21 August 2007

The lighter side of Liberia

Expatriates and visitors to Liberia often become disillusioned: by the persistence of poverty and slow pace of change. Such sentiments are common, even predictable, in Africa and even more so here. As the government and UN agencies begin to count, survey and enumerate their people, the grim realities of life are crystallized from anecdotes into statistics. Like a road accident victim recently admitted to intensive care, completing the diagnosis in its full horror is an essential step to recovery.

Our small Team Liberia has had its moments of disillusion around our dinner table in the Baptist Compound, but we have tried to keep our frustrations to ourselves. Most Liberians I know have little time for them. Our friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances – not a representative sample I know – are always ready to share a joke about "this is Liberia" and display a healthy skepticism of government and other authorities; but they are also cautiously optimistic. Anyone asking "How can you live like this?" would deserve a terse reply: "You should have seen it 5 years ago."

Government posters tell us "the process is on", but actions speak louder than words. Actions like those of our driver Ernest, pictured above with his family, who is building a house complete with zinc roof (the zinc is very important). Actions like my friends from the Ministry and CARI, some of whom are pictured below, who are preparing to leave Monrovia and reclaim their old offices in Suakoko where 15 years ago Charles Taylor trained his boys. Actions like those of Sampson, a friend from Buchanan who is travelling through villages that were depopulated only a few years ago, selling anti-malarials and antibiotics that might just keep a few more children alive.

The confidence of Liberians goes beyond their deep religious faith. I have not encountered the fatalism that I found so prevalent in (peaceful, stable) Tanzania. Nor have I met anyone who wanted to emigrate like in (peaceful, stable) Cuba. Many Liberians have emigrated or fled in the past and now want to stay put. I am writing this in Senegal, along with Nigeria one of the main sources of the thousands of young Africans who die from drowning or dehydration trying to get to Europe overland. I have never heard of a Liberian taking this route.

It has been a tremendous privilege to witness the rebirth of a nation at close quarters. I hope that future visitors to Liberia will be able to see beyond the grim statistics and experience the lighter side.


Michael said...

thanks for all you have done to put my country back on the path to success, how can we ever repay you guys.

Molly Kinder said...

Hey Rupert,

Very interesting post. I would agree with most of what you wrote, but I take exception with the assertion that Liberians have not expressed a desire to migrate. I had an entirely different sense from the folks I spoke with. There were certainly many examples of people who were entirely committed to staying in Liberia and, even if they left for a time for education or jobs, wanted to return. (Case in point: Jonathan. He explained that he is hoping to go overseas to study but only so that he could return). But I can't tell you the number of people who expressed a very, very strong desire to move to the US. Many of my colleagues at the Ministry of Finance -- from young analysts to administrative assistants -- said that it was their DREAM to move to the US, and the dream of everyone else they know. In fact, in those moments, I instantly likened their desire to the Cubans who lust after Miami! Personally, I think there is a bit of a selection bias in those we spoke with: we interacted only with those that DID come home to Liberia, and not with the thousands of Liberians in America who just hit the jackpot when the US Congress extended their amnesty in the US by another year.

I don't think this sentiment detracts at all from the groundswell of optimism in Liberia's future, or in the impressive dedication of the overseas Liberians who have returned to Monrovia to support the country's rebuilding. People are rebuilding, investing, moving back to their communities, and inching the country forward. If some have a few extra stars and stripes in their eyes, at least this time it's not to escape war in their backyard.