12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

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5 intriguing things about Liberia

I’ve been meaning to write a post about certain things that struck me while I was in Liberia months ago. These “things” are all fairly nuanced and a certain amount of research is required to delve deeper into the whats and hows and whys in order to write intelligently about them. I started the research but never finished it, and at this point it doesn’t seem like I ever will. The problem is that I still want to write about the things that struck me.

So what I’m going to do is throw them all out there half-formed, like conversation starters as it were, and I’ll let you do further research yourself, should you be so inclined. I’ve even provided links for you! But I make no claims as to the veracity of the information within those links. So basically I’m not very helpful at all…

1. There is a dual currency system.

In Cuba there are two official forms of currency: one tied to the American dollar and used mostly by tourists (the CUC), and one subject to crazy inflation and used mostly by everyday Cubans (the CUP).

In Liberia, it goes one step further: the actual American dollar is one of the two forms of legal tender. For example, my ATM in Monrovia spit out my money in US dollars. I was able to use it throughout Monrovia, though it wasn’t widely accepted in the countryside. Also, the value of Liberian currency is tied to the value of the American dollar somehow. I find that fascinating, and yet meaningless because I never took an econ class in my life and have no idea of the implications.

More on this here.

2. Its origin as a colony for former American slaves is fascinating in itself, but the way in which that origin has impacted its history up until the present day, is also intriguing. (For example, ethnic tensions rooted in colonization at least partially influenced the Liberian Civil War that wracked the country for fourteen years from 1989 – 2003.)

I’m going to link to Wikipedia here and let you do further digging if you so choose.

3. It has an interesting (to use the most neutral term possible) relationship with several countries.

The United States: because of aforementioned history and close political ties.

China: because the Chinese are building roads and who knows what else across the country in exchange for… well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Lebanon, or rather the Lebanese: Because there is a huge Lebanese diaspora in Liberia (and throughout West Africa). In Senegal, the Lebanese, as former French subjects in a former French colony, did well for themselves. They are full-fledged Senegalese citizens who own a large proportion of the wealth and businesses here. But in Liberia, where citizenship requires you to be of black African origin (yet another fascinating subject), the Lebanese are barred from owning businesses, because there’s another law that says only citizens can do that. So the Lebanese apparently have shadow partnerships with Liberians, who officially own the businesses while the Lebanese manage them.

More on American-Liberian relations here.

More on the Chinese in Liberia here, and about Chinese investment in Africa here and here.

More on the Lebanese in West Africa here and here.

There’s also a fairly new book about the Lebanese in West Africa that I’d like to read.

4. Liberia has some exceptionally strong and politically powerful women, most notably the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the leader of a women’s group that was integral to ending the civil war, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.

And yet, levels of sexual and domestic violence in the country are off the charts, and laws to protect women and punish perpetrators are fairly new (and often weak), or nonexistent. For example, spousal rape was only criminalized in 2006.

I find this contrast really thought-provoking.

5. This is a small thing, but I found it fascinating that almost every shop in Liberia was called a “business center.” I guess my larger fascination is with the evolution of Liberian English and with its particularities and distinctions from American and British English. For example, I loved that they don’t use the word “pregnant” there – they say that the woman “got big belly.” And diarrhea is known as “runny stomach.” (These are the things you notice when you’re working on a video about public health.)

More on distinctive Liberian vocabulary / speech here.

at long last, Liberia pictures

Since I was there in a professional capacity, I spent most of my time in Liberia working, i.e. filming, or in a car on my way to film something. I didn’t take many photos, and everything runs together because we were constantly on the road. So, it’s hard to form a linear narrative. Instead I think I will just post a bunch of photos (many taken from inside the car – sorry!) and impressions and call it a day, aside from one other post with some additional random thoughts, if I get around to writing it before I leave for vacation tomorrow… Continue reading

what I was up to in Liberia

Before I post pictures from Liberia, I want to share the video that I made there, which was the reason for my trip:

If you lack the attention span for a 14-minute video on reproductive health, here’s a 4-minute version. And here’s an even shorter cut that AJ+ did using my footage. Documentaries / non-fiction videos are often trees falling in forests, but AJ+ has a really big audience and their piece has gotten over 300,000 views so far, which makes me very, very happy.

It was such a privilege to see Liberia in the way that I did through this project. While I love dropping into a place as a tourist and observing on a surface level, it’s a different and deeper kind of enrichment to spend time in a country where your primary purpose is to document some facet of humanity. Criss-crossing the country from Monrovia to the most remote villages, I got up close and personal with people – mostly women – whose lives and experiences have been about as different from my own as you can get. Strangers afforded me access to their private lives, thoughts, and feelings, and they entrusted me to portray them sensitively to the public. It always amazes me when that happens, considering how guarded I personally am in front of a camera.

I would never claim to “know” Liberia or Liberians after only two weeks… but I will say that what I experienced there has made a huge impact on how I “know” and see and feel about myself and the world. I think that is the greatest gift that travel – and this line of work – can give you.