Saturday, 30 November 2013

Liberia - Reading List

I found quite a bit of reading material on Liberia - travelogues, fiction by Western authors, as well as fiction by Liberian authors. 

Here is a summary of the books I read:

Chasing the Devil: On Foot through Africa's Killing Fields - Tim Butcher, 2010

Journey without Maps - Graham Greene, 1936

I've blogged about these two books already and you can read my blog post here

Lonely Planet West Africa - 2009 edition.  I like reading old copies of guidebooks, such as the Lonely Planet series, as they are quite often a rich source of ideas and point me in the direction of resources which help me understand the place I'm blogging about.

There are very few guidebooks specifically about Liberia, but Lonely Planet West Africa has a lot of general information about the region and I made lots of notes and learned about other West African countries, such as Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria and Cameroon.  No doubt these notes will help, whenever I blog about these other countries, at some point in the future. 

The Rain and the Night - William Sankawulo, 1979.  As well as being a writer, William Sankowulo served as Liberia's leader, during the interim government of 1995-96.  He seems to have been somewhat of a political survivor, having been part of the old regime under Tolbert, as well as the new regime under Samuel Doe. 

The Rain and the Night is an interesting novel which deals with the challenges faced by a new chief, Kortuma, after his father passes away.  A key message of the novel is that, whilst tribes must sometimes go to war to defend their honour, war is generally bad for the country and the tribes must unite and work together for the general prosperity of their people. 

I found Sankawulo's depiction of women interesting - women are feared and respected by their men and Kortuma has a refreshingly modern view on the importance of understanding and listening to women, particularly in relation to his wives. 

Books I read during my research on Liberia
Murder in the Cassava Patch - Bai T. Moore, 1968.  Liberia's most famous novel, Murder in the Cassava Patch is the first novel I've read completely online.  I'm not at all technophobic, but I am a bit resistant to giving up paper books for electronic ones - however, the ebook was the easiest and quickest way to access Moore's Liberian classic which is, sadly, incredibly difficult to find in paper format. 

It's a great story - more of a novella than a novel.  Like Sankawulo's book, it also deals with the relationship between men and women, although this time, the relationship is a more hostile one.  In Moore's Cassava Patch, the men are hard-working and innocent, the women are conniving and manipulative.  In the words of one of the male characters:

The secrets of a woman are deeper than the bottom of hell.

Despite the undercurrent of 'gender war', I really enjoyed reading Murder in the Cassava Patch - the story is well-told and I learned a lot about Liberia and the everyday lives of the people who live there.

Liberian Women attending Math and Literacy class by UN photo
Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City - Jonny Steinberg, 2012.  Steinberg has written a lot about his native South Africa, but a fellowship from the Open Society Institute (who I also once worked for) allowed him to do the necessary research for Little Liberia, which picks up the Liberian story in the ex-pat community of Park Hill Avenue on Staten Island. 

I read a lot about the various civil wars in Liberia but Steinberg's book, telling the stories of two Liberian immigrants, helped me contextualise the bigger picture and see a more real, perhaps more personal, version of events.  The book was well-researched and well-written, although I wasn't tearing through the pages, as I usually do and I can't help feeling there was something missing.

The Darling - Russell Banks, 2005.  I absolutely loved this novel and I'm quite interested in reading more of Russell Banks books, as this was the first time I'd ever heard of him.  Written from a 'western' perspective, the novel follows the story of a young (white) US woman - a radical, on the FBI's most-wanted list because of her anti-government activities, as part of the Weathermen underground movement of the 1970's - as she flees to Liberia, marries a Minister in Samuel Doe's government and raises three boys, who later become child soldiers. 

I found the story thrilling, sad, enlightening and engaging in equal measure and, whilst the political background of the novel wasn't new to me, I enjoyed seeing a fictionalised account, both of the civil wars in Liberia and the changing nature of the radical left in the United States.  Highly recommended!

And the ones that got away!

As usual, I didn't have time to read everything that I would like to have read in relation to Liberia.  In case you have more time than me to explore Liberia, here is a list of the other books I would like to have read. 

View inside Liberian Magisterial Court by UN photo
Too late to turn back - Barbara Greene, 1938 - the missing 'third' version of the Greene's Sierra Leone to Liberia trek.  I would love to have read Barbara's version of the journey with her cousin Graham, but time-constraints apart, copies of her book are relatively expensive, although republished by Penguin in 1990.

The Mask of Anarchy: Roots of Liberia's Civil War: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War - Stephen Ellis, 1999.

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood - Helene Cooper, 2009.

This Child will be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Kim McLarin, 2010 - although I can't help feeling a little bit cynical about this type of political (auto)biography. 

Image credits:

These images have been shared by UN photo on their flickr account - the UN has shared these images using the Creative Commons license, so they can foster a public understanding of the UN's work and goals. You can see more UN photos (and learn more about their work) on their photo stream

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Liberia - The Movies

I watched four movies that were set in, or somehow connected to Liberia. 

