Author Archives: Ethan Baron

Bushmeat Trade Thrives on Endangered Species, but Creates Livelihoods

Bushmeat smoked and fresh for sale along the Liberian roadside -

Bushmeat smoked and fresh for sale along the Liberian roadside –

Liberia is not known for its wildlife. While in other African countries, monkeys and other mammals small and large are frequently observed, such sightings are relatively rare here – except in markets and roadside stands selling bushmeat.

Bushmeat is consumed on a vast scale in Liberia. In rural areas it often serves as a protein source for villagers, but once it’s transported for sale at roadsides and in city markets, the price rises and it becomes something of a delicacy. Residents of the capital Monrovia who travel to the countryside often bring back portions of antelope, monkey or crocodile, fresh or smoked, along with live pangolins, which resemble armoured anteaters.

A whole fresh monkey usually sells for just under CDN$10, while a haunch of duiker, a small forest antelope, goes for between $4 and $15, depending on size. Pangolins fall into the $15-20 range, and are stuffed live into a sack, to be killed just before cooking.

And endangered pangolin is readied for sale to a man travelling from rural Liberia to the capital Monrovia -

And endangered pangolin is readied for sale to a man travelling from rural Liberia to the capital Monrovia –

“A review of the Monrovia markets indicates that most of the bushmeat sold on the Monrovia markets are the carcasses of Liberia wildlife endangered species,” said a 2004 Conservation International (CI) report.

The West African bushmeat trade is causing “widespread local extinctions” of wild animal species, according to a recent bulletin by the U.S.-based Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), which noted that expansion of commercial logging, with “an infrastructure of roads and trucks that links forests and hunters to cities and consumers,” is deepening the problem.

A freshly killed monkey lies in the dirt at a roadside bushmeat stand -

A freshly killed monkey lies in the dirt at a roadside bushmeat stand –

“The bushmeat crisis in West and Central Africa will continue as long as there are individuals who rely on wildlife for protein or income,” said a 2009 BCTF report. No amount of enforcement or awareness will curb this trade in the absence of realistic alternatives.”

Efforts to stem Liberia’s bushmeat trade run up against a data gap: the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), responsible for monitoring and enforcing Liberia’s endangered-species regulations, does not provide necessary information on species populations, the CI report said.

A driver stops to ask about the price of fresh forest antelope haunches -

A driver stops to ask about the price of fresh forest antelope haunches –

“It becomes difficult at this point to raise an argument with a hunter regarding the hunting of endangered wildlife species because FDA, since prewar time, is yet to conduct a population survey for determining new endangered species and re-qualifying the status of old ones,” said the report, which estimated the value of the bushmeat trade serving Monrovia alone at US$8 million for 10 months of 2003-04.

Among the endangered species found as bushmeat in Monrovia markets were five types of duiker, bushbuck, red river hog, red colobus and black colobus monkeys, pangolins and forest elephant, the last of which was found only once during the 10-month survey period.

People in about 80 per cent of households and small restaurants or “chop shops” surveyed in Monrovia told researchers they served bushmeat. A 2002 survey by the Philadelphia Zoo found that bushmeat ranked second behind fish among Monrovians as a preferred protein source. Of households where bushmeat was served, 80 per cent of residents said they cooked it “once in a while,” while 13 per cent cooked it once a week and seven per cent cooked it daily. Those who didn’t cook bushmeat cited cost and religion – Muslims of the Mandingo tribe said they don’t eat bushmeat – as reasons for avoiding it.

The IC survey was undertaken while Liberia’s civil war was ongoing; researchers concluded that war-related difficulties in access to rural areas and transport of goods limited the bushmeat trade, and hypothesized that in the absence of war, the amount of animals killed for bushmeat could rise tenfold.

A smoked monkey awaits a buyer in the bushmeat section of a market in Zwedru, southern Liberia -

A smoked monkey awaits a buyer in the bushmeat section of a market in Zwedru, southern Liberia –

Because the survey showed far more bushmeat was being transported to Monrovia than consumed there, researchers believed there was a significant export trade. Government officials told researchers there was no export of bushmeat during the 10-month study period. A couple of courier companies admitted to transporting small, non-commercial amounts of bushmeat overseas. The report concluded that the survey’s scope was insufficient to determine the level of bushmeat exports from Liberia.

