Thursday, July 2, 2009

GANTA, Liberia

In war-ravaged Liberia, the King of Pop wasn’t just a musician with fierce dance moves and a howl to match. Michael Jackson, who died June 25 at age 50, brought hope to this West African nation destroyed by 14 years of civil war. Today, Liberia is at peace, but Mr. Jackson’s songs, such as “We Are the World,” “Heal the World” and the lesser-known but beloved “Liberian Girl,” continue to uplift this traumatized nation.

“Music comforts people,” said Junior Lassana, a fan of Mr. Jackson’s. “You got problem someday, you play music. You just forget about your problem.”

Fans cleaned out Mr. Lassana’s collection of about 10 Jackson CDs at his run-down music booth on a busy thoroughfare here in Ganta, a northern city near the Guinea border. Liberians living in Ganta experienced an especially brutal wave of civil war in 2003.

Liberia was officially founded in 1822 by freeborn black Americans commissioned by a group of abolitionists and slave owners. Conflicts between the American settlers and the indigenous Liberians, along with years of poverty, tribal rivalries and oppression, led to a coup in 1980 and war in 1989.

Fighting ensued for 14 years and led to some of the most bizarre and unthinkable atrocities in history. The civil war ended in 2003 shortly after warlord and former President Charles Taylor fled the country. By then, an estimated 200,000 people had died, thousands of Liberians had become refugees in other countries, and thousands of child soldiers were disarmed.

Today, Liberia is experiencing peace and a slow rebirth under the rule of Africa’s first democratically elected female leader, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. But the country still remains without regular electricity, running water and other critical infrastructure.

Liberians consider themselves the “brothers” and “sisters” of Americans and are voracious consumers of all things connected to what they call “The Great United States.”

Like Americans, Liberians feel that they have grown up with Mr. Jackson. This week, they sought a way to say goodbye. Many filled dim “video clubs,” makeshift establishments rigged with satellite feeds and DVD players, to get the latest news on Mr. Jackson and to watch his music videos.

Margaret Carson, 41, sells eggs on a Ganta roadside. She is a fan of Mr. Jackson’s “Liberian Girl.”

“When that music came out … the Liberian girls were so astonished to hear a great musician like Michael Jackson thinking about a little country in Africa,” Mrs. Carson said. “It gave us hope, especially when things went bad … . It make us to feel that we are still part of the world.”

Mr. Jackson’s music video of “Liberian Girl” doesn’t indicate the song was for or about Liberia. It begins with supermodel Beverly Johnson chanting in Swahili, a native language of East Africa. Liberians speak English. The video includes appearances by nearly 40 celebrities, including Paula Abdul, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Olivia Newton-John and Steven Spielberg.

But what matters to Liberians are the lyrics: “Liberian Girl, you know that you came, and you changed my world … I love you, Liberian Girl.”

The song promotes Liberian women and makes her feel good to be one, Mrs. Carson said. She has four daughters, who she hopes will become successful in a postwar Liberia still rife with many obstacles - including an 80 percent unemployment rate and an education system that still is recovering from years of civil war.

When Harry Sahn heard about Mr. Jackson’s death on the radio, he got up and waited until daylight. He couldn’t sleep.

Mr. Sahn spent nine years in neighboring Guinea during Liberia’s protracted war. He lost four siblings. At night, he would slink across a river from Guinea to Liberia in a canoe and scavenge for food for his family.

Mr. Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” is one of Mr. Sahn’s favorites. The song, which West African rapper Akon also sang with Mr. Jackson in 2008, says: “Lift your head up high and scream out to the world. I know I am someone, and let the truth unfurl. No one can hurt you now.”

A war-crimes court has not been established in Liberia, and many men and women who committed atrocities have not been held accountable. Mr. Sahn said he feels “better” when he sees former soldiers living in poverty and struggling to make a living today.

“They are going to learn from ignorance,” Mr. Sahn said. “If you can go and fight for 13 or 14 years, then after war, you are not doing anything, that brings your own foolishness right in your face. That makes a blackboard before you, to see that you were doing nonsense during this time.”

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” gives Mr. Sahn hope that Liberians can rise from war, despite their current sufferings.

Only Beyonce Knowles tops Michael Jackson on 16-year-old Wokie Dolo’s personal music billboard.

Wokie was 10 years old when fighters flooded Ganta. She remembers walking for hours to flee the fighting. She remembers bloody rebels and civilians. No one in her family died. Today, Wokie is not only a survivor, but part of a postwar generation of Liberian youth who want to bring about change.

Her favorite song is Mr. Jackson’s “Heal the World.”

“He’s saying parents, everybody should join hands and cooperate. Heal the world. Make it a better place for the children that will be born today, tomorrow and forever,” Wokie said.

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