This blog documents my summer experience in Liberia serving in the Ministry of Gender & Development. Please join me and six other Kennedy School of Government students as we venture into a post-conflict country and a government under reconstruction.

**Special thanks to the Council of Women World Leaders for their generous support and sponsorship.

Meet Team KSG Liberia 2007!

Left to right: Zach, Yesenia, Rupert, Yue Man, Molly, Emily, and Jesse

Liberia Landing: First Impressions

My journey begun the morning of May 31, 2007, as my mother, my grandmother, and I made our way to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. With my boarding pass in hand, malaria pills, and a makeshift survival kit tucked in my carry-on, I reached over to hug my loved ones good-bye for the summer. Almost 20 hours, three layovers, and several movies later, our pilot announced our descent into Roberts International Airport.

Stepping out of our SN 235 flight, I was enveloped by a thick blanket of hot air. Following a quick 360-degree scan, I was struck by the number of UN planes sprinkled across the strip. Judging by the number of fresh foreign aid workers on board, this should not have come as a surprise. I was setting foot into a country emerging from 14 years of destruction, bloodshed, and anguish.

Customs proved to be somewhat of an organized mess, and once the four of us made it to baggage claim, we were promptly greeted with a sign bearing our names: Molly, Zach, Yue Man and Yesenia. The welcoming gesture was reassuring. As we approached security, our escort informed the officer, “They are guests of the President,” and ushered us past the “UN/Diplomats” exit.

Former President Charles Taylor still commands visible support in Liberia.

A 45-minute ride past miles and miles of lush green space and UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) checkpoints, we arrived at the Dorothy Pryor Baptist Compound in Congo Town just outside the capital and eerily across from former President Charles Taylor’s residence. Taylor’s latest abode is The Hague where he awaits trail for crimes against humanity.

At the Compound, we met a strong, no-nonsense woman named Willa who manages the expatriate housing crunch in Monrovia. Stern-faced and unflinching, she toured us around the grounds, highlighting the quirks of our guarded quarters:
-The generator cuts out from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and from 3 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
-There are buckets of reserve water in your bathrooms in case of any water shortages.
-The kitchen stove doesn’t work, but I will get you kids a burner soon.

Dorothy Pryor Baptist Compound
Congotown, Liberia

Like many Liberians we have since met, Willa and her husband returned to their native soil at the end of the civil war: “I was a child when the war broke out, but I still remember Monrovia before the chaos. It is so ugly now. It’s been difficult to adjust, but we will see how it goes.”

2005 marked the advent of democratic governance in Liberia with the election of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The following year, electricity was restored to parts of the capital for the first time in 15 years; yet wholly dependent on generators, Monrovia’s power problem remains massive. There are no traffic lights, sewage system, or garbage collection.

Upcountry, paved roads are few and far in between with scant employment opportunities and patches of complete food insecurity. Estimates project that less than 32 percent of Liberia’s population has access to safe drinking water while half of the country’s children are not in school. A nation of approximately 3.1 million people* boasts 43 Liberian physicians and 21 nurses.

Bridge collapsed several months back, leaving only one entry point into Monrovia. Years of unkept infrastructure are posing a great challenge to the government.

Liberia is in a clear state of emergency with some of the lowest human development indicators in West Africa and the world. Yet, with renewed peace comes renewed hope and the people of Liberia –as much as the international community- have placed incredible faith in their president.
Within the first year of the Sirleaf administration, noticeable change has been achieved: enforced laws on tariff and tax collections have enabled greater spending on basic services such as health and education; a serious crackdown on corruption is strengthening good governance efforts; and the recent removal of a UN embargo on its diamond trade has opened the door for reconstruction revenue. On the ground, Internet –while unreliable and slow– is up, shops have opened, and the streets are no longer deserted by sunset.

The challenges are considerable. At 68, President Sirleaf has taken up a job few could fathom and even less would ever want. Hopefully, Liberia has fought its last war and can focus on attaining “the love of liberty” for which it was founded. For now, it will be interesting to see how Madam Sirleaf balances her constituents’ expectations with her long-term strategy for development in Liberia.

*Estimated population is based on last census conducted in 1984.

In their own words...

On Liberia’s reconstruction…

Yue Man (intern): Madam President, how do you remain energized given the enormous challenges and competing priorities?
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: The potential for transformational change is here. That keeps me motivated.

“It’s easy to fall sick, but it takes time to heal.”
-Comfort Boog-Paye, Ministry of Gender and Development

"I think my people forgot what they were fighting over and simply became accustomed to picking up their machetes and guns. It was every man for himself. People grew tired of the Charles Taylors of Liberia, hording the country's wealth for themselves. The oppressed decided it was their turn and so much blood was shed as a result.....reconstruction and development will take decades. What took 14 years to destroy cannot be fixed over night. I hope our country is patient enough to see such change come about." (paraphrased)
- Jonathan, a thirty-something Liberian taxi driver

On gender and war…
“During the war, the women were the ones risking their lives, braving bullets, machetes, rape to reach the markets and put food on the mothers and home-makers, we had no choice. Our husbands didn't have a problem with us leaving our homes then. Now that the war has ceased, they think we will go back to being confined at home? I have long worked to ensure that women have a voice in the matter: during the peace talks, in current policy debates, and will continue to do so for elections to come." (paraphrased)
-Etweda Cooper, Liberian Women's Initiative