This is my eighth visit to Liberia and I have seen lots of changes in the last 20 years. But this time people seem more interested than ever to ask me how I see the country. I haven’t been out of Monrovia yet, but here are a few thoughts on the capital city that I have gleaned from repeating the question back to them.
There are some signs of progress in Liberia, and people are debating politics keenly, but for many, the lack of opportunities is still holding them back. Traffic in Monrovia seems to grow and grow. And most worryingly, the cherished ‘snap’ handshake seems to be under threat!
One of my friends told me that he has trained as a Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Technician, but can’t start work because the tools he needs costs more than US$1000. Another wants to train as a carpenter, but again the price of training is too high. The old vicious circle: how do you get the job that will pay you the money to buy the skills and tools to get you the job?
It has been noticeable how much people want to talk about politics – nowadays people are concerned about corruption and about government transparency and about having people represent them in the right way, which seems to me to be huge progress.
Remember that 10 years ago, Liberia was still at war. Talking about politics then was a luxury people were not able to indulge in. Not only because there was no stability, but because saying anything the rulers/warlords objected to could land you and your family in deep trouble.
Having two successful elected governments – and a President who may soon add the achievement of being the first elected female President in Africa to leave office through the correct processes of the electoral system to her achievement of being the first elected female leader of an African country – were beyond the dreams of all but the most deluded political fantasist in Liberia.
But now you could go on the radio, I am told, and demand the President be removed from office and you would face no reprisals. In fact, people would be delighted to debate your point. Freedom of speech has made a welcome return.
Four or five years ago, I was aware of how many piles of blocks and building materials there were by the side of the roads, waiting to be used in construction. A few years later, on Tubman Boulevard and in the city centre, you could see new supermarkets, banks, car show-rooms and furniture stores, as well as smaller food stores and business centres, and this seems to be a trend that has continued.
Mobile phones took off like a rocket in the last decade and little umbrella-covered stands selling sim cards and top-up scratchcards still stand on every corner.
The Chinese took on the task of re-surfacing the road from Roberts International Airfield to the city in advance of the visit by the US President. (George W Bush, by the way, so it shows how long ago that was! I think if Obama came, there would be a riot.)
The Chinese moved onto replacing the coal tar (tarmac) on the streets in the city centre. But traffic chaos hasn’t lessened since the roads were finished. A quick look onto the street now shows how the number of vehicles has increased massively.
A recent development has been the rise of the motorbike taxi which meant you could avoid the gridlocked cars by driving through the jams on the back of a motorcycle. But after too many deaths of unskilled drivers not wearing helmets and driving without insurance, motorbike taxis (or pem-pem) have been banned indefinitely from the city’s main streets. Traffic chaos has returned and queues of people – arms out to flag down a yellow cab – line the Boulevard, especially at rush hour, when everyone is going to and from school or work.
Monrovia is constructed on two large spits of land which join via an island and surround a swamp. Because of the lack of taxis, people have begun crossing the swamp in makeshift boats to get to work. You step itno a canoe, which paddles you to a boat made from old barrels and scrap, which takes you to the other side, where you decant yourself into another canoe and so to dry land. It makes the Northern Line look like a walk in the park.
I don’t imagine many foreign NGO workers would be prepared to go to work by boat, so maybe there should be a road tax on the foreigners working for those organisations whose landcruisers and 4x4s are still a common sight in the traffic jams? Redistribute some wealth; slow down the Western-imposed pace of life; allow incomers to get know some local people by walking round on foot – not such a bad idea?
But possibly the biggest change I have noticed, and possibly the one which has saddened me most, is that the famous Liberian handshake seems to have changed. In the past, it was straightforward: shake and snap. You shook hands as normal and then snapped your middle finger with the middle finger of the person whose hand you were shaking. Done properly, the sound was like a gunshot.
Nowadays, bits of other handshakes have been interposed between the original shake and the snap. You just don’t know where you are. You’re going for the ‘finger clench’ and your ‘shakee’ is going for the ‘arm wrestle’ and before you know it, your shake has ended in limp and embarrassed silence. Not the Liberian way.
So come on, Ellen, do something about it or get out of office! This is what we voted you in for – to rebuild the country on our own Liberian traditions!