Lord of War (2005) directed by Andrew Niccol (New Zealand) and starring Nicholas Cage and Jared Leto.  I'd seen this movie before, but wanted to watch it again, paying more attention to how they depicted Liberia in the movie. 

It's an interesting film and raises some important points about the global arms trade and the destruction it causes in many parts of the world.  I'm not a big fan of Nicholas Cage - there's something slightly irritating about him and he always seems to play really awful, morally corrupt characters, which doesn't help! 

Also, it seems as though not a lot of thought was put into depicting Liberia - the Liberian scenes were mostly shot in South Africa, including the famous scene on the mountain ridge, supposedly on the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, which was actually shot in an arid area of South Africa that in no way represents the lush jungle that Liberia is famous for. 

The writers also didn't pay much attention to the facts, eg. when Cage's character refuses to sleep with the prostitutes in Monrovia, he tells us it's because West Africa is 'the most AIDS-infested region of the globe'.  Actually rates of HIV infection are relatively low in West Africa and an estimated 1% of Liberia's population is infected with the HIV virus, compared to 23% in a southern African country like Lesotho

Finally, the soundtrack of the movie had a random collection of West African music, artists like Issa Bagayogo from Mali and Cheikh Lô from Senegal.  Whilst it's great to see these artists getting some exposure, it felt a bit like 'any West African artist will do' and there's no direct connection between these artists and Liberia/Sierra Leone.  I find that approach a bit lazy. 

Blood Diamond (2006) directed by Edward Zwick (USA) and starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Connelly. 

I'd also seen this movie before and on a purely 'entertainment' level it's quite good but, as with Lord of War - I tried to watch it from a more critical perspective, with an 'African eye' and I can see how it's really just a Western interpretation of life in Africa.  I'm also no big fan of Leonardo Di Caprio, which didn't help (although I love Jennifer Connelly!)

The main African character was played by Djimon Hounsou, who was born in Benin and, whilst I admired Hounsou's acting, I thought the character was very two-dimensional - there was no 'depth' to the portrayal of Africa and Africans and I was left feeling that the political background of the movie was just a romantic backdrop for the love story between Di Caprio and Connelly.  I don't think this movie tackled the serious issues as well as Lord of War did.

Again, the movie was shot in South Africa and Mozambique, so I was disappointed not to see Liberia or Sierre Leone (where most of the story takes place) on the big screen, although I realise that it would have been almost impossible to film in Liberia in 2006 and I'm sure the movie-makers weren't prepared to risk Di Caprio's life! 

At least the music choice was more authentic for Blood Diamond and included a track performed by Sierra Leone's Refugee All-stars.  All-in-all, this movie is a very Western story, which just happens to be set in West Africa. 

Johnny Mad Dog (2008) directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (France) and starring child actors, Christopher Minie and Daisy Victoria Vandy. 

Based on the novel, Johnny Chien Méchant by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala - this was by far the best movie I watched about Liberia.  Set during the upheaval of the second Civil War in 2003, Sauvaire directed former child-soldiers to create a movie that is brutally honest, horrific to watch and incredibly informative for a Western viewer.

It's hard not to see this movie as a product of the West, as it was directed by a European, but I think there is a big difference between a movie like Johnny Mad Dog and a movie like Blood Diamond, in that, Johnny Mad Dog definitely tells an African story, as opposed to 'a Western story set in Africa'. 

The movie was shot in Liberia and it was thrilling to finally see Liberia on the big screen, including iconic shots of the 'Broken bridge' in Monrovia.  Everything about the production felt authentic and this is probably the closest we could get (or would want to get) to the conflict in Liberia, which only ended ten years ago. 

The movie has been criticised for not having a proper 'plot' and, whilst the violence perpetrated by the child soldiers was pretty relentless, I didn't feel like it was gratuitous or that a structured/romantic plot (like the one in Blood Diamond) would have made a better movie.  A stronger plot would, no doubt, have appealed more to a Western audience.  I'd highly recommend watching this movie, if you want to learn about the conflict in Liberia. 

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008) directed by Gini Reticker (USA) and produced by Abigail Disney. 

A perfect antidote to the hard-hitting Johnny Mad Dog is Reticker's Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about the Liberian women's peace movement, which was known as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.  It's an incredibly uplifting story that explains the role Liberian women played in restoring peace to their country.

I hadn't really heard about this women's peace movement before, but I think it's a story that everyone should learn about/watch, as it can really restore your faith in a world that seems to be dominated by male violence, aggression and corruption.

The women of Liberia suffered immensely during the years of political upheaval - rape, murder, enslavement - women always seem to be on the receiving end of societal breakdown.  It's quite apt then, that Liberian women were also in the position to create an atmosphere of peace and bring the (generally male) warlords to the negotiating table. 

