Friday, December 31, 2021

Our Africa Moves: #7 di bodi's fine in Sierra Leone!

 “How di bodi?” has to be our favourite greeting of all time. 

While cruising around the towns and villages of Sierra Leone - or “Salone” as the locals call it - we were asked this countless times. We would use one of the following common responses:

“Bodi fine!”   

“Noh bad!” 

“Tank God.”

Telling strangers that we had “fine bodies” brought smiles to our faces - and so theirs - every time.

With our newly acquired smattering of Liberian pidgin, it was not too hard to pick up the Sierra Leonean pidgin - called Krio (“Creole”) - despite it having some idiosyncrasies due to the country’s partial Jamaican heritage. The strangest thing with learning pidgin is that you have to learn which words and syllables to leave out and there are a few totally new words to learn. The most confusing part of the language for us was that some people use the word “nah” (now) to emphasise the present tense (“I nah go”) which sounds very similar to “noh” which indicates the negative (“I noh go”) so we were often confused as to whether things were happening “now” or not at all. Here is a screen shot from an old guide book on some funny/strange and supposedly useful phrases for travellers (tip: pronounce the Krio phonetically and you’ll hear the link with English).

"hungry they catch me!"

We had expected, given the similarity in their histories, that Sierra Leone and Liberia would have a lot more than a language in common. And yet, as soon as we arrived at the border we could tell that we were in for a surprise. The Sierra Leoneans have a remarkably sophisticated Health Screening building where your temperature is scanned and your identity recorded through the scanning of your eye’s iris. The immigration procedure was the usual low tech affair with a sense of arbitrariness about the rules, but after a relatively painless procedure we found ourselves climbing into a shared taxi and on our way inland on an immaculate, new highway. It turns out that Sierra Leone has very good roads throughout the country, a welcome reprieve following our Liberian adventures! After a few hours we bid farewell to our taxi at a village called Potoru and managed to find a basic $5/night guest-house for the night. 

The next day we jumped onto two motorbike taxis and headed down a good dirt road towards Tiwai island, a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the Moa river. This sanctuary was founded in 1987 by a British scientist who recognised that protecting this incredibly bio-diverse, uninhabited island would ensure the survival of many rare species while at the same time generating tourism income for the surrounding communities.

Magnificent forest trees on Tiwai Island

Forest fungi

We spent three nights alone on the Island and did a number of guided walks where we saw lots of red and white colobus monkeys climbing enormous trees while underfoot countless armies of termites devoured any dead trees or branches - and your toes if you stood still for too long. Every few minutes we’d hear an eerie, loud wooshing sound as giant Yellow Casqued hornbills flew like jungle helicopters overhead. The island has chimpanzees and pygmy hippopotami but we were not lucky enough to spot any. Occasionally, we’d pass an old pit in the forest which turned out to be illegal diamond mines dug by rebels during the civil war twenty years before. It seems that if you pick the right spot in Salone you can just dig down a few meters in loose alluvial sand and find diamonds! Interestingly, anyone can get a small-scale miner’s license to mine diamonds provided you pay the government a fee of about US$100/year.  


Abandoned rebel diamond mine

After a serene few days on the island we returned to the mainland for a three day guided hike that forms part of the Tiwai Heritage Trail, which visits the traditional forest villages that surround the island. This  trail was created to ensure that these remote communities benefitted from protecting the indigenous forests. This trail was really interesting, giving us insights into the beautiful forests that cover this region while at the same time getting to meet the people and learn about their culture. 

We spent days admiring the incredible Tiwai forest canopy

Sierra Leone, unlike Liberia, is about 80% Muslim and on arrival in each village we would be met by a welcoming party of village elders, traditional leaders as well as the local imam. We would then spend an hour or so in the barri, a covered meeting area supported by poles or mud-brick columns, where a number of welcome speeches would be made. In Sierra Leone, Chiefs and Paramount Chiefs are elected positions and are not hereditary. While walking through the villages, it was common to see election posters for the different candidates standing for chieftaincy positions. This was the first time we’d ever seen traditional leadership in Africa that was not based on an hereditary system. 

Meeting the imam and traditional leaders at a village on the Tiwai Heritage Trail

Interestingly, in this part of the world it’s pretty normal for women to go topless. We found ourselves blinking a few times while sitting and talking to a local imam in the barri who was wearing just a pair of shorts and sitting alongside a group of topless women who were chatting amongst themselves. Ancient animist beliefs have been merged with Islamic ones and inter-marriage between Muslims and Christians is common. Generally the whole attitude to religion is pretty relaxed, peaceful and tolerant - a fact that they mention often with pride. The Taliban should be sent to Sierra Leone to learn to chill out a bit!

Village on the Tiwai Heritage Trail

Islam in West Africa came by the way of the indigenous North African Berber people who had adopted the religion around the 10th century. Berber merchants, with their camel caravans, were instrumental in connecting the gold rich regions of West Africa to the growing trade routes that were criss-crossing from the Far East to the Western-most parts of Europe. Gold coinage was needed to facilitate the flow of Chinese silks, Indian spices, Venetian glass, English wool and the many other tradeable “goods” of the time including enslaved people, cotton, ivory, fruits, vegetables and salt. This region was deeply involved in slavery and the slave trade in the past and an interesting fact we were told was that it was often relatively nearby communities from within the same Mende ethnic group who would attack a neighbouring village and enslave the vanquished villagers. It is supposedly still sometimes possible today to see which families are descended from enslaved peoples, based on the amount of land they own. The Berbers had held onto large chunks of their pre-Islamic, animist beliefs and, through their peripatetic trade, spread a far less orthodox version of the religion into West Africa than was practised by their Arab neighbours.

Crossing a bridge

In each village that we passed through, we were given a “heritage site” tour. Initially we expected that this might feel a bit contrived and overly ‘touristy’ for our tastes but in the end we found that each site was quite different and interesting in its own way. These sites gave us a taste of the deep integration of animist beliefs with modern day Islam and everyone participated in the rituals, including the imams. One site was a massive, sacred Cotton Tree where various rituals are performed for human fertility and good harvests. Other sites were sacred caves where people performed similar rituals and which proved a safe hiding place during the war. The last sites were ancient graves where, supposedly, giant ancestors were buried. These giants had stones marking their feet and their heads and thus looked to have been three metres tall... There were many stories of how these giant warriors had defended their villages during invasions by neighbouring communities and this defensive baton was passed down to the modern day defenders of these communities: the Kamajor militias. These militias were made up of motley crews of village people who defended against the invasions by RUF rebel forces and Sierra Leonean government “sobels” (soldiers by day, rebels by night). The Kamajors were certainly a colourful crew - they were made up of mostly forest hunters who knew the terrain better than anyone. They wore elaborate outfits adorned with various mutis and talismans in order to provide protection against bullets. Interestingly, the local villagers smiled happily when they heard we were South African. 

Kamajor fighters (from Sierra Leone civil war) - not my photo. Source

During the early years of the civil war, a South African mercenary outfit called “Executive Outcomes” was recruited by the short-lived democratic government to fight the nightmarish rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front who infamously amputated tens of thousands of people’s hands and feet to spread terror through the villages. Executive Outcomes rapidly defeated the rebels in a few months but international condemnation of the government’s use of mercenaries forced Sierra Leone to cancel their contract and Executive Outcomes left the country. Within months the RUF rebels had recaptured much of the territory they had lost culminating in the brutal attack on Freetown known as “Operation No Living Thing”. While ethically and instinctively we are against mercenaries of any kind, it was sobering to think how well-intentioned, intellectual decisions in faraway, comfortable board rooms ultimately allowed terrible violence to be committed against defenceless people. If the voices of the rural Sierra Leoneans most affected by these decisions had been heard, might they have made differently?


