Monrovia. It sounded too exotic to be the name of a capital city in West Africa. I formed this opinion as a child listening wide-eyed as my mother and her friends traded stories of their travels to Liberia. From snippets of their animated accounts, I wove a lush tapestry of a sophisticated and advanced Monrovia where the posh and ambitious travelled to trade. With this image dancing in my head, you can imagine the frequency of my heart palpitations when on January 14th 2011, my carefully crafted plans to visit Liberia appeared to collapse with the incremental hourly delay of Air Nigeria.
When I finally landed in Roberts International Airport, I was dumbfounded. There lay the physical testimony of what 14 years of civil war can do to a country. It is a small airport with a narrow entrance. However, the breadth of land it is perched on hints to the fact that had civil war not intercepted its potential, RIA could easily have been one of Africa’s finest airports. Yet there it lay, a stark reflection of progress derailed. Please note, that my reference to the aforementioned civil war is unintentionally casual – words cannot possibly describe the gruesome brutality that was imposed on Liberians December 24th 1989, when a band of rebels led by Charles G. Taylor, invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast in an attempt to overthrow the oppressive Samuel Doe government.
As Charles Taylor’s forces,” the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), advanced toward Monrovia, they targeted people of the Krahn and Mandingo ethnic groups, both of which the NPFL considered supporters of President Doe’s government. In response to this insurgency, President Doe launched an unrelenting wave of violence against the inhabitants of Nimba County. Media reports and international human rights organizations estimated that at least 200 persons, primarily members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, were killed by troops of the Government of Liberia during the counterinsurgency campaign”.www.globalsecurity.org
With the escalation of war, several warring factions sprung up and increased the brutality. “Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and foreign investors and businessmen left the country”. But the most devastating consequence of this war is the loss of lives and the displacement of Liberians who are still trying to make sense of the carnage that befell their beautiful country”. From 1989-2003, warlords looted the rich natural resources in Liberia, they killed tens of thousands of people and shredded the social fabric of a country that used to be a vibrant economic hub in West Africa. “Oh Liberia” I murmured in a solemn trance.
“You wan taxi?” A voice boomed through my thoughts, shaking me to reality. I looked up to see a well dressed man dangling his Renault car keys at the direction of his taxi. “No ma men.” I answered in a pseudo Liberian accent; An exaggerated bravado added to mask the fact that I was a confused foreigner who could not locate the driver the hotel had sent. Lawd, where is the man who is supposed to pick me up? I was making my way to a kiosk to buy a new SIM card when I spotted a lean man carrying an exasperated expression on his face and a partially closed Manila folder in his hand. With one glance, I made out the reversed red inscription as ‘A-M-M-A’ and chuckled at the advantage of having a palindrome name. “Hi, you are looking for me!” I chirped. “Krystal Oceanview Hotel?” I continued. “Yes, yes” he responded. ” I been waiting for hours. My name is Tamba. I gon drive you to the hotel.” With that, the exasperated face gave way to an enthusiastic smile and he hauled my luggage into the trunk.
Roberts International Airport is about 1.5hrs away from Monrovia. Each side of the paved road that leads to the city is bordered by a vast stretch of rich green vegetation. If you take a moment to enjoy the view, you will catch your breath at the sight of tall Palm trees gracefully caressing the clouds, back, forth, side to side… in unison with the gentle breeze. “What a beautiful country” I gasped. Tamba smiled in agreement. Encouraged by his warmth, I asked him about the war. He had stayed in Liberia for the entire duration of the war. When things got really bad, he and his family hid in the bushes, surviving on cassava and greens. By the time brutal conflict was over in 2003, he had lost 3 children to the war. “But it is in the past” he sighed. “Liberia is coming back, we are moving forward, you wait, you will see more signs of this when we hit Monrovia”. He beamed.
Therein lies the truth of the spirit of Liberians. 15 years of war had robbed the country of infrastructural development but, it had not broken the resilient spirit of Liberians. This is the spirit fuelling signs of the new Liberia I see. The construction of new buildings, the restoration of roads and the opening of new businesses. I was looking forward to what Monrovia had to offer… To be continued