Monday, 13 December 2010

Up Jumps a Girl into the Book

Recess is over at a small church school on the edge of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Children wearing bright blue, yellow and white uniforms stream back into the classrooms. Seated behind brown wooden desks, with sweat just drying off of their little bodies, only a few children have pens and copy books. They are learning how to read. “Everybody pay attention on the board,” says the teacher.

“Because,” she says.

“Because,” the class says in unison.

“Monrovia, Monrovia,” they say again.

Together, the pupils repeat every word their teacher says from a list of twenty scratched on the blackboard with white chalk.

Most of these children were born in the middle of Liberia’s 14 year civil war. With fighting breaking out across the country, it was too dangerous for many children to go to school. Some parents were afraid if they let their child out of their sight, they would be snatched and forced into the life of a child soldier.

Education for everyone suffered, but it was the women and girls who were affected the most. The latest UNESCO figures show just five out of ten Liberian women over the age of 15 can read or write. For men it is six out of ten. The West African country now has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, ranked in the bottom fifteen according to UNESCO.

To read this report - click on the link below

Indian Female Peacekeepers Inspire Liberian Girls

It is break time at the Victory Chapel School in Congo Town. Children dressed in their royal blue uniforms with bright yellow and white trim fight to get under the shade of the only mango tree in the yard. It is the start of the dry season and the scorching sun will soon be almost unbearable to stand in.

This small school, on the outskirts of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is much like any other in the city until you see what stands beside it. More than a hundred female peacekeepers patrol the grounds of a big white fenced compound, the first all-female unit of UN police in history.

The women are an arresting sight: dressed in their blue army combat uniform, black boots, the signature United Nations blue cap and each carrying an AK-47. But the school children are so used to their presence they barely give them a second glance.

"It surprised me at the beginning because it is my first time to see different people come around me," says Wokie Sarchie, a fifth grade student at the school.

The Indian peacekeepers arrived in Liberia in 2007. Their main role is guarding the president’s office on Capitol Hill on the other side of the city. When they are not protecting the president, they are often here helping the teachers at the school.

To read this report - click on the link below

Liberia: Leading the way on 1325...but Still Some Way to Go

Assistant Commissioner Bennetta Holder Warner sits behind her small brown desk covered with books and paper-filled manila folders papers. Her crisp black uniform shines as if it was just made. The Liberian lady is the head of the Women and children Protection Section, a position and unit that did not exist five years ago.

“In the past there was no such place where women or a child could go and carry a complaint and get redress,” says the Commissioner. “After the war, women and children being the most vulnerable group, it was decided that this section be established specifically for their complaints.”

Fourteen years of civil war in the West African state of Liberia saw some of the worst atrocities women and children have ever experienced on the African continent. More than 60 percent of women say they were raped, according to the United Nations Mission in Liberia. Many were used as sex slaves. Some were taken to war zones to have sex with children for ritualistic purposes, while others were forced to have sex with their own children and brothers. This special police department now operating in every one of Liberia’s fifteen counties was set up to deal with crimes of this nature, partly in response to the United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1325.

To read this report - click on the link below

President launches Liberia's first radio station for women

"Voice for the voiceless" is the slogan adorning the walls of Liberia’s first and Africa’s second radio station for women.

Situated down a bumpy, dirt track on the edge of the capital, Monrovia, the Liberia Women Democracy Radio (LWDR), claims it wants to advance women and promote change. In a country trying to rebuild itself after 14 years of civil war in which women bore the brunt of the violence, they remain the most vulnerable group in society.

"Before the radio station, we couldn’t get our voices heard. The big people wouldn’t take our problems seriously," says Deborah Reeves, a mother of four in Monrovia. "Now they hear them over and over."

The 30 year old lives on Pagos Island, a stretch of land surrounded by swamps completely cut off from the rest of the city. On an island without electricity, public schools, a police station and not one health centre, the four thousand inhabitants struggle to even make a living.

