Sunday, August 8, 2010

Naomi Campbell's hair

A lot has happened in Liberia since my book Mississippi in Africa was first published in 2004, including the arrest of the country’s president, Charles Taylor, for war crimes, the election of the first female president of an African nation -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the release of two remarkable documentaries, An Uncivil War and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. More importantly, though, the West African nation, which was settled by freed slaves from the U.S. before the American civil war, has found peace after back-to-back civil wars that kept the country in turmoil from 1990 to 2004.

I traveled to Liberia in 2001, searching for descendants of a group of emigrants from Jefferson County, Mississippi in the 1840s. One of my chief sources while I was in Liberia, Jefferson Kanmoh, a student activist who went unnamed in the book due to concerns that he would suffer reprisals from Taylor, has since been elected to the Liberian Congress, representing Sinoe County, site of the old colony known as Mississippi in Africa as well as neighboring Louisiana, which was similarly settled by freed slaves from that state.

I’ve kept up with Jefferson and many others I met while I was in Liberia, and for obvious reasons have remained interested in what was happening there. Last week, I was surprised to read of an episode that adds a new dimension to the strangeness that has never been in short supply where Liberia is concerned: The testimony, on August 5, by supermodel Naomi Campbell in Taylor’s UN trial in The Hague, Netherlands. I was a bit nonplussed to find that the magazine Vanity Fair, which had previously published some excellent reports about the Liberian civil war by journalist Sebastian Junger, chose to focus this time on Campbell’s… hair. So it goes with Vanity Fair. That’s Campbell, by the way, in the photo accompanying this post, alongside another, of two female Liberian soldiers taken by photographer Teun Voeten during the civil war.

Taylor, an American educated former warlord who was elected president primarily because Liberians saw it as their only hope of ending the bloodshed (the popular mantra was, “You killed my ma, you killed my pa; I will vote for you”) is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and cannibalism. The story is too complex to even begin to do it justice here, but Taylor is accused of arming warlords in exchange for so-called “blood diamonds” mined using slave labor, while participating in civil wars in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed. Apparently he sought to impress Campbell soon after his election, which is how she came to testify at The Hague.

Prosecutors had hoped to solidify their case against Taylor through testimony that he had given Campbell a bag of raw diamonds after a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa in 1997. Both Campbell’s former agent and actress Mia Farrow confirmed the gift, and though Campbell had previously denied receiving it, she changed her tune in the International Criminal Court. When asked how she received the diamonds, she said: “When I was sleeping I had a knock on my door. I opened it and two men were there and gave me a pouch and said, ‘A gift for you’.” Inside the pouch she saw “very small, dirty looking stones” -- uncut diamonds. She continued: “At breakfast I told Miss Farrow and Miss White [her agent] what had happened and one of the two said, well that’s obviously Charles Taylor, and I said, yes I guess it was.”

When questioned about what she had done with the gems, Campbell said she passed them to Jeremy Ratcliffe, then-director of Nelson Mandela’s Children's Fund and asked him to “do something good with them”. The charity denied receiving the diamonds until last week, when Ratcliffe handed them over to police.

Taylor has been in prison since 2004, and his trial, which began in 2007, appears to be in its final stage. His wife, Jewel, divorced him in 2006 and now serves as a senator in the Liberian Congress, alongside my friend Jefferson, who is in the House. One of the couple’s sons is serving a 97-year sentence for his war crimes role.

The war was going on when I traveled to Liberia, but I wasn’t there to cover the conflict – far from it. I was trying to find out what had happened to the largest group of emigrants, more than 300 slaves who were freed from Prospect Hill Plantation by the will of Mississippi planter Isaac Ross (hence the long and cumbersome subtitle of the book: "The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and their Legacy in Liberia Today”). The war, for me, was primarily a hindrance to doing historical research, and I lived in fear of being arrested while in Liberia after U.S. embassy officials informed me that Taylor thought I had traveled there as a UN spy. Several other journalists had been arrested under the same pretense and charged with capital crimes, though all were subsequently released. My inadvertent insertion into the war, which naturally led to its inclusion in the book, also led to a lasting friendship with Sebastian Junger, whom I contacted after reading his Vanity Fair articles about Sierra Leone, hoping he could give me advice on how to prepare for traveling to Liberia. Sebastian advised me not to go, but when I told him I had no choice, he gave me useful nuts-and-bolts advice and told me to get back in touch with him upon my return. I think he was intrigued by the idea of this inexperienced guy researching family trees in a war zone, without any protection or support, as much as anything. He afterward hooked me up with his literary agency, which sold my manuscript for publication.

Through Sebastian I later met Teun Voeten, the Dutch war photographer whose photo of two young female soldiers appears here, and Tim Hetherington, a British photographer and videographer who spent eight years living and working in West Africa, four focused on Liberia, and shot the footage for the stunning documentary An Uncivil War ( Teun wrote his own book about his experiences in the region, and in 2006 Tim took a break from photography to work as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. More recently, Tim and Sebastian collaborated on the film Restrepo, about the war in Afghanistan, which won this year’s Sundance prize for best documentary. You can check out Teun’s photos at and Tim’s at The trailer for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how the women of Liberia rose up to protest for peace, can be found here: There's also a brief video about efforts to assimilate child soldiers into society, at

Jefferson, meanwhile, who was shot and imprisoned during the Liberian civil war, is now an up-and-coming statesman and remains one of the more inspiring people I’ve met. He recently traveled to a human rights conference in San Francisco and hoped to make it to Mississippi for his first visit to what many “Americo” descendants in Liberia consider their homeland, to “return” to a place he had never been, much as the original freed-slave emigrants to the Liberian colony “returned” in the 1840s to Africa – a place that they, as longtime American slaves, had never been. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s plans fell through.

Despite brief news coverage, the publication of books and the release of documentary films about Liberia, most Americans are unaware of what has been going on there, which mystifies the average Liberian, who’s acutely aware that theirs is the only nation the U.S. ever created. I could not help noticing, during the time that Liberians were asking the U.S. to intervene in their civil war, that American opponents warned of “another Somalia,” despite the fact that the two countries are as geographically and culturally distinct as Ireland and Uzbekistan. Then again, many Americans think Africa is a country, not a continent.

Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic, and its history is among the more complex and enthralling in the world. It’s worth reading about, which is why I’m proud to say that the newest edition of Mississippi in Africa is on the shelves after a brief period out of print.

Liberia exists in a sort of parallel universe, with communities named Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia, and reports from the country do occasionally feel as if they’ve passed through the looking glass. Unfortunately it’s often a one-way mirror, through which they can see us but we can’t see them. Perhaps if more supermodels were involved we might pay closer attention.

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