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Friday, July 31, 2009

Going dot com

When Chris Blattman was last in Liberia, we talked about blogs. And Kindles and enumerators and a lot of other things too, but also a lot about blogs. He was just about to launch his new site and was looking for a header image.

I pulled out my laptop and started flipping through files of images. I asked him what kind of thing he was looking for. He wasn't sure, he said.

But, no children.
And, no Africans dancing.

No problem, I said. I have tons of photos of all kinds of things, and since most of his research coincidentally takes place in the two countries where I've spent the most time, this would work out nicely. As I scrolled through some thumbnails, he stopped and pointed to one of them and asked to see it full size.

It was of children dancing.

He finally settled on this image, from Karamoja.

Check out his new site for Lenin cakes, development experiments, and a belly proof golden summer.

(If I had been there, nothing could have kept me from taking a picture. Rules about respecting people's wishes to not be photographed be damned!)

And speaking of going dot com, next week I'll be launching Stay tuned for more info. It's been fun a fun lion sex filled run, blogspot, but it's time for me to go dot com.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sierra Leone: many photos of the day

Foreign Policy: War Criminal Charles Taylor Clears the Courtroom

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who spurred a decade of violence in neighboring Sierra Leone, is on trial for war crimes. Why don't Sierra Leoneans seem to care?


It is nine o'clock in the morning on a rainy Wednesday in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The main courtroom at the Special Court sits empty, save for televisions filled with former Liberian President Charles Taylor's face. The half-dozen screens are broadcasting live footage from The Hague. Four rows of wooden benches and 14 rolling black office chairs are unoccupied.

The Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations established the Special Court to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the decade-long war that displaced a third of the country's population of six million and left tens of thousands dead. During the war, which started in 1991, armed factions funded and supplied by countries like Liberia and Libya battled for control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines. They used revolutionary rhetoric and sheer brutality to recruit young men, and often children, to their swelling ranks -- and to the decimation of Sierra Leone.

All the other cases that have been and will be tried by the Special Court have taken place in this very room.

But not Taylor's. The Special Court indicted him on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Sierra Leoneans and the international community agreed that trying him in Freetown was a grave threat to regional security. He still enjoys widespread popular support in Liberia to this day. The fear that his supporters would return to Sierra Leone and wreak more havoc was very real.

His case was transferred to The Hague, to keep him and Sierra Leone safe. It streams live across the world over the Internet. And it is broadcast in this courtroom in Freetown.

As I write this, Taylor is identifying people by name in a faded color photograph, 3,200 miles away. Not that most Sierra Leoneans care. Taylor has brutalized and terrorized this country since 1991. His case sparked a flurry of interest at first. But now, most seem more interested in moving forward than looking back at the Liberian strongman they blame for most of their problems.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The number

In every country, there’s a number. It’s a number journalists memorize and repeat so often that it’s hard to remember it’s a real number. In Uganda, the number was two million displaced at the height of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In Liberia, the number is 250,000 dead during fourteen years of civil war.

I just learned the number for Sierra Leone: it’s tens of thousands dead, one third of the population of six million displaced by war.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I learned the number for Uganda. I also don’t remember the moment I learned Liberia’s number, since I read about the country long before I came here.

But just yesterday, I had to learn Sierra Leone’s number. I looked it up, because ten days in Freetown didn’t teach me that number.

The number two.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sierra Leone: Franco's

Just an hour away from bustling Freetown, a small hotel called Franco's is the perfect getaway. There's fish carpaccio and a tomato salad that reminded me just how good really good olive oil is. I went with my brother and a friend and we drank and swam and ate and relaxed.

It was high tide. While usually there's a big sandy beach right outside the building, the water came up to our room's window. I almost got carried away by the rip tide during an ocean romp, but that's another story for another day.

