Liberia Part 2: Sign of the Times
Ten years ago, I flew into Liberia in the wake of an agreement that ended the Liberian civil war. The country was a mess…devastated, ruined, but hungry for peace. There was a complete void of governance, stability, safety and economic life. Child soldiers abounded. Liberia and its capital, Monrovia, were ruined.
Now, as the plane descended, I wondered what I would remember and find familiar. Landing at Roberts International Airport the answer was immediately clear: nothing. But in a good way. Ten years ago, Robertsfield was the home to international forces and cargo planes carrying equipment for the incoming UN troops. Today, it is a fully functioning commercial airport.
In Monrovia, a low-rise, sprawling, coastal city of roughly one million, I could see the familiar landmarks of the US Embassy and the Presidency. But everything else was beyond recognition—all that Liberia and the international community could have hoped for is slowly coming about.
In 2003, people sold what they could—sometimes looted humanitarian aid, or whatever the war had not taken from them.
Now, commerce has returned to Monrovia’s streets. Evidenced by men selling sunglasses from road side tables, food stalls, clothing shops, the streets teem with every form of individual enterprise imaginable. Buildings, previously bullet-pocked and without doors and windows, have been repainted in the bright blues, greens and yellows which are familiar throughout West Africa. In the evenings crowds gather at the beach to play and watch football.
Billboards are a bellwether of how this post-conflict society is moving forward. Positive public service announcements exhort Liberians not to throw their rubbish in the street, to sleep under treated mosquito nets, or my favourite, “A taxpayer is a nation-builder”. Billboards advertise travel agencies and further education opportunities—signs of a population setting its sights further and higher.
Traffic lights have sprouted and they are generally obeyed. Liberian police are present, controlling traffic or patrolling. The UN is visible, but the city feels Liberian and the Liberians are in charge of their own affairs.
However, daily life is by no means secure. Billboards urge women to quickly seek medical attention if they have been raped. Street justice can still take over; thieves, when caught, can fall victim to mob “justice”.
Although Monrovia is picking itself up and moving on, there’s still a long way to go. Aid remains a significant proportion of the Government’s income and it’s unlikely to change quickly. The Liberian GDP is ranked 225th globally with a per capita GDP of $700 a year (Afghanistan is $1000), there is 85% unemployment and 80% live below the poverty line.
However, international companies are returning and the signs of budding entrepreneurship are encouraging; people are trying.
On departure, the airport was a microcosm of Liberian progress. A milling crowd far exceeded the limited capacity of the small terminal. I readied myself for a pushing contest. Instead, people were admitted in small groups—sufficient to not overwhelm the ticket counter space, processed through security, and into the departure lounge. Once they were through, another group began the process. It was calm, orderly and it worked.
Monrovia’s palpable energy and unbending spirit have given me a desire to return to Liberia to see how its future unfolds. I just hope it won’t take another ten years.
I took two cameras with me: Nikon D300 and the 24mm lens giving an effective focal length of 35mm and an Olympus Mju with a 35mm lens. Following encouragement from the blog Cooking Film, I took Ilford Delta 3200 film (more on this in another post). I haven’t developed the films, so this post only shows digital photography.
I was drawn to colour during my visit, especially during the dull flat light of the rainy season. The heavy rain (Monrovia is one of the wettest capitals in Africa) made keeping the cameras dry a real challenge.