R.I.P. Tim Hetherington, friend of Liberia

Liberia war photo - by Tim Hetherington

Earlier today, as I was scrolling through Twitter on my Blackberry while waiting for the elevator at my office (seriously – I spend inordinate amounts of time doing this), I saw a tweet that Tim Hetherington had been killed in Libya. As I’m sure you do, I read tons of horrible, sad news on a daily basis, but it’s rare when news makes me feel emotional. When I read about Hetherington’s death, I felt a big knot in my throat. Unlike some of other bloggers and friends, I never had the opportunity to meet him, but his reputation preceded him. To get a sense of the man and the respect he commended, check out Glenna Gordon’s tribute, as well as this touching piece in NYT’s Lens blog.

I think FP’s Beth Dickinson said it well. Recounting when she first met Hetherington in 2006 in Monrovia, Dickinson writes “Tim was not only piqued by war; he was interested in the fate of Liberia — in seeing this country recover. In short, he was there because he gave a damn. And his mere presence proved his commitment: Now that things were calming down in Liberia, most other journalists were gone.”

Many of us rely on the courageous work of journalists like Hetherington to understand what’s happening in inaccessible/dangerous/ignored parts of the world. I became familiar with Hetherington’s work through the incredible documentary on Liberia, “Liberia: An Uncivil War“. This documentary, in which Hetherington and James Barbazon lived and followed rebels as they carried out attacks against Charles Taylor, is probably the best film there is on the Liberian war. It’s an incredible piece, and it required immense courage to tell this story. Since this 2004 documentary, Hetherington continued to shed light on the Liberian civil war and how it affected people in Liberia. In 2009, he published “Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold”, which explores the post-war era in the country and some its key challenges. His deep understanding of the issues and his human-centered approach to story-telling made his work incredibly compelling.

Ken Roth, of Human Rights Watch, told the NYT it’s “a devastating loss to the human rights community. His work has raised the visibility of many of the world’s forgotten conflicts. May the legacy of his exceptional photographs serve to inspire future generations.” The world lost a remarkable journalist and story-teller today. R.I.P. Tim.

Below are some excerpts I could find of “Liberia: An Uncivil War”. I highly recommend you watch the entire documentary.



You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

This is my contribution to Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “A Day Without Dignity” campaign.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. In 2007, he traveled to a refugee camp in Ghana, home to tens of thousands of mostly Liberian refugees, Buduburam. (That camp happens to be a place where I spent many months working between 2007 and 2008.) While there, he was moved by the struggle of a young singer/musician, Samuel. For years, he kept in touch with Samuel, as the young man tried to pursue a musical career, first in Ghana and then in Liberia. Bidini was in touch with Samuel and Samuel’s uncle Jake, and was speaking on the phone with his protege on a regular basis. Excerpt from his story (worth reading the whole thing, really):

Jake also fled the war, barely surviving on foot as he left Monrovia for peace in Ghana. Jake said that if Samuel was back in Monrovia, he’d probably be a big name. “Dave,” the young singer told me one early morning on the phone. “If only I could get home, I know I could do it. I know this for certain.”

Samuel sent me his record. A demo. Endless tracks of highlife electronica mixed with ebullient female backing singers and Samuel riffing, singing and shouting overtop.

“Dave, can you help me make this record?” he asked me one day. Samuel has been calling me every week for about three years. He used the number I’d given him on my last day at the camp. Uncle Jake also had my number, but he never called. Instead, we emailed back and forth, staying in touch about his organization — the Liberian Dance Troupe — which he hoped to continue despite relocating to Monrovia in 2009, which was when everyone in camp was supposed to return to Liberia, part of the Accra mayor’s initiative to close the settlement and declare it a success on his watch. Some left, but some didn’t. Some stayed, squatting on the grounds. Samuel was one of those who couldn’t go home, at least not yet.

“I have no family,” he told me. “No mother, no father. All of my family was killed in the war. When I left for Accra, the boat was crowded and there were people drowning in the water at my feet. When I return, I want to return with a CD. I want to have a purpose.”

After writing about Samuel and Jake a few years ago, I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders. It made me a little suspicious of Samuel, but I figured that if even a fraction of what he’d described to me was true, it was enough to help him out. Then the phone calls started. One after another, relentlessly. In the middle of the night. Before I knew it, I was making his CD for him.