For now, here's my friend exiting the room via the window. And then my brother. And then a sunset. It was a really lovely trip.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Context Africa: Senagalese wrestlers captured in monochrome

Candace Feit is an award winning photographer who spent several years in West Africa. She's recently moved to India, and photography from the region is worse for it. Her work is always thoughtful and beautiful, and tells some stories that make headlines and also important stories that don't. I loved her recent series on Senegalese wrestlers, "Tyson vs. 50 Cent," and she agreed to answer a few questions about it for Context Africa.

The point of this series is to highlight projects that go above and beyond daily news to tell a story of a place in its context. I also hope create an ongoing dialogue about what it means to tell contextual stories in Africa. There's a lot of daily news out there that is factually incorrect, slanted, or stereotyped. But, there are also a lot of journalists committed to telling a different kind of story.

See Context Africa posts:

There are a lot of wrestlers in Senegal. How did you decide to focus on this particular group? How long did you spend working on this series?

This story was shot for Arise Magazine and I worked with writer Rose Skelton on it. Rose made contact with some of the members of the wrestling community in Senegal and they advised us on where to go. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of schools like this one, which is in a suburb of Dakar. We were only able to get to the school for one afternoon, but when we showed up, after a bit of explaining they let me just wander around, observe and photograph. Once I walked into the place I was pretty blown away by how it looked, with a hundred plus guys going through these rounds of exercises, calisthenics and then sparring. I didn't get to work on this as long as I wanted because I was in the process of moving from Dakar to New Delhi, and the first part of the project was shot during my last week in Dakar. I wanted to photograph at least one match as well but the weekend I was leaving town all of the matches were canceled because of a general election. Luckily I was passing back through Dakar in early May so I could fit another couple of days of shooting in. All told I spent about 4 days shooting the story (2 more days than I budgeted for), but I wish I had had more time, this is one of those stories I feel like I could easily work on for many months, especially as there are so many guys in these schools who could very well be just on the cusp of making it big - so it would be great to have the opportunity to keep track of one or two of them through a year or so.

The photos certainly play with geometry and symmetry, visually, but never at the cost of the individuals who are pictured. What did you do to try and achieve that balance?

That balance is always in the back of my mind - especially in a situation like this where the beauty of the guys all in relative sync, running through their series of exercises is the most obvious thing about the scene. Even if it looks effortless so because these guys are so huge and so fit, it's definitely not, and that was a big part of the story to me. In that way it was important to actually connect with guys (and the fans) and show the beauty along with the fierce determination to compete. One of the goals of my work is to show the connection with the subject and to gain more insight into the story behind the image - and to that I am always trying to shoot for the person and the feeling of the situation and not just the person as a nice shape in my composition. Especially in a story like this where the energies were running so high - with both the training and the fans - it is a spectacle full of anticipation but there are also quiet moments where the wrestlers are thoughtful and calm. It's all part of the showmanship of the matches, and the matches themselves are usually very brief (2-3 mins) so there is all of this stuff around the actual match that I found incredibly interesting and that could act as a counterbalance to the intensity.

Technically speaking, it seems like you use both short lenses and long lens to create a variety of looks. What lenses did you loose to snap this with? And why did you pick black and white versus color?

I prefer shooting in film (6x6 med format) but when I shoot digitally I use Nikons (D700/D200/D300) with a few different lenses - mostly a 17-35, 28-70 and I use a 18-200 occasionally too but after years of running around with too much gear that I never used, I've tried to strip it down to the minimum. It was actually the magazine who wanted the piece in black and white - it's not something I usually work in - but after looking at both options, I definitely agreed with them. I think presenting it in black and white had the benefit of stripping the photos down and removing a lot of visual information that would be distracting in color.

You mention that wrestling is changing a lot in Senegal, from a village sport to big business. Did you get to see examples of the village counterpart during your time in Senegal?

I have seen matches in villages in Senegal - both between kids and adults. Unfortunately I never got to see the stadium matches until I was working on this story, despite always wanting to go. Sport and physical fitness is such a huge passion in Senegal - especially in Dakar, were every beach is filled with a wide range of people working out, running, doing pushups in the sand. It is part of the landscape of the place, and I think can be used as a good tool for understanding the culture of the country.