"I’ve seen things on this island that aren’t right in a civilised world," exclaims Reeves as she shelters in the community church with around forty other women.

"We’re a forgotten community, just fending for ourselves.No one sees us. It’s like we’re not even here."

To read my report - click on the link below

Monday, 12 July 2010

Liberian woman in the centre circle

There's a perception - especially from the international community - that in a country led by Africa's first elected female President, women in Liberia are taking the lead in all walks of life.

It’s true there are more female ministers than there have ever been, new legislation has been passed to protect and promote women’s rights and some women are being given chances in life that they had never experienced.

However, women still firmly remain on the bottom rung of society. They're the most vulnerable members of the community in terms of access to education, access to health and access to justice.

Vivian Howard is one woman stepping out of that mould. She’s a single mum, who cooks and cleans just like any other woman in Liberia – but in her work life she’s in charge of 22 strong, athletic men. The first and only centre female referee in Liberia with a FIFA badge, Vivian is standing shoulder to shoulder with the men of Liberia.

To listen to my report - click on the link below

The strength of a woman

‘I’ve seen things on this island that aren’t right in a civilised world,’ declares Deborah Reeves to a gathering of more than forty women in a church in the West African country of Liberia. ‘We’re a forgotten community, just fending for ourselves. Noone sees us. It’s like we’re not even here.’

Deborah lives on Pagos island, an area of land completely surrounded by swamps in the capital of Liberia, Monrovia. There is no clinic, no police station, no government school and no electricity. There isn’t even a track, good enough for cars to use, connecting them to the main road. ‘We’re just a community here on our own,’ she adds.Deborah has brought the surrounding communities of Gio Town, Congo Town Back Road and Mudhole together to talk about how they, as women, can stand as one to get the government to act. As they sit in the stifling heat, some with their babies strapped to their backs, others with a small child at their knees, slowly, one by one they get the courage to stand up to tell their story.

One girl, more of a teenager than a woman, describes how she started walking to the nearest clinic when she felt her first contraction. It was dark, she was on her own and she had a good two to three hour trek ahead of her. She ended up giving birth to her baby on the way. As she stands in front of the women, with passion and sadness in her eyes, she explains how she tried to get the baby to take its first breath. She had no idea how to do it, so she lay there on the road as the baby died in her arms. ‘I didn’t want to talk today,’ she says. ‘But this is just disgracing women.’

This is one of many horrific experiences the women offer up to each other. Some describe how they have to keep their children away from school during the heavy rains out of fear of them drowning in the over flowing swamps. The nearest government school involves wading through the polluted and dangerous waters. Others talk about the poor sanitation, defecating in plastic bags which are then thrown in the bushes or nearby water. The pastor’s wife stands up to address the issue of security. As soon as the sun goes down, the entire island is plunged into darkness. Without any electricity, she says she won’t go out because she’s afraid of the armed robbers.

The women have come together on this day to give each other confidence and encouragement for what lies ahead of them the following morning. Liberia’s first radio station for women, Liberia Women Democracy Radio, has invited them to take their concerns to the station and direct them to government officials themselves.

As they arrive at 9am, many dressed in their best outfits, the women sit patiently on plastic chairs waiting for the forum to start. The Assistant Internal Affairs Minister arrives and then an hour or so later, the Commissioner for Congo Town walks in, the man responsible for all four of the communities the women represent.

It turns out the Commissioner had never even been to Pagos island, an area with more than fifteen hundred inhabitants. He wasn’t entirely sure where it was and more than twice, referred to it as Piggos Island. He became angry none of the islanders had come to his office to introduce themselves to him, blaming the lack of services on NGOs. One woman said she had gone to his office twice but was turned away. The Commissioner’s response was brisk and abrupt claiming it was probably because she hadn’t brought a letter with her. The Minister was more understanding but very vague and generic with her responses to questions referring to the problems of access to health, sanitation, education and roads.

