Friday, June 30, 2006

Kofi, Bubba Coming to Town

Rumor is that UN Sec-Gen Kofi Annan is coming to town next week, and that Senator Clinton's husband is coming a few weeks later. The optimist in me applauds their efforts to strengthen the Iron Lady's presidency! The pessimist in me is predicting insane traffic problems.

"What was she thinking?"

Judging from the conversations we've been overhearing in taxis over and over again in the last few days, the Iron Lady is doing a terrible job of convincing Monrovians why it was necessary to hire a foreign company to install the light poles for her new electrification initiative. As they drive down Tubman Blvd and see the laborers from Ghana at work, people can't help but wonder aloud why she couldn't find a Liberian contractor and create a few local (if temporary) jobs. Whatever her reasons, perception is everything, and people appear to perceive this decision as a giant misstep. The symbolism is heavy since this is such a visible initiative, the first big project of the new adminstration.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quality Expat Blog in Monrovia

We've seen a few others, but Jonathan's is the real thing. Unfortunately I think he's only here til the end of Summer.

Book for Expats in Liberia

Thanks to Wayne from CCF for loaning us his copy of Blue Clay People, the memoirs of a guy who ran the Liberian operations of Catholic Relief Services during the 1990's. Mendy says the book is starting to lose its luster toward the end, but the 30 or so pages that I've read have been spot-on. Especially the passage about how unconfortable it feels to have servants, househelpers and guards and gardeners, etc. Seems there's no getting around it, no matter how hard you try, but coming from the US, this system makes ya want to crawl right out of your skin. He calls Liberia a recreation of the antebellum South, in which the expat is an unwitting participant in the role of the bossman. It's an exaggeration, but I could certainly relate.

Nice Ad in The New Democrat

Three cheers to the New Democrat for its excellent coverage of events and issues in Liberia. With so much garbage in the papers, it's heartening to see such high-quality journalism on a consistent basis.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Private Power Station, Downtown Monrovia

The lack of centralized electricity delivery (coming soon!) has inspired this business, a room full of big diesel generators owned by a nearby (Lebanese?) pharmacy. The man in charge of maintenance wasn’t talking to meddlesome foreign bloggers on this day, but I think we can assume that the neighbors are paying something for their energy delivery. You can follow the spaghetti of cables out the window and along the buildings overhead, across the street and beyond.

The Typing Pool, Downtown Monrovia

In the ground floor of an otherwise abandoned 5-6 story building on Broad Street, the exterior walls have been knocked out and the place has become a giant office for individual computer owners to sell their typing, layout, printing, and graphic design services, whatever you need. Depending on the person you ask, the place used to be a bank or a construction company. They call it the Typing Pool, and it also includes a few older people working manual typewriters, as well as individual copy machine owners who just make copies. Rates probably vary, but one copy machine owner tells LL that he pays LD$60 per day for the electricity (“current” is the word here) to the owner of a big generator on the premises. If anyone is paying rent, they wouldn't admit it.

The competition is fierce, since most people are offering mostly the same services, and there’s no advertising to give anyone an advantage over anyone else. Clients are found by word of mouth, or at random off the street. Since there are no exterior walls, the group must have to pay someone to provide security at night. (Otherwise you’d see cars full of computer equipment coming into town every morning!) Smaller computer/copy centers are scattered around town, but this has to be the granddaddy. Thanks to Typing Pool typists Josh and Josh (no relation) for the information.

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment, Pt.5

A recurring series dedicated to the heroes of the informal economy. Get that paper.

Ground Pea Candy Girl

1. Wake up at 2AM(!)

2. Go to the ground pea (peanut) seller, get a heap of grand peas.

3. Buy sugar and several sheets of old newspaper from a newspaper seller.*

4. Spend an hour or two taking the shells off the ground peas.

5. Crush them into a paste until they are good and oily.

6. Add sugar.

7. Form the mixture into a long, flat loaf and let it sit for a while.

8. Cut into long slices, lay them out to harden for a while, put into a jar.

9. Sell candy on the street for LD$5 each (US$1=LD$86), wrapping each one in a shred of newspaper, and catching a nap whenever you can.

10. Go to bed a 7PM.

The candy is great, and gives you lots of protein. Thanks to 10 year old Piti (sp?) for the information. Her mom was selling fruit alongside. With her schedule, something tells me she’s not going to school.

*Will look into the supply chain of the old newspaper, which for some reason comes from Holland! We saw the same stuff way out in the Western counties, too.

The Social Club Phenomenon, Part 1: Haitai Clubs

Visited a social club this afternoon, a place where men get together to play checkers and scrabble, talk about politics and sports, and drink something called haitai. (Pron. “high-tie”.) Maybe one of our Liberian readers can school us on haitai, but the guy I talked to says it’s an herbal infusion, served hot, that “gives you the energy to talk and play scrabble with your friends.” [Wonder if the name comes from “high tea”. Hmmm.] Supposedly there’s no caffeine, but who knows. The blend I drank was called remix, which is haitai with copious amounts of fresh ginger and sugar, and maybe powdered milk. It looks like greenish coffee, tastes great.