We didn’t have the time to do a historical summary as we did in previous blog posts. Here’s a link that gives a concise version of the fascinating history of Sierra Leone AKA “the Lion Mountain”. While there are similarities with neighbouring Liberia, there are huge differences too:

History World: history of Sierra Leone


Sierra Leone is unusual in West Africa for being overwhelmingly dominated by just two ethnic communities: the Mende and the Temne (pronounced “Timnee”). Our very knowledgeable guide, Mohammed, was a fountain of knowledge about the history and culture of the area (we highly recommend Mohammed as a guide, his Whatsapp: +232 79 795174 ). The local cultures are deeply intertwined with the indigenous forests that cover this entire region. Each family has their own piece of forest which they use for building materials and firewood. These forests contain some giant hardwood trees which people treat as savings to be used for emergencies or an important event. If such an event was to occur, the family will meet to discuss the issue and might decide that one giant tree should be harvested and they’ll then sell it to a timber merchant either as unworked logs or sometimes they’ll first saw the logs into planks. We queried whether desperate or greedy families wouldn’t potentially cut down the whole forest for short term profit, but Mohammed explained that the majority of the biggest tree species are worthless for timber purposes so these wouldn’t ever be cut down. 

In one village we found a blacksmith hard at work using a furnace based on a design that has been in operation in the region for over a thousand years. With the bellows pumping and his hammer pounding, he was busy producing machetes from the leaf springs of old trucks.  

Pounding the steel truck spring into a machete

Pumping the blacksmith's bellows

A village blacksmith making a machete

A village chair maker

The agriculture in this area involves the slash and burn method of clearing forest and then burning the under-brush. As far as we could tell, the areas being cleared had been farmed years before as the trees weren’t yet particularly large. These cleared plots were mostly used for farming rice, cassava and a few vegetables. Some plots had been converted to oil-palm plantations of between 50 and 100 trees. Oil palm plantations have caused the decimation of indigenous forests in South-East Asia so we asked whether this was a risk in this area. We were told that managing even just 50 oil palm trees was enormously labour-intensive so it wasn’t a very attractive way to use family land. For the sake of these magnificent forests, one hopes that mechanised oil-palm farming doesn’t reach this part of the world. 

Farming in a forested region is tough as monkeys and other animals constantly raid your crops. The farmers have devised various ingenious traps to catch (and eat) these animals which is sad to see but we couldn’t see a workable alternative plan. 

Harvested food is stored in the roof. The cone shaped objects on the vertical pole prevent rats climbing up and eating the harvest.

One of the giant, sacred Cotton Trees on the Tiwai Heritage trail

On each morning of the village tour trip, we would wake to the sound that has serenaded us throughout Central and Western Africa: the soft brushing of a grass hand broom on the ground. It is quite amazing how people will wake up at the crack of dawn every morning and sweep the ground around their huts. What’s even more amazing is that this very early morning chore is not to remove litter or any kind of mess - there is little rubbish lying around - it is just for the aesthetics of a brushed sandy area. On the coast people sweep the beach sand, in the forests they sweep the red earth. We grew to love the gentle swoosh, swoosh sounds every morning and appreciate the fastidiousness of the culture.

A homestead's palm oil orchard

A monkey trap: the monkey walks along the branch and through the gap. The the noose is yanked upwards by a flexible branch and snares the monkey.

A trap for catching wild animals on the ground

One of the villages we visited was very poor and it seemed most of the kids were under-weight and tiny for their age. Few of them were attending school. Most of the other villages did have a basic primary school with a standard design of three classrooms with glassless windows where two grades shared a room. Government teachers in Sierra Leone - and the region in general - earn about US$100 (R1500) per month. Teachers employed directly by the community or local NGOs earn as little as US$30 per month. Recently, the government supposedly introduced free primary school education, but everyone we met scoffed at this saying that while officially school fees were not required, the schools were demanding so many other new fees that there was little reduction in the cost to parents. 

Village mosque

Another village bridge

On the path to the next village

Healthcare in the country is a huge challenge. Everyone, except pregnant mothers, has to pay to be treated at the government hospitals. A broken leg can typically cost US$250/R3500 to treat which often forces families into debt. If you don’t pay, you don’t get treated. While the current president, Maada Bio, has made the introduction of “free education” a central focus, most of the people we spoke with said that the previous president, Ernest Koroma, was much better and credited him for building Sierra Leone’s impressive road system (with significant help from the Chinese government). Liberia needs to copy and paste Sierra Leone’s road building plan.


We like the Sierra Leonean mud hut design - especially the verandah which is particularly necessary during the rainy season.

After a very interesting week in a beautiful area, we jumped on motorbikes which took us to the main highway and then caught a shared taxi to the city of Bo and then a minibus to Freetown. The entire road was tarmac and in excellent condition. On our arrival on the outskirts of Freetown there was some confusing hopping in and out of vehicles in places with names we would soon come to know well: Willbeforce (pronounce “Bafors”), Jui and Waterloo. By early evening we had found our lodge: the first place with a cool backpacker vibe since we’d left Ghana almost two months before.

When arriving in a new country there are a few things we always do. First, get a cellphone SIM card and load data so you can use google maps to find an ATM that will take a foreign bank card. A surprisingly difficult challenge in Freetown was getting cash from an ATM. The local currency is called “leones” and the biggest note is 10,000 leones which equates to US$1. Most ATMs have a maximum limit on the number of notes they can dispense at one time - generally a stack of 40 notes is the maximum that can pass through the cash dispensing hole. So in Sierra Leone you can only withdraw the equivalent of US$40 per transaction and then the bank back home in South Africa deducts a hefty minimum international cash withdrawal fee which amounts to about 15% of your withdrawal amount. This proved quite an expensive headache which forced us to use some of the US dollars cash we were carrying. In the end our problem was solved by a combination of locating a bank that would allow us to swipe our credit card inside the bank and then withdraw more than the US$40 maximum or, alternatively, to use the World Remit phone app to send money to one of the many cash transfer agencies that can be found on almost every street corner in West Africa. The end result was that at any one time, we would be carrying big wads of cash containing millions of leones. In the past, Sierra Leoneans were permitted to use US dollars cash for all transactions which was especially helpful when buying a car or a house. But recently the government banned this practice, forcing people to carry big bags of cash leones whenever they made a big purchase. Sierra Leone feels like a well-run country where most things seem to work quite efficiently, except for the monetary system. The country desperately needs some bigger notes: all other countries have notes representing $10 or more in value - a $1 note is just too small. Once we’d left Salone, we saw a newspaper article announcing that the government will be redoing the currency in October 2021, certainly a much needed intervention.

Wet and loaded!

Sucking a bissap icey in a bustling market in downtown Freetown

With our first local cash in hand, we would then visit the shops of the new country we find ourselves in, to recalibrate our brains to local prices. Typically, we would do this recalibration using a few standard items like a tin of evaporated milk (crucial for coffee drinkers as no fresh or even UHT milk is easily  available), a plate of street-food and a packet of drinking water. The latter is by far the most common way to consume drinking water in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. If you’re thirsty, you just need to look for a cooler box on the sidewalk or listen out for the call of “Ko Waaataaa!” (“cold water”) and then you grab a 500ml clear plastic bag of water, bite off the corner and suck it dry in one go. This does result in a lot of empty plastic water bags littering the landscape but one would imagine that these bags would degrade a lot faster than the hard plastic bottles used elsewhere in the world. It was noticeable how much cleaner Sierra Leone was than Ghana and Liberia. We’re not sure exactly how they achieve this, but there is a lot less litter than one might expect in a bustling city. On completing our “price calibration” for Salone it was clear that it was quite a bit cheaper than Liberia and Ghana for most things.

The green rolling hills of beautiful Freetown

Freetown, Freetown… what a cool, beautiful city! Straddled over a series of green forested hills with glorious views of the ocean, this city really grew on us. So much so that we’d have to say that, as African cities go, it ranks second only to Cape Town in beauty and is certainly one of our favourites. The public transport is super cheap and easy: just shout out the word “bike” and you’ll have multiple motorbikes instantly at your side and ready to take you short distances for $0.20/R3. For longer journeys, or when it’s raining, just look for a keke (3-wheeler tuktuk) which might charge you $1 to travel about 8km. Longer journeys might involve a shared taxi for $0.50 or a minibus for a bit less. 

Hilly cities are always a bit confusing as the roads can’t form a symmetrical grid but, after a while, we began to work out Freetown’s idiosyncrasies. You had to learn which roundabouts were transport hubs and which places needed a bike and which needed a keke. The only thing we never understood was the kekes’ mysterious pricing system: even locals were at a loss as to why a short journey in one direction would cost three times more than a longer journey in another direction. But with prices so low, we couldn’t complain. The centre of Freetown has a gigantic Cotton Tree which is at least 250 years old and is where the freed enslaved people from Nova Scotia stopped to pray on their arrival in Freetown. To this day, it is considered a sacred place at which spiritual ceremonies are performed. In its branches sit dozens of hooded vultures which are to West Africa, what crows and dogs are to Southern Africa: the urban scavengers. 

