Storytelling from Cannes to Monrovia


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Africa » Liberia
June 2nd 2013
Published: June 2nd 2013
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Will you be checking your bags all the way to … Monrovia?, intriguingly asks the perplexed Air France gate agent rifling through my passport, searching for that obscure Liberian visa. Gazing around, while her colleague assiduously checks in the far better dressed and accessorized clientele, it would seem logical to question such an atypical “final” destination. Let’s face it, Nice Côte d'Azur Airport is most likely to be a landing spot for glamorous stints aboard large yachts on the French Riviera rather than a jumping off point to a poverty-stricken West African country still licking its fresh wounds after 14 years of civil war! Oh what an interesting world we live in…

So there I was, having just spent 4 days at the iconic Cannes Film Festival to raise funds for Media Impact, through an intimate event, thoughtfully-hosted by my most wonderful fiancée, Daya, who not only puts up with my erratic and unconventional career, but is always looking for ways to support the organization. Truth be told, I was a bit skeptical – unconvinced that such a setting was the appropriate platform to educate this particular audience on such an unfamiliar cause. Yet, in the spirit of embracing challenges and pushing the restraints of convention, I swallowed my reservations and pleasantly washed them down with the copious amounts of gratis Moët & Chandon, which was liberally poured throughout the festival. I had nothing to lose… With a free place to stay in Cannes, and a negligible extra cost to tag on the additional leg to Nice on my way to Liberia (via Paris), it would seem foolish not to give it a try. Add an auspiciously-aligned schedule to the equation and the unprompted opportunity to spend a couple of days with my family and fiancée in the South of France, my arm was easily twisted!

Despite far from ideal weather (read torrential down pour), the event was a real success. Thanks to Daya’s tireless support and her supreme networking skills, we raised about 20K and received great exposure for the organization. It was surprisingly easy, in retrospect, to “sell” Media Impact’s mission, as the Cannes film festival is all about embracing and acknowledging the power of entertainment. Fueled by this very inspirational medium and driven by its innocuous and yet catalytic influence, Media Impact, uses stories to inspire behavioral change, on health, environmental and empowerment issues. What does that mean, I hear you ask skeptically, as this could very well be misconstrued as an opportunistic jaunt to the South of France rather than any substantive work opportunity!?

Well, it’s simple really! The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that people are much more likely to be inspired and relate to stories rather than being told what to do, where, when and how. Worry not, this will not be a self serving post about Media Impact… I won’t go on about the methodological nuances or the social cognitive theory behind it … Every day, I’m reminded of the ubiquitous power of stories. It may seem overly simplistic, but having witnessed the impact on the ground in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and across sub-Saharan Africa, I know for a fact that this stuff works! Enough shameless promotion for the organization … The point is, there is a connection between Cannes and Media Impact: recognizing the talented people who give life to cinema and embracing the very stories that embody this craft. A “win-win” one might say. In that spirit, the “Palme d’Or” goes to… DAYA, for going the extra (wet) mile to pull off such a successful fundraiser (and for being an amazing partner all around). The little statuette is on its way Babe (who needs a gold, Academy Awards Oscar when you can get a traditionally West African tribal one instead?!)

Moving on… Armed with an effusive feeling of accomplishment, compounded by an eager desire to escape the festival madness and get my hands dirty and my feet back on that beloved African soil, I was ready to head south for a different adventure. Landing in the land of Liberty, I knew I had come back to a special place. The last time I was in Liberia was 4 years ago, while working for a medical relief Organization – a much different professional vocation and yet the same resonating feeling of inclusion, genuine friendliness and overall energy pervaded then as it does now. A few stark differences, I might note, however. For one, Monrovia is now equipped with a plethora of traffic lights, something that certainly was not the case a few years back. In fact, I remembered wondering around places right in the heart of the capital In 2009, which had not had anything remotely resembling electricity since 1989. A sure sign of progress I thought… And with many other palpable signs of development, I was pleased to note that Monrovia had nonetheless maintained its raw, dare I say ‘charming’ essence emanating from its frenzied streets, which had since given birth to newer commerce and an undeniable sense of entrepreneurship.