At any point during the snapping did you do some wrestling?? Or weight lifting? ;)

Good question! No, though I did have to run around a bit shooting this. These guys are so huge - their presence are overwhelming. At one point I went with a wrestler who works out at my gym to photograph him through his workout. He took me around and introduced me to the staff there - none of who seemed to recognize me from my time there.

GlobalPost: Truth Helps Liberia Recover

A the formed headquarters of ICRC, posters once served as a means for people to find family members lost during the war.

Truth Helps Liberia Recover
Controversial Truth Commission report helps many deal with the trauma of civil war.

By Glenna Gordon — Special to GlobalPost
Published: July 16, 2009 06:55 ET
Updated: July 16, 2009 22:49 ET

MONROVIA, Liberia — Gladys Arthur doesn’t care about Charles Taylor or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or any of the other warlords and politicians who are named for wrongdoing in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report.

The commission sought to understand both the causes and the consequences of Liberia’s chaotic 14-year civil war. They collected testimony of nearly 20,000 Liberians, including victims like Arthur and perpetrators like Prince Johnson, head of one of the rebel groups and one of the individuals listed as the single most notorious war criminals.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is publicly sanctioned in the report and it recommends she not be allowed to hold office for another 30 years. Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, is condemned and further prosecution is recommended.

But for Arthur, the only name that matters is on page 334 of the report, number 90 (she knows this off the top of her head) on the list of “most notorious perpetrators” recommended for further prosecution.

“M-A-N-G-O M-E-N-L-O-R,” said Arthur, 31, spelling out each letter decisively in her soft-spoken drawl. “Mango Menlor. That’s his name. That’s the man who killed my mother.”

Menlor killed her mother. And he also raped her, forced her to live with him as his wife, separated her twin brothers and gave away her baby sister to another commander.

Arthur was only 12 at the time. After several months, one of Menlor’s other wives helped Arthur escape by opening a side window when no one was looking after Menlor threatened to kill the young girl one time too many.

During the war, nearly a million Liberians were displaced, more than a quarter million died, and three-fourths of the country’s women were raped or sexually assaulted. In a country of only 3 million people, virtually everyone suffered.

For years, said Arthur, she felt shame and anger. But in 2007, a pastor at her church in a Monrovia suburb asked her what was wrong. She didn’t answer at first, but after weeks of quiet prodding, Arthur told her story. Then she told it again.

And now she’s telling it again and again.

Some of her friends and relatives who knew about her past judged her as part of an all-too-common blame the victim mentality. But, when her pastor didn’t, she felt better. He encouraged her to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and while she was nervous about doing so, she agreed.

Truth commissions to resolve the problems in African countries coming out of civil conflicts were spearheaded by post-apartheid South Africa’s approach, and have played important roles in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The emphasis is often on the victim’s opportunity to tell his or her own story.

After Arthur told hers to Liberia’s commission, she says she felt like a new person.

“When I put my story out, I felt better. I let go of the bitterness, of the burden I was carrying,” she said. “If you keep it, it can hurt you.”

It took her five hours of testimony to explain what had happened to her during the first round of hearings by the TRC, and a similar amount of time during a subsequent testimony. And now, every time she can grab a few minutes, she writes out more of her story on unlined white pages. First she used a blue pen, and then a black one. Her handwriting is careful and timid at points, bolder in some places, small and compressed in others.

The title page says, “A true story that happened to me.”

“Being able to unburden yourself as a victim can be really powerful experience,” said Lizze Goodfriend, a programs associate with the Liberia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “That’s what truth commissions can accomplish that a prosecution process can’t.” She also mentioned that hopefully human rights and justice groups will continue to create spaces that give victims a place to tell their stories and connect with each other on a community level.

To Arthur and many of the victims of the war, the TRC was less about what will happen next than a point in itself.

Menlor now lives in the same area in Monrovia as Arthur. “I see him every morning, and I feel bad, but I have been letting go. When I see him, I walk on the other side of the road.”

