Thursday, June 30, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days.At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive)....[when showing an image from Google Earth] Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it finally dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. I really kicked myself on that one. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during these courses. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on the map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead?Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized again how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself...So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong...Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
Speaking of Twitter, Teju Cole, author of the previously-excerpted excellent read Open City, has had a twitter account, @TejuCole, for a while, but only in the last few weeks has he started to light it up with Haiku-remixes of headlines and stories from Lagos's newspapers. Totally brilliant and unique. Its impossible to chose a favorite. I just wonder how much of the clever phrasing and irony is from the original editorial team, or Cole's polishing.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The below is an excerpt from a May 31st, 2011 report in the Daily Observer Newspaper, by Marcus Malayea, entitled,"Gbarnga: Single Women Cause Stir among Couples." Special thanks to Aaron Leaf.
The attractiveness of scores of single Ivorian refugee women roaming the streets of Gbarnga is causing intense fear among Liberian wives.
Resident married women are becoming especially concerned about protecting their homes and maintaining their husbands...
As established by this newspaper’s investigation, most Liberian wives in Gbarnga have either consciously or unconsciously transformed themselves into personal guards for their husbands by making it an utmost duty to accompany them (husbands) everywhere, including night clubs...
Meanwhile, a rather ‘worried’ married woman by the presence of these Ivorian girls screamed that, “We will not sit down here and see these women destroy our homes. We will ensure that our husbands would not fall in the hands of these hungry refugee women.”
“If the situation demands that we employ the use of ‘juju’ to secure our marriages, we will. No woman is willing to be victimized in such manner,” another Liberian wife flared up.
According to the study some married men are threatening to divorce their wives because of what they (married men) referred to them as jealous women, while some have secured rental rooms for their refugee concubines.
“My brother, we have the right to move around and make things happen in different ways as husbands. The saying is ‘one cannot continue to eat one kind of soup over and again,” admitted a husband.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Two excerpts from two excellent, recently-published books.
Sinkor, Monrovia, July 1990
"We scattered. We all ran between the houses, everyone fleeing in different directions. Some were getting shot down. Others were escaping. I went inside an abandoned building. I climbed into the eaves of the roof. There was a little platform where the roof meets the wall. I saw that there were three other men who had done exactly the same. We could not be seen from below. We lay there in absolute silence, not daring to say anything to one another...
We stayed there, the four of us, for a long time, nobody speaking in more than a whisper. It grew dark. The new morning came. We were still lying there.
At about eight o'clock, the other two decided to climb down to the ground…Augustus and I deliberated. We did not think it was safe. Throughout the night we had heard soldiers, gunfire, shouting. Early in the morning we had heard them again. We stayed where we were.
So the two went down and left, and just a few minutes later, we heard shouting, then pleading, then gunshots. And then silence; we were sure they were dead. We heard men cursing in Krahn.
And so we just stayed. On and on and on. Augustus and I. In the end, we stayed in those eaves three nights. At no point did it seem safe to come down. The gunfire was always too near. But on the third morning, we could not take it any more. We had both dehydrated. We had both become sick.
So, we came down. Augustus was our point guy. He was checking around to see where the soldiers were. We had gotten a block, maybe just a block from the building where we had hidden, when the soldiers saw Augustus, and we both ran.
I ran into a house. I was very, very fortunate. It was one of those houses you call a "straight" : you know those buildings where the front door leads straight to the back down a passage. I ran through the front door and closed it, through the back door and closed it. They thought I was in the house, they searched it, but I was still running. Ideas were just flowing to me: do this, do that, ideas were just flowing to me. I threw myself in the long grass. Lie down.
I heard people scream in the house. They were beating them. Then I heard my friend Augustus. He was crying: "Don't kill me! Don't kill me!" They said: Where's the other rebel? Where's the other rebel?" "I don't know."
And then Ba Ba! Ba Ba!
I didn't hear his voice again."
