Tag Archives: development

The literature of poverty

Given the lack of street lights and the high crime rate in Monrovia, I don’t feel safe walking after dark. After the sun sets, I usually whole up in my guest house and scour the internet for good reads; I’ve recently become hooked on the online archives of Lapham’s Quarterly. It seems a bit incongruous to be reading essays on the website of a high-brow “magazine of history and ideas” while in a country where most people cannot read and even fewer have internet access. Tonight, it felt even more unnatural when I clicked on a piece about Charles Dickens, whose work seemed to me more fitted to the Gothic buildings of Yale than the streets of somewhere like Monrovia. But George Packer’s piece Dickens in Lagos proved my assumption wrong. Packer relates the 19th century poverty of Dickens’ world to the slums of developing countries today, with a convincing comparison that never would have occurred to me. It reminded me of the world I see on a daily basis in Liberia, and it’s worth a look.

Happy reading!

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Soldiers of not war, but fortune

Liberia’s instability and violence in the past two decades may have ruined its infrastructure, suppressed its economy, and killed its people. But what they didn’t manage to destroy was Liberia’s image, at least in the eyes of the adventurous, as a place of opportunity. For different people, though, that opportunity takes different shapes.

Lebanese merchants have been a staple in Liberian society for decades, dominating the import-export market and operating most of Monrovia’s larger stores. They arrived when Lebanon was in turmoil, and quickly became wealthy bringing in the many manufactured goods that Liberia couldn’t produce for itself. Since the war, a number of Indians have joined the Lebanese, mostly operating hardware stores. “Why would I go to the US or Europe?” questioned Karan, a 21-year old Indian, in what is a commonly heard refrain. “It’s so much easier to make money here. You just sell it and they just come.” Karan, who worked for his uncle’s business in Ghana prior to moving to Liberia, plans to run his hardware store for several more years before returning home to marry.

Karan may supply many NGOs with the materials they need to construct schools and clinics, but altruism certainly isn’t his motivation for operating in Liberia. I won’t repeat his more racist comments here, but suffice it to say that he doesn’t hold Liberians or their country in high regard. “This place is shit,” he said, gesturing at crumbling buildings and tin shacks. “But you can’t beat the money here.”

Luckily, foreigners with dollar signs in their eyes aren’t the only ones who have come to take advantage of Liberia’s opportunities. As the country tries to rebuild after the war, a number of Liberians educated in the US and Europe have returned to contribute to that progress – and, if all goes well, perhaps make a profit. Fabio Velanet is one such Liberian, who, armed with a degree in International Business and Economics, set about producing rice commercially on his family farm in Kakata. “I could be making a lot more in the US,” he explained. His company, Fabrar Rice, has annual profits of only around $10,000. But he continued: “You gotta understand that Africa is my home, though. Liberia is my home.” He taps into the knowledge of his neighbors to increase his rice yields and purchases surplus rice from local farmers, providing them with income and a way to sell rice that would otherwise rot. “I mean, if I’m not helping people there’s no point in doing this. There’s so much potential for this country and for these people,” he commented. Eventually, Velanet envisions a Liberia that produces its own rice, rather than importing it from abroad, and he hopes his business is one step along the way.

This is not a place for the faint of heart, and it often seems that just as many people want to leave as choose to come. Nevertheless, in a somewhat twisted way, the very things that make life difficult here also work in Liberia’s favor. In a place still trying to mend its fractures but still lacking even the most basic goods and services, there are seemingly endless ways to make a buck – or a change.

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Play, not puddles

In Tuesday’s senate session, Senator Gloria Scott waxed poetic about her childhood in the 1970s. With grand gestures, she spun a tale of a rustic, carefree lifestyle. “When I was a child,” she began, “I would play in the dry season [roughly November through March]. The weather was nice, so we were always outside together, playing. Always playing. We also could help our parents with the harvest, and go to the market with them to sell it.”

