leaders assumed a subversive connection between her and Alfred. On several occasions, government forces threatened him with jail time and destroyed or stole The Daily Talk’s blackboard.

Nevertheless, Sirleaf’s resolve never faltered: “The Daily Talk knows no affiliation. It knows no name, no party, and no politics. During the war, those invented connections hurt me. But we were people with ambition, and we stayed put. I put my life on the line to make sure people were kept informed.”

Today, Sirleaf remains just as steadfastly committed to spreading the news. While funding remains a significant obstacle, Sirleaf has high hopes for the future of The Daily Talk. He has set his sights on expanding into more Liberian communities, and eventually into other African nations. The innovative model of The Daily Talk could provide citizens in other post-conflict states with the information they need to actively participate in their new democracies. In her work broadcasting from nations that have endured civil wars, including Sierra Leone and Sudan, Mategwa has observed that “communities with access to the news are more involved. They understand the issues. They’re able to engage politicians and make informed decisions, and that does make a great difference to the communities.” With more communities of informed citizens, Sirleaf believes peace and stability could become reality for Africa’s war-weary nations.

This promise of an engaged populace has pushed Sirleaf to continue with his morning routine, despite many setbacks. He views each reader as an integral part of Liberia’s economic and political recovery, knowing that each will walk away from The Daily Talk more informed than when he or she arrived. And for Sirleaf, even the few stories he can fit on his blackboard make a world of difference. “A little knowledge is better than no knowledge,” Sirleaf proclaimed, “and knowledge is power.”

Jessica Shor ’13 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at jessica.shor@yale.edu.

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2 Responses to The Talk of the Town

  1. […] 9-week project in Liberia is based on an article I wrote last year for the Globalist (online here: http://tyglobalist.org/focus/the-talk-of-the-town/), about Alfred Sirleaf, a man who writes the news each morning on a blackboard in downtown […]

  2. […] Sirleaf, the main journalist with whom I worked in Liberia, is best known for The Daily Talk, his chalkboard newspaper in Monrovia. As the campaigns kicked off last summer, though, he recognized that rural, illiterate […]