--Little Liberia, Jonny Steinberg. pp.86-88
Kilungutwe, Congo, June 2000
The soldiers herded the traders and the locals into a small house below the road, a sturdy cement structure about twenty feet by forty feet, with blue wooden doors and windows and a corrugated iron roof. The sixty people stood packed like sardines in the small house. The sun went down, leaving the room in darkness except for some cracks in the window, through which they could see a fire that the soldiers had lit outside. It was hot and humid, and the air was filled with the sound of muttering and breathing. Several people prayed out loud. A baby's cry turned into a persistent wail, until finally her mother began sobbing and said that her baby was about to suffocate.
"We called the soldiers outside and asked them to have pity on the newborn," Michel told me.
Without asking any questions and as if one cue,t he soldiers let the woman out. Suddenly, the prisoners heard screams coming from outside, first from both mother and child, then just from the child, then silence…All of a sudden, the room was full of people crying and praying to God in French, Swahili, and whatever other language came to their lips.
Michel was in the back of the room, where he was crushed against a wall as the others tried to get as far as possible from the door, through which the soldiers came and grabbed people one by one. As the people thin ed out, he was bale to get a better look at his surroundings in the half-light. He saw that one of the thin ceiling boards was loose. He hastily climbed up and bumped into several other people lying in the small space between the ceiling and the roof. It was even hotter and danker here, and he could feel the bodies of his neighbors trembling with fear. He was close to fainting and felt like vomiting.
After a while, the screams faded below them and they could hear soldiers shuffling around the sound of bodies being moved outside. Someone was counting, then a voice in Kinyarwanda said:
"How many did we put in the house? Did you count?"
"Yes there were at least sixty."
"Are you sure? Where did the rest of them go?"
"I'll check again."
Feet began to scrape the floor below them and then someone piked the ceiling boards.
"We! You up there! How many are there?" Michel's neighbors' trembling increased until he was afraid they would begin to rattle the ceiling boards. "I can hear you up there! How many are you?"
After poking for a while, the soldier went outside. They hear the men muttering with each other, and then several came back into the room. Suddenly, an iron spear tip burst through a ceiling board not far from where Michel was lying. The boards were made out of flimsy plywood and the spear pierced it easily. The next jab hit Michel's neighbor in the leg, who cried out.
"Come down now, or we will get out guns! Just tell us how many you are, and then come down!"
Several more spear jabs came through the roof. Three of Michel's fellow prisoners climbed down from the hideout. Michel turned to a woman who was lying next to him.
"We must pray now, " He told her. "we are going to die." She started crying.
"When I looked to my side, I saw a woman in white lying next to me," Michel finally said. "I hadn't seen here before, and It bought it was strange that she was wearing all white. I turned to the woman lying on my other side, who was sobbing, and asker her, 'Do you see her? The woman in white?' It was very strange to see a woman dressed all in white. It was ver dusty then; it was the dry season. White clothes were maybe things you wear to church or to a baptism. And she seemed--she seemed to be glowing. My neighbor shook her heard and continued sobbing. Then the woman in white said--her voice didn't seem to be coming from her mouth, but from inside my head-- she said, 'Stand up! Stand up now!" And I gathered my strength and just stood up. The roof was very low-- you couldn't even kneel there-- but as a stood up, a sheet of roofing came undone from its blots, and I could see the night sky. Thee was no moon that night, I remember. I stood up and slide down the roof. 'Someone's getting away!' one of the soldiers cried out, and they opened fire. I could hear the bullets whistling by me and going into the ceiling where I had been lying with the others. But I wasn't hurt. I jumped down from the roof and began running into the bush that surrounded the house. My legs were moving on their own." Michel looked at me. 'That angel saved me. God saved me."
He ran through the palm trees and the cassava fields that surrounded the village as shots rang out behind him. He kept on running until he found the hut of a relative of his on a hill several miles away. Together, they watched the village burn in the valley below them.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
Last week, I was surprised to read a headline in The Atlantic: In Côte D'Ivoire, a Model of Successful Intervention. I was interested in hearing this thesis out. Unfortunately, the author, Marco Chown Oved, did not write a convincing or coherent article.