Ah yes. The White in Shining Armor. Sweeping in to make the African boy’s dreams come true, to lift him out of his misery. Except, it’s not so easy. In spite of having visited the refugee camp for himself, in spite of having met and talked and exchanged with the people he was trying to help, it’s clear to me that Bidini didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into. For starters, in the quote above, Bidini talks about the “mayor of Accra” wanting to shut down the camp. While I’m sure the mayor of Accra supported the idea of getting rid of the thousands of refugees at Buduburam, he never spearheaded the effort. What lead to a massive repatriation of Liberian refugees in 2008/9 was a crisis between the UNHCR, the Ghanain government (in particular, the Ministry of the Interior) and the Liberian community in Buduburam. Anyway, the point is that Bidini, for all his good intentions and kind-heartedness, and for all his musical talent and knowledge, was not prepared for how this would eventually play out. Another excerpt:

I sent out a message on Facebook, and through it, I met Chris Parsons, who designed the record. He created four or five beautiful images, which I sent to Samuel. But Samuel said they weren’t right. Instead, he wanted an image of himself singing on the cover.

“No one in Liberia will buy a record without a picture of the singer on it,” he told me. I was in no position to argue with him.

Mark Logan of Busted Flat Records in Kitchener, Ont., pressed the CD. Five-hundred of them, for free. When they were done, they looked and sounded beautiful. Samuel now had a record, and, each time he called, I told him, “We’re getting the package ready. You’re going to love it.” Samuel sent us one address, then another, then another. While all of this was going on, Jake told me about his troupe, how they couldn’t afford studio space, which would double as a classroom where kids would learn about art and history and music. He asked for nothing, but it wasn’t long before Facebook yielded another donor, an old friend, Steve Dengler. Steve sent Jake the money, and he wrote to say thanks. Then Jake got on with the business of keeping Liberian culture alive. No phone calls. No requests for more, and more still.

Over the last four years, because of my work in Buduburam and my involvement with the community there, I have received countless emails from people trying to verify someone’s identity in the camp, trying to get a better sense of whether the person they met on a brief tour of the camp, or via an online chat room, was trustworthy. The only thing I’ve ever been able to do when I get these emails is reply with (usually long-winded) honest answers about the reality of life there. For many Liberians in the Buduburam camp, foreigners are seen as an opportunity for a better life. I’ve heard countless stories like Bidini’s (“I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders.”)

It just isn’t that easy to know who you’re helping, why you’re helping them, and if, in the end, you’re actually having a positive impact, or, on the contrary, contributing to perpetuating an insidious, counter-productive culture of dependency.

I made my share of mistakes at Buduburam, naively trusting the wrong people, so I can very much relate to Bidini’s story. In one particular instance, a teenage boy’s unemployed, depressed mother begged me to pay for her to attend a training program to learn baking. I relented, and agreed, and paid the (relatively) hefty fee for her to attend the program. I met with the director of the program, a fantastic lady named Agnes, a Liberian who had lived in the U.S. and come to Buduburam to be with her family members and help out. Agnes assured me that my friend would really benefit from the program, that this would be a huge boost for her, that I would be helping her become an independent woman. Music to my ears! Following months of training (and costs for me), my friend finished her training, got her diploma and immediately resumed sulking, sitting at home and being depressed about her situation. Years later, I know she has never made any use of her training. I wish so much I had thought this through at the time, and I wish someone could have told me that I was making a mistake.

At some point in my time at Buduburam, I also tried to help out a group of former child soldiers. This happened when the crisis between the Liberian community and the government was at its height, and many were worried (rightfully so) that they would be a target for deportation. These ex-combatants had organized themselves into a small organization, trying to learn skills and generate income to support their rehabilitation. By then, I was already more weary and careful, and I knew there really wasn’t much I could do. I could talk to them, and help them figure out logistics – how could they get a passport, or other form of travel document, putting them in touch with contacts in Togo (nearest border to Accra), etc. I remember sitting in my house at night with these guys, worrying so much that I was doing more harm than good, worrying that I’d make some kind of mistake that would get them in trouble, or worst. They didn’t *really* need me anyway – these guys were some of the most resourceful, cunning people I’ve ever encountered (I guess these are some of the qualities one needs in order to survive a brutal war.)