On entering Sierra Leone, we’d found out that there were abundant supplies of Covid19 vaccines in the country which the public didn’t seem particularly interested in. We headed off to a local government hospital and sure enough we were the only people there to be vaccinated. After a very quick process, we had our Sinopharm jab and were on our way. At that point (July 2021), less than 1% of Sierra Leoneans had been vaccinated, and there still seems to be very little interest in getting jabbed.

Vaccinated! Thanks Sierra Leone (and China) 

While Sierra Leone has about double the population size of Liberia, it is very similar in terms of climate and day to day life. Covid prevention practices border on a theatre of the absurd. Covid restrictions applied to public transport include motorbike taxis only being allowed one passenger (normally up to three passenger), while kekes are allowed only two passengers (normally four passengers). On the other hand, minibuses (called “poda podas”)  - which have much, much worse ventilation than a motorbike or a keke - are allowed to operate at 100% capacity. Not only that, virtually no-one in these buses wears a mask, except for the approximately three minute period when they reach a police checkpoint and where everyone has to put on a mask, disembark, wash their hands, walk to the other side of the checkpoint rope, and get back into the same poda poda again. As soon as the bus departs the checkpoint, everyone (except us) takes off their mask. Very few people wear masks on the streets and even in banks and government buildings, masks were the exception rather than the norm, even for bank/government employees. It is known that the highly contagious Delta variant is circulating in Sierra Leone and yet the statistics show just 120 Covid deaths in the past 18 months.. At the peak of their “Delta wave”, they experienced an average of just 50-100 infections and two deaths per day. We asked doctors working at the main hospital whether they had observed any panic for oxygen like that seen in neighbouring Liberia and they said no. Why the experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone should be so different is a real mystery, and again all we can do is appeal to the big funders of medical research to devote some dollars to better understanding what is happening with Covid on our continent (interesting studies here and here  on a possible inverse link between malaria and Covid19). As things stand, it is hard to see how Sierra Leone will convince even 10% of their population to get vaccinated. As a Sierra Leonean told us: “when we had Ebola, we could see that it was dangerous, we saw the vehicles carrying away the bodies, but with Covid we don’t know anyone who’s got very sick or died...

As one drives around the outskirts of Freetown, it is remarkable just how many giant houses are in the process of being constructed. These houses, often three stories high, are bigger than any houses we’ve seen anywhere in the world (with the exception of Tibetan houses). When we asked how come Sierra Leoneans had so much money to build these houses, people just chuckled and talked vaguely about “businessmen” but we never got a satisfactory answer as to why there is such a construction boom going on in the country. Freetown houses also stood out as being in exceptional condition. In most tropical African cities, cement buildings are soon covered in green moss and black mould and can look quite weathered. In contrast, in Sierra Leone the buildings all look freshly painted with bright colours. We were told that people typically paint their homes once a year, and the local paint seemed to be very durable. 

The guesthouse we were staying in was in a nice part of town with many large, luxurious houses. However, next door to the guesthouse and scattered throughout the suburb we saw open plots with a few corrugated iron shacks housing families. It turns out that the country’s land registry system is quite corrupt and even when you have bought a plot and have all the necessary documents to prove it, it might happen that someone else could just start building their own fancy house on your land. In some cases, these usurpers of land ownership have bribed the land registry officials to transfer the plot into their name. If you dispute this transfer of ownership, you could end up tangled in a long complicated legal fight without any guarantee of success. You might even be forced to sell your plot to the house builder as they will complain that they have already spent a huge amount of money building their house. So to avoid all this hassle, if you legally buy a plot but are not ready to begin building immediately, you find a homeless family and allow them to put temporary shacks on your land for free in order to prevent someone illegally building permanent structures on your land. Then, when the land owner is ready to build, there is apparently no difficulty in requesting the shack dwellers to vacate the land. It seems that land and construction is the main way that people “save” money as the financial system is not trusted. If you have some savings, you either have to take the risk of having US dollars cash hidden under your bed or you buy some land and begin building a house. Even if building that house takes years, it’s still regarded as the best way to save for the future.   

All over Freetown there are buildings like these under construction

After a few days in central Freetown, we headed about an hour down the lovely Freetown peninsula to Bureh Beach. The Freetown peninsula has many kilometres of beautiful beaches located beneath forested hills. We found a lovely spot on Bureh Beach to spend about ten days doing some more “digital nomading” work. Sierra Leone’s historical links to Jamaica meant that Rastafarians were common and cannabis was easily found. The dominance of Islam also meant that drunkenness was rare. This normally lively tourist area was totally dead, thanks to Covid19 and the start of the rainy season. 

You do not know rain until you’ve experienced Sierra Leone’s rainy season!

This country has 3000mm (3 metres!) of rain per year which is by far the highest rainfall on the continent. All this rain falls during the five month long, summer rainy season. Think about the most intense cloudburst of rain you’ve ever experienced and then imagine that falling for 10 hours every day. At some point, normally in August, the legendary seven-days-rain begins when it rains torrentially, non-stop, day and night for a whole week. The country gets so much rain that few people bother to put up gutters for rainwater collection; you just need to place huge buckets under any part of the roof edge and they fill up daily and in no time. The rain was so heavy during our stay in Bureh that the shop mamas added “how di rain?” to the usual greetings of “how di bodi, how di day?”. The answer that got the most appreciative response was to sigh and say: “di rain is di rain”. The drainage system in Freetown required to avoid flooding is quite impressive: deep gutters and well-built drains channel the floods neatly down the steep hills. These drains do, unfortunately, gather what litter there is and deposit it all on the inner city beaches. Lots of rain also meant LOTS of mosquitoes. Freetown’s mosquitoes are next level: they’re not particularly big but they are by far the craftiest of all the many mosquitoes we’ve met in the tropics. If you are not 100% perfect when tucking in the mosquito net into your bedding, then these little buggers could find the smallest crack to enter your sanctum and share their itchy love.  

Bureh beach on the Freetown peninsula, Sierra Leone

We were mostly self-catering on our camping stove during these days at Bureh which meant regular visits to the markets. The vegetable selection was somewhat better than in Liberia but still a bit bare - one had to know a special little shop behind the main market where you could get carrots and lettuce. Each country we visit has its little sweet surprises. In Salone we were amazed to see youngsters pushing ice-cream wagons from which emerged delicious, cheap ice-creams: proper Conetto ice creams for $50c! It’s a total mystery how this was happening in a region that struggles to produce fresh milk. The other treats were FreeGells sweets, which are very similar to Halls sweets in South Africa but much much cheaper at just $20c per pack. Kids would wander about with buckets of delicious homemade peanut brittle, sesame seed crunchies and butterscotch jawbreaker sweets too. Bananas were super cheap but Mangos and Avos were much more expensive than elsewhere in the region. 

Delicious sesame cakes and peanut brittles 

Young entrepreneurs

Chilling out at Bureh beach, Freetown peninsula, Sierra Leone

The shops in Sierra Leone are almost all tiny wooden or metal cubicles that sell a wide range of things spaza-style. There are a handful of super-markets in Freetown but almost everyone relies on tiny micro-shops for their daily needs. The biggest shops in outlying towns would have just a counter where you’d be served by the shopkeeper from a few shelves on the wall behind him. From what we can see, West Africa has two distinct approaches to retailing: in Ghana/Gambia almost all retail happens through supermarkets and large stores with little side-walk trading. There might be a little fresh produce market here and there but in general you have to enter a big shop to buy stuff. The Liberian/Sierra Leonean model of retailing is dominated by tiny shops – mostly erected on the side-walk. In addition there are loads of people wandering about with wheelbarrows or basins on their head filled with a wide range of products. It would be fascinating to study which approach is more beneficial to the economy. One would expect that larger shops would be able to sell more cheaply thanks to economies of scale, but then they have much larger overhead costs like air-conditioning, security, rent and staff. The microshops have none of these expenses and we found their prices very competitive. Hundreds of microshops instead of one large supermarket would seem to spread wealth and employment more widely in society. 