But what inspired me the most was the women’s determination. Their passion and strength to get their voices heard. Their absolute steadfastness they weren’t leaving that room without some form of result. These are women from a country, recently out of a brutal and shattering fourteen years of civil war. A country which achieved peace because of the thousands of women dressed in white, who sat on the airfield in the scorching sun day after day as the former President, Charles Taylor drove past on his way to the Executive Mansion. They risked their lives, refusing to move until he agreed to go to Accra for peace talks. Under the spotlight of the international media, he acceded and the war ended with the country voting in Africa’s first democratically elected female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

To see these women, who have very little or no money, some without husbands, and many have who experienced indescribable crimes of sexual violence during the war, get together and fight for change really is staggering. Women of all ages and backgrounds uniting and breaking the traditional roles of subservience to give their children and neighbours a better life. It invoked so many feelings; pride at being a woman myself, sorrow that these women have found themselves in this situation in the first place and huge admiration. These ladies aren’t just simply accepting their lot in life, they are standing in unison battling for a better one.

The forum concluded with the Commissioner agreeing to visit Pagos Island on the first Saturday of the following month to try and understand the problems these women face on a daily basis, a huge success for a man who said it wasn’t his job to actually go into the communities. The minister said she would personally find out what funding initiatives were available for the women to begin setting up their own businesses, something the journalists at LWDR recorded and claimed they would follow up. And the women decided to set up an official organisation to keep their movement going, eager to keep their enthusiasm and zest for change alive.

As the government officials get up to leave, one woman jumps from her chair and with all her might cries, ‘Women O women,’ the traditional cry to rally women in Liberia, a cry that depicts, in my mind, the true strength of a woman.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Is electricity a privilege or a right?

Let’s consider single mum, Victoria Johnson

Every day, the thirty one year old can be found in the same spot on the side of the road in Congo Town in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia selling pouches of water. ‘Cold water, cold water,’ she shouts as she shelters under a makeshift umbrella from the torrential rains. It’s rainy season in Liberia, making it even harder to earn a living in this West African country.

Victoria doesn’t have electricity, so she keeps her water chilled in a cool box. She needs to buy two blocks of ice to do this, reducing her profits to around just sixty cents a day.

‘I would make more money with current,’ she explains. ‘I could buy two sacks of water instead of one and would be able to keep it cold. I could make plenty money.’

It’s the same for her neighbour who sells phone cards. In the evenings, a single light bulb operated from a small battery powered pack, can be seen dangling from his multi-coloured umbrella. At night most of the city, home to more than a third of Liberia’s 3.5 million people, is cloaked in darkness. There are no street lights. Battery operated lamps shine dimly from the odd home. Children gather on street corners to do their homework. People cram into video shops to watch the latest Premier League or Serie A football game, paying around 30 cents each for generator costs.

In fact, people say many hadn’t even seen a generator before the war. Now, everyone is scrambling to raise the money to buy one. The cheapest is around US$ 100. But in a country where the average Liberian lives on less than one US dollar a day, the cost of a generator isn’t the only obstacle. A gallon of fuel is currently US$3.50. So, for the average family to have just 12 hours of electricity a day, the monthly costs can be anywhere from US$ 240 to US$ 300 – something only affordable for the moderately wealthy.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the country’s 14 years of civil war, much of Monrovia and the surrounding areas were lit up by the Liberia Electricity Corporation. There was even a rural electrification program, operating eleven diesel out stations across the country. However, the war took its toll, destroying all of the power stations and most of the power lines.

In 2006, when Africa’s first democratically elected female President came to power in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf cited electrification as one of her first goals. Four years on, just 18% of the capital is wired. Some would argue there is hope though. Brazil has reached an agreement with Liberia to build a new hydro electric plant. Plans to build a new suburb on the outskirts of the city, using technology to convert sewage into power, are going through at the moment. Off grid solar plants have been installed for Liberia’s police barracks. And what about Buchannan Renewable Energies, the company that declared it was going to make Liberia the world's first sustainable biomass-driven economy? Huge billboards, still adorn the capital, ambitiously declaring ‘BRE – Lighting up Liberia’. But more than 18 months after the groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the new carbon-neutral power station is yet to begin. Instead, the thousands of tons of woodchips made from Liberia’s old rubber trees have been exported to Europe. Not one used to generate electricity for Liberians.

