Sunday, November 16, 2008

Positive news article on Sierra Leone and Liberia

The following is written by a longtime observer and activist on African issues, John Prendergast, and included in a publication new to me. It highlights positive progress in Sierra Leone and Liberia in terms of recent Presidential elections and the ending of civil wars (2001 in Sierra Leone; 2003 in Liberia). Bob Press accessed nov 16, 2008
Morung Express | Home | FaithLeaf | Continent of Hope
Continent of Hope
Font size:
John Prendergast November 16, 2008 09:26:00

Forgive a typical American if she were to pay a visit to the West African nation of Sierra Leone and be confused by her surroundings. If she had ever heard of Sierra Leone before, it might have been while watching the movie Blood Diamond, which graphically depicted some of the worst depredations of the conflict there, such as the rebel group RUF’s amputation of limbs, the drug-crazed child soldiers, and the links between criminal diamond-dealing mafias and the war economy.
If this visitor to Sierra Leone had been reading occasional international news missives over the years, she might have remembered something about a rebel group that hacked the limbs off civilians to punish them for voting, or perhaps might have remembered that al Qaeda laundered money in the Sierra Leone diamond market before and after 9/11 to hide its assets.
Given that context, she certainly would have been quite astounded to have joined me on my visit to Tongo Fields in eastern Sierra Leone, the heart of the diamond-producing area and the site of some of the most intense fighting and horrific atrocities in the last century in Africa. What she would have seen in fact defied all expectations—the kind of low expectations that have come to mark international attitudes toward Africa in general.
Tongo Fields is a place crawling with former child soldiers, heavily contested by three political parties in last year’s election, and placed at further risk by a winner-take-all electoral process that dictates access to diamond profits as a result of victory at the polls. Before Sierra Leone’s historic 2007 election, every conflict indicator was flashing a red alert. Africa “experts” around the world were predicting that Sierra Leone, only half a decade after the end of its brutal civil war, was perhaps heading back down an inevitable road toward a return to war.
So in the context of all that Afro-pessimism—the legacy of war thick as the rainy season clouds lacing the Sierra Leonean skies—what happened?
I’VE OBSERVED elections in a number of African countries over the past 25 years, and this election in Sierra Leone may have been the most efficient, transparent and peaceful procedure I have ever witnessed, run by some of the most conscientious and earnest polling officials I have ever met. The army stayed in the barracks and didn’t improperly intervene, while the police contributed to the security of elections throughout the country on election day. The runoff among the two highest vote-getters led to a victory by the opposition party, and the ruling party gracefully and peacefully turned over the reins of power. In a grand affirmation of their country’s future, the people of Sierra Leone are defying both historical legacies and pundits’ low expectations.
An appropriately named former child soldier, Elijah, told me, “It’s a brand-new day for Sierra Leone.” Every one of the ex-combatants that I met in Tongo Fields and Freetown said in no uncertain terms that they would never again be lured back to a life of war in the bush. “We fought for nothing,” another former child soldier told me. “We are so tired of war. We don’t want to be used for fighting and end up with nothing.” A third former combatant, who divulged that he had committed “terrible atrocities” while he was in the bush, concluded, “This vote signals the end of jungle justice.”
Why Africa is a land of endless possibilitiy -- and how that should guide U.S. relations with the continent
The similarities are striking to another African country that also was written off by Africa “experts”: Liberia. Much like Blood Diamond, movies such as Lord of War with Nicolas Cage leave a hopeless impression of Liberia, referred to in the film as “that country which God seemed to have forsaken,” with Cage’s character describing the outskirts of Monrovia as “the edge of hell.” Yet in late 2005, Liberians marched to the polls and elected the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and more than 100,000 soldiers have demobilized as the country works diligently to erase the legacies of war. President Johnson-Sirleaf’s policies in a number of sectors have become models for other countries, and she is regularly invited to Europe and America to share her lessons learned and insights into how to heal societies and countries believed to have been “broken.”
