In my last post, I attempted to provide a play-by-play of the violent incidents in Liberia’s Lofa County. I’ve since attended a roundtable discussion with chiefs, government officials, the UN and NGOs operating in Lofa who presented other sides to the story. Below are a few corrections based on this discussion, and additional points of interest about the events in Lofa:
Starting with a quote from my last post: “A recap: What began as the murder of a young girl led to an angry mob seeking vengeance, a mob that blamed the local imam with strong conviction and little evidence; with plans to storm the imam’s mosque, the crowd was deterred (Pakistani peacekeepers were nearby) and decided instead to call (that’s right, on the mobile) one of the mosque’s regular attendants to tell him, ‘we are burning down your mosque.’ The beginning of a rumor.”
Let’s stop here to update. The “young girl” – or, as I’d also heard her described, “school girl” – I’ve since discovered was a 22 year-old woman, Korpo, who was also in eleventh grade at a high school in ZorZor (outside of Lofa’s capital, Voinjama). The mob that formed in response to Korpo’s disappearance was in fact a group of students from her school who initially gathered to protest the local authorities’ inertia regarding the case. After Korpo went missing, her mother (a member of the Lorma tribe) consulted a “sassy-wood player” (a local prophet of sorts) to locate her daughter; interestingly, the man consulted was an Imam of the Mandingo (i.e. opposing) tribe. It was Korpo’s mother, in fact, who blamed the sassy-wood player for her daughter’s death when, after a few days, the man said he was unable to find Korpo.
Who, then, initiated the first outlash that eventually led to the burning of churches? On the third day of searching, Korpo’s body was found and the still-protesting students went to Korpo’s mother to learn who had promised to find her (as the local authorities remained ineffective). Her mother pointed to the Imam, and immediately the group of student protesters descended on his mosque, throwing stones at the Imam locked inside. It was at this point in time that the leap in the violence’s scope and involved actors took place, made possible by the mobile phone. The Imam’s son left the scene and called relatives in Voinjama – and his message was frantic: “The Lorma people have killed our father and burned the mosque.” As the Carter Center report suggests, “This appears to be the source of the information that led to mob action in Voinjama.”
It’s becoming clear that what I assumed was fact was indeed a string of rumors – and that the facts (if we can call these written reports factual) are just as complex, winding this way and that. Theoretically, if Ushahidi had been deployed in Lofa during this crescendo of conflict, would it have been possible to discern fact from rumor? Here we are getting into muddy waters; however, because Ushahidi is a tool and not an inherently analytical instrument, perhaps its strength lies in the ability to report actions taken (such as an agitated crowd forming, a storming on the mosque, the mosque is left intact) and to encourage caution regarding those messages from the field that indicate what MIGHT happen.
But as we saw, the Imam’s son made a call, stating what he believed to be true and what turned out to be false information; how would organizations using Ushahidi know the difference in this case? I’m tempted to employ a new approach to rumors that have not been adopted by most researchers, historians, or current media: don’t ignore them – map them. Now this is tricky – what if people looking at the map think that, because these reports have been approved and are visible as points on the Liberian landscape, they are true. But what if these instances that were not verified could belong to their own “Rumors” category during a crisis. Ushahidi is, after all, incredibly useful for archiving data collated during crises, and provides a unique view back at history as it was unfolding.
I would argue that rumors tell us a great deal about why certain events took place – for instance, without knowing the contents of the phone call placed to Voinjama, it would be very unclear why the violence spread from an outlying town to the county’s capital. Rumors may not be factual, but perhaps Western perceptions of what information is valid or invalid do not recognize the importance of what Stephen Ellis calls “pavement radio” – transmissions within communities that point to an undercurrent of fear and unanswered frustrations. If Ushahidi were to document these rumors (again, classified clearly as rumor and not as verified information), it would be the first tool I know of that demonstrates not only the series of events that led to violence but also the invisible threads of social fears and suspicions that prompted these events.
There are plenty of dangers in mapping rumors, one being that anything that appears on the map may be considered verified despite its categorization as otherwise. And if viewers consider the rumors validated, the mere presence of rumors on the map could indeed lead to acts of retribution stemming from the Ushahidi instance rather than the rumor on the ground. These are plenty of good reasons to be cautious.
I’m left, however, with a thorn in my side – and one that has to do with the issue of trust I raised in the previous post: if Ushahidi follows in the footsteps of other information sources and does not report rumors, will this repository for critical information also be deemed by Liberians as less-than-trustworthy because it reports a certain kind of information? In the example of Voinjama, the young woman’s murderer has still not been found; this unresolved loss remains an open wound for several communities – and increases the likelihood that rumors will continue to circulate in the place of factual information that may again lead to violence. But what if these rumors were tracked, documented in near-real time? Would we then have a new list of indicators for increased risk of violence and could these indicators be the early warnings that crisis mappers have been waiting for? The revolution that has yet to take place is one where rumors are considered valuable information, and not simply invalid weapons of the uneducated or irrational. Ushahidi may not be the one to lead this revolution, but for a deeper understanding of what information has real currency among many populations, rumors cannot be ignored for much longer.