From a school in Pleebo. My favorite line is the last, an example of casual diction: "The new play at the Pleebo City Hall is a big flop."
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
While I was in Harper, I took some photos for Right to Play. I have to say, it was a really fun assignment. Who wouldn't want to take pictures of kids having fun and learning to work together? Kind of awesome. Especially since I was in Harper working on a personal photo project about the decayed vestiges of power, which was certainly way less fun in an immediate, smiley kind of way.
Posted by Scarlett Lion at 2:43 PM
Here are three bits of news gathered from the wide, wide web. I see a relationship among them. Do you?
A recent study commissioned by the American Chamber of Commerce shows how the corporate world views Africa. From Foreign Policy:
The survey suggests that African countries tend to fall into three categories: strong countries that are seriously considered as investment destinations; weak countries that would not even be considered by most of the respondents; and average countries where a mix of good and bad news calls for caution. South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are rated highest for their economic development, while Ghana, South Africa and Tunisia take top honors for their investment climate. South Africa got the highest marks for government attitude, with Ghana, Morocco, Kenya and Nigeria tied in the next highest position. Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa saw the highest perceived return on investment. These traditionally high performers are followed by an interesting group of emerging countries that are catching investors' attention. Libya, Senegal, Mozambique and Rwanda are viewed increasingly positively in government attitude, investment return, and progress with economic development.
People donate things like used underwear, Soviet snow plows, or colored pencils but no paper to Africa. Read about these and more on a great new blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough. (HT: Texas in Africa). Here are five questions to ask before sending a donation:
- Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
- Do they actually need the donation?
- Are the goods available locally?
- Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
- Will donating this item do more harm than good?
Depressing news that has to do with extraction of resources:
A January 2009 study by the Social Welfare Department – responsible for children’s welfare and supervising orphanages – showed that up to 90 percent of the estimated 4,500 children in orphanages in Ghana are not orphans.
In Ghana a small orphanage might have a budget of up to US$70,000 a year, depending on its size, the bulk of the funds coming from international donors and NGOs, with small contributions from local corporations, according to research by Ghanaian non-profit Child Rights International (CRI).
Donors are attracted to orphanages because they appear to be a simple solution, said Joachim Theis, UNICEF head of child protection for West Africa. “You have a building, you house children in it, it is easy to count them. And they are easy to fundraise for. It is a model that has been used for a long time. But it is the wrong model.”
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Andrew Rice's new book (released today!!) The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget chronicles the trial of an unsolved murder case dating back to Idi Amin's regime. Rice spent several years in Uganda, working on this book and other projects. He agreed to do this Q and A for Context Africa to discuss what working on the book was like, whether or not Amin was a cannibal, and what the book means to people in Africa and elsewhere.
Context Africa is new series on this blog that highlights 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 previous Context Africa entries:
- Tim Hetherington on the culmination of ten years of taking pictures in Liberia
- Rob Crilly on how to write about a place as contentious as Darfur.
- Nicholai Lidow on post-conflict surfing
- Jina Moore's Q and A about forgiveness in Rwanda,
This book is as much about Laki as it is about Amin's legacy and modern Uganda. How did you meet Laki? Did you know you wanted to write on the topic before or after you engaged with the main character?
There's this hackneyed journalistic saying: "That's a topic, not a story." It's something editors tell you when you've come up with something that's interesting, but not grounded in the kind of specificity that's likely to make for an entertaining read. Well, I guess the answer to your question is that obviously, as an American living in Uganda, I was fascinated by the legacy of Idi Amin--who wouldn't be intrigued by dictator who was very caricature of a buffoonish African tyrant?--but it was the Eliphaz Laki murder case that gave me my story. As I mention in the book, I first came across the case when I read about it in a small article about the trial of Yusuf Gowon in The New Vision, the government-owned newspaper. I managed to convince a junior prosecutor to let me look at the case file, and that was how I discovered that the case was, in fact, solved by the murdered man's son, Duncan. It took some doing, but I finally tracked down Duncan's email address. (He had already moved to the US full-time at this point.) By luck, he happened to be making a visit home right around the time I got in touch, so we made an arrangement to meet for lunch. At the end of lunch he asked me if I wanted to come out and visit the family farm in the village of Ndeija, and the story just unraveled from there.
Amin is perhaps one of the most stereotpyed African dictators who has ever lived. How did his legacy both present a way into the story and a challenge to understand more contextually?
