Tag Archives: Monrovia

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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Not your average day in Washington

It’s been 10 days since the official start of campaigning for the general elections to be held in the fall (the referendum in August will determine whether Liberians go to the polls in October or November), and candidates have hit the ground running. The senate chamber was emptier than usual on Thursday, with many senators out on the campaign trail rather than in session. Campaign posters – mostly of the homemade-looking, 8.5×11″ variety – have appeared on walls and the trunks of palm trees around town. The major Liberian dailies have begun running campaign ads and National Elections Commission public service announcements alongside news coverage of the candidates.

Signs urging Liberians to vote President Sirleaf out of office have popped up around Monrovia in the last three days.

In many ways, campaigns here look similar to those in the US. Candidates have offered a slew of campaign promises. President Sirleaf has pledged to continue to develop Liberia, claiming that voters would be unwise to vote her out just as reforms are gaining speed. The leading opposition candidate, Charles Brumskine, recently promised to equip each village with an ambulance and provide Liberians over 65 with a monthly stipend. And as in any campaign, neither side hesitates to criticize the other’s policies or point out missteps. Sirleaf’s critics portray her  as a darling of the international community who has failed to ameliorate some of the most basic problems at home. Brumskine’s detractors argue that he his plans are unrealistic and vague. The debate is on.

For outsiders like me, so far there has been only one glaring difference between campaigns here and at home: the accusation that Prince Johnson enlisted a witch doctor to assassinate one of his potential opponents. Yet for Liberians and academics who have studied politics and culture here, such claims aren’t without precedent. Secret societies, headed by zoes who allegedly possess supernatural powers, are a prominent part of the traditional Liberian society, especially in rural areas, and superstition played a major role in the civil war. (Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy offers great insight into the role of secret societies and traditional beliefs in Liberian culture.) The accusation made headlines, but for the end sought rather than the means allegedly used.

Campaign signs wallpaper lamp posts and tree trunks

What truly makes this election unique for onlookers and voters alike is that it is only the second election since the end of the civil war. That is also what makes it potentially volatile.  Although Liberia has a blossoming civil society and seemingly strong democracy, experts point to the Ivory Coast as an example of how easily elections can go awry. In the streets here, despite public service announcements calling for peaceful elections, there is still a palpable tension. Many of the Lebanese and Indian merchants here say they are keeping their inventories low until the election has passed, and several have purchased plane tickets to leave the country during elections.

Few dispute that Sirleaf will win a second term, but uncertainty looms larger than poll numbers and campaigns (and witch doctors). There is an ominous sense that as much as Liberians hold their breath and cross their fingers, nobody can predict how the country itself will fare.

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The Daily Talk: Monkeys and baboons and politicians, oh my!

There is a common Liberian phrase that says, “Monkey works, Baboon draws.” The implication is that the larger and more powerful elites get rich on the backs of hardworking poor, who enjoy no returns for themselves. To mark the official start of campaigning for the fall general elections last Tuesday, President Sirleaf made a speech to highlight her achievements and mock her opponents, calling them baboons who continue to exploit working Liberians.

Despite ubiquitous signs around Monrovia urging candidates to focus on issues rather than personalities during their campaigns, the newspapers each day are filled with stories of insults flying back and forth between candidates. Last week, the New Democrat ran a story in which Senator Abel Massaley accused former rebel leader and current senator Prince Johnson of using witchcraft to assassinate him ahead of the election. And we thought Washington politics were brutal…

The following is the Daily Talk’s take on the start of the election:


Ellen: “Let monkey wait small, baboon still working”

Monkey (1) vs. Baboon (0)

Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, threw talks at her party headquarters in Congotown during her “da my area” speech when she made the statement above. “wise political zoes [leaders of Liberia’s traditional secret societies]” strongly believe that troublemaker Sirleaf is referring to troublemaker [Charles] Taylor who once said, “No monkey work…”


Other Headlines:

  • IMF completes sixth review of Lib.’s economic performance under Extended Credit Facility (ECF).
  • Man, 34, businessman Charles Holder, hang himself to death out of frustration on Bushrod Island, Monrovia.
  • CDC [Congress for Democratic Change] Tubman: “We will defeat UP [the ruling Unity Party] flat in first round.”
  • Gov’t set to enforce public smoking law, passed in Sept. last year.
  • “Veteran bill” approved at Capitol Building, ex-rebel generals left in the cold.
  • Citizens of Todee District, Montserrado County sent out SOS call for one ambulance.
  • Senegal Pres. Abdoulaye Wad betrayed AU? Held talks with rebels in Benghazi to unseat Pres. Gadafi.
  • NEC [National Elections Commission] finally blows whistle for 2011 campaigns.
  • Gov’t seized 600,000 bags of rice being smuggled into Guinea, says Commerce Minister.
  • 36 Ivorian rebels arrested in R/Gee [River Gee County] for arms to face court action.

