By: Beth Goldberg, Resident Summer Fellow at Accountability Lab Liberia 

In Buchanan, Liberia, we sat circled around glasses of hot, milky tea in an open-air tea shop, far from a traditional parliament. The 20 members of the “street parliament” opened the meeting with a call and response chant, melding the disparate group of men into one voice comprising elders, students, local representatives, mechanics, and everyone in between. These men gather daily for the self-described purpose of critiquing leaders and debating hard questions. Such forums hearken back to early Athenian democracy, where citizens (men) met in public squares to engage lawmakers directly and shape their democratic society.

Democracy, and the free speech it enables, is a source of great national pride in Liberia. Liberians are quick to tell you that theirs is the only country in the world founded upon and named after a value, “liberty”. But in a climate of extreme economic hardship and post-conflict tensions, the exercise of free speech can result in a noisy, angry free-for-all of name-calling and rumors. As one young member of the tea shop described it, “When you turn the radio on in the morning, you hear lashes being given to someone.” Tea shops – such as the “street parliament” in Buchanan – provide an invaluable forum for deliberative democracy that goes beyond name- calling to parse rumors from facts.

The Accountability Lab Liberia team recently visited the tea shops in Buchanan to discuss one rumor in particular. The word on the streets of Buchanan was that that our Integrity Idol program was awarding cash prizes to winners of the annual competition; residents were upset that last year’s winner, Jugbeh Kekula, had not distributed her earnings with her neighbors in Buchanan. This rumor revealed a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of Integrity Idol. As a competition seeking to counter corruption in public service by celebrating accountable and honest service, cash prizes would contradict the very essence of the competition. Thus, winners like Jugbeh instead receive honor and public recognition. This year, the winner is also being written into a children’s book, depicting her public service in the form of a superhero cartoon that celebrates service to her community and country.

Jugbeh KekulaJugbeh could not better exemplify an Integrity Idol. She is a soft-spoken emergency room nurse in Buchanan’s county hospital who moonlights as a volunteer sexual and reproductive health educator. When she is not in the hospital, she walks stall to stall in the market, asking women about their family plans and distributing contraceptives. She is unabashed about her atypical approach to her work and volunteering – she does the right thing, even if it is unpopular and means getting passed up for promotions in the hospital. This ideological stand is all the more unusual for contradicting the dominant culture of public service in Liberia, where power-holders are rewarded for cronyism and quiet acquiescence to those with more power.

Jugbeh visited the tea shops with us and directly addressed the rumors swirling around her Integrity Idol award. In a culture where money has become synonymous with incentives and people are paid “sitting fees” just to attend free NGO workshops, Jugbeh took particular care to explain that sometimes, intangible rewards like recognition are greater than money. While she was timid when speaking about herself, Jugbeh transformed into a powerful orator on the subject of values and money in politics. The street parliament gave her a standing ovation, and one member followed her speech with a testimony of how a single interaction with Jugbeh in nursing school has shaped his career to become a more conscientious care-oriented nurse.

But not all of the men in the tea shops were immediately convinced – they first sought to exercise their democratic due diligence, asking hard questions about the fairness and transparency of the Integrity Idol process. Our Liberia Country Representative, Lawrence, described the lengths that the Lab goes to in ensuring a fair election process for the annual Integrity Idol campaign. As he spoke, the men’s demeanor changed, their heads nodded, and they made a series of short speeches thanking Jugbeh and Accountability Lab for their service to Liberia.

After the rumors were addressed, Buchanan’s “street parliaments” expressed support for both Integrity Idol’s goal of countering political corruption and its approach of highlighting successes rather than failures. One young journalist in the tea shop remarked, “Integrity Idol can shift our minds and the way we think about our country.” Shifting the tone of Liberian discourse from shaming wrong-doers to celebrating exemplars is especially critical in this election season; by moving away from political mud-slinging, Liberians will be able to instead think critically about and celebrate candidates with integrity. In Buchanan and elsewhere, the next step is to make sure that tea shop conversations are inclusive of more citizens, especially women and youth, to ensure all Liberians have a voice in shaping their society.