Three years into the second Liberian Civil War, a small-boned man with no prior journalism training began scribbling news on a chalkboard along Tubman Boulevard in Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia. The 27 year old man armed with a belief that misinformation had kindled the Civil war was enthusiastic about a platform that enlightened the average Liberian.
That man was Alfred J. Sirleaf and almost two decades later, his chalkboard newspaper at the center of town has become the primary source of authentic information to ordinary Liberians. This crop of people who cannot afford regular newspapers, televisions or even radio sets dedicate a few minutes of their time each day to read the news for free off a blackboard.
A June 2011 headline from the chalkboard.
Sirleaf who is now 45 years of age has remained true to his reason for starting; to keep Liberians informed, educate them on things that have to do with the Liberian society and the world at large. His ardent conviction that an oblivious citizenry had made an easy target for a civil war is not an entirely alien concept.
Conflict experts have cited similar causes for the Rwandan genocide, the Civil war in South Sudan among others and everyday from the wardrobe sized newsroom behind the chalkboard, Sirleaf attempts at expunging this possibility by relentlessly curating material for The Daily Talk.
The Daily Talk reports the result of the Presidential elections (EPA photo)
He merges international and local news culled from reputable sources on the landscape sized chalkboard while factoring in space limitations, general apathy to lengthy content of most Liberians and news sense. With these stringent conditions, he is able to create a board with it’s own unique voice, feel and even illustrations that become The Daily Talk for each calendar day.
The newsroom and it’s small staff of seven have reported some of the countries biggest stories and occasionally garners up to 5,000 readers per day. But all these have come at a price. Shortly after it’s launch and during the Charles Taylor regime, The Daily Talk was closed for publishing criticism about the then president and Sirleaf was imprisoned for a period of time.
The founder has also wrestled with funding, occasionally allowing small advertising on the board and basically relying on meager contributions from the public to buy supplies for the newsroom and to pay his budding staff. He nevertheless considers these sacrifices a small price to pay to keep the city informed.
Sirleaf working inside his Newsroom (New York Times photo, 2006)
Monrovia is home to big news outlets like The Liberian Times, The Analyst and The Inquirer among others yet The Daily Talk has been able to capture the attention of an audience that might otherwise never have found a place in the pages of mainstream journalism.
Perhaps it is Sirleaf’s transmission of information in the most thoughtful and empathetic manner, a fusion of Liberian English and caricatures for those who have not learned to read, or that his tabloid comes at no cost, is precise in it’s conveyance of the news and is independent of external influence in it’s reporting.
Perhaps it is just that it stands stalwart on a busy street, almost looking as if it was destined to be there from time immemorial, not merely existing in the environment but being one with it or just that Liberians spurred by a brutal past are thirsty for knowledge, to never be left in the dark.
The Daily Talk exterior (Monocle Photo)
Whatever the reason, The Daily Talk has become a focal point in the lives of ordinary Liberians, from school teachers, to steel workers, to bus riders and market women, it has created a space that recognizes the rudimentary participants of a democracy and this really has been Sirleaf’s goal from the onset.
In 2006, he told The New York Times; Daily Talk’s objective is that everybody should absorb the news, because when a few people out there make decisions on behalf of the masses that do not go down with them, we are all going to be victims.