A year in Liberia, West Africa

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

First Impressions of a Liberian Kind - Part I

A month already… time flies even when you’re in the sun. I’m really glad I'm here – Africa almost feels like home.

Liberia is something else though, definitely West African (Monrovia reminds me of Lagos) but with an unmistakable American influence that transcends many things, be it music (sadly, not much African music is played on the radio, it’s mostly RnB), spoken expressions (many people reply Whasssssup? when you say hello) or the name of national institutions (all located in and around Capitol Hill).

The living conditions for most Liberians are extremely poor – the vast majority of people have no job, no running water and no electricity. The last time there was electricity in Monrovia was in the eighties and no-one under the age of 15 has ever seen street lighting. You can see the country has just emerged from fifteen years of civil war: bullet-torn buildings, former war veterans missing limbs begging on the streets and gangs of orphaned children roaming the streets. It’s all the more shocking when you know that the country has natural resources that generate immense wealth: diamonds, rubber, timber and iron ore amongst others.

The civil war – nicknamed “Octopus” – has intensified the illiteracy rate among the young (over 80% country-wide) and many people have only just been able to return to their studies. But former child soldiers have not been properly reintegrated and although some efforts are being made to put them through school, many are still living in squats, addicted to drugs or involved in prostitution.

To get an education here is extremely expensive – primary school costs US$100 per term – so the average wage is barely enough to survive and often a family can only afford to send one child to school. For those who are lucky enough to have had a school education, the only realistic possibility of a job here is working as drivers, maids or cooks for one of the international organisations, because working for the government means lower pay (if it’s paid at all) while working for local businesses means no job protection or basic social benefits like medical insurance or sick leave.

Yet, despite the harsh conditions of their existence, people here remain smiling, polite, respectful and good-humoured. You can’t help but admire Liberians for their perseverance, an unmistakable African trait of character.

Due to the disintegration of the state, the country is effectively being administered by the UN: 15,000 troops are keeping the peace here. The former army and rebel groups have been disarmed, and the former army is in the final stages of being demobilised (which we’ll be involved in too). In addition, over 3,000 civil UN personnel are dispatched around the country to ensure observance of human rights and investigate past abuses. Numerous national institutions have also been set up, but the problem is that they have no funds to fulfil their mandate.

It’s been 2 years since the end of the fighting and Taylor’s exile to Nigeria. During this time little progress has been achieved in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and giving Liberians what they most need: electricity, water, basic medical care, free education... Many blame the UN for inaction, but the fault must also lie with the interim Liberian government here who many regard as being as corrupt as the Taylor, Doe and Tolbert regimes that came before. Plus ça change, moins ça change…


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I share your somehow pessimistic point of view about 'democracy' and elections in countries like these. You need some some basic conditions to make it possible that a political system like 'democracy' is firm and stable.
1. political-filosophical condition: basis respect of human rights (without making the mistake of turning every political problem in a matter of human rights like sometimes happens nowadays)
2. sociological condition: culture of a broad mid-class. To explain this through a rather negative quote: "tout le rêve de la démocratie est d'élever le proletaire au niveau de bêtise du bourgeois" dixit Flaubert. Yes, narrowminded thinking by the 'have something to defend' mass brings a kind of stability.
3. condition of free political parties which stand for a cluster of values and goals, on its turn the population must be well informed about thes values/goals.
4. social-psychological condition: the need for a minimum of 'patriotism'. By that I do not mean 'don't ask what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country', but the only way to prevent that public organs are abused for private goals is a kind of patriotic culture.

Even though I have great doubts about the over-importance that is given to elections in these countries, not to say it can be even harmful to create the illusion that everything will change for the better after the elections, I applied for a STO-mission to Haiti. Mister critisism apparently has private interests aswell.

your Bissau-mate Jan

Thursday, October 06, 2005


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