We left the gentle innocence of Guinea, where people, forever curious about us white skinned visitors, easily broke in to a smile while calling out ‘Ca Va? Or ‘Aller bien?’ knowing that it would solicit a response, a dance. Driving across the natural boarder, the Nimbi mountain range, immediately a different land shocked us: bombed out homes. Not the African mud huts but solid rectangular concrete established homes, roofless with steel RSJ’s exposed, and in place of families, jungle growing.
The violence and destruction of the 25 year old civil war is in this abandonment of buildings. Buildings peppered with shrapnel, limbless men, hardened faces that do not easily smile and give a look of weariness in their eyes. But it is also in the still jungled landscape; war has prevented logging and building, leaving nature to grow reproduce and decay, silently as it always had. There is good and bad in all.
Over a silent railway, grasses growing in between the track: ‘It is being renovated’ said Sam, our Immigration Police escort. He was an unexpected guide, being foisted on us by the Boarder Immigration officer: we’d arrived at the boarder without a visa and 5 phone calls later they let us through with Sam carrying our passports to Monrovia.
‘Renovation’, ‘Rehabilitation’, ‘Rejuvenation’ Words on signboards lined our road, describing the ongoing projects run by US AID, UNHCR, EU. Perhaps it was the relief of seeing English again, that drew our attention but there did seem an unusually high quota of proclamations.
Liberia is the only American colony in Africa. As always the root of todays discord saps water from the past, but it’s not the usual story of colonization – not the story of a superior colonizing country’s ambition to appropriate the mineral or other wealth for that countries benefit, (Belgium Congo, etc). No, this land was dramatically and courageously colonized by freed black American and Carribean slaves, returning back to black Africa having survived shackles, cotton fields, and stark prejudice.
Jehudi Ashmun envisioned an American empire in Africa. During 1825 and 1826, Ashmun took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and on major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, who in 1821 persuaded African King Peter to sell Cape Montserado (or Mesurado) by pointing a pistol at his head, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony’s territory. His aggressive actions quickly increased Liberia’s power over its neighbors. In this treaty of May 1825, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items.
Known as the Americo Liberians, they became the Brahmins, the Rwundan Tutsis, the elite. Their mission? To Christianise and civilize the primitive African. Their fault line? They withheld rights and franchise to the 97% indigenous people, in other words they behaved exactly like the Indian mother in law: they imitated their masters. So the human rift is carved, throughout our social history.
After a century of growth, after gaining Independence 100 years before any other West African state, (in 1847, nimbly avoiding a colonial interest from England), after becoming the beckon of development in West Africa, trouble erupted in 1980. A coup toppled the last Americo Liberian president and Samual Doe was elected the first Non Americo-Liberian President. His first action was to exact revenge: at the age of 28, Doe ordered 13 ministers to be publicly executed on Monrovias beach. The ruinous civil war
A poster in the immigration office announced. It is the pledge of the new government to reform itself. What is Right Sizing, the poster helpfully asks. Many people on the local government payroll are either
– Live abroad,
– Have multiple identities.
The bullet points are refreshingly stark. Sentiments we all know, jest about over a beer, but not often seen in back and white as an official government notification.
……………………Rapped? Seek Free Treatment Now
Explicit reminders of the violence then. I think this is an aural and visual culture, not given to cerebral words. Shop signs are accompanied with supporting art: hair cutting is particularly colourful, with the different bradding possibilities.
…………………… ‘It astonishes us to live with his calm’
Said one of the check point officials – we were stopped a dozen times coming into Monrovia.
‘Liberia good for us now. Now combatants are working fine. They learn computers, agriculture, skill they never knew before, yes, they learn now, and they work. Before? Before everyone was for himself. There was no control. No one made anything because anything taken away. Each one was for himself.’
……………………Stop living in fear or denial. You can still live.
……………………GOD IS IN CONTROL – Foreign Exchange
……………………IN GOD WE TRUST – Bank of Liberia
Water day in Liberia
Walking out from the M Point hotel, I pump into the morning tanker pumping up the water needed for our 100 flush toilets, hot and cold showers, gin and tonics. Around the water tankers backside local Africans (probably the service providers for our hotel or local UN HQ) wait with their containers for the dregs. An enterprising kid puts his bucket under the dripping pipe. Down hill, down to the shanty town that as always lives near the waters edge, the concentration of the outlets for the shit and piss of the city, it is still early and the only traders operating are the water barrow boys. They are selling gallon containers of water for 25 Liberian Dollars. This is the cost of living in Monrovia. Further up I find the enterprise. It’s a pump well controlled by the water business boys, who levy out the water to the barrow boys for distribution round the city. Their route is uphill from here.
Later that evening with the heat of the sun just gone, on our last day in Liberia I swam in our hotels swimming pool. I was the only person there, and swam 30 lengths remembering the water boys.