I originally went to Uganda on a two-year writing fellowship from a foundation called the Institute of Current World Affairs. I think that writing a book about the Amin era was the furthest thing from my mind--like a lot of journalists in the early '00s, I was fascinated by the new Uganda that had come into being under President Yoweri Museveni. Just a couple of years earlier, Bill Clinton had visited the country and had talked about an "African renaissance," and that process of renewal was what attracted me. But when I got to Uganda, almost despite myself, I found myself continually attracted to the subject of the past. I think it was precisely because it was so little commemorated--as I say in my book, there's not even a monument in Kampala to the victims of Amin. But I don't think the book, at least as I ended up writing it, is really a history of Idi Amin. It's really about Uganda's today, and how the past is ever-present, even if it doesn't announce itself so obviously at times.
But when it came to writing the book, I made a conscious decision not to focus too much on Idi Amin's personal history. That's sort of been done. He's more of an offstage malevolent force. The one thing I did consciously try to do is take on a bit of what I think of as the Amin legend. Like the stuff about him eating people.
So, he didn't eat people?
No, not as far as I could discover. Most of the stories--those few that purported to be firsthand--seem to have come from embittered exiles, many of them southern Ugandans who held ethnic prejudices against the peoples of the north. The stories were then repeated in the British newspapers, which seem to have considered them too good to check.
A lot of what I've read so far is very detail rich, narrative heavy reporting. What was it like to do that kind of work in Uganda?
Actually, it wasn't that hard to do reporting in Africa. For one thing, important people in Africa somehow manage to do without the services of public relations professionals, so if you want to talk to them, you just ask them directly, and more often than not they say yes. Then they decide whether or not they want to lie to you. It's really a much more efficient system--I wish important people in America would adopt it, since it saves a reporter a lot of time and frustration. The exception was securing my interview with Museveni--that took several weeks of pleading, letters and so on, and eventually ended up with me tagging along on an official trip to the presidential ranch and him spotting me across a cattle pasture and saying, "You, mzugnu (white person), what are you doing here?" And then I explained and we ended up having a very nice talk. Anyway, this is a very long way of saying, narrative journalism is hard to do anywhere, but it's a heck of a lot more fun to do in Africa. I spent a lot of time driving around dirt roads in some of the world's most beautiful places, and sitting in furniture-cluttered living rooms with old men and drinking tea and talking about 1960s politics. It was amazing.
The title of the book is intriguing. Publishers can be very picky about what they think a "sell-able" title is, so how did they react to this one? Or was it a joint decision between you and your editor?
We tried out a bunch of different titles--long ones, short ones, cryptic ones, obvious ones. I actually found settling on one to be the most difficult part of the book. I wish I could be Gay Talese and just whip something out of the Old Testament. Actually, I looked at the Book of Psalms at one particularly desperate point, but I quickly figured out that all the good allusions were taken. The final title is taken from an African proverb. There was little friendly back-and-forth with the editor over it, but eventually "Teeth" prevailed. It's a little long, but I think it's pretty evocative.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of both reporting and writing this book?
Well, it evolved over the course of several years. I went to Uganda in 2002, on the ICWA fellowship. I followed the trial of Laki's three accused murderers during my time there, and wrote a series of articles about the case that the foundation published--you can read them if you look me up by name here (free registration required)--but through it all, I was always following a lot of other stories, doing freelance work for the Economist and other publications, and so forth. When I got back, I found an agent, PJ Mark, and we managed to sell it to the wonderful people at Metropolitan, who really understood what the book was all about--particularly my editor, Riva Hocherman. I went back to Uganda in 2005 to do a couple of months of research, and spend a lot of time at the library at Northwestern and especially the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture--a fantastic resource for anyone writing about Africa. The writing and editing took place in bursts, in between various freelance assignments. In the end, it was almost seven years from start to finish. Hard for me to believe sometimes.
What do you think Africans will learn if they read this book? And people in the West?
I wouldn't presume to say what Ugandans will learn from the book. I think that most of what it says are things they already know. The one thing that I think it might do--that I sincerely hope it will do--is encourage Ugandans who lost someone to think that the past is retrievable. I know that Duncan Laki's story has already had that effect on many Ugandans. As for Americans, I hope they read this book and realize there is something more to Africa than elephants and tribal dancing and civil wars. As I said, the book is really about the Uganda of the present--a profoundly flawed country, but miraculously stable and politically vibrant and gloriously argumentative one. Maybe it takes the cartoonish figure of Idi Amin to get readers interested in learning about such a place, but I hope that by the end of the book they realize that there's something far more ambiguous and multifaceted--more interesting--going on now than simple brutality.
