Conservation Tales @ Bristol University!

I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at the Pugsley Lecture Theatre, University of Bristol on behalf of the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue Project. Having helped to facilitate the rescue of a baby chimpanzee named ‘Mira’ whilst in Liberia, I was keen to engage the audience about the Liberian bushmeat trade, whilst promoting Liberia as a nation. I was in distinguished company, being by far the most junior of the 4 speakers. I spoke alongisde Dr. Grainne McCabe (Head of Conservation Science, Bristol Zoo), Gavin Boyland (Series Producer, BBC Natural History Unit) and Rob Sullivan (Series Producer, BBC Natural History Unit). Their presentations were highly engaging, covering wildlife conservation challenges, wildlife filmmaking and also some sneak peeks into an upcoming series!

I used my own original videography and photography to illustrate my presentation. The presentation was very well-received and covered the following aspects:

  1. My Liberia video trailer
  2. Liberia’s negative stereotypes
  3. Optimism in the election of President Weah, and the high engagement of the youth in politics.
  4. Setting the scene of my ICS placement in Liberia- teaching, environment, challenges, successes.
  5. The rescue of Mira!
  6. The scale of the bushmeat trade in Liberia
  7. Causes of the trade
  8. Cultural perspectives of Bushmeat and wildlife crime.
  9. Liberia’s beautiful environment
  10. Ecotourism Potential
  11. The strength and resilience of the Liberian people.
  12. Solutions (Citizen Science, Scientific Collaboration, Capacity Building, Ecotourism, Accessible bushmeat alternatives, employment, empowerment of the Liberian youth).
  13. A Call to Action (Support LCRP, Research in Liberia sustainably, combat Liberia’s stereotypes, help promote tourism in Liberia).
  14. Thank You!

 

If you would like me to deliver a similar talk for your group or organisation, please let me know by commenting below! I am always keen to reach new audiences. 30657164_1746380788717327_5916290589792976061_n

 

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Dispatches From Liberia: Sunset in Kakata

From the heady ecstasy of my last visit to a Liberian church, an unfortunate death in the Kakata YMCA family saw a few UK volunteers, coupled with the majority of our Liberian counterparts, head to church once more. Weenor Zinnah was a much-loved member of the local community and also happened to be the wife of the head of the local YMCA.

It was thus a solemn party that made it’s way to the funeral, at a small church on the other side of the city. It was a scorchingly hot day, and having jumped off the motorbikes and trudged up the hill, I was already dripping with sweat. We bought a decorative wreath that was pure white from a young boy outside, and headed inside. The church was quite small, made of reddish brick, whilst the interior was fairly plain inside. This was more than compensated for by the masses of people inside, with well over 100 people inside before the service had even started! Friends and family were seated in the centre, whilst we were given seats to the right. Loud Liberian music blared through the speakers, whilst an impossibly large amount of people found seats, yet more continued to arrive. By the time we were ready to start, people were standing in the aisles and peering in through the windows and doors. It was incredibly moving to see such an enormous turnout, and I felt more than a little guilty at being afforded seats at a funeral for someone whom I didn’t know, and I indeed had never met. I appreciated the immense privilege bestowed upon us volunteers as part of the YMCA family, and I was honoured to show my support to Mr. Moore Zinnah, the director of our YMCA branch.

The funeral itself was the most intense experience of my life.

It is very hard to encapsulate this event into words, but here we go.

The service started with the Pastor corralling everyone into their positions, before the choir sang a small series of tuneful melodies to commence proceedings. Everyone stood, and we launched into one of the great hymns, ‘How Great Thou Art’, though of course with it’s own Liberian patois. After a few sermons, the coffin was quietly moved to the front of the church, marking the start of the tributes. We heard great testimonies of Weemor’s life, from friends, family and the many organisations that were proud to have her as a member. My passive role in the ceremony was uncomfortably disrupted when the priest called upon the ICS volunteers to deliver their tribute, which meant us! We all stood up and slowly walked in procession to the front of the church, the eyes of literally hundreds upon these Liberians and their strange white friends that were dripping even more with sweat. We stood behind the coffin, but in front of a great ocean of people, whilst Oliver, one of our counterparts, gave a short speech. I was suddenly very, very aware of how hot it was in that small room, and I felt myself swaying in the heat in front of so many expectant faces. We eventually made it back to our seats without incident, and Oliver had delivered a nice tribute. The raw fear of being handed the microphone at the moment will live with me for a long time to come, however! Shortly after this, I was pretty much forced to take photographs of the event by a Liberian volunteer, which felt incredibly wrong to me. Many Liberians were using cell phones to record the funeral, but it went against everything I know about funerals. I took a very small number of shots before sitting down as quickly as I could, to a conciliatory pat on the back from my UK volunteers.