It's believed that the current (female) President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, was elected because of the strength of the women's movement.  Her presidency has recently been rocked by scandals, criticism and allegations of corruption, but I'd like to hope that Liberia's peace movement is a sustainable one, that will continue to influence Liberian politics for many years to come.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Liberia - How I made Palava

Palava is a dish that is quite common across West Africa and combines some of the most typical ingredients available in this part of the world.  The Liberian version is very similar to the palava made in other countries. And it's not at all unlike Chakalaka, which I made when blogging about Lesotho. 

I've come across the word palava or palaver already during my research, as the name of the meeting houses in Liberian villages, where elders make important decisions about community issues.

We use the word palaver in English, in quite a negative way, to describe an unnecessary fuss, eg. What a palaver!  It's thought that the origin of the word might be from Portuguese palavra which means word - although the palava dish is so spicy, I couldn't talk much as I was eating!

Liberia is the 32nd place that I've blogged about and the fifth African one - for each place that I've blogged about, I've tried to cook one of their national or regional dishes.  I have to stress at this point that this is a blog about culture, not a blog about food (although the food posts are always very popular!). 

If you want to see a proper food blog about palava have a look at where I got my recipe - this is a great resource for any interested in 'world food' and I've used this website many times.  I also found a really cool foodie blog called Kayotic Kitchen which has a great chicken palava recipe.

My intention when blogging about food for Learning about the World is to understand the food culture in the places I blog about, by comparing the ingredients and trying to recreate these national/regional dishes with what I have available in my local shops in London.  I quite often have to (or even want to) substitute some of the ingredients in the original recipes and this process, in itself, is part of my learning experience.

The ingredients:

Ingredients for Liberian palava
500g goat meat - the original recipe had beef, actually, but goat meat is popular across West Africa and, as I had never cooked goat meat before, or even tasted it, I want to see what it was like.

300g dried fish - except I used fresh fish!  I can picture the stalls full of dried fish in Waterside Market in Monrovia, a clever way to preserve fish in the hot weather, but finding dried fish in London isn't that easy - when we eat dried fish in the West, it's usually a snack with beer, not part of a meal. 

It was also very weird cooking meat and fish together in one dish - I checked a few palava recipes and most of them seemed to have this option.  I'm not sure why cooking meat and fish together is weird for me, perhaps it's a cultural thing?  I realise that many people in Liberia would be happy to have either meat or fish, so perhaps adding both is an extravagance that makes the meal something special?

20g fresh ginger (grated) - Liberians love their ginger and so do I!  Palava is actually the name of the sauce that is used in this dish and ginger is a key ingredient.

4 Scotch Bonnets - Scotch bonnets are incredibly hot chilli peppers and I've only cooked with them once before, when I made chakalaka.  I must admit, I chickened out this time round and only added three of them, not four, as recommended by the recipe - the dish was still pretty hot with three Scotch bonnets in it!

2 small onions - one to form the basis of the palava sauce and the other one for cooking with the meat, sauce and fish

I used spinach/palak instead of bitterleaf
2 tomatoes - also to make the sauce

A bunch of spinach - the original recipe recommends bitterleaf, but this is something which isn't to find in Europe.  I guess I could have sourced some dandelion leaves, if I'd gone to a health food store, but spinach seemed like a good, leafy substitute, even if it doesn't have the same level of bitterness.

1 stock cube - I used beef

How I made Liberian palava

I started by preparing the palava sauce - the recipe suggests pounding the onions, chillies and tomatoes in a pestle and mortar, but I'm not a big fan of pounding, so I blitzed everything in my food processor instead. 

Put the onion, ginger and chilli in a food processor - or pound them with a pestle and mortar, if you prefer!

Add the two chopped tomatoes

Palava sauce, which is much hotter than it looks!

Next I prepared the meat.  Goat's meat is quite tough and could be chewy, so it should be boiled for about an hour to soften it up a bit.  I mixed the beef stock cube with 200ml of water, then put it in a saucepan with the goat's meat, brought the whole to a boil, then reduced the heat and simmered it for one hour.

Prepare some stock - I don't know if there is such a thing as a goat stock cube?  I used beef

Simmer the goat's meat for about an hour to tenderise

Lovely chunks of goat's meat!

Whilst I was simmering my goat's meat, I prepared some rice, to accompany the meal.  Actually, fufu would be more traditional and I've made fufu before when I was blogging about Togo, but the reality is that many people in West Africa have rice with their main meal, so I wanted to do the same.  

After an hour of cooking the meat, I took it off the heat - drained the stock into a jug and put the meat pieces to one side.  I then fried the second onion, the palava sauce and the fish pieces, until the fish had cooked through.