In the 1990s, things changed for Liberian children, preventing them from enjoying summers like Scott’s. There was, of course, was the civil war, which robbed children of their playtime and replaced it with guns. Yet it was another, more subtle change that Scott believes harmed Liberian youngsters and continues to negatively affect them today. That reform was the change in Liberia’s school calendar, which switched the school year from February through November to September through June. The Liberian parliament is currently debating an education bill that will, among other things, maintain the current school calendar. The bill is expected to pass, though not if Scott has her way.

“Now they have vacation during the rains,” complained Scott. “They can’t play outside! It’s so important for our children to play, but they cannot.” After experiencing nearly four weeks of Liberia’s rainy season, I can’t say I disagree. It rains almost every day, ranging from a passing drizzle to an all-day downpour. At best, the paved streets flood; at worst, dirt roads become impassable mud puddles that trap cars for hours on end. And although Liberia lies north of the Equator, technically making it summer here, Liberians consider the rainy season their winter. Temperatures may be moderate by my New Englanld standards (high seventies to mid-eighties most days), but Liberians find it chilly, and winter coats are for sale in many roadside stalls. The dry season may be hot and humid, but nearly all Liberians agree that it beats the rain.

As Scott continued to list the drawbacks of scheduling summer vacation during the rainy season, though, her reasoning changed. What began as a push for children’s welfare became a glimpse into Liberia’s national psyche. “Our neighbors modeled their school years off of their colonial masters. Their masters in the West made their school years so their children could play in the summer. But Liberia is not Europe or America, and their summer is not our summer,” she proclaimed. “We should not have just copied them. It’s important for us to know why our laws are the way they are.”

Liberians freely admit that they are reliant on Western aid and NGOs, moving to Europe or the US remains the ultimate sign of prestige, and Liberians love to remind me that their country was established by Americans. Still, Liberians are fiercely proud of their country, and beneath the veneer of foreign influence here, Liberians are not ready to trade their culture for that of the West. Especially not when that means playing in the torrential, cold rains.

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Whose rights are they?

With all the noise from the UN and NGOs about child rights, it’s easy to assume that all Liberians are agitating for those protections. After all, who wouldn’t want their child protected from the threat of violence? As I discovered in Nyehn village, the answer is lots of parents.

As I sat on the porch of the home of Gbanjan Dohn, the village leader, two young sisters lay on a mat nearby. The younger sister kicked the older one. The older sister retaliated with a hard slap. The mother responded with a spank. “In Africa, we have our own ways to controlling our children,” Dohn commented.

The other villagers crowded around the porch, escaping the downpour, nodded in agreement. With the NGO and UN-initiated push for children’s rights, though, they are afraid of losing their ability to raise their children as they see fit – and losing their children in the process.

The children of Nyehn

“They come around here and tell us that we can’t make our children carry buckets on their heads, or make them cut bushes with cutlasses, or carry water from the pump to our house. They say we can’t spank our kids,” complained one mother. “So we can’t control them, because if we do, the police could come around and say we aren’t giving our children rights. But then what can we do?”

Dohn agreed. “They’ve got all our children talking about their rights,” he explained. “But since we can’t punish them and raise them the way we used to, they’re not close to the community. They run off and do crime or drugs or get pregnant. We can’t do anything about it.”

The mother clucked and nodded in agreement. Her daughter, who became pregnant at sixteen, now lives in Monrovia and rarely visits her family.

Whether or not the push for children’s rights actually contributes to Liberia’s youth delinquency, this set of parents in Nyehn feels trapped. Nobody in their community has pushed back against the UN or NGOs, nor does Dohn know of anybody who has. The reason, he explained, is that they fear if they reject the push for children’s rights, the NGOs and UN will halt aid entirely. For a place so dependent on foreign assistance – almost every road, school, clinic, and community center in Liberia boasts a sign with the logo of the NGO that provided funding – the prospect of losing money from the international community is terrifying. So, even for a community like Nyehn, where foreign aid has not been adequate to meet the village’s needs, the residents still accept the choiceless decision placed before them: with aid, it’s all or nothing.

