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A poem about Liberia

November 8, 2010

The Road to Sierra Leone           

The air hung thick as static over a day moving
in no particular direction. We chose
the only road out of town,  a rutted track
as red as the Devil’s heart, enclosed
by jungle and the faint mirage of fires in the grass.
Last year the birds came back to Monrovia, a sign,
they said, some people were starving a little less.
At a checkpoint our last dollars vanish into the hands of silent men
hangdog in their slack khaki. The heat shifts, a beat
of drums or marching feet far off, and then
like a shadow from the shadows, the Devil
himself comes to sing.  I wish I could say he screamed
like glass shattering, turned stone to gravel,
but at that moment he sounded more than anything
like a man singing.  His enormous lion’s mane shook
above a man’s narrow shoulders, his back arching
hard against the weight, his feet stamping sparks
without light.  He shook and in his dance I saw
a jungle alight with birds, the sky dark
with smoke from rubber burning, and men repurposing their greed
in factories along the coast.  Who knows if even the Devil tires
of killing and the smell of blood, if he dreams of lying buried
in the bosom of a darker year.  But even in exhaustion, desire—
we witnessed, willed to forget, and drove on.


Protected: The long defeat

July 13, 2010

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Thorns prick lightly the man who walks slowly

March 19, 2010

Ethiopia’s rich history and diverse cultures have made it a source of many amazing proverbs:

  • “One who tries to hide with a dog, a child, a goat, or a person with a cold, will not remain hidden.”
  • “Only a fool looks for dung where the cattle don’t graze.”
  • “When there are many women, the cabbage will be spoiled.”  (Still trying to figure out what this one really means…)

My February trip to Ethiopia was bookended by an intense workshop in Mexico City and a mad dash to Oregon to visit my Dad in the hospital as he recovered from emergency brain surgery (thankfully he is doing much better!). So, I make no apologies for posting these pictures from my trip to Ethiopia almost a month after I got home…I guess this is just a circuitous way of saying, “thorns prick lightly the (wo)man who walks slowly!”

My album of photos from Ethiopia is here.

Thank you!!!

March 18, 2010

Thanks to the generosity of many of my readers and friends, I raised $1000 for the Centre for Liberian Assistance!  I appreciate your commitment to helping Liberian girls enjoy a quality education and safe spaces free from violence.  Hawa from the CLA sends her heartfelt thanks, and will update us soon on how the money will be spent.  Many, many thanks again for your support!

Thanks from the CLA!

Unnatural Disasters

February 4, 2010

In the last few weeks, the attention, energy, and money of the international development community has been rightfully focused on the tragedy unfolding in Haiti.  Like a lot of people, I read obsessively about the unimaginable catastrophes being played out in the decimated neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, and donated what I could to Mercy Corps. 

After the initial scramble to assess the damage and provide immediate relief to survivors, some of the conversation has turned to the role that poverty played in magnifying the impact of the earthquake. In 1989, San Francisco experienced a 7.0 magnitude quake, and 63 people died.  The similar quake that hit Haiti earlier this month crushed poorly-constructed buildings, paralized the already-marginal public sector, and killed at least 150,000 people. This is the unnatural face of natural disasters in the developing world. 

When I was working in Liberia this past fall, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the organization run by our consultant in Monrovia, Hawa Bropleh. The Centre for Liberian Assistance (CLA) works on behalf of  girls and women, running a safe house for 15 teenage girls and offering sexual and reproductive health education to over 200 more.  Hawa also works with Liberian Muslim women on livelihood and girls’ education issues. 

Muslim girls who receive CLA scholarships

 During our visit to the CLA, we sat in on a sexual and reproductive health class, watched a play that the girls had written on child rape, and ate bread that they baked in outdoor ovens as part of a skill-building project.  The girls who live in the safe home and come to its weekly classes are some of the lucky few: child rape and abuse is truly epidemic in Liberia, and there are only three safe home programs in the entire country.   

Hawa demonstrating how to use a condom

One of the girls recounted how after she had been raped by her uncle, her parents forbade her from going to the police to avoid bringing shame on her family. Traumatized and with nowhere to turn, she could have become just another one of the girls who huddle together on the corners in Monrovia at night, selling the only thing they have. Instead, she found her way to the CLA and is attending school and working as a peer educator.  

I relate Haiti to Liberia not because of some of the obvious historical parallels, but rather to draw attention to the fact that when major natural disasters draw the attention and funding of the international community, they pull it away from the more quotidien tragedies unfolding elsewhere in the world.  If you’re like me and usually delete the daily appeals for donations from Mercy Corps, MoveOn, et al without reading them, I urge you to pause and think about supporting the CLA. 

The CLA has received small grants from the Global Fund for Women and ChildFund, but money to cover daily necessities for the girls living in the safe home is hard to find. They hold classes outside under a thatched canopy, go without running water, and ration toilet paper. Because of lack of funds, this year the CLA had to drastically cut back its funding of girls’ school scholarships. Grassroots programs like Hawa’s represent the most effective ways to actually rebuild a country, and yet they are often passed over by funders in favor of proven grantees and large international NGOs.  Any money you give to the CLA goes directly towards girls’ education and skill development. In a nation where 80% of people aren’t able to read, and the average age of a rape victim is under 10 years old, it’s hard to know where to start or how to really help. Supporting the work Hawa does is a great  way to help build solutions to the unnatural disasters that unfold every day in Liberia. 

If you’re able to make a donation, please send a check or cash to my attention, c/o the Public Health Institute, 555 12th st., 10th floor, Oakland, CA  94702. I will be pooling donations and wiring them to the CLA next month.  Thank you for considering this worthy cause!

The VICE Guide to Liberia

January 21, 2010

VICE approaches most subjects with an archly ironic, cynical eye.  That doesn’t tend to work when covering sincerely tragic subjects like child soldiers, rape, and abject poverty.  The VICE Guide to Liberia is a documentary film project that follows VICE’s founder as he visits Liberia for the first time. Although the segments hews to the all-too-familiar storyline of a bewildered white guy overwhelmed by the heat, poverty, and chaos of Africa, I was surprised at their honest depiction of what life is like for most Liberians.

From what I’ve watched so far, there’s no obvious exaggeration of the situation they encountered. In Liberia, the truth is horrible enough. I’ve personally been to several of the locations visited, including the slums and the graveyard where people lived during the war. The first segments have also shown some of the only footage I’ve seen of the civil wars of the last twenty years.  In later segments, they will be looking into the role of the UN in post-war Liberia, and the lack of impact that massive international investment has had on the average Liberian.

Since my trip to Liberia in October, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inadequacy of the international development and humanitarian aid industry when faced with the task of rehabilitating a broken country. Present-day Liberia seems trapped at the intersection of profound domestic social dysfunction and the ambiguous motivations of the international community.

If you have a strong stomach, the first three parts of VICE’s ongoing eight-part series on Liberia can be watched on their website.

Photographic Evidence

January 6, 2010

A propos of nothing, the photos from my Africa trip are here.