What’s an Australian journalist doing in Liberia? Clair MacDougall is fascinated by the “deeply complex” nation and coverage of Africa broadly. The intrepid freelance is worth a follow.
In 2011, Australian journalist Clair MacDougall (@ClairMacD) visited Liberia to cover the re-election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head-of-state. Based in neighbouring Ghana at the time, MacDougall became fascinated with what she calls “this small but deeply complex country”. She moved to Monrovia two months later.
“Part of the reason I was drawn to Liberia was because it was the first African nation to be led by a female president,” MacDougall told Crikey. “Women also played a major role in the peace movement.
“Yet despite the fact that some women hold a significant amount of political power, life is very difficult for the ordinary girls and women. The government has enacted numerous pro-women policies, yet women and girls continue to face high levels of violence. The president has described child rape as ‘endemic’ and girls face abuse within their communities and sexual harassment in schools. I am interested in exploring the tension between the president as a figurehead for women’s empowerment and the reality for Liberian women on the ground.”
In her debut article for Valerie Magazine, an online publication dedicated to “global news for women by women”, which launched last year, MacDougall did precisely that. “In recent years, [Liberian] women have grown emboldened to fight longstanding societal ills,” she wrote. “But the road toward equality is postmarked by obstacles, despite gains made by women political players.”
“Among the jumble of rusty, zinc roofs and structures that make up West Point, Monrovia’s largest slum, I met a 14-year-old girl I will call Olivia. She embodies the ongoing challenges for Liberia’s post-war generation of girls …
“Looking down at her interlaced fingers and small, rough-cut nails coated with chipped black nail polish, Olivia described how she survived since she was twelve. ‘Have sex with men,’ she said. ‘They give you money to eat. Sometimes I put up with somebody on the road, they carry me to their house and I sleep and at day break and I move from there.’
“I ask her how many girls there are like her in West Point. ‘We are plenty,’ she said.”
“The way in which women and the issues they face is presented in mainstream media is patronising and often trivialises their experience,” MacDougall said. “I am a feminist and committed to telling women’s stories in a world where men have largely been the subjects and authors of history.
“I don’t exclusively focus on women’s issues. However, I want to be part of a movement to establish a kind of equality of representation, meaning that I want to be part of a group of journalists that tell the stories of intriguing women, whether they be powerful, calculating, mad, depraved, noble, brilliant or heroic, and ensure the issues that they both shape and face are presented in a nuanced and serious manner.”
MacDougall moved to West Africa in 2010 after receiving her Masters of Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
“West Africa was never my goal from the beginning,” she said. “When I was at Columbia, I was uncertain about what kind of a journalist I wanted to be, something that remains an ongoing question. I was obsessed with the issue of crime and punishment in the US and hoped to be a crime reporter who focused on prisons. I also thought about going back to India, as it was my first love as a traveller (MacDougall interned at The India Express in New Delhi in her early 20s).
“But during my stay in New York I became fascinated with West Africa, a place whose influence is present throughout the city streets in places like Harlem, due to the transatlantic slave trade and recent waves of African migration.”
Staying in the US after graduation was unfeasible. “A lot of media outlets had taken a big hit by the time I graduated,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to work on the news assembly line, doing copy desk editing work or cutting up syndicated video footage, harbouring the hope that some editor might recognise my talent and offer me a writing position before the next round of layoffs. Like most journalists, I wanted to get out of the office, plunge into the world, explore and write.”
In June 2010, the Foreign Press Association of New York awarded MacDougall first prize at its annual Scholarship Fund Awards, “a small amount of funding” that she used to move to Accra, Ghana later that year. While there she covered “witch” killings, gay rights, the country’s nascent oil industry and slum life for outlets that included Reuters, The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine,and, once or twice, Crikey.
“My heart never lay in Ghana,” MacDougall said. “I always wanted to use it as a base to freelance in other countries, particularly Nigeria, a country that I haven’t yet been to because of the expense of reporting there.” She moved to Liberia in the lead-up to Sirleaf’s second inauguration and, in addition to her coverage of Liberian women and girls, has written extensively about the Charles Taylor war-crimes trial and the aftermath of his guilty verdict, the country’s hydro-power industry and last year’s ban on motorcycle taxis. Her work these days appears in The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes Africa, Think Africa Press and Newsweek.
“I am part of a movement of journalists who want to change the way African countries are represented through reporting that moves beyond stereotypes and presents the realities and complexities of everyday life for people living here,” she said. “Truly in-depth coverage of Africa is still rare, despite some fantastic examples.”
But this not a problem exclusive to Africa, she says. Truly in-depth coverage of anywhere is becoming increasingly rare. “It is a constant struggle for journalists and writers living anywhere to push for nuance and meaning when the media industry largely sees news as a product that should push key buttons in the minds and bodies of their imagined audiences,” she said, adding she is gradually moving away from hard news reporting for precisely this reason. “I’m more and more interested in character-driven, long-form narratives, which take a lot of time and are more difficult to publish,” she said.
