I got my first peek at Liberia from the plane. As the plane neared Monrovia, I looked outside the window. I was struck by how green the land looked. I saw a forest bordering the ocean and I saw water inlets and lagoons. It was a beautiful sight.
Liberia, as you might know, is on the western coast of Africa. It is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and the Atlantic Ocean washes it’s shores. Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria are some of it’s regional neighbors. (Timbuktu in Mali is also not that far 🙂 ). Liberia has one of the biggest tropical rain forests in Africa with many plant & animal species unique to the country.
As we drive from the airport to the city, I pester my driver, Richlue, with questions. Richlue has a natural smile and his eyes light up when he answers some of my silly questions. I see a lot of small water bodies along the side of the road. Richlue tells me that May to October is the rainy season in Liberia and when it rains it really pours. Annual rainfall is around 4500 mm. The other thing I notice is, how well paved the road from airport to the city is. Richlue informs me that it has been recently paved. Liberia has nearly 10,000 km of roads but only 700 km is paved roads, rest are all dirt roads. During the rainy season nearly 20% of the country gets cutoff as many of the dirt roads become un-passable.
The road to the city passes through many rural areas which really are just small clusters of houses i.e. hamlets. Some of the houses are thatched houses made of bamboo and leaves. I see many abandoned, old, decaying concrete houses as well. Many of these decaying houses lack windows, or even roofs and the walls are blackened due to the algae and rain. I see many villagers standing by the side of the road waving down the yellow shared taxis for a ride to the city. The taxis are in a really beaten down condition and we come across some which had broken down in the middle of the road.
As we near the city, I see many brick houses with white plaster on them and a tin roof above. I also notice a lot of small ‘gas stations’ which usually have a girl sitting on a chair and near her are a number of bottles of different sizes filled with gasoline. Richlue tells me that these small ‘gas stations’ provide gasoline on credit and are a lifeline to the yellow taxis. We pass a shop called ‘God’s Anointed Provision Store’ which made me chuckle. The religiosity of the people is evident in the shop names and vehicle license plates. Since this is election time, there are a lot of posters of different political parties on the streets. Finally, we get to the city, Monrovia.
Monrovia, named after US president James Monroe, is built on a thin, long peninsula. On one side is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side is river Mesurado. A major arterial road divides the peninsula into two, on one side is more upscale ‘beachside’ while on the other side is the downscale ‘swampside’. At the tip of the peninsula is the city proper with the ‘posh’ diplomatic enclave called Mamba Point and also a big slum called West Point on one side. Mamba point is where most of the foreigners live. My temporary accommodation is also in Mamba Point.
Monrovia and its surrounding areas house nearly 1 million people which is almost 30% of the entire country’s populations. The city center is a bustling hub during weekdays. The streets are full of roadside vendors selling everything from mobile phones, washing detergent, shoes to soda and exchanging currency. One of the roads, Benson street, has a big produce market where you can find fresh vegetables, fruit, rice, cow meat, fish, shrimp, live chicken, chicken feet etc. The shops range from building material suppliers or electrical suppliers, big grocery stores to auto repair shops and small tailoring shops.
The traffic in Monrovia is really bad. I would say it is worse than New York or New Delhi. Most of the trucks and taxis are really old and they belch out black / blue smoke in copious amounts. Shared yellow taxis are the prime mode of public transport. Indian government recently donated 25 buses and now they can be seen plying on the roads as well. Another means of public transport is motorcycle taxis i.e. a motorcycle driver who will transport you to your destination for a fee. Many of the motorcycle taxis drive so recklessly that they have gotten a nickname – ‘Suicide Bombers’.
In Monrovia, newly developed apartments and compounds are cheek by jowl with old, aging houses. These old and new constructions house the ministries, UN contingents, the expatriates working in various non-profits as well as the liberians immigrating from the hinterland in search of jobs. The city, then, is the Liberian equivalent of a melting pot.
Next week, I will talk about the people who inhabit this melting pot.