But this hasn’t stopped people from taking the matter into their own hands. Walking through communities in Sinkor, Matadi and the Old Road, wires flail precariously from house to house. People are constructing their own electricity grids with makeshift leads to share the wealth of the few generators, as well as making a few extra dollars for themselves. But this has brought a whole host of new problems to the capital. Last week a 31 year old man was found dead in the Matadi area of Monrovia. He was catching frogs in the middle of the night when he grabbed what he thought was a washing line and was electrocuted to death. It was actually someone’s homemade electrical wire. The same thing happened to a 17 year old boy the week before. These aren’t cables constructed by trained electricians, they’re poorly made and strewn haphazardly from house to house, some as low as the height of a child.

So, can electricity really be considered a right? Many Liberians would argue it can. ‘I can’t come outside at night,’ says Victoria, the cold water seller. ‘It’s scary. It’s dark. I’m afraid the armed robbers will knock me down.’ For women, the dark streets pose a bigger threat than just criminals. The high rates of rape in Liberia are another reason why women are too frightened to venture out alone at night. And it’s the same story for thousands of Liberians all over the capital. The lack of electricity is holding everyone back. It makes starting up a business costly. It makes food and medicines expensive. It makes even simple things, like charging your phone a hassle. Imagine a country with seas plump with fish that could be caught and kept fresh for longer than a day, communities no longer afraid of going out after the sun has gone down, and women like Victoria able to do more out of their lives than just sell cold water for 60 cents a day. ‘I don’t always want to sell water. If I can get current I can start my own business,’ she says. ‘If I can get current, I can live. Without current I can’t live.’

Living in Liberia, I would argue electricity is a right, not a privilege.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Illegal hunter turned protector

Established in 1983 and covering 1800 sq kms, Sapo National Park is the country’s largest and only protected area of rainforest. With the nearest clinic a three hour walk away, it’s not yet a tourist hotspot. In fact, many areas of the park are even too dangerous for the park wardens to patrol let alone for tourists to visit. Illegal mining and hunting have thrived since the end of the war in 2003.

Over the years, people have migrated to the park forming mini towns with names like Afghanistan, Iraq, America and Beirut. They’ve built homes and communities, relying on women from nearby towns to bring them food and fuel. They bribe local town chiefs to let them use their villages as access points into the park. It’s not known how many people are illegally living there but one recent police survey found there were around eleven thousand in just one area. The NGO, Fauna and Flora International, says there could be as many as twenty thousand in the park. That's more, even more than during the 14 years of civil war where many people fled to the park for safety. It’s now doing outreach work in the communities, educating people about the importance of the forest, the environment and the many species that can only be found in this part of the world.

Below is an interview with Alphonso Gboyee, a former illegal hunter who now works for FFI.

What do you do on a day to day basis?

My job in the park involves bi-monitoring of animals in the park. I’m the chief commander. I monitor the animals’ activity and also identify species. For example different types of Duikers, monkeys and birds. I have my data sheet and fill in everything I find.

You were an illegal hunter before this job?

Yes, I was a hunter before. My friends talked to me, saying I should leave hunting. I studied their advice and agreed. I want my children to see the species in the forest and the trees, at least so they can talk about the park.

But you got much more money as a hunter?

Yes I got much more. If I took my gun into the forest, I could kill 25 Duikers and would make more than 10,000 Liberian Dollars ($US 143) in one day. For the work I’m doing now, I get $US 40 a month. So if I take one day hunting, my monthly wage looks very small. But for me, I would just lavish the money but and not appreciate it. If you sweat for your money you have to think about how you use it and you respect it more.