Arthur has high hopes that Menlor and other warlords will be further prosecuted for their misdeeds. Though it’s unclear if or when this will happen, what is clear is that for Arthur, the war is finally over.

Remember the really, really cute kids?

They're kinda famous now! I sent this photo to AFP, and didn't know it had been syndicated until I saw it in USA Today recently. I was tickled -- these kids are my neighbors. They hang out in the empty lot near my house playing and being generally adorable. The other day when I was walking down the path to my house, they embraced me in a sort of kamakaze style hug, five kids deep in every direction.

Unfortunately, there's now a big metal wall around the lot and someone's doing construction. The kids have lost one of their play spots. The cute quotient in my life is dropping rapidly.

Wettin de happen na Freetown

Two weeks away from Monrovia in lovely Freetown feels like vacation, even though I'm here working. Freetown is cheaper, easier to get around, has less security issues, and is generally a breath of fresh air after sitting in too many concrete compounds with barbed wire walls in Monrovia. Here are a few tales of Freetown since I'm currently enjoying a fabulous internet connection and some Nescafe.

  • The hotel I’m staying at is very Chinese. On the signpost outside the main gates, the name is in Chinese and then in English. When you fill out a room card, there’s a place to write your Chinese name. Most annoyingly, all the outlets in the room are designed for Chinese plugs. I guess this makes sense since every appliance and scrap of furniture in the room was clearly imported from China. The TV remote control is so confusing it may as well be in Chinese. Oh wait, it is in Chinese.
  • The other day, I went to a music producer’s studio. It didn’t have a sign. The producer had told me that everyone in the area knows the place and that I’ll find it easily. After I’d asked three people who had no idea where it was, I called him. “It’s just by the prison.” Ah, of course!
  • I jumped in a shared taxi late on Saturday night with two other women. One woman said to me, “You’ve come from Liahberah.” I didn’t recognize her, and was surprised she knew me. She said that she sees me around Newport Street and Carey Street with a camera, that I love taking pictures. I didn’t have my camera out, so there’s no way she could have guessed this. Clearly, she had seen me around. Sometimes I feel invisible because my MO is generally to hang out at some place long enough that people forget about me and go about their business. But she hadn’t forgotten. She was very nice and we chatted a bit. She’s a Fula lady from Guinea, visiting friends in Freetown right now, though she lives in Monrovia. I said I might head there sometime next month. She said, “Then I’ll see you in three countries!”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Off to Salone...

I'm headed to Sierra Leone for ten days. Blogging will be intermittent, but I'll be back online after that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Context Africa: A Year in the Life of a Refugee

Today's Context Africa is a special kind of post. Over at Christian Science Monitor, journalist Mary Wiltenburg and editor Clara Germani have worked together to follow "Little Bill Clinton," a refugee displaced by the conflicts in Congo and Rwanda, currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. The effort took place in real time with a lot of multimedia pieces to help explain a complicated story. Both Mary and Clara agreed to answer questions for this post about context, sustaining interest in a long term projects, and the complications of cross-cultural exchange.

Read the blog (my favorite entry is African Kids Decode Michael Jackson), and check out this week's CSM magazine cover story What it's like to be a refugee in America, complete with great sidebars about refugee resettlement and a refugee gatekeeper's lament.

Question for Mary: Can you tell me a bit about how this project got started and what's next?

Mary: This project started with a question: What can we as journalists learn from the way people communicate online – through Facebook, Twitter, all of it – to inform our thinking about new models of storytelling they’re likely to respond to? The idea of a story unfolding over time, in intimate detail and a variety of media, appealed to me. It seemed like a natural pace at which to get to know a family and a community – both for me and for readers. Conversations with Clara about the idea led to a second question – What and who would be worth devoting a year to in this way? – which led us to the International Community School and Bill Clinton Hadam.

What’s next could be much more old-school: after the Monitor series wraps up next month, I’m hoping to write a book that will continue and expand the story.