The family then delivered some incredibly moving tributes, which were met by a great wall of sound, a tremendous outpouring of sheer grief from the crowd. The children did such a beautiful tribute amidst such a daunting crowd, and then a loud wailing began throughout the church. It was such an entirely human, visceral outpouring of great sorrow, and the sound seemed to pierce my soul. Such a display of emotion was unlike anything I’d experience before, and the audible pain that everybody was displaying caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise, and my body to shiver. I finally felt a tear escape my expert efforts to disguise it, and it fell to the dust below. My fellow UK volunteer, Ryan, was far younger than I, and I still have no idea how he kept things together so well in the circumstances. We helped each other throughout, and at this point we embraced. As the sound receded we slowly gathered ourselves, but our minds remained in those desperately sad few moments we had experienced. I still get chills today when I think about that time.

Another hymn followed, supported by a fabulous gospel choir, which raised our spirits once more, and the funeral became a celebration of life once again. Things took a slightly strange turn when an important Pastor from another region stood up to speak, and launched into a fiercely aggressive, fire-and-brimstone sermon about scripture. The sermon was loud and rather threatening, and I became intensely aware of how hot it was in that cauldron of a church. Not wishing to faint in the middle of the ceremony, we respectfully bid our goodbyes. I was amazed to find another hundred people (or more) outside, listening in and celebrating the late Weemor’s life, and it truly struck home about how big an event this was in the community.

This was my first ever funeral, which made it quite an impactful moment in my life. I appreciate that it was different from a UK funeral, but that by no means was a bad thing. The vibrancy, spirit and unity of the service was emotionally touching on the highest level. It was a deeply moving tribute to a much loved and respected young woman, and that has a universally sacred quality, regardless of my own upbringing and traditions. They have a beautifully dignified phrase for death in Liberia, saying that the ‘sun has set on their life’, and I can only hope it catches on all over the world.

This was a funeral fit for a Liberian Queen, which Weemor evidently was.

May she rest in peace.

Weemore Zinnah, Sunrise in 1977, Sunset in 2017.

Craghoppers Discovery Adventures Stretch Jacket Review

I’ve been wearing top-end Craghoppers jackets for a few years now, and I was delighted when they sent me the new Discovery Adventures Stretch jacket for my adventures in Liberia. Craghoppers have recently teamed up with the Discovery Channel to provide their camera teams with the right equipment for the job, no matter where in the world they may be, and in whatever conditions they may face. The technical-end of the Discovery Adventures range thus sits at the top of the Craghoppers tree, with practical features that help them stand out from the crowd.

 

Crag Jacket
Getting ready to go before Liberia! You can see the height of the side pockets here, which were a great help in the field. 

 

I’ve experienced tropical rain before, in Malaysia, but in Liberia it was something else. Short, sharp intense rain showers would regularly turn the roads into turbulent rivers, and it wasn’t surprising to discover that flooding is a regular problem in Kakata and across Liberia. On overcast days, I would pack my jacket into the bottom of my bag just in case a rogue shower would open up- as they occasionally did! The waterproofing on this jacket is exceptional, and it certainly didn’t struggle with some fairly ferocious rain. The coat also features a push-material, which should raise the hydrostatic head (waterproofing rating) even higher in practice. The heat in Liberia is pretty incredible during the day, and in Kakata at times it felt like it was too hot to work. The Discovery Adventures jacket has pretty good breathability, however, especially when compared to some older offerings, which meant that I wasn’t soaked on the inside of the jacket after a rain shower. Armpit ventilation zips are also on the jacket, though I always managed to forget to use them.

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Africa can be a pretty challenging environment for any outdoor gear, and so I was pleased that the jacket had tightly woven ripstop fabric, which helped to prevent any tears when I occasionally caught it on the corrugated tin buildings when passing through communities, or thorns in the bush! The pocket arrangement is in a similar vein to alpine climbing jackets, which means they two side pockets reach quite high up the chest. I found this quite useful when doing wildlife photography, as I could reach more easily to retrieve a lens cap, for example, when in an uncomfortable perch in a tree. This is a definite advantage over the more traditional pockets found in the older Oliver Pro jacket. The chest pocket was nicely sized, and it swallowed my GPS unit, phone and passport with no worries whatsoever. It also had a nice soft lining to keep them scratch-free.