Andrew Rice has written about Africa for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and The Economist, among other publications. His article “The Book of Wilson,” published in The Paris Review, received a Pushcart Prize. Between 2002 and 2004, he lived in Uganda as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, an American nonprofit foundation. Prior to that, he worked for several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Observer. A native of Columbia, South Carolina and a graduate of Georgetown University, he currently lives in Brooklyn.
(Photo of Duncan Laki courtesy of Vanessa Vick)
Monday, May 25, 2009
Fabulous music videos sponsored by my currently functional interent connection that allows me to watch fabulous videos
HT Alexis Okeowo's blog Exodus.
This video made me smile, laugh, and dance. And wish I were in Brazil. And make all of my housemates stop everything they were doing and huddle around my Mac Book and watch.
HT Mo'dernity, Mo'Problems from his series Friday Afternoon Africana.
(I may or may not be related to this blogger, but think you should check out his blog regardless.)
I love the visuals here in a way that makes me want to do nothing but watch this over and over again, all day. This is a wish that is unrelated to possible procrastination habits.
HT Every location in Liberia that plays this song a minimum of three to five times an hour, often consecutively.
Any song that features a man calling his woman "my sweet potato" and "my sugar banana" is pretty awesome in my book. I prefer men who refer to their women as starchy foods rather than bitches and hos any day.
HT Africa is a Country, who very regularly features amazing music, artists, and other highlights of culture from South Africa and elsewhere.
Because this song is great listening, and if I wait any longer to wash my hair, it's going to look like this. As lovely as it is on her, it is not flattering on me. (It's amazing how even in a climate as hot as Liberia's, taking a cold shower every day still really really sucks.)
One of the things that's amazing about Liberia is how people speak of the "Golden Years" in the 1970s, when places like Harper, an urban center in southeast Liberia, had running water and municipal power. Now, anyone who wants or needs electricity and water has to fend for himself. This photo is of the main road in Harper so it's actually lined with streets and shops, all plunged into darkness by fourteen years of civil war that destroyed everything from basic infrastructure to the fabric of everyday life.
Friday, May 22, 2009
MONROVIA, Liberia — Wooden artifacts sit in piles, labeled with Post-it notes, in what someday will be the Liberia National Museum's gift shop. The only room in the museum with a lock, it houses everything not on display, including several snake skins more than 6 feet long and an old transistor radio missing its antenna.
The museum was not always this ramshackle — it was once home to almost 6,000 pieces for display and had a UNESCO-devised plan to make it one of the best museums in West Africa.
The museum, with its ups and downs, both tells and parallels the history of Liberia, whose story it is devoted to chronicling.
The museum, in the capital city of Monrovia, now gets just three or four visitors a week, as well as occasional visits by school groups. More than three-quarters of those 6,000 pieces were looted or destroyed during Liberia's 14 years of on-again-off-again civil war.
Liberia was once an economic powerhouse and relatively well-developed West African country. Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Liberia was never colonized by European powers the way almost every other African country was. In the 1960s, Liberia boasted several five-star hotels, a booming tourism industry and a growing rubber export market.
Twenty-five years ago, a UNESCO consultant wrote a report to the Liberian government commending the museum and recommending that “the whole building should have air-condition and hydro-temperature control” and windows with ultra-violet light protection.
But instability began in 1980 with the assassination of President William Tolbert. Tensions flared between the Americo-Liberians, the freed slaves who founded Liberia, and the indigenous Liberians who had been excluded from the country's power structures. When Samuel Doe took control in 1980 he ended the rule of the Americo-Liberian elite. Doe's rule became increasingly repressive and corrupt.
A full-fledged civil war engulfed Liberia in 1989 and lasted until 1996. One group of rebels was led by Charles Taylor, a warlord now on trial for crimes against humanity he allegedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. War broke out again in 1997 and lasted until 2003. Now Liberia is rebuilding, under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state.
The last war hit the museum — and Liberia — the hardest, according to the museum’s acting director, Albert Markeh. He said the bulk of the looting happened in 2003 after a grenade destroyed an entire wall of the building.
“They [the looters] sold stolen objects between the second and third war so they knew their value,” said Markeh. “I myself fled for my life.”
