Diaries from a desperate land

Liberia boasts Africa's first female elected head of state, but violence against women is endemic. Emma Thompson and adopted son Tindy Agaba share their accounts of a visit to the troubled nation.

Tindy Agaba and Emma Thompson went to the country of Agaba's birth with a charity trying to help Liberia's abused women.  Photo / ActionAid
Tindy Agaba and Emma Thompson went to the country of Agaba's birth with a charity trying to help Liberia's abused women. Photo / ActionAid

February 4
Tindy: I left Garden City, Cairo, where I've been working with refugees, at 5am yesterday. Africa is a funny old world. To go to Liberia from Cairo one has to go to Europe first and then get a connecting flight back to Africa!

On our way from Liberia's airport to our hotel, I notice a huge United Nations presence - armoured vehicles, helicopters and the expensive 4x4s the UN staff travel in. Korto Williams, the ActionAid country director, tells me that after working with the UN for a short while she had to quit because "it wasn't designed for young activists who wanted to see things being done on the ground".

February 5
Emma: The first thing I learn is the Liberian handshake. Squeezes end with a click of your fingers. Liberia's founders were the children of people who'd had the tops of their third fingers chopped off to identify them as slaves. The finger-click is a firm but playful indication that their offspring were anything but.

On the highest point in Monrovia sits the dusty ruins of the Ducor Palace Hotel. Abandoned by its owners in 1990, this huge Intercontinental was used by the warlord Charles Taylor as a barracks. We walk into the empty swimming pool. Children used to slide down it on plastic trays but the place is razor-wired off now.

We leave the haunted space and spend two hours in Westpoint, the shanty town that stretches to the horizon. It's wild. Pathways wind through cheek-by-jowl mud houses, women sell giant spoons made from recycled tin cans, there are piles of fierce Liberian peppers, chicken feet, squalling babies, battered motorcycles buzzing and tooting, humans on a constant roar. Tindy is so happy. "I want to stay here for at least a month," he shrieks.

The young vastly outnumber the old because of the 30 years of conflict. Liberians call them World Wars I, II and III. They only ended in 2003. Getting out of the shanty to a better life is tough. It's not just who you know but what your name is. An Americo-Liberian name like Dennis, Johnson or Thomson (inherited from the inventors of the handshake) will get you in the door. An indigenous name like Kollie, Saki or Towaye will get it slammed in your face.

February 6
Tindy: I meet Dennis Boima, an ex-child soldier who was born here and is now 23. He takes me to his one-bedroom hut, which he built on his own. We hit it off as if we'd known each other for a long time. From my own experience as a former child soldier I could relate to him. His education stopped when the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebels cordoned off the road to Monrovia and captured almost all the young people.

He escaped once and found his mum but she advised him to return to the rebels, as they offered protection.

Meanwhile his brothers were fighting for a Charles Taylor-sponsored militia. So brothers were, unknowingly, fighting against each other. Showing me marks on his right hand, near his palms, he says the commander nabbed him having a nap when he on night watch, and, as punishment, sliced skin off his hand. He tells me he hardly thinks about what happened. He says: "Time will heal me", and he believes he was lucky to escape in one piece.

Emma: Leaving Monrovia west-wards, we pass several checkpoints where, during the wars, tortures were meted out. Korto points to someone selling shellfish. "We call them Kissme's," she says, "because you bite off the pointy end and suck out the flesh. They used to say to people: 'Swallow 10 of these whole and I won't kill you'. But if you swallowed 10 you would die anyway."

We stop to greet the district commissioner and meet our first female town chief. An old man sits listening as she says that one of the greatest problems in the country is rape, which is endemic. Rape within marriage has just been recognised under the law. The old man leans back and closes his eyes. I assume he's tired but am told later it was a show of disrespect. He thinks the idea of rape within marriage is ridiculous and withdraws from the discussion.

In Kanga, I meet Massah Manobahleh, a 33-year-old with four children. She went to school until six, when the war put a stop to it. Later, rebels killed her husband and raped her. Her mother was killed in the next wave of fighting. She's exhausted, having spent all day foraging for food in the bush and all night looking after the babies.

Next door, Jenneh, who has suffered a pain around her heart ever since she was gang raped, says that ActionAid helped her to speak to people without being aggressive. "Violence here has dropped away enormously since ActionAid arrived." I find Tindy in a green football shirt from ActionAid hired for a game. Everyone walks to the pitch to cheer and dance. Joanna Kerr, ActionAid's new and first female CEO, says the leaders of the community are more impressed by this than by anything else they've done. Normally people come and listen as briefly as possible, then leave.

"We know you are interested in our difficulties," they say. "That you are also willing to share our joys shows a different kind of leadership."