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Let’s call them “quirks”

I am now halfway through my time in Liberia (!), and I thought reflecting on what I have learned would be a useful exercise. The following is a list of my favorite facts, life lessons, and common occurrences from Liberia. They aren’t necessarily the most important things I’ve learned, but they are what make Liberia Liberia. In no particular order, they are as follows…

  • Mosquito nets are not like princess canopies. When I was little, I dreamed of sleeping in a lush, white four-poster bed with a princess canopy above me. I tried to make a canopy myself, but it wasn’t as glamorous as I envisioned, and hence rather short lived. I’ve discovered that mosquito nets are poor substitutes for princess beds. The net not only blocks the breeze of the fan, turning my bed into a stuffy, humid cocoon, but still manages to allow biting insects inside.
  • All generators will fail. When the entire country is powered by generators, this becomes a noticable fact of life. The guesthouse generator fails. The generator at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an  elegant expat hang out, fails. All of a sudden, entire buildings plunge into darkness. But hey, those are the lucky ones, the ones who have generators to begin with.

    Fact: All generators will fail. Glad I brought that headlamp.

  • Crabs will make the 300 yard trek from the beach to my hotel room. Specifically, my bathroom. They will lurk in the corner and launch sneak attacks on my unsuspecting toes while I sit on the toilet. An umbrella, I discovered, is the best tool for removing the wayward crabs, though each crab is replaced by one of its larger friends several days later.
  • Men peeing on the side of the road, in full view of all passing pedestrians, will not hesitate to wave and yell hello. This is one quirk I have not, and will not, get used to. Though it is not as bad as the children…
  • Children squatting to use the bathroom, also on the side of the road, will run up with their pants still down and rub their hands on any exposed patch of pale skin within reach. They giggle and say hello while doing this, and their parents look on with smiles. I do my best to manage a weak smile in return. This would be cute, except that it is compounded by the lack of running water in my hotel.
  • In four weeks, the number of showers I have taken remains in the single digits. I am residing, mind you, in a well-regarded guest house popular with Americans and Europeans for long-term stays. During my first week here, I was puzzled and pissed off when the water failed to run, and merely satisfied when it did. After several days of this, my mindset underwent a gradual change. Now, I am unsurprised and unbothered when the tap refuses to produce even a trickle, but overjoyed when I hear the gurgle of water coming up through the pipes. On the bright side, the measly supply of my favorite shampoo and conditioner that I brought from home probably will last until I return to the States.
  • The Delta Airlines office will not accept credit cards from any organization or individual other than the US Embassy. Everybody is expected to pay in cash – no easy feat, given that tickets to the US cost upwards of $2300. I managed to get around this rule by flirting with the Sri Lankan accountant in the office, though this has led to half a dozen phone calls from him each day asking me to spend time with him. But at least I got my tickets.

And finally, here is my favorite fact about Liberia, one that I think does a great job of summarizing this crazy place.

  • There is not a single traffic light in this entire country. When people ask about Marion, my hometown, I explain that it is a New England town so small, it has only two traffic lights. I think Liberia is the only place with fewer lights. Monrovia, the only city in Liberia with intersections busy enough to warrant lights, had several traffic lights before the war. But the city has been without a fully functioning electrical grid since the war, making traffic lights impossible. On the streets of Monrovia, the green light goes to whoever exhibits the most confidence.

A pre-war stoplight, now out of commission.

My Liberian friends frequently apologize for these “flaws”, but I wouldn’t dream of accepting those sorries. These facts may change from hilarious to inconvenient depending on my mood, but they are all part of the adventure – and that’s what I came here for.

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The Daily Talk: Power of the press

For forty-five minutes this afternoon, Alfred argued with a graphic designer over the layout for The Daily Talk’s new brochure. I was content to sit in the hangar-like room, watching as women prowled the aisles selling mayonnaise and condensed milk sandwiches and plantain chips from buckets on their heads. But all of a sudden, mid-debate, Alfred received a call from the Ministry of Finance, and after a few quick words to the designer, we took off for the Ministry.

It was a call Alfred had been awaiting for weeks. Above The Daily Talk’s newsboard is a sign urging citizens to “Show your love for Mama Liberia, pay taxes as and when due!” Alfred erected the sign as an advertisement for the Ministry of Finance two years ago, for a fee of US $100 per month. The problem is, Alfred never received payment, and the Ministry owes him $2400.

He needs the Ministry’s money to buy new equipment, and after a month of unreturned phone calls, Alfred was done waiting. So, he turned to the media. Today’s big, bold Daily Talk headline reads, “System corrupt? Finance Ministry refusing to pay Daily Talk for publicity of programs. Details coming…” Upper-level officials in the Ministry called Nathaniel Konjay, the Director of Budget and Finance, questioning why the Ministry had been humiliated before the people. Konjay quickly called Alfred in for a meeting.

