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A trip to Liberia

Published Jul 06, 2013 04:02pm


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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.


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Vaqar Ahmed is an engineer turned part-time journalist who likes to hang out at unfashionable places like shrines, railway stations and bus stops.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (38) Closed

Salah uddin Jul 06, 2013 05:43pm

You must be very naiive to think about a war-hit least country with Pakistan. This was a very disappointing comment! I dont mean to say you should compare it with Canada which embraced you, but come on, there can be no such comparison.

Hasan Jul 06, 2013 05:42pm

Very well written article I must say. I was left wondering though, did you not find anything nice about the entire trip? Tourism? ... Culture..? It seems as if your entire trip was a sackful of negatives haha.

I'd also like to mention that I disagree with the opinion that Pakistan may end up in the same state if civil war continues, Pakistani people seem to have a hidden patriot inside them that's always easy to jump to the saviour of Pakistan and I think that's the difference between us and the rest of the world. We love our country for what it is not for who it is ruled by.

Ali Jul 06, 2013 06:38pm

Wonderfully well written piece and something for Pakistanis to take lesson from

Ali Jul 06, 2013 07:09pm

If the writer could visit our far flung areas, these sceneries can be witnessed in Pakistan even now except for burned tanks. Go to swat, you will find bullet ridden buildings, go to sindh and you will see their schools or health facilities, etc. This space is not enough to summarize our miseries. But the worst thing is that we are like this because of our so called LEADERS who brought us here to this condition without any civil war, but even then there is no one to complain !

G.A. Jul 06, 2013 08:04pm

@Salah uddin: I think you are very naive to think that Pakistan cannot go down that path of civil war. Syria, Libya, Somalia and Iraq have all gone down that path in front of our eyes. Germans too were very patriotic and then Hitler put it to test.

Nisar Aryne Jul 06, 2013 09:41pm

This may be a good travelogue article on Liberia with a population of a paltry 4 mil. (equal to couple of mohallas of one of the cities of Pakistan) but there is no locus standi to compare it to Pakistan, past,present or future, with a population of 180 mil., an impressive variety of ethnicity and a history of thousands of years notwithstanding numerous other qualities.

Bharat Jul 06, 2013 09:40pm

Thank you sir,interesting read. i myself have visited 3 African countries Tanzania,Ethiopia and Uganda and they are nowhere as bad as you describe Liberia. Instead these East African countries are improving fast.

Liberia has many mineral resources but sadly it does not help the local population.

G Vishwanath Jul 06, 2013 10:02pm

Good to read. Informative. Thanks for sharing your experience. Best wishes from an Indian Engineer.

FUAD NAIM Jul 07, 2013 12:37am

Well written... But i love the last part of the Gujrati guy... But that is something to understand that you find Indians everywhere...

Razzaq Jul 07, 2013 12:46am

I totally agree with you. I fear similar situation in Pakistan before not very long.

Ashraf Jul 07, 2013 02:30am

I am also very proud of my Pakistan. In my view, we are far far better than what we are shown in local and international media.

Avtar Jul 07, 2013 03:27am

Thanks for enlightening us about Liberia. Generally, Most Pakistanis like to compare themselves with the USA. For a change, it is nice to a comparison on the other end of the scale.

irfan Jul 07, 2013 03:56am

@Salah uddin: My dear im presently in monrovia. This article is a great piece..This country is the oldest independent county in Africa(1847),a founding member of league of nations and UN..In 1960s till the begining of civil war,this country was one the thriving economies of the world.Its was 3rd largest developing economy,had fleet of merchant ship which ranked 3rd in the world.It has 1 of the biggest deposits of diamonds,rubber,iron ore,offshore oil,coal in the world. The infighting,injustice and corruption brought this country to present level..In 2013 there is no electricity,no water,commodity prices rocketing sky...Im serving in the UN and im very frankly agrreing with the writer telling you sir that if people of pakistan keep on doing whatever they are doing,it future wont be much different from that of liberia..P.S...Now there is an asphalt road to buchanan

NMA Jul 07, 2013 04:36am

Excellent (but rare) article which puts the world in perspective for Pakistanis. Unfortunately all one seems to hear and see on the local media is how messes up things are in Pakistan and then contrasts that with articles from pakistanis in the west or tv shows from abroad which makes it look like life is a breeze here.

One thing I can see from thankfully having lived in a number of countries and travelled to many more is that life in Pakistan is Alhamdullillah still very comfortable. Yes there are issues but many of the issues which Pakistanis make the biggest deal about happen everywhere (specifically in the large metropolises of the world).

I don't know the solution of all the problems the country faces but one thing I'm sure about is Pakistanis need to take an open and unbiased look at the real world and put things I'm perspective and be real thankful for what they have.