The guys don’t bet on the scrabble games; I asked. The man in charge of this particular social club is called Papa Alpha, who seemed to command great respect from behind his battery of thermoses. “We take care of Papa Alpha, and he takes care of us,” said one well-dressed self-described hustler, “currently at the Ministry of Finance”, as he enjoyed his remix.

Some of these clubs have soccer teams that play against each other on weekends, but are not part of the Liberian Soccer Association. Some of the people here pay membership dues, some don’t. At 2 in the afternoon, the place was absolutely jammed with young men, some university students, some not, yelling about Ghana’s World Cup loss and other topics. Thanks to Papa Alpha for the free cup of remix.

Apartment Building, Broad Street, Monrovia

The most spectacular of the squatted buildings downtown. There's a giant stream of water pouring down from the top floor onto the sidewalk, suggesting the presence of a big pump somewhere. The bottom floor is mostly informal retail.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Visit to the Pot of Ice

If you listen to, well, anyone, they will tell you that the postal system in Liberia does not function. But apparently someone forgot to tell the people at the Pot of Ice in downtown Monrovia at Ashman and Randall Streets, where a staff of seven or eight people appeared to be working cheerfully. We were told that it is indeed possible to receive a letter from the exterior, as long as you have a P.O. box. The rental comes to approximately US$10/yr. Further, we were told that a letter takes about 7-10 days to reach the US, and costs about US$1. We will rent a box and post the address ASAP!

Inside the Pot of Ice are lists of people who haven't paid their box rental, people who have packages waiting for them, and many other lists written diligently in pen. The lists outside the Pot of Ice are much more popular, especially the ones telling you whether you have qualified for the US or Canadian visa lottery.

[For what it's worth, the Ledger encourages Liberians to stay home and participate in the rebuilding of their country!]

"Robert Kelly is our pied piper."

The words of a Monrovian in his 40's, referring, of course, to R.Kelly. His friend said he preferred Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams. Can someone school me on this, did R.Kelly mention Liberia in a song lyric? That's what I heard.

Young people are crazy about 50 Cent to a degree that I would have a hard time overstating. Also big on the radio are Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Nelly, Usher, Sean Paul, and--although we have yet to hear him on the radio--Eminem posters are commonly seen in shop windows. Lots of new dancehall reggae comes out of cars and speakers on the street, and we have heard soca, even. (Editor's note: this website condemns soca.)

In our experience, Liberians tend to enjoy lots of 80's and 90's syrupy ballads from the US: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Luther Vandross, Celine Dion, and the like, as is their right.

Go Ghana Go

Shout out to our buddy Rio, a Liberian student of Public Administration who's stuck at home studying for an Accounting test tomorrow. He may be the only person on the African continent who's not looking for a TV to watch the Ghana-Brazil match today, and that includes the President of Liberia, who made a public pronouncement that she was taking an early day to catch the game.

About half an hour ago, I witnessed a group of older guys in downtown Monrovia screaming at a kid who was dumb enough to try to sell Brazil jerseys door-to-door. Their allegiance will change if Ghana loses, but for now, this 25% of the world's population stands firmly behind their Black Stars.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Refugees SOL, Reconstruction Funds On the Way

The US is terminating its refugee resettlement program for Liberians, and so is the UN, for lack of funds, "except for rare and exceptional individual cases."

Seems that the 150,000 Liberians living in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone (many of whom were waiting for a third country to take them in) are going to have to either stay put or come home, unless the international community coughs up some more dough for UNHCR. Of course, many of those people don't have the resources to get themselves home even if they wanted to, and their long-term presence in neighboring countries presents a host of problems.

Aunt Ellen has said that Liberians should come home and participate in the rebuilding of the country. We second that! Too many foreigners (like us) are here doing jobs that Liberians should be doing themselves. So, to all you Liberian doctors, lawyers, and engineers driving taxis in Western capitals: Your country needs you!

Speaking of rebuilding, for the first time in 20 years, the World Bank has committed funds ($30m, in a grant, not a loan) for reconstruction of roads and other infrastructure [thanks David] and the US has pitched in with $50m. I guess the Iron Lady's detractors can shut up about her spending too much time abroad without re$ult$.

TRC inaugurated

Lots of discussion of the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the radio this AM. This is a process pioneered in South Africa to help society move forward and deal with the atrocities of the past. It's separate from a war crimes trial, where people are punished. In a TRC, people get immunity from punishment as long as they come clean about what they did. It's a chance for the laundry to be aired with the whole world watching, in such a way that nobody feels threatened. From the sound of some of the callers on the radio this morning, the TRC has a big job to do in calming public fears about its motives.

In other news, the Iron Lady's doing a ceremonial installation of a light pole this afternoon.

