By Chantal Victoria Bright
Penn Alum, 2012
I’m a Philadelphia native, born to immigrant parents from Liberia—a small country on the coast of West Africa with historical ties to the United States. Freed slaves and born-free Blacks from America settled and formed the independent Republic of Liberia in 1847 with financial backing from the American Colonization Society (ACS). My parents pursued university degrees in the States during the 1970s and 80s and returned to Liberia thereafter. I was born in America but spent the first few years of my life in Liberia until conflict began. Like many Liberians, my family sought refuge in the United States during Liberia’s 14-year civil war. My first trip back to Liberia in 2006 was jarring, to say the least. Africa’s first elected female head of state and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was in the early stages of rebuilding the devastated nation. I was most struck by children carrying buckets of water on top of their heads during the early hours of the morning or in the afternoon while still wearing school uniforms. This is where my water journey began.
The year I entered Penn for graduate studies was coincidentally the “Year of Water”—the university theme that year. I took a class with Stanley Laskowski on global water issues which helped conceptualize specific water challenges and examine solutions. My time at Penn led to opportunities where I travelled to Ghana and Liberia on a State Department funded exchange program. My capstone project incorporated time in rural communities in Ghana, where I worked at a microfinance company to develop environmental sustainability and empower African women entrepreneurs.
Following Penn, I moved to London. After nearly three years working in corporate, during a career transition, I decided to finally publish the children’s book I had been working on intermittently during the years. Janjay was inspired by clean water issues in Liberia and published in 2017. The story is set in Liberia and is about 8-year-old Janjay who is responsible for collecting clean water for the household on a regular basis, but one day finds herself distracted by afternoon fun with a friend. She later discovers the seriousness of her actions and learns a life lesson about disobedience and the important role she plays in her family. When I wrote Janjay, I had three main objectives. First, offer representation of Black characters in the children’s book industry where diversity is lacking. Second, bring awareness to clean water access. Third, demonstrate how women and girls are traditionally responsible for water supply in the household. I never imagined that my book would capture the attention of the U.S. State Department-Africa Regional Services Nouveaux Horizons. Janjay has been translated to French, Janjay, La petite porteuse d’eau. The French edition of Janjay is marketed in French-speaking communities in Africa, Haiti, and distributed to American embassies to support education programmes. The sequel to Janjay, Janjay goes Upriver, scheduled to be released on June 5, 2021, has also been confirmed by the State Department for translation to French.
Currently, I am pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England UK. My research seeks to advance the understanding of the relationship between water security and peace from a gender perspective, ultimately to discover how women can contribute to effective peacebuilding in fragile post-conflict settings and sustainable solutions to water challenges in Liberia. In the case of Liberia, the risk of conflict is multiplied by historical complexities, ethnic composition, land disputes, and a water supply system that was ruined by the Civil War. Despite high rainfall and natural resources of water, the government’s inability to (re)establish the infrastructure needed to deliver basic water services is among reasons why the country is still classified by the World Bank as a fragile and conflict-affected situation despite the war having ended nearly two decades ago. After completing the PhD, I see myself working in international affairs and development. Perhaps, returning to Washington, DC where my career first began. There’s something exciting about being at the center of world politics.
Penn fostered a passion I had after being affected by water-sanitation conditions in Liberia. I hope my research will contribute to informed choices that shape the future of water and advance sustainable solutions.
Chantal Victoria Bright is a first-generation Liberian American. Due to the civil wars in Liberia, her family sought refuge in the United States, where she grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She holds a master’s degree in Environmental Management from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science (dual course) from Seton Hall University. Chantal is pursuing a PhD in Geography and her research sits at the nexus of water security, peace, and fragility in Liberia from an African ecofeminist perspective at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom). She resides in London, England.