What sort of prices would you get for an animal?

A Black Duiker goes for around 1200 LD. Other Duikers can go for around 600 LD, but a Chicken Duiker can go for around 4000/5000 LD. The most expensive animal I hunted was a buffalo. I would get around 12000 LD for that. I got around 10000 LD for a zebra.

How can you persuade others hunters to stop?

The same way my friends persuaded me. I tell them about the importance of the park and how tourists will one day come and enjoy the park. I tell them about the medicinal properties of the plants and how they should just leave the park alone. Our children need to see the animals living.

What are the problems you’re face in your job at the moment?

We are managing the park but there are people who bring illegal activity in the park. They’re mainly in the North East of the park and it’s just too dangerous for us to go into. There are illegal miners and illegal hunters and we also have some people making coal in the park. The park was established in 1983. The forest has been set aside as a National Park and no one should be in the park killing our species or mining. They are going against our laws. The work they’re doing there is illegal and also the park just isn’t safe for people to visit and even for us to work.

Have you come face to face with them before?

Last November I was bi-monitorring in the north east of the park. It was about a seven hour walk from the town. There were four of us and we met some hunters/ miners and asked them what they were doing here. They asked us where we came from and I said we came here to work and monitor the animals. Then they told me not to cross Sinoe River to enter the park. I asked them why and they said the forest trucks came into the bush and damaged their tents so if any of us came into the forest they’ll steal our belongings, beat us and make us go back. There were only four of us. We had no weopans and we feared for our lives. There were six of them with guns and threatened to kill us. So we retreated back to the town.

What do you think needs to happen?

Well, these people are not above the law. They’re violating Liberia’s laws. We want to see justice. They need to be removed immediately. It’s embarrassing our job.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Access to education

Beatrice Jagbah relaxes under the evening sun after a full morning of teaching at the local school followed by a hard afternoon catching up on farm work. ‘I haven’t been paid for six years,’ she says. ‘But I believe the government when it says it will pay me in June.’ Beatrice is the only female teacher in Upper Wedjah District in Sinoe County. She’s been working at the local public school in Jalay’s town since 2004 and hasn’t received a cent. Regular salaries for government workers are a problem, but it is teachers, especially in the rural areas, who sometimes feel it the most.

When Beatrice finishes teaching at one o’clock every day she makes her way to the farm, her only means of income. While most other women get to the fields by six every morning, she has to work extra hard in the afternoon to make up lost time. When asked why she does it, she simply says, ‘I want to help. I want my community to be educated.’

Jalay’s Town, where Beatrice lives, is a nine hour drive from the capital, Monrovia through the counties of Montserrado, Margibi, Grand Bassa, River Cess and Sinoe. Along with five other towns, it forms part of the Upper Wedjah District. More of a village than a town, it is one of only a handful of communities that has access to Sapo, Liberia’s first and only National Park. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful areas of the country, but access to education is an issue for every single family here.

‘We are just trying,’ Beatrice says as she explains how she’s responsible for 67 students in the kindergarten class at the town’s only school. The other three teachers manage the remaining 106 pupils. From Beatrice’s tin roofed house, Upper Wedjah District Public School is less than a ten minute walk away. ‘There are many children but the government is promising to bring us more teachers,’ Beatrice says. ‘The District Education Officer and the County Education Officer visited the school and said we don’t have enough staff. They are right. We have too many children and not enough teachers.’

Set in a clearing on the edge of the village, the school comprises of a two block, concrete compound. Painted sky blue with glassless windows, students from kindergarten to the 6th grade sit at mall wooden desks facing a blackboard. For a school in the Western world this would mean children from the ages of four to eleven. But in Liberia, it’s not unusual to see men and women in their 20s or even 30s still at school.