While the report described Liberia’s bushmeat trade as a “crisis” for endangered wildlife, it noted economic benefits.

“The revenue accrued from the trade is substantial and provides a livelihood for many persons, particularly women. Based on consumption estimates, the huge revenue was generated, not only by [the] Monrovia populace, but also, by transit traders,” the report said.

Those benefits are evident in rural areas. In most villages and towns, several hunters support their families by shooting and trapping wildlife. These men, usually carrying old, single-shell shotguns and machetes in distinctive wooden scabbards, are often seen coming out of the jungle with sacks of dead animals. The carcasses are sold to traders for sale in Monrovia and other cities, and to women who set up bushmeat stands along roadsides to cater to travellers. Sometimes hunters will simply hang butchered animals from bamboo racks along the road, selling directly to those driving by. Hunters also trap animals, and in the case of pangolins, which resemble armoured anteaters, refrain from killing them, as purchasers buy them alive and slit their throats and skin them just before cooking.

The head of a duiker sits on a table in the bushmeat section in a market in Zwedru, southern Liberia -

The head of a duiker sits on a table in the bushmeat section in a market in Zwedru, southern Liberia –

The BCTF proposed in its 2009 report that solutions to the bushmeat problem lie in creating economic alternatives within communities where bushmeat plays a strong role in sustaining livelihoods. The report suggested approaches including community-based management of natural resources to promote tourism; payments to communities for preserving wildlife habitat and ceasing hunting of wild animals; setting up livelihood projects as alternatives to hunting and trading wild animals; promoting production of vegetable protein sources such as beans and nuts; and farming animal species traditionally used for bushmeat – although only cane rats and giant African snails had proven to be viable for farming.


Bereft and Forsaken: The Old Folks Home in Buchanan

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia stands at the entrance to his room. -

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia stands at the entrance to his room. –

Family ties bind strongly in Liberia, and when people grow old they often live with sons, daughters or other relatives who look after them and see to their basic needs. For those without families to support them, however, there are places like the Old Folks Home in Buchanan.

Here, the old and blind live bereft and forsaken. In a warehouse-sized concrete building and an adjacent six-room thatch-walled shack, 35 elderly people reside, most of them blind. Their bones stick out. Their skin is slack. There is not enough to eat. Three or four residents die each year of hunger, a volunteer caretaker tells us.

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia walks beside the primary residence building. -

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia walks beside the primary residence building. –

On Saturdays, a few of the volunteers from the community escort the residents into town, so they can beg along the roadsides. The little they bring in buys meager food supplies for the week. In 2011, Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs Amara Konneh visited the Old Folks Home in Buchanan.

“Minister Konneh lamented the plight of the folks, adding that his conscience will not serve him right if they are not taken care of,” says a press release issued by his ministry following the visit. Konneh promised to “do something about their condition,” the release says, quoting him saying, “The love and care that we received from our parents is irreplaceable. Giving them love and care is an honest responsibility that we should share with them till their last day on earth.”

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia sits in her room. -

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia sits in her room. –

In the facility’s concrete building, the old folks sleep two to a room on cheap foam mattresses. They keep their belongings tidy, but their seldom-washed bedding and few articles of spare clothing exude a rank odour. In the thatch annex, tattered and dirty mosquito nets hang over mattresses piled with scanty belongings. A blind man there tells us that “bad men” sometimes come through and steal whatever appears of any value, particularly mattresses.

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia sits in her room. -

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia sits in her room. –

Residents say the government doesn’t help them. They welcome us, members of the media, with the desperate hope that we will publicize their plight and get them some help.

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia walks on the facility grounds. -

A blind resident of the Old Folks Home in Buchanan, Liberia walks on the facility grounds. –

County Health Officer Joseph Kerkula, the national government’s local health-services manager, tells us that his department provides regular nursing care to residents of the Old Folks Home. He admits the state of the residents is unfortunate, but suggests they are exaggerating their plight “to get more help.” He says County health programming is progressing rapidly, and vows that the facility will be much improved in five years. Kerkula says the primary caretaker at the Old Folks Home receives government funding to provide food and other essentials to residents. The caretaker is not available in person or by phone. But it appears clear from the reports we hear from volunteer staff, and from the condition of the residents, that whether or not money is being spent to feed them, these old folks are receiving the bare minimum of food required to survive. And sometimes less.