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment: Pt. 4

A recurring series dedicated to the heroes of the informal economy. Get that Paper.

Nail Salon

1. Buy a set of press-on nails and an assortment of nail polish colors.

2. Paint the press-on nails different colors, and glue them onto a small board.

3. Attach board to a small box or basket, fill box with nail polishes and polish remover.

4. Approach women on the street, asking if they want their nails polished.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Random Pics

[There appears to be no logic to Blogger's photo layout interface.] Lizard egg, our house, security measures atop our compound's walls, and a couple of nearby signs.

Radio in Monrovia

Incomplete guide to the FM dial in Monrovia. Haven’t found any AM stations. Outside Monrovia, the pickings are slim. Out West in Grand Cape Mount on a recent Saturday, we couldn’t find one station on the FM dial.

  • Sky Radio 107FM (Newish R&B and hip-hop, reggae, and local information. Definitely the station of choice for taxi drivers and young people. The DJ’s do lots of shout-outs. Strong signal all over town. Lots of commercials for phone companies.)
  • BBC (103-ish on the FM dial.)
  • UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) Radio 92FM? (Some excellent stuff, some irresponsible stuff, lots of pro-govt content, lots of civic education, interviews with various government officials explaining the process, trying to be/appear transparent, lots of coverage of the Taylor trial process, strong signal, overall better than expected.)
  • Love 105 FM (“Your stress-free music station.”)
  • Radio Advent (Christian, new, haven’t heard it. They broadcast live local choirs on Sunday mornings.) 93.7FM
  • STAR Radio (A vital local information station with shows like “Ask the Expert” for social and personal problems, random shout-outs, tons of announcements of births, deaths, missing persons, etc, and this cool show called “I Remember”, where they interview old people to get random stories about the past. On one show, called “The Visit”, they go into to a home, business, or institution and just ask someone to show the reporter around. The episode I heard, they toured a community college. Right now they are playing messages from displaced people who are looking for relatives and friends. Who funds this station?)

As for smaller stations, the US NGO MercyCorps tells the Ledger that they’ve helped to set up more than twenty low-watt stations all over the country, some of which are on the air more often than others. Their budgets are extremely small. These stations cover mostly local stuff in far-flung villages. They have an association called Association of Liberian Community Radios (ALICOR). Full disclosure, since writing this, I have taken a short-term contract working with MercyCorps and ALICOR.


Here’s a probably-not-exhaustive list of the local newspapers, most of which are tabloid-size, 4-10 pp., and openly opinionated.

  • New Vision (Decent, kinda slim, but good social agenda)
  • The Analyst
  • The Inquirer
  • The News (Nice, level-headed, has a regular column on accounting issues(!), keeps an educated eye on finance stuff.)
  • The New Democrat (Firm but relatively fair on the govt, this is the fanciest of the local papers, and the one with the most content. Some excellent stuff in here. Recommended.)
  • National Chronicle
  • Daily Observer (Seems pretty even-handed, good social agenda, Education page, Enviro stories)
  • Heritage (Real hard on Ellen, reactionary, at least the issues we’ve seen. Printed a puff piece on the Firestone company on the very day that the others were reporting Firestone scandals. Hmmm.)

There’s also at least one all-sports paper, not listed here. Newspapers are printed on pink, blue, yellow, green or white paper, some of them depending on the day. They all cost the same, L$20, or about US$.35. Papers are supported at least in part with ads for local-hire UN jobs, requests for bids on construction projects, ads for cell phone companies, ads for shipping services and the like. Lots of ads are taken out by private citizens to celebrate birthdays, graduations, etc. A full page ad costs about $200US, smaller ones much less. Some of these papers probably get funding from international NGOs, in the interest of fostering debate.

Lots of personal axes are ground in these pages! Letters to the editor consistently call for the president to “do something” about Liberia’s problems. Many readers, editorials, and op-eds complain that the US is not doing enough for the country, while others want to limit outsiders’ involvement.

Some of these papers have a web presence at Not sure if their web content matches the print versions. If you’re visiting Monrovia and looking for newspapers, try the front porch of the Mamba Point Hotel, early.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Timber Sanctions Lifted

Unanimous vote in the UN. Diamonds is next, but it may be a while off. For better or worse, the international community is demanding that diamonds be certified by a process which requires a ton of expensive infrastructure.

Mr. Taylor goes to Holland

Former President Charles Taylor has arrived in the Hague. On the BBC they say that people in Liberia and Sierra Leone are divided over whether he should be tried in Europe or Africa, but our unscientific poll of Liberians finds them happy it's happening in Europe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Poles are up!

We can report visual confirmation of electrical poles installed in Monrovia this AM, in some cases right next to the old ones.

Monday, June 19, 2006

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment: Pt.3

A recurring series dedicated to the heroes of the informal economy. Get that paper.