I was there for that election too. The stories of the former child soldiers in Liberia were hauntingly similar to those of Sierra Leone. A 14-year-old named David told me, “We were used, fooled, and forced” by their former warlords; now he wants to farm if he can be given a little land and some capital. Others want to go to school or get job training. The last thing they want is to be dragged back to a world where the rule of law is abandoned and the gun talks loudest of all.
MOST AMERICANS view Africa as a place ripped apart by war, famine, anarchy, and HIV/AIDS. They often view Africans as people who need to be helped and “saved.” The truth is that there are indeed a few countries that are trapped in cycles of conflict, such as Sudan, Somalia, and Congo. But they are the exceptions. Liberia and Sierra Leone tell a different story of Africa—that of a continent of hope, of transformation.
The evidence goes far beyond those two West African nations. Everyone knows the story of South Africa, which up until the early 1990s was ruled by a system that codified racial discrimination against black Africans. Today, South Africa is preparing for its fourth democratic elections since the fall of that apartheid system. At the time Nelson Mandela was being elected South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994, Africa’s fastest genocide was occurring in Rwanda, where almost one million people were eliminated from the face of the earth in 100 days. Today, Rwandans are working hard to heal the wounds of the recent past, the country has a significant economic growth rate, and the likelihood of a return to conflict diminishes with each passing year. Neighboring Burundi and southern Sudan—themselves ripped apart by genocide and conflict, killing millions—have forged peace deals laying the groundwork for future peace and security.
In all of these countries, there are political and security problems, but the grassroots demand for peace has resulted in fundamental transformations that, if they had occurred in Europe, would be hailed as nothing short of miraculous.
What I have found in my travels in each of these success stories is an unparalleled assertion of rights and responsibilities by people from all walks of life throughout Africa, and especially by young people. There is a demand that their voices be heard, through the ballot box, through civil society organizations, through news media, through new and renewed political parties, and through burgeoning cultures of accountability. Part of what had fueled recruitment of young people during these various wars was disempowerment and victimization. Electoral processes, education, and development initiatives allow for a revaluation of the importance of the individual within the community, thus beginning a process of vesting citizens in the governance of their own countries.
ALL THIS IS just intellectual fodder unless it provides lessons for what we can do now for the biggest crises on the African continent: Darfur and Congo (see sidebar). The difference between Darfur and other cases such as Sierra Leone is that this time Americans are not looking away, and are asserting that our government has an important role to play in ending the crisis. With the exception of the smaller but effective anti-apartheid movement for South Africa in the 1980s, the outpouring of American activism in support of a more robust U.S. response to Darfur has been unparalleled. It is the first time there has been a mass-based political movement created to confront genocide or civil war in Africa. We need to raise our voices even louder for Darfur and find room in our advocacy for the people of Congo as well.
Failure in Darfur would likely mean that hundreds of thousands of Americans would once again turn away from the hard issues still confronting Africa as it tries to shake off its legacies of slavery, colonialism, and conflict to create a new future. Success in Darfur, however, will ensure that a whole generation of newly politically active Americans will redouble their efforts to ensure that a permanent constituency is created that will not stand idly by in the face of future war or genocide in Africa.
Add to: Digg Technorati

