Chaos is something we tend to see when we don’t understand how things work. Chaos is what we think we witness when we forget to take our time to listen to people’s stories, and let fear and excitement lead us in our hunt for sensational war stories.
I struggle to keep up with Adam today. He is walking fast and Will and I have to hurry along the narrow alley-ways between the small zinc houses and sheds not to lose sight of him. We have to squeeze ourselves between women cooking for their families, children playing in the small open spaces and chasing each other between the houses. I apologise for being in the way and for just walking in where women are preparing food, people are having their meals or taking a rest. Most people just give me friendly smiles back and continue with their business. A few look a bit surprised to see a stranger there but most don’t bother at all. I try to focus on where Adam is going so he won’t have to wait for us on every corner, but I haven’t seen Will in a long time and we get caught up in our conversation as usual and Adam patiently has to wait. Adam turns left and right along narrow paths between the cramped houses. I turn to Will and joke about whether Adam actually knows where he is going. Will laughs and admits that he has no idea where we are either. But Adam knows his way around here. He used to live here for some years just after the war. For me West Point still is a maze. I had only been in this community a few times since I first started to visit Monrovia some years ago. Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean this township of the Liberian capital wasn’t a place one often just passed by without any particular errand. However, doing research on what I call ‘post-war rebel networks’, ex-combatants who had preserved their links to each other after the war came to an end, it was maybe a bit strange that my research hadn’t brought me to this township that often in the past, judging from its reputation of being inhabited by so many ex-combatants. But my informants had been residing elsewhere. I only recently had begun to spend more time in West Point.
Adam and Will, two young men who used to spend their nights as vigilantes when I first got to know them a few years back, had introduced me to a friend of theirs who lived in West Point. I still couldn’t find the way to Abraham’s house on my own so I was happy to have Adam and Will keeping me company. This day Will and I talked about West Point’s unenviable reputation. The rumours of this notorious neighbourhood would not pass anyone by unnoticed. West Point is desperately poor with few employment opportunities. It is heavily overcrowded and the water and sanitation situation is catastrophic. People face tremendous challenges in this township. Still there is something about how West Point and its inhabitants are being portrayed that I find very disturbing. Browsing the internet for articles and reportage on West Point you don’t have to look for too long until you find the township described as a society completely lost to anarchy, crime and violence with inhabitants portrayed mainly as drug-abusing ex-combatants making their money on drug dealing, prostitution and armed robbery.
A few years ago a Swedish newspaper decided to portray Liberia and West Point in the same kind of manner. In an article describing Liberia as “hell on earth”, “where murder, rape drugs and AIDS is everyone’s everyday life”, the newspaper drew attention, and posted a link, to what the filmmakers themselves called a ‘documentary’. But the “The Vice Guide to Liberia” far from documented Liberia and West Point in a nuanced way. Instead of trying to understand post-war Liberia, and the situation of ex-combatants and others living in West Point and other impoverished areas, the TV team ran around Liberia in search of sensational news on ‘cannibal warlords’, teenage prostitutes and drug abusing children. The film was appalling. My colleagues Mats Utas, Ilmari Käihkö and I decided to write a response. In the article we called “Jackass Journalism in the darkest Africa” (after the famous TV show “Jackass”) we argued that media generally present Africa and African conflict-related issues in an extremely stereotypical way. We suggested that the so-called documentary was a ‘worst case’ example of this. The film team was fleeing from one scene to another, acting like their very lives were in danger. What they actually were running from was more unclear. Provoking, rather than interviewing, prostitutes and drug affected residents they seemed to have no understanding of the chaos they themselves were creating with their cameras, intruding ways and lack of respect as they were hunting for sensational stories in West Point late at night. Without knowledge of cultural codes or context the reporters nervously laughed in front of the camera, proud to have dared to do a reportage like this. Their combination of fear and excitement was evident. They had found what they wanted to portray, a neighbourhood in total anarchy, a chaos without any logic.
Even though he is used to it, Abraham always gets a bit annoyed when the negative image of West Point is brought up. He finds it unfair. Yes, West Point is poor and crime is a problem but we’re not all bad people here, he often argues. Abraham is an ex-combatant. And he is a resident of West Point. From time to time he makes a bit of extra money working as an informal security provider. His last assignment was for the CDC party, as he like so many other ex-combatants were mobilised during the elections. But Abraham is also a father of six. He is married and he makes his living from petty trading. This day we spend the morning outside Abraham’s little zinc house; Abraham, Adam, Will and I. The next door house is so close to Abraham’s that I can touch it if I just lean forward and reach out my arm. Some of the children passing by us laugh a little when they see me. One little boy gets so frightened when he looks at me that he cries in panic and refuses to walk by. I don’t look Liberian and it scares him. But other than that, my visit doesn’t cause too much attention. Abraham’s wife and daughters are preparing food nearby and his younger children are playing and running errands for their mother. Sometimes they come closer to listen in on our discussions but they quickly get bored and run off to play again. I can’t help but think of the images of the VBS documentary when I’m here. Everyday life is so far away from the violent chaos the filmmakers wanted to portray.