Cheese puff sub-retailer

1. Purchase large bag of cheese puffs (i.e. Chee-tos), and a bunch of small plastic bags.
2. Parcel out 6 cheese puffs into each plastic bag, and tie off with a tidy knot.
3. Go door to door selling packets of 6 cheese puffs for L$5.00.

Bootleg Home Depot Store in Monrovia

Pretty bold clone, right down to the diagonal logo! Lebanese-owned chain, all over Monrovia.

The Poles are Coming, the Poles are Coming!

Can’t provide photo evidence, but Ledger staff did witness the delivery of brand-new wooden electrical poles on UN Drive on Sunday. Guys in new rubber boots and fluorescent vests were taking the 25-foot poles (by hand!) from a giant flat-bed and placing them on the sidewalk where they’re to be installed. This is big news, as the local media are clamoring for some results of the Iron Lady’s promise to have the city electrified within 150 days. Only about 30 days left. She’s asking for patience.

Converted Wheelbarrows, Vol.2

Soundsystem /cassette store. You can hear them coming from blocks away.

They have manatees here?

Turns out they do! Or did, at least.

We saw some unhappy primates for sale on the road back from Robertsport over the weekend. Also saw a guy hawking parrots in Downtown Monrovia. [Insert parroting hawks joke here.]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Wish the US Press Would do This

This has been brewing for a couple of weeks. The Liberian journalists' union refuses to cover the president. They accused the state police of harassment of the media a couple of weeks ago. At that time, the president issued a strangely-worded statement that led some (me) to believe that she doesn't have complete control of the state police apparatus.

Monrovia's own White House

Walking around yesterday, I found the building that everyone says was modeled on the White House. It lies at nearly the highest point in Monrovia. There's a big metal globe thing on top, like a smaller, rustier version of that globe at Flushing Meadows, the one that's inside the gatefold on Licensed to Ill. Someone with official looking flags on his car started hissing at me when I brought out the camera, so I only got one pic. The place is covered with Masonic symbols. A local guy walking by didn't know what the place is called, but he said they used to have lots of government functions there, and that it became an IDP camp during the war. Given the shape it's in now, I'm suprised nobody's squatting it now. There are few doors and windows left, and one of the statues was leaned against a wall, having fallen off its base. All stone construction, really neat and decayed. The day I was there, the sweeping staircase inside was decorated with balloons as if there'd been a wedding.

Converted Wheelbarrows, Vol. 1

The little pocket on the side holds pieces of newspaper to wrap your grilled meat snack in. Note the little exhaust pipe. The top deck is used as a cutting board for onions.

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment: Pt. 2


Britain says it will Jail Charles Taylor if Convicted

That was the last condition for the Court in the Netherlands to agree to take the case. It's good news, although some have argued convincingly that the case should be tried in Africa, just to show that the era of impugnity for war crimes is over.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Early Liberian History Resources

Via our good pal Eddie Becker, some fascinating stuff on the contemporary politics in the days when Liberia was being founded, and the whole colonization movement in the US.

...the Afro-American community was not very enthusiastic about the project. In 1817 three thousand blacks crowded into the Bethel Church in Philadelphia and, led by Richard Allen, vehemently criticized colonization. They charged that the Society's propaganda only served to increase racial discrimination since it stressed the poverty and ignorance of the freedman and claimed he was doomed to continue in his filth and degradation because of his natural inferiority.

(BTW, Eddie was a pioneer in the use of the web to chronicle the history of slavery and racism, and he gives a mean walking tour of endangered historic slavery sites in DC.)

Addendum the post about the market stall, below. The cement-looking stuff for sale was clay, for pregnant women to eat. The practice is called geophagy. Certain parrots do it, too. (IJQ.)


The three most important safety rules in Africa*:

1. Watch the cars.

2. Watch the cars.

3. Watch the cars.

*With thanks to Will Masters

There are lots of crazy vehicles here, especially taxis with colorful religious or inspirational slogans professionally painted on the back bumper.

Most Monrovians appear to travel by taxi and small van. [Actually, scratch that. Most Monrovians travel on foot.] Auto traffic in town moves slowly, not so much because of gridlock but because of the many potholes. Horns are honked incessantly, since many (most?) cars are taxis trolling for riders to stuff into the back seat. If you can find an empty one, a taxi ride by yourself of about 2 miles will cost you a little less than US$2, which ain’t cheap by Liberian standards. For that price, the driver will not pick anyone else up along the way, and you can watch the jealous taxi-flaggers as you go by. If you don’t mind riding with 2-8 other people, the ride will be cheaper and much slower. The cabs themselves are generally in abysmal condition, with dead shocks, holes in the floor, no seat belts, and many missing or broken parts. Luckily they don’t go very fast! Taxis in Monrovia are controlled by four Liberian-owned companies, according to one driver I had recently.


Much construction and building improvement is in evidence all over town, but Monrovia is still a hodge-podge of inexpensive wood-pole shanties and squatted larger concrete structures.