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Trouble in the bush

Nyehn is as idyllic as villages come. An hour and a half outside of Monrovia, the settlement of about 500 people is perched on a hilltop, with mud brick and thatched roof huts nestled among palm trees. Chickens and children run over the rust colored earth, through patches of cassava and down to the river. At night, friends gather to watch movies in the two houses that have generators. On Sunday mornings, the sound of drums floats out of the town’s medical clinic, where the Lutheran church holds its services. It is, at first glance, the very picture of quiet country life.

The local pastor and his wife

But appearances can lie, and Nyehn, like many areas in rural Liberia, is stuck between a violent past and a difficult present.

During the war, rebel fighters moved into Nyehn. According to Gbanjan Dohn, the General Town Chief, rebels stole supplies and food from the village – even hot meals that women were preparing for their families. To transport the stolen goods, they enlisted local men to carry the supplies on their heads to the next camp; once, they made Dohn carry an entire sugar cane mill for ten kilometers. As Dohn explained, “Nobody could say anything. If you did, they killed you. It was a complete breakdown of law and order.” The rebels killed and enslaved men, raped and made bush wives of women, and enlisted children as child soldiers.

After the war, the village was destroyed and local rubber plantations had stopped production, leaving the people with no homes and no source of income. To rebuild, Dohn said, they started small-scale charcoal production and subsistence farming; with their profits, they rebuilt most of the village. To heal the community, they held a series of reconciliation meetings and discussions.

Today, the only evidence of the war that destroyed this community is the occasional concrete skeleton where a home once stood. But, as Dohn and other community members explained, Nyehn has a long list of problems. Although there is a clean, functioning health clinic in the village, there is no ambulance or vehicle for the nurses to use. There is a one-room police station, but they don’t have a car or motorcycle either. There are only two water pumps for 3,000 people in the area, and the local surface water makes children sick because, lacking latrines or a sanitation system, the villagers must go to the bathroom in the bush.

The rebels stole the zinc roofs of houses, leaving them to crumble in the rains.

Outside of Monrovia, about a million Liberians live in villages like Nyehn. Here, amid the palm trees and bird calls, it seems these communities cannot escape hardship.

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The price of a staple

Rice is the staple food in Liberia. It’s usually served alongside eggplant, palm butter, or potato greens, which come in a spicy, stew-y mash that involves some combination of fish, chicken, pig foot, and anonymous bush meat. It’s delicious, though it doesn’t necessarily sound it, and can be had for LD 150 (about $2). Rice on its own, though, is not cheap.

Thai rice for sale at a market in Monrovia

Rice is sold from wheelbarrows on the side of the road and at markets, measured in empty tin cans. A can of rice costs LD 20 (about $0.30), and a 50 pound bag of rice costs $35, a sum seen as exorbitantly expensive by Liberians. The reason? Nearly all rice sold commercially in Liberia is imported, from countries including India, Pakistan, the US, China, Indonesia, and Thailand. The Ministry of Commerce negotiates import contracts with Liberian companies, which bring the rice into the country through the freeport in Monrovia. They then sell it to suppliers, who in turn provide rice to the wheelbarrow-pushing sellers on the street.

When I heard grumbles about the price of rice, I was surprised. Liberia is hot and wet – the ideal climate for growing rice. With rice viewed as such a staple, even called a strategic commodity for Liberia, I had assumed at least some of the rice sold commercially was grown here. I quickly learned, though, that’s not the case. As Immanuel Pratt, a local business student, explained to me outside a dark room filled to the ceiling with Thai and Pakistani rice bags at the market, “You have Liberians in the hinterland, cutting with cutlasses and planting rice by hand and by spade, but you can’t do that on a large scale. They have no training on equipment, or even any equipment.”

