Postcard From Liberia

Things are looking up, but from so far down

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On my first night in Monrovia the rain pounds so hard on the tin roof of the house where I am staying, the sound is able to snatch me from a deep and jetlagged sleep. There is no rain like the rain in Liberia and I have heard it before, but this is February, the dry season, and it is not supposed to fall like this. I lie awake listening in awe. The rain is louder than the thunder behind it, rain so fierce and brutal I think to stand in it must surely hurt, like taking a beating from the skies.

Which makes sense, in a way. Because if there is any country which knows how to take a beating, it is Liberia.

For 14 years, this tiny slip of a nation clinging to the bulge of West Africa was repeatedly and brutally pummeled; first by a 1980 coup d'etat which stunned a country deeply proud of its stability, then by a series of off-again, on-again and always brutal civil wars.

Now though, in the wake of the historic 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president, Liberia is rising from the mat. It has been almost five years since Charles Taylor's inglorious exit, five years of relative peace, five years of slowly-increasing security. Liberians are starting to believe.

In Monrovia, the capital and largest city, the Chinese are paving the streets, the Lebanese are selling the groceries and the building goods, the Japanese are helping to build wells. The Americans are dealing with security issues while President Bush himself dropped by last month to dance to a song written in his honor and to promise delivery of one million textbooks.

Every week, it seems another African-American celebrity is flying in for a visit: Cicely Tyson was here not long ago. Queen Latifah and Chris Tucker are rumored to be on their way, along with BET mogul Robert Johnson, who may or may not be building a massive new hotel.

The talk around town is that these celebrities have caught on to one of Liberia's many fascinating eccentricities: by constitutional decree, only Liberians citizens can own property, and only people of Negro descent can become citizens. Companies with majority Liberian ownership can buy and hold property. Everyone else must lease, although often for long terms at ridiculously cheap prices, negotiated with poor people who did not understand the value of what they had to let.) No one has heard from Oprah since she learned from [Root Editor-in-chief] Henry Louis Gates Jr. that she is Kpelle, one of 16 indigenous Liberian ethnic groups. But you never know.

Most importantly, Liberian professionals -- who fled the imploding country when the fleeing was good -- are coming home. Encouraged by the increasing security and urged by President Sirleaf to help rebuild their native land, these doctors and lawyers and bankers and educators and engineers and entrepreneurs and architects are leaving their comfortable lives in America, buying up land here to build new houses, or reclaiming homes and businesses abandoned long ago.

This reverse exodus is a critical component if Liberia is to rebuild itself, for the bulk of the population came of age during the war and is young, uneducated and unskilled. But the return of the upper class also presents some challenges, for it was the divide between the have and the have-nots which triggered the 1980 explosion: a swift and brutal coup d'etat by an uneducated master sergeant named Samuel Doe.

That divide, perhaps less pronounced than before and certainly less acceptable, very much remains.

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