Finding a current issue of any magazine never was easy during my years in Liberia. In the 1970s, finding even an aging copy of The New Yorker was nearly impossible.
Living in the interior, I did my shopping in open air markets and Lebanese stores that specialized in canned mackerel, Russian toilet paper, the occasional Heineken, and Chinese tomato paste. In those places, browsing the newsstand wasn’t an option.
Occasionally, I cadged a copy from expatriates with connections to the embassies or international agencies in Monrovia. Now and then, a Peace Corps volunteer would have an issue to share, and there always was the possibility someone would step off PanAm 1 onto the Roberts Field tarmac with a copy tucked under one arm.
A friend from the States once mailed two issues of the magazine to me. They arrived three months after publication, but it hardly mattered. A story is a story, after all, and even essays and columns can develop a strange, timeless quality when read so utterly out of context.
As the magazines were passed from hand to hand, everyone found something to enjoy, even as they rolled their eyes over what passed for pressing issues in America.
The cartoons were favorites, of course. A running joke among our group was that, when we no longer understood New Yorker cartoons, it was time to head home to re-acquaint ourselves with American culture. Broad Street, Monrovia, was our world, but it wasn’t Main Street, USA, and an occasional nudge from The New Yorker served as a useful reminder of the world to which we would return.
The New Yorker is available to me now in a variety of formats. Still, there are days when it seems less a familiar magazine than a postcard from a very strange country. Occasionally, I look at a cover or cartoon and think, “What?” When that happens, I clip the cartoon or tear off the cover and tuck it away, just to see what a few months in the files will do for it.
In 2009, it puzzled me that a Halloween theme had been chosen for an early November cover, since the day for ghosts and goblins had passed. Then, I got the joke. The focus wasn’t so much on the trick-or-treating kids at the opened door as it was on their parents, half-hidden in darkness, their faces glowing in the spooky, artificial light of their e-readers.
Today, I probably would associate the glow with iPads as much as with Kindles, given that the variety of iGadgets available to us has multiplied at a dizzying rate and patterns of usage have changed.
Each new arrival is accompanied by a marketing campaign designed to convince us that the product is critical to full participation in our brave new world. Without this newer phone, they tell us — without greater connectivity, or flashier apps — we’re lost: doomed, condemned to wander forever through the unutterable monotony and boredom of a less-than-fully-connected life.
For good or for ill, we seem to have reversed the old phrase about necessity being the mother of invention, preferring to believe that invention has become the mother of necessity. In that respect, the gadget-makers have our number. They invent, and we accede to the necessity of their invention. Dollars in hand, we invest not only those dollars, but also ourselves in the newest, transformative technology.
And yet, a certain ambiguity persists. While the upraised faces of the children on The New Yorker cover reflect light from the opened doors of welcoming strangers, their multi-tasking parents are absorbed not in the pleasure and enjoyment of their children”s experience, but in the pursuit of their own goals.
Like a restaurant table filled with people intent on texting, emailing and browsing rather than engaging in conversation, the parents are both “there” and “not there.” Physically present, yet strangely absent, they represent what may be one of the greatest failures of technology. Marketed as a means for bringing people together, it too often creates an eerie and unnerving isolation among people who would, in fact, prefer to be left to their own devices.
Certainly, smart phones aren’t evil. Enjoying the convenience of a Kindle isn’t immoral, and texting isn’t a tool of the devil. Technology is as much a blessing as a curse, and it enables us to achieve what would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. I suspect few would choose to go back.
On the other hand, it’s worth considering that all of our gadgets, all our fancy programs and synched-up devices, are nothing more than tools. Since the first days of homo habilis, the tool-user has had to learn and re-learn a critical lesson: we are the ones in control. We determine how tools will be used, and we determine their value for our lives.
Necessity and remarkable creativity have bred wonderful inventions, to be sure. But not every invention is wonderful, and even the most wonderful among them may not be adequate for the achievement of certain goals.
Back in Monrovia, Alfred Sirleaf has been proving that point for years. He’s often been called an analog blogger, but he is, in fact, a one-man newsroom: writer, editor, publisher, and promoter, all rolled into one.
After learning to read and write in an up-country mission school run by Americans, Liberia’s first civil war sent him back to Monrovia in 1990. Eventually, he returned to school and graduated with a high school diploma in 2000. He was 27 years old.
At the time, Sirleaf had no particular resources, but he grew tired of sitting around, and wanted to help his country, still embroiled in conflict. He decided to commit himself to providing information to a city plagued by the consequences of war: high prices, displaced refugees, no dependable power grid, and low literacy rates.
In a fit of good sense, he chose sticks of chalk and a public blackboard as the tools of his trade.
Each day he searched through a half-dozen newspapers, made a few calls from his cell phone, and fired up a generator for television access if fuel was available. Selecting what he judged to be the most important stories of the day, he posted the news at his kiosk, combining words for the literate and symbols for those unable to read. (President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, widely known as “The Iron Lady,” is represented by a chrome hubcap.)
For those who can read, Mr. Sirleaf writes up his news reports with care, always thinking of his audience.
Inside his tiny newsroom he composes the day’s headlines on his blackboard, a meticulous process that can take a couple of hours. He carefully draws lines on the board with light-colored chalk to ensure that the words are written in a straight line. He uses a musty, tattered dictionary to check his spelling. In place of photographs he uses old campaign posters and other free handouts.
“I try to write it really clear and simple so people can read it far away, even if they are driving by. I like to write the way people talk so they can understand it well. You got to reach the common man.”
Over the years, news stories about petrol prices, updates on UN peacekeeping forces, and pleas to the government for responsibility and promise-keeping all have appeared on his blackboard in crisp, readable text. At one point, the forces of Charles Taylor destroyed his kiosk, but Sirleaf was undeterred. Referring to nearly everyone in his battered city, he said,
“Those who don’t have opportunity to buy newspaper, go on the Internet, who can’t afford to buy generator to buy TV – I do all the dirty work for them, and I just give them exactly what they want.”
The “Daily Talk” News Center ~ Click to enlarge and read the rest of the front page, including the kola nut caution.
After the second civil war ended, his display included a “scorecard” showing the number of kerosene “jack-o-lanterns” still in use in the country relative to the number of electric lights promised by the government. Today, Sirleaf is keeping score in a new war, as Ebola terrifies the country. He’s also educating his fellow citizens, and raising up memories for me with this short reminder:
Bitter kola not a cure for Ebola virus, says Health Minister
I remember the astringent taste of the kola nut, and I certainly remember the Minister of Health, Dr. Walter Gwenigale. He happened to be Medical Director of Phebe Hospital when I worked there, and he was one of the few doctors who remained in Liberia during the worst of the civil war, helping to keep the hospital open. I can’t think of anyone better suited to guide the country through an Ebola crisis. [Note: After more reading tonight, I’m a little concerned about decisions being made by the Liberian Ministry of Health. It’s also interesting to see the mixed reaction from African leaders about the decision to go ahead with the African Summit in Washington.]
It’s a strange thing, this world we live in. While I sit here in comfort, reading reports on the death of Patrick Sawyer, the panic in Lofa County, and rumors sweeping the Liberian health care community, I’m better informed than many people walking the streets of Monrovia. In this world, Alfred Sirleaf’s importance is immeasurable. An observation he made some years ago, shortly after the end of the wars, still holds true today.
“Daily Talk’s objective is that everybody should absorb the news. Because when a few people out there make decisions on behalf of the masses that do not go down with them, we are all going to be victims.”