Bureh beach

Bureh beach has lots of cool lodges and restaurants on the beach 

After Bureh Beach we headed further down the peninsula and then jumped onto a boat to Banana Island. Here we found a lodge called Dalton’s Guest House founded and run by an eccentric guy called Greg. The island has a village of about 500 people and is dominated by a beautiful forest. The lodge itself was built into the forest with the giant communal restaurant and chillout area partially supported by living forest trees. We enjoyed some nice walks in the forest and through the beautiful village filled with pretty flower gardens and some monstrous Cotton Trees. We also did a boat trip to the far side of the island to go snorkelling - our first “touristy” activity in many months - it felt quite nice! The rains were still going strong so we felt constantly damp - our backpacks even started growing mould. We met a few cool travellers and got to observe youthful Instagram travel culture first hand. 

Our travel buddy on Banana Island - clearly our own photo skills are lacking!

Nzinga's instagram and Ellie's instagram.

Banana Island, Sierra Leone

Banana Island, Sierra Leone

Rainy season!!!

After a week on Banana Island we decided to return to the drier life in Freetown. During the previous few weeks we had become masters at travelling from Bureh to Freetown which involved four changes in public transport, each with its own peculiarities. The reason for these frequent trips to town was due to us having to visit the Guinean embassy in order to get a visa to visit this, the next country on our route. While the embassy staff were friendly, the visa application process was bizarre. It seemed that one first needed a letter of approval from a security office inside Guinea and so the embassy had to send copies of our passports to Conakry (the Guinean capital) to secure this letter. We were told to return in a few weeks when we were sure to get our visa. In the end this proved a total waste of time as every time we returned we were told to come back in a few days or weeks to no avail. It was not clear whether this strange procedure was Covid-related or whether there were other security concerns. Sierra Leoneans are able to cross in and out of Guinea without any visas or problems so it didn’t seem to be a Covid restriction. The fact that a month later there was a coup d’etat in Guinea with the elderly president overthrown by young soldiers might indicate that the government may have just been generally suspicious of anyone coming into the country.      

After a few more days in lovely Freetown we headed north to two towns in the interior. We first stayed in a guesthouse inside an inspirational school for the deaf  in the town of Makeni. The town itself wasn’t anything special but it did have a heaving, vibrant market which was fun to walk around. One restaurant we visited advertised that a portion of the proceeds of each meal went to supporting the ‘strit pickin’ - pidgin for street child. As South Africans, the reference to children as “pickins” or “pickinins” is rather offensive so we had to keep reminding ourselves that the word has no such negative connotations in Salone. 

Makeni's bustling market

We then headed further north to Kabala, which sits at the foot of a pretty mountain. There we wandered about the countryside villages where farmers were hard at work preparing their fields for rice planting. In both the towns and the villages in Sierra Leone it was remarkable to see how big the average home is. Almost every house has a large verandah - a good spot to hang out during the torrential rains. The houses are very well built; the local builders seemed to be a lot better at constructing using concrete and reinforced steel than we tend to see in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. Being able to build homes that last generations is crucial to ensuring that there is an inter-generational transfer of wealth from parents to children that can, over time, lead to sustainable improvements in standards of living. One of the challenges we’ve seen back home is that substandard construction leads to houses often only lasting a few decades which means that each generation has to continually use up their meagre savings to rebuild their family homes, trapping families in a cycle of poverty that is hard to escape.

Overlooking the pretty town of Kabala
View from our guesthouse in Kabala

After a couple of days in Kabala we returned to Freetown in a minibus that had a live cow on the roof! The journey once-again involved countless checkpoints with our fellow passengers performing the ridiculous ‘mask on, disembark from the vehicle, wash hands, mask off’ Covid theatre each time. The next day we got our second dose of the vaccine in the hospital where, once again, there was nary a soul getting vaccinated and where even the visibly bored nurses weren’t wearing masks. Armed with our blue Sierra Leonean vaccination cards we were thrilled to join the world of the fully vaccinated. 

"I need to go to Freetown with my cow"

Getting a cow off the roof of the Podapoda minibus

We spent our last few days in Freetown enjoying the vibe of this lovely city. We hiked up the highest hill and enjoyed magnificent views over the city as well as views of the site of a catastrophic land-slide in 2017 where more than a thousand people died when a steep hill on which they’d constructed their homes was destabilised by heavy rains. On the way up the hill we found a lot of rock-breakers working next to the road. We’d seen people doing this work elsewhere but this was the first place we got to talk to them and understand how their business worked. These men and women (and a few kids) lived on properties alongside the road where giant granite boulders were plentiful. Using a combination of sledgehammers and fire, they would break off big pieces of this rock which they’d pile next to the road. Then began the very boring work of hitting these rocks with a hammer and slowly breaking them down into much smaller stones that can be used to mix concrete. These stones are sold by the bucket load to construction companies and people could earn about $10 to $15 per day depending on how long they worked.

Breaking rocks in Freetown

Smashing rocks into building stones, Freetown

We also visited one of the city’s most popular beaches - Lumley - which has lots of beachfront cafes and bars. Sadly the beach is covered in plastic pollution washed out of the city drains and into the sea. Hopefully the beaches will be cleaned when tourism restarts in earnest. 

Throughout our trip, in every country, these colourful Agama lizards have been everywhere.

Red-headed agama lizards fighting

On one of our final touristy jaunts about the city, we visited the Peace Museum which is part of the Special Court for Sierra Leone complex where war crimes from the civil war were prosecuted. The Peace Museum was quite harrowing with horrific images of the brutality of the war. Towards the end of our visit, a museum official came over to chat with us and shared his personal story of being captured and tortured by rebels and by the junta running the country at the time. 

We also visited the National Museum which has a fascinating collection of masks and outfits worn by the different secret societies that are an integral part of Sierra Leonean culture. The vast majority of adults in the country are members of ancient secret societies that they join on achieving adulthood. Men mostly join the Poro society when they are teenagers and the initiation rituals and lessons learnt there are highly secret. Similarly, women join the Bundu/Sande society which traditionally includes female circumcision as part of the initiation ritual. While there has been some efforts by mostly urban women to alter the Sande society initiation rituals away from circumcision, it is still the case that about 90% of Sierra Leonean women have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). One of the tricky issues to resolve is the replacement of income for the women hired to perform the cutting, for whom this is their only profession. West Africa, Guinea, Mali and the Gambia all have rates of FGM of over 75%. In the east, the worst culprits of the barbaric practice are Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. Victims of FGM experience not only the pain of the cutting but terrible complications during and after childbirth. And this in regions where access to medical care is of the poorest in the world.

Female Genital Mutilation in Africa

The various secret societies and ethnic groups in the country have elaborate ceremonial outfits and incredible masks that are worn by the fetish priests (known locally as “devils”)  who lead the community in ceremonial masquerade dances. Different outfits and masks indicate who is permitted to join a dance ceremony - in some cases anyone from any group can join, while other outfits indicate that only members of that particular society may participate. 

Elaborate ceremonial costume, Sierra Leone

Ceremonial masks, Sierra Leone

We didn’t get to see any of these ceremonies ourselves, but here’s a cool video showing a masquerade ceremony. 

And here’s another great dancer who’s part of a similar ceremony although in nearby Cote D’Ivoire, not Sierra Leone, but we’re putting him here just because he’s so impressive.

Incredible Zaouli dancer, Cote D'Ivoire

After an easy five weeks in Sierra Leone, we gave up on ever getting visas for Guinea. So we jumped on a ferry that took us to the airport across the bay and did a short plane hop over Guinea to visit Africa’s smallest country: The Gambia. 

As our aeroplane lifted off, we took one last look at lovely Freetown and the land of the Lion Mountain and thought: “We go si back!” (See you later!

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Our Africa Moves: #6 Liberia, for the love of liberty

Take a big sip of water, hold it in your mouth and in your best American accent say: "My man! Y'all waa-a-go Mo-rovia?” 

