Four years ago, when I first met Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna in Staten Island, she told me she collected stories. She carried them with her on a flash drive that hung from a string around her neck. Later, I opened them on my computer and listened:
“Welcome to another edition of Straight from the Heart on UNMIL Radio, 91.5 Monrovia, Harper, and Zwedru; 90.5 Gbanga; 97.1 Voinjama and Greenville; and 95.1 Sanniquellie. Straight from the Heart is a live, phone-in program designed to air your true-life stories and look at how we can become reconciled to what happened to us…. and, in some cases, the shameful things did to others…with the hope that we Liberians can reunite with one another.”
Agnes was a radio host for a UN Radio Program called Straight from the Heart focused on reconciliation after 14 years of civil war in Liberia. The program opened with the Bryan Adams pop ballad after which it was named, but later Tracy Chapmans’ “Matters of the Heart” became the introductory tune.
When we first met, Agnes had just come to New York to complete a course in trauma and recovery and also collect testimony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as she did back in Liberia. Liberia was the first country to collect statements for their TRC from members of the diaspora, and Staten Island had the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia. “I collect stories, not statements.” Agnes once qualified.
Her recent book And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation, shares the stories she has collected over the years as a radio producer and weaves them with her own narrative of life during and after the Liberian Civil war.
“That war being two wars that left as many as three-fourths of our women rapes, more than 250,000 people killed out of a population of 2.5 million, thousands more killers, and everyone knowing someone buried under the earth”
Through her radio program, she wanted survivors to confront the past to forge a better future. But it would not be easy, and in the beginning, even she had her doubts:
“Many times people would ask me, What’s the point in talking about the past?” Aren’t you aware of the dangers? Our show was about reality, you see. Deep-seated hatred and painful memories, which many people, including politicians, wanted to push past as soon as possible…There was no authority to say, yes, honesty after darkness is the proper path to peace. Quite the opposite, in fact. People were living in silence, prisons of paranoia. And now, after fourteen years of war, a radio show was going to dig up all the lies and hate? That was our solution?”
But she believed in the importance of these stories. Each chapter in Agnes’s memoir, opens with an excerpt of a story from her radio program. Rape victims, ex-fighters, child soldiers, war lords and politicians have all been on her show. It was important for Agnes to not only air the stories of victims, but also perpetrators of violence. She came to realize they were victims too, especially in the case of former child soldiers. In the book, you learn how she earned their trust and got them to share their stories. But then something else happened too:
“They would tell me their stories. And I couldn’t just send them away. How would they eat? Where would they sleep?…And soon, what had started out as an assignment for my radio program turned into something else altogether. I became ‘mama.’ They became ‘my kids’.”
And Straight From the Heart went from being a radio show to a center, which provided basic necessities and a space for empowerment for some of these youth.
Agnes approaches “her kids” with much compassion and concern.
“It isn’t easy to tell someone, ‘You have been used. You fought a war of lies—for nothing!’ You Can’t. Not all at once. You have to break down a belief system in stages, while keeping a person’s hope intact. Deliver the shocking truth, but prevent them from spiraling into an even darker place. Find a way to say, ‘You killed, but this is not the end of you.'”
Agnes’ braids in her own family story into this narrative. While she’s tackling healing a nation, she’s also reconciling how to be a daughter and a mother herself. There are heartbreaking moments when she has to part with her own children. I was reminded by a quote I read from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son who said:
“All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children, and there are implications to that.”
Agnes writes: “Perhaps we can never foresee the way violence starts to approach the safe circles of our worlds… and sometimes overtake them.” But through her past work and the work that she continues to do for her organization Straight from the Heart, Agnes is trying to make the world safe for all children. She has many dreams for Liberia and ideas for how radio, story telling and women’s empowerment will help us get closer to that world.
Happy Birthday Agnes! May all your dreams come true.