Schools and Clinics Fail to Meet Needs in Remote Liberian County

Villagers cross a river by rope-drawn raft to reach a hamlet in the jungle. -

Villagers cross a river by rope-drawn raft to reach a hamlet in the jungle. –


In Liberia’s hinterland, a constellation of issues makes effective delivery of health care and education difficult and in some cases impossible. Fourteen hours’ drive from the capital Monrovia along horrendous roads lies Barclayville, capital of Grand Kru County. Outside this quiet, hilly town, which boasts a weekly market full of colourfully dressed women selling fruit, vegetables, rice, clothing and household goods, lazy rivers wind through dense jungle. In Grand Cess Town on the coast a half-hour drive away, fishermen in dugout canoes ply waters rich with fish, while boys scale tall palms to bring down coconuts to sell for a few cents apiece.

A child with malaria sits with his mother in a hospital slated to be turned over to government administration. -

A child with malaria sits with his mother in a hospital slated to be turned over to government administration. –

Leave the towns, however, and the social problems plaguing this beautiful region quickly become apparent. Schools, when not shuttered because staff have not shown up, are crude. Government-run health clinics are bereft of most medicines, and in most cases, qualified staff.

Gas in Barclayville costs 560 Liberian dollars, equivalent to $8Cdn. -

Gas in Barclayville costs 560 Liberian dollars per gallon, equivalent to $8Cdn. –

The area’s remoteness (and high cost of living: gasoline is $8 a gallon) makes it hard to recruit and retain health and education professionals, leaving facilities without enough workers to serve the population. When we stop in at a government health clinic, a midwifery student is suturing the chin of a man who had a motorbike accident. In another clinic, the director tells us that they are confronted daily with severe injuries from such crashes, along with grievous wounds resulting from drunken brawls among local mine workers.

Young men and boys work in an open-pit gold mine in Grand Kru County. -

Young men and boys work in an open-pit gold mine in Grand Kru County. –

Grand Kru is cursed with gold. Boys turn their backs on education to toil in open-pit mines, where they pay fees to owners and run up debt in hopes they’ll strike it rich. Local community leaders traditionally rely on boys and young men to volunteer on projects such as clearing paths for commerce and travel, and maintaining clinics and schools; with this casual-labour force otherwise occupied in mining, already ragged infrastructure continues to deteriorate. Miners’ diversion of water and diggings wash out and undermine stretches of road, hampering transportation and economic development.

The kindergarten area in a school that cost $40,000 to build. -

The kindergarten area in a school that cost $40,000 to build. –

Corruption adds to the difficulties. Because there is little or no oversight, a significant number of employees who do take jobs in the villages spend a considerable time AWOL, getting paid without doing their work. Contractors receive payment for work on schools and clinics and fail to do their jobs. Money flows to local officials and disappears. We visited one school which cost almost $40,000 in government funds to construct. Made of mud blocks, the building has only chunks of construction debris and rude bamboo benches for students to sit on. Chalkboards are rusting sheets of bent metal.

A midwifery student sews up the chin of an accident victim. -

A midwifery student sews up the chin of an accident victim. –

Now, the government is moving in Grand Kru to take over seven clinics and a hospital that are supported by the British health-services NGO Merlin. This change must occur sometime: “donor fatigue” has set in regarding Liberia, after 10 years of peace, and the country must be able to stand on its own eventually without international assistance. Funding for the health facilities would still come from international donors, but would be administered by county-level national government officials, ostensibly a step toward independence from foreign aid. But given the current situation, in which government-run health and education facilities are clearly unable to fulfill their obligations to the people, the government’s decision to take over all health care delivery seems drastically premature, and once the results begin to manifest, donors such as the European Union will see little value in continuing support for a dysfunctional system.



Garbage Fires in ‘Burning Time’ Add to Choking Smog


Household trash from surrounding homes burns in a Monrovia neighbourhood. –

Monrovia is now midway through the time of burning, a period approximately two months long, starting in January, in which garbage, grass and brush are burned throughout the city. All over Liberia’s capital fires burn, along roadways, outside houses and apartments, in piles of trash from small to massive – unregulated landfills – that have accumulated since the last burning time.

