Liberia: War-Weary, With Echoes of Old Dixie

Courtesy of the Stanley Foundation
Courtesy of the Stanley Foundation

MONROVIA — I'm zipping around Liberia in a turbo-charged tour of the West African country, ricocheting from public hospital to presidential digs to rubber plantation to rape clinic, taking it all in: the shell of a skyscraper where snipers once picked off their prey; the sewage-clogged beach; the exuberant billboards of "Mama Ellen" — that would be the president — reminding folks that everyone is connected, all one, and oh yes, don't forget to pay your taxes. In many ways, Liberia reminds me of Afghanistan circa 2002: war-weary country trying to right itself; bombed-out infrastructure; squabbling ethnic groups; battered women asserting themselves; warlords insisting that they've had a change of heart.


Of course, each country is weird in its own way, shaped by shared history, culture, prejudices, group neuroses. And Liberia has its own strange little history, one that is inextricably tied to the U.S.: In 1820, freed American slaves, many of them the mixed-race children of white slave owners, moved to Liberia as part of an abolitionist-sponsored back-to-Africa movement, naming the capital city Monrovia after President James Monroe.

A Racism Created in America's Image

By 1847 the "settlers," as they are called to this day, formed the Republic of Liberia, modeling it after American-style politics — and instituting their own form of American-style Jim Crow, too. The lighter-skinned Americo-Liberians, who often sported top hats and tails in the tropical West African heat, lorded their power over the "country people" — darker-skinned indigenous Africans who were not granted Liberian citizenship until 1904. Truly a case of power corrupting the formerly nonpowerful.

And that's the way things were for a long time. Resentments simmered while the Americo-Liberians, a tiny portion of the population, dominated everything until 1980, when Samuel K. Doe snatched power in a particularly nasty military coup. (The Root's own Jack White witnessed the beachside executions of 13 cabinet ministers back then.)

This legacy is visible everywhere in Liberia. You see it in the National Hall, where a parade of presidential portraits illustrates the country's color complex: The pictures progress through time from light to dark to medium: from Liberia's first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who folks here like to say was really Thomas Jefferson's son; to Doe, the first president of tribal descent; to subsequent dictator Charles Taylor; to the first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated granddaughter of a German immigrant.

You see it in the Liberian Declaration of Independence — and the Liberian flag, which looks an awful lot like Old Glory. You see it in public buildings, where the idyllic painted tableaus and statues of settlers joining forces with the country people are on prominent display. You hear it in a lecture by historian Joseph Saye Guannu, in which he talks about how "octoroon" and "mulatto" Americo-Liberians waged political warfare with the "black" Americo-Liberians, who weren't the sons of slave owners and, therefore, generally came to Liberia with a lot less money.

"We Liberians are not history-conscious," Guannu says, and yet history seeps through this country's pores. For the first-time visitor, it's a bit unsettling, like looking in a funhouse mirror of the Old South — or watching some whacked-out episode of Star Trek when Capt. Kirk lands on a planet that turns out to be an alternate America.


A Complex History of War

Indeed. Liberia's two civil wars are a convoluted tale of coups and counter-coups, of multiple warring factions jockeying for control of the resource-rich land. The first war began in 1989, when Charles Taylor, a former official in Doe's government, invaded the country from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire with the National Patriotic Front Rebels and toppled the government.


Prince Johnson, who'd split off from Taylor to form the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), captured Doe in 1990 and tortured him to death. (Johnson swigged a beer while his minions hacked off Doe's ears.) Taylor was eventually elected president in 1997, but war waged on until 2003. More than 250,000 Liberians were killed, and more than a million displaced.

Today Taylor is on trial for war crimes in The Hague. Johnson, despite his history as a warlord, is an elected official and serves as senior senator from his state. Meanwhile, Liberians play soccer and attend concerts in the Samuel K. Doe Stadium. (Johnson did not attend a scheduled meeting with our group.)


The wars are a constant topic in everyday conversations here. Boakai Fofana, the Liberian journalist who helped organize our trip with the International Reporting Project, tells me matter-of-factly how, when he was 13, he and his family ran from a massacre, crossing the border into neighboring Guinea. Others weren't so lucky. At one point the Guinea government barred that bridge, and hundreds of Liberians, running from rebel forces, leaped to their deaths in the river below.

Fofana spent his formative years on the run, which meant that he learned on the run, too. For many young Liberians, education became a casualty of the war. It's not uncommon here to meet 29-year-olds who are still in high school, working when they can, studying when they can and determined to make it to university, even though tuition is beyond their grasp. "Because of the war," says Fofana, who is now in his early 30s and studying for a master's degree, "the definition of youth has expanded to include anyone from 18 to 35."