The sound of Liberian pidgin is disorientating; the American accent is unexpected. Liberia is the only African country that has used American English as the base for its pidgin vernacula. Tones from the American South dancing to a rhythmical African beat. Pidgin is to English what Afrikaans is to Dutch. It’s not slang, and no one is making up random words or grammatical constructions. The grammar follows rules that everyone understands. That’s why the BBC can publish news articles in pidgin. The speaking pace is fast and words run into one another. Many words are different, or just sound different to us, with consonants at the end of words usually left off and tenses dispensed with. To indicate tense, the time of occurrence of the event does a lot of work. For example, you don’t need to know the three verbs: I went, I am going and I will go. You just need the one verb ‘go’, as in: I go yesterday, I go now, I go tomorrow. Learning pidgin is a unique language learning experience: normally a new language forces you to learn new words. In the case of Liberian pidgin, if you already speak English, you mostly need to learn which words or parts of words to leave out. You have to keep reminding yourself that everyone is speaking English and that if you listen carefully enough, you will get the gist of it. We have to listen very hard though and ask people to repeat themselves often. It makes one wonder if they think we’re a little bit slow! Here’s a video of typical Liberian English (select settings/gear icon at bottom of video and tick "subtitles"): 

Typical Liberian English

Entering the airport building in Monrovia the lingering feeling of calm, collected Ghana evaporates and is instantly replaced with a bit of chaos. Not the out of control chaos of the Congo but a chaos with some street cred nonetheless. As with Ghana, all passengers must do a Covid PCR test on arrival. Unlike Ghana, the process of registering and getting tested was a bit shambolic, though in a happy, friendly way. At the immigration booth we received a friendly welcome from the immigration official who asked how we’d obtained our Liberian visas. “Well that”, we replied, “involved a long complicated process in Accra that needed a pile of documents from ourselves and an invitation from a Liberian national (luckily Rejane has a Liberian friend she’d been to university with), a fairly substantial visa processing fee and an in-person interview!” Far more onerous than most other visa application processes, save maybe the Schengen one. The immigration official assured us that all this would not have been necessary if we’d known her. So for next time, we now had her phone number. 

After that friendly encounter, we were stamped into Liberia where it felt like someone had suddenly turned on the music and upped the volume. Although Ghana is situated much closer to the DRC, it seemed somehow like we’d been portaled into Congo-lite. Everyone walks a little faster, talks much louder, smiles bubble up more quickly, music blares in the markets, bus stations are chaotic again and the roads, the roads... but we get ahead of ourselves... first we had a few days to explore Monrovia, the capital, which has the best roads in the country.

On leaving the airport and entering the chocablock traffic, it was interesting to see trucks laden with charcoal again. We hadn’t seen that since the DRC and Zambia where the smog is due not to factories but is primarily due to the smoke from charcoal burning stoves.  

Downtown Monrovia bustles with everything you could possibly want to buy crammed into a few blocks. Stalls spill over from the sidewalks into the street with clothes and shoes, ready to eat meals of rice, fish, chicken and curry, tinned and packaged foods, hardware, electronics, polony sandwiches and wraps, boiled eggs and a good variety of fruits and many types of chillies piled high in heaps. Down near the seaside, it's a mess with water filled potholes, water dripping down from buildings and litter in monster piles slowly rotting away. Buildings still sport bullet holes from the war years. Motorbike taxis and tuktuks squeeze their way through the traffic, winding their way past men pushing wagons filled with water jerrycans who supply much of the city with water. The buildings have the mouldy, black colour typical of concrete in the tropics where people have given up on painting their walls. But the eyes are drawn more to the colourful movement of people and vehicles and the endless street stalls selling interesting things.

Our first mission was to find a working ATM which took a while and in the end surprised us when it dispensed US dollars. These dollars you took to the money changers who then gave you big piles of battered Liberian Dollar notes. We soon learned that one must check the pile carefully for the extra battered notes, as the market women will grumble if you try and use them and often totally refuse to accept them. We also got ourselves mobile phone sim cards - MTN is called “Lonestar” in Liberia, the nickname of the Liberian flag. The latest sales technology to hit the region are rechargeable loudhailers where you can record a short message that then plays on a loop non-stop. While the benefit to the salesperson of not having to endlessly repeat the same message to passers-by is obvious, being stuck at a bus stop for hours while listening to the message “Lonestaaar topup Lonestar dataaaa; Orange topup Orange dataaa” repeated every 20 seconds did test one’s equanimity.

Monrovia has a large, unhappy looking shopping mall that seemed abandoned. It silently hovers over Miami beach, a fun place for an evening drink and meal. As you arrive at this lively open-air beach bar/restaurant area, a young guy - your host - quickly arranges a plastic table and chairs on your chosen part of the beach and then he brings you a steady supply of drinks along with grilled chicken and salad. Only one plate though - in Liberia, as in much of  West Africa, everyone at the table gets their own spoon to eat off the communal plate. Miami beach is a long way from pristine, and the ocean waves looked dangerous, but the music was loud, the drinks affordable, and everyone was having fun. It is clear to us now, that South Africa is the dance capital of the continent - it would be impossible to have the Miami beach vibe in SA without half the crowd shaking their booties. In Liberia and everywhere else we travelled, the dancing was somewhat lacking.  

Having experienced the busy messiness of downtown Monrovia, we were very interested to see the upmarket suburb of Sinkor to get a sense of the spectrum of life in the city. Rejane’s university friend invited us to a charity fundraiser brunch at a Lebanese restaurant in Sinkor which would not be out of place in any first world city. Our best meal in months!

A fantastic fund-raising brunch with friends in Monrovia

After a few fun days exploring the city, we were ready to get on the road again. We’d been warned about the roads during the visa interview in Accra by the Liberian national who worked at the embassy. “You won’t get to the seaside in Harper” he warned. “Not in the rainy season anyway.” Really? We’d just crossed the Congo! Challenge accepted! 

Our plan was to travel slowly and overnight in a few towns along the way. When the roads are bad, the secret is not to rush. From Monrovia, our plan was to stop first in Ganta, a lively town on the border with Guinea (distance: 260 kms - should be 4 hours travel). Then we’d move onto Zwedru, Liberia’s second largest city (distance 215 kms, another 4 hours). From Zwedru we’d stop over in Fish Town, where there is nowhere to fish (distance: 160 kms, should be 3 hours at most). Finally, we’d travel from Fish Town to Harper, the pinnacle of posh seaside holidays before the war (distance: 130 km, a couple of hours, maybe). Adding it all up, the total distance we’d be travelling from Monrovia to Harper would be 765 kms and one might expect total time on the road of 13-15 hours for the full trip. Or so we thought... The journey took seven days and 50 hours of road travel time. FIFTY HOURS. 

The part of the trip from Monrovia to Ganta was pleasant. First we had to catch a minibus taxi from downtown Monrovia to the sprawling long distance taxi and bus station called Red Light. Clip off the consonants at the end of each word, as you do when speaking pidgin, and the minibus taxi will get you to the “Rare Lie” taxi and bus station. In this minibus taxi we would have our first experience of the typical lively political debates one hears all through Liberia. This debate was all about how Liberia doesn’t farm enough, resulting in high prices for fresh produce that has to be transported in trucks from Guinea and Cote d'iVoire. The question under debate was: who’s fault is it? When it comes to politics in Liberia, everyone has an opinion and is not shy to express it in loud tones with aggressive and dismissive hand gestures thrown about for effect. At Rare Lie we found a long distance taxi that would take us to Ganta. Seven people squeezed into a sedan that would normally seat five people -  two people share the front passenger seat and four people squash into the back. Despite being a cosy ride, the journey was fine: the road was tarred all the way to Ganta and we arrived with no drama at lunchtime.

Having absorbed the liveliness that is usual in border towns, we started making enquiries about the trip we’d do the next day from Ganta to Zwedru. Zwedru is the second largest city in Liberia so we expected that to be easy. First a motorbike taxi guy approached us. He was going home to Fish Town and he’d love to have paying passengers on his bike. No, no we were not interested. We had plenty of experience with motorbike taxis crossing Congo. Liberia’s roads can’t be so bad that one needed to resort to a motorbike taxi. We want to take a car taxi. The road is bad, he protested. Can’t be that bad, we responded with confidence, this isn’t the Congo now is it?!