Question for Clara: As an editor, how is working on a series like Little Bill Clinton different from the daily grind? How does the "real time" element change things?

Clara: Usually you edit only a slice of a story like this. Maybe 1,500 words on the sadness of a refugee child struggling to make it in a US school or 1,500 words on a UN refugee camp where safety from conflict is a cruel cheat because life doesn’t get better for most. But in this project, I – and our readers – lived week in and week out with Mary’s daily experiences in Bill Clinton Hadam’s home and classroom. It was the day-to-day blogging that was astonishing, delightful, and heartbreaking in it’s detail and insight: The roaches swarming Bill’s homework as he diligently tried to finish it alone at night; Bill’s verdict that the refugee camp had been kinda “stinky,” the slow piecing together of Bill’s mom’s traumas during 33 years as a refugee (losing a husband and son to genocide in Rwanda, losing a daughter who fled the refugee camp after being raped), the wonder of Bill and his brother overcoming language and cultural issues to actually get to grade-level status in an American school. So much richness went into the blogs that normally would have been sliced out by editing.

Another aspect of the project was that the reporter was going to become a part of the story by virtue of being so close to it. We anticipated this and never tried to deny that it would happen to some degree. At the beginning, it was my daily nightmare that a huge burden was being placed on Mary as a person as well as a journalist who had the newspaper’s ethics to uphold. These innocents were telling her everything, beginning to rely on her because she was one of few Americans paying attention to them. Early on we faced the dilemma of Mary’s frequent visits to Bill’s apartment and the fact that the kids were hungry: What do you do when you know that for the next year your reporter is going to be asking these people for access and information? The subtle quid pro quo of modern journalism (you give us information, we write about it and presumably civic forces will come to bear on your behalf in time) isn’t the kind of quid pro quo you’re going to be able to live with in a situation like this. These were the kind of struggles that weren’t going to end with a deadline in a few weeks – we had to cope with them throughout the year and apply our sense of integrity as we went, moment by moment.

Question for Mary: How was reporting with refugees in America different than reporting with refugees in Africa?

Mary: Really different – and counterintuitively so. You’d think the farther from home, the more “foreign” the reporting experience would be, but for me the opposite has been true.

Getting to know Bill’s parents in Atlanta has meant taking them out of context. It’s a peculiar way to meet people, torn out of their social fabric, stripped of the major relationships and clues – extended family, religious community, neighbors, jobs, educational backgrounds – that I would normally use to make inferences about people’s pasts and consider their presents. In writing about the family, I’ve tried to be sensitive to this – and I do think there are many things I’ve understood about them, and vice versa, that transcend cultural markers. But I couldn’t really place them, and I assumed this might be beyond me.

In the refugee camp I visited in Tanzania, though, I met a group of friends who had become Dawami and Hassan’s extended family over the decade they spent there together. It was a revelation. These friends – high school teachers, human rights activists, journalists, printers – were middle-class people uprooted from their lives. They had a nuanced analysis of the Tanzanian government’s refugee policy; education was their priority, and they were furious about the closing of their kids’ camp schools. For me, this made them feel very familiar. Despite our obvious differences of circumstance and culture, it was like talking with my parents’ friends in a mud-brick house on the other side of the world.

Question for Mary: How did traveling to Tanzania change or reinforce some of your opinions?

Mary: After spending time in those camps, I feel really impatient with the immigration debate back home in the US. It seems obvious to me that countries around the world need to establish paths by which those who cross their borders – whether fleeing violence or economic hardship – can work to earn their citizenship. While I was in Tanzania, the country was granting citizenship to 170,000 Burundian refugees who’d been living the country in productive, peaceful settlements since 1972 – an unusual move, and an excellent idea. It was also in the process of expelling several hundred thousand others who’d been warehoused in camps for decades, people with talents and skills who wanted to work and become contributing members of some society somewhere.

