Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sticker Shock

Today I needed to buy supplies. A dollar seventy-nine for a can of tuna that in the USA would be 69 cents and yet last night I spent thirty dollars on a meal for three at a local restaurant. Rather reasonable considering the cost in the US to feed three even at McDonalds. I wish I could tell you that I had an African dish but I didn't. Liberians are entranced by everything American. I had pork and French fries. I could have been at any outside patio restaurant in the US. The most uniquely Liberian part of the meal was the Liberian made beer and the pepper sauce. The liquid was a light amber and was cool and tasty. I drank a little more than usual to help me cool from the warm day. The pepper sauce was hot and delicious and made the barbacued pork truly tastey. I have been promised that I will soon dine on Liberian-African food.

My guide for the day once again took me through the streets of Monrovia and this time we walked. Young boys and men gathered around storefronts watching soccer on television. Women bathed their children and combed each others hair. Craftsman worked on cars, motorcycles, and to tell the truth on objects that I did not know. Children carried display boxes of candies and chewing gum roaming the streets and at traffic stops encouraging people to buy. Everywhere I saw children working. Most children work out of necessity and many cannot go to school because of work/poverty. Those who do go to school are fortunate.

The images that I carry with me today are of the many men who have limbs missing because of the civil war. The homes that are mere skeletons in which people work and live. The multiple ways that the Liberian people, young and old, work not only to survive but to reconstruct their country. The image that touched me most was that of a small child with her grandfather. The grandfather was blind and his hand rested on his grandaughter's shoulder. The grandaughter was four maybe five. He gave directions telling her which way to go while she acted as her grandfather's eyes as they walked through the maze of activity in the crowded streets.

As the day ends for me I am tired and thoughtful. Liberia is a complex country. Monday I begin my work on the project. These few days of orientation have helped prepare me for the project and helped me to see how much I will need to learn.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Monrovia Tour

Writing today about my tour of Monrovia is really impossible and I have a sense that I should not even try. Monrovia is a city devastated by 12 years of civil war. There is hardly a building not bearing damage. Yet there is building and repair work no matter where you look. There are people everywhere and there is continous movement -people, cars, motorcycles, carts, and wheelborrowes.

I have begun to hear stories but not in a formal way. If you are willing to ask, people are willing to share their story. The stories are of tragedy, faith, atrocities, and hope. I asked my security guard and my driver "What gives you hope?" Thier answer was the goverment seems to really be trying; the international community is present and working to make a difference; and Ellen Johnson the first woman president and first person with indigeneous heritage is honorable and cares about the people.

I am not sure that I want to describe the poverty -the poor housing, lack of electricity, running water, or the need for everyone in most families to work. Focusing on these issues would take away from understanding the resilency of the Liberian people and yet, one must share the tragic events of the civil because that knowledge allows one to understand the spirit of the Liberian people.

I am still not sure what city or county I will be sent but I will learn soon. Life here has a way of rapidly changing while slowly moving.

For today....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Here I am...

I landed in Liberia Wednesday evening. The airport was busy, small, crowded and a wonderful cacophony of the voices of people speaking many languages. The ride to Monrovia from the airport was fast and exciting. My kind of driving to be honest, except for the people dangerously close to the road walking at night. The airport reminded me of a trip i took to Bethel, Alaska. At night the airport and the roads were so similiar I could hardly tell the difference. And as in Alaska the people in Liberia are gracious. I find the similarites interesting and yet the land is so very different. Cold barren tundra versus hot moist green.

Now another phase.

Ooops... As i write I realize I have not mentioned my day in Brussells but it does not matter. I am here in Monrovia, Liberia and Belgium seems far away and unimportant..

I am well and content... except for one thing. And that is getting use to a french keybooard....

take care...andre

Friday, September 21, 2007

a weekend

I am now ready to go and am really starting to believe that I am going. I will be in Liberia from the end of

Monday, September 17, 2007

One week to go...

I am grateful for the support that I have received from people. I also have had pleasure in hearing the different responses to this trip of those I have spoken. I have learned much through their responses about people and about myself. There are those who are clear that they would never go to a place that is clearly so unsafe; others who feel that any such work is heroic and “Mother Therese” like, while others become nostalgic about their peace corps experience or other volunteer experiences, and finally there are those who see this as a great adventure.

I am not sure which perspective I most identify. I do want to do some good and make a difference; I know there are dangers; and it is an adventure. As far as nostalgia, yes, for the work I did in Alabama in the late 70’s or more recently my trip to volunteer at the Bethel Indigenous Dance Festival, Cama-I, in Alaska. However, maybe the truth is that this journey on my part to Liberia is selfish. I do feel at a turning point in my life and have a need for something different.

As i thought about the reason for taking this journey today I reflected on the ideas of Alasdair McIntire. He describes human beings as “storytelling animals” and that each human being is on a narrative quest. He means by this that each one of us is on a perilous journey seeking to author a life and a story that is meaningful and is moving towards the good and the essential. His insights have some truth for me. I do sense this journey is a quest to experience the essential and the good in a place different than what I am accustomed. However, as I thought about his notion of the narrative quest there was something that did not quite fit.