A Relentless Optimism … and Yet

On paper, the odds are not in their favor. Some 85 percent of the country is unemployed. There is no middle class. Corruption is rampant, even in the schools. Young women tell me how commonplace it was to encounter underpaid teachers trading sex for grades — you don't put out, you flunk. The infrastructure has literally been shot: The electrical grid was blown up during the war, and much of the country still runs on generators, suffusing the air with the pungent aroma of gasoline.


Outside Monrovia, the roads are in ruins, unpaved, rutted, riddled with massive holes. Impassable. Because of this, farmers can't get their crops to market, and so the food rots. Many of the young men you see speeding by on motorbikes are former child soldiers still trying to find their way. What happens if they can't find it?

At Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, a sprawling collection of interlocking concrete buildings, redemption seems to be in exceedingly short supply. There is no air conditioning here, and as you walk through the wards, the air hangs heavy. Sweat pools, dampening the backs of shirts and ringing underarms. In the pediatric ward, children, many of them suffering from malnutrition and cerebral malaria, are forced to sleep three to a bed. Even the babies look old, wizened, worried.


The doctors and nurses here — most of whom are Liberians, some of whom have returned from living abroad — are overworked and overburdened. But as they take us on a tour of the 150-bed hospital, it's hard not to get caught up in their sense of purpose: They are here to rebuild a country.

This is a public hospital, which means that treatment here is free. Signs posted around the complex boast that this is a "No Money Business" hospital. People, mostly women and children, flock here, crowding the waiting room, with others waiting to be seen in the clinic for survivors of sexual abuse and gender violence.


In the maternity ward, a young woman, about six months pregnant, splayed out in a wheelchair, is rushed into the delivery room. Only a piece of African cloth covers her nude body. Her eyes roll back in her head; her body convulses. Her blood pressure is dangerously high. Family members wail as the medical staff speed through their ministrations. The nurse-midwife supervisor firmly shuts the door to the delivery room, her once smiling face now wrinkled with worry. 

A Company With Its Own Clouded History

An hour away, in Harbel, the private hospital at the multinational rubber company Firestone Liberia provides a stark contrast to Redemption. Air conditioning is in abundance here; ceiling fans whirr quietly overhead. The lab looks like any you'd find in the U.S. At Redemption, there is just one X-ray machine; here, there are many.


But the waiting rooms are empty at the Firestone facility, even though the hospital is open to everyone, not just Firestone employees. In the pediatric ward, pictures of Elmo from Sesame Street adorn the walls; its many beds are clean and empty, save for two disgruntled but robust-looking toddlers in cribs. They work up a fuss, demanding to be freed from their prison. A passel of older kids in hospital gowns sit lined up in front of the TV, watching Barney. They don't speak. It's hard to shake the feeling that they are extras on a set.

Stuart is a tall, white American with a heavy Southern accent and a passing resemblance to Jon Voight. If he seems a little — well, a lot — defensive, he's got good reason to be. Firestone has had a complicated relationship with Liberia, one that dates back to 1926, when the company paid $5 million to get the country out of debt. In recent years it has battled charges of using child labor, dumping toxic wastes, providing substandard housing and instituting slave-labor conditions. (Until recently, a family of seven would be housed in a one-room house with no electricity or running water.)


In 2005, workers sued the company; they also staged a 28-day labor strike. (Firestone, which vehemently denies all of these charges, provides free housing and medical care and subsidizes monthly supplies of rice.) Today the average rubber-tree tapper earns $150 a month, or less than $4 a day. It costs $5 to tee up at Firestone's golf course.

Everything is better now, Stuart says, as we ride in a yellow school bus through Firestone's lushly verdant grounds. He points out the new housing they're constructing, the classrooms, the school gymnasium. By his side are three labor-union leaders, two men and one woman, all Liberians. "Everything's better now, right?" Stuart asks them. "Yes," they tell him, "everything's better now."


But on this tour, meeting all the executives at Firestone Liberia, I can't help noticing that none of them appears to be Liberian. I asked one of the labor-union guys, who lives on the plantation, what workers do for fun when they're not working. Is there a movie theater? A recreation center, perhaps? He doesn't answer me.

As the tour winds up, I, along with Laura McClure, a journalist from Mother Jones, pass by a classroom where a high school English teacher conducts a lesson in active and passive voice. What we hear stops us: "This decision to protect all children was made by what?" the teacher asks. "Firestone!" the students respond.


Stuart serves up lunch at the Firestone Country Club, slapping his Liberian workers on the back, embracing the women and lapsing into the thick patois of Liberian English.

"I hold your foot," he says (Liberian for "I beg of you"). "The people here, they need their story told."


Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. She traveled to Liberia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP). Follow her on Twitter.