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A trip to Liberia

July 06, 2013

enter image description hereIn 2011 my Canadian company asked me if I was interested in moving to Liberia to work on a large iron-ore mining project. I knew that Liberia had suffered badly in a civil war that had lasted for over a decade and ranked very low on the human development index. I was curious to see for myself how such a country compared to my homeland Pakistan.

The preparations for my departure got underway. Soon, my arm was like a sieve from the huge number of vaccinations that I got. I was then provided a large stock of medicines for diseases ranging from malaria to diarrhoea, dysentery etc. that I was to carry with me.

I flew from Montreal to Brussels and from there took a Brussels Air flight to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

The plane landed in Monrovia at an airport that had a bombed-out appearance. The immigration room was small and congested and had the look of a busy railway station ticket counter. A huge man appeared from nowhere and introduced himself as Momo. His business card informed me that he was the “Airport Fixer” working for my company. Momo seemed to know everyone at the immigration counter and we were whisked out very speedily without any customs checking. I felt very much at home.

On the trip from the airport to the company’s guesthouse, I noticed buildings damaged by the civil war, rusting carcasses of military vehicles, and electric poles with broken power cables. Once inside the company-run guesthouse, I was told that it was not safe to venture out during the evening. There was no electricity supply and a huge generator was providing power to the building. I had arrived in Liberia.

enter image description hereLiberia has a population of roughly 4 million people, of which nearly 70 per cent live in the capital Monrovia. It is estimated that 76 per cent of the population has an income of less than US $1 a day and 52 per cent less than US $0.50 a day, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

Only 5 per cent of the population of Liberia is of American origin while 95 per cent are local Africans. The tensions between the more technologically and economically advanced American blacks and the very under-developed local population lead to a civil war that lasted from 1989 to 2003. The country turned into killing fields with more than 250,000 shot dead or hacked with machetes, a very large number fled to neighbouring countries. Almost the entire infrastructure (water, roads, power, telephone networks) was destroyed. Even today there is no main power supply system and water. Generators are the only means of power for the few that can afford it. Most of the population uses firewood and charcoal for cooking. While a democratically elected government is in place, the country is run by the United Nations that provides aid and 15,000 troops for peacekeeping.

Early the next morning I left by a four-wheeler for the port city of Buchanan, the third largest city in Liberia with a population of 350,000. The distance between the two cities is about 100 kilometres but it took us four hours to cover this distance. For the first 40 kilometres from Monrovia the road was good and it took no more than 30 minutes to cover. Then started the real journey. The remaining 60 kilometres were mostly potholes, with little semblance of road. It was truly a bone rattling experience. On the way, almost all the cars were rickety old specimens from the 1960s, bursting at their seams with people and luggage. I am still at a loss to understand how any of these vehicles ever reached their destination.

Buchanan, a port city, was once a thriving commercial centre, but is now a shadow of its former self. There is no running water or mains electricity. Only shops that have their own small generators stay open after dark. Most houses are made out of banana leaves, intricately woven to make wall panels and mud roofs. What is amazing is that these houses stand up against the incessant rains. Most of the city goes to sleep at sunset. There are a few schools run by Western missionaries. The lone bookshop in town, when open, sells only books related to religion. Men, with bodies thin as sticks, carry huge stacks of firewood on their head. The Buchanan port shows the signs of the ravages of war. Rusting, broken, half-sunk ships can still be seen in the harbour.

The Lebanese and Indians own whatever business there is in Liberia. A shopkeeper who was an Indian Gujrati provided the only lighter moment during my stay. When I asked him how he had ended up in Liberia he told me that he was selected for a job in Libya – or so he thought. When he got off the plane it turned out to be the down and out Liberia and not oil rich Libya! Since he had no money to go back he started working in Buchanan and now owned a shop. He dutifully brought me an eraser when I asked for a razor.

Medical facilities are virtually non-existent outside of the UN compounds or at the camps of some foreign companies like mine. When I had a tooth infection I had to be driven to Monrovia to the only civilian dentist available in the country. When I arrived at the clinic I found out to my astonishment that I was the only patient. Clearly, dental care was way down on the priority list for the poverty-stricken people. I also read that a European organisation had donated artificial legs to the many people who had lost their legs during the civil war. Most of those who needed them did not accept them since if they did, they would stop receiving the small disability allowance they were getting that paid for their food.

I was supposed to stay in Liberia for six months but I could not survive it for more than six weeks. Since my return from Liberia, I am thankful for having Pakistan, but at the same time fearful that civil wars and sectarian conflicts may one day bring us to where Liberia is today.