The main construction material in Liberia is a long wooden pole about the diameter of the thick end of a baseball bat. These poles are harvested from some species of long straight tree, which come as long as 20 feet. A typical family home is constructed of these poles, with a roof made of corregated tin, or a tarpaulin. Market stalls are constructed in a similar way. Stalls are stripped bare every night, so that an empty market area at night looks like a big empty one-story scaffold. In central Monrovia, there’s an outdoor wood shop selling only these long poles in various lengths. A team of workers sits around all day stripping the bark and branches off, prepping the poles for sale.

Another favorite construction material is the square panel of woven "cane" (pictured) which is used to build fences, screens, siding for homes, ceilings, you name it.

Luckier Liberians inhabit concrete and cinderblock structures. The central city features hundreds of buildings of 3-6 stories or more, in various states of disrepair. Even right downtown, many families are squatting (maybe renting?) abandoned commercial buildings, creating makeshift apartment buildings. Sometimes they build wood pole houses inside of concrete structures. It’s not unusual to see smoke from cooking fires streaming out of what was once a tidy government or commercial office building. These dwellings often also function as mini-malls in the daytime, where mothers and children sell roasted peanuts, fruit, or various inexpensive sundries. Often a hole will be punched in one side of the building to accommodate the exhaust pipe from a diesel generator, power cords and naked lightbulbs strung over the poles.

The reclamation of squatted properties will be a big challenge for the government as the economy starts to bounce back. Another one for the list.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Executive Mansion

Folks have asked for pics of the Executive Mansion, but photography is prohibited over there. So here's a muddy image from the web. Last night when we drove by, there were about 100 women in matching green gowns and headscarves waiting to present a petition to the president. Their signs said they represented a union of farming women.

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment: Pt.1

A recurring series dedicated to the heroes of the informal economy. Get that paper.

Become a Butcher:
1. Save up enough money for a pack of hot dogs.
2. Open hot dogs.
3. Go door to door all day yelling "Sausages!", selling individual hot dogs for mothers to dress up the evening rice dish with a little meat.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Liberia is the size of Tennessee, with about 2 million fewer people (3.5 million total). It’s about 45% urban, which is kinda high for West Africa, but just below the world average. That might be a little too high, ‘cause the history of successfully developing countries shows that they need real strong rural development before the (essential) stage of urbanizing begins. Food security leads to economic specialization leads to trade leads to growth. C’mon growth!

As in the rest of West Africa, Lebanese businessmen have been pioneers of import commerce. Here they’ve set up restaurants, import/export companies, and a brand new supermarket where you can get Italian prosciutto, South African peanut butter, and decent Spanish wine (at just under New York City prices, which 98% of Liberians can’t afford), as well as sundries like miniature motorcycles. Most of the retail outlets of any size downtown (construction supplies, electronics stores, generator shops) have Lebanese 20-somethings manning the front counter. “They’re in a competition, the Chinese and the Lebanese, to see who can get a tighter hold on commerce,” somebody said. And you can’t blame them for trying; in the words of a very busy Liberian-American computer repair technician, “There’s nobody else here who can do this stuff. It’s virgin territory.”

To the extent that foreign businesses are hiring locals, enriching families, and transferring skills and technology, everyone wins. But let’s just hope that some of the money stays in the country. One Lebanese businessman tells the Ledger that it’s “too easy” to open a business here, admitting that businesses like his are just too much competition for local entrepreneurs. It’s a tough balance to make, especially in a place like this that needs all the services it can get. Local NGOs are angry that Lebanese companies get so many of the contracts to work with the international NGOs. At this early stage after the war, while local people and firms have cash little to invest, a great percentage of economic activity is driven by contracts from the UN and iNGOs.

People who’ve been here a while say they’ve seen amazing changes in the few years since the end of the war. Formal and informal economies are springing to life (which we’ll write about often). On the main drag of UN Drive you find wicked hand-painted signs for haircuts and “Beauty Saloons”, clothes, currency exchange, and other services. Tin shacks called “Business Centers” abound, the name seeming to mean something akin to “little store”. Young guys push modified wheelbarrows selling cassettes, DVDs, and CDs, or brooms, mops, and brushes from China. There’s no shortage of injection-molded plastic buckets, plungers, and dishpans, marbled white and purple or orange. Some established businesses post signs like “NO SELLING ANY TIME” to keep away the vendors of caramels, batteries, and phone cards, but they’re just wasting paint, at least until the city can get a real constabulary up.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Waiting at the guard post of a big NGO headquarters the other morning, the Ledger witnessed a local vendor arriving to deliver breakfast to the two guards on duty. He handed over a couple of small, tight plastic bags to each guard, each about the size of half a banana, tied with a tight knot. One bag contained a handful of red-skinned shelled peanuts and the other was full coffee! You could see the undissolved sugar at the bottom of the bag, the package looking like a big brown Otter Pop.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Phones, Ports

Cell phone towers are being erected in far-out counties, which is great when your partner’s job has her driving out to the boonies all the time. There are no telephone land lines in the country. A SIMM card costs $5, and service comes via scratchcards, available in many denominations from street corner “business centers”, where you can also pay to charge your phone, which must come in handy to the vast majority of people who have no electricity. There’s a major war for first-time customers between the different phone providers, so the radio commercials are incessant and the billboards are everywhere.

