Postcard From Liberia

Things are looking up, but from so far down

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

And there are other challenges. Liberia suffered not just from the devastating conflicts between various warlords, but from the utter lack of systematic repair, maintenance or development, even when a tentative peace ruled the land. What infrastructure was built during the Tubman and Tolbert administrations of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s was largely left to rot under Presidents Doe and Taylor in the 1980s and 1990s. They built mainly for themselves.

And so the country fell into disrepair and is only now recovering. After years of darkness, electricity is back on in large chunks of Monrovia, but many neighborhoods remain dark, and the rural areas are even further behind. Some roads remain more hole than street; some buildings still stand burnt and empty. There aren’t enough teachers for the schools, not enough schools for all the children, not enough doctors or nurses for the hospitals and not nearly enough hospitals for the poor.

There are still too many people crowded into the city, straining it at the seams. No one knows exactly how many people live in Monrovia – a census later this month hopes to answer that question – but officials estimated more than a million in a city built for less than half that number.

Petty corruption remains entrenched at low levels of government, frustrating citizens and resisting Sirleaf’s efforts to root it out. An entire generation has grown up without formal education, schooled mostly in the violent skills of child soldiering. The government, with the help by the UN and various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is trying hard to reclaim, retrain and rehabilitate thousands of these former killers, but the task is slow and tedious.

The government is also working to reopen the iron ore mines, commercial farms and other industries to create jobs, but right now there is still far too little work for all the dangerously idle young men sauntering around town.

Which means: crime is a problem. The two sentences I heard most often in Liberia were “You are welcome” and “Lock your door.” Now, my mother says the same thing when I visit her perfectly-nice neighborhood in Sacramento, but words of caution always sound more ominous four thousand miles away from home.

Though many are struggling to make ends meet, others are doing quite well. At Monrovia’s best supermarket, a box of Gain detergent cost $28. A pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream cost $10. A roll of aluminum foil – industrial size, to be sure, but still – cost $60.

This is highway robbery, says one Liberian woman to one of the owners, a darkly handsome Lebanese man, one of three brothers who run the shop and the attached wholesale biz.

“Autobahn robbery,” he responds with a laugh.