There is a popular mantra in Liberia that says, simply: “This too is Liberia.” To explain it, I think it’s best to provide examples as they apply to violence against women in Liberia, for this saying deals with contrasts. It speaks to the reality that, while violence persists, so do determined efforts to address it. While men, women and children are all involved on both sides of this, I was fortunate to receive perspective on men as both perpetrators and healers of violence during my time in Liberia.
Sister Barbara, Dean of Stella Maris Polytechnic (Mother Patern College of Health Sciences), who has lived in Liberia before, during and after the war, may have said it best: “The civil war brought out the best in some; it also brought out the worst in others.”
This too is Liberia
This is Liberia: One of the stories that resonated with me the most during my travels was that of Vivian, who, as a nine-year-old in Liberia, was separated from her family during the conflict and convinced by an ECOMOG peacekeeper to return with him to Nigeria as his daughter, with the promise that he would later bring her back. He began using her for sex, and, after eight children together, married another woman. Determined to support her children and return home, Vivian had to make a difficult decision, one with which she still struggles. She fled from Nigeria with her four girls to a refugee camp. She felt that her girls were the most at risk, due to a rise in kidnappings fueled by organ trafficking near where she lived. In doing so, she had to leave her four sons behind.
This Too is Liberia: Having returned to Liberia after time in a refugee camp, Vivian was considering prostitution to support her children when she met Rosana Schaack of THINK, who brought her to the THINK Safe House. Even there, the guilt of leaving her four boys behind was almost too much, and a THINK counselor had to intervene to prevent Vivian from committing suicide twice. Years later, Vivian works as one of the caregivers at THINK’s Safe House, where she is respected by fellow staff and beloved by the children.
Rosana is not one to turn anyone away. Several years ago, she began bringing abandoned babies with severe disabilities onto the campus of the Safe House/ Juvenile Transit Center. Vivian now acts as a mother to these babies, to violence survivors and to at-risk youth. For her, “Rosana is my everything… [s]he is my mother, she is my father, she is my sister… [w]ithout Rosana, I could not make it.” Vivian’s struggle has not ended, and she will not find peace until she has been reunited with her sons. However, she now has dreams, particularly for her daughters, who are being educated as she never was. Vivian’s struggle continues, but she daily transforms her own pain into healing through her work with THINK.
This is Liberia: During 14 years of armed conflict, an estimated 21,000 child soldiers – girls and boys as young as seven – fought on all sides. The young former combatants I interacted with in Liberia went through DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration), but it is clear that the healing process continues. Even after years of healing, scars remain – tattoos indicating their affiliations during the conflict, maybe a reticence to relive certain memories. In our interactions with Peter* it was clear that the healing process has been long. The inclination was not to talk about one’s own struggles, but the struggles of friends and family. Much in the same way that Leymah Gbowee has asserted that “peace is a process, not an event,” healing is also a process, which is why service providers such as THINK aim for rehabilitation that is holistic and sustainable in the long term.
This Too is Liberia: Psychological counselors help young men like Peter by providing ongoing support, in the form of counseling, vocational training and job placement. It was Daniel (pictured, left) who shared one of the most demonstrative stories of the idea that peace is a process, particularly in Liberia. Having worked to counsel former child soldiers, he witnessed a girl former combatant come face to face with a boy former combatant who had raped her. In her mind, the only two options were for him to die or for her to commit suicide, and she was determined to pursue at least one of these. While Daniel and his colleagues were able to help prevent this, it speaks to a need for support that is ongoing and holistic. Thankfully, as Daniel noted, this is the kind of healing facilitated through organizations like THINK.
This is Liberia: As a guest in this country, I enjoyed many aspects of Liberia’s people and culture. I have enjoyed the food, the climate, and the willingness of individuals to share their time, insights and wisdom. Nevertheless, one of the forms of sexual violence that Liberians say has increased since the conflict ended is human trafficking, which is in part fueled by sex tourism and exacerbated by the demand for prostitution driven by visitors, peacekeepers, etc. While human trafficking is often well hidden, I was amazed by the number of locals I met who could easily point to a restaurant, bath house or other location where they knew trafficking victims were housed.
This Too is Liberia: I had the opportunity to spend time with and listen to the music of several young male “HipCo” artists in Liberia. In many ways, HipCo – a genre unique to Liberia that combines hip hop with Liberian English and vernacular known as Colloqua – is the music of Liberia’s young generation. Many of its artists are known for their messages about history, politics, poverty, violence and societal divides. One artist in particular, Rabbie Nassrahllah, or Nassemam, shared his rhythm, lyrics and perspectives on Liberia’s next generation. For Nasseman and his fellow artists, it seems that in music is catharsis for the atrocities they’ve witnessed or experienced as children, many of them sexually violent. His tone and lyrics are sometimes critical, but he expresses pride in “Madam President” and the gradual efforts being made to heal Liberian society.
While violence against women persists, there is hope, particularly in a new generation of Liberian men. From the palpable patience and compassion of the psychological counselor Daniel to the socially conscious lyrics of Nassemam, who says that his music is “a conscious message to the oppressed, to help motivate, elevate their soul. I hope that the energy in my lyrics gives them hope for another day.”