Our foolproof one-source snap judgment parachute journalism method reveals that corruption at Liberian ports is much reduced under the new administration. One resident alien merchant tells LL that he used to be able to vastly under-report his bill of lading when importing a shipping container, and then pay the ports people not to open it on arrival, but nowadays that’s no longer possible. “At least for now,” he says. This guy says he thinks that in general, corruption is waning, or at least changing form, but that things may get worse again soon. He’s accustomed to being shaken down by people claiming to represent one ministry or another, who approach him claiming that some piece of his business paperwork was incorrectly submitted or whatever. This kind of thing is now happening less often, he says.

(FYI The Box is new book on the history of the shipping container and the impact that containerized shipping on the global economy.)

US wants to end UN arms embargo on Liberia

There are a couple of things going on with this issue. If the UN (and the US) is ever going to get out of here, Liberia needs to build a military. They are making the force a small and light one, trying to get women and educated people involved. The government doesn't have control of the whole country yet, even. And Aunt Ellen is not yet safe, which means Liberia is not safe. (The old me would say that it's also a way to make sure that US aid money comes back to the US in the form of arms sales. But the Ledger tries not to be so cynical.)

The Capacity Problem

...wherein the Ledger gets real wonky on ya. Bear with us.

Thanks Ama for this item from Human Rights Watch about Liberia not signing on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We don't know the issue in question, but we do know that Liberia is being deluged with all these well-meaning groups pushing their own particular (and important) agendas. Not to defend too much, but the government must be overwhelmed. Your humble editor's own wife has worked on important issue campaigns like this, where her group has decided not to push too hard right now, knowing that the Iron Lady does not have the time or the people to cope with them now. Domestic pressure on her is massive, too. She goes on a trip to beg for money, and the local papers accuse her of spending too much time abroad.

Keep in mind that "human capacity" here is extremely low, owing to the fact that a whole generation (almost all 18-35 year olds, for example) didn't get educated because of the war. It's really hard to find a Liberian international legal expert, for example, who could take on the project of dealing with the this Convention. Most educated Liberians moved abroad long ago, and are only now starting to come back. Concequently you can rest assured that an iNGO like HRW itself has much better capacity (and re$ource$) than does the govt here. [Conspicuously, the US hasn't signed it either, if memory serves, so that may have something to do with it, too. It may be a way for Liberia to buy favors from the US in the UN. Slap us if we're wrong about this. ]


Human Rights Watch Women and Children (HRWWC) has challenged Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf saying that her administration has failed to prioritize mandatory free primary education for every child as it agreed to do when becoming a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, reports The Analyst May 24. A statement issued by the group said, "The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989 and came into force on September 2, 1990. The main purpose of the adoption of this International law was for the survival, growth, protection and development of children, the World over." The human rights group noted that Liberia was represented among seventy-one heads of state and government and eighty-eight other senior government officials during the world's largest gathering in Washington D.C., United States of America, when the CRC was adopted. Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "States parties recognize the rights of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall in particular, make primary education compulsory and available free for all the children." Although the government is only three and a half months old, the group suggests that Sirleaf's administration is failing to make children's rights one of her government's priorities. "In gross violation of this International Law, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has neglected Article 28 of this law by failing to add it to her priority listing," the group claimed. The Human Rights Watch Women and Children says there is increase in teenage pregnancies, the number of street children, child labor, prostitution and a proliferation of sub-standard orphanages and child adoption agencies in Liberia, all of which it blames the government for, the Analyst reports.

We should add that The Ledger has come into possession of a preliminary draft of the document that's supposed to lead to Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which--for those of you who aren't total nerds--is an essential document for all developing countries to write these days if they want funding from international donors. It's a government's plan for how to get out of poverty, basically, usually written by, oops, we mean with the assistance of, the World Bank, IMF, and UN. Having chugged a good deal of Jefferey Sachs koolaid here at the Ledger, the LL Editoral Board must wag a finger and say that Liberia's PRSP does not appear to be based on fulfilling the UN Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are mentioned only in passing in the document we have seen. This matters because such goals as saving children (as the Convention on the Rights of the Child aims to do) would be a hell of a lot easier to achieve if the MDGs were met.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

3 great things about moving to Liberia from the US

1. You can pay for most things in US dollars, at least in Monrovia. (The Liberian dollar is the official currency. L$54 : US$1)

2. Most people speak English as their first language. (And one or more of 16 local languages.)

3. Liberians love the USA.

Rap Lyrics

There’s a brand new local rap track playing on Sky Radio, “A Letter to the President” from a Liberian called Alonzo Abassi (sp?) in a mid-90’s 311/B.I.G. keyboard slowjam style. Cheesy, but it represents a big show of support for the Iron Lady. Some lyrics:

To Her Excellency Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf/Iron Lady/Hello Ma’/ What we need is a change/We’ve been treated like slaves for so long/by these fake politicians/Just keep your head up/do your thing and take us to the top/You can make it, Ma’/’cause Liberians got your back/we trust you, that’s why we voted for you

Tires, Trees

Firestone, the US Tire company, which has a looooooong history extracting rubber in Liberia, is being accused by a (local?) human rights group of maintaining its own extralegal jail system and meting out “justice” under its own rules. Firestone wouldn’t comment in the story. The paper makes it seem as if this is not an isolated incident. Will learn more.

