560 kms of sandy, mostly unexploited coast, dotted sparsely by fishermen villages. Coconut trees and dense, deep-green vegetation. California-standards surfer waves. 5 hours away from Europe, and a summer season that stretches from December to May.
This, too, is Liberia.
Photos are of Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County (Surf town- Piso Lake on one side, the Atlantic on the other) and CeCe’s beach (and a nearby fishermen spot), Montserrado County.
If the situation remains stable, one day when the world hears Liberia the first thought to come to mind won’t be that of Charles Taylor, crimes against humanity, or helpless refugees – but rather that of a bonfire by the beach to the sound of African drums.
This is the percentage of Liberian women that are said to have been victims of rape during the country’s civil war.
On the street in Monrovia
While this may be an overestimation courtesy of Nick Kristof, gender-based violence is a serious concern in Liberia. The latest (and most reliable) data on the subject has just been released by the Initiative for Vulnerable Populations at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, showing that both women and men are frequent victims of domestic violence. Extract:
“To you, Firestone is just a brand. Where I come from, it is someone’s life – everything they will ever know”
A Liberian friend
Firestone Tire and Rubber Plantation’s history is painfully enlaced with Liberia’s.
In 1920s, the Liberian government was on the verge of bankruptcy and under severe pressure from international creditors for repaying a US$ 2 million debt.
Along came Firestone. It bargained with the government for a lease of one million acres of land for one hundred years. The price? 6 cents an acre, plus 1% in tax on the value of the exported rubber, giving the company unlimited control over 10% of Liberia’s total arable land. Included in the contract was the infamous Clause (K), which conditioned the deal on a loan from Firestone to the government of Liberia of $5 million at an interest rate of 7% (that was 2% higher than the interest rate on any of Liberia’s other debts).
Cornered and careless, the government signed.
“You ask a woman in the bush what she wants – I can tell you what she wants. She wants to survive. She wants safety, water.. and education for her children. But we spend time and money that we don’t have organizing focus groups.”
A colleague, speaking of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) process *
For the electricity cuts and the walks back home after sunset.
It gets pitch dark around 7:30 pm. A combination of lack of public electricity on the roads (less than 30% of Monrovia, home to 1.1 million, has access to electricity) and the heavy clouds of the rainy season (starless sky!)
On my 2nd day here, I found it hilarious that I could chat in Lebanese to the supermarket owner in Monrovia (he, on the other hand was completely unfazed). It turns out there are thousands of them all over this place. They own hotels, restaurants, drycleaners, construction companies – you name it. They first came during the 19th century, as part of a wave of immigration fleeing the rough conditions of the Ottoman Empire. Their number reached 10,000 before the Liberian civil war and is estimated at 4,000 today.
In the early 19th century, the US abolitionist movement designated Liberia’s coast as the spot to resettle freed American slaves. It is said that officials of the American Colonization Society forced a treaty upon a local king at Cape Mesurado (present-day Monrovia).
And so Liberia was founded in 1847 by Black American settlers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their own brutal past, the former slaves enslaved the autochthones and went on to monopolize Liberian politics for two centuries. This layed the groundwork for inequalities so deep, that they triggered the 1989-2003 civil war.
Some Liberians think that reconciliation should start where it all started – by revising the symbols of the nation.
“Do we want an emblem that represents only 10% of our population? Do we want a flag that looks like the 52nd star of the flag of the ‘colonizers’?”
Liberia’s Governance Commission is tackling some of these issues as part of developing Liberia’s National Vision 2030.
How can policy makers help heal some of the deep wounds inflicted by the civil war without rekindling explosive tensions?
In Lebanon to a large extent, we’ve adopted the Ostrich policy. The reconciliation process “mousalaha” has been scattered and incomplete. As an illustration of the lack of collective memory, our official history book taught in public schools omits to mention the civil war. Given the persistent tensions and lack of common national vision, I’d say the Ostrich strategy does not work so well…
Curious and hopeful to see what would come out of the introspective work that Liberia is doing!
“The real test is this October [when the elections are scheduled]. Then we will know if peace and security are real. Now with UN troops everywhere*, it could be artificial.
You have all these ex-combatants, who’ve done war longer than they’ve been to school – that’s the only thing they know how to do. It’s hard to integrate them and easy to arm them.
But with the successful elections in Guinea and Ghana, we’re hopeful that the outcome will be positive here too.”
A public official on the sustainability of peace in Liberia
* UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) was established by UN Security Council resolution in 2003 and holds a 14,000 men strong peacekeeping force across Liberia.
Liberia’s civil war ended in 2003 after fourteen bloody years that left the country in shatters.
I was born during the fifteen-year long Lebanese civil war and grew up witnessing my country’s imperfect reconstruction process. Twenty years after the end of our war, this process has resulted in a deeply unequal society and a government chronically unable to provide basic services to its citizens, even as Lebanon now classifies as a middle-income country.
Liberia is now firmly transitioning from emergency humanitarian aid to development planning. The coming years are crucial in setting the country on the track of permanent peace and sustainable development.
Flights to Monrovia — check.
Raingear and malaria pills — check.
Copy of This Child Will be Great — check.
A ton of excitement — check, check, check!
So all that remains really is getting to Monrovia, Liberia where I will be spending 10 weeks of this summer interning with the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs (MPEA). MPEA is the lead agency in charge of coordinating aid as well as monitoring and evaluating externally supported projects. The ministry is also responsible of developing Liberia’s Medium Term Growth and Development Strategy, which will define development priorities and guide the government’s policies over the next five years (Liberia’s current Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) is set to expire this year).