01 November 2010

Memory (Dispatches from Liberia)

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday at Mamba Point and business is slow. The Lebanese-owned hotel is one of the oldest in Monrovia, perched on a hillside across the street from a beach lined with palm trees, like a scene out of a movie, a tropical paradise.

Except foreigners don’t go there. It’s the locals’ domain, where Liberian boys play soccer, where trash is dumped, where, in some places, people go to defecate. And there is no security along the stretch of sand, so best not to walk there, at least not alone, some say. The hotel has a pool instead, surrounded, like everything else in Monrovia, by thick concrete walls and enormous coils of barbed wire.

Four waiters are sitting on bar stools in the dim half light, talking to the barman. The theme is Irish (who knows why): dark wood paneling, bottles of Jameson along the wall, an Irish flag hanging overhead. There’s a football match on the television; the crowd roars and the waiters look up in unison, eyes fixed on the screen.

In the lounge, a pair of aid workers—a young girl with a pony tail and her older, frumpy colleague—are sitting on the couch with laptop computers glowing in front of them, working. The polished director of an NGO just in from Washington strides into the restaurant where another polished man is waiting to meet him.

Outside, some of the regulars are sitting on the deck in the growing dusk. Three young girls, drunk from an afternoon of white wine and hummus, giggle in the thick night air, faces shiny and tired. A pair of beefy guys with military haircuts pay their bill and eye the girls as they get up to leave. And a fat, bald man with a moustache and his lanky compatriot smoke cigars solemnly, watching the smoke waft through the air in front of them and disappear.


Though it’s right next door, Mamba might as well be oceans away from the hustle and flow of the streets. Life in Monrovia has improved dramatically since the civil war came to an end, but it’s still rough. The streets are littered with the charred carcasses of buildings, dark as coal. Ramshackle houses are built atop the jagged black rocks that jut up out of the ground all over the city, like gigantic claws.

The old presidential office speaks of grander days lost: a wide, elegant half-moon driveway, a towering building on the edge of the sea. But it has been empty since a fire broke out inside soon after President Sirleaf took office. Now it stands rusting, derelict, some people say haunted—by evil spirits maybe or simply the past.


Fourteen years of civil war tore Liberia apart. It made paupers of an already poor population and traumatized everyone. Per capita GDP declined by 87 percent between 1980 and 2005; in 2009, more than half of the population lived on less than US$1 a day and about 80 percent were unemployed.

And the repercussions of sustained violence, of years of persistent threat, appear as cracks, shockwaves. They come out in bursts, unexpectedly, like a car backfiring: stress, outbursts full of rage, panic, fear.

In the car one morning, on our way to a health clinic, I ask James, a Liberian doctor who lived in Monrovia before, during and now after the war: what was it like to be here in those days?

He shook his head and half smiled, looking down at the floor: “We fought for food,” he said. Then his phone chirped and he took it out of his pocket and typed a message.

I looked out the window, into the spit of morning rain, at the people at the market and all the things they were selling: umbrellas, shoes, soap, brooms, mattresses.

A few minutes down the road, James began again suddenly: “Wars were fought on these streets.” I turned to face him. He was staring out the window too, but not at anything in particular. Just looking out past everything, at some secret thing I couldn’t see. “We fought for food.”


Up a dark stairwell, in a row of decaying buildings across from a cliff of rock flecked with shacks that look like they were carved into the face of them, is Tides, a bar on the waterfront. The deck is lined with comfy chairs and expats sipping drinks to the throb of the pop music playing inside.

Just down the beach is a slum. If you grew up on the beach like I did, and are accustomed to beach-front property being the exclusive domain of the rich, the beach slums of Monrovia are jarring. The colleague who met me later, a young Liberian raised in the U.S.—the only one of six siblings to come back to the place he was born—said some 70,000 people live there: 70,000 people in that low-lying crush of tin and cardboard that look as if it’s been smushed flat down against the ground.

There are kids playing soccer there, and a boat is docked in the sand beside several enormous piles of trash. Beyond, a factory, the port, and beyond them, a lightening storm is brewing in the deep purple and gray sky.

They say that President Sirleaf takes her cabinet on tours of the slums. They go to the dirtiest, most squalid places in Monrovia, and she says: Look! We are the government of this.


Things have gotten better, though. Under the watch of a legitimate government backed by a UN peace-keeping operation, the country is enjoying a period of steadily improving peace and stability. Power was restored to the capital, massive amounts of debt have been cut, and the economy is recovering, thanks to investments in physical infrastructure, hefty sums of donor aid and a gradual improvement in security.

Everyone has an explanation for Liberia’s relative success. Strong presidential leadership, trust of the donors, the character of the Liberian people.

I ask a friend one evening: How is it possible—for life to be one way for so long and then start being another? “Take the ex-combatants. Some studies show they reintegrate into society really well. How does it happen?”

—That’s easy, he said, smiling mischievously: Magic. “In some countries they have a ritual before war. Soldiers have a spell cast on them and from that point on their bodies are inhabited by the god of war. At the end of fighting, there is a cleansing ritual to cast out the evil spirit.”

It's an appealing story, I say, but I'm unsatisfied.

—So do people just forgive them?


There’s a night market for locals who can’t get to the markets open during the day. The streets are slick from rain when I go with Charles, a Liberian with gray hair whom the World Bank has charged with looking after me when I arrive. I’d called him in a panic: my computer is about to die! Where can I get an adaptor?

—Ay be right over, he’d said.

The streets are lit by the yellow glow of the kerosene lamps burning on the side of the road, and the market is packed, bustling, a maze of people.

We pull over and Charles tells me to stay inside. As he gets out, a man limps up to him and they exchange a few words. Then the man comes to my side of the car and tries to talk to me through the glass. He is spindly thin and missing an arm. Charles returns and the man approaches again and they talk for a little longer this time, and I’m confused: it seems they know each other. And before getting back in the car Charles reaches into this pocket and gives the guy a little cash.

Back inside, Charles starts the engine and gives me a wry grin: “They used to be our masters,” he says.

The man had been a fighter during the war. People feared him. Now he’s on the street, begging for money.

“Things change pretty quick,” Charles says.


I guess I’m like everybody else: wooed by Liberia’s story of redemption, of coming out of darkness and into the light, as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia recently described it. It’s easy to get sentimental about this kind of story, but I don’t think it’s sentiment that keeps Liberians moving ahead. It is whatever it was in Charles that made him help a man who used to threaten him. It is whatever made James keep going all those years when everyone he knew was hungry and afraid.

Necessity, maybe. You move on because you have to. Or maybe it is anger—an angry refusal to stop believing that tomorrow can be different from today.

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