Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War

Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War

Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War

Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War


At the end of Liberia's thirteen-year civil war, the devastated population struggled to rebuild their country and come to terms with their experiences of violence. During the first decade of postwar reconstruction, hundreds of humanitarian organizations created programs that were intended to heal trauma, prevent gendered violence, rehabilitate former soldiers, and provide psychosocial care to the transitioning populace. But the implementation of these programs was not always suited to the specific mental health needs of the population or easily reconciled with the broader aims of reconstruction and humanitarian peacekeeping, and psychiatric treatment was sometimes ignored or unevenly integrated into postconflict humanitarian health care delivery.

Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War explores the human experience of the massive apparatus of trauma-healing and psychosocial interventions during the first five years of postwar reconstruction. Sharon Alane Abramowitz draws on extensive fieldwork among the government officials, humanitarian leaders, and an often-overlooked population of Liberian NGO employees to examine the structure and impact of the mental health care interventions, in particular the ways they were promised to work with peacekeeping and reconstruction, and how the reach and effectiveness of these promises can be measured. From this courageous ethnography emerges a geography of trauma and the ways it shapes the lives of those who give and receive care in postwar Liberia.


On a hot dry day in the winter of 2006–2007, I accompanied a team of psychosocial workers to a village in the far north of Bong County to audit mental health interviews. Sitting in a dusty, narrow, blue examination room with a table, a few chairs, and an empty bookshelf, Agnes, the psychosocial counselor, looked down. Her typically tall and graceful frame was slumped, and her arms moved slowly and listlessly through her notebook and kit. She seemed far removed from her usual pert, optimistic professionalism— her eyes looked haunted and distressed.

It was a slow day, and few clients were coming round to meet with her, so I asked her what was wrong. Agnes said she was “really discouraged, and upset about my country, my nation.” A very senior public official, Willis Knuckles, had been photographed having an affair with two women simultaneously, and in the photograph, the two women appeared to be engaged in sexual acts with each other. The photographs had been rapidly disseminated; they soon hung on walls, billboards, and doors in every large town throughout the country.

Agnes began to sob. “What will become of our own nation? That’s a public figure. The immorality! I pray to God, and I know that God forgives, but what can this country be, what can this country become with the behavior of people like this? These are our leaders? And what will become of this man’s wife? What will become of this man’s children? What will become of his generation? I’m just sick. Where is the pride? Where is the dignity that . . .

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