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Field work in Liberia and a Review of The Vice Guide

February 6, 2010

When I tell people that I do research on post-conflict transitions in Liberia, I am often asked whether I conducted field work in Liberia. The answer to that question is a resounding yes. In fact, I felt that it in order to properly write about a post-conflict environment, it was important to experience one for myself. To that end, I lived in Liberia for a total of six months, first in 2005 around the time of the election, and returning again in the spring of 2007.

Sometimes, the conversation about Liberia would continue. “What was it like?” is what I usually get asked next.

And I never really know how to answer that question. It was amazing, frightening, empowering, isolating, fascinating, boring, rewarding, beautiful, depraved, hot, challenging, inspiring, depressing, and more. While there, this mixture of feelings would often churn inside of me leaving me to wonder what the heck I was doing in a country where the memory of violence was so fresh that war might actually break out before my very eyes.

It is hard to explain what it was that made me feel so mixed up. Yes, Liberia was poor. Extremely poor– one of the poorest places on earth in fact. But it wasn’t just the poverty– I’ve seen poverty in other countries before and it was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for explaining how I felt about being there. There was more to it than that.

I know that insecurity contributed to my inner turmoil. And here I’m not talking about my own sense of insecurity as much as the average Liberian’s sense of insecurity. After all, I stayed mostly in NGO guest houses, often inside a walled compound with guards. Sure, I was worried about security– paranoid about it in fact– but I had the resources to protect myself to a reasonable level. (Or at least, that is what I told myself.) But in a city like Monrova, the average Liberian lived in a shack– with a piece of corrugated tin in place of a door. This was a serious concern– sure, I felt reasonably protected (most of the time), but what about everyone else? How can you protect yourself and your family from thieves and rapists– never mind the rumoured heart doctors– when you don’t even have a proper door?

And there were the children… they were everywhere with their adorable smiles and their open arms. My heart broke every time I had to think about the fact that they did not have enough to eat or could not go to school. Many of them were missing a parent and had witnessed atrocities that I could never have even imagined in my worst nightmares.

There were very clear divides between people who had the means to eat well and stay safe (mostly foreigners and the Lebanese)– and the rest of the Liberian citizenry. There was not only a cultural gap that had to be overcome, but also one of class, privilege, and life experiences.

At the same time, I was there to do work. I had to go on and conduct my research. But to do that and to interact with Liberians on a regular basis, you have to steel yourself somewhat. So part of your heart closes off to the suffering around you– my sense of “normal” had to shift dramatically. It’s a coping mechanism. And that is how you adapt.

This was part of the reason why ex-pats were mostly friends with ex-pats. With close Liberian friends, you are forced to confront how difficult their existence is in very personal terms. It is a stark reminder of why you are there in the first place. Of course, this makes it harder to relax. It’s also hard to be friends when there is so much inequality inherent in your status. Think of trying to befriend a millionaire– it’s hard for the millionaire to know if you want to be her friend because she’s rich or because you want a job or because you actually like her. That is sort of what it is like. Especially in 2005 when foreigners and researchers were still relatively rare.

My Liberian experience in 2005 is probably as close as I will ever get to being a rich celebrity: I could afford to buy whatever I wanted, I had access to some of the most important people in the country, I regularly ate in restaurants (there were about 5 in total), I lived in houses with cooks and housekeepers and regular electricity, I had unlimited internet access, I got invited to all the big social events, and random people on the street would try to engage me in conversation. My research had me interacting with regular Liberians so I kept one foot in the real world, but I could always escape into this bubble world when I needed a break.

And the bubble world was an exclusive world. Entry depended on a few factors: Skin colour, Nationality, Wealth, Job status, Appearance (Beautiful women and prostitutes). It was strange to automatically become a part of this world by virtue of my Westernness.

I’m writing about all of these feelings and experiences because I watched The Vice Guide to Liberia today. Here is the blurb from the trailer:

In The Vice Guide To Liberia, VBS travels to the capital city Monrovia to meet three men who participated in the 14 years of civil war that ravaged the West African country.  Former warlords General Rambo, General Bin Laden and General Butt Naked give us guided tours of some of the most dangerous, impoverished areas including jails, brothels, and heroin dens. Despite the UN’s intervention in the country, the majority of Liberia’s young people live in desperate poverty. Surrounded by filth, drug addiction, and teenage prostitution, the ex child soldiers who were forced into war struggle to fend for themselves by any means necessary. As the former President Charles Taylor fights accusations of mass war crimes in The Hague, the people strive for positive change against all odds. America’s one and only foray into African colonialism is keeping a very uneasy peace indeed.

After watching it, all of those mixed feelings that I had had in Liberia came flooding back. I remembered what it felt  like when I first arrived and that sense of disorientation and the eerieness that would occasionally hit me. It was hard to tell how much of this was real and perceptible to others, and how much of it was in my head. I did feel like I was on another planet sometimes and it was comforting for me to see that I was not the only one who had experienced this sense of otherworldliness.

