Things are looking up, but from so far down
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.
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.
This is not a direct issue for most Liberians, who do the bulk of their shopping on the street. There are markets everywhere in Monrovia: from the tiny, crowded, cheek-by-jowl little shops of Waterside to the massive collection of stalls and tables and sheer humanity at Red Light in Paynesville. There are shops made from converted railroad car which line the main roads of Bushrod Island.
And the selling is not confined to these designated areas. Every corner and every block of downtown Monrovia seems clogged with peddlers: young men selling plastic bags of water and mini flashlights, sunglasses and disposable razors, mosquito nets, dishtowels and chewing gum.
Young women selling boiled eggs, smoked fish and cinnamon rolls, older women selling fabric (lappas) and toothpicks, Q-tips and super glue, shoes and pineapples and carrots and cassava, coconut and bread. Creeping your way through the massive traffic jams of Monrovia, it is tempting to conclude that the entire city population is out there hustling.
Which raises the questions: where are these products coming from, since they are not being made here? And who in the world is everybody selling to, since no one can afford to buy?
President Sirleaf counts this as one of dozens of challenges ahead: moving from a society of petty traders to a society of entrepreneurs, a society of businessmen and women who can create, design and manufacture goods which will compete not just locally but on the world market. For now most of the mid-sized and large businesses in Liberia are still run by foreigners: Lebanese, Americans, Indians, Chinese.
Meanwhile, outside Monrovia and the other port cities, most people continue to get by on subsistence farming. It is the dry season now: time for clearing the land and burning bush in preparing for the planting of rice, cassava, eggplant and other crops.
Time too for patching the dirt roads that become impassible lakes during the rains and for making coal to fuel the cooking and cleaning. And time for dreaming bigger dreams.
In Komah, a tiny village on a hill in Bomi County that is the president's ancestral home, the school principal shows me how they have had to put wooden desks into the town palava hut because the school is too small to hold the 463 children who come seeking education every morning, and the 163 older children who come in the afternoon. Even then, he has had to turn some children from neighboring villages away.
He has plans to build a new school, not only modern enough for generator-driven lights and a computer or two, and big enough to hold every child for miles around, but also with enough space to teach the older, junior and senior-high aged students. The space has been designated on the village outskirts, but so far he has been unable to secure the estimated $72,000 he would need.
"We believe that it will happen," he said. "We have faith that it will come."
Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.