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Not content with testing it in Liberia, I traveled to another climatic extreme a day after returning to the UK, experiencing the harshness of a Michigan winter. At times it was -25 Celsius in the day, and believe me when I tell you that walking around in those temperatures isn’t fun. I layered up with some fleeces and an Arcteryx down jacket and used my Discovery Stretch to throw off any snow, ice and freezing rain that came my way. Sure enough, my partner and I ended up in near-blizzard conditions on one occasion, but the jacket held up fine. I liked the fact that I could adjust the hood and neck to provide additional protection against the cold wind, and the sleeves were also easy to adjust around my gloves to ensure no heat was escaping. The only problem I have with this jacket is that they didn’t make an extra small, with the small being just a little bit too large for me. That’s a common problem though, no matter which brand of jacket I try!

I’ve used this jacket in two very different climatic extremes, it handled both of them very well indeed. I think this could be my number one outer shell for some time to come!

A Night in Kakata

As darkness falls across the communities of Kakata, many Liberians pile in to crowded little cinemas that play football games live from across the world. Everybody here has a team, with Barcelona and Real Madrid being the main choices, but English teams are popular too, with Chelsea, Liverpool and United fans in abundance.

But whilst Liberians are enjoying the drama on the pitch, the real drama occurs elsewhere. Take a seat amidst the inky black night, and look skyward, for every night the greatest battle on earth commences.

 It can be in the distance, it can be on the horizon or it can be right overhead, but one thing never changes- every night the gods are doing battle up there. Huge bolts of white lightning fork from cloud to cloud, casting the surrounding sky into sterling silver. All too soon, it fades into darkness. Another crack in the distance this time, and the sky erupts into golden yellow light, as another jagged fork etches it’s name into the sky. Africa used to be portrayed as a godless place by our colonislist forbears, but how wrong they were, for every night the gods thunder with rage  in titanic battles overhead. A close roar of thunder here resembles a natural force of artillery, arcing across the sky with a tremendous boom. The storms of West Africa are as beautiful as they are powerful, yet the sheer force of them is a stark, timely reminder of our mortality in the face of the natural world. 

Other men, too, have aspired to the power of gods in Liberia. Doe, Taylor, Johnson have all been guilty of this, and with electoral chaos pending, one can only pray that Weah and Boakai remember the past of this gifted but troubled nation.

One glance at the night sky, toward the greatest amphitheater on earth, will be all that they need. 

Dispatches from Liberia: A Week in Kakata 

After a pretty intense journey crammed into the back of the Landcruiser, and being thrust into the baking sun for lunch at a restaurant on the high street, it was hard to know what to make of Kakata at first. I couldn’t see beyond the big, dusty main street, and it looked like that was as big as it got. How could this be a city? It felt a little like the middle of nowhere, and I was slightly anxious with the prospect of 9 weeks here ahead of me. That turned into great anxiety when a man started to shout at the group, and particularly me, about something unintelligible whilst we were eating. He was quite aggressive, pulling his shirt down to show an old war-wound on his shoulder. Unsure how to respond I asked a nervous question of Emmanuel, our incredible volunteer supervisor, and he just told me to ignore him. So I did, and he eventually went away. I later learned that he had mental issues of some description, probably stemming from his time during the wars. In hindsight, this could have happened anywhere in the UK, let alone Liberia. Even so, Kakata was off to a less-than-auspicious start. 

We bundled back into the Toyota, as we set off on a mercifcully short joruney to our temporary accomodation. I started to get a feel for the size of Kakata, and I decided that all was not lost. We arrived at the secure compound that was to be our home for the first few nights, and I was amazed at the size of the rooms. I hadn’t expected a whole room to myself, let alone one with a double bed, and effectively an apartment for two! I looked out of the window and saw two tiny little finches, with a gorgeous marbled black and white plumage. This was an inkling that perhaps the birdlife might be better than I had hoped, and it was confirmed when I saw flocks of golden-yellow weavers in the trees overhead, and even more so when a beautful pale white and blue kingfisher landed atop some jagged glass on the compound walls. This was a pretty good start, though I doubt I’ll ever know what those intricate little finches were, but that’s a happy mystery, perhaps. 

