Liberia, the land of signs

Graham Askey

I’d hesitate to recommend a decent and well publicized war as a development policy, but ten years of aid after Liberia’s horrors there are improvements due to foreign agencies which would never have occurred otherwise. If there is one thing aid agencies love doing it’s making sure everyone knows what they have been up to. Thus, crops of signs have sprung up everywhere promoting their good deeds. Even driving through small villages you can pass a cluster of them, counts of the toilets provided or the worthy provision of a school building. Elsewhere signs advocate good health and hygiene practice ( the words pee pee and poo poo spelling things out in language everyone will understand) and combatting violence against women and children. It’s a striking contrast to the crumbling wreck of Guinea where the characteristic white 4×4′s of aid agencies are a rare sight indeed, despite the evident need.

Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that everything is fab and groovy. A load of shiny new buildings and schools helped out with US Peace Corps teachers does nothing to build an economy and create jobs. The clearest evidence of this is the lack of trucks on the roads outside the capital. Apart from roadwork vehicles I often saw none or just one in a day. No trucks means nothing is being bought, sold, imported or exported and the corresponding lack of employment was the commonest complaint from those I met.

The modest economic possibilities of the capital Monrovia have drawn the hopeful hordes from the countryside, creating a seething mass of chaotic humanity at its centre. If you are looking for an easy introduction for your first experience of African city life it would probably be best not to put Monrovia at the top of your list. The tsunami like assault on the senses that is the waterside market compresses thousands into constant physical contact amongst a cacophony of sellers shouting, chanting, singing and even bell ringing to attract customers. I fear many are driven more by optimism than profits for there are too many people selling much of the same thing to customers of limited income.

Although the very real risk of violent crime has diminished in recent years there is still an undeniable tension in the air: shouted arguments and angry shoving appear commonplace. Maybe they just like a good argument, as two taxi journeys illustrated. Taking a shared taxi to the centre of Monrovia I asked a man to confirm what I needed to ask for in the future as I had been met with incomprehension in other towns when asking for the town centre, “into town” he replied, which led to a ten minute argument between passengers about where exactly “town” was and even managed to include reference to constitutional politics.

On another journey the driver apologized for the delay when another passenger had to perform some errand, replying, “it’s no problem, I am used to it having come from Guinea, where you often stop for prayer breaks as it’s a Muslim country”. Oh dear! With two people in the car who felt that anyone who didn’t belong to their own specific church didn’t even qualify to be called a Christian the remaining hour was spent in heated “debate” concerning pointless disagreements in scripture. That was the last time I mentioned religion in Liberia. You don’t need to be a psychologist to realize that years of civil war leave behind more than a bit of anguish, even for those not complicit in violence. And when teenage boys have been pumped full of drugs, handed an AK47 and made to kill their fellow countrymen they are unlikely to turn in to the adults we would like them to be. Ten years after the war many such young men walk the streets of the city.

I had thought that the rigours of travelling in Guinea would be needed as good training for a war ravaged Liberia but instead I found better roads, transport and accommodation. Also with a largely stable, accountable and democratic government there was a belief that things would, if only gradually, get better.

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