I spend two hours with women and girls who have been on a project designed to tackle violence against girls in education. Vera, 22, leads the discussion. "Here's what prevents girls from getting educated: early marriage, teenage pregnancy, traditional beliefs and practices, poverty and rape, lack of parental support. But here's the other problem - Prisky, tell her ..."

Prisky is a very beautiful 15. "I had taken my exams and asked my teacher for my grades. He said he had failed me. I was shocked and asked to see my papers. He told me to come to his house and he would give me better grades ..."

Prisky didn't go, but many teachers trade good grades for sex.

In the same community, ActionAid has been working with another female chief called Jenneh.

I tell Jenneh we have an appointment with her president and ask if she has any message. "I only want one thing. You see these roofs?" She points to the thatch on the circular huts. "These roofs are terrible in the rainy season. I need corrugated sheets for 300 roofs. That's all."

February 8
Emma: I've learnt the traditional Liberian greeting: "What news?" you say. "No bad news," they reply.

Mamie, a small woman who says she's "maybe 43?", shows us round with her 11th baby strapped to her back. Only five others are still living.

Tindy and I help Mamie carry a huge tub of sweet potatoes to her village. Mamie pops it on her head and trots, hands free, as though it weighed nothing.

An older man sits in front of her house. He's not very friendly so I try to charm him by extolling his daughter's skills. "She's my wife," he says disgustedly.

February 9
Tindy: Off to Liberia's first all-female radio station, whose founder is a beautiful woman called Estella Johnson. Liberian Women's Democracy radio broadcasts on issues around poverty reduction, justice and gender-violence awareness. Their slogan, "Giving voice to the voiceless", reminds me of Floribert Chebeya, a human rights activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, found dead last year, whose radio station was becoming a "game changer" in the Eastern DRC.

Emma: At the radio station I hear this story of a 10-year-old girl who, according to custom, was taken by her grandmother into the bush to be initiated into the Sande Society, the traditional female organisation.

Along with 25 others, her clitoris was cut away, the same knife being used for all. One of the girls started to bleed excessively. They tied a noose around her neck and dragged her about until she was dead. All the women made loud noises as this occurred. The 10-year-old asked her grandmother why. The old woman said it was not permitted to die alone in the forest and her family would be told that the devil had taken her.

Then the child asked why the women had made all the noise. It was so that her screams would not be heard in the village.

Next, the initiates were made to lie on the ground, where they were covered in fresh grass. They had to lie for three days without food until the grass was dry. Then a meal was prepared. There were little knobs of meat in the food and when the child asked what they were, the grandmother said that if the clitorises were eaten, it would ensure that any child who dared to speak about what they had seen would surely die.

Female genital mutilation is still common in Liberia and to speak out against it is very difficult, even for the president. The afternoon is spent with 30 women from all over the country, all partners of ActionAid. Annie, who has travelled three days to get here and has 15 children, offers this: "Where I come from, they say women's ideas cannot go very far. Women's ideas stop just below -" and she cups her breasts. Everyone laughs.

"According to customary law [upheld by the Liberian constitution], a man can buy a girl-child while she is still in the womb.

Then a second bride price is paid for the girl when they marry. So the community feels it has paid a huge double price for this girl and her own family have all received benefits from her sale. To whom can she complain if she is beaten or abused?"

"But if I buy a pair of shoes I look after them," says Joanna Kerr. "Don't you want your property to remain in good condition? Why is there so much violence?"

"They want their property to remain quiet and under their control," answers Annie.

February 10
Emma: Today I spend a very emotional morning watching Tindy talking to ex-child soldiers. Most of them share the same story: they were kidnapped at around 14, although one of them, Benjamin, was taken when he was just nine. He says: "Guns were our mothers and fathers. They protected us, they got us food."

Tindy agrees. "Being a soldier makes you strong in some ways. It makes you want to enjoy life because you have missed so much of it."

Later, we meet President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state. Her Wikipedia entry neglects to mention that it was the demonstrations of thousands of women all dressed in white that ensured her victory over Charles Taylor.

She's quietly spoken, dignified, steely and humorous. Impressed by the transparency of ActionAid (every cent of its $2m budget is accounted for to local government), we feel hopeful she will allow her office to engage with Korto on a regular basis.

February 11
Tindy: Our guide Jimmy collects me for an express experience of Monrovia. We get into a taxi which has five people in the back seat. The driver is reading a pocket-sized Bible placed on his car's dashboard as he drives.

We head to a small restaurant and before we enter, Jimmy introduces a girl called Fatima. In the middle of this street on a hot day, she asks me if I would "like to fuck". I am startled by her boldness. I laugh but I want to be kind and not offend her. I tell her: "I like to have sex, but I need a lot of time to enjoy it and also have to be intimate with the person." She says I would be surprised at "how quickly it will be over". "So you don't need a lot of time for it," she insists. In the end I gave her $5 to help her out.

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