by Jessica Shor:
(Jessica Shor ’13 is in Ezra Stiles College. She is spending the summer in Monrovia, Liberia working with a grassroots news organization.)
After a year and a half of brainstorming and planning, the only thing left standing between me and Liberia, a country on the West African coast, is 24 hours of travel between Boston and Monrovia, the capital city. My 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 Monrovia. This 10-year-old initiative, called The Daily Talk, aims to broaden access to the news, especially for citizens without access to newspapers or the internet.
In Liberia, the number of citizens without easy access to the news is large, mostly a result of the country’s difficult past. After more than a century of oppression under the rule of elite descendants of the freed slaves who settled Liberia, followed by nine years of violence and repression during Samuel Doe’s presidency, a bloody civil war tore the country apart between 1989 and 2003. The war killed one out of every 12 Liberians, destroyed what little infrastructure existed in Liberia, and halted economic development. The legacy of 14 years of war remains today: average per capita income is only $500 per year, and most of the country, including much of Monrovia, lacks electricity and running water.
Graham Greene, a British author who traveled though Liberia in 1935 and recorded his trip in A Journey Without Maps, wrote of the violence, disease, and poverty in the country, commenting, “the little injustices of Kenya become shoddy and suburban beside it.” Unfortunately, in 2011 descriptions of Liberia remain much the same; the literature I found online and in the news about Liberia ranged from the merely grim to the all-out apocalyptic. My 900-page Lonely Planet West Africa guidebook, which gives Liberia a mere 20 pages, notes Liberia’s reputation as a “festering sore” on the African coast and claims it is “famous for rain forests, traditional masks, rubber plantations, and child soldiers.”
Sirleaf writes the news each morning, though, with the hope that greater access to the news will help bolster Liberia’s fledgling democracy and help the country move on from its troubled history. During the two-hour phone interview I conducted with Sirleaf for my Globalist article, his determination, passion, and steadfast belief in his project’s ability to promote peace became clear. I was inspired. I will spend my time in Liberia helping him train new journalists and expand The Daily Talk to more neighborhoods in Monrovia. Access to the news is especially important this summer, with general elections coming up in the fall – only the second round of elections since the end of the civil war.
I also hope to explore Liberia outside the capital, doing some reporting of my own. Check this blog, as well as my personal blog at www.jessicashor.wordpress.com, for updates on my project and adventures.