Rebuilding Liberia: Part I
Whoever sells barbed wire in Monrovia must be making a hell of a lot of money. They’re ubiquitous here: the solid metal and concrete fences with barbed wire on top. It’s not only expat homes and apartment buildings protected this way but also nearly all NGOs and many businesses. This is reality in the world’s fourth poorest country. Despite the friendliness and efforts at reconciliation, Liberians have not been able to trust each other since the wars.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describes the nation she leads as “a Lilliputian nation with a giant history.” I will not deny the giant history, but to call Liberia Lilliputian is pushing it a little. It may have fewer than 4 million people and be the size of Ohio, but you don’t feel that way when traveling through it. Outside of Monrovia, the country is so littered with forests that it feels like a different world. The muddy roads and Guinean Rainforest mean it takes three days to go north to south in rainy season, and going west to east is not an option until the rains end. “So many forests” from Bon Iver’s Creature Fear rings in my head as I cruise by the trees, eyeing mountains in the horizon, in my crowded Liberian taxi.
Liberians come from over a dozen Ethnic groups, and this has led to tension in the past. But all I see now are efforts at reconciliation and forgiveness. People who lost their whole family during the wars keep pushing on with hope for their country’s and their children’s future. Liberia is a country with a complicated history but the possibility of a bright future.
In many ways, I haven’t seen anything in Liberia that I haven’t seen in other undeveloped countries like Laos and Cambodia. But Liberia’s status as the world’s fourth poorest country brings everything to a different scale. You can tell how tired many Liberians are: of war, of poverty, of hopelessness. Just fifteen years ago, William Powers described countries like Liberia as part of the fourth world, one of “the black holes in the international system, the sub-third world countries that are not just poor, but environmentally looted, violence scarred, and barely governed; the places where Pandora’s box has been opened and cannot be closed.” My job is to find out whether that box can be closed.
I won’t say there’s a sense of despair here because there’s not. Most Liberians take pride in their country and what it may someday become. The resilience of the Liberian people continues to astound me. After 14 years of civil war and a massive Ebola crisis, Liberians continue to push forward with smiles on their faces. Even if their quest turns out to be Sisyphean, they will never back down.
Still, everything is not normal here. Wars do affect people, even a decade or more after.
Poverty does too. Despite Mother Teresa’s claims to the contrary, there is nothing noble about being desperately poor. As a Unicef officer said, poverty is not a lack of money, but an inability to live up to one’s potential. In middle-income countries such as Thailand, many people may lack access to savings, but most have access to medical care and the opportunity to attend school. Even in Laos, the majority (>70%) has the opportunity to become literate, and nearly all children start school. This is not so in Liberia, where estimates of literacy (not illiteracy) vary between 30 and 60%. Despite the governments’ efforts, attending school at all is a luxury, and most have difficulty paying the fees. The majority of children never attend primary school. In parts of Liberia, food security is a huge issue.
I feel hope for Liberia. Despite the abject poverty, everyone I’ve talked to wants to improve his or her life. Liberians understand the importance of education. Most people under 25 are living with their parents and going to school. Though many adult Liberians have little hope of ever becoming literate, they want their children to “know book”. In Liberia, education is not a way to move up in the world, but a way for society to function at all. Liberians know that without educated leaders, their country will go back to the hell it just crawled out of.
There’s optimism about the future here that I don’t see in the West. Liberians, especially young people, are proud of the way their country is headed, politically involved and ready for the 2017 elections, and doing their best despite the circumstances they were born into. The majority is ready and willing to make the most of any opportunity. T-shirts say “End Mob Rule. Embrace the Rule of Law.” In Thailand I saw a protest sign saying the exact opposite: “End The Rule of Law.”
The spirit of Liberia is a refreshing change from the US, where hordes of upper middle class teenagers, subliterate rather than illiterate, spend their weekends hanging out in malls, wasting the wealth of opportunities they won in the Ovarian lottery.
Every day I witness the resilience and hope of the Liberian people. Sometimes I even let myself believe that that my goal to reduce poverty through microlending is not as quixotic as I once thought.
Still, I can’t help but feel sad when I look out of my apartment window. Dozens of empty houses, once the homes of Liberian professionals, line the beach. Oceanfront properties accompanied by nice pools to match have been abandoned, with only peeling paint and bullet holes for occupants.