07/20/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Liberia: Signs of the Times

You can learn a lot about a country from its signs. Last month, during an eight-day study tour of Liberia, I discovered that shop names, posters, advertisements, and graffiti told the story of the place and its problems more graphically than any article or guidebook.

The daunting challenges to Liberia's health care system, for instance, were evident in messages on roadside billboards from Monrovia to villages three hours away. From the compelling, "Every Big Belly Must Be Tested For HIV," to the prescriptive, "Take Cover To Prevent Malaria -- Everywhere, Every Night, Sleep Under Net," to the dimly reassuring, "Leprosy Can Be Prevented -- Cover Your Mouth & Nose While Sneezing or Coughing," to the chilling, "No Child Should Die When We Know How To Stop It" ("it" being unspecified), the fact that disease is a constant threat became painfully obvious.

Omnipresent anti-rape signs -- "Stop Rape! The Way A Person Is Dressed Is No Excuse." "Punishment For Rape Is Serious." "Say No To Domestic Violence." And, "Rape Needs Care Fast" -- broadcast the plague of female sexual assault before Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 2011 Nobel Laureate, talked about it in a private meeting arranged by American Jewish World Service, the organizer of our study tour.

"We've changed the law by making rape a non-bailable crime," said Johnson Sirleaf, who inherited the chaos wrought by the tyrannical Charles Taylor and the 14-year civil war in which rape was rampant. "Now we need to go beyond the law to sensitize our people and educate them to the ills of rape and child pregnancy."

The country's economic struggles revealed themselves in any number of posters:
"Tapping Our Resources for Benefit for All."
"Increased Trade = Poverty Reduction."
"Taxes Help Build Schools, Hospitals, Etc.
Pay Your Taxes To Develop Mama Liberia
-- Ministry of Finance Tax Sensitization Message"

At the personal level, hand-made placards on mud huts and rickety street stands demonstrated that Liberians must exploit every resource at their disposal in their attempts to eke out a living. Faced with an 85 percent joblessness rate, their multi-purpose offerings embodied their entrepreneurial spirit -- and their desperation:
"Chickens, Eggs, Auto Parts"
"Nappy Boy Clean Cut Barbering & Art Shop"
"Right Step Wholesale and Retail Dry Goods, Soda, Desserts."

Likewise, the crime problem could be inferred from certain billboards: "The Police Is Your Friend;" "Taxpayer Money Is Not For Your Personal Use," and "Beware -- Corruption Puts You Behind Bars."

Wherever we traveled we saw piles of garbage, junked cars, and refuse floating in puddles the size of small lakes (it was, in fact, the rainy season). But we also saw correctives like, "Swamps are not dump sites," and "Leave Your Dirt in Your Car."

The "Every Patient Is a Picture of God" pharmacy, the "Search For Common Ground Drum Studio," and the "Good Neighbor Medicine Store," were homely versions of posters produced by government agencies or human rights groups, who expressed similar sentiments in more formal language, i.e.: "Respect Human Dignity -- Abide By The Geneva Convention." "Liberia Is All We Have." "Even War Has Limits." And the alliterative, "Ballots Not Bullets For a Better Liberia."

Clearly, the Liberian people have not yet healed from their civil war, the neighbor-to-neighbor savagery, the mutilation, the torture, the slaughter. They still need reminders of their common humanity and pleas for tolerance, cooperation and amity. The irony is that even the most well-intentioned billboards -- "Let's Empower Girls and Women!" or "Women -- Vote To Have Your Voices Heard," or "When You Educate A Girl You Educate A Nation." -- cannot be read by 60 percent of Liberian girls and women, female illiteracy being among the country's chief deficits.
On a more cheerful note, I was charmed by signage touting shop owners' stellar qualities: "Magic Hands Multi-Purpose Computer Center," "Perfect Gentleman Money Exchange," and "Capable Woman Filling Station."

While some businesses chose to accentuate the negative -- "No Equal Beauty Salon," "No Lemons Car Parts," and "No Sham Business Center," being my favorites -- others used religion to sell their wares: "Let God Be Praised Cinder Block Company," "God of Time Business Center," "Blessed Sam Auto Parts," and, on a muddy tract, hanging over a display of shiny white coffins, a banner cautioned, "Jesus -- Don't Leave This World Without Him."

Speaking of religion, though there are no Jews in Liberia, it bears repeating that our study tour was organized by American Jewish World Service, and that AJWS explicitly cites Judaism's justice-seeking ethos as the inspiration for its grant-making (to grass-roots groups focused on peace-building, women's empowerment, sustainable development, disability rights, and the like). So, I was somewhat unnerved to notice two signs -- "Jews Used Clothing Outfit" and "Used Jew Clothes" -- which suggested that even a nation with no Jews is not immune to Jewish stereotypes.

On its next trip, AJWS might want to introduce its work to those two shopkeepers. Or else take them to the battered shack on whose door someone had scrawled, "Please enter with an open mind."

LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN is a New York-based writer and activist, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, and the author of nine books.