Teepu Jul 07, 2013 05:55am

I am really happy to see something written about Liberia.Its been exactly four months on this 3rd that i am here. Everything written about Liberia in this article is somewhat true but somehow i have feelings altogether different after living here. The first thing that i dislike initially was the weather humid and more humid. As soon as i stepped out side our chartered flight i felt like going back inside the plane in cool air conditioned environment.Later on , after getting used to the weather i found out it to be pretty pleasant. We ran a free medical camp here then i volunteered myself in educating Liberians with Technical education. The experience was simply awsome. Teaching is i guess, a two way process.I learnt a lot more from these people than i actually was able to teach them! These are wonderful people living in a war striken country. Poverty has actually cost them their self respect. They would ask for food ; irrespective of their age ,gender,cast or status.They would ask for food. Many a times i could not stop my tears,thinking about people in Pakistan that how Blessed we are. Over a period of time i have developed my friendships over here and now when i pass through the local community daily in the evening we exchange heartful of greetings..They simply shout PAKISTAN ! when they see me. And i wave in return. Sometimes high five with the kids waiting astride the road. Here men have a very stout body while women with mostly slim stomach but bulky looks.People love dancing here all the times. All in all its a life time experience living here,seeing culture and learning new things.One thanks Allah Almighty for all the Blessings that are being beatowed on us.

Teepu Jul 07, 2013 05:58am

Liberia is a country with 220 inches of annual rainfall and almost whole country is covered with tropical forests.It has the world's largest rubber tree plantation as well by a company called 'firestone',the mother company of 'bridge stone'.

Gurpreet Singh Jul 07, 2013 07:49am

A very nice narrative! While growing up we would always think how good America was, but I was always thankful that I was not born in those parts which always had famines and wars. It makes me feel blessed with whatever I have.

Tariq Zafar Rasheed Jul 07, 2013 11:51am

Interesting article. However, I do not think it is entirely accurate and I do not see the point of it either. I went to Liberia about seven years ago. Back then, the country was rapidly getting onto its feet and the war-torn infrastructure was being re-established. I am certain the country has improved considerably since then. If the author could only survive six weeks in the country (despite the comforts afforded to him by a multinational corporation), I doubt he will survive two weeks in interior Baluchistan, FATA or Baltistan, where developmental standards are comparable. Perhaps the author does not consider these areas to be part of Pakistan? Perhaps he is unaware that in a number of indicators (such as infant mortality), Pakistan lags behind Sub-Saharan Africa? (I refer him to the UN's annual Human Development Index.) The author's disparagement of an entire nation that has suffered one of the worst conflicts in human history (fuelled by multinational corporations along the lines of those he works for) demonstrates that he is perhaps best suited for the comforts of the West (or the air-conditioned parlours of our privileged class in the main cities) rather than the 'third' world where 60 per cent. of the world's population resides.

Tariq Zafar Rasheed Jul 07, 2013 11:53am

@Hasan: I fully agree with you, Hasan. This is like a hora coming to Pakistan and coming up with a sackful of negatives and deliberately omitting to mentions at least a few positives.

Shah Jul 07, 2013 02:12pm

You'd be thankful for Canada, that's where you live & work. This vicarious gratitude is what helps you sleep at night.

@H__3 Jul 07, 2013 02:52pm

@Hasan: I have lived in Africa and the present chaos we are going thru DOES have the potential to have similar repercussions. Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan in 80s weren't much different from Pakistan of 80s. Civil wars, religious extremism, tribal / communal conflicts destroyed their economies and entire social fabric. Time for all of us to step out of the utopia.

TAM Jul 07, 2013 03:13pm

Very unfair and out of context.

Let's compare apples with apples. Take example of Kenya and its capital Nairobi. It leaves the likes of Lahore and Karachi miles behind. Huh.

Indian Jul 07, 2013 04:24pm

If that Indian shopkeeper could survive there and was able to build his own means for livelihood (I assume he had nothing when he arrived to Liberia and its his hard work that made him an owner of a shop there), I dont think it is difficult for a common man from India or Pakistan (assuming both are almost similar people). It seems that Liberia is in bad shape for rich, or higher middle class people to live there for more than a few weeks, but a common man who earns almost the same (or may be slightly more than other Liberians) in India and Pakistan can survive there for sure. Btw I have seen a journeyman picture documentary about cannibalism in Liberia during civil war and that was pretty scary........dont worry mr. Author Pakistan has a civilized history of more than 9000 years (Mehrgarh), its too civilized to fail and go down to the level where Liberians were a few years ago.....

Tanzeel Jul 07, 2013 04:41pm

I am living in Liberia. Initially I thought this article is not worth my comments, then to put the things in correct perspective for people of Pakistan, I changed my mind. Having seem maximum rural areas of Pakistan (Sind and Balochistan in particular) and almost entire rural and urban areas of Liberia, its highly unfair to draw any equation between two countries. I consider it as an insult to Pakistan and Pakistanis. Liberia is perhaps 50-70 years behind Pakistan even in its today like conditions. Yes the only area where it can be compared (but not done intentionaly for best reasons known to the writer) are bad governance and can do/say anything and can easily get away unharmed in both fields. In all fairness, I feel writer owe an apology to Pakistan and Pakistanis for the insult caused.