Fry the onion and palava sauce, then add the fish pieces

Fry until the fish pieces are fully cooked

After this, I added the goat meat and spinach leaves, pouring the stock and some water on top, until the spinach was covered and I let meat, fish and vegetables stew for about fifteen minutes, until the spinach had cooked and the whole thing had taken on a fiery, soupy look!

Add the goat's meat pieces

Then the spinach

Then the stock and water

It was dead easy to make - I'm not sure goat's meat is my favourite thing in the world and I think I would have enjoyed this dish more with either meat or fish, perhaps not both.  Nevertheless, another world food dish to add to my growing recipe book! 

Liberian palava served with rice

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Saturday, 9 November 2013

Liberia - Measuring the future

One of the 'facts' about Liberia that I've come across time and again is that it's one of only three countries in the world that haven't officially adopted the International System of Units or SI (often referred to as the 'Metric' system) for measurements - the other two countries being the United States and Burma/Myanmar. 

Investigating a bit further, it would seem as though the reality is more complex than that - Liberia is surrounded by countries, such as Guinea and the Cote D'Ivoire, which were part of French West Africa and have used the metric system since colonial times.  Although Liberia hasn't yet officially adopted the SI - it would seem as though this system is being used more and more in every day life, as a result of influence from neighbouring countries.

Global measures

Pera Anona for sale in Sicilian food store at 4 euros per kilo
The French have lost a lot of ground in recent centuries, whether it's the decline of the French language as an international means of communication (except in aviation and the Eurovision!) or the smaller role that France now has in world affairs.  But at least they've left us with a really logical system of measurement! 

The result of many years of negotiation and standardisation, the International System of Units, that was adopted by most of the world in 1960, is largely based on the Metric system of measurement which Napoleon popularised during his conquest of Europe in the early 1800's. 

There was a time when every country/culture had its own measurement system - these systems often varied from one town to another - which, understandably, hampered a more global recognition of measurement standards, important to carrying out trade.  I think it was inevitable that either the French (metric) system or the British (Imperial) system would prevail - but there is a good reason why the metric system became more popular in the end. 

A revolution in measurement

The beauty of the SI or metric system is that it uses a basic measurement unit, eg. a metre (US spelling, meter) or a gram and all bigger and smaller amounts are given affixes, such as kilo- or milli- which are calculated to the power of 10 - eg. 100 times bigger, or 1000 times smaller.  Put quite simply, 1 kilometre = 1000 metres, as kilo means 1000.  Likewise, 1 kilogram = 1000 grams - perfect!

The Imperial system and US customary measurements

Signpost in Russia showing distances in kilometres
If you compare this to the Imperial system, once favoured by the UK and the British Empire, and the very similar US customary measurements still used in the United States and Liberia - 1 foot = 12 inches, 1 mile = 1760 yards, 1 pound = 16 ounces and 1 stone = 14 pounds!  You can see that it's a bewildering array of terminology, not to mention the seemingly random conversion ratios!  I fully understand why the world prefers metric!

My experience of measurement

I was born in Ireland in the 1970's, at a time when the Imperial system of measurements was alive and well.  Then, sometime during the 1980's, we started changing to the metric system and now I'm pretty confused and, like many people in the UK and Ireland, I use a mixture of both.  I've got no idea what an ounce is - but I could probably measure 250g of flour quite easily!  I've got no real concept of a yard, but I do still think in miles, although I have a vague awareness of kilometres!

Anyone who's read my other blog, Walking the Chesters, will know that I'm very fond of hiking - it's a hobby I picked up in Slovakia, which I then continued when I moved to France, about twelve years ago.  Funnily enough, I first started walking in kilometres and I got used to this - so when I returned to Ireland/UK, I had to relearn the distances in miles and now I feel much more comfortable using miles again, as this is what I've used most of my life.


Weighing three ounces of butter
British and Irish people (in common with our fellow English-speakers across the Atlantic) seem to have an innate fear of 'converting to metric'!  Distances seem longer in kilometres - we seem to get less food for our money in kilograms and, despite government efforts, it's been a bit of a battle to get people in the UK (and, to a lesser extent, in Ireland) to truly convert to SI.  As with Liberia, we have a mixed reality of measurement that doesn't necessarily reflect official policy. 

But it's only a matter of time - the UK and Ireland have already officially adopted SI, even though the UK still uses some imperial measures.  Liberia seems to have retained US customary measurements, out of some bizarre deference to US-Liberian relations, but this is already changing.  The days of the Burmese maik, peittha and hkwet are surely numbered, as they open up trade with their metric neighbours.  Even the US has made some concessions to the metric world, although I'd be surprised if the US or UK completely abandoned measurement in miles - there would be too much of an uproar!

It's a fascinating subject to have touched upon and I'd like to explore the concept of measurement again, in future blog posts. 

Image credits:

All photos on this blog post were taken by me- please feel free to reuse them, using the Creative Commons license:

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