Portrayal Matters

I, Shari, was standing outside a kebab kiosk (a type of sandwich stand) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with some friends and friends of friends at about 4 AM after clubbing the night away, as one does. We were a colorful mix of people: Sudanese, Malaysians, Liberian, French, and Kazakhs and we were all chit-chatting, getting to know one another. This guy from Sudan asks me where I’m from and I tell him Liberia. He then goes “oh, that’s the country where you guys eat humans, right?” I cannot even begin to tell you the extent of my fury at that sentence. First of all, we were the only two Africans in this bunch of people and HE DECIDED TO SAY THAT ABOUT MY COUNTRY?? I felt betrayed! We as Africans need to stick together!! (I’m half serious-half joking about this reaction).

My reply to him was some smart-ass comment about him coming to Liberia and finding out for himself whether we’d prefer him in a soup or roasted (he asked for it). When I got back to my apartment, out of curiosity, I googled my dear country, Liberia. One of the very first things that popped up in the google image section was “cannibalism in Liberia” with pictures of rebel fighters holding human hearts and chewing body parts; the Ebola Virus only added fuel to an already blazing fire.  After being royally disgusted, I asked myself a serious question: “why was I upset by this Sudanese guy’s comment when it’s a fact and it fits the image portrayed of Liberia all over the world?”

My relationship with my country has been a tumultuous one. I used to be ashamed to invite friends home to visit because I couldn’t see the beauty in this breathtaking land, I only saw the flaws. I used to not post certain pictures on social media because the background wasn’t “nice enough”. But this was all until I had an eye-opening discussion with a well-meaning friend which served as a turning point for me. So we were in the car discussing the politicians in Malaysia when he asked “why is Liberia so poor even though it’s so rich in natural resources? Is it because the leaders are evil, selfish & uneducated?” This was a valid question but Liberia’s causes of poverty are multifaceted reasons that range from what he said to colonialism to nationalism etcetera and to limit it to just that seemed insulting so I got aggravated. Chimamanda Ngozi said in her TED Talk that “the consequence of a single story is that it robs people of dignity” and in that moment, in that car, I understood perfectly what she meant. I defended my country in that car and felt a visceral love and patriotism towards her and never looked back.

Ducor View
View of Monrovia from Ducor Hotel

Spring break 2009, I, Randell, was hanging out with my friends from the Caribbean when I got asked: “where are you from?” Living in America, there are a lot of divisions with race and identity so this question has become a routine part of my daily conversations. Every time I speak, I have to hear “You sound different. Where are you from?”. On some days, I just say Africa to avoid long conversations, on other days, I say Liberia and I have to educate and defend that answer. On this particular day, I said Liberia and a guy from Jamaica said “the place with the Ebola?” In response, I just sighed, said yes and quickly brushed his ignorance off. I wanted to say more, but this was not the place or the time, I just wanted to enjoy my Spring Break. So, we moved on to different topics and I thought that was done until this same guy decided that calling me “Ebola girl” later in the conversion was somehow acceptable. At this point I had to do the regular “angry black woman” thing and gave him a proper education on Liberia detailing how Liberia is the First Independent African nation and how She is much more than a disease-ridden land; I further went on to shed some light on his dear Jamaica and knock him way off his high-horse by pointing out the similarities between Africa and the Caribbean.

The sad part is that this was only one out of a million experiences I’ve had defending Liberia and her image; I spent most of my time while living in America trying to convince people that Liberia is “not that bad”. I went to Jamaica and traveled through the airports with the huge signs warning of Ebola and visitors from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Ebola crisis is no more and yet, this sign remains. Tourist travel statistics show a record 4.3 million people visited Jamaica in 2017 alone. That is 4.3 million more people walking away with that negative notion of Liberia and while I cannot change that, I can create a  more positive notion of Liberia for those people.

Fishtown, Maryland
Fishtown, Maryland

If you google “sleepless in Monrovia” today, one of the google finds will be an article about folks’ inability to sleep in Monrovia due to armed robbery. Of course, there’s armed robbery in Monrovia, but we sleep!! It’s not so rampant that the citizens of this city don’t ever sleep due to fear! But this is the image portrayed of our country and mind you, Liberia isn’t even listed amongst the top 50 countries in the world with high robbery rates according to the report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes.

Now, we’re not saying that we should ignore the fact that Liberia did go through about 30 years of instability which included the 14 years of a brutal civil war during which cannibalism occurred, nor should we not accept the reality that we do have crime in this country. But that is not ALL we have!

The perception the world has of Liberia needs some serious revamping. We cannot imagine why anyone would want to visit a place with so many negative images and stories.

But Liberia’s portrayal is unjust; there are so many positive things that are yet to be showcased to the world. Such negative portrayal is unfair to the beautiful waterfalls in Kpatawee and the green peak of Nimba Mountains; it neglects to show the beaches in the southeastern parts of Liberia with palm trees that adorn the shores for miles; and even we cannot properly capture in words the beauty of Harper’s coastlines or the colorful canoes at the mouth of Cavalla River. There’s also the fact that we supposedly have the best waves for surfing in West Africa (arguably one of the top 10 in the world) and the resilient, infectious spirits of the Liberian people which, in our opinion, remains unmatched.

Kpatawee Waterfalls, Bong County
Kpatawee Waterfalls, Bong County
Surfing in Liberia; Photo credit: ESPN

Showcasing the positive sides of our country is not just for saving face or personal satisfaction, it’s also for the benefit of the economy. How are we supposed to encourage tourists to come to Liberia or companies to invest when the only information/idea they have on our country is one of an unstable, violent, disease-ridden country? That’s not a country we’d personally want to visit or invest in.

It is based on these facts that we do our very best to not post too many negative things about Liberia on our social media platforms. We’ve made it our purpose to show to the world that the images they know are unjust. We’ve joined platforms to use our voices, images and time to show the Liberia we fell in love with. We have so many people doing their best to highlight the negatives so we’re going to do our best to highlight the positives. It is our hope the government of Liberia along with every Liberian will make this a priority. We have to tell our own stories so that signs in airports cannot be the things that speak for us. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism needs to collaborate with individuals and other entities in an effort to change the images of Liberia. We all should spread the positivity and let the world see our beautiful country for the potential it has!

Authored by Shari Raji & Zuleka

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