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By: Jake Heller

It was a flash in the pan. On October 7, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The world’s media erupted. Sirleaf’s soothing smile was splashed across television screens, front pages, and computers the world over, and, if only for a fleeting moment, a small, impoverished, recovering West African nation found itself at the center of attention.

By the time Liberia’s election came around four days later, the news had moved on.

An A6 story from the New York Times, an online photo gallery from the Washington Post, and a next-day article about the prospects of a run-off election from the L.A. Times were all the nation’s top newspapers could muster.

Four days later, it no longer seemed newsworthy to mention that the election was only Liberia’s second since its civil war, that some of Sirleaf’s main opponents are warlords, and that eight of 10 Liberians still live on less than $1.25 a day.

Four days later, a 57-year life expectancy, a 58 percent literacy rate, and an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent no longer seemed relevant.

It was just another election in another far-away land.

Four days later, America’s news agencies proved that $1 million dollars and a shiny medal is always more interesting than the nuances of nation building, the importance of elections, or the precariousness of peace.

In the months that have followed, Liberia’s fragile stability has started to unravel. It turns out that there was a run-off election, as the LA Times predicted. And it also turns out that Sirleaf’s opponent in the run-off, Winston Tubman, boycotted the vote. He accused the Nobel laureate of rigging the elections, which were deemed free and fair by the Carter Center, a pro-democracy NGO that monitored the election.

He and his party are now holding massive rallies aimed at unseating Sirleaf, who won the second election with over 90 percent of the vote. (Though only 37.4 percent of people voted.)

Tubman has called for a “Great Victory Rally” to begin this evening and to last 30 days. At his last large rally, on the eve of the run-off election, national police killed at least two protestors, according to The Guardian.

The police are not capable of reigning in such massive unrest. Michael Keating, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston, called them “underfunded, undertrained and over anxious to use their authority” in an op-ed published one week after the killings.

The political apparatus is equally shaky. Liberia is beset by a legacy of imperialism, patronage, and local allegiances that continues to plague their rebuilding and reconciliation processes.

“Politicians campaign by handing out money from the back of their SUVs,” Keating writes.

The United Nations has a significant presence in the country, but the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is not powerful enough to prevent another civil war. Liberia is still far from returning to the carnage that claimed more than 250,000 lives over the last two decades—it did just hold two successful elections, after all—but it is a country characterized by all of the symptoms of a pending catastrophe: poverty, illiteracy, inequality, marginalized youth, and an elite hell-bent on preserving its importance.

Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington this February, Liberian activist J. Aloysius Toe described the potentially perilous permissive conditions that continue to haunt Liberia today. He declared that Liberia is “sitting on a time bomb of social unrest, and may soon explode with volcanic fury.”

Winston Tubman seems poised to set that bomb off.

So when Sirleaf delivers her acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10, media organizations around the world should do more than to concentrate on the palatial decor of Oslo’s City Hall, on the privileged few afforded an invitation, or even on her words. They should concentrate on her actions, and on the actions of her compatriots.

Because as important as celebrating the Nobel Peace Prize is, the prizes awarded for good work should not be more revered than the work itself.

By: Jake Heller

Just days before Liberia’s first election in six years, about 100 refugees from the strife-torn West African nation prayed for peace Sunday at the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church in Staten Island.

Christ Assembly’s senior pastor, the Rev. Philip S. Saywrayne, strode to the altar in the heart of the boisterous, musical service, which featured a gospel choir, drums—African and a rock’n’roll kit—and an electric guitar, and quieted the ringing church.

Wearing a red robe that matched the simple church’s wall-to-wall carpeting, and framed against a Liberian flag behind him, Saywrayne urged worshippers to “put on [their] spiritual eyes” and see that “the angels of God can dwell among us.” Peace in Liberia is possible because “God can change the worst person among us,” he said.