Today, the museum, with no electricity, is far from being a regional stalwart, and it’s hard to imagine a time when Liberia might have needed a UNESCO museum consultant. Today consultants abound in post-conflict Liberia, but they make recommendations about how to provide basic health care, infrastructure, and education — things not currently available to ordinary Liberians.
Relics of the war that made Markeh and so many others flee are also on display in the museum. In one display, a pair of combat boots sits carefully placed alongside bullet shells and other pieces of ammo. They belonged to Prince Johnson, a rebel leader who orchestrated the torture and execution of President Samuel Doe in 1990. Johnson can be seen in a videotape of the grisly torture, sipping a beer in the background. Johnson later opposed Charles Taylor, fighting him from outside the country. Johnson returned to Liberia in 2004 and is now a prominent member of Liberia's senate.
Even though the museum has some newer acquisitions — like Johnson's boots — it’s hard to replace all that was lost, said Lamie Taweh, a guide at the museum. He mentions that founding president J.J. Roberts brought over a silver plate and spoon from America, both of which were on display in the museum. During the war, looters stole the spoon.
Other artifacts of the ruling Americo’s regime remain. Former President William Tubman’s carved wooden “throne” from the Stone Mason society — an iteration of the American Masonic order — is still there. Thumbtacks pushed into the red velvet upholstery hold up a paper giving the dates of Tubman's presidency from 1944 to 1971.
A newspaper from May 19, 1944, near Tubman’s chair carries the headline, “Why do Indigenous enterprises fail so frequently?”
On his tour, Taweh says that the museum houses three types of artifacts: an ethnographic gallery on the first floor, a classical art gallery on the second floor and a contemporary art gallery on the third. He then clarifies that only the first floor is currently in use.
The museum director Markeh said the historical artifacts are some of the museum's most important items because they help tell the country's story.
“This is a place of reconciliation," he said. "If you are lost and don’t know about yourself, you have to ask. And we explain.”
Thursday, May 21, 2009
After a week in Harper, southeast Liberia, Monrovia has never looked so good. I had a great time and feel incredibly happy with some of the images I made, as well as thoughtful about storytelling more generally. After I interviewed Tim Hetherington for Context Africa, I thought a lot about what kind of photographer I want to be.
The answer? One who drinks cane juice with old men before noon.
(Check out @scarlettlion)
While I was gone, a photo essay of West African teddies was published on BBC, a story was published about Liberia's museum on the Global Post, and I got an amazing shout out from Newsweek. Stay tuned.
Posted by Scarlett Lion at 7:14 PM
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
This week's installment of Context Africa focuses on the work of documentary photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington. For nearly ten years, Tim lived and worked in Liberia covering the war and its aftermath. He made the film An Uncivil War, which he loves seeing pirated on the streets of Monrovia. Now, has a new book of photos out. His work is internationally acclaimed and an important addition to understanding what happened in Liberia. I got a sneak peak at his new photo book Long Story, Bit by Bit when we had coffee at the Mamba Point Hotel last week.
In his own words,
There are two Liberias, two worlds that are far apart but that sometimes intersect. One is the world of Liberians and reflects their individual struggle with history and circumstance. The other is the world of the international community, led by events and the preoccupations and agendas of organizations like the United Nations and international NGOs. The international media often portrays Liberia as a place of abstract violence and faceless individuals. As the only photographer to live with the rebels during the war, I was granted a unique perspective. My evolving work is an attempt to describe how the events of war intersect with personal lives. I want my images to evoke the contrast between inside and outside, the personal and the historical, and the individual and the event.Context Africa is new series on this blog that highlights 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 previous Context Africa entries: Jina Moore's Q and A about forgiveness in Rwanda, Nicholai Lidow on post-conflict surfing, and Rob Crilly on how to write about a place as contentious as Darfur.
Tim Hetherington work can also be seen here, on his homepage.
How did this book come to be?
I didn’t think about a book for quite a long time. I was making work in West Africa for general dissemination. I wasn’t thinking, “you make a project and then you make a book,” but it seemed obvious in 2006 that I’d make a book. Then, you spend a couple of years thinking, “What was the book about, what was the project about?” The book is the final project that crystallizes what I was doing. I only finally understood what I was doing when the book was completed and making it was an exercise in figuring that out.
How did you end up in Liberia?