Pretty soon afterwards, someone pointed out a huge beetle crawling about, easily the biggest I’d ever seen. I dislike bugs with a passion, but having witnessed it apparently attempt suicide by flying full-pelt into a building, I realised that they were only a threat to themselves. I was genuinely amazed to see a Rhinocerous beetle though, the king of the insect world for me. Huge beetles with a dark ‘tusk’ at the front, these were the beasts of wildlife books of my childhood, when I was even smaller than I am now (which is not a scientific impossbility, as many of my friends would have you believe). It was thus brilliant to see one up close. All in all, that’s not a bad list for a concrete fortress of a compound, lined with barbed wire, big lizards and huge shards of glass! 

A short while later I heard a shout that the ICVs, our Liberian counterparts had arrived, and I instantly felt a knot in my stomach. I was quite nervous about meeting them, simply because to not get on with my counterpart could be a disaster for my time here! I didn’t know what to expect, but I was met by the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You cannot understand the definition of friendly until you’ve met Liberians! They swiftly taught us the Liberian handshake, and we were soon making friends as the evening drew in around us. Some icebreakers got everyone going, and we learned who each of our 7 counterparts were. I was paired with the wonderful Safi, who is great fun and has been looking after me ever since. She seems to know everyone in Kakata, and is fantastic at putting me right when I make mistakes in the community. She’s taught me plenty already, but mainly that in residential areas you MUST say hello and shake hands with everyone you meet, which is very different to the UK, detached and ‘cold’ way of life. Safi has a big personality and has confessed to being someone who knows how to party, so have that to look forward to also! Our counterparts seem to have plenty of volunteering experience, through chruch, the YMCA and education, so we should be in every capable hands.

The next day was a Sunday, and Safi arrived early to take me to a Liberian church for the first time. We took April, another UK volunteer, with us too, and headed to St. Christopher’s, a catholic church a short distance away. The walk itself was exciting, dodging motorobikes on narrow dirt roads before I spied my first evidence of the heavy fighting that took place in Kakata during the civil wars, in the form of a bullet-riddled building. 

All these thoughts were eviscerated by the incredible experience that is a Liberian church service. It was literally everything I wanted it to be, complete with music, gospel singing and dancing! It was a long service, but the energy, happiness and relaxation in the room was palpable. The stress and hardship of the week were forgotten in full, for here was the the world of God and worship, and nothing less. Everybody went to the front of church to gift a small financial offering amidst a buzzing clamour of excitement, singing and dancing. I had a fairly christian schooling, so many passages of text and songs were familiar, but the Liberian English lexicon and dialect gave the bible a distinctly African flavour. 

I had to stand to introduce myself to the church, and had to state that my friend Safi had invited me. A Ghanaian woman also introduced herself, and we were then given a beautiful welcome by the congregation in the form of a song and the waving of hands. This was a special moment. In that church, you could forget everything, and be at peace. At the end, everybody wanted to shake our hands, and to welcome us personally to the chuch. I thus had ample opportunity to trial my newly-acquired Liberian handshake, and I’ve never quite felt so welcomed by a group of complete strangers. I’ve also never felt so relaxed, in such a foreign yet inherently familiar setting. Beautiful gospel singing still ringing in my ears, we headed away from the church, onto the road home. 

A street away, a tiny little girl that could barely walk was squatted amidst a steaming pile of stinking garbage, struggling to defecate in a plastic bag, naked to the world. 

If an image or a moment could be etched in your memory, then this was one of them, and believe me, it is seared on my mind. Amidst the happiness and the joy of chucrch, it was all too easy forget the realities just outside those holy gates.  Whilst we were celebrating, she was barely surviving. 

I must not forget that.

Dispatches from Liberia: Monrovia

Slowly meandering above the Sierra Leonean coast, my first views of Africa emerged from the mist. Golden rivers, lit aflame by the sun, twirled and swirled across lush green wetlands. A patch of long grass was flattened- an animal track! But what animal? A crocodile, a pygmy hippo? What an amazing question to be able to ponder! Then a few homes came into view, connected by the artery that is the blood red earth of Africa. I had made it!

 There were other memories of the journey too, of course. There was the bizarre London hotel, which was a tokyo sleep pod-cum-university halls. There was the heavy handed secuitry in Brussels that nearly confiscated my London snowglobe, a gift for my host family, and the small child who effecitvely invaded Belgium by running through security before being caught. There was the hilarious hostess on the long flight to Monrovia, her dutch humour and acerbic wit doing much to entertain me when I couldn’t sleep. Sierra Leone wasn’t my destination of course, so it was a bit surprising to learn we would be stoppinbg in Freetown before heading on to Monrovia. We all stole a view out of the open door as passengers got on and off, and my excitement reached fever pitch! The heat, the smells, the sights… Africa was so close, I could nearly touch it. 