A boy walks past a burning trash pile in Monrovia.  -

A boy walks past a burning trash pile in Monrovia. –

Combined with the relatively still air of the dry season, the result of the burning is terrible smog, afflicting mostly the poorer areas of the city away from the breezes of the Atlantic coast.

A 2006 study by Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 100 kilograms of solid waste per Monrovia resident were burned annually, two-thirds in homes and one-third in the haphazard landfills. If that estimate holds for today, with Monrovia’s population at around 1.5 million, that’s 150 million kilograms – 150,000 metric tons – of solid waste burned every year, and clearly a great deal of it happens during the burning period.

Smoke from a burning garbage heap clouds a residential area of Monrovia. -

Smoke from a burning garbage heap clouds a residential area of Monrovia. –

Media reports have included comments of concern from health officials who have linked air quality to lung disease and cancers, but there appears to be no political will to change the traditional practice of burning trash outdoors. Even during the High Level Panel that brought international dignitaries including British PM David Cameron to Monrovia recently, there was no letup in the burning, in contrast to the road improvements and street-vending ban that preceded the event.

About two thirds of air pollution from what the Liberian EPA called “uncontrolled combustion” originated with burning of domestic and landfill waste, with the other third caused by accidental fires and burning of agricultural waste. Significant emissions of cancer-causing dioxins and furans came the burning of “domestic/municipal waste,” the 2006 report said.

A young man jogs toward smoke billowing off a burning garbage pile in Monrovia. -

A young man jogs toward a smoke cloud from a burning garbage pile in Monrovia. –

Monrovia already suffers year-’round from smog created by a fast-growing number of cars, vans and trucks with no emissions controls. Later this month, people say here, the burning time will be done, and Monrovians can get back to the usual smog, minus the extra dose of toxins and particulates coming off flaming and smoldering trash.

Motorbike-taxi Curfew Said to Violate Constitutional Right

A passenger prepares to get on a motorbike taxi in Liberia. The vehicles commonly carry up to four passengers, including babies. -

Because the vast majority of Liberians can’t afford personal vehicles, and public transportation is virtually non-existent, people get around primarily in “share-taxis” – small cars that travel fairly specific routes – and on motorbike taxis.

In November, the national police announced a measure that has struck at the livelihoods of motorbike taxi drivers, and drastically affected the public’s ability to get around at night.

A moto-taxi driver cruises for fares. -

In response to a reported increase in crime, especially armed robbery, the police imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on motorcycles. Because of conflicting reports, it remains unclear if the ban applies to private operators or just to motorbike-taxi operators. Judging from my experience at 10:15 p.m. at a police roadblock, when I was under the impression the curfew didn’t apply to people coming home from work on their own motorcycles, it’s a matter of interpretation by individual police. The only thing that saved me from arrest and confiscation of my bike were the angry expostulations toward police by a moto-taxi driver also caught at the roadblock past the curfew limit – I think the head policeman at the roadblock only let me go to spite the angry guy.

A passenger signals to a motorbike taxi driver that he wants a ride. -

Now, the union representing many motorbike taxi drivers is citing the Liberian Constitution in its call for members to disobey the curfew. National police chief Chris Massaquoi responded to the civil-disobedience call with a warning that anyone breaking the ban would be subject to arrest, prosecution and impoundment of their bike. The Constitution appears to provide some leeway in terms of limiting Article 13’s right for Liberians, and anyone legally in the country, to move freely. That right, Article 13 suggests, can be restricted in order to safeguard “public security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.”

A moto-taxi driver fuels up at a roadside gas station where fuel is sold in glass jars. -

Massaquoi has said crime, especially armed robbery, has dropped since imposition of the curfew, but has provided no statistics to support that assertion.