Back to Dave Bidini and Samuel’s story:

We sent Samuel the records. The phone calls stopped for awhile. After about a month, he called to say that he hadn’t received the records. I asked him why he’d waited so long to tell me, but he had no answer. I told him I’d check the post office, but there was no tracing the delivery. I became angry with Samuel. My wife told me that I was being a jerk for feeling mistreated through all of it. Then Samuel called to say, “Don’t worry about the records, Dave, I have to get back to Liberia. I need $200 for a plane ticket.”

I didn’t know what to think. Was Samuel fabricating a story to get more money out of me? Was a few hundred dollars too much to help a musician who lived in poverty, regardless of the details of his hardship?

I sent Samuel the money. The phone stopped ringing, but then it started again. At 4 a.m. Then 6 a.m. Samuel hadn’t received the money. Someone else, he said, had claimed it. I got angry again, then sad, and now, I’m just tired. Today, Samuel has neither his money nor his CDs. He asked me to send the money again, but I said that I could not. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and I no longer had the will. The phone stopped ringing. Then it started again. It was Samuel. At 4 a.m. Police had stormed Buduburum, he said, and they were running roughshod over the squatters. Samuel asked if could I hear them shouting in the background. It was early. I was exhausted. But yes, I told him, I thought I could.

I really liked Bidini’s column. I welcome his honesty and his willingness to admit failure, which are rare among would-be do-gooders. As an outsider, it’s very hard to know how best to help people. Going into an unknown community, unaware of the social and economic dynamics, one needs to bring along  a good dose of humility, curiosity, understanding and, I’d argue, skepticism. A place like Buduburam is complex. Yes, it’s a refugee camp. But it’s also a refugee camp in Ghana, a particularly dynamic country. Yes, Buduburam is home to thousands of refugees. But many of them were never officially registered with the UNHCR, for a variety of reasons, and cannot avail themselves of the rights in the refugee Conventions. Yes, people are struggling. But it’s also a place of incredible resourcefulness, dynamism and life.

The point I’m trying to make is that even at the individual level, it can be very difficult to know what’s good and what works to help someone lift themselves out of poverty. Even though it may seem obvious, giving a pair of shoes to a shoeless person may not be the best way to help them.

H/T Glenna Gordon, for bringing Bidini’s story to my attention.

Photo credit: Chris Leombruno, Brown Lion Photos

Final thoughts on Vice

Not that I mean to dwell on this, because it’s not worth indulging their sense of grandeur, but the “Vice Guide to Liberia” received a couple more responses that I think are worth sharing here.

First is Myles Estey’s response – he was the co-producer/fixer/field producer for the documentary. He blogs over at Esteyonage – check out his latest post and his reaction.

Second is Sean’s hilarious “letter of admiration” on his blog Journey without Maps. I’m loving the snark and utter sarcasm – really, a perfectly crafted response to Shane Smith and his Vice-rs.

A lot of people commented on my previous post – an open letter to Shane Smith – and the only negative comments were those of people who are very clearly Vice fans and who claim that my childlike reaction proved that I didn’t “get the point”. Well, fair enough. Perhaps this isn’t meant to be a serious investigative documentary about Liberia, and perhaps all of us who care about Liberia overreacted. But when you work day in and day out with people who are trying to shed years of violence and war and move forward, it feels like a huge set back when a widely-viewed documentary portrays the worst aspects, the most vile of situations and attempts to frame it as “reality”. Anyway — enough disgruntlement. Moving right along….

Open letter to Shane Smith

(Shane Smith is the co-founder of Vice Magazine, a publication which, until recently, I enjoyed reading for their snark and incisive commentary on modern life)

Shane,

You recently traveled to Liberia to produce a “Vice Travel Guide to Liberia.” What a great idea, I thought at first. In spite of a difficult post-conflict phase and of the many challenges it has faced in recent years, Liberia is on the move. Its lush tropical rainforest, its incredible beaches and its growing service sector are all assets that make the country an increasingly attractive one for tourism. I know you worked with Myles Estey, a Canadian journalist who works for Journalists for Human Rights and writes an interesting blog about his time in Liberia. Myles has written for Vice before, and I’m sure he gave you a good primer on Monrovia and Liberia. Why, then, Shane, must you produce a video where you portray Liberia as full of heroin addicts, blood-thirsty ex combatants, whores and criminals? What kind of drugs were YOU on? Did you even open your eyes between the times you were in a heroin den and when you went to visit General Buttnaked at the church where he officiates?

