July 6, 2012 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace
Woman of the Week: Agnes Umunna
Woman of the Week Agnes Umunna helps Liberians share their stories and thus begin to heal through her groundbreaking radio work.
Agnes Umunna grew up in Liberia in relative privilege. As the daughter of a humanitarian doctor, she was shielded from the dire poverty that haunted many of the country’s citizens, who still earn, on average, only $400 a year.
When the civil war broke out, that privilege only became more pronounced. While others were slaughtered around her, she was able to escape to Sierra Leone, where she became a secretary, and later started working at a radio station. But one day, visiting Monrovia for her father’s birthday, she accompanied him on an emergency call to a refugee camp where he administered to the sick and dying, casualties of the many-sided conflict being waged by brutal warlords. That day, the bubble around her burst.
She watched a pregnant woman, running for her life from an unknown terror in the bush, collapse and die in front of her. She saw the hundreds of innocent victims, helpless and unlucky, waiting for the ministrations of her father. And she saw the empty-eyed child soldiers who would later become the basis of her life’s work, Straight From the Heart, a community center for former child soldiers. It began as a program she hosted on the United Nations-owned radio station that allowed ordinary Liberians to share their experiences of the war and thus begin to heal. Until she invited the child soldiers on to speak, few had ever heard their sides of the story.
Ms. Umunna is now based between Staten Island, New York, and Liberia, where she is launching a health-focused radio program for Liberian women. She also tours around the world with her book, And Still Peace Did Not Come, out earlier this year. She sat down with Women in the World Foundation to discuss her groundbreaking radio work and what the women of Liberia need now.
You were the first journalist in Liberia to interview child soldiers on the radio. What do traditional journalistic values like “neutrality” and “objectivity” mean in a context like post-war Liberia?
I try to be a journalist, but I also want to be a mother, a sister and an aunt, because I wanted to hear the truth: what had happened to them, what they had done. I knew some of them had done very gruesome things. They’d killed and raped and everything but I didn’t want to judge them for what they had done. I wanted to talk to them like, “You have done this, but what if someone had done the same thing to you?” I wanted them to feel like they weren’t talking to a journalist. I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their mom or their sister.
I didn’t want to give my opinion, because I didn’t want to judge anyone. But I did tell them, “You were taking revenge on the wrong people.” It’s like if I’m a young boy of 14, and I see somebody kill my father and I go and take arms to kill somebody else, it’s not revenge. I wanted to understand where they were coming from. What was the anger? What led them to do these things? So I didn’t treat them as a journalist. I treated them like, “Let’s talk, let’s communicate, let’s chat, let me see where you’re coming from. I won’t blame you but I will make you understand.” I wanted a friendship between my storyteller and myself.
One of your colleagues, a woman you call Esther in your book, shared her experience of being raped on live radio. What was the impact of that interview?
When I started collecting my stories, I first spoke to victims, and most of these victims were women. I knew they were hiding something; there was something underneath it. They were hiding if they were raped and they were hiding how many people raped them. I felt like because it was on air, they did not want stigma so they didn’t want to talk about it. When it got to a point where I could ask, “Were you raped?” in the studio, it would take 10 minutes before they would say they were raped. And if I asked, “How were you raped?” they didn’t want to go into details.
I felt the stigmatization behind rape during the war was what they were avoiding. Often their stories were, “I was a victim, my mother was killed in front of me.” But what happened to you? If you were there when your mother was killed in front of you, what happened to you?
Nobody wants to talk about being raped during the war, especially those who saw their perpetrators around. Esther made a big impact on me, to feel that everyone around me had a story. But my problem was how am I going to collect the stories? Who was willing to tell me they were raped during the war? Esther made people open up, to come out and tell their stories in the community. “If she can come out, I can come out.” She made a good impact on how society viewed women and how they carried themselves after the war. It made them feel that you can talk about it, without being stigmatized talking about it.
That helped other women open up to me and say, “I was raped.” Many of them have kids, unwanted kids from this rape. You’ll see a victim struggling to support three unwanted children, and they don’t know who the father is. That’s the part of it I didn’t like: being raped, having unwanted children, and being back in Liberia doing prostitution. It was so scary for me. I didn’t understand how they were coping.
After working with child soldiers, you’re now planning to work with Liberian women. What do you have in mind?
During the war, these women were nine or ten when they were kidnapped. After the war, some of them did not go to school. That means they did not go to school for 14 years. Now they have the responsibility of children, and they’re not educated. It’s difficult for you to make them go to school. These women have been raped, they are victims of the war and now they are being stigmatized. And domestic violence is becoming more prevalent in their homes.
We started talking about how they were coping with the trauma of rape and unwanted children from these rape cases. And I found out they had chronic STDs, so in my mind I was now thinking: when did they get these infections? Was it before the war, during the war, or after the war? I wanted to protect them, for them to use condoms. I wanted to look at their trauma, and find out where is the trauma coming from? Is it from during the war, or after the war?
I know that I can talk about rape as a journalist, but I cannot tell you in depth about it. I can only imagine it. I can go out in communities and speak about rape and about domestic violence, about what can be done about domestic violence, in English. But if a rape survivor becomes a local journalist, she can speak in her language. You have a group of people, women that were raped, that can sit down and talk about things in their own local languages.
You get these people to talk about these issues they had suffered themselves and empower them; that’s what I want to do. Make them feel that they belong to the community where they are making a change. I want my radio program to be something that we can participate in from the community, in their own local languages, so they can contribute and find their own solutions to their problems.
I want to talk about domestic violence, about health issues, prevention and treatment of STDs. I want to have a radio station to talk about these issues so that people won’t be stigmatized. I’m going to be very bold. If you have an itch, you have to go to the doctor and do a test. That’s how broadly I’m going to talk. I am comfortable talking about it on the radio because I want people to understand it; I want people to feel that.
And I want to have a community health center with my radio station, where people are comfortable to come and know that I am not ashamed to talk about these issues. I can help take your test sample to the doctor myself, if you don’t want to go be identified, and then bring you back the results.
There’s been some criticism of how the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was handled. You took statements for the TRC; what do you think of its results?
They say the Truth Commission report was not done properly and huge amounts of money were spent on the truth commission over three years. Why couldn’t we use this money to set up the TRC to create good health centers for these victims, good roads, good schools, and good drinking water for these women? And for the perpetrators, get them to communities where they had done these brutal abuses. If this is where you committed your crimes, take them back to work. Make them build the roads, make them build the farms, with their bare hands. That is the punishment for me.
So in many cases people did not see any tangible results from the truth commission. Is there still an inherent value in telling and documenting stories from the war?
I learned from doing an oral history program at Columbia University that with truth commissions, you don’t promise anyone anything, you just ask them to say their stories. So I feel guilty in some way, because I encouraged these people to go to the TRC.
But I think it helped them too. You know, when they tell their stories, it can bring relief, because some of them never talked about their stories. Some of them just blocked it in themselves, and they were using alcohol or marijuana to ease their pain. But when they start telling me their stories, they feel relieved that someone was there to listen to their stories. Stories that some of them did not tell their husbands, some of them did not tell their wives, their children, their parents. Telling me, someone who was listening to them attentively, was stage one of easing their problems. Not judging what had happened to them. Not stigmatizing what had happened to them. Not looking at them with eyes that would make them feel that they were not wanted in the community.
So I said, I have to put myself in their position, to make them feel like I was not trying to get the goods from them. I told them, “If I was there, I would have been like you. So don’t be afraid or ashamed to tell me you your story.” It helps me a lot so that I can know that and deal with them. Many of them came back and told me, “Last night I slept very well for the first time.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.