Raped girl dies after years of suffering

Olivia Zinneh, left, is shown in hospital in a rare moment of happiness with her friend Clara, who would also die of rape-related injuries

While the world’s attention and outrage was focused on India, where a student had been gang-raped in December and would eventually die, a Liberian girl was laid to rest after years of suffering from a rape when she was seven years old. Liberia’s Gender Ministry did what they could to make an issue of Olivia Zinnah’s death, paying for her funeral and sending staff there to speak to the media. But aside from a newspaper story and a few radio reports, there was little attention paid to the 14-year-old’s death, even though she was the fourth girl in Liberia to die in 2012 from rape-related injuries.

For the crime against Olivia, the rapist escaped justice, a common outcome in Liberia. Often, say Gender Ministry officials, victims’ families accept payment from the assailant or his family. Deputy gender minister Annette Kiawu said it doesn’t appear such a payment was made to Olivia’s family, but the suspected rapist, a relative of the girl, was not reported to the police. Olivia, suffering from severe internal injuries, then a systemic infection, received only traditional healing, which can include herbs and spells, for three years.

It was only when an uncle visited and saw her looking terrible – “almost decomposed from the infection,” he said – that any action was taken. The man, Lawrence Samuel, asked what happened to Olivia, and was told by women in the family she’d been raped three years earlier. Samuel took Olivia to hospital and reported the crime to police and the gender ministry. The suspect was arrested but released without going to court, under circumstances which ministry officials are still attempting to sort out.

Olivia received multiple surgeries, including two colostomies. “We did everything we could to save her,” said Gender Minister Julia Duncan Cassell.

Liberian Gender Minister Julia Duncan Cassell -

Kiawu took an active role in Olivia’s case. “For her it was difficult,” Kiawu said. “She always had an urge to want to play like the other children. You would see her once in a while laughing, or trying to jump around. She used to smile every now and then.”

But seven years after the rape, Olivia developed another infection. She died a week before Christmas.

Child rape is epidemic in Liberia. Doctors Without Borders (DWB) in 2011 reported that 92 per cent of females treated for rape in its facilities here were under 18. A DWB study published in November said that of about 1,500 females treated in Monrovia clinics in 2008 and 2009 after rape, four out of 10 were younger than 12 and one in 10 were younger than 5. “Half the survivors were children aged 13 years or younger and included infants and toddlers,” the report said.

Although some believe the sexual violence here is connected to widespread rape during Liberia’s years of civil war that ended a decade ago, Cassell says the causes are more complex. Poverty leads victims’ families to accept payoffs instead of reporting rapes, leading to impunity for rapists. The ostracizing of people who report rape (Olivia and her mother were shunned by their family after Samuel reported the crime, Cassell says) also deters reporting and fosters impunity. Poor education limits the ability of men and male youths to understand the harm caused by rape, Cassell says. High teen-pregnancy rates mean many mothers lack knowledge and awareness to protect daughters from predators.

For a few days after Olivia’s funeral, as protesters clashed violently with police in India over the woman’s gang-rape there, I kept hoping for a wider reaction here. But there were no angry commentaries in the media. There were no protest marches. There were no candlelight vigils. Nothing happened. The suffering child who used to smile now and then is just another dead girl in the ground.


Building economic development one wave at a time

One of Liberia's first surf tourists catches a wave in Robertsport -

In much of the developing world, particularly in countries with a beautiful coastline, tourists flock from all over the world to experience new cultures, environments and activities. Not so for Liberia.

Nearly 15 years of civil war have given the country an international reputation for gruesome violence and child soldiers running amok. Thought that reputation is now out of date, the legacy of horror remains as a deterrent to foreign visitors. Although there are hordes of expatriates working for development organizations, there is no industry to serve tourists, and no tourists to support the growth of such industry.

Up in Robertsport, a picturesque fishing town three hours drive from Monrovia, two California men aim to put Liberia on the tourism map. Likely, they will succeed, as they have an attraction to offer that can be found, nowadays, virtually nowhere else on earth: world-class surfing with no crowds.

Sean Brody, left, and Daniel Hopkins are hoping to build tourism in Liberia, with benefits to the community -

Sean Brody, 28, brother of American actor Adrian Brody of “The O.C.” fame, and Daniel Hopkins, also 28, opened Kwepunha Retreat on a wide strip of beach last fall. So far, they’ve been hosting mostly ex-pats from Monrovia, but now the first destination surfers are starting to trickle in, lured by waves up to four metres tall that form the swirling tubes worshipped by devotees of the sport.