In the darkness we plunged down onto Monrovia Roberts airfield, and the adventure began. The military efficinccy of Europe was replaced by the human chaos of Monrovia, with all manner of people directing us left and right in the terminal, with visa confusion and people trying to make a quick buck off us combining to make our culture shock more pronounced. Steppinbg out of the terminal, the heat nearly knocked me off my feet, and I seriouslty regretted wearing a light fleece for the flight. We were greeted by the excellent YMCA staff including Emmanuel, who did much to put our nerves at ease. We were bundled into two 4x4s whilst they quelled the gathering crowd, and we were off into the night. 

The journey that followed was the most intense of my life. Pitch-black, in entirely unfamiliar territory, we barrelled towards Monrovia. Huge lorries would burst out of the darkness, axles straining under their excessivley overloaded cargo. Parts would be hanging off cars, or perhaps be missing at all, and the driving was creative to say the least. Motorbikes were zooming about in the middle of this action, zipping around the speeding lorries like moths to a flame. Some bikes carried 4 passengers, and many had no headlights at all. Overtaking broken down vehicles and other debris in the middle of the road was a common occurence, and it was absolutely exhilarating and terrifying in the dark. Our drivers were both immensely skilled and courageous, and they did a fantastic job of keeping us safe, however. We stopped for food, experiencing the delights of Liberian cuisine for the first time. Fried plantains, spicy rise and some incredible chicken was a great start to the trip, though I regretted trying a sauce that we were offered. It was like trying to swallow lava, and I’m still not convinced my tongue is okay! My tastebuds were bathed in a world of new flavours and textures, however, and I was very, very happy. 

We set off into the darkness once more, headed toward the city centre. It was electric, absolutely buzzing with activity wherever you looked. It is hard to put in to words quite what Liberian roads are like, but believe me, every moment is edge-of-your-seat stuff. We also saw the Liberian police for the first time, sitting in the back of a pick-up, toting kalashnikovs, helmets and flak jackets. This was a stark reminder that we were not in the UK anymore, and I certainly wouldn’t pick a fight with them. 

Bumping our way down a dirt track near the city centre, we found our secure compund that was to be our home for the night, Hiking up a few sets of stairs with my bags all but killed me off, but between the YMCA staff and Jordan, my Glaswegian counterpart, we made it. Exhausted from a long day of travel, I set-up my mosquito net and decided to shower in the morning- the sweat could wait. I ducked under the net, and I was dead to the world in seconds. 

I awoke early with no prompting, blessing the electric fan as cool air kissed my skin. Finding a chair by the window, I concelaed myself behind the curtain and watched Monrovia come to life. I saw women in beautifully patterend dresses wander by, with babies strapped to their backs with the same beautful mateiral. I watched white 4×4 after white 44 drive by, each with a new orgnisation- the UN, UNDP, USAID and countless others passed by in very little time at all. Yes, this definitely wasn’t England! I saw men toiling away in the cooler air of morning, huge pieces of lumber straining their shoulders. Kids were everywhere, finding fun and amysement in everything they could find, inlcuding a swingball style game consisting of a ball, some string, and a stick. I watched golden yellow birds flit from palm frond to hanging cable whilst peach-coloured doves lazed on warm tin rooves. Kites and Eagles soaring past aded to the incredible energy of a morning in Monrovia. Below me, a shack-like restaurant opened up, emblazoned with the Chelsea FC logo and the words ‘Stamford Bridge’. You just can’t escape. This city was alive!

Breakfast consisted of a hard boiled egg and some bread, before all 7 of us squeezed into a landcruiser, together with YMCA staff. We blended quite nicely into the masses of white NGO 4x4s on the road! The two other men and I ended up in the boot of the Land Cruiser, which was incredibly hot and cosy but gave great views of the Liberian streets, and the chaotic traffic! People waded into traffic, selling chewing gum and crisps through the car window, whilst motorbikes would do their best to avoid them. There was a constant cacophony of cars honking- it seems quite normal to honk it every 5 seconds in Monrovia at least! Sitting in the back, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident, and saw a bike literally  break down and fall apart behind us. The glare of daylight removed much of the mystery of the night before, but it was still clear that literally anything could happen on the road. As we saw more of Monrovia, tiny shacks by the side of the road, made of tin, wood and other rustic materials gave way to bigger, more substantial buildings, including some pretty major Chinese development projects that were an incredible mass of concrete and steel. A short, unsuccesful trip to the British embassy and a long wait in a cafe to get our visas sorted was all we had time for in Monrovia, but it was enough to get an enthralling insight into Liberia, and into what lay ahead. We stole a brief glimpse of the Atlantic before it was time to go. Our bags stashed in another car, we squeezed into the boot of the Land Cruiser once more, and prepared to journey onwards.