Shane, I’m trying to understand how exactly your video is a “travel guide”. If it were an actual travel guide, perhaps you would have wanted to include actual places to visit – I wouldn’t have held it against you if you wrote about Liberia’s surf culture, like 90% of foreign journalists who come to Liberia and think they’ve stumbled upon an untold story. I might have rolled my eyes a bit if you recommended the Kendeja, the new multi-million dollar resort that caters to rich expats, as “the” place to stay. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had chosen to visit the Ducor Palace, a former luxury hotel in the capital, which was completely destroyed and looted during the war, and offers stunning views of downtown Monrovia*. But, as Liberia expert Shelby Grossman wrote on her blog about your travel guide, “it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid.   It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary.”

View from the Ducor Palace

What kind of editorial choice was it to only show images of people getting high, cemetaries and church services held by former warlords? You must realize how completely off-base this is. Did you not meet any friendly, funny (and peace loving??) Liberians? And by the way, Shane, which hotel did you stay in when you were in country? Please don’t tell me you stayed at the Mamba Point, the Cape Hotel or the Royal Hotel – otherwise I’m going to be really pissed that you failed to mention their sushi bars, well stocked bars and wi-fi! I suppose you did not have a chance to meet Seanan Denizot or Menipakei Dumoe, who created WOW Liberia, a tour company that offers custom trips in different parts of Liberia. Did you not pick up a copy of Liberia Travel + Life Magazine? Maybe next time you come to Liberia, instead of hanging out in the slums, you could pick up a copy when you go to one of the three or four high-end supermarkets in the capital – it’s the same spot you most likely purchased overpriced Doritos.

Your video stirred a lot of debate among people who care about Liberia. The consensus, it seems, among people who know Liberia, is that your sensationalist, naive and utterly narrow take is not only misguided, but also really doesn’t help improve the country’s reputation. I’m sure a lot of viewers of the Vice travel guide will end up thinking that Liberia is a crazy place with crazy people, and only crazy freaks like Shane Smith would ever dare visit! Shane Smith is such a badass! (Yawn, Shane, yawn.)

I wasn’t going to join the “let’s-criticize-Vice-for-their-idiotic-travel-guide” bandwagon, as many eloquent, well spoken Liberiaphiles already responded to your absurd video. However, this morning I woke up to an email with a link to your interview in the Huffington Post. And what was originally mild contempt became indignation. Dude. Where do you get off talking about Liberia in the way you do? Excerpts:

Q: “The situation in Liberia, whether it be the violence or the poverty or the mounds of rotting garbage that are everywhere, appears pretty bleak. What surprised you most about the country during your time there?”

A:”Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, ‘Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.’ Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like ‘oh, yeah, yeah.’ And cannibalism is just something you never experience, or talk about over dinner; it’s never a discussion you’re used to having. And when you talk about it all day with everyone you meet, it starts to get a little bit unsettling. I’d say 90 percent of my conversations had some sort of cannibalism in them.”

Excuse me, Shane, but who are you speaking with that your 90% of your conversations involve cannibalism? I don’t think I discussed cannibalism a single time during my two months in Liberia – and maybe a handful of times in the three years that I’ve been working with Liberians. With everything that’s going on in Liberia, especially in lively Monrovia, the “most surprising thing” to you was talk about cannibalism…. That’s incredible. Literally.

Shane Smith: At any time, anywhere you would go, you’d be surrounded by 30, 40, 50 kids, and young people and whomever, and they all wanted money, they’re all starving. And if we didn’t have generals with us we would have been totally fucked up and if we hadn’t quite frankly lucked out a couple of times we would have been fucked up.

Q: You mean they would have just jumped you?