Oved bites off a sizeable assertion, and is given barely two pages to both summarize the conflict and support his argument. The writing suffers in a number of ways, blasting through these complex, multifaceted issues in quick sentences trading in trite phrases. Loosely-defined terms and jargon either muddle the assertions or come off as insensitive.
He even skips clearly defining what exactly he means by intervention. As France has always been on the scene, and UNOCI was established in 2004, he seems to narrowly embrace the term as the military operation which neutralized Gbagbo in his bunker. In skipping over both the decades-old origins of the conflict, as well as the blood on the hands of the victors as much as the vanquished, he sets a very low bar for commendation that the article suggests for the French, the UN, and Ouattara.
For certain Oved doesn't mean to imply the legitimacy any violence, or be so calculating about the loss of human life, but in structuring paragraphs around the tired bromides of realpolitik, he understates the severity of the human and societal harm, and suggests that Gbagbo's removal by the French was an orderly denouement to a theatrical story, rather than an unfortunate, uneasy dissipation of a terrible circumstance--with potentially serious, lasting consequences.
In the end, Oved fails to provide any example of how this could be a positive model for foreign involvement in the affairs of other states, or persuasively argue that the post-election period in Cote D'Ivoire is anything other than another horrible, disappointing episode of state failure in West Africa, one that the rest of the world didn't pay enough attention to.
The portions in blue below are excerpts from the article, with my comments.
But unlike what happened in Libya -- or in Iraq or Afghanistan -- the intervention in Côte d'Ivoire worked.
Côte d'Ivoire...stands as an instructive case study in international intervention, one which was swift, decisive and -- most importantly -- avoided what would surely have been a far-worse outcome.
If this article's definition of "international intervention" is merely employing superior weaponry to force an end to a violent standoff, then maybe this could be "an instructive case study." And even in that narrow definition, surely Libya shows that the use of massive firepower is not enough to unblock a stalemate. Iraq and Afghanistan?
These sentences also ignore the larger, more structural questions of the earlier opportunities for the UN, France and others to intervene, and their complicity and contributions to the situation in the first place, which stretch back for years.
While the French military operation which extracted Gbagbo from his hideout succeeded in apprehending him, and led to a gradual deceleration of the violence occurring throughout that city and country, it was not "swift" nor "decisive" -- it was slow and indecisive. The UN, already on the ground for years, did not protect civilians to the extent that it was formally authorized to do nor that it had the military force to-- the peacekeepers once again did not keep the peace. No consequences pressured Gbagbo as he stalled for time in the New Year, with the country's economy collapsing as he sent negotiators away empty handed and foreign powers dithered.
Lastly, not here or anywhere else in the article does Oved discussion the problematic association with French power that will continue to undermine Ouattara's legitimacy, and feed into conspiracies about foreign control of Cote D'Ivoire's government and economy.
These "death squads" would threaten and beat their targets, later returning to take the person away. Bodies began to turn up around town. City morgues, ordered not to release any corpses, filled up with bullet-ridden bodies, the tell-tale stench perceptible from blocks away.
It's hard to say when the case for a military intervention can be made, when exactly things went from deplorable to unacceptable. Between December and March, life in the city continued as best it could. People learned to cope with the roadblocks and the heavy security presence, the disappearances and the occasional body on the side of the road. The world, however, started to take notice once the killing came out into the light of day.
Yes, it is hard to say--maybe instead of saying "its hard to say," Oved could have explored this issue a little, especially if this episode is supposed to be "instructive." Also, people "cope" with the flu, not disappearances, the occasional body, or killing-- especially when they themselves are the bodies piling up in the morgue or on the side of the road. What a thoughtless choice of words.
Incidentally, by putting "death squads" in quotation marks, the author implies that these were not, in fact, death squads. Surely he doesn't mean this.
