A Broad Abroad: Landing in the Lonestar
Time flies when you’re avoiding malaria! It’s already been one month since I landed in Monrovia, Liberia and I’m relieved, yet not surprised to report that this Dakota woman is safe, sound, and sane. So, why the heck would anyone want to go to Liberia, you ask (and as many, many people have)? Have you ever wanted to throw a dart on a map or spin the globe and put your finger down somewhere and head wherever it landed? Well, I have – fantasized about it, in fact. And applying to literally every United Nations Women office on the planet and vowing to go anywhere I was offered placement is about as close to that as I’ll maybe ever come. So the long story short (and it is kind of a painfully long story): I was invited to intern with the UN Women Liberia Country Office. And then, courtesy of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, I was awarded the Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship in order to do it.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much, if anything, about Liberia when it first became part of the conversation. But the more I learned, the more enamored I became with how powerful of an experience this could be.
Most people associate Liberia with giant war lord asshole, Charles Taylor, who’s recently been in the news after having been sentenced by the international court for his commission of war crimes (see also Taylor’s opinions on GW). Some know it was colonized by ex-slaves from America. Few are aware it was the first African country to elect a female president.
Liberia indeed has a rich, yet depressing history. It was originally colonized by freed American slaves who were assisted by an American organization that believed in the realization of their liberty. What resulted was a country somewhat modeled on the US and a capital city named after our then-president James Monroe. Fast forward into the late ‘80s and then we have a coup, a big take over, and two bloody and devastating civil wars, spanning 14 years and ending in losses estimated to be as high as 250,000 people.
What stopped the war and led to peace? Women. No, really.
A movement of both Christian and Muslim women called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace decided they had to take a stand. They confronted President Charles Taylor, organized non-violent and sometimes silent demonstrations for peace, and eventually, a peace agreement was reached in 2003 and the UN peacekeeping mission moved in. The deal gave rise to the election of 2005, said to be the most fair, democratic, and participatory in Liberian history and culminated in the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female president in all of Africa. Haven’t seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell? It tells this story and is a Liberian must.
Nine years later and Liberia is still in the thick of recovery, working to stabilize, repair, and rebuild the total destruction of infrastructure and lasting byproducts of war. The UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia is still going strong, but with Sirleaf’s recent re-election, it seems the country is slowly putting an eye on the eventual waning of UN support. It’s an optimistic and exciting time to be part of Liberia’s future, but there’s still a long way to go to stability and self-sufficiency within the country. There are still extreme problems with poverty, literacy, violence, and inequality. But, there are legions of people from all over the globe trying to help…and it gets better.
So, what’s life in post-conflict West Africa been like? Honestly, it’s been just fine. Once you get over the barbed wire or glass-rimmed security fences, the hot and wet climate, and the difficulty in processing Liberian English, it really ain’t no thang. Getting around is really difficult here and the UN presence, while great in that it brings in people from all over the world and kind of jump starts the Liberian economy, results in stupidly high prices particularly limiting for us student-types. Amenities like 24 hour electricity, reliable internet, AC, washers or dryers, hot water, or TV are pretty hard to come by. At my house, which is a about 5 times less expensive than, but a 45 minute drive from the UN hub of the city, we have electricity for 12 hours a day, no AC, one full-time security guard, one part-time security guard, a barbed wire-lined retaining wall around the property, and not much else. My average day? I get up around 6:30 am, get picked up by the driver I hired at 7:15 am, sit in a bumpy and slow ride to work until about 8 am, work until 5 pm-ish, then take the jaunt back home, wait for the power to come back on at 7 pm and then eat, read, and eventually sleep…to do again the next day. My work? A handful of projects that fall under the “Peace and Security” heading of UN Women work. I’m doing everything from working on two pieces of legislation (one domestic violence and one quota bill), assisting in altering the training curriculum of law enforcement officers to include gender mainstreaming, documenting the methodology of a sort of alternative dispute resolution program that uses “peace huts,” working with Planned Parenthood of Liberia to expand a previous project, and basically helping out, reading about, and doing research anywhere else I can in the meantime.
Stay tuned for the next “A Broad Abroad” chapter: Why Travel?