Mary’s story is a good example. In a remarkable feature published in Newsweek last year, MacDougall investigated the ramifications of the country’s brutal civil war on former female child soldiers who are now adults. Her main interview subject was Mary Goll, who was 13 when she joined up on the side of the pro-Taylor government militias towards the end of the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. She wrote:
“Mary will half-brag about her own cruelty and then, moments later, appear tormented by the horror of what she did. Her sense of guilt isn’t fully formed; it appears only partially realized …
“Mary recalls that she would cut off ears and fingers of those her unit captured. She and her soldiers even skinned a prisoner. But it is not these atrocities that appear to keep her awake at night. What troubles her is the recollection of an order she gave her soldiers to gang-rape a woman who had been caught, seemingly spying on their position.
“Mary can’t quite explain why this is worse than flaying someone, but she identified with the woman. And perhaps her prisoner’s helplessness reminded Mary of her own.”
While the West African twittersphere is growing steadily, MacDougall said she is “not particularly active or enthusiastic member for the most part”. “Anything that encourages you to express yourself in 140 number of characters, with various hash tags and silly abbreviations, has got to do something negative to the thought process,” she said.
“However, there are a small number of us who tweet about Liberia, many of us familiar with each other from Monrovia. I use Twitter to share photos, thoughts and content, and to research and connect with people for my stories. I use it tentatively.”
Everday Africa (@EverydayAfrica): Photographers living and working in African that post photographs capturing the African quotidian.
Valerie Magazine (@ValerieMagazine): The Twitter feed for a new online women’s magazine for which I write.
Glenna Gordon (@scarlettlion): A great photographer who I work with in Liberia and who often works elsewhere in West Africa as well.
Ben Rawlence (@BenRawlence): A human rights activist (formerly with Human Rights Watch) and the author of Radio Congo.
Comfort Ero (@comfort): Head of International Crisis Group Africa.
On living and working in Liberia…
Liberia is a great place to report, in the sense that you can knock on the office doors of ministers or ambush them at the handful of cafés and restaurants most of the well-to-do elite go to. But while entering office doors might be fairly straightforward, Liberia is an extremely complicated country.
On a surface level Monrovia seems simple: like a giant suburban neighbourhood, where everyone knows everyone to varying degrees. But there are many fences and metaphorical checkpoints in this suburban neighbourhood. The city is deeply divided between elite Liberians and expatriates who live in one world, and the masses who live in another.
The two worlds can be crudely defined as follows. The first world is climate controlled, electricity is perpetually pumped by gas-guzzling generators, and water, hot and cold, runs endlessly, at least for the most part. This world is protected by high concrete walls and guarded by poorly paid men and women who return home to the reality of the other world: the slums where Monrovia’s masses live.
In the spaces that make up the second world, which exist throughout the city and sometimes even between the compounds, the streets and houses are dark, there is limited access to clean drinking water, and people wash their dishes and bathe in water that is dirtier than the water that flushes freely through the toilets of the compounds.
I do not live in one of these compounds, because I cannot afford the New York/Paris prices, but I am part of the “compound class” that takes refuge from the realities of Liberia in generic restaurants whose décor and menus could exist anywhere in the world.
Liberia is a small country with many layers and intricate webs of relations between different people. As a reporter, your understanding of these relationships — your knowledge of the history, the divisions and allegiances — can open up a lot of doors. There are also complex relationships between the political powerbrokers and those who make up the underclass. I have been based here for over two years now, which has helped.
But walking through these two doors — the flimsy wooden doors set in zinc shacks, which are closed shut with small padlocks, and the varnished wooden doors of government offices, which lock firmly — and understanding what is going on inside, is an ongoing challenge. But it is a challenge that pushes me forward and I continue to wander through and between both.
On future directions for Western coverage of Africa…
I think we need to explore the political and economic relationships between Africa, the West and the rest of the world when it comes to issues of corruption, governance and human rights.
In many ways Africa is seen as an island and the problems its nations face as interior and entirely self-created. But as Kofi Annan and Guinean President Alpha Conde have emphasised, Western countries need to play a greater role in addressing exploitation of African nations and their resources.
The continent has one of the youngest populations and highest rates of youth unemployment in the world, which in countries like Liberia could cause major problems in the future. A colleague of mine is also looking into the issue of migration within Africa and between Africa and the West, which is a fascinating issue.
Justice for human rights abuses and war crimes continues to be an important issue of debate that must be further explored and advances, as well as the abuse and oppression of lesbians and gays in Africa, particularly countries like Uganda and Nigeria.
I think we must also more critically examine the role of the donor community in Africa and whether efforts are leading to change, or perpetuating dependence and corruption, and weakening states and their institutions.
On the Africa Rising narrative…
I think that the “Africa rising” narrative is a lot of hype and PR. But it has drawn attention to the enormous economic and creative potential that exists in Africa and in some ways challenged the dominant image (that is thankfully changing) of Africa as a perennial basket case torn apart by war, hunger and corruption.
On her future plans…
I have started to feel strangely at home in Liberia and am uncertain as to how long I will stay.
I have always been somewhat of an outsider and move to places where I am cast in that role. In some ways it has helped me as a writer to delve more deeply into other people’s lives, whether it be an inmate in Sing Sing prison in upstate New York who was convicted of murder whose whole family has spent their life between bars and the outside world, or a former female child soldier struggling to support her family and deal with her traumatic past in a classist society and country where the powers that be have told people to move on and forget.
There is some great reporting and debate on the refugee issue in Australia that reveals a great deal about the fragility of our own sense of national identity. I would like to write about this at some stage and be part of the dialogue. But where to next? I really don’t know.