It was time to head to Kakata.  

What Have I Done Now?

Avid followers of my blog (if there are any) will recall a post a while back where I commented on a Vice documentary I had seen, focusing on Liberia and in particular exploring the slums of West Point, part of the capital in Monrovia. I still remember being utterly shocked during the documentary, not quite being able to quite comprehend the levels of poverty I was witnessing. It was a different world, and not one I had any experience of. The naive youth of the post is telling- I knew so much less then than I do now, and it shows.

UK Photos
West Point isn’t the most developed of places.

Now my close friends know that amusing, strange and at times unbelievable things happen to me, often from a compulsive urge to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes my way. Dave ‘#SayYesMore’ Cornthwaite (who is currently pedaling around Norway’s fjords on a schillerbike, as you do) would probably be proud of that, though I feel it might irritate family and Catherine, my ‘lawyer for everyday life’, as she likes to call herself. It’s led to a few interesting experiences during my degree, such as the crazy lightning selfie video, a compilation of which currently has more views than people live in Russia. I’ve narrowly (and at times very narrowly) missed major incidents too- flying over Luhansk the week before MH17 was shot down on the same flight journey, and even the Istanbul airport attacks. As you can see, strange coincidences are not new to me.

 

 

Selfie
That moment when you know you’ve screwed up, really badly.

But this one is really weird. 

I applied for the International Citizen’s Service not necessarily thinking I’d get in, nor really considering where I might end up going. I’ve always felt that Africa was in my stars, and so I was hopeful for that at least. I wanted to be doing Disaster Risk Reduction work and hopefully use my (newly anointed) Geography degree, and thus I applied to Y Care International, one of the ICS programme partners funded by DFID. They mentioned disaster risk work plenty of times, and thus they were the only option for me.

 

Y CareThe assessment day went well, with lots of amusing team-building style activities and some genuinely interesting characters from as far afield as Glasgow and Belfast, which is a seriously long journey to London! The interview was pretty straight forward, and my boring non-drinker status helped me sail through the potentially more difficult personal issues section. By the end I knew that if selected, I’d be headed to one of a handful of West African countries.

‘Great! I’ll finally be headed to Africa if I get in… #LifeGoals etc’…

 

Then a few days ago, I did get in. I still didn’t know my destination…

 

Today I had an email, and found out. Guess where?

L-I-B-E-R-I-A.

I did more digging. The slums of WEST POINT are part of Y Care’s 2 projects in Liberia. Literally a 50% chance of me going there.

Oh my god. 

So 3 years on from my rather inane, naïve blog post, I might be about to witness it in the flesh. Hopefully not General Butt Naked though, who they interview in that documentary…

Christ.

 

Butt Nekd.png
The fearsome warlord in his ‘heyday’… He is now a repentant priest, apparently.

Now I might not be going just yet- I have a job interview to hear back from, but I’m very, very keen on the opportunity. It would enable me to network for future disaster risk research, something that could have a positive impact in a state such as Liberia, get practical experience of development work and actually do a proper job of it too, unlike those awful ‘I paid £2000 and painted an orphanage wall’ projects. The ICS programme is great, asking you to raise a sum for the charity itself whilst they cover all your costs both before and during travel, making it a great opportunity for all.

Liberia ebolaIf I do end up pursuing this, you’ll get to enjoy more blogs- even from Liberia- and even Vlogs too, charting my experiences over the 3 months. I’ve already started checking out the wildlife, and between civil wars & ebola, there is still some pretty tasty stuff out there. Pygmy Hippopotamus- you’re mine! So after all of that, it looks like the story of Billy and Liberia has just begun, in yet another weird web of coincidences. I’m already anxious to discover the plot!

Balo

Abject Poverty in Liberia: West Point, Monrovia

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 CANNIBAL WARLORDS OF LIBERIA (VICE NEWS DOCUMENTARY)

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,

UK Photos

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.