Banging the drum for peace in West Africa
MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 30 (UNHCR) - A huge circle has formed outside Perry Town returnee camp near Monrovia. Children squat in the front with big smiles on their faces. The adults jostle behind for a better look.
The Liberians have gathered here today to watch a dramatisation of their lives. This is ironic, considering the untold dramas many have experienced first hand during their flight, exile, and recent return to Liberia. But what they see here is not just about the past and present; it could very well affect their future as well.
The crowd leans into the circle as one of the actors turns on his transmitter radio to listen to a UNHCR situation report.
"This going back home thing is not easy, eh?" he says to the audience later. Someone from the crowd answers spontaneously," Yes, it is hard to say. I know my house is damaged by now."
These are pertinent issues for the inhabitants of Perry Town returnee centre and other internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Liberia. They have converged in Monrovia after years of exile in countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ghana, only to find that their home areas are not yet safe for return despite the end of the 14-year civil war in Liberia.
To inform them of their return options, the UN refugee agency and Talking Drum production studio have launched a multimedia campaign to update them on the situation in their areas of origin, as well as repatriation and reintegration details under a UNHCR-facilitated return operation starting on October 1. This regularly-updated information will help Liberian returnees, IDPs and refugees in the region to decide for themselves if and when they want to go home.
The message is factual, but the presentation is novel. UNHCR provides Talking Drum with the facts in weekly meetings, and the studio dreams up innovative ways to present them. Using dialogue and music, radio operas and live theatre dramatise the refugees' doubts about return and their process of reaching an informed decision.
Yatta Harris, 35, recently found out that her home area in Gbarpolu county is now safe for return. "I heard the good news though a Talking Drum drama in Perry Town returnee camp," she smiles. "I also got to know the schools and hospitals available in my hometown."
This is the third time Harris is returning to Liberia after the civil war drove her repeatedly into Sierra Leone. She lost two of her children to starvation while in exile, but is eager to start afresh. "I am anxious to go back to my place now that it has been declared safe and UNHCR can help me go home to rebuild my life," she said.
But lest the returnees think life is hunky dory back home, the dramas raise protection concerns like sexual violence, ethnic discrimination and the illegal occupation of houses. An actress portrays the options and legal rights of a woman abused by her husband. Another drama shows that in some counties, land and property disputes can be resolved by special committees before bringing the case to court.
The interactive theatre also encourages reconciliation between returnees, local communities and different social groups in Liberia, helping them develop collaborative problem-solving skills by talking things through.
Interspersed with song and dance, the dramas are always well attended in the camps as people turn up in force to see their favourite radio personalities in the flesh.
Despite the popularity of live theatre, radio remains the most effective outreach tool in UNHCR's information campaign for uprooted Liberians, especially in view of low literacy rates. Radio operas tell stories on which the live theatre is based. Radio bulletins with titles like "Gebamue (Come, Let's Go)" focus on situation reports that are updated every two weeks. These are translated into local languages and broadcast through local stations in Liberia and in regional countries.
Talking Drum also produces feature programmes combining news, education and entertainment. The programmes solicit views and questions from Liberian returnees and IDPs, and attempts to find answers from the relevant authorities and UNHCR.
To ensure fair representation, the studio employs Liberians from different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. One programme about the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration process, titled "DDRR Update", features ex-combatants from previously warring factions - the former government of Liberia, and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).
This spirit of reconciliation reflects the aim of Talking Drum and its parent organisation, Search for Common Ground. The Washington-based non-governmental organisation promotes cooperative conflict resolution in war-torn societies.
Talking Drum Studio opened in Liberia in 1997, initially creating programmes on election education and polling procedures. As renewed fighting escalated into a full-blown civil war, the studio focused its media and outreach efforts on promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the country. It was named the Peace Promoter of the Year by Liberian newspaper, The Inquirer, in 2002.
"It was very difficult to operate during the war due to insecurity," recalls Oscar Blah, head of programming at Talking Drum Liberia. "Our office was looted and we had to stop our programmes for a month because all the equipment had been stolen."
Observing the nature of the conflict in the region, the studio expanded to Sierra Leone in 2002 and Guinea in 2003. It plans to open another branch in Côte d'Ivoire in the coming months.
In addition to refugee-related content, Talking Drum also produces programmes on former child combatants, women's role in the peace process, and HIV/AIDS awareness, among other issues. The studio has been banging the drum for peace and stability in West Africa, and hopes that its message will reverberate throughout the region and beyond.
By Francesca Fontanini