Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Return to Liberia

The quintessential Liberia experience is arrival at the Roberts Airfield. It is absolute chaos writ large. No matter how many passengers are on the plane, there are always enough people gathered in the waiting area and outside the airport to make one think that the President and Nobel laureate herself has arrived. Who are all these people? Why are they here? Every person on the plane must have their entire family, down to the third cousin twice removed, come out to greet their arrival. The noise, confusion and incredible level of excitement are overwhelming. Getting past the automatons who pose as border guards (it must take a very long time to master that look and haughtiness and indifference) is one thing, but then being subjected to the cacophony outside the baggage area is something else altogether.

Finally, I spot a friendly face. With a deftness I don’t have time to register, he sweeps me and my baggage through the waiting, shouting crowd to our car. Finally, a bastion of peace and quiet. It is my old pal Emmanuel. He has done this many times before. We settle in for the long ride to Monrovia. I have never looked this up in the Guinness Book of World Records, but Roberts Airfield must be the international airport that is farthest from its alleged destination city (Oslo’s Gardermoen airport might come a close second). It is a good 1 1/2 hour drive. Mind you the road isn’t exactly the 401, but still… I always feel it would be quicker to drive to Cote d’Ivoire than it would be to Monrovia. Nonetheless, we head off in the general direction of the capital.

Emmanuel is a great fellow. As quiet and taciturn as they come, I finally got him to talk a bit last year. I resume my efforts. We start with the banalities and then move on. He has four daughters of whom he is immensely proud. That breaks the ice. By the time we reach my hotel, we have talked about the popularity of the President, the defects in the education and health systems, and the future prospects for the country. Just as we arrive, he shyly asks if I would like to visit his family. I readily agree. Date to be announced. I can hardly wait.

During the pauses in our conversation, I drink in the sights and sounds of a post-war, rebuilding Liberia. Burned and bombed-out buildings are scattered among many newer structures (the latter now being in the majority). I see progress—better roads recently re-paved, more construction, more businesses along the road, and so on. As we come closer to the suburbs of Monrovia, I notice an object completely foreign to this country—a traffic signal. Emmanuel explains that the roads are being built and paved by the Chinese in exchange for other concessions from the Government (although he is not quite sure what they are). The traffic lights are solar powered and are much needed to ameliorate the free-for-all that is driving in Liberia. All around there they are many tangible signs of progress on the long way back to normality. Still, there is an acute shortage of power (only the downtown core really has power on a semi-regular basis) and virtually no water or sewage services. The average person survives on water bought from vendors in the street and a charcoal fire—or, if lucky enough, on a generator. But things are improving.

Emmanuel says there is more optimism now. People can see that their lives are returning to “normal”. It has been a long trip. A fourteen-year civil war together with the loss, disfigurement, disappearance or displacement of many close relatives. There isn’t a person here whose family wasn’t seriously affected in some way by the war. Nonetheless, they carry on as best they can in the hope that things are going to get better. And they will. It is a matter of time and money.

It is great to be back. I am welcomed warmly by the friends I made at the hotel last year. They are genuinely happy to see return visitors. The sights and sounds and smells overwhelm the senses. Toronto quickly recedes from memory, replaced by my home away from home. The journey is long but well worth it. It is indeed great to return. I can hardly wait to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

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