A: Oh, for sure. The crime rate in Monrovia is astronomical. The crime rate in West Point [a notorious slum] is even higher. If you have 80 percent unemployment, you can do the math: 80 percent of the population is doing something criminal then just to survive. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to get cash, so if some guy comes in with a car and a camera and a fucking nice pair of shoes, it’s more money than they’ve ever seen. So that part was scary.

Shane – really?? Are you really saying that 80% of the population are criminals? What’s absolutely baffling to me is that Myles – who helped you produce this video – is responsible for writing a series of well-researched, interesting and insightful blog posts entitled “Gettin’ By“, where he challenges the 85% unemployment rate figure (at least get your facts straight.) In this series, he talks about the t-shirt sellers, water vendors, or cell phone card vendors and other various occupations which are not taken into account when official statistics are produced. What he shows, in his series, is exactly the opposite of what you say. Not only are these 85% not criminals, they are courageous entrepreneurs who attempt to make a decent living for themselves, for their families, in the face of adversity. Oh yeah – and don’t forget to leave your “nice fucking shoes” in your fucking fancy hotel room if you don’t want people to eye them with envy, ok?

Hard working farmers in Bong County

You really miss the point, Shane. I guess this is a vanity project, and you probably feel so cool that you came back alive from West Point and your adventures with General Buttnaked. I can’t wait for you to visit Vladivostock, where they, as you say, “make this huge mountain out of garbage and then just shove it into the sea.” Sounds like you know your stuff! I’m sure I’ll know everything there is (not) to know about Vladivostock after you visit it.

Beautiful Liberia

I wish you had met the Liberians who are working so hard every day to improve their country. Those are the Liberians I know. I, like many others who reacted to your video with disgust, have the privilege of working with a lot of truly inspiring people in Liberia. Maybe you could meet the parents of the little boy with permanent brain damage from a vicious attack during the war (no doubt, that would interest you) who created the first center for children with disabilities. Maybe you could meet some of the women who work with Robertsport Community Works, and who are picking themselves up by the boot straps to improve their lives. Maybe you could get in touch with the locals who write for CeaseFire Liberia or pick up one (or even two!) of the many newspapers to see what’s actually happening in the country (hint: it very rarely involves incidents of cannibalism). Maybe, Shane, you can just open your eyes and your mind. Drop your prejudice and your romanticized notions of what you’d like Liberia to be. Maybe, then, you could actually produce something that is more than an appallingly substandard “travel guide”.

Del Johnson, founder of the first center for children with disabilities in Liberia, and his son Andre

* my bad – Smith goes to the Ducor in part 4 of the series. But, of course, fails to mention it by name or discuss any part of its history. Sigh.

It’s the little things

As Megan can attest to, working for Niapele in Liberia can sometimes feel daunting. So many fruitless meetings with large international NGOs or UN agencies, so many false starts. At the end of the day, writing my email updates to the rest of my Niapele ladies, I sometimes feel discouraged. However, it’s the little things that keep me going, inspire me and remind me – in a very powerful way – why we’re plugging away at this crazy mission.

The little thing today was to learn that Diamond, one of the young girls at HapFam, the center for children with disabilities, had made significant progress. Before she started coming to HapFam in September, she couldn’t brush her teeth by herself. Her family members would beat her with a switch to get her to comply, but to no avail. Now, she brushes her teeth on her own, without being asked. Moreover, she used to not be able to bathe on her own – with HapFam’s help, she now bathes herself every morning. Her aunt tells us that Diamond takes a bath in anticipation of coming to HapFam – for the first time in her life, going to school to learn.

Diamond

Andre, who has a rather severe case of cerebral palsy, is also making a lot of progress. His father, Del, who is also HapFam’s director, told me that Andre took it upon himself to clean the family’s basement, and that he apparently did a great job.

Andre

The Carolyn Miller School also had a parent-teacher meeting during the weekend, and I was told that a lot of the parents gave great feedback about the School Nutrition Initiative: how when the children come home instead of begging for food, they just go out and play, how they can see their children happy to go to school. For these parents, whose children attend tuition-free Carolyn Miller because they cannot otherwise afford to send their children to school, having their kids receive a daily meal alleviates some of their daily hardship.

These are the little things that keep me, that keep us going. I’m all smiles tonight.

Liberian meal for lunch at Carolyn Miller