While the UN mission has been operating under its most aggressive rules of engagement, known as a "Chapter 7" mandate, since it began in 2004, it had routinely avoided intervening in the post-electoral crisis. Local mission chief Choi Young-jin simply certified the results showing that Ouattara had won, and then sat back and hoped Ivorians, and later African mediators, would be able to work things out. But with hostilities in the open, and no clear resolution in sight, UN and French forces swung into action...
Had the rebels been left to their own devices, Gbagbo's heavily armed soldiers would have almost surely turned Abidjan into a bloodbath.
What is the threshold to declare that Abidjan was not already a "bloodbath?" The UN stood on the sidelines of an increasingly ridiculous, dangerous, and violent situation. They did sit back, they did not swing into action. To praise the UN and French actions is to set a very low bar for satisfactory performance when foreign entities have the power to alter the course of a stand-off.
Now, almost two months later, the streets of Abidjan are bustling. The marketplaces have reopened and life is returning to normal. Pro-Gbagbo police officers are back on patrol, working for their new president. If it weren't for the bullet holes on the facades of buildings and the torn election posters yellowing on lampposts, you could almost say that every trace of the crisis has been erased.
You could almost say that, but that would be horribly insensitive and inaccurate. The statement ignores the collective, household and individual trauma, both physical and psychological, caused by collapse of the economy and the society. Also, the presence of thousands of missing and dead family members, and of tens of thousands of international refugees, is here excluded from the accounting of the "trace of the crisis."
Men, women, and children are hungry, sick, injured, and traumatized. Too fearful to return home. Jobs, farms and homes are gone. Months of education, nutrition, health care and general welfare have disappeared.
Life is "returning to normal" most probably because people need to eat, and trade, and earn money, to survive-- they cannot afford to stay at home and grieve; they need to make some hard currency in the market to feed their families.
This passage comes off as lazy, taxi-on-the-way-to-the-airport journalism. I was startled to read it from someone who reports to have spent a full year in the country.
While the ongoing reprisals and revenge killings carried out by the new president's forces are a serious problem, they amount to neither an illegitimate power grab nor an attempt to drag the entire country into war. Justifying war is a dangerous thing, and the estimated 3000 deaths will remain a national trauma. But in Côte d'Ivoire, a military operation put the breaks on an escalating situation that was turning out far worse. It was an intervention we might learn from, especially before attempting regime change again.
These sentences diminish very serious issues given cursory mention. Murders perpetrated by ethnic discrimination will have continued detrimental pressure on both urban and rural Ivoirian society. This passage doesn't entertain the degree of likelihood that future violence or conflict will explode from these simmering tensions and need for reprisal-- a fresh source of division and anger which can last across generations.
If there was a polemic to be taken up here, it might be that this absolutely was an attempt to drag the entire country into war. Seemingly, Oved doesn't define the post-election conflict as a country-wide war. Again, what are the thresholds for definition here?
It took less than two weeks. It removed Gbagbo from power only once it became evident that local opposition could not. And in doing so, it prevented those missiles in Gbagbo's basement from being employed against innocent civilians.
Cote D'Ivoire has been disintegrating for years, and has been divided in two for nearly a decade. The election took place four months ago. The economy began to shut down in the early months of 2011. The mass exodus of urban and rural communities to safety began about the same time--the majority of which have not returned to their original homesteads; a huge number of whom continue to strain the already-meagre resources of eastern Liberia. Massacres took place in both Abidjan and the Liberian frontier over the course of a month.
What took less than two weeks is for French military forces to extract Gbagbo from his city-center redoubt. This ended the preposterous schizophrenia of the country having two presidents, and left a damaged, weakened country in its aftermath. Yes, this is better than if no helicopters had taken to the skies, if Gbagbo were allowed to rule.
But to wrap it up so neatly, to roll the credits over the scene, fade to black, is to miss many of the lessons that could be learned from this horrific conflict.