Once at the Ministry, the debate turned to formalities. Konjay didn’t dispute that the Ministry owes The Daily Talk, but apparently the two parties never arrived at a final contract with both signatures, which the Ministry needs to make an official payment. Konjay left the issue of the Ministry’s prior unresponsiveness unaddressed. Still, he was eager to resolve the matter. While writing a note reminding himself to secure a signed contract, Konjay explained, “The problem has already happened. Embarrassment has already happened for the Ministry. Big embarrassment. I’ll work on this, and worst case scenario, you will have the money by next Tuesday.”

Government ministries here are notorious for failing to follow through with their promises, so whether Alfred will actually receive the money by Tuesday, or at all, is anybody’s guess. What is clear, though, is that the Ministry didn’t respond until Alfred took the issue to the media – even if it that medium was only a chalkboard.

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Break it down now

English may be Liberia’s official national language, but yesterday’s round of Ducor Debates was bi-lingual in an unexpected way.

Before an audience of primarily men, panelists from timber companies and the national legislature stood up one by one to discuss the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), the subject of the morning’s debate. In May, the European Union and Liberia signed the agreement, which seeks to ensure that all timber exported from Liberia to the EU has been logged legally.

Isaac Manna, one of the panelists, summarized the agreement’s benefits, arguing, “this will rekindle our reputation! It will help with capacity and human resources building! It will help our economy!”

When he finished, Kollie invited a volunteer from the Liberia Media Initiative to the microphone to “break it down small.”

“You’ve got a group of white people called the European Union,” the volunteer said. “The trees you have, the big trees, its called ‘timber’, and it’s good. It’s really, really good. The other group of people, the VPA, goes between the white people group, the European Union, and the people in the timber industry, the big wood industry.”

The men in the audience nodded, and the man continued. “So my people, you are here, you understand the message. Go tell other people the message that our government is making the laws, the laws to protect the country. So when people cut the trees to bring to the white people’s country, they do it with laws.”

The man spoke in “simple” or “pidgin” English, translating the formal language of the panelists into more basic terms for audience members to understand. In Liberia, written English is nearly identical to that used in the US or the UK, but the language spoken on the street and used in public service announcements is markedly different. When landowners want to prevent pedestrians from urinating on their property, they spray paint “No pepe here!” on the potential restroom. (Men using the bathroom on the side of busy streets is not an uncommon sight here.) Anti-AIDS campaigns urge lovers to use protection during “man-woman business”, and signs prohibiting bribery exclaim, “No money business!”

Unfortunately, understanding both formal and informal English is not a two way street. While educated Liberians use both with ease, their counterparts who never made it past primary school – or who never made it to school at all – cannot easily follow formal English.

Glancing around at his fellow audience members at the debate, Chris Nippy, a local student of Political Science, argued for the importance of using simple English. He explained, “Not everyone is a college student, so pidgin English is the best. It’s the English that the common Liberian can understand. You’ve got to bring the English down to them so they can share it with their friends.”

That’s exactly what Kollie attempts to do with his bi-lingual debates, and what the government and NGOs strive for with their pidgin public service announcements. With the current state of its education system, Liberia is unable to give all its citizens the skills needed to understand the country’s official language in its formal sense. So instead, grassroots and government groups alike bring the language to the people. It’s a band-aid approach, but for now it works. As the debate concluded, the audience members rushed to the stage, bombarding the translator, not the panelists, with pointed questions about logging and laws.

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Cost of Living

A few questions stumped me before I left home for Liberia. What would I be able to buy in Liberia? What do they eat? How do they get around? What does it all cost? As I’m quickly discovering, almost everything is available here, and my wallet tells me that a day in Monrovia doesn’t cost much. The following is a list of some of the things I’ve bought, along with their prices in US dollars.


  • A night at the Lutheran Guest House, running water not necessarily included: $25.00
  • A plastic baggie of water from one of the many coolers that line the roads (I’m crossing my fingers that its not just tap water): $0.14
  • A roasted plantain: $0.40
  • A Manchester United umbrella: $3.75
  • Flip-flops imported from China: $1.75
  • A shared taxi downtown, with a minimum of five people in the backseat: $0.30
  • Tea at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an air-conditioned, ornate expat hang out: $2.00
  • Tea at a roadside stall: $0.40
  • A Snickers bar from the Lebanese grocery store: $3.00
  • Local dinner – a heaping plate of rice and Liberian eggplant stew: $2.00


With a grant from Yale – or a generously playing NGO job – one can live pretty comfortably here. Now if we could just get that water running in the guest house…

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