By chance, like so many things in life. I was working in the UK and I found out about a Liberian football team that was coming to the UK. And I thought sports was an interesting way to connect Liberia to the UK. I approached the organizers of the tour and said I wanted to be on the coach when the kids come around. They saw my work and said they were looking for someone to come out and film. They asked if I wanted to go to Liberia. I said, “Sure, where is it?” I first came here in May, 1999.
I remember the first scene that grabbed me. I was walking down Tubman Boulevard and everyone stopped and stood still. They said, “Taylor is coming, Taylor is coming.” He had summoned all the ministers to come to meet him at the airport after a trip abroad. He had a massive convoy of 100 vehicles going full speed down a two-lane street, along with armed vehicles and guys with RPGs and wrap around sunglasses. It was a caricature of Africa. A woman was jumping up and down and saying “Taylor is our lord, Taylor is our lord!” It was the end of one part of the war, but the buildings were dilapidated and broken down. It blew my mind. How can this reality possibly exist in the same world that I exist in?
From there, the project turned out into an inquiry into power. It’s about how young men and women are used politically, and what happens to them and their lives.
My recent work follows similar themes. I did a project in Afghanistan, and it’s about young men and power - how young American men and violence and power come together and how they’re used politically.
How has Liberia changed since you first came here, ten years ago?
Now, Liberia is in a better place. There’s security here, some economic progress, some investment, some political stability, some improvement in some people’s lives, and a great deal of freedom of speech. There’s a desire by the political powers to resurrect justice and democracy. You can see that visually. It’s changing, but it’s too early to say what’s going to happen. You can’t make that call now. Things are still very fragile, the process is going to take ten or fifteen years.
One of the things that I love about this book is that it isn’t just straight war reporting. You include landscapes, portraits, even still life images. Can you tell me a bit about that decision?
I’ve never seen myself as a war photographer. This is about narrative. I’m very open to any visual conceits and any possibilities at my disposal to better explain to people the ideas I’m exploring. I like art photography, I like still life, I like war photography. I like to include everything to weave a tapestry to explain to someone, “What happened?”
A lot of the pictures are metaphorical, and the combination of pictures is metaphorical. This piece of work is almost like a novel. I use narrative book techniques, and I think they’re a more powerful approach than having a lot of war photography. The other thing is I’m working in square format, and that’s a signature of the Liberia work. Working with film slows down your process and makes it more contemplative. I can do square work and it's fast moving, but I can take a slower photo of an orange, and it becomes something.
(Note: Tim uses a medium format film Hasselblad for almost all of his work.)
What do you hope will come from this book?
For me what happened was that unlike the other people that covered the war, I actually lived with the [LURD] rebels during the war. That was a privileged experience. And I felt the importance of making that public record, and that’s what the book is and why it comes out. And that’s why Uncivil War is so popular here. It’s not just the government, but it’s what people here saw.
The book and photos will tour around galleries and colleges, and I want to create awareness of America’s involvement in Liberia up to a present date. People in America should understand that. Liberia is still like an antebellum plantation system and that needs to be understood.
In the book, I name people and show people who they were. A lot of warlords were using America as a base. The LURD came out of Guinea, but the MODEL came out of America. That’s something that needs to be spoken about. America can have a very destabilizing effect on Liberia.
No one in Liberia will pay $30 for this book. They don’t need to be reminded of what this book contains. They know it. In a few years, I want to make a low cost copy of this book that can be sold here. Something soft copy, printed in China, and then disseminate it here for $2 so people can show their children what happened. But not now. Liberia needs to focus on rebuilding, not what happened. But this generation’s children will need to see it and their children’s children will need to see it.
Buy the book on Amazon, which will be released on June 1, 2009, and see Umbrage Press for more information.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Friday, May 8, 2009
I'm very excited to be partnering with Awava. You can now buy blank greeting cards with images from my time in Uganda at the Awava Marketplace. Some of my favorite photos from Uganda are on sale in sets of five images each. And, just this weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) enter the code
A larger portion of the profit will go towards supporting several groups of people in Uganda who are very near and dear to me. More about that later, so for now, buy a card, an awesome basket or two, and read more about Awava's amazing work.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Merlin launched a new report on maternal mortality in countries in crisis on May 5. I did some of the photos - you can seem them on the Merlin site, download the report, see a seven photo slide show here, or see more outtakes on my portfolio site www.GlennaGordon.com.
Read more about Mama Zeena, an amazing woman and amazing midwife, on BBC, in the Guardian, and elsewhere.