Category Archives: Liberia

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.


The trauma of war

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.


An October 2011 file photo of Monrovia locals, casualties of the long civil war, awaiting the results of the presidential election in Liberia. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

As my time here in Liberia comes to a close, some of my most profound experiences have been chance encounters with strangers who tell of the unhealed wounds in this post-conflict society.

That’s what happened during my ride across Monrovia with Sam Brown.

Though I have been working with the Liberian Broadcasting Service (LBS) since last week, Sam and I had not crossed paths. He’s an Operations Officer–a behind-the-scenes logistics guy.

Sam gave me a ride back from LBS to my apartment on the other side of town when my regular driver “forgot” to pick me up.

(And no, that’s not the first time that happened to me).

I’d like to thank that driver for being a no-show. Sam taught me something about Liberia I would not have otherwise learned in my short time here.

Amid choking city traffic I struck up a conversation, asking him how long he had worked at LBS.

“Two years,” he said, holding up two fingers.

“And what did you do before?” I asked.

Sam told me he worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Created in 2005, it was tasked with investigating the horrific human rights violations during more than 20 years of civil war.

Like his current role, he was the logistics guy. He coordinated trips for investigators to Liberia’s rural areas – where the TRC found the most ruthless crimes against humanity were inflicted on villagers by rebel groups.

Sam got deeply involved – travelling to the communities to sit in on hearings where the most unimaginable terror was recounted.

Over the course of several years, Sam told me the commission heard from some 17,000 victims, witnesses and others. It named notorious warlords who should be brought to justice.

Though the TRC report was released in 2009, it gathers dust on political shelves. It is controversial, as it includes Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, among some 50 politicians recommended to be barred from public office for their support of perpetrators of the brutal conflicts from the 1980s until 2003.

When the TRC’s recommendation about politicians was challenged at the Supreme Court in 2011, it was declared unconstitutional due to lack of due process.

As we drove across town, Sam recounted some of the horrific things he heard during those hearings. He watched victims sob on the stand. It made him sick. He says he carries psychological scars from that period.

When I sat down for dinner later, I couldn’t get the images out of my own head.

Sam believes the lack of justice since the war ended is the cause of a lot of anxiety and anger among Liberians. He says this country is on the cusp of another crisis if faith in the system is not restored.

You see examples in the street of how people don’t trust the authorities to deliver justice. A friend of mine encountered an intruder last week, and after chasing him out of the apartment with her roommate, he was confronted by a mob outside the compound. Angry members of the community were ready to beat him up for trying to steal.

He escaped unscathed.

People have so little confidence in a corrupt police force, they would rather take matters into their own hands.

It really illustrates that this country is still on edge.

The child soldiers and warlords may be gone from the streets. Fear has subsided. Everyday life carries on.

But deep down inside, most everyone I meet still carries the trauma of war.

The fixer

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Liberian State TV. Shirlee Engel, Global News

Liberian State TV. Shirlee Engel, Global News

After 23 years off the air, Liberian state TV is finally getting rolling on a daily news program.

In a country where most citizens don’t have access to power or running water – let alone a television set – LNTV is an ambitious endeavour. But more so because its staff of about 20 has virtually no television news training at all. They were plucked from the radio news division.

That’s where I come in.

When Real TV in Monrovia caught fire on the first day of my placement with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), I was left with no journalists to train.

Then I was introduced to the ambitious and hard-working Nathan Charles. With little TV training himself, he has been tasked with managing the brand new 30-minute show and two news updates a day. He told me his staff desperately need my help.

I had heard about Nathan before I came through my Global News colleagues Barry Acton and Laurel Clark, who were here last spring. He was their “fixer” – the guy who took them around town helping them get from place to place, get interviews with the right people, translate where necessary and make sure they stayed out of harm’s way.

When I went into the newsroom the next day, I was pleasantly surprised at the resources they had. Several cameras, many laptops and desktop computers (nice, shiny Macs too), a studio and a decent control room. But when I went around the room hearing from the different reporters, camera people and editors, I heard a laundry list of things they needed help with.

