Welcome! This blog documents my experience as a Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellow with the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development during my studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed are solely my own and are written to share experiences, introduce issues, and initiate conversation. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, August 9, 2007


One issue that has troubled each of us this summer is rape. It is exhausting to think about the enormity of the problem in Liberia and the major institutional and cultural barriers to doing anything about it. The legal system is weak; the rape is rampant; the women are completely disempowered. Yet, with a problem so horrifying, clearly something has to be done.

This week the Vice President has been promoting and publicizing the establishment of a court in Monrovia to try only rape cases. This is an attempt to respond to more than 30 rape cases on the court dockets that have yet to be tried.

Last week, I helped draft Minister Gayflor's key note address to the Liberian Council of Churches. The fact that they invited her to speak on the topic of Gender-based violence was a positive sign that Liberians are beginning to recognize the problem.

NGOs have plastered the capital city with billboards in an attempt to sensitize the predominately illiterate population about violence against legal. Drawings emphasize the messages: Rape is a crime. Rape leads to jail. Your woman is your friend, not your enemy - stop violence against women.

The awareness is increasing, but its hard to feel encouraged. Yesenia and Jeff visited a county jail and spoke with a man accused of rape. His defense: it wasn't rape, she had a boyfriend. Or in other words, she was not a virgin and therefore it couldn't have been rape.

There is a long way to go --- but if any journey deserves the hard fought battle, it is this one.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gbarpolu: wake up call to a different world

Last weekend, four of us took a trip into the interior of Liberia to visit a traditional village called Nyaluwai. The one-night excursion stands out as the highlight of my summer, offering a glimpse into the rural reality of Liberia, its challenges, and the persons who live it.

Nyaluwai is, without question, the poorest, most isolated place I have ever seen. It is only accessible by foot: a short walk from the riverbed if you cross the river in a canoe, or a 11 hour walk from the capital city in the county. Given that our trip was 2 days and 1 night, we undoubtedly took the river route. Not to say that the drive to the river was an easy feat. With dirt roads turned to mud puddles during these rainy months, and bridges that I was concerned to even walk across, our arrival to the river village opposite Nyaluwai was questionable (see entry on accessing Gbarpolu County).

Yet, without a doubt, the takeaways from the experience far outweighed the travel consequences of a sore bum and the near heart attacks on rural roads. My mind and heart are still racing from the sights and reality, and for the first time all summer, I finally felt immersed in the reason I believe we must tirelessly dedicate ourselves to development.

This is humanity. The children are playful with beautiful smiles and the community is generously welcoming. Yet, comparing the standard of living for a woman in Nyaluwai to even a lower class woman in the United States is appalling. Given the technology, knowledge, and global communication at this stage in human history, there is no excuse for a woman to suffer in labor for 3 days before being carried in a hammock across a river and for 12 hours to see a trained midwife and deliver the dead baby. In an incredibly fertile land, why must women spend every hour of daylight in intense labor to farm, process, and cook one daily serving of rice for their families?

Even for the 4 of us who are dedicated to development, this trip was a wake up call. Gender disparities, constraints to educations, labor strains, malnutrition, traditional societies, the lasting effects of war, agricultural practices, subsistence living, democracy, access to health care, and community-led development - the insights were many and I know each of us continue to process and struggle with the challenges we saw and the warm welcome we experienced.

I will be posting a series of blogs reflecting on the weekend. I'm not sure that I can do the community and its citizens justice - but I will try. Their lessons were many and I am honored to be able to pass them along.

***For more information, definitely check out Rupert's blog. He has an incredible synapses of the development challenges and some of our personal takeaways from the experience in Nyaluai. Thanks Rupert!

Gbarpolu: The challenge of inaccessibility

Here are some photos of our journey to arrive at the village of Nyaluwai. The trip in the car consisted of a 2 hour drive on pot-holed pavement and 2 hours on an off-road path through the trees. 7 of us crammed into the SUV - 4 squeezed in the backseat with 2 grown men in the passenger seat. Not exactly comfortable, but it sure beat walking all day and night as most villagers would do to make it into town.

The trip was reminder of the dire need for infrastructure investment - not only for the horribly damaged roads of Monrovia, but also for the rural communities that will find it nearly impossible to move forward with education, health, and agriculture without the increased accessibility provided by bridges and a more reliable road network. Take for example the efforts to install a much needed water pump for drinking water: villagers carried the cement and supplies on their backs for nearly a day to get them to the Nyaluwai.

Canoes, pot-holes, and dilapidated bridges: adventurous for a weekend excursion... extremely constraining as a way of life.

Moses, Henry and Ernest (our guides and our driver) rebuilding a section of the bridge.

PHEW! Our 4-wheeler made it across the bridge, thanks to the unbelievable driving skills of Ernest. If you look closely, you will notice one of the planks breaking just behind the driver's side rear tire. Also, you can see the "no guns" sticker on the driver's side door, another reminder of the country's recent conflict.

The canoes that carried us across the St. Paul River from Bong County into Gbarpolu County - the final leg of the journey to reach, by far, the most inaccessible and isolated village I have ever been privileged to visit. The canoes are large, hollowed out tree trunks with rungs inserted for seats. They are paddled by one (extremely strong) man who uses a small, hand carved paddle (about 2-3 feet long) to maneuver across a river boasting quite a strong current. Impressive, to say the least.

Me, Molly, and Ernest riding across the river. Molly and I, always ready to inspire a laugh, are imitating a photo taken of Madam President Sirleaf canoing across the river into Guinea with the Presidents of Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Gbarbolu rice processing: a daily activity for Liberian women and girls (entry in progress)

Process used by women to remove the rice seeds from the stalks (threshing)... not exactly a combine.

Process used to pound the rice seed and break the husk off of the grain.

An incredibly challenging way to bounce the grain/husk mix attained by pounding in order to separate the rice grain from the husk. One wrong move and all your work is on the ground for the chickens!