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Teaching 129 students human rights

With now 129 students in my Human Rights and Democracy class, I’ve adopted a few necessary techniques to keep discipline while still encouraging discussions: even low-voiced talk from that many students becomes a roar that drowns out any speaker, including me. (My co-teacher, Ibrahim Bangura, is off to the Democratic Republic of Congo with a non-government organization for about ten days. I'm impressed with his teaching skills.)
We’ve reached an agreement that when I raise my hand, everyone stops talking. I don’t do it a lot because for the most part students are respectful of each other and of me. But one of my arguments to help keep the noise down is to suggest that those talking over the recognized speaker of the moment are robbing students of an educational moment to learn. Still, it’s a constant effort. Though the other day when I gave a rare full-hour lecture, students were pretty quiet.
They’re getting a lot of new challenges. They now realize I’m serious about their doing ten hours of community service, teaching human rights in local schools or organizations. They chose their topics; they now have a letter of introduction from the department, and have clustered with others choosing similar topics. Their choices include: children in war; sexual abuse of children; the right to education; early marriage issues; genocide; various women’s issues.
They also have to do a research paper, something most of these recent high school graduates have not done before. We hold periodic workshops in class on research methodologies.

American Government class reminds me of the British Parliament. I was impressed with my class (now up from 10 to about 50) in their first presentation. I have divided the class into teams to present the week’s readings. The first team, on the constitution, had done the readings and not only reviewed the key points but explained their significance.

Post election Obama euphoria

This city is still alive with excitement over Obama’s victory. Neighbors call out “Obama” when I walk or run by; the internet carries stories of Obama supporters expressing their joy at his election. My Obama t-shirt brings shouts of approval. And when I bought cooking gas at a Lebanese grocery store, the Lebanese man I spoke with was introduced as “Barak Obama.” (His actual name is Bahrat.)
Those fortunate enough to have access to television speak of staying up till near dawn here to see the results and listen to Obama’s victory speech (and McCain’s gracious concession remarks). Many have expressed the feeling that Obama as President will not only help bring more peace to the world but will change the image of America in the world.

Running in Sierra Leone (Bob)

In Mississippi it was hard to find hills to train on; here it’s hard to find a flat area. One of my runs is from our home in Hill Station (a residential ridge high above the central part of the city) through a valley and up a mountain peak (Leicester) behind the U.S. Embassy, and back home. It’s a run of about an hour, much of it on rocky, dirt paths. Usually young children shout out a welcome along the way. Adults give encouragement with a smile or greeting, or return a wave.

My track workouts are at the national stadium where I run with members of various clubs who are currently training for a national meet in December. The other day we did 600 meters/500/400/300/200/100 then repeated it. I was far behind the first set but keeping up with the end runners the last set. The coach is an enthusiastic former national sprint champion who yells encouragement to me from time to time.

The crazy runs are with the “Hash,” a weekly event for walkers and runners up and down steep dirt trails through mostly low income residential areas. As we run, people give friendly greetings and finger-pointing directions to those who lag behind the group. Because the trail setters intentionally put markers that lead to some dead ends or turnaround markers, the slow runners usually catch up to the faster ones doubling back. Betty, well on the road to her recovery from her back injury, walked with the Hash recently.

“Don’t eat your flashlight” (Bob)

Since we get electricity only about one night out of three, we use the generator we purchased to give us a couple hours of light most other nights. But we have a lot of hours with just candles or rechargable Chinese-made hand held lights. I had not realized how accustomed we were to having electricity routinely available back home.

To keep track of fuel use on the generator, our landlord suggested writing down the amount on hand and the hours it is turned on. So on generator nights I go out into the unlit parking lot inside the compound (which itself is surrounded by a high wall and has a tall metal gate). Alpha, one of the security guards, and I sit down on the steps to fill out the fuel book (we have duplicate copies). To write, we each put our narrow flashlights in our mouth to free our hands and shine on the books. Our mutual joke has become: “Don’t eat your flashlight.”

Pushing the refrigerator across the kitchen. More recently the periodic electricity has powered only half our outlets, a phased power plan that I suppose saves even more on the nation’s fuel costs (the power company is running a daily deficit at present). Sometimes this means we have to push our small refrigerator across the kitchen to the powered outlet. It also means sometimes we don’t get power for the water heater but do get it for the wall unit air conditioner in our bedroom. Those are special nights when we lie inside our mosquito net-covered double bed and have to pull a sheet over us because it’s chilly.

Romantic candle-lit dinners. On the brighter side of this darkness, Betty and I have been reacquainted with the charm of dinners by candlelight. We often eat on the balcony from which we can see barely visible lights of distant fishing boats on the ocean.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Images from Freetown (Betty)

Here are some images from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. In recent years people have flooded to it from the countryside, mainly because of all the unrest during the war. And once people get there they discover the excitement of city life and they don’t want to go back to the village. It is an old city as you see from the mixture of old and new buildings, the streets are narrow and filled with cars, the sidewalks have been taken over by vendors forcing the pedestrians to walk in the streets with the cars. Still I find it exciting, in the sense that you always see something new or different, frustrating when you are in a taxi trying to get somewhere, the traffic is backed up, and you are smelling noxious fumes, scary as the taxi is always close to hitting either people walking along side the streets or the approaching cars.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Images from Charlotte village (Betty)