The guesthouse is providing direct employment to cooks, cleaners, and souvenir makers whose carvings and craft goods Brody and Hopkins sell to their guests. Money for food supplies, such as freshly made banana bread for breakfast and fish and pineapples for meals is flowing into the community. And the two men are putting 15 per cent of their profits into a community-health plan created by a New Zealand medical consultant last year.

Fresh fish lie in a container on top of the head of a woman who has brought them by to sell to Kwepunha Retreat -

The incredible natural beauty of Robertsport is a draw in itself. Palm-lined beaches, white sand, jungle-covered mountains and warm water perfect for swimming appeal across the board, whether a visitor surfs or not.

Quite likely, as surfers come, and rumour spreads about an untouched paradise on the Liberian coast, backpackers will start to arrive, more guesthouses will spring up – the typical first stage of tourism development. As these first visitors bring stories back home, other travellers will come, and tourist facilities will grow in response.

Kwepunha Retreat, two stories and yellow, sits beside the beach in Robertsport -

Robertsport, where jobs are few and the fallout from the war still troubles much of the population, stands to reap considerable benefits from the growth of tourism. But such industry carries risk: UN human rights officer Daniel Achireko, stationed in Robertsport, believes property values will go up tenfold in the town over the next decade, and he envisions huge hotels along the beach. Such an outcome would bring jobs, but displace Liberians and raise the cost of living significantly.

Fighting for Equality in the Newsroom: Editor Wade Williams

FrontPage Africa newsroom editor Wade Williams -

FrontPage Africa’s newsroom editor learned at a conference in Zambia that the gender barriers she’s experienced in Liberia’s media are shared by female journalists in southern Africa.

Wade (pronounced “Wah-dee”) Williams, 30, is the only female news editor in Liberia’s print media. Until finding employment three years ago at FrontPage in the capital Monrovia working for progressive-minded editor-in-chief Rodney Sieh, she struggled to get the jobs and assignments she was qualified for. “I rose through the rank and file, being a cub reporter, ascending as I went on,” says Williams, who also writes investigative pieces based on hard-news reporting and work in the field. Along the way, she experienced the discrimination rampant in the Liberian news business. Women are rarely given important beats and assignments, and male editors and reporters attack their worth as journalists, Williams says.

“They tell them, ‘You are lazy.’ Instead of encouraging them to learn, they bring them down. They overlook their talent.”

Consequently, many female journalists quit the field, sometimes going into sales at the media outlets where they had worked as reporters, Williams says.

“They get discouraged about their dream of being a journalist, because they are told they can’t make it,” she says. “Being in the newsroom is tough for women. You don’t get anything on a silver platter like the men do. You have to fight three times as hard.”

Even at FrontPage, Williams faced problems from male colleagues initially, she says. “There were a lot of things they did to undermine my work. I kept pushing for what I wanted. I knew I could cover stories that the men could cover. I knew I can write any piece a man can write. I can do any investigative pieces that any male reporter can do.”

FrontPage Africa newsroom editor Wade Williams -

In early December, Williams was invited to Lusaka, Zambia to speak at a World Association of Newspapers conference about her experience as a female newspaper editor. There, she met southern African women in the business who had faced the same difficulties she’d experienced. One female reporter’s story was quite familiar to Williams: “When she started as a journalist they gave her assignments like press conferences, donations. She wasn’t really given serious stories to do. She wanted to do more than just the donations; she wanted to do serious stories instead of just reporting on press conferences.”

As Williams had done, that woman kept pushing for meaningful assignments, and was rewarded for her persistence and talent with the stories she’d wanted, Williams says. In Williams’ conference speech, she highlighted the need for women to aggressively pursue their goals in spite of male opposition. “I told them about how I’d been persistent in seeking what I want as a journalist,” Williams says. “I told them you should always be focused on what you want. You shouldn’t let people tell you that, ‘This is what you are good for.'”

Liberia’s Roadside Signs Promote Cultural Change

A billboard in the town of Ganta urges citizens to put more women into positions of power. In President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country has the first female head of state in Africa. However, her gender minister Julia Duncan-Cassell last month made the unfortunate assertion that most rapes are reported, when it is widely agreed among experts on gender-based violence that a high majority of rape cases go unreported.

