Bong and Nimba, Liberia, July 2017

Using Performing Arts in Liberia to Spread Messages about Peaceful Elections

Purdue Peace Project Director Stacey Connaughton and graduate research assistant Jennifer Ptacek recently returned from a trip to Liberia, where they observed peaceful elections activities in Bong and Nimba counties. 

Upon arriving in Nimba County, Liberia, we were greeted by a group of eager and energetic local citizens who were actively working together to promote violence-free elections in their country in 2017. They arrived with a black truck adorned with colorful banners spreading the message of peaceful elections and equipped with a giant speaker attached to the top. The use of these speakers as a means to play music to bring community members out to hear their messages, in addition to other uses of performance, came to be a key peacebuilding strategy used by local peace committees in Liberia to help prevent violence around the upcoming elections.

We were in Liberia in July 2017 to witness the work of local peace committees supported by the Purdue Peace Project (PPP). During this visit, we had the opportunity to observe two separate peace committees – in Nimba and Bong counties – while they engaged their respective communities through several outreach activities aimed at preventing violence before and during Liberia’s elections, which are set to take place on Oct. 10, 2017.

The PPP’s work in Liberia is currently focused on working with local citizens to encourage peaceful elections, as elections in Liberia have historically involved incidents of violence. The peace committees formed as a result of the PPP bringing people together representing different parts of the community that have often been in conflict – such as police officers, pen-pen riders (motorcycle taxi drivers), and market women – who engaged in dialogue about the need for violence-free elections and then volunteered to work together to prevent violence. Outreach is just one of many activities done by these committees, and it allows the members to interact directly with the community to not only share their messages of peace but also address concerns from local citizens.Dance group performs

During our visit, we tagged along as the local peace committee in Nimba moved through the day’s outreach community, making several stops at prime locations in the town and the marketplace to deliver their message of peace. Their messages included sayings like “Liberia is all we have; we must be peaceful.” We witnessed how effectively they managed to draw large crowds at each stop. They played local tunes on the truck’s speakers at each stop and coaxed onlookers to join them dancing to the beat of the songs.

At one stop, they even had a brief dancing competition between the committee members and people in the community who wanted to participate. In between songs, members of the peace committee would say a few words to raise awareness as well as call for peaceful elections. During this time, they also invited audience members to share their thoughts and hopes related to the upcoming elections and peace. They spent approximately 20 minutes at each stop with around 50-75 people gathering at each one. There were about six stops made during that day alone, although they had visited other different communities on previous days.

Additionally, we observed the peace committee in Bong County organize its outreach activities in a similar fashion, where they moved from one part of the community to the next, integrating song and dance as a way of talking about peace and peaceful elections. However, they did so with their own twist. The Bong Pen-Pen Peace Network hired a group of performers to play drums at different stops throughout the community, as well as perform several cultural dance routines.

Just like in Nimba County, the crowds in Bong gathered to watch and participate in the fun by the droves and had their voices heard on their hopes for peace and peaceful elections. There were around 30-50 people who gathered at each of these stops and the committee made around six stops that day.

Building upon previous experiences in Liberia, this visit further bolstered our opinion of the value of integrating performance, specifically the performing arts, into peacebuilding. While the role of performing arts may not typically get much attention in discussions about peacebuilding, what we saw showed that it was indeed a major way that each group could bring in their own style and add a personal touch to the work they value so deeply. That these performances were developed as a strategy to promote peace and draw in crowds highlights the importance of locally led peacebuilding. They add value to their work by attracting local communities in ways that are relevant as well as enjoyable to those watching.

The peace committees’ use of performing arts in their peacebuilding work is not just limited to such activities and performances. In fact, the peace committees in Liberia have also tossed around other ideas such as writing songs, performing dramas, shooting videos, and creating artwork, all in the name of peace. They continue to demonstrate high levels of creativity and are always coming up with new ideas. We are excited to see what they come up with next, and we are hopeful for Liberia’s upcoming elections to be violence-free.

-Author Jennifer Ptacek is a graduate research assistant with the PPP.

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