Story Publication logo October 1, 2009

Liberia: On the Eve...


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Glenna Gordon and Jina Moore look at Liberia's efforts to restore law and justice -- for victims of...

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Multiple Authors
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Overlooking Monrovia. Photo: Glenna Gordon

Jina Moore, for the Pulitzer Center (Photo by Glenna Gordon)

I made my first trip to Africa nearly three years ago, and I savored the kind of knowledge that amounts to faith. I was going to Rwanda, and I had no idea what it would be like. I only knew that it wasn't –couldn't be – as bad as everyone seemed to think. "Have you seen Hotel Rwanda?" they'd ask. "Yes, but that was ten years ago…"

All of which is to say, I don't do expectations. So on the eve of my trip to Liberia, where I'll join Monrovia-based photographer Glenna Gordon, everyone keeps asking me what I expect, and I again relish my ignorance. I suppose parts of it will look like Sierra Leone. I suppose getting around in English will be easier. But what do I think Liberia will really be like? No idea.

I also think that's the wrong question, at least for a journalist. I'm going because I want to know what it is like, in this moment of buoyant hope after a bitter war. Liberia has a president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom everyone around the world seems to love. Its onetime expats have come home in droves to rebuild the country. The Liberians I've met in New York talk about their homeland with pride. There is a sense of future in their voice, something I imagine must feel new to them.

I do have expectations for the kind of work photographer Glenna Gordon and I will do: We are not going to wring out stories of poverty and hopelessness. And we are not going to seek out the good news of
Africa. Glenna has been living in Africa for going on four years, and I've been back and forth on the continent for nearly the same -- long enough for a person in almost any profession to overcome missionary zeal, and to see enough to resist easy cynicism. The Africa we see is as complex as the America we came from, and we're trying do here what we'd do there: find authentic stories without imposing frames. We'll never escape being outsiders, but we're going to try to get as close as we can, and then share that with our audience – of outsiders like us – back home.

Meanwhile, as reporting goes, this is shaping up to be a dream departure. Glenna's sending a driver to the airport, SIM card in hand. I always feel good about a trip I can start already knowing my phone number.


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