A few of the papers are outraged at the NGO Global Witness for recommending to the UN that timber sanctions against Liberia be maintained. It’s a huge deal because timber is one of Liberia’s biggest sources of income, Liberia is like US$3b in debt, and everyone thought that the sanctions would be lifted under the new regime. Former president Charles Taylor, now under international war crimes indictment, used mostly timber sales to fund the 14-year civil war, prompting NGO’s to label it “blood timber”.

P.S. One of the guys who helped get the timber sanctions imposed in the first place (thus help bring Taylor down) just won the Goldman Environmental Prize last month. There’s a neat little movie about it here. [Thanks David.]

Report from a Roadside Market Stall in Monrovia

These food stalls are the main source of groceries for most Liberians, so they seemed like something worth looking into. Thanks to the patience of teenage shopkeeper Joseph, who described some of the products he had on sale, and allowed the photo.

Most of the food is sold in sizes enough to make a single rice-based meal for a small family. Large cans are opened and parceled out into small plastic packets that people can better afford. While we were on the scene a young woman appeared with her plastic kitchen tub and proceeded to select just enough of a few items (peppers, okra, yellow rice, a small fish head, and a shallot) to create dinner. She argued about the price for a minute, but Joseph charged us both the same, so his margins are probably wafer-thin. The vegetables and fruits are all much smaller than we’re accustomed to in the developed world, likely being heirloom varieties grown without chemical fertilizers.

Foods: some kind of yellow tomato-like fruit, onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, several kinds of peppers both fresh and dried, Maggi cubes (MSG), canned mackerel, tomato paste, canned sardines, small chunks of very ripe local fish in a plastic jar covered with a bowl, okra, limes or lemons, imported rice, local rice (more expensive, held in higher regard), small bags of rock salt, small bags of peanut butter for sauce, and several dried and fresh spices. Bottom right in the photo you can see pinkish kola nuts, which are broken apart and chewed to produce a mild caffeine-like high, reducing hunger. Right behind the kola nuts are these big grey and black chunks that look like concrete, though Joseph said the substance was “for eating”. [Anyone know what that might be?] In the bottles are cooking oil, hot sauce (?) and some kind of alcoholic drinks.

Sundries: ball-point pens, AA batteries, balls of homemade (?) soap for clothing, matches, chewing gum, hard candies, and some very small packets of powdered soap.

One head of garlic, four limes, and a small onion came to L$35, (or about 3/4 of a US dollar). Per capita income is $2/day, or so.

Uncle Liberia Wants You

Women were being recruited into the new army on Monday. (Thanks Jamie) That would explain the pro-military drama for women on UN radio the other day. BBC says the new AFL (Armed Forces of Liberia) will be less than 3000 persons, down from 14,000 at the height of the war.

Overheard Liberian Greeting

Man: “Hey-o. How the money coming?”

Woman: “Hey-o. Money coming fine.”

Monday, June 05, 2006

Jackie’s Adventure

UN Radio is playing a radio play in Liberian English called “Jackie’s Adventure” right now. The characters are in the military, and there’s a competition between squadrons to climb a wall for a five gallons of ice cream. The commander character has an American accent, which makes sense because there are US trainers here now. Jackie Gibson is a savvy and headstrong woman, confident and encouraging to her male counterparts. She helps a guy finish the race who was stuck, even at the cost of coming in second herself. Theme song: “She’s a lady/a woman soldier/with no illusions/I’m ready to serve my country.”

Will put together a survey of the media here soon. I have seen some 6 different newspapers so far. They are crazy hard on the Iron Lady already! I heard a short message from her yesterday on what must have been state radio, and I don't want to take sides or anything, but she was saying some pretty inspiring things about how to reconcile the divisions in society, supporting the truth and reconciliation process that's just now unfolding.

Trust the Truth

Yesterday we got a Land Rover ride 3 hours northeast of Monrovia, a town called Gbarnga. (Lots of silent G's in Liberian place names.) Saw lots of UN checkpoints on the way, though security is pretty loose. Some of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi peacekeepers are filling potholes in the road, which is great, cause the road is like, jilznacked! [But supposedly the best road in Liberia.] Such projects must do a lot to curry favor with the communities along the road.

