by Jessica Shor:
I was shocked when the New York Times announced the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Liberian women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President, and Leymah Gbowee, a female grassroots organizer. Liberia is one of those overlooked spaces on the map, a country of three million that consists only of Monrovia — the ramshackle, tin-roofed capital — and the dense, sparsely-populated bush. On one hand, its absence from world headlines is a blessing for Liberia, which for more than a decade only made news for the warlords, child soldiers, and brutal violence of its civil war. Those years of terror are gone now, and Liberians are working to maintain their tenuous peace and repair their economy, infrastructure, and civil society. Viewed from the outside, Liberia’s slow rebuilding process and remaining poverty don’t make for sexy headlines or front-page news.
At least, that’s what I thought before I arrived in the country to spend two months working with a local journalist. I’d read everything I could find about Liberia and had come to the conclusion that Liberia was like every other developing country I’d visited: poor and lacking in basic services, but not remarkably so.
Upon arriving in Monrovia, I quickly discovered my mistake. The country has no electrical grid, piped water, or traffic lights. Roads outside the capital are unpaved, making it next to impossible to transport crops to markets, patients to clinics, and students to schools. Eight years after the end of Liberia’s civil war, bullet holes still tattoo buildings in the capital, and squatters live beneath tarps in the shells of homes and offices destroyed in the fighting. When it comes to poverty, underdevelopment, and disrepair, Liberia is in a category of its own.
The UN and international aid community recognize this, and they flock to Liberia in droves, but when I tell friends where I spent my summer, I receive only half-hearted responses of “cool” or “where is that again?”. American politicians and media don’t show any more interest. It doesn’t help that Liberia’s neighborhood, while war-torn and impoverished, isn’t exactly considered a geopolitical hotspot like the Middle East or South Asia.
This is precisely why Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is so significant. One can’t grasp Liberia’s many challenges and desperate poverty without spending time there, but this prize has the power to turn the spotlight onto Liberia and grant a voice to those working to rebuild the country. My hope is that this new awareness won’t stop with Gbowee and Johnson-Sirleaf’s accomplishments, though. Johnson-Sirleaf may have made strides towards relieving Liberia’s international debt and promoting development, but she’s widely criticized by Liberians for failing to deliver on her promises of paved roads, working education and health systems, and a clampdown on corruption.
Instead, my hope is that the prize announcement will inspire journalists, politicians, travelers, and the generally curious to seek out and listen to the voices of Liberia’s market women, refugees, former child soldiers, and subsistence farmers — the people who not only live the consequences of Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s actions, but who will determine whether Liberia remains peaceful or slides back into war. Having had the opportunity to hear these people’s stories, I can attest that they deserve to be heard. And with elections scheduled for this month — only the second time since the end of the war — they are stories we can’t afford not to hear.