Sharon Alane Abramowitz. 2014. Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War

By M'bayo, Tamba E. | African Studies Quarterly, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Sharon Alane Abramowitz. 2014. Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War


M'bayo, Tamba E., African Studies Quarterly


Sharon Alane Abramowitz. 2014. Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 268 pp.

In recent decades, scholarship on post-conflict states in Africa has expanded exponentially as scholars voraciously document the recovery efforts of countries despoiled by wars, among them Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and South Sudan, to name only a few. In the case of the West African states of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the recent Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic that hit both countries with thousands of deaths after it originated and spread from neighboring Guinea in December 2013 has only compounded the challenges of post-conflict recovery. The epidemic, just like the postwar reconstruction effort in Liberia following its thirteen-year civil war, caught the attention of the international community, the World Health Organization (WHO), Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and NGOs, both local and international, all of them seeking to restore normalcy in the war-torn country. Paradoxically, the goodwill behind such humanitarian interventions notwithstanding, most of the programs implemented, more often than not, fell short of addressing the specific mental health needs of Liberians who had experienced the brunt of the war.

This backdrop is the point of departure for Sharon Abramowitz's Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War, which zooms in on the early post-conflict reconstruction, from 2003 to 2008, "to examine the relationship between individual and collective trauma and the project of postwar social repair.. .through the lens of the massive global humanitarian project of trauma healing and psychosocial intervention" (p. 4). As Abramowitz puts it, she aspired "to study mental health and psychosocial intervention in a multiscalar and processual way, using a multisited ethnographic approach" (p. 35). And in so doing, she had to draw on archival research, NGO documentation (or grey literature), interviews, both formal and informal, participant observation, and "a careful process of cross-validating informants' accounts with NGO, local informant, documentary, and international sources" (p. 35). This plethora of sources combining a proactive ethnographic investigation and methodical documentation, together with the author's incisive interpretative repertoire, gives the book a multilayered texture that is intriguing and puts it above standard narratives about the Liberian civil war and its dehumanizing violence.

According to Abramowitz, her book's eight chapters are written to capture "the discordance of the phenomena being studied--violence and its effects-- albeit in a different register" (p. 31). In Chapter 1, she lays out her frame of reference centered on trauma and psychosocial rehabilitation within the context of post-conflict reconstruction and a "decentralized project of humanitarian social engineering" (p. …

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