A mere 300m away from the $10 hotel we were staying at, we found the taxi rank where there were indeed pickup trucks loading up to travel to Zwedru. See, we were right, the road can’t be that bad. The next morning we were up quite early and started searching for seats. There were a few pickups promising to leave “now!” but in truth seemed to be still hunting for passengers. We decided against travelling in one 4x4 that was indeed travelling “now” but which was so overloaded and top heavy that some of its passengers had decided to disembark and look for other transport. We would also have had to ride in the back boot area which didn’t have proper seats - just cushions on the floor. We were first in line for the next available pickup so we got first choice in seating, enabling us to nab the front ones, clearly the best seats in the car. But we had to wait for the other seats in the vehicle to fill up. We still needed four additional passengers who would sit in the seats at the back. Also, there was a complicated process of loading the goods that would be transported in the loadbox. This process is complicated because there are just too many goods needing to move and too few vehicles. So the vehicles get massively overloaded and each driver has to make a call about the maximum size load that his vehicle can manage. So stuff gets loaded then offloaded again, or rearranged, while tough negotiations take place between the driver and the owner of the goods. The latter wants the lowest transport price possible; the driver wonders whether the weight will destroy his car en route.

A concern we would soon come to understand. 

Our transport from Ganta to Zwedru

This whole process had us sitting at the little tea shop in the dusty taxi rank from 7am to 1pm. About 30 minutes before we left, a tall, handsome soldier in full camouflage and boots arrived. He was to fill the last available seat in our vehicle. We were ready to go. We were annoyed to find out that soldiers are treated with special respect, and so our comfortable front seat was given to the soldier while we were forced to squeeze into the back seat, which already had two women (one not at all small) and a child of about 10 years old on it. 

Despite our annoyed mutterings that soldiers should just be treated like any other person it didn’t take long for us to realise the sense of this arrangement. It helped smooth our drive through checkpoints. 

In Liberia, as in the Congo, there are countless checkpoints. Police checkpoints, military checkpoints, immigration checkpoints, Drug Enforcement Agency checkpoints, entering the village checkpoints, exiting the village checkpoints… it sometimes feels like anyone with a uniform can just put up two sticks and a rope across the road wherever they like and demand a fee for the ‘service’. They look for any flaw in your papers or vehicle or the goods you’re transporting and demand a small amount of cash to let you pass. Checkpoints are understandably necessary during times of conflict but once that’s over, how do you remove that easy source of cash without pissing off your army and police? In many African countries, police make five times more from their checkpoint money than they earn from their salary. So if a government decided to remove the unnecessary checkpoints, they would very soon have to deal with a lot of very unhappy soldiers and police who’ve lost most of their income overnight. Not a good idea in a region that has experienced so many coups and civil wars. 

So the population just has to live with the checkpoints and the fees that everyone has to pay to the officers for all and sundry bullshit reasons. BUT everything changes if you have a soldier in uniform in your vehicle. In that case, you are just waved through every checkpoint with a smile. Often you don’t even have to stop the vehicle! 

Repairing the wheel studs on our pickup

So we settled into our squashed backseat for the next 215km which we expected to take about 6 hours. It actually took 36 hours. 

The drive was slow, very slow. The traders whose loads we were transporting seemed to have scored a good deal - for them. Our pickup was totally overloaded. And the road was bad. Not Congo bad: your vehicle will get to its destination, but it will be slow. Our vehicle was taking strain. The troubles started just 30 mins out of Ganta: constant stops to top up water, check tyres, change tyres, check oil and each stop seemed to be done at the most leisurely pace. Every time we passed a river or some water source the ‘car boy’ would jump off the back, fill up a jerrycan with water and cool off the radiator. We inched along, starting and stopping like this until evening time. This stop, we were told, would be a longer than usual as one of the wheel studs had snapped off and had to be replaced. There was nowhere to get any dinner - we’d expected to be in Zwedru for dinner - but we managed to find a large, delicious pineapple. 

Pineapple for dinner!

After a long stop, the wheel was repaired and we were on our way again only for us to break down again 400 metres later with more broken wheel studs. The load was so huge and the road so bad that the vehicle just couldn’t bear it. The driver didn’t have any spare wheel studs left so he was forced to jump on a motorbike taxi and head off to another village to try and find the necessary spare parts while we all sat on the side of the road in the dark. It took hours. The villagers brought out wooden benches for us to sit on under a tree.

Sitting together in the dark, we made friends with our fellow passengers. That’s the big upside of travelling hard: you make more friends than when you travel easy. Human beings naturally bond in tough times. After we’d all had our fill of bitching and moaning about the driver and his bad management of his load, we were told the stories. The stories of the civil war. Every adult in their mid twenties or older seems to have a horror story. Their own, personal horror story. 

********** LIBERIAN HISTORY **********

When writing these summarised histories of the countries we visit, it’s important to remember that behind the facts casually mentioned, are real people. People for whom something like a civil war isn’t an abstract story about a faraway place, but for whom the mention of the war awakens memories of a horror we can scarcely imagine. We were powerfully reminded of this, sitting under a tree in the night in a forest village waiting for the umpteenth repair of the truck on which we were travelling. We were sitting on a crude wooden bench with some fellow passengers and started making small talk. We got talking to a large jovial woman who subsequently became a warm friend whom we care deeply about. We spoke about travelling and how much one learns from visiting other countries. She had travelled quite widely in the region as a trader and gradually it emerged that she’d also been a refugee in neighbouring Cote D’Ivoire during the Liberian civil war. We rather casually asked what the war had been like. 

“Senseless… Senseless…!!” She lamented. 

She’d been living in Monrovia at the time, in a large house with her family including her old, blind grandmother. The civil war had started years before but only recently had the rebels begun advancing on Monrovia. Everyone had begun making plans to flee; in her case the family planned to drive to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone.  Up until that point the rebel advance had been very slow and so most people assumed that they had another week before the real danger started. She was busy packing her bags and getting everything ready to leave when machine gunfire started in the distance. This was not unusual and normally the shooting ended within an hour or so. However, this time it just got louder and louder, closer and closer until the shooting was literally outside her house. Machine gun bullets began ripping into the walls of the house as she cowered, lying on the floor. For three hours it continued until it suddenly stopped and voices began shouting into the house from the doorway. “Come out, come out, come out!” Not knowing where anyone from her family was, she walked to the door and a few yards away stood a child soldier with an AK47 looking very coldly at her, sizing her up. Was he looking for a sign that she was from the “wrong” tribe? Or whether she would make a good soldier? She will never know. For what seemed like an eternity he just stared at her, and then, very quickly motioned with his hand that she should come towards him, which she did. She walked towards him and then straight past him and then out the gate. There in the street were dead bodies strewn in every direction, butchered. “Something I had never seen. Dead bodies everywhere!” And she just kept on walking through the carnage, carrying nothing at all, not even her purse filled with her life savings that was elsewhere in the house. Her old, blind grandmother, left behind, was never seen again… to this day no-one knows what happened. She managed to walk to a safer part of the city and ultimately found transport to Freetown and to the relative safety of being a refugee for the next decade.  This is just one story of millions of stories from the horror that was the Liberian civil war.   

The ancient history of Liberia goes back about 800 years when this densely forested, high rainfall area was inhabited by communities migrating in from the North and the East and living a mix of hunter gatherer and farming lifestyles. It seems that the size and the density of the rainforest kept these communities relatively disconnected from the giant empires that rose and fell in West Africa during this period.

Little did these communities in Liberia know, but in a faraway continent, a plan was afoot that would shape Liberia’s history forever more. In the USA, there was a seemingly well-intentioned campaign to assist freed African American slaves to return to Africa. This campaign, named the American Colonization Society,  was led by both white and black Americans with a mixture of motives: some believed that black Americans would never be truly free in a white country, while others felt that freed American slaves were an economic threat to white American workers. US President James Monroe was champion of this cause, and with his support, a ship called the Elizabeth set sale in 1820 with 88 African Americans accompanied by three white officials for a new life in Africa. 

They landed near modern day Monrovia in 1821 and after some difficulties secured a 56km stretch of land on which to settle. This process was not straightforward and like many early European colonial agreements, it is hard to conclude whether the local people willingly agreed to the deal or if they were coerced by force. There was indeed a battle, possibly apocryphal, that saw the settlers defeating an attack by the Dei people in 1822 that was subsequently controversially commemorated annually as Matilda Newport Day due to the actions of Ms Newport in helping to achieve victory in the battle. 

