Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Life in Monrovia

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia. It is a huge sprawling city of approximately 1.7 or 1.8 million people (no one really knows for sure) situated on the Atlantic Ocean. The tallest buildings in Monrovia are about 6 storeys and they are office buildings. So, when Monrovia grows, it grows outwards, not upwards. Downtown Monrovia was bombed and looted during the 14-year civil war. That war lasted from 1989 to 2003. It started when Charles Taylor invaded Liberia in the northeast portion of the country on Christmas Eve 1989 from his base in Côte d’Ivoire.

Monrovia was badly bombed by the insurgents toward the end of the first stage of the civil war (1996) and toward the end of the second stage (2002). It was looted by the insurgents after they finally fought their way into Monrovia from the surrounding countryside (after years of trying). They stole everything of value they could lay their hands on – cars, air conditioners, appliances, plumbing parts, copper wire contained in electricity and phone lines, and so on. These goods were then sold on the black market for a small fortune. This was the bounty for the victors.

Sadly, also complicit in these activities was a group called ECOMOG. Let me explain. ECOMOG was formed by ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States. If you were to look at a map, this includes every state from Gambia in the north to Togo and Benin in the south, including Liberia. ECOMOG was originally formed to enter Liberia to maintain a cease fire between the warring factions and to try to reassert peace. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Led by the Nigerians (the big cheese in this group), ECOMOG became an active participant in the war, and they were among the worst of the looters. It is reported that an ECOMOG unit near Buchanan (Liberia’s second largest city, south of Monrovia and its only other port) looted enough goods that when sold on the black market, they fetched US$50 million. That is big time looting.

So, with this background you would think that Monrovia would be a tad downtrodden, with a barely thriving economy and not much happening. That would be incorrect. In fact, it would be the opposite of what life is like here. Monrovia is a lively, bustling, noisy and energizing city. Walk down the sidewalk of any main street and you will see hundreds of people walking, talking and shopping. The streets are lined with little shops and, together with sidewalk vendors, they sell everything imaginable – vegetables and fruits of all kinds, meat, fish (raw or cooked), shoes, knock-off Nike and Adidas gear of all kinds, copy-cat Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein clothes (Ralph and Calvin presumably have no idea how popular they are here), soaps and shampoos, household goods (think cheap Rubbermaid products), breakfast cereals (go figure!!), kids toys, etc., etc. The shops are small (about 15 feet of frontage is the average), but they are bustling and clean. For those vendors who don’t have shops, they set up on the sidewalk or transport their goods around in huge wheelbarrows.

How do all these people make any money, you might ask, in a country where the unemployment level is estimated to be around 75% and more than 60% of the population live below any definition of the poverty line? The answer is they don’t, but they seem to be able to make enough each day to be able to buy the necessary staples to keep their families alive. The Liberians are a resilient and optimistic people (more about them in a future blog). Somehow they cobble enough together to live from day to day.

Equally surprising to a visitor are the traffic and noise levels. For a poverty-stricken country, it is quite amazing to see its streets packed with cars, taxis and motorbikes of all shapes, sizes and kinds. However, apart from the expats and the NGOs (who drive Mercedes and Toyotas), we’re talking vehicles here of considerable vintage. But they work. The car repair shops, to be sure, do a land-office business, but they keep these old heaps running somehow, using, presumably, large quantities of binder twine and duct tape. For those who can’t afford a car (that is, most people) there are taxis. To be clear, these aren’t taxis of the kind we are used to. They are small yellow vehicles that are known as "share taxis." That is, they drive along from point A to point B and pick up and drop off people as they go. You pay only for that portion of the trip you are in the taxi when you disembark, and then it carries on its route. One consequence is that these vehicles can often get packed to the gunnels with passengers (think of the 1960s craze of trying to see how many people could fit into a Volkswagen Beetle). In any event, somehow it works.

The result is that the streets are very busy and very noisy. Honking is a national pastime. Everyone honks constantly. Partly this is defensive – there are no stop signs or stop lights in Monrovia. So a honk is a signal that you are coming through!! You can imagine the chaos that creates. Vehicles, motorbikes and pedestrians are all vying for a small amount of space. As a pedestrian, I look every which way about 14 times before I venture to cross any street. Things come at you constantly and from the most unexpected directions.

In short, Monrovia is, despite all odds, a vibrant, lively, noisy and raucous city, full of sights, sounds and colour, and bustling with activity. My favourite pastime here, usually on the weekends, is to go for long walks and soak up the bustle, aromas and liveliness of this amazing place.

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