We talk about security this day. About crime and violence and the perception of West Point. Abraham is not particularly afraid in his neighbourhood. He has lived there for long and he knows his neighbours. But he is careful. He lives in a house with no windows. Will laugh at that: he can’t believe why anyone would want to live in a house like that! But Abraham is persistent. With no windows there can be no unexpected visits in the night. And theft at night time is still an issue. But break-ins and theft are obviously not phenomena isolated to West Point. Crime happens everywhere, Abraham often points out. In fact, my informants somewhat ironically argue that parts of West Point are safer than many other areas of Monrovia, not despite its poverty but because of it. ‘You know the criminals, they live here, so of course they don’t want to commit the crimes in their own community: that would cause them too much problems!’ Abraham and Adam argue. And it somehow makes sense. Here housing is affordable, even for those who have the least, making it likely that people engaged in theft due to lack of other economic opportunities would live here. And why risk being caught in your own community?
Nevertheless, crime is a problem in West Point, and theft seems to be what people are most worried about. Yet there is, if not an acceptance, then at least an understanding of those who engaged in theft that I find interesting. People in West Point often saw theft as something young men and women were driven to due to lack of legal ways of making a living. Some of my informants even talked about theft as a form of business. The inhabitants did what they could to protect themselves against theft, but most Liberians I knew had been affected, at least on a small scale. Money being stolen from someone’s bag during an unobservant moment, or a mobile phone being snatched from another one’s pocket was not unusual. But in West Point, as in many other parts of Monrovia, what was stolen could most often be bought back, and that was what the business side of theft was all about. People in the area knew where to turn if they found that some of their belongings had been stolen. Those engaged in this type of criminal activity often worked in networks, linked to an area leader. So when things were stolen, people turned to the leader, who often had received the item shortly after it had been taken. It was not unlikely that the person who had been affected could then buy the item back for a smaller amount of money. A young woman I knew told me about her grandfather who one day had had the misfortune of having 100 USD (a large amount of money for a poor Liberian) stolen from his pocket. Luckily enough he later the same day successfully negotiated to buy the same money back for 5 USD from the gang leader to whom the money had been brought. More often these negotiations took place over stolen mobile phones or other material items. But as seen from this example even stolen money could return to the owner for a reasonable sum following this system. People were obviously enraged when they realised they had been stolen from, and no one liked to have to negotiate and buy their own belongings back. Yet, if not tolerated, even those affected appeared to have an understanding of theft as unavoidable in the absence of employment opportunities. In this respect, West Point was far from a community lost to anarchy, as it is so often portrayed. Although this did not always apply, even theft could be seen to follow codes of morality, a system of social order and a logic people could understand.
I have only just begun to get to know West Point and some of its inhabitants. No one can deny how desperately poor the township is, how hard people struggle just to get by on a daily basis and how crime and lack of social services constantly affect people’s lives. West Point is a complex society, with inhabitants from all kinds of backgrounds in a variety of life situations. Some were fighters during the wars, but many were not. Still, the Liberian civil wars not too long ago cast a shadow over the lives of the residents in this community as over so many other citizens of Liberia. West Point is many things, yet it is far from its stereotypical image as a place of mere chaos, anarchy and violence. Chaos is something we tend to see when we don’t understand how things work. Chaos is what we think we witness when we forget to take our time to listen to people’s stories, and let fear and excitement lead us in our hunt for sensational war stories. There is no lack of social order in West Point but it follows a different logic. Even theft which at a first glance could be seen to indicate chaos and disorder often follows a comprehensible pattern. The high number of ex-combatant residents has contributed to the unenviable reputation of West Point. And yes, ex-combatants do take part in the networks involved in theft and robberies in the area. However, many of the ex-combatants were also part of the informal security networks of the area: vigilante groups that protected the township against crime when the state and formal security apparatus had failed to do so. It is this complexity we so often fail to see and describe. Abraham is a man with a violent past. He is a poor resident of West Point. He is a man who lives in a small zinc house with seven other people, with no windows, running water or electricity. But Abraham is also a man who devotes his life to his family, who struggles hard to pay his daughters’ school fees, who has high hopes and dreams that his youngest son might become a politician one day, and who is annoyed with his oldest son for having so much that he himself never had growing up – such as two pairs of shoes, a decent house, and the opportunity to complete his schooling, without appreciating it. This too is everyday life in West Point, for ex-combatants and others.
Mariam Persson is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. She has over the last three years conducted fieldwork in Liberia with a focus on former combatants