Most of the Liberian population cannot easily afford the 55 cent (Canadian equivalent) cost of newspapers, and have little or no access to electricity to power radios, or money to pay for batteries. Much of the public outreach by organizations promoting positive social and health practices takes the form of signs and billboards by the roads. Along the paved streets of the capital Monrovia, along potholed dirt roads in the interior, even along crude forest tracks, these signs urge Liberians to take care of each other, and themselves. Because an estimated 40 per cent of the population is illiterate, many signs contain images – often graphic – meant to be understood by people who can’t read.

Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a major and persistent concern in Liberia. “GBV reached

astounding levels during the war and continues today. While there have been no formal surveys, researchers hold that 40 per cent of all Liberian women are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery and physical assault,” says a report from the American Refugee Committee.

In spite of a 2009 government order to halt it, the practice of trial by ordeal, known as “sassywood” after a lethal concoction made from a tree of that name, continues in in rural areas where access to formal justice is limited. People accused of crimes or believed involved in witchcraft are made to drink sassywood, and are deemed guilty if they die. The government banned the practice after two publicized deaths in 2009 that were followed by the discovery of five butchered corpses believed to have been the result of ritual killings.

Reports from 2009 estimated 1.2 per cent of the Liberian population was infected with HIV.

Years of civil war that ended in 2003 flooded Liberia with guns. A firearms amnesty collection program from 2003 to 2006 is believed to have taken nearly 30,000 guns out of circulation, according to the 2009 Small Arms Survey, an annual study of firearm numbers throughout the world. The 2007 Small Arms Survey found rates of civilian gun ownership to be 1.6 per 100 citizens. In November 2012 the Liberia National Police confirmed a rise in armed robbery throughout the country, but did not provide statistics. The national police responded to the reported increase by banning the operation of motorcycle taxis after 10 p.m. throughout the country, saying motorbikes were involved in many of the robberies and subsequent shoot-outs with police. Taxi drivers have decried the limitation on their right to a livelihood.

The U.S. government Global Health Initiative reported that childhood malaria prevalence in Liberia dropped to 32 per cent in 2009 from 66 per cent in 2005, but said the disease remained the leading cause of death in the country.


jhr partner stands up for freedom of information in Liberia

Lamii Kpargoi, program director at jhr partner the Liberia Media Center, makes a point concerning freedom of information. -

Liberian Information Minister Louis Brown deserves credit for showing up at a vipers’ nest of critics from the Monrovia media. Lamii Kpargoi, program director of jhr partner the Liberia Media Centre, joined other Liberians concerned with a free press in delivering a rhetorical drubbing upon the minister over an order by his president that appears to contradict the nation’s Freedom of Information law (FOI) and other legal obligations.

Liberia's Information Minister Lewis Brown contends that his president's order complements the Freedom of Information law, rather than restricting it -

“Executive Order Number 38 runs totally contrary to the government’s stated pledge to abide by the right to information as spelled out in the Constitution of Liberia and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” panelist Kpargoi told journalists, students and interested parties during a freedom-of-information forum at Liberia University in Monrovia on Nov. 15.

Most of the criticism directed at Brown focused on the fact that the FOI law already existed, and Order 38, spun by the minister during his speech as a complement to the FOI act, in fact placed heavy new limits on the public’s right to information.

“The presidency is attempting to render the FOI law irrelevant through an irregular process,” Kpargoi argued. “The entire Part VI of the order . . . requires public servants to take on a mantle of total secrecy, something that is totally contrary to the stated principles in the FOI law.”

Lamii Kpargoi, program director at jhr partner the Liberia Media Center, argues for free flow of public information -

And it was President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s decree that high government officials’ declarations of their assets should remain confidential, in spite of the FOI law, that generated the most impassioned debate.

“The public does not have the right to know my personal information except with a court order,” Minister Brown thundered.

Liberian Information Minister Louis Brown contended the public has no right to know about high officials' assets. -

Responded Philip Wesseh, managing editor of The Inquirer, a local newspaper, “The feeling is that people go into government to steal. To prevent massive corruption, let us know what you have. It’s all towards accountability, transparency and against corruption.”