10 October 2007

Liberia - recent developments and football

I enjoyed a 10 day visit to Liberia in early September. I stayed with the parents of a friend I played football with in DC, in our Saturday soccer on the Mall days. The parents served in northeast Liberia with Peace Corps in the 1970s, and have been working in Monrovia for the last few years.

As you may recall, Liberia suffered through a series of wars from 1989 until 2003, when rebel leader/president Charles Taylor was forced to step down, leading to a large UN mission, 2005 elections and increasing stability.

Today, there are relatively few clear signs of the conflicts, namely bullet-holes on unrepaired building facades and pockmarked streetlights. Some of the ruins date to earlier tumultuous times, such as a minister's house that was destroyed after Samuel Doe's coup d'etat and purge in 1980.

A lot of buildings and infrastructure have simply succumbed to two decades of neglect. These include the national Masonic Temple (I think all of the Americo-Liberian presidents were masons), the large Ducor Hotel (where hundreds of people from upcountry sought refuge) and one of the two bridges to the Monrovia peninsula, which finally collapsed a few months ago.

A less visible, but obvious, effect has been on education. Many students had their studies interrupted for up to 15 years, and now are competing with their younger compatriots for high school and university places. George, who works at my hosts' home and recently completed high school, is applying for admittance to the University of Liberia. He's in his 40s. Such difficulties, compounded by economic collapse during the wars, make one wonder how Liberia will support itself and find work for its young people. Many people are trying to help, though.

Aside from the thousands of UN workers and peacekeepers, there are myriad agencies driving around town. The UN presence has enabled all the displaced people who wanted to return home to do so, and they have carried out a lot of minor infrastructure improvements - for instance, the Pakistani contingent erected a temporary bridge on the road from the border to Monrovia a few days before I got there (this is a different bridge from the aforementioned Monrovia bridge).

The swell of international aid workers has created a two-tiered economy. In a country where the vast majority of people are unemployed, Monrovia has no shortage of nice restaurants, expensive hotels, and supermarkets full of fine imported goods. At least this provides some Liberians employment, although I expect the profits go to owners with the capital to cater to this high-end demand.

Other large fields of work are in counseling, vocational training and education. Working with youths and others to find positive outlets and develop skills is a big challenge, as is helping existing educational institutions maintain standards while confronting staffing problems, demand for enrollment, and the temptation to increase fees and enrollment to stay afloat. This is leading to a commoditization and devaluation of degrees.

One of the nice examples of the rehabilitation efforts is an amputee footballers' league. Unlike the apparently more seasoned Sierra Leone league, which is mostly made up of victims of the RUF's 1997 post-election tactics, most of the Liberian players are former combatants.

Given the small pitches they play on, sides have six field players and a goalkeeper. The field players are amputees with part or all of a leg missing (touching the ball with a crutch is a handball), while goalies are missing an arm. Keepers could have an amputated leg instead, but that's widely regarded as inferior to having two legs to jump off. Still, it had me pondering the wide wingspan the crutches offer, although a powerful shot could probably not be deflected (and they are strong kickers).

The matches for the round robin tournament were held around the Monrovia area, and I was able to see the Conquerous play LASA (the flagship team - Liberia Amputee Soccer Association). It was the last day of the tournament, and the Conquerous had already beaten LASA (the perenial champions) on overall points, but it was a spirited match all the same. The small pitch, abutted and encroached upon by houses and construction (with a convenient nook behind one goal line where players and spectators could take a piss), was crowded by a couple of hundred enthusiastic residents. The match was very entertaining, although there were a lot of missed through-balls, with the Conquerous willing 2-1 to crown their overall victory. The spectators were very supportive of the players, the celebrations of the hefty, high-heeled Conquerous president (she's a counselor for former combatants) were infectious, and the players showed great effort and skill.

One of the fields in the area, near the Red Light motor park, is called Gobachop Field. Apparently people liked the sound of the name Gorbachev and corrupted it to Gobachop. Chop is a universal West African pidgin English word, meaning eat, or to steal/embezzle. A popular Nigerian song and music video is "I Go Chop Your Dollar."

My friend Francis used it interestingly the other day, noting that another friend of ours was "chopping that girl..." when we were last together in Ghana.

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