Alphonso Kenneth said the service reminded him of home. “Being back in Liberia, we always worshipped the Lord,” the 15-year-old said. “We always knew that by worshipping in Him we could become better people.”

Scheduled for October 11, the Liberian election is expected to be close. Incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has faced significant critiques and challenges during her run for a second term, and opposition leaders and power-hungry warlords still wield significant political influence throughout the nation. International observers worry that a contested election could plunge the impoverished West African country back into civil war.

Saywrayne has therefore urged all churches on Staten Island to encourage their congregations to fast and pray for peace between 12 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday. He is hosting a breaking of the fast at Christ Assembly Monday evening.

“I don’t think you want war in your country?” Saywrayne asked his crowd, who was seated for the first time during the service.

“No!” they yelled back. Then “this is something you want to do for your nation,” the Liberian reverend said, referring to Monday’s prayers and fast. “God is going to answer our prayers for peace.”

“I believe [the] Lord God do many things for me,” added congregant Dehkentee Logan, whose parents live in Liberia. “I know he can save me and my family.”

Logan’s hope and Saywrayne’s preaching peace are not simply wishful thinking, either; Liberians have traditionally believed that God actually controls what happens in their lives, and that lobbying God can affect His ultimate actions.

“He been the source of everything we do,” said choir director Paykue Fahnbulleh.

This belief traces back to the tribal faith systems that were widespread in Liberia before ex-American slaves arrived there in the mid-19th century, and it was later co-opted into Christianity.

Indeed, many Liberians at Christ Assembly adamantly believe that God determines their—and their country’s—fate.

Zachariah Logan, Christ Assembly’s Executive Director for Evangelism, for example, implored congregants to heed Saywrayne’s call to prayer. “We have to pray so that God can choose our leader,” he said.

Other church leaders concurred, and stressed the importance of taking action.

“If we don’t do something, our posterity, our children, will be in trouble,” said the Rev. Patrick Chai.

Saywrayne accordingly organized the day of prayer and fast. He said that fasting helps concentrate the mind on God, and helps God hear people’s prayers. At 6 p.m. Monday, he plans to break the fast with fruit and water.

“During the old days, the people of God would bring fruits into the temple,” he said. “So we also use the fruits.”

Fruits are also easy to carry, and are generally inexpensive, he noted. The church and its congregants do not have much money—“Don’t bring an orange without a knife to peel it,” he reminded those assembled on Sunday—but are willing to give back to their homeland. In addition to fasting and praying, congregants are sending non-perishable food items to Liberia’s hungry.

“We all have to serve, in fellowship,” said Jerry Jacob, who volunteers every weekend to drive the church van, picking people up all over Staten Island to bring them to church. “We make the Church,” he added.

“Those who come here, they sacrifice to give,” Saywrayne said.

The reverend likened such constant sacrifice to Jesus’ struggle to spread the Gospel. And he urged his congregants to keep fighting, to do their part in bringing peace to Liberia. Referencing the crucifixion, Saywrayne said: “You see, when you start your work, you have to finish it.”

In Liberia, cheap technology and relative political stability have spawned a generation of rappers and producers. Disenfranchised men who may have otherwise picked up a gun are now picking up a mic instead. Jake Heller reports on how hip-hop is giving a voice to Liberia’s ostracized youth.

I’m reporting on the Liberian community for a class called RW1; it’s the central component of Columbia’s journalism education, and most of the work I’ll be posting here over the next few months will come from that class.

Our assignment over the long weekend is something called a ‘beat note.’ A ‘beat’ is an area or topic that a journalist covers. So a ‘beat note’ is an overview of your beat, designed to tell your editor (or professor in my case) what he or she needs to know about your subject, what stories you’re thinking of writing, and who some of your sources are.

I’ve accordingly been doing some research on Liberians, and just came across this awesome video of a Liberian hip-pop anthem. (Yes, I just invented a new musical genre, hip-pop.) Enjoy!

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