It’s not a perfect analogy to our situation in the US, of course, but I think for both countries, it does greater harm than good to keep families growing up within their borders in educational, professional, and legal holding patterns. The International Organization for Migration estimates 3 percent of the world’s population, 192 million people, now live outside the country where they were born. As an international community, we have to find better and more dignified ways of addressing this.

Question for Clara: How do you make sure your audience will connect to things happening in Tanzania? Or for that matter, even in their backyard?

Clara: One great thing about the Monitor is that there’s a presumption of reader interest in world events, that there is a presumption of importance of stories like this. Yes, we have to try to make them relevant to people who have never heard the word “mzungu” and don’t know if Dar es Salaam is a person or a place. And, yes, we have to figure out ways to “market” them via the web so that we get sufficient hits to justify the effort.

That’s what this project was designed to do: to use rich, compelling storytelling through words, audio, and video to seduce readers to what might ordinarily be unfamiliar and difficult to access. For those who found us, I think we accomplished that (look at the comments sections). The hardest problem was getting the project the exposure it needed to bring in readers for a first look.

Question for Clara: Is it hard to sustain a readers' interest on a long term project like this one?

Clara: Well it’s not “The Bachelor” or “American Idol” – it’s REAL “reality” and it can be heavy. For readers with an interest in African issues, or refugee issues, or American poverty or education, the predisposition is to follow a project like this, and I believe there was a base of readers who did. But I’ll admit that it would take more than the average reader’s commitment to return daily to this boy’s story. I will say that once a reader’s heart was broken or warmed by one of these blogs, it would be hard for them not to occasionally pop back in for a look on the latest developments.

See Context Africa posts:

Jungle Lion! Photo of the Day

Friday, July 10, 2009

Africa on the up

Love this graphic.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Foreign Policy: Interivew with Senator Prince Johnson

About two weeks ago, I began the process of requesting permission to speak with Prince Johnson and take his photo. His handlers, unsurprisingly, put me off. They knew why I was there. But I persisted. Finally, speaking to one of them, I said, "What can I do to help you feel like you can trust me?" I explained that I live in Liberia, I'd be here this week, next week, and for months afterward. That I understood this place more than someone who flies in for a week and disappears back to another country. That I don't just write scandalous things, that I do projects about teddy bears and surfing.

The next day his handler called and told me to be at Prince Johnson's house at 11 am. I was a bit nervous, but I had a driver wait outside for me. And really, it was the middle of the day in Monrovia. Prince Johnson would never want the kind of incredibly bad press that would come with any harm inflicted on a young freelance American journalist. Especially at a time like this. So I went.

We chatted a bit about his kids and his family, the house he's building, and then moved on to other questions. I was surprised by how much he told me, but people who crave power also crave attention and adoration, and just a bit of flattery and interest got him to open up about Charles Taylor, the TRC, Samuel Doe, and more.

Read the whole interview with Senator Prince Johnson here on Foreign Policy.

At the end, I even got him to pose for a photo with his pet eagle, whose leg is tied by a string. When I walked in to the compound, I immediately noticed the bird (though thought it was an owl) and the pet dogs, monkeys, sheep and goats. As I was on my way out, I asked him about the bird and told him that I really, really loved birds and asked if I could take a photo of it. He volunteered to hold the eagle for the picture, despite the advice of one of his handlers who said it would mess up his suit.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

TRC news roundup

Former warlord and current Liberian Senator Prince Johnson. Copyright Glenna Gordon/AFP

It's not often that Liberia is in the news, but this week, it is. Here's a best of:

  • Myles Estey attends a press conference with the most warlords in one room EVER
  • Shelby Grossman figures out a few of the differences between the originally released TRC report and the revised version. Read more about this on VOA.
  • Ceasefire Liberia, a cool project that's connecting Liberians in Staten Island with this side of the Atlantic, has a few posts on the TRC report
  • The Independent publishes a story called The plot to oust Liberia's leading lady. I think this story makes this sound way more conspiracy-esque than it is, but it's a good blow-by-blow read.
  • AFP runs a story, Liberian former warlords warn against arrest. I'm not sure how much is talk and how much will be action, but I'm hoping for the former.
  • Prince Johnson on Charles Taylor's conversion to Judaism and how he's not looking back because Jesus didn't look back. An exclusive interview on Foreign Policy, straight to you from Scarlett Lion HQ. More on this later, but if you were wondering what I was waiting for, this is it.
  • Tim Hetherington showcases more amazing images from Liberia, this time of all too telling graffiti called the Walls Speak
  • Chris Blattman points out there are never just angles or demons in politics
  • runs a story that points out all of this will probably not dent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's reputation. Also from Scarlett Lion HQ.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beer: photo of the day

I need a beer! I've just filed the fourth of four TRC related stories. Will post here soon...

Friday, July 3, 2009

TIME: In Liberia, President Johnson Sirleaf's Past Sullies her Clean Image

My story on today:

By Glenna Gordon/MONROVIA -- Friday, Jul. 03, 2009

Six years on from the end of Liberia's long and bloody civil war, the country is finally on the mend. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund regularly applaud President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa's first elected woman leader — on the huge strides she's making to stamp out corruption and rebuild her shattered country.

That image has now taken a hit. In its final report, released yesterday, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body modeled on South Africa's historic truth commission, says Johnson Sirleaf should be banned from government for 30 years for her early support of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor, who played a central role in Liberia's conflict, is on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity that stem from his part in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

he Commission's 370-page report collected more than 20,000 statements and took three years and several million dollars to complete. It investigates the causes and consequences of Liberia's conflict, a war that displaced a third of the people in the small West African country, left a quarter of a million dead, and countless more raped, disabled, and traumatized. Johnson Sirleaf is among 50 people the Commission recommends should not be allowed to hold public office. The Commission also says that dozens of individuals should face further investigation and prosecution, though does not include Johnson Sirleaf on those lists. Still, to name the president as the TRC does, is tough censure for someone so widely respected. "To exclude someone from the right of running for political office is a very serious position to take that has to be extremely grounded in facts," says Corrine Dufka, a senior research with Human Rights Watch's Africa division who focuses on West Africa.

Perhaps. But in a conflict that went on for nearly two decades, it's hard to find any Liberian officials whose hands are completely clean. When she testified at the TRC, Johnson Sirleaf admitted that during the early years of the war she had brought food, supplies and financial assistance to Taylor. At the time, she said, she wanted to see an end to the repressive and tyrannical regime of President Samuel Doe. If she cast her lot with a war criminal, she said, she did so unwittingly.

But the TRC says Johnson Sirleaf didn't go far enough. One of the ideas behind a truth commission is that people responsible for past errors show remorse. By not apologizing or showing more remorse, the TRC says, Johnson Sirleaf denied both her own responsibility and undermined the TRC process. Those who disclosed their misdeeds in greater detail and showed remorse were not recommended for further censure or prosecution. Milton Blayi, whose nomme de guerre was General Butt Naked because he entered the battlefield completely naked but for his boots, admitted culpability for as many as 20,000 deaths, for example. But, he now speaks often and publicly about repentance.

The President's defenders say the fact Johnson Sirleaf took part in a process that highlighted her early role in Liberia's meltdown is proof of her commitment to good governance. "She allowed the whole process to roll out and that shows that she is concerned about the truth," says Suliman Baldo, the Africa Director for the International Center for Transitional Justice. Many Liberians probably agree with that.

Outside of Liberia, where few people until now have been aware of Johnson Sirleaf's early association with Taylor, the revelation could tarnish Johnson Sirleaf's image somewhat. Still, the President's unlikely to come under too much pressure from donors. Says one political observer who has worked in Liberia and asked to remain anonymous: "It will take a lot to dent her reputation."