Shooting. Writing. Standups. Editing. Story ideas.

They had all the gear. But they had little to no knowledge of how to use it to make TV news.

Gulp. I only have about 8 days with these guys.

They have had other help – a French crew was here a few months ago and some of the LNTV crew were sent to CCTV in Beijing to learn the ropes.

But this kind of project will take a lot more than that.

I jumped right in, going along with two reporters on a shoot to Red Light – a commercial market district of Monrovia. It’s an eyesore. Garbage is piled on the side of the road, mixed in with human excrement and other nasty stuff. The stench made me gag.

Our first stop was a section that had been devastated by a fire that morning. I followed the reporter and cameraman as they hopped over smouldering debris, marvelling at how fire crews let people just sift through hot spots without any protection. I had to watch my step as the rubble shifted under my feet. We found some people affected and got some shots. Then I coached the reporter through an on-camera, showing the scene.

From there we drove a few blocks to one of the giant garbage piles. I once again gagged as we stood next to one so he could shoot an on-camera and talk to some affected people. Food stations were not far away from the disgusting mess.

While a huge shock to me, the reporters didn’t seem fazed by what they saw. We jumped back in the car and back to the station, eager to put the stories together.

But that didn’t happen. Despite all the seemingly fancy equipment they had, the tape wouldn’t play. It was either too dirty or too overused. There goes all that work.

I won’t lie. That type of thing has happened to me in my many years in the field. Technology does have its limitations.

My last few hours on that first day were spent feverishly vetting (err… writing) scripts. Every time I finished one, another reporter pounced, asking for help. I must have gone through five or so. I eventually had to pry myself away, to let them finish what they started on their own.

JHR’s philosophy is help local media develop skills to cover human rights stories without creating a dependency. I can quickly see how the wrong approach to training can do just that.

I feel for Nathan. He has such a difficult road ahead, filled with the pressures of management demands and expectations from colleagues and ordinary Liberians. Not to mention the complicating factor of working for the state broadcaster. I noticed a sign on the wall saying all shows must be vetted by a higher-up prior to air.

But Nathan also has a tremendous opportunity to shape the media landscape in this country. TV news is still in its infancy.  And it’s a powerful tool for improving the lives of the people here.

On my first out of town trip last week I was struck by the comment of one local journalist I met. He was talking about how difficult it is to live and work here, and how the war left such devastating effects on people – psychological, economic, physical.

I asked him why he stayed in Liberia when he had the chance to leave.

“Because if I leave, who will fix it?”

I think Nathan is one of those “fixers.” And I’m excited to watch him and his dedicated crew grow, even from afar.

A miracle in the bush

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.


Abandoned by his family, he lay mostly on his back in the bush, surviving on scraps he earned by cracking palm nuts for years on end.

His name is Varney. And his story is almost hard to believe.

He says he meticulously counted the days he languished, helplessly crippled by severe arthritis. Under constant threat of sickness and snake bites, he relied on the kindness of strangers to survive.

“Seven years, nine months and eleven days,” he says, estimating he’s now 20 years old. “I lay down. People feel sorry for me. They give me ten dollars and a bag of rice.”

Varney says he developed the paralyzing pain at the age of 13. His condition has left him unable to walk. His family is among many villagers who believe sickness is a curse. To them, a child that disabled needs to be disposed of. Forgotten. Left for dead.

“They were tired of my sickness,” Varney says.










Every three months his sister came by to check if he was still alive.

It’s a heartbreaking story of how people with physical and mental disabilities are often treated here in Liberia, especially out in remote areas where many deeply spiritual tribes believe in witchcraft.

It wasn’t until this past November that a United Nations worker named Anne learned of Varney’s plight and arranged a visit. Her team traveled three hours to the village of Voorgbo and documented the nightmare that had been this boy’s life for so long.