I am finally posting images from an earlier visit to Charlotte, which is an amazing village! Small old wooden houses, often called Creole cottages, probably built in the 1800’s or early 1900’, dotted the lush hillside, many surrounded by flowering shrubs. Some were in relatively good shape and even painted and others were falling down but still lived in. A guide appeared and invited us to walk through the village and up to St. John’s Anglican Church built in 1847. The notice board listed the names of some of the members who had made financial pledges. Near the stone built church were the ruins of an even older girl’s school started in 1816. Along the way we were warmly greeted by the villagers, especially the children, and allowed to take photos. Sierra Leoneans have had a really long history of interacting with Westerners and more evidence remains from those days than I have seen in many other African countries.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"We defeated the British"

I am teaching a section of the third year contemporary politics course (British politics) on American politics, with some history (including the defeat of the British). The class started at 10 but reached an enrollment of 40+ quickly. Most students seem used to lectures and feedback on the all-important final exam worth 70 percent of their grade. That’s fairly typical in the U.S., too, though the final is usually worth less.

But my style is different. I use debates, role playing, lots of discussions, and quizzes to keep students focused on the readings they need to have intelligent discussions. So when I divided up the class into teams to be in charge of presenting the next week’s readings in some interesting form, they were surprised. When I sent the first team out of the room to prepare, I had to ask several times for them to stand up, move out, and prepare. Outside the door they began talking in loud voices about their topic: the U. S. Constitution. So I asked one of our two class representatives to ask tell them to move down the hall - and not shout. My other class rep told me quietly: the students are not used to this kind of teaching, but they like it. We’ll see; I hope so.

My third class (comparative politics) is with graduate students: a grand total of three, when they all come. We had no classroom assigned, so we meet on the shaded balcony of one of the buildings. So far we’ve focused mostly on how to do research. I’m just glad classes finally started (early November); a Fulbright fellow in Mali says classes there won’t start till December.

Research isn’t easy in a country where almost all students can not afford books; and where book are mostly unavailable anyway. The internet cafes charge about $1 to $1.30 an hour with slow downloading. Campus computers (there are about 80) often have waiting lines formed behind the users. The university library suffers from students cutting out pages or even throwing books out the window because there is no copying facility available before the checkout and because copying costs money (though not much: about 3 cents a page). Still there is a reserve section (no check outs allowed). And the librarian, Mr. Oliver L. T. Harding, is enthusiastic and experienced.

100 + eager students in an unlit hall

Registration for the freshman human rights and democracy class kept growing. It quickly reached 50, then more than doubled by the time classes finally started. We meet in a large unlit hallway with no equipment, not even a blackboard. Students squeeze in five or six to a bench – wooden benches, no backs; narrow wooden desks. But students show every sign of being eager to learn. For them it’s a step toward a profession, a career.

I read before coming about a lecturer (as they call university-level teachers here) who had to practice speaking in a loud voice to be heard by a large class here. Speaking isn’t the problem; listening is. Even minimal conversation in low voices among 100 students creates a rumble that can quickly drown out a voice at one end of the class from being heard at the other. But so far, its not bad. My co-teacher, Ibrahim Bangura, insists on discipline and expelled one noisy student from class the first day. I’ve made an agreement with the students that is holding pretty well: whenever I raise my hand, the class should become quiet. I don’t do it very often, but when I do they are pretty respectful and quiet down.

In fact I’m proud of their behavior so far. We had a research workshop the other day. One class requirement is to do a 7-page research paper on a human rights topic of their choice. Another requirement is to do ten hours of community service: teaching human rights in a local school or other institution. They had many questions because they had not done either kind of assignment. But when I asked them to sit in groups of about ten and quietly (indoor voices; no shouts) discuss their planned topics, they were very quiet. And their proposals are sound.

But more than half flunked the first quiz. They’re not used to quizzes; I said one was coming, but the non-note takers apparently didn’t heed the warning. There will be more.

I’ve read their personal statements, including experiences in war and peace (more on that in a separate posting on this blog) and they have seen hell during the civil war which ended only a few years ago. They want to be peacemakers and human rights activists, lawyers, judges, etc. They also want to help promote peace. Community service in this class offers them a chance. And it reinforces what they learn in class and reflect on.