Ora Garway quietly takes notes as two male journalists interview teachers – nearly all of them men – about poor classroom resources and irregular salaries at their village school.
Slight and soft-spoken, Ms. Garway finally interjects a few questions: Why do so few girls attend school? Why aren’t there more women teachers? What is being done to boost attendance here in Liberia, the nation with Africa’s lowest enrollment rate?
Garway is accustomed to a male-dominated world in a news business that, like the country itself, is still struggling to recover from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. She is Liberia’s only female newspaper editor – and a crusader in reporting on major issues in this fragile nation.
Women rarely cover the important stories, she says. “You will only find them assigned to just rewriting press releases,” says Garway, who launched the biweekly Punch in June 2009.
Male editors “can’t allow us to do what we are able or capable of doing,” she says. “I really don’t know why it’s like that.”
Her struggle may seem ironic in a country headed by Africa’s lone female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Women are still scarce in decisionmaking positions and classrooms here.
According to recent government surveys, 56 percent of Liberian women have not attended school. Only 18 percent of girls graduate from high school, compared with 25 percent of boys.
Garway spent six years as a reporter before starting her own paper, in part to address what she sees as paltry media coverage of Liberia’s daunting problems with health, education, and poverty.
Friends had suggested several names for the masthead. She liked “Punch,” she says, because “a woman was coming out to do something that [only] men are doing. It would be like a punch, … like a blow.”
Punch was a gamble in a crowded market – 26 newspapers serve the 1.2 million residents of Monrovia, the capital. High rates of illiteracy and poverty crimp newspaper sales. A poor transportation system makes delivery outside Monrovia costly.
Garway says she sells 500 copies per issue, compared with about 3,000 copies for the most widely read dailies, at less than US 10 cents per copy.
“I didn’t think [Punch] would have lasted a year,” says Marquita Smith, a former editor at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., who visited Liberia to help Punch improve its financial and news operations.
The Punch editor is an inspiration to other Liberian journalists, says Ms. Smith, who now teaches journalism at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark.
Garway “is very quiet and unassuming,” Smith says in a phone interview. But “once you get to know her and … see her in action … you’re basically in awe. Ora is very hardworking. She gets up early, she stays up late,” Smith says. Garway will work from a cafe or a friend’s house. “Whatever she has to do to [get the paper] out.”
Garway’s newspaper has ruffled feathers. After Punch published reports of medical supply and equipment shortages at Monrovia’s main hospital, Liberian health officials threatened to sue it for disclosing confidential records and for entering hospital wards without permission to interview patients. The lawsuit was never filed.
Punch also reported on faults with new firefighting equipment, sparking an angry response from the supplier.
“He came and said, ‘You there, girl, you can’t write this story about me. You want to live?’ he started saying,” she says. The man then smiled. “He turned around and said, ‘Congratulations. Every media institution that I visited here I only saw men. … I’m so proud to come to meet a woman here, even though you ran a story against me.’ “
Garway’s staff of eight – all men – are accustomed to taunts about their boss.
David Patterson Jr. has worked for two Monrovia dailies. “Someone who is willing to change society, someone who has determination, who is determined and willing to work with you, I respect,” he says of Garway. “So anyone who criticizes me about working with a woman, I get more motivated so that the paper will get improved and those who criticize will become changed.”
The paper recently started an Internet edition in hopes of generating more revenue. But in this country of 3.5 million people, only 20,000 have Internet access, the World Bank estimates.
Garway credits her interest in journalism to her father’s encouragement and to growing up in a period of turmoil, a civil war that killed some 200,000 people and sent more than 750,000 Liberians fleeing to other countries. While Garway hopes to inspire young women, she gets more feedback from men, she says.
Has Liberia’s best-known woman, President Sirleaf, offered her words of encouragement? “No, never,” Garway says with a smile. “Never.”
Editor’s note: In July Timothy Spence spent 10 days traveling with and advising a group of journalists in Liberia, including Ora Garway, as part of a project run by Transitions Online in Prague, Czech Republic, and sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, a nonprofit group in New York City that promotes democracy.