Anne brought Varney to St. Timothy Hospital in the small beachside town of Rogersport, about 3 hours from the Liberian capital of Monrovia. The doctor here says he was severely malnourished, suffering from anemia and a rapid heartbeat.

Pauline Tavidnimle, a social worker at the hospital, says Varney has come a long way from when he first arrived – afraid, ashamed, and not accepting of his condition.

“I feel a chill because he’s a human. And you cannot tell what he’ll become. It will be heartless to take a child and just throw the child away.”

She marvels at Varney’s will to survive.

“It’s almost like a miracle.”

Pauline wishes she could go out to these remote villages to find more Varneys, but she has no mode of transportation. Resources to care for existing cases here are scarce as is. Many disabled patients have no visitors. A poster on her wall shows a man who has been here all alone since 1999, suffering from mental illness.

Still, Varney is one of the lucky ones. Many disabled Liberians are killed in their villages or die before any help arrives.

He has become a little star here in Robertsport. An American duo that owns a nearby surfing lodge bought him a cell phone. He calls Dan, one of the owners, several times a day asking him to visit.

He smiles at all the attention as the group of journalists I’m with take his picture. I ask him to wheel his chair across the ground so I can get some video. It makes him so happy that I tell him to keep going back and forth, again and again.

I later asked Anne how she thinks Varney was able to survive as long as he did.

“God wanted him to live and tell his story,” she says, her eyes turning glassy.

The doctor here says with the right medical attention, Varney will walk again. But that kind of care isn’t available here. He’s stuck at St. Timothy until someone finds a way to either get him to Monrovia or – even better – outside the country.

But at least he’s not alone, fending for himself anymore.

This blog entry was originally posted on April 4, 2013 at

A close call in Liberia

Shirlee Engel is a reporter with Global TV in Ottawa. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Liberia as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Fire at REAL TV in Liberia.

Fire at REAL TV in Liberia.

They say timing is everything.

And today, so-called “Liberian time” was my saviour.

I was supposed to stop by REAL TV – the station I have been assigned to work at for the next 3 weeks in Liberia. I was going to team up with a couple of journalists who work there. JHR (Journalists for Human Rights) Head of International Programs Kathryn Sheppard and I were dropping in to meet the manager and take a look around before setting off on our first out of town trip with a bunch of reporters.

As soon as we arrived, we got a sense something was wrong.

Our lungs filled with the thickness of acrid black smoke. We looked up and saw it billowing out of the windows, the cracks, every opening in the upper floor. My first concern was what about the people inside? But there didn’t seem to be a scramble to get anyone out. I later learned everyone did get out.

The scene drew onlookers from nearby shops and buildings. People stood around and watched in awe as a red fire truck rolled through the gate and firefighters began getting the blaze under control.

Reporter mode quickly kicked in. I took out my iPhone and started documenting the chaos. Across the street I noticed a tall, bearded man with a look of concern on his face, so I approached him. His name is Ras K and he is one of the presenters on the air at REAL TV.

He was on live on the air when the fire began.

Ras K said it started in the main studio just after the morning program had wrapped. He speculated it may have been an electrical problem.

No surprise in a city where wooden structures are common and electrical outlets and cords are often not up to par with international safety standards. I was even warned not to buy any power cords at the store. There’s a special place you go for that.

“It’s a setback for us,” he said. “We will not be able to do our reporter duties and stuff like that to get the public informed about what’s happening.”

He added it will take time to have the studio reconstructed and have the equipment brought back. But after we left Kathryn and I were skeptical about where they would find the money to rebuild. Insurance is not exactly ubiquitous here.

And what about those journalists who barely earn enough to live on? Will they still have jobs? Can I still help them?

As we got back in the van, wondering what plan B will be for my placement here, we remembered our driver was 20 minutes late to pick us up.

If he had been on time, we would have been in that building when the fire began, scrambling to get out with the others.

I’m happy to get used to the slower pace of life here.

Fire at REAL TV in Liberia.

Fire at REAL TV in Liberia.

This post was originally written on April 1, 2013. You can also view it via Global News.


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.