First Impressions of Liberia More Than a Decade Later

As Delta Airlines made its descent into Monrovia, mixed feelings swirled within me.  I was excited because I was coming home.  The memories of my life in Liberia, though marred by the civil war, reminded me of my formative and professional years.  Yet I was apprehensive because I did not know what to expect.  Although I had seen pictures on the Internet of various sites in Monrovia, I wondered what it would be like when I am finally a part of the moving, flowing mass of people going about their lives each day.  I did not have to wait long to find out what the Liberia I love and just returned to was like physically and socially.

As I cleared my bags, two of which had arrived and I had to complete paper work for the third that did not arrive with me, I expected to see an improved airport rather than what seemed like the same airport I left out of twelve years before.  Despite that, I was delighted to see my brother and sister who had come to pick me up.  The number of motorcycles had dramatically increased from the last time I remembered. It was not until we drove through Robertsfield Highway and to Tubman Boulevard that it became obvious the competition for the roads was no longer between pedestrians and cars but among pedestrians, cars, and motor bikes (“Pem-pem”).  As I watched the chaotic order of all three maneuvering in and out of traffic, I was amazed at the level of silent negotiations constantly taking place using eye contact, hand gestures and the ever expressive horn.

During the two weeks of my visit, I saw two car accidents and one “pem-pem” driver who almost ran himself into a light pole. It was clear that at times negotiations will fail.  As I drove around, I understood the assumptions of negotiations used, which included the need to share road space, show courtesy for others on the road, and respect for human life.  The method was to gradually edge onto the road and, when possible, quietly demand the right of way.  If this approach could be used on the national level, where there were mutual recognition of rights, courtesy, respect and clearly stating one’s demands while being willing to concede to others on their own rights, I believe it will also be effective, with a few accidents, of course.  After all, no system is perfect.

Another physical observation was the congestion of people in very limited space.  Apart from the “bottle necks” at certain portions of the road, such as the ELWA Junction, SKD Boulevard, Vamoma House, downtown Monrovia was tightly packed with people, all hustling and trying to make a living. I wonder if the City could be extended out a little more by a road network connecting Firestone, Harbel Junction with the surrounding areas, through Soul Cleansing, to Duport Road, Rehab Road, and Robertsfield Highway.  What about relocating some of the offices and schools to these areas?  Considering the demographic density in Monrovia at this time, it is my hope there are plans to address any health crisis.  God forbid, but if any epidemic breaks out…I don’t want to even think about it.  The best practice at this time is to have a plan in place to respond to any such crisis.

The amount of new construction was impressive. From buildings on the verge of completion to machines clearing the grounds for new construction, infrastructural development is evident.  New buildings seemed to reduce the amount of space and made the congestion appear greater.  Obviously missing were parking spaces.  Finding parking spaces on any given day was a challenge but as the number of cars increase, constructing parking garages or including parking lots in construction plans would be an asset to the development of the city.  Oh yeah, I also didn’t see parks (except in Paynesville) and other recreational facilities for children.  As we plan and develop the city, let us not forget the children and the need for them to play.  Play Therapy has become a valid form of healing, especially for children coming out of civil wars such as Liberia is doing.

Socially, the major impressions I got came from radio talk shows, walking around neighborhoods, and interacting with people.  It was interesting to discover how much of the traditional culture is expressed through most of the national consciousness and lifestyles.  One common theme in many traditional Liberian parables is wit.  Wit is the ability to show you’re craftier than the other person so that you seek to outsmart them in your transactions to get the better hand.  There is also an element of power in this. By giving people less than they are entitled to gives power to the one taking such action.  While the initial respond is to become annoyed, at another level, we can see how the traditional culture influences daily behavior in Liberia.  The temptation is to outsmart those refusing to honor just debts and take what’s yours, but do you risk showing the very qualities that irritate you or behaving like the people who spin words?  What was obvious was that “Spider” of African parables exists in many parts of Liberia, always being a little cunning and a little avaricious.

It was these same parables that helped me understand the general tone of discourse on a few of the morning talk shows I listened to.  Many callers showed a disrespect and disdain for people in authority.  This might have been the result of freedom of speech but it is important to remind the Liberian public that freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to insult others just as the religious freedom does not mean the freedom of religions to harm but to do good to others.  The hosts of the talk shows were skillful in neutralizing poisonous speech on the radio but the callers may have already given the impression people are free to insult their leaders.  There is work to do in changing this notion so that we return to the respect for our leaders.  I believe we can disagree and still remain agreeable.  Maybe this was why our ancestors used discourse sprinkled with proverbs. The great African writer, Chinua Achebe reminded us that “Proverbs are like the palm oil with which words are eaten.”

Another influence of the Liberian culture was the dynamics between traditional chiefs and visitors to the village.  It is common for people in authority to be called, “Chief”.  This may have a psychological impact in how professionals and technocrats engage their fellow Liberians and even expatriates.  Traditionally, guests to the village first offer the chief gifts as a symbol of their good intentions.  The gift says more about the guests than about the chief.  When Liberians call people in authority, “chief,” does it boost their self-image as a chief at the moment?  Can this help explain “cold water,” and “hand to hand” exchange of monetary or other gifts, tantamount to bribery and described as corruption?  This is not an attempt to justify but to understand the how social practices in Liberia are influenced by traditional cultural values.

My initial mix of excitement and apprehension quickly turned to relief as I encountered familiar scenes and met people from my past.  The physical landscape is changing.  It is my hope that city planners will remember that spaces for parking and for children to play are still valuable.  The social dynamics is what it is, dynamic.  Friendships and family ties remain intact.  Business transactions became less perplexing when I discovered how both Western and traditional cultures were fused together. The Liberia I love and returned to after twelve years was still as vibrant as ever, and I love it!

Rev. Levi C. Williams, ThD Chairman of the Board of Trustees   Levi C. Williams School System

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