Full of Gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving (well, not where I live, but American Thanksgiving as a way of seeping into my reality every year, no matter where I am). I don’t usually do this, but I feel this need to express my gratitude – and not just as we go around a dinner table, but I wanted to write it so that when I’m feeling down or frustrated I can come back to these words.

We live in difficult times – sure, there are fewer wars today then they’re used to be, but there is growing inequality and protracted, low-level conflict all over the world. Poverty and exclusion, injustice and pain. I wonder how (and why, really) I was lucky enough to be born on the “right” side of these issues. I never in my life have experienced true poverty, or true injustice. I’m privileged, and unbelievably lucky. I want to acknowledge a few things that make my heart feel full:

– I’m grateful for the love, support, understanding and companionship of the people in my life. My parents, my husband-to-be, friends near and far. I’ve been blessed with strong, deep friendships and relationships, and these people carry me through life.

– I’m grateful for my health, and for the health of those around me. Some people close to me are going through very challenging times health-wise at the moment, and seeing them go through these ordeals makes me appreciate good health even more. (Remember: one glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away)

– I’m grateful for living in a peaceful country, where I am free to speak my mind, where women are treated as equals (well, in theory at least), where people have rights and democracy prevails. Billions of people across the world can’t say this – and in spite of all the money or good health they might have, individual and collective potential can only be fulfilled where there is freedom, actual space for people to be creative, bold, daring, controversial. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be who I am.

– I’m grateful for all the things that make my life feel full: a job that is fulfilling, volunteer opportunities that bring meaning to my life, a (new!!) roof over my head that is truly my own, a little feline companion who brightens my day.

I am brimming with thankfulness and gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Blog under maintenance

After having received several complaints that my blog was difficult to read with the previous theme I was using, I just switched over to this new one. While I make adjustments and figure out exactly how to make it work, please accept my apologies for the weird formatting. Please feel free to leave comments if you have suggestions (ps. I’m not hosting this blog, it is strictly WordPress, so I am a bit limited in my options). Thanks!

Sunset in Monrovia, November 2009

A second home

Folks, apologies for the light posting recently – I’ve started to blog over at UN Dispatch and have been focusing my attention on creating content for that platform. (I’m also away on vacation til next week…)

It’s a pleasure and an honor to join a really great crew of bloggers which, among others, include Alanna Shaikh, Una Moore, Peter Daou and Mark Goldberg.

If you don’t already have UN Dispatch’s RSS feed, you can grab it here.

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