As I read several of the seed stories from the CVT Story Project I felt tears on my face. In the moment with the stories and my tears I realized that I do not know why I am going. I can speculate all I want but my analyses is only empty mind-chatter. I have a sense that I really will only know after the journey. Maybe shortly afterwards or maybe even months or years later, and maybe never. At this point it doesn’t matter. What does matter is for me to go, to be open, do the story work, take in the experience, and do the best I can. And the rest will take care of itself. andre

Monday, September 10, 2007

Liberia: A Short History Part I

Liberia is in Western Africa and is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire. The history of Liberia (Place of Freedom) is complicated and does not follow the usual pattern of most African nations. Liberia was populated with freed slaves in land purchased from the indigenous tribes by independent societies in the USA. Ethiopia is the only other country not founded by a nation-state. Only later did the United States government become involved and support the independence of Liberia. The area now known as Liberia was populated in the 1800’s and before by numerous indigenous tribes. In 1822 the American Colonization Society negotiated for land and free born and freed ex-slave Blacks from the USA began to be sent to settle the area. The abolitionist and slave owners contributed the moneys for their passage and supplies. The Abolitionist felt a responsibility to restore the Negro to their homeland and the slave owners feared the potential political power of ex-slaves. In 1847 because of pressures from Britain who had colonized neighboring Sierra Leone Liberia was recognized as an independent nation. However, the history of this area now known as Liberia did not begin with the American-Liberians.

Between the 12th and 16th century there were waves of migrations from the north and east of Africa. In the 16th century the Manes came from the Ivory Coast and the Vai later came but were stopped by an alliance of the Manes and a tribe known as the Kru who dominated the Atlantic coast. When the American-Liberians settled they established western type economic, social, political, and cultural structures and even though they represented only a small proportion of the population (5%) they dominated the whole of Liberia. This division between the American-Liberians and the indigenous people and the colonizing of Africa in general are major contributors to the long suffering of the people of Liberia. (For a brief historical overview:

To be continued….

Your comments and corrections are welcomed...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Center for Victims of Torture Story Project

I would like to share with you a little about the CVT Story Project. The purpose of the Story Project is to gather the stories of individuals and communities who have been affected by torture. The stories will be used to help create an understanding of the complexity of the culture, communities, and the hopes of people who have experienced political torture. The methodology of the project was developed at the Minneapolis CVT Center over two-years.

The process of gathering stories for the CVT Story Project is rooted in the values of oral culture and storytelling. In a conversation with Liberian storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna she stressed that for Liberians storytelling is “an oral activity of the imagination.” As our discussion continued we agreed that storytelling happens within one’s imagination and when the story is shared orally with another the listener is then able to imaginatively live within the story. In oral cultures storytelling is a natural way of communication, an interaction between people, and is not about performance. Therefore the project’s process is rooted in the realm of the imagination, memory, conversation, and the connection between people. The stories are not recorded and only a minimum of note taking is done. The person being interviewed determines the content of the story and the intent is to preserve the story that the person desires to tell. Most importantly the story always belongs to the teller and not the person who at the end of the process writes the story. The writer is only the conduit of the story.

The transition to writing the story is the most difficult part of the project. Once a story is written the story is outside of the person and no longer has the same internalized imaginative quality. There is a power that spoken word has that written word cannot capture. Therefore only when the story is rooted in the imagination of the listener is the story written. Once the story is written the teller reviews the written story to see if the story remains true to teller’s experience. Only then can the story be shared in the written form. At the end of the process the teller receives a copy of their story and are asked how the story can be used.

There are limitations to the method. The method is time consuming but the process is not just about producing stories. The process is about creating understanding between people and giving witness to the teller’s story. The hope is that the stories can help people understand the consequences of political torture and create the change necessary to end all forms of torture.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Three weeks to go

My preparation for my trip to Liberia is entering the final stages. Three weeks before I leave. Today I spoke with a Liberian storyteller living in D.C. We talked of the importance of the oral tradition of storytelling and how important the personal relationship is between teller and listener. "How to develop respectful relationships with the people I meet on this journey," has been my main question to those who are Liberian and have worked in Liberia. The answer is usually be attentive and be yourself. So this will be my main intent to be attentive, be myself and to keep my eyes, mind and heart open to what is in front of me. Chekov ends one of his short stories with "We shall live and we shall see." And that is exactly all i can do. I will live and I will see where this journey takes me. Lastly, I have a sense of the person who is taking this journey, however I am not sure who will return. andre


I would like to acknowledge the University of Minnesota Center for Human Rights for their generous fellowship, St. Thomas the Apostle Church for their grant, and a number of individuals who have given their moral and financial support. I appreciate the Center of Victims of Torture's confidence in and support of my story work and providing the opportunity for me to first hand experience their healing work in Liberia. I am grateful to Crisis Connection for giving me a leave of absence from my work. The generosity of all these people reminds me that we do nothing on our own and I acknowledge that without them I would not be able to take this journey.