Emory Report
March 19, 2007
Volume 59, Number 23

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March 19, 2007
Liberian war survivor shares stories with religion, conflict class

by carol clark

The students in Tom Flores’ Religion and Conflict class recently exchanged their textbooks for rhythm sticks and seed gourds to backup a plea for peace belted out by Juli Endee, Liberia’s ambassador at large for culture.

“Come on! Shake it!” Endee sang, as she clapped her hands and shimmied in a lime green African dress and a gold-embroidered head wrap. “Let’s embrace peace!”

“The course is concerned with looking at why there is so much violence in the name of religion,” said Flores, a postdoctoral fellow in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion. “I asked Juli to visit because I wanted the students to also be exposed to the positive role of religion in peace-building. Here was a chance to hear firsthand about how official religion and popular religious beliefs have contributed positively — and negatively — to a conflict.”

Before she sang to them, Endee gave the class a crash course on the 14 years of civil war endured by Liberia, and its struggle for reconciliation since a fragile peace was achieved in 2003. Endee is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and the traditional queen of Liberia, an honor bestowed on her by traditional leaders because of her work for rehabilitation of the country.

“My brother died in the war,” said Endee. “They made my brother drink acid water, you know from the car battery? They made him drink, drink, drink, while my mother was watching, until his insides shut down.”
Located in West Africa between Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, Liberia is made up of nearly 20 ethnic groups. The population is about 40 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim, combined with a mixture of indigenous beliefs, handed down by traditional leaders.

The conflict in Liberia was not a religious one, Endee said. “It was barbaric, they were all hooligans. A commander would say, ‘I’m going to kill 25 women today.’ He doesn’t care what you believe or where you come from, as long as you’re in that category of sex. And the next day, he might decide, ‘I’m going to kill 25 men.’”

To try to fuel the fighting, however, some warlords tried to pit Muslims and Christians against one another, Endee said. When churches were burned, Christians would retaliate by burning mosques and vice versa.
She said that the Inter-religious Council of Liberia, which includes religious leaders from both faiths, stepped in and issued a statement. “They said, ‘No Muslim should ever burn a church again, and no Christian has any right to burn a mosque.’”

During a polio outbreak, tensions were heightened when some people were accused of committing witchcraft to cripple children, Endee said. The Inter-religious Council worked with local traditional leaders to quell people’s fears and help them understand the true causes of polio.

“Church leaders went from door to door to appeal for a day of no fighting, so the children could be immunized against polio,” she said. “That was a major springboard to peace-building.”

A professional singer, Endee formed a group, now known as Liberia Crusaders for Peace, to make a musical appeal for peace and disarmament. The group traveled around the country to perform during the fighting — a risky venture, since some commanders suspected the musicians of doing reconnaissance for opposing factions — but Endee said many people were convinced to turn in their guns in exchange for food, clothing and educational opportunities.

“Music is an integral part of our religious and daily lives in Liberia,” she said. “People embraced our performances. They knew it had to be a spiritual calling, to have people come in and do music during a crisis, when everyone else is afraid and running away.”

Endee didn’t just talk about the power of music, she demonstrated it by singing to the class. Flores backed her up on bongos — “I was a musician in a former life,” he said — and Allison Cohan, a double major in political science and dance in Emory College, played keyboards.

“If you save the life of one person, the community will be happy,” Endee sang in her native tongue of Kpellie. Although they could not understand the words, the students got the message of hope communicated by Endee’s boisterous voice and smile.

“What can we as students do to help Liberia?” a student asked.

“You can do a lot,” said Endee, who is developing a Children’s Village to train war-affected youth about the values of peace. “You can come and share your experiences of the great U.S.A. with the children of Liberia so they will understand that issues of human rights are very important. I’m not worried about this generation in Liberia, because we’re finished. I’m worried about the upcoming generation.”