As usual, this story comes back to two themes: the war and politics. In April 1979, Liberians took to the Monrovia streets when then-President Tolbert raised the price of rice, imported then as well. More than one hundred protesters were killed, and the event was a turning point that accelerated the decline into civil war. The ensuing fighting pushed many Liberians into Monrovia, depleting the countryside of its farmers. Now, with the fighting over, there are calls for the government to do more to promote agricultural development. As always, criticism is directed at the wealthy lawmakers who award import contracts and the business elites who receive them.

As I’ve come to learn, the outlines of a functioning democracy and developing state are here, but when it comes to the basics – food production and roads, for example – many Liberians are left wanting.

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The politics of pavement

Here are the numbers:

  • 200+ inches of rainfall each year in Monrovia, making it the wettest city in the world
  • 218,000,000 USD of World Bank investment in infrastructure and basic services
  • 41,000,000 USD of Chinese investment in infrastructure (2006 – 2008)
  • 6162 total miles of road in Liberia
  • 456  miles of paved road

When it rains in Liberia, it really, really rains. When more than 90% of the roads are dirt and filled with potholes, this proves problematic for transport and development. Journeys that last ten hours during the dry season, which lasts from November through May, can take a week or more during the rains.

Criticisms of the government abound here, and as I took refuge inside a dimly lit restaurant during the worst of today’s downpours, I got to hear some of the common complaints about the government’s development work from my good friend Luseni, who multi-tasks working for the Senate press office, a local TV station, and The Daily Talk. The World Bank and the Chinese government – two major investors in infrastructure here – have donated hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as lots of manpower and tools, to improve roads. In the capital, they have paid to pave the main avenue, which is noticeably free of potholes and flooding. They leave the capital’s many miles of side streets to the local government, though. These streets are riddled with pot holes large enough to swallow a tire on even the largest UN SUV, if the road is even paved at all. Oftentimes, they are flooded with six inches of muddy water.

Post-rain puddles on a side street in Monrovia

According to Luseni, its not just that the government has not yet gotten around to improving these streets. When they choose materials, he claims they choose the least expensive, and consequently lowest quality, ones. While I don’t have official evidence to back up that claim, one glance at the crumbling pavement seems to confirm his accusation. Moreover, the current government is allegedly holding back work on these streets, claiming they will complete further improvements if and when they are reelected in the fall – quite the campaign strategy.

In one of today's papers, the Ministry of Public Works ran a full-page ad highlighting its rehabilitation of unpaved roads in Lofa County.

In a country where politics can turn deadly and the upcoming elections are only the second since the war, few seem pleased with the current set of lawmakers. Accusations fly of corruption and personal enrichment, manipulation of information, rigged local elections, sexual misconduct, and playing politics with essential developments.

The following is a letter to the editor of The Daily Observer, one of Liberia’s daily papers, that was published today. The author, a Liberian living in Atlanta, isn’t enduring today’s constant rainfall, but he too had something to say about the efficacy and honesty of Liberia’s politicians:

The Editor, Daily Observer,

After being on the job more than five years, the President Pro-Tempore Cletus “good-for-nothing” Wortorson, says that he and other members of the Senate have been a “miserable failure in carrying out their oversight responsibilities.”

Boy, I wonder what would happen if you, a highly paid employee, told your boss that you have “failed miserably” in carrying out your fiduciary responsibilities to the company. Do you think your boss would continue to keep you as a highly paid employee?

I bet your boss would say “You’re FIRED!!!” a la Donald Trump. So why don’t we, the people, say the same thing to these inept buffoons (lawmakers) that we put in office?

Look, I know how these people thing: They will NEVER leave office until you kick them out!

Article I of our constitution states that “…In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments.”

On Tuesday, October 11, 2011, we the people will have the RIGHT to cause our public servants to leave office through the ballot box.

…Ok, ok, I know most of you people want to be a lifelong lawmaker and you’re counting on your taxpayer-funded job to put food on the table and support your concubines, but there’s no way in hell we the people can keep paying you people all that money for you to keep failing us. Hell, no!

Yes, I want you people to pack your things and go back to wherever you came from…

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