Universal primary education is one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Liberia. However, it is hard to see that being achieved by the target date of 2015. The government itself, headed by Africa’s first elected female President, launched its National Girls’ Education Policy in April 2006, making universal primary education free for every Liberian child. But young girls and boys selling peanuts, fried plantain and boiled eggs on the streets or laden down with buckets of water on their heads is still a common sight all over Liberia.

In the rural areas, like Jalay’s town, access to education is even harder. For those continuing their schooling beyond grade six, it’s a two and a half hour walk to the nearest high school. It means for many women, their academic education simply stops. ‘I finished school in the 11th grade,’ Beatrice says. ‘But I don’t know any women around here who graduated from high school.’

The recruitment of female teachers, like Beatrice, in Liberia is a huge problem. At the moment, USAID says only fifteen out of every hundred teachers are women. That’s an improvement from 2007, when it was just 8%, but teaching in Liberia remains a very male-dominated profession. ‘I don’t know the reason why. I just can’t tell,’ says Beatrice. ‘Women did go to school but many dropped out because of the war.’

Cultural constraints, family responsibilities and access to education make it a lot harder for women than men to move up the career ladder in every profession in Liberia. In a country ravaged by 14 years of civil war, it was hard for everyone to get an education but it was the female population who suffered the most. According to the CIA World Fact book, nearly 60% of women over the age of 15 in Liberia can’t read or write. For men, it is closer to 30%.

So, for a profession where literacy skills are paramount, it is easy to understand how Beatrice is the only female teacher in her district and among a minority in the entire country. It says a lot about the determination and passion of this woman to work without any money for six years to ensure the next generation of women stand a better chance in life. ‘The government promised they will pay me, and I believe that they will pay,’ she says. ‘They promised, so they will do it.’

Monday, 8 February 2010

I've arrived!

So, I'm sitting in a Lebanese cafe in the heart of Monrovia using wifi and drinking an iced coffee - would you believe it?! I even managed to skype my nearly-90 year old Grandad! Can technology be more amazing?

My first impressions of Liberia then - beautiful from the sky as we were flying in. It's incredibly green and lush. The coast looks idyllic and unspoilt. I can't wait to try it out! Monrovia, as a capital city, is busy and lively. The traffic is crazy, hardly moving in the rush hour. It's full of New York style yellow taxis and everyone seems to love their horns, so you're never too far away from the sound of beeping. And it's hot! But I've been told to enjoy it, because from next month the rains arrive and they don't stop until November.

I haven't managed to take any photos yet but I'll post some as soon as I can. I don't know whether I've got a clear enough idea of the capital to be able to describe it properly, but I'll try. Everyone seems to get around in cars or motorbike taxis. There isn't really any high-rise buildings, Monrovia seems to be spreading outwards rather than upwards. People live on the sides of the main streets as well on the side streets - small shacks or concrete buildings, often with their own shop or stall on the front. It's chaotic and loud and crammed full of people, but incredibly friendly and there's always music coming from somewhere.

Other than that, I haven't got much more to report. I have found out I'll be working at a brand new radio station for women though, something I'm really excited about. With a female President leading the country, women's issues are a hot topic here!


Friday, 5 February 2010

Preparing to go...

Drugs (of the immodium and laxative variety), recording equipment, more drugs and knickers probably take up most of the room in my luggage. As I precariously stand on the scales with it in my arms, realising I am still over the Ethiopian Airlines weight limit, I decide I can't possibly sift through it all again for the third time. Instead, I hope the check-in staff are understanding and let me through without charging extra.

So, with my flight leaving tomorrow followed by ten months in Liberia ahead of me, all I can think about is the role I will be undertaking for the organisation, Journalists for Human Rights.
I am to be their multimedia trainer; training Liberian TV and radio journalists. My brief is also to freelance for Western media. I can't wait to get started but can't quite decide whether I'm filled with trepidation, excitement, or just plain fear. In two days time after flying through Addis Ababa, Lome, Accra and then finally to Monrovia, hopefully, I'll find out.