05 November 2007


My only upcountry trip (excepting the journey to Cote d'Ivoire) was to Buchanan, Liberia's second city. This was in early September.

We had a slow but fun ride, with two tire changes, a tire purchase, and plenty of teasing of our driver about the tires and other vehicular defects - non-functioning windscreen wipers, unopenable windows, a long-suffering muffler (the prevailing theory became that Toga the driver was hitting potholes on purpose to check if it was still there), and the rear window hanging on for dear life. The good humour of Liberian passengers was something I enjoyed a lot.

On the way, we passed through a Firestone concession area - a rubber plantation. Firestone has been in Liberia for ages, further cementing America's long-standing ties here. It was interesting to me that the concession area is like a country unto itself, complete with police checkpoints at entries and exits.

Buchanan is a low-key place with a nice little grid of streets at the centre, which may have been bestowed on it when another large extractive industry multinational arrived in Liberia. Lamco brought iron ore down by train to be picked up at the port. The massive plant outside town, now owned by Mittal but still closed, current houses a Bangladeshi peacekeeping unit. After a tour of the grounds I headed for an empty beach, where I read, swam, and woefully overestimated the sun-blocking powers of my umbrella. This is where some of the hope of Liberia lies, with extractive industries that also include diamonds and timber, but we've seen how that's turned out in some places.

For all the difficulties Liberians face, they are a friendly, welcoming people. There is a lot of interest in and cultural connections to the U.S. Given the large role America played in Liberia's founding and their strong relations through the Cold War, I hope we will be forthcoming with assistance. At the same time, Liberian governance and civic attitudes need improvement. The president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (universally referred to as Ellen) is highly regarded, but is often let down by others in her administration. In one recent example, Ellen was obliged to withdraw her nominee for maritime commissioner after it came to light that he was facing fraud charges and disbarment in the U.S. Apparently her staff knew about the charges but said nothing. As for civic-mindedness, Monrovia is awash in garbage. Sometimes it is piled together (at a street corner or road median), otherwise it is thrown all over the place. It is never taken away, aside from by a few people foraging for a useful object or two. Cleaning it up would be a good activity for some of the droves of idle and unemployed. They seem unlikely to attempt any hauling/sorting/burning without pay, and neighbourhoods and businesses don't pool resources to address the filth in their sections of town.

Another interesting thing I noticed was the apparent presence of Pakistanis on both ends of the Liberian spectrum. You may recall my post on migrants riding the ore train en route to Europe from South Asia. Well, around West Africa one occasionally sees Mauritanian migrants begging for assistance. I asked a taxi driver about one boy at Red Light motor park, and the driver said he was Pakistani. So there are Pakistani peacekeepers helping Liberians rebuild their country, and perhaps others that got stranded on their way to greener pastures.

Would I recommend visiting Liberia? Although there is a dearth of sights (and infrastructure), I think it is worth a look. Liberians are very friendly, and I experienced very little hassle while getting around (the police near the border focused their extortion efforts on non-Liberian ECOWAS citizens). They have a great sense of humour, which I may be highlighting as I surely missed a lot of commentary in Francophone countries. There are nice beaches, and away from expat-heavy Monrovia they are likely to be empty. The countryside is beautiful and still heavily forested, although a lot of this is rubber plantation.

So, worth visiting, but probably as part of a larger trip. It seems fairly accessible from Guinea, and from Cote d'Ivoire's north, if/when peace and stability return to the latter. The north of C.I. sounds really interesting too. The Monrovia-Ganta-Toe Town-Tolepleu rote I took was passable, but not for the faint of heart (it should be a little better in the dry season).

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