In this age of desensitisation, it is very rare that I get shocked by something. Much like anyone my age, I guess I’m a veteran of the best and worst that the internet has to throw at you, from videoed murders in Bangladesh, to earthquakes and ISIS beheadings. To be reduced to a stunned, awful silence is thus quite an event for me.
I don’t really think I need to use many words for this, so simply watch a part of this video!
The thing is, it isn’t even the parts about the various cannibal warlords. I’m quite well acquainted with them through my past readings of the 2nd Liberian Civil War and other West African conflicts, in particular the excellent ‘My Friend the Mercenary’ by James Brazabon. A very compelling account of the war on the side of the LURD rebels is given by Brazabon, as well as his relationship with the notorious mercenary Nick du Toit, making for a harrowing read. I guess the premise of the documentary was a bit lost on me, although it was interesting to compare Brazabon’s portrayal of some warlords with their ‘new’ characters today. Somehow I feel that in a great oxymoronic fashion, a lot has changed whilst so much has stayed the same,
What shocked me was the sickening visible poverty that was on display in West Point, Monrovia (the capital). The children are visibly malnourished and afflicted by infections; the adults struggling to survive. A sandy beach that could be all rights be a prosperous tourist attraction is instead littered every few feet with human faeces; the residents of the West Point do not have access to proper sanitation, and thus the beach serves that purpose. Fetid open sewers run through the streets. A young man raps about Liberia and the aids epidemic, with the children happily singing the haunting chorus of ‘aids’.
It will come as no surprise to learn that since that film was shot in 2011/2012, the Ebola epidemic ravaged the township. In an area with non-existent sanitation, West Point must have been one of the most vulnerable settlements. Further complicating matters is the fact that a number of residents are ex-warlords or child soldiers, making them some of the poorest of the poor in Liberia.
Imagine living in West Point, somehow eking out an existence in the most miserable of conditions, only for the terrible haemorrhagic fever of Ebola to hit, and to then have your slum quarantined by the government, without anyone allowed in or out, at gunpoint? What kind of an existence is that?
Admittedly, I am basing my thoughts on what were no doubt carefully selected shots by the Vice Crews, but I believe strongly enough in my sentiment to let it go. This isn’t a type of poverty that can be solved overnight, and at the current rate perhaps it will never be solved. It was a humbling, grounding experience that has reinforced my philosophy on students and our degrees.
As Geographers, we are in a unique position to make a real difference to some of these issues, and personally this is what I hope to do in the future. We can genuinely make an impact on a practical level, be it in climate science, hazard prevention or poverty alleviation. We are very fortunate to be in the situation we are in, and when there are those who are so much drastically worse of than we are, as in West Point, I see it as a moral and ethical obligation to do something. The West has thrown plenty of money at such issues, without really wanting to get its hands dirty. Could the next generation of Geographers make a difference? It is all very well to feel bad about it, but we need less sympathy and more empathy. More people willing to try, basically. The money will be poor, the hours will be long and the work will be tough. But making a difference? Priceless.
I think it is time for things to change.