Over the next 20 years, more African Americans arrived and set up four additional colonies along the coastline with names like Maryland and Mississippi-in-Africa. In addition to African American settlers, there were a large number of enslaved people rescued from illegal slaving ships on their way to the Americas. It seems that the people freed in this manner preferred not to be returned to the communities that originally enslaved them so it was decided to bring them to Liberia. Some of these people originated from the Congo region and on arrival in Liberia they were all known as the "Congos".  They integrated with the Americo-Liberians and later the entire group became known as Congo people and the term "Americo-Liberian" fell away. Their descendents continue to be referred to as Congo people, to this day. The early colonizers suffered terribly from tropical diseases with 60% of the settlers having died by 1843 – the highest mortality rate for any country in modern history. In 1842, the smaller colonies amalgamated to form the country of Liberia and it later declared itself an independent republic in 1847. And so, remarkably, there was an independent black republic in Africa at a time when the entire continent (except for Ethiopia) was in the process of being colonised by various European powers. Liberia represented a completely unique situation on the African continent – a form of colonisation where the colonists were, on the one hand, Africans returning to the land of their ancestors while on the other hand, they were a people with a completely foreign culture and world view. The Americo-Liberian colonists were devoutly Christian and it seems that, like many European colonists, they regarded it their moral duty to save the indigenous people from heathen beliefs by converting them to Christianity.

The Liberian flag

The American settlers had a strong attachment to America and the culture of the American South and so, much of their new country’s symbolism was distinctly American. Their capital city was named Monrovia, after US President James Monroe. The eastern state was, and still is, called Maryland. The flag mimics the US flag except that it has just one star and hence the country became known as the Lonestar state. The country’s motto was (and remarkably still is): “the love of liberty brought us here.” The country’s other major cities include Buchanan, Harper, Greenville and Barclayville. The main roads in Monrovia: Benson St, Johnson St, Carey St.  The colonists dressed in typical American Southern attire and built large houses reminiscent of those found on the American plantations. To this day, Liberian names sound American and the local English accent has a distinctly American drawl.

The current Liberian coat of arm and motto

Although the political system was ostensibly democratic, there was only one ruling party – the True Whig Party – and the fairness of elections was dubious. In one election, the True Whig Party got 15 times more votes than there were voters. The political system was dominated by Americo-Liberians while indigenous Liberians, despite being in the majority, were mostly excluded from the political system. It seems that the Americo-Liberians – like other colonists in Africa – didn’t see the indigenous people as their equals. Indigenous Liberians were prevented from  voting in elections. There was even a investigation by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) that found  in 1927 that slavery was still being practiced in parts of Liberia. The descendants of the freed enslaved were themselves guilty of enslaving others. This report led to the resignation of the Liberian president and vice president at the time.   

Some people take a perverse joy in pointing out that the Americo-Liberians employed many of the same oppressive, discriminatory practices that white colonists employed elsewhere on the continent. This is certainly a touchy subject even within Liberia and much of the distressing parts of its recent history has its roots in frustrations and anger that indigenous Liberians felt due to being treated as second class citizens. Perhaps a more humanist take might be that the behaviour of Americo-Liberians during the colonisation of Liberia, does not reflect some peculiar failing on their part. Rather, their behaviour reflects the view of a community of people from a supposedly more technologically advanced culture which arrives and settles in a land where the local people appear to them as “primitive”. They might then take on what seems to them to be “enlightened” thinking and progressive action to educate, acculturate and “free” the indigenous people from “heathen” beliefs. If one truly believes that “heathens” will go to hell, then it seems an act of great generosity to save them through Christianity. Merely having a similar skin colour to the local people is not a guarantee of solidarity and cultural tolerance. Around the world, there have been derogatory attitudes towards rural people regarded as backward, hillbillies (USA), low class (UK), serfs (Eastern Europe), untouchables (India), amaqaba (South Africa). It’s a sadly all too human trait to regard the “other” as less rather than merely different. Even the damning League of Nations report on slavery as practiced by the Americo-Liberians should be considered in light of the fact that similar systems of forced labour were still common until 1975 in the Portguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. It also appears that part of the report was criticising indigenous Liberians themselves who were continuing the ancient culture of slavery within their rural villages.  It seems the Liberian government regarded forced labour more like an alternative approach to paying income tax. In modern society, we accept that about 20% of our income is given to the government to provide services, which means we work for free for the government for 20% of our time. What the Liberian government was doing – in some cases – was requiring people who couldn’t pay monetary taxes to provide free labour instead to build national infrastructure like roads. This approach to forced labour was not unique to Liberia (and it continues officially in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and a few other countries). Unfortunately, it seems that this forced labour system was abused by private Liberian plantation owners to get free labour to work on their farms. Nevertheless, it seems simplistic and unfair for some people to crow about how former slaves had themselves became enslavers.      

Liberia struggled economically during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and became heavily indebted and unable to repay foreign loans. While neighbouring colonies/countries were growing economically and investing in crucial infrastructure like roads, railways and electricity systems, Liberia seemed stagnant and unable to progress and expand significantly beyond a  handful of coastal towns. It is not clear why Liberia fell so far behind its neighbours. One former Liberian president claimed that neighbouring colonies benefited from the economic linkages and technical skills of the British and the French. Perhaps the  British/French benefitted from having a long history of colonisation in multiple countries so were able to learn from and replicate techniques and interventions that had succeeded elsewhere.    

The economy in the first half of the 1900’s was dominated by one major foreign investment: the creation in 1926 of the enormous Firestone Rubber Plantation, the largest rubber plantation in the world, about 60km from Monrovia. This plantation employed up to 25,000 Liberians and was the backbone of the Liberian economy and government tax revenue for decades. The company began its operations by making a loan to the Liberian government and then demanded to have the final say on all the government's expenditure until the loan was repaid in 1956! The Firestone Rubber plantation continues to operate to this day, employing 7500 Liberians and remains the biggest rubber plantation in the world. 

In the middle of the 20th century, Liberia began to modernise with assistance from the USA. Liberian President Tubman (1944 to 1971) strategically positioned the country as an important American Cold War ally and was thus able to secure significant American investment, most notably the building of the Freeport of Monrovia and the Roberts International Airport. This led to an economic boom in Liberia with the country experiencing the second fastest GDP growth in the world thanks to a significant increase in rubber, timber and iron ore exports. The economy also benefited from a policy of making it cheap and easy for any cargo ship to register as a Liberian vessel which led to Liberia having more registered merchant vessels than any other country for many years. This economic success led to many indigenous Liberians migrating from the rural inland areas to the coastal cities despite the Liberian government’s attempts to prevent this. President Tubman also introduced limited political reforms that allowed some indigenous Liberians to vote and his government implemented much-needed literacy campaigns.

In some ways the 1960's and 70's were a golden age for Liberia. The economy grew rapidly and attracted celebrities and revolutionaries from across the continent. At the time, Monrovia’s Ducor Hotel, one of the few five star hotels on the continent, was the place to be in West Africa - you might have seen Idi Amin taking a swim in the famous swimming pool (allegedly with his gun) and Miriam Makeba singing in the bar. Liberia in the days of Tubman must have stood out as somewhat surreal. An African country where the elite were all black, dressed in the flamboyant fashions of the American South, the women in Victorian hooped dresses, the men in top hats and tailcoats, driving American cars, speaking American English, living in palatial, plantation-style homes with giant verandahs and balconies, going to dancing balls and attending joyful church services. An African Gone with the Wind perhaps?

However, despite Tubman’s achievements, political reforms to allow greater participation of indigenous Liberians (more than 90% of the population) in all spheres of life were painfully slow. The society was stratified with Americo-Liberians, the political and economic elite, living on the coast, while indigenous Liberians mostly lived in the densely forested interior and were distinctly second class. Increasingly, indigenous Liberians began resisting and mobilising against the political system. While there were some voices within the Americo-Liberian political establishment calling for more rapid, inclusive reforms, President Tubman stubbornly resisted.

 In 1971, President Tubman unexpectedly died and his deputy, William Tolbert took over. Tolbert began to implement some of the necessary inclusive reforms and brought a few indigenous Liberians into important leadership positions. These reforms were resisted by many and he was accused by some leading Americo-Liberians of "letting the peasants into the kitchen".