And with fleeting images of Cannes and its emblematic, star-studded -“Croisette” Boulevard” etched in the back of mind, the contrast with this West African metropolis’ bustling chaos could not have been stronger! I have said it before and I’ll say it again: what an interesting world we live in! A good friend of mine often times reminds me that “life is a joke” and “we’ll tell it.” From opulence and flamboyance to dearth and poverty in less than a day’s travel. But before going on with a contrived diatribe about stark social and economic inequalities – a subject which has been pounded ad nauseam like a West African yam; allow me to quote one of my favorite storyteller, Chimanda Adichie, who warns us about the danger of the “single story.” “These single stories create stereotypes”, which, according to Adichie, are not just problematic, but rather incomplete. “They make one story become the only story.” It is far too easy for me to turn my back in disdain at the superficial atmosphere of Cannes, seemingly void of any substance, where vacuous conversations are drowned out by the roar of the latest Lamborghini driving up and down “La Croisette.” It is just as easy and erroneous for me to assume that Liberia is anchored in a conflict-ridden past and unable to overcome this enduring strife to bring about progress and social change. Wrong! I’ve been working with a number of Liberians – community members, many of whom had opportunities to flee during and after the war… Their unyielding commitment to rebuild their country is a prime example of the very resilience which is shifting the paradigm every day and moving the country forward.

Social change in Liberia is taking place fast! And, as far as I’m concerned, there is no better living proof than the people behind THINK, a rehabilitation home which caters to war affected adolescents girls and young women. Many of these wonderful young women are survivors of gender-based violence while others have been victims of trafficking, commercial sex trade and/or separation from their families because of the war. The home, where we have been working on a photovoice project for the past few months, provides shelter, protection, medical and psychological care as well as vocational training skills to these bright, driven young women. THINK is not one, but part of many stories of resilience and hope – stories by Liberians for Liberians, helping to move the country forward, upward and onward.

My time at THINK and my ongoing experiences across Liberia, however invaluable, remind me of the danger of the single story. The consequence of the single story, as Adichie eloquently states is that “it robs people of dignity… It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than similar.” On the flip side, my ephemeral stint in Cannes warns me of that very same danger. However different these experiences may be, it makes me appreciate diversity and recognize the need to go beyond the singularity of single stories.

That same recognition can and should be applied elsewhere, to continue to demystify the many single stories. Yes, I did meet a number of socialites decked out in haute couture from head to toe and whose sole purpose in Cannes was to hop from yacht to yacht in search of the next grandiose soirée. But in that very setting, I witnessed a ton of humility. I had a number of substantive interactions and am humbled by the thoughtful engagement from the many people who not only contributed but who continue to support various programs that mean something to them. Thanks to these generous, interesting and passionate people, Media Impact and so many great groups around the world can continue to bring about social change. From Cannes to Monrovia and every place in between and beyond, there are so many stories to tell; stories that inspire, motivate and help change the world. I truly believe it and I’ll continue to drink the Kool-Aid for as long as I live (make that Moët & Chandon!) “When we reject the single story,” Adichie sums it up, “when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” … And yes Mademoiselle, I’ll be checking my bags all the way through please.

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2nd June 2013

Well written!
Thoroughly enjoyed this insightful blog this morning. Thank you for sharing. Keep 'em coming. :)
3rd June 2013

As I have always said.......
You have been given the amazing gift of the pen and the camera. These talents a proving to be such an amazing asset to you. So wonderful you now have Daya by your side. What a team you both are! Love, Ellen
3rd June 2013

Thank you so much Ellen... This is so sweet. I love your website by the way! See you soon, I hope!
3rd June 2013

Story with Substance
It's a pleasure to read a story with substance and passion for social change. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work. Best Wishes

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