Off to Liberia (next week.)

Friday, January 3, 2020

Since I have a couple days of downtime thanks to some surprise visa issues I figured now was a good time to share a little of what I've learned about Liberia in the months leading up to this trip. Apart from the usual resources such as the CIA world factbook, good old Wikipedia, and google news alerts, I learned a TON from Helene Cooper's Memoir The House at Sugar Beach (linked here). It was riveting and beautifully written, definitely a must-read if you are interested in this part of the world. I am currently reading her book Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which you can find here.  I've also been following this blogger to get some insight into the culture and what daily life is like in Monrovia and elsewhere in the country.

I also feel its important to say you could write an entire textbook on this nation's history and I am in no way an expert on this subject; I am just sharing the major highlights and parts of Liberia's history, culture and traditions which I've found really interesting.

While the country was founded by American freed slaves, prior to their arrival over a dozen distinct tribes with their own kings, traditions and customs lived across the region for centuries. The American Colonization Society funded the emigration of a group of former slaves to the West coast of Africa between 1820 and 1843. Although it seemed like a beneficent idea to many, most African slaves at that time had lived in the United States for generations and were not prepared to re-settle on the humid, tropical West coast of Africa. Many became sick and died; just under half survived to 1843, while the ACS continued to fund the journey until the foundation because bankrupt and essentially abandoned the existing settlements to stay afloat. The Americo-Liberians, who came to be known as the Congo, declared their independence in 1847.

From that point until 1980 the Congo minority ruled over the indigenous groups of Liberia in a government model very similar to the United States; being Congo generally meant you were wealthier than the 'country people' and had far more agency than indigenous people of Liberia (does this sound familiar?) Ongoing corruption and skyrocketing prices of basic food and supplies in Liberia led to several often-violent political upheavals between 1980 and 2003. All told 250,000 lives were lost, and many more fled the country. By 2003 much of Liberia's infrastructure was destroyed.

From 2003 onward Liberia has experienced much more stability, but still faces challenges from corruption, exploitation from foreign companies such as Firestone (here's a well-done piece by the Washington Post on the topic and another multi-part longform article from Propublica) and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.

By Sahmeditor - Own work, Public Domain,

In spite of these hurdles, Liberia is a beautiful, culturally diverse and naturally rich place with great potential for growth. While mortality rates remain very high due to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrheal illness, a training program exists at the main hospital in Monrovia, where I'll be working, to produce more Liberian-born pediatricians to tackle issues in infant and child mortality such as neonatal disease, early childhood pneumonia and malaria, and malnutrition. Some other things you may not know about Liberia:

  • Most Liberians speak English- Liberian English, which is actually a collection of creolized dialects of English. Another 30 or so languages are also spoken in pockets throughout the country by various ethnic groups
  • Liberia's people consist of 16 ethnic groups, in addition to the Americo-Liberians (Congo) and several expat groups. 95% of the population is made up pf these indigenous peoples, including Kpelle, Bassa, Grebo, and many others. 
  • Due to the influence of the Congo people who came to Liberia from the U.S. in the 19th century, much of Liberia has influences of antebellum south, from the building styles to the religious culture. 
  • Liberia has some great literature- next on my reading list is Murder in the Cassava Patch by Bai T. Moore (see the wiki page here)
  • Something else I'm looking forward to trying is the FOOD. Rice is a staple as are cassava, fish, citrus, plantains, okra, coconut and sweet potatoes. Stews are often flavored with habanero and scotch bonnet chillies (insert flame emoji here) and eaten with fufu, a combination of plantain and cassava flour mixed with water. Check out Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations on Liberia for some mouth-watering visuals (linked here)
  • Liberia had a thriving tourist industry prior to the war. With gorgeous beaches to the West and tropical mountainous regions to the East, its natural beauty landed it on Lonely Planet's list of top 10 places to visit in 2020. There's even a growing surfing community at Robertsport. So if anyone's looking to escape the snow this spring, you know where to find me. (Bonus: the USD is widely accepted!) 
That's all for now. I 

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