Robertsport fisherman: photo of the day

From Robertsport, a photo that didn't make the Surfing Liberia cut but one that I like anyway.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Context Africa: Samathan Reinders pictures the complications of "poverty tourism"

The debate about "poverty tourism" rages on the blogosphere on the pages of the HuffPo, Bill Eastery's blog, and elsewhere. But, as Jina Moore (previous Context Africa feature), who wrote a great, nuanced piece about this for Christian Science Monitor, says,

If it’s that easy to be flip, you’re probably missing something.
Part of my goal in Context Africa is to look at projects that aren't interested in easy answers. There are people out there asking difficult questions, and coming back with stories, photos, and other works that don't provide straight answers. There's a lot of daily news out there that is factually incorrect, slanted, or stereotyped. But, there are also a lot of journalists committed to telling a different kind of story.

Today, I'm happy to highlight the work of Samantha Reinders, who is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her take on Township Tourism shows that nothing is as straightforward as it might seem and even something as divisive as "poverty tourism" can be looked at with nuance.

Here's what she has to say about Township Tourism:

South African townships are historically rich, vibrant suburbs. It is in these townships that you can see the tangible legacy of apartheid as much as the insatiable hope for a brighter future. Touring them is important for visitors to begin to understand the complexities of modern day South Africa.

As a phenomenon it is as interesting as it is controversial. These images serve to create awareness of both the positive and negative aspects of township tourism – as a way to contribute to the very small pool of research done into the socio-cultural impacts of the trend.

My personal views on township tourism have changed considerably since I started the project in 2004.

I have seen the industry at large, as well as the actual tours, change for the better since the beginning of my study. Both the practice of touring the townships (solely looking through the window of a tour bus) as well as the perception that these tours are exclusively voyeuristic tours of poverty has changed slightly. Through encouraging media reportage, as well as positive word of mouth experiences, awareness of the positive aspects of township tourism has slowly been created. Tourists are treading more lightly in the neighborhoods they are visiting.

While many people take pictures during the Township Tours, most people don’t take pictures of the tourists themselves. How did people react to your presence and project on the tours?

People were initially surprised by my presence. Just after the tour guide introduced himself I also introduced myself and explained what I was doing. Everyone I came across was interested in the project, most asked many questions, and I think that my presence on the tours made the tourists really consider the impact of their visit. Most tourists came loaded with hundreds of questions about South Africa’s past and present, and I became quite involved in the tours in that I was another person who they could direct their questions at. In almost all of the cases the tour guides were black South Africans, living in the townships we were visiting. I’m white and live in the city…so I think it was interesting for the tourists to get both perspectives.

What made you decide to focus on this particular activity for a photo story? How does this differ from more straightforward travel photography?

Township Tourism, especially when it just became popular in the mid 90s, got really bad press in South Africa. And admittedly I was swept up in that. I thought the concept was horrible. A Brazilian friend in town was determined to do one of these tours and I went along with him and had a surprisingly good experience. So I decided to do a story on it and investigate the industry in a little more depth. As time went on I changed my mind about Township Tourism. Whilst there are definitely negative impacts on the communities involved when tours are run badly and mismanaged, I saw the positive impacts out way these in many cases. I left the project with a more 50/50 view of the industry.

It differs from normal travel photography in that is trying to tell an important story, trying to explain to the viewers the impact of this type of tourism, and show potential tourists how they can improve their experience on a township tourism for the community members of the townships they are touring. I’m hoping it will have a direct impact on the conduct of both tourists and tour guides.

What kind of reactions have you gotten to the photos?

Generally people are intrigued by the story. When I show editors it always leads to interesting discussions. No one has picked up the story to publish though ☹

Do you think photography has a role to play in post-Apartheid South Africa?

Absolutely. I really feel that photography has a massive historical importance. As South Africa moves away from the Apartheid regime I think it is integral for its unique story to be captured for prosperity. Much of South Africa’s past has been documented thoroughly through photography (the work of Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbrook, Jurgen Schardeburg, Greg Marinovich, David Goldblatt and many others) – and its legacy is evident in many museums and books. So I hope that through this people can realize its importance in the historical sense.

See previous Context Africa posts:

Flip-flop soccer, with deflated soccer ball: photo of the day