Having said that, The Vice Guide does not portray the country fairly. Yes, it was interesting, entertaining, and accessible. And yes, I also agree that it will alert people to the problems in Liberia because the host, Shane Smith, is such an irreverent personality. And yes, I realize that they call it The Vice Guide for a reason. But it also chose to emphasize stereotypes of Liberia, and Africa more generally, in a way that seemed exploitative. (If you’re going to do this, why not call it The Exploitative Stereotype Guide to Liberia?)

There is a moment in the program that captures my discomfort: the camera zooms in on Joshua Blahyi (aka General Butt Naked) as he talks about his former cannibalistic habits and what various parts of the body taste like. It just seemed like this was the money shot– this was THE reason that they had come to Liberia– to hear about cannibalism. Afterwards, Shane smiles and it’s as if he is sharing a WTF moment with his Western audience. And Blahyi is excluded from this– meanwhile, we are all sitting at our screens and thinking, You are a crazy murderer. Then, Blahyi smiles back at Shane, uncomfortably, in a way that looks like he wants his new friend’s approval.

I guess that is the part that really bothers me– the duplicity of it. Shane pretends to befriend Blahyi to make the documentary, but Shane knows in advance that this is a fake friendship. The problem is that Blahyi does not know this and comes to trust Shane. The way the documentary was cut, the  portrayal of Blahyi just seemed to violate that trust. And it made me think of my own work, and the work of all of us researchers: how often do we also violate the trust of people who thought we were friends, even in inadvertently? Was I doing the same thing as Shane Smith with my dissertation interviews? I sincerely hope not, but I think that there is a very fine line between raising awareness and exploitation and researchers, as well as journalists, are guilty of crossing it.

I still think it is worth watching. But I also think you should temper your impressions by watching Pray the Devil Back to Hell as a counterbalance. This was an excellent documentary and puts the violence of war in another light.

History has many unacknowledged heroes and this documentary examines a group of women who fought for peace in Liberia, campaigning to end the country’s devastating civil war. Crossing religious and… History has many unacknowledged heroes and this documentary examines a group of women who fought for peace in Liberia, campaigning to end the country’s devastating civil war. Crossing religious and generation lines, the group of women first prayed for their country, and then they began a silent protest outside the walls of the president’s palace.

Update: It turns out that there is a serious debate going on in the blogosphere on The Vice Guide. See Shelby Grossman’s blog post, Chris Blattman’s post, and even the Huffington Post.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin Davis permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:07 am

    Hi Christine,

    I’m supposed to be writing a paper dealing with the American psyche and how the government uses scare tactics during various flu campaigns…blah blah, however, I became sucked into that Vice piece about Liberia. I ended up watching all eight parts and to be frank—I was left feeling sad and empty.
    Then I happened upon your comment, followed it to your page, looked around, read about your experiences in Liberia, checked out your videos on the Cadieux-Léger Fellowship etc…and I must say that I felt compelled to leave a comment praising you for what you’re doing.
    YOU are doing some REAL work.
    It’s very refreshing to see that you actually give a damn, I can sense it in your words, I can hear it in your musical voice and I can see it in your face.
    To be perfectly honest, you’re quite inspiring and I hope that I can someday blaze a trail just as you are.
    May God bless you, good fortune stay with you, Karma protect you and all the beautiful things seen and unseen guide your way. I wish you all the best.



  2. February 8, 2010 10:19 am

    What an incredibly nice thing to say. I will just remind myself of your kind words whenever I’m feeling downbeat about my research and all of the requisite frustrations that come with academia.
    I think bloggers subsist on comments like these, and in my case, yours is the first so it will be cherished indeed.
    best wishes,

  3. Anna permalink
    February 27, 2010 9:53 pm

    My comment won’t have the lyricism of Justin’s, but I also very much appreciated this post (and you).

  4. April 20, 2010 1:01 pm

    I really appreciate your comments regarding the Vice Guide to Liberia. My family grew up in Monrovia and by no means does this documentary capture a fair view of the progress Liberia has made. In addition, I enjoyed reading about all of the various feelings the experience brought you. Although I grew up in America, my family is from Liberia and I too had the same feelings during my first trip in 2008. I’m returning later this year to conduct my dissertation research as well and I felt as though you were reading my mind. I would love to hear more about your process. I really appreciate you sharing your story.

    • April 20, 2010 3:12 pm

      Hi Jo,
      Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting that you had similar feelings when you returned in 2008. You should read Helene Cooper’s The House on Sugar Beach. I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.
      At some point later on, I probably will blog more about my experiences in Liberia and what it was like to conduct research there.
      Good luck with your dissertation and your field work!

  5. Frederik permalink
    May 9, 2010 1:29 pm

    Hi Christine,
    – came acroos this blog while researching.
    Just finished research on afghanistan which involved a lot of field work, but realise that not much has been written on field work methodology in the kind og mixed entities that state building is. Perhaps we coudl share some literature etc.


    • May 10, 2010 1:47 pm

      Hi Frederik,

      It’s funny that you should mention the lack of literature on this topic. I agree with you that not enough has been written about the kind of field research that we are conducting.

      I know the States and Security project at CUNY has been trying to fill this hole in the literature with their workshop on Field Research and Ethics in Post-Conflict Environments. See I think you’ll find the papers here interesting and relevant.



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