Aly Jul 07, 2013 05:50pm

a-trip-to-liberia Yah, i agree the writer has been way too unfair even thinking to have compared liberia n pak, anywas he couldnt survived few days, i spent a complete yr over there, well i did lots of travelling there and evry day was an adventure, so i am thankful to my lucky stars that i came in one piece, Of course pakistan with all its problems still is better off than some war- torn West African country, As someone said if one has to wait why not wait for the good times, its not a good idea to wait for a liberia like end for pakistan

Singh Jul 07, 2013 06:37pm

Liberia is 50 to 60 years behind Pakistan? But it is Pakistanis who are running away from Pakistan to Canada and not Liberian why is it so? This shows Liberia is more livable to Liberians than Pakistan to Pakistanis.

BRR Jul 07, 2013 08:43pm

The writer visits, very much like a tourist, and then continues to make broad statements about governance, social structures, poverty, etc. He is neither qualified nor interacted / consulted enough locals over a long period of time to make these judgments. In short, this is shoddy work, and at best, some observations.

Dr.TK Jul 07, 2013 11:12pm

A very good and informative article! Well done. And indeed a timely warning for the people of Pakistan. This is what can happen after years of neglect of the infra-structure and social fabric of any society. There is nothing special about Pakistan. Or any country for that matter. Patriotism, as someone once said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel! All that we need is a bunch of decent human beings who think straight and for all humanity to set things right.

Hakim Jul 08, 2013 03:59am

@Hasan: Do you think we are the only people who love their country? Really? Is it really love how we are dealing wit/destroying it)

Rajiv Kaushal Jul 08, 2013 04:18am

@Tanzeel: I am an indian but i would agree 100% that its not fair comparison.. I am not sure if the author really wants to convey that pakistanis should be happy that there is one country less progressive than their own or he is trying to say that only places on earth you can compare pakistan to are places like Liberia... honestly even a pakistan hating indian journalist wont compare the two...

pk Jul 08, 2013 07:47am

Dont agree with everything you mentioned.

I went to liberia two years ago for a non profit project. I met with Dr Abdul Haleem Arain who is running a very successful clinic in Monrovia. He is also chairman of non profit Dr Haleem hails from tharparker Sind. There is a Shahtaj high school probably donated by Shahjat sugar mills Gujrat. When I was in Liberia I was surprised to see many pakistan flag vehciles running around in city. At that time Pakistan was leading the UN peace keeping force.

insomniac Jul 08, 2013 12:17pm

@Tanzeel: and perhaps you owe an apology to Liberia and its people for failing to reciprocate the hospitality they had offered you... instead of insulting them saying they are way behind years rather you should have appropriately pointed out that its unfair comparing countries with one another who are still working towards the path of development ... as much as you love pakistan i am sure there must be some liberian who would be equally proud of his country and would not like to be compared with any other country be it pakistan.

teepu Jul 08, 2013 12:25pm

Editor:i sent a reply about a day back.Why is it not given any space?was it not coinciding with the policy of this paper?

Bilal Jul 08, 2013 08:42pm

Vaqar Sahib, I am a fan of your writings. But this one is not up to the mark right from its premise. I have had experience of living in different countries in Africa on work related assignments. You simply can't compare any west African country with Pakistan. Even the so called developed ones like Kenya, Nigeria are ages behind Pakistan. Our country has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons in recent past. But it doesn't mean that we should be grouped in this league. Please let me clarify: I do not mean to offend the great people of these countries, I am just trying to defend my own country.

Pakistan with its education system, health system, technological advancements, security apparatus, institutions, corporate sector is light years ahead of these countries. Yes we have problems with terrorism and security, but take that out and you are looking at a middle income, strong and stable country. The only difference between Pakistan and India is security.

Jan Jul 09, 2013 12:53am

@TAM: I have been to Nairobi and comparing it to Karachi or Lahore is a joke. I am not sure what you have been smoking but I want some of that stuff too.

Rao Jul 09, 2013 08:34am

@Ashraf: Compare yourself to Somalia.....You will feel much better than comparing yourself with Liberia... People who want to improve will compare themselves with better countries so that they can aspire and work towards achieving their standards

Saurabh Jul 09, 2013 02:54pm

How about another interesting fact about Liberai : The literacy rates in Liberia(60.8%) is still higher than that of Pakistan,with a considerable gap in female literacy (56.8%)

Saurabh Jul 09, 2013 03:03pm

Also,how about one more comparison:Liberia's GDP Growth went up to 9.4% in 2007 when Pakistan was languishing around 5%. In 2011, Liberia clocked 7.3% GDP growth making it one of the 20 fastest growing economies in the world, while we all know what is happening in Pakistan. My point is, Liberia,though with a past like that, is improving.