Cote D'Ivoire is surely a model of instruction on international involvement and intervention-- but probably not at all in the way Oved suggests.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Sheila on Broad Street: My beautiful mother on Broad Street in Monrovia. We lived there 1967-72 and she came to visit me and her friends when I returned as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She loved Liberia and my family considers those years the best of our lives.
Gurley Street, 1974. Anyone who lived in or near Monrovia knows about Gurley Street. I remember it as a 15 year old where I would go to the “juke joints” and learned how to dance to James Brown and Sam and Dave. Around midnight would step outside and buy some pepper chicken and round bread from the lady cooking on the street. Also, a small bottle of Stockton Gin. My mother thought I was staying with my friend in town and her mother thought she was staying with me out in Caldwell. She nearly fainted when I told her all about it years later! Took this picture when I returned as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Thursday, June 9, 2011
In May 1999, The city of Kisangani, later dubbed the City of Martyrs, fell victim to the worst bout of urban warfare the Congolese war had ever seen. The battle had dramatic consequences: it spelled the end of the Rwandan-Ugandan alliance and brought to the fore the plunder of the country's riches.
The city's reputation had not always been so bleak. The town of a million people was located in the middle of the country at a bend in the Congo River. In the 1960s, it had been an attractive city laid out along grand evens lined with jacaranda and mango trees. It is clear that the Belgians had had big plans for the jungle city: Italianate turrets and futuristic, Art Deco architecture; streets named after Chopin, Beethoven, and Belgian royalty; and a city divided by the great river into "Rive Droite" and "Rive Gauche" reminiscent of Paris.
Map of Kisangani, 1997. From the University of Texas Libraries Collection
Kisangani formed a trade hub with the eastern provinces by road and with Kinshasa by river. Roads branched out into the jungles to the north, where there were large ranches and coffee plantations, and merchants brought huge bags of rich palm oil down the river in dugout canoes. However, Mobutu's kleptocracy had reversed the flow of time in the town, as buildings crumbled and the jungle reclaimed land.
The war had further sapped the life out of Kisangani. The whitewash had faded from the Art Deco facades, the pavement was cracked and overgrown with grass, and most shops were boarded up and empty. River traffic had all but ceased, as no boats were allowed up the river from Kinshasa into rebel-held territory. With no fuel or spare parts available, the only motorized traffic on the streets were a few dozen vehicles belonging to humanitarian organizations. The only means of leaving town--unless you wanted to trek on foot for a week through the forest--was by plane, so all luxury goods had the cost of an air ticket slapped on to their price tag.
The isolation had its impact on the locals. Almost 10 percent of children were severely malnourished, retarding their physical and mental development and making them prone to disease. The inhabitants now had to rely on the tens of thousands of toleka ("let's go" in Lingala), the bicycle taxis with cushions bolted onto their baggage racks for passengers. Except for the parish and several hotels, which had diesel-run generators that sometimes worked, the city was left in the dark after sunset. Kerosene lamps and candles flickered in bars at the roadside.
Stanleyville, Belgian Congo, 1957
Kisangani became the graveyard of Rwandan and Ugandan reputations, where the two countries' lofty rhetoric gave way to another, more tawdry reality.
---above passages from pp.235-6
Other than finger-wagging by diplomats, there were few consequences for the occupying forces. A joint investigation by the Rwandan and Ugandan army commanders arrived in town and agreed on taking steps to prevent further fighting, but little was done…They banned toleka riders--around 2,000 in the whole town-- from working, accusing them of complicity with Wamba and the Ugandans. They even dismantled the famous scaffolding set up by the Wagenia fishermen in the Congo River; they said the fishermen had helped guide the Ugandans to safety during the fighting. The scaffolding, imposing thirty-foot-tall pieces of timber lashed together and anchored in the rapids, has been a tourist attraction in Kisangani since the first Belgian colonial postcards were made. The Rwandans certainly did not know how to make themselves loved.
--above passage from p.246