We streaked past a number of former IDP (internally displaced persons) camps and refugee camps, some of which are still partially occupied. The huts mostly have blue and white UN tarps over the thatched roofs. In older settlements going away from Monrovia, mud brick homes are painted with tan, black and whitish natural pigments, decorated with inky handprints and other spots.

Last night we got all sweaty on the dancefloor with a bunch of crazy social workers, who brought along about 900 beers (for the record, it was Guiness in big bottles, Becks, Heineken, and the local version of Club Beer, which doesn't taste much like the Club you get in other countries) and a water bottle full of what they call egg nog.

Our intelligence revealed this morning that the nog is made of whiskey, eggs, and sugar, but it tasted like something from another planet. The party was great, not least because the organizers had printed up 2-page programs of the night's events! ["It's always like that," says an expat source.]

On a side trip to see a lovely waterfall at the end of a terrible road (a dry creek, really), our car allegedly ran over a big domesticated duck, and boy howdy was the owner woman angry at our driver, Sam. The village chief was extremely rational and worked it out for us somehow, in spite of the irate woman waving the bloody flattened duck around. It's likely that duck represented a big chunk of her income and/or caloric intake, through the eggs and the meat.

Some of the many many many remarkable signs seen along the road:
"Only Dogs Pe Pe Here!"
"God's Business Center"
"God is Alone"
“Put a Stop to Mob Violence!”
"Trust the Truth"

Lil’ Help?

Your editor is starting a collection of African political t-shirts. Feel free to donate! Also looking for pieces of African fabric that’s printed with political patterns, especially pictures of candidates. This is a non-partisan collection. So far in Liberia we’ve seen a George Weah shirt and one other presidential candidate. No Ellens yet. We’re tackling the first person who walks by with an Ellen t-shirt. Shoulda brought shirts from the US to trade. I wish I had scored a Fradique de Menezes shirt in Sao Tome & Principe! (For those that care, word on the street is that now he’s gone over to the Dark Side, high on that Texas Tea.) STP readers, hook us up! Any condition is fine.

Hella Sick Site

Big up to Beckler and her mighty Heckasac page for inspiring this humble Ledger. And for keeping the world abreast of Sacramento happenings, of the kind that matter. Blog of the Year. Beemah!

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Day 3, Monrovia. Lots of rubble downtown, but it's mostly from the age of the buildings, and the weather. Light poles are being delivered in the next few weeks, they say. The Iron Lady is trying to bring back electricity on an accelerated schedule, but it’s not going as well as she had promised.

Security is an issue, though it’s okay to walk around in the daytime. Barbed wire in great overlapping loops surrounds the walls of any building with anything of value inside, including the house where we’re staying, Mendy’s place of work, and many concrete structures. The UN compound is surrounded with ten-foot tall concrete blocks.

Lack of any real sewage system means the sickly sweet tang of human doo-doo is all around. But that’s only outdoors. Unless you open the window.

And yeah it’s hot and sweaty. We’re just 6 degrees north of the equator!

Sometimes, where many English speakers would say, “Nice to meet you,” Liberians will say, “Thank you very much.” Kinda sweet!

Then there’s the handshake, which is a normal handshake until the end, when you slide back, pull your middle finger off of the other person’s middle finger, and snap! A Kenyan guy told me that the snap is a little symbol the Americo-Liberian triumph over slavery in the US. Can’t confirm that, but it sounds good.

People share the sidewalks with rainbow-colored lizards the size of big pickles. Smaller, less colorful lizards dart in and out of every culvert and cranny. The earth is red and any open patch is green with plant life.

UN Drive is the main road in town, “the only paved road in Liberia”, they say, bustling with overburdened taxis and mopeds (“ping-pings”). Muddy white UNIMOGs and Land Rovers carry giant antennae on their bumpers and air intake pipes on the roof, with UN or some NGO markings on the doors. Police and army uniforms are here from all over Europe and Africa, with only the light blue hat to tell you they’re one of the 15,000 peacekeepers.

For the first couple of weeks, we’re staying in a swanky compound next to the beach, “the nicest place to live in Monrovia,” according to the director of a prominent UK NGO. Then we’ll be moving into a more humble group house.

All electricity including ours comes from diesel generators, so we get about 2 hours of power in the morning and another six hours or so at night. Wake up, generators humming. Go out to eat, generators humming. Walk into a store, generators humming. It sounds like this: “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm!” A Kenyan friend tells us, “When I leave Liberia for another country, at first I have to wonder why it’s so quiet all the time. Then I realize it’s the lack of generators!” Diesel fumes and human ca-ca create the musk of redeveloping Monrovia. [But not for long! The Ledger is not a defeatist publication. –Ed.]


If history is any guide, in a couple of weeks I'll be embarrassed to read these early posts, cringing at how green I was when I first got here. On the other hand, this is the best time to put down details, before you forget to keep stating the obvious about what you're seeing.

Yeah, I am still unemployed. But it’s only been 3 days. Get off my back!