Tolbert ended the de facto one party state and allowed an opposition political party to emerge but everything he did was seen as too little, too late and the country was gripped by increasing instability. In 1979, an ill-conceived tax on rice leading to an increase in food prices proved the last straw and protests ensued.  The protests descended into rioting and looting with 40 people killed and the country became highly unstable.

On the night of 12 April 1980, 17 indigenous Liberian soldiers led by 28 year-old Master Sergeant Samuel Doe mutinied and attacked President Tolbert’s residence. A freakish stray bullet severed the telephone line and President Tolbert was unable to call for help. One can only wonder how many lives might have been saved over the next 25 years had that bullet missed. The soldiers quickly overran the President’s meagre defenses and he was immediately executed and disemboweled.

The soldiers quickly took over the main radio station, and Samuel Doe announced that there had been a coup d'etat and that he was the new leader of Liberia. Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were quickly rounded up, taken to the beach, tied to specially erected poles and the public and the world’s media were invited to watch as they were executed by firing squad. Only four cabinet ministers avoided execution, one of these was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, future Nobel prize winner and Liberian president.

Cabinet ministers lined up for public execution by Samuel Doe's government

Samuel Doe led the country brutally and shambolically for the next 10 years. As public unhappiness with him grew, he increasingly resorted to favouring and surrounding himself with members of his Krahn tribe to ensure his safety. In 1985 there was a failed attempted coup against Doe led by soldiers from the Gio and Mano tribes and Doe later took brutal vengeance against innocent communities in those areas. This action soon morphed into Doe's Krahn community attacking other tribes and them in turn retaliating. Despite his despotic behaviour, Samuel Doe continued to get diplomatic and financial support from the USA (he was one of the few African leaders invited to the White House) which regarded him as an ally in its fight against the supposedly ever-expanding Soviet communist threat.   

President Reagan invited Samuel Doe to the white House

However, Doe had unleashed the apocalyptic forces of ethnic nationalism, and multiple rebel movements sprung up trying to overthrow him. The main rebel group was led by Charles Taylor who was trained and financed by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In 1990, another rebel group led by Prince Johnson attacked the building where Doe was meeting with international peacekeepers, massacred 80 of Doe's soldiers and captured him. Prince Johnson filmed himself as he tortured Doe for 12 hours, ordering his soldiers to cut off Doe's ears then castrate him before executing him. Doe's mutilated body was paraded through the streets of Monrovia. In the conundrum that is Liberia, Prince Johnson sits today as a senator in Liberia’s elected government while the videos of what he did to Samuel Doe are available for all to see on Youtube (not recommended viewing). Samuel Doe's is still a face on Liberia's currency.

Current Liberian dollar with Samuel Doe

Although Prince Johnson had started out as a comrade of Charles Taylor, they soon turned against one another and Liberia sank into the most brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands were killed as multiple rebel groups formed and killed along ethnic lines. Child soldiers were recruited, forced to kill their parents, fed drugs and unleashed as fearless killers on the public. One infamous child soldier called himself General Butt Naked. As a child he was appointed a spiritual leader within the Krahn tribe and thus became an advisor to President Doe. After Doe's death he led an army of naked children armed with AK47s and machetes who killed tens of thousands. In his own words:

"So, before leading my troops into battle, we would get drunk and drugged up, sacrifice a local teenager, drink the blood, then strip down to our shoes and go into battle wearing colorful wigs and carrying imaginary purses we'd looted from civilians. We'd slaughter anyone we saw, chop their heads off and use them as soccer balls. We were nude, fearless, drunk yet strategic. We killed hundreds of people—so many I lost count."

General Butt Naked subsequently admitted to killing 20,000 people during the war. He is now a church leader in Liberia.

Child soldiers on the attack

Other units of child soldiers wore wedding gowns and wigs as they murdered in the belief that these would provide magic protection against bullets. Cannibalism was common and openly displayed to the few journalists who dared to visit the country during this apocalyptic time. Liberians in their millions fled to neighbouring countries to escape the terror. This was truly one of the most nightmarish episodes in recent human history. Most Americo-Liberians fled overseas, never to return – their palatial homes to this day stand abandoned, some empty, some occupied by squatters, all gradually falling to pieces.

As the war progressed, various international organisations tried to have the rebel groups sign peace agreements, but these invariably failed until finally, in 1996, the war was ended by an agreement signed in Abuja, Nigeria and elections followed in 1997. At the time, Charles Taylor was a towering figure of power in Liberian society and his widely cited campaign slogan of “He killed my mammy, he killed my pappy, I’m going to vote for him [otherwise he may kill me]” proved highly effective. Taylor won the election with 75% of the vote with former World Bank official, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, coming a distant second.

One would think that Taylor’s megalomaniacal craving for power would have now been satisfied having been elected as the uncontested, popular leader of Liberia. But Taylor had even bigger ambitions. He believed that West Africa should be seen as three distinct zones of power: Anglophone West Africa (Nigeria and Ghana), Francophone West Africa (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali, Côte D’Ivoire, etc.) and the Mano River region (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea). Taylor’s ambition was to rule over the whole Mano River region and as soon as he assumed the presidency of Liberia he began organising and funding a rebel movement, the RUF, in neighbouring Sierra Leone that sought to overthrow the government there. The RUF employed similar tactics to those used by Taylor in Liberia – child soldiers, amputation of limbs, mass murder of civilians, etc. – and Sierra Leone descended into a similar horror that Liberia had just experenced. Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, and the RUF quickly captured the diamond mining regions and used the diamonds they found there to fund the war, leading to the coining of the term “blood diamonds.”

In retaliation, in 1999 neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone supported a new Liberian rebel movement, LURD, which invaded Liberia from the north and soon posed a genuine threat to Taylor's government. So began the second Liberian civil war. More rebel movements later joined the fray, invading the southern parts of the country from Côte D’Ivoire. 

By 2001 the international community had had enough of Taylor and his support for the brutal Sierra Leonean RUF rebels. The United Nations Security Council imposed strict sanctions against Taylor and his government and two years later he was charged with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by his fighters in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, the horrific Liberian civil war continued unabated.  

And then in 2002, the women of Liberia rose up. Peaceful, silent protests against the violence began in a fish market, and then spread throughout the country with the women all dressed in white. They formed the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), with the statement: "In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails." These brave women not only forced Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana, but at those talks they formed a human shield around the venue preventing the delegates from leaving until they agreed to make peace. This was the decisive moment that was the beginning of the end of war in Liberia.

Charles Taylor returned from the Ghanaian peace talks to Monrovia with the capital under siege by the LURD rebel forces and with an International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over him. Nigeria offered him safe exile should he agree to leave Liberia and never get involved in Liberian politics again. Taylor accepted the offer and on 11 August 2003 he resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria. Three years later the Nigerian government agreed to hand Taylor over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone but Taylor then suddenly disappeared from the house where he'd been living. A furious President Bush told his Nigerian counterpart that if Taylor were not found and arrested, he would cancel an upcoming bilateral meeting of the two presidents. Twelve hours before the scheduled meeting, Taylor was captured at a remote border post with Cameroon in a Range Rover with diplomatic number plates and large quantities of dollars and heroin on board. He was swiftly transported to Liberia and within hours on to Sierra Leone. In 2006 his trial was transferred to the Netherlands and after a lengthy trial, in 2012, he was found guilty of 11 counts of crimes against humanity including terrorism, murder, rape and sexual slavery. He is currently serving his 50 year sentence in a UK jail.

His former wife, Jewel Taylor, is currently vice president of Liberia and Charles Taylor remains a popular figure in many parts of the country. We met many people who claim, incredibly, that he would win an election today if allowed to stand.

In 2005, with Taylor out of the country and UN peacekeeping forces more or less keeping the peace, the country's first truly free and fair elections was won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became Africa's first woman president. The new president faced the most daunting task imaginable. A country where about 10% of the population had been murdered and everyone else, deeply traumatised. The country’s infrastructure was totally destroyed: there was no electricity at all, no water system, the roads were undrivable, the formal economy barely existed.

The scale of the herculean task she undertook in the next decade cannot be detailed here – it is worth reading her remarkable life story.   

In short, she brilliantly succeeded in having all Liberia’s international debt cancelled and step by painful step began rebuilding the government and the economy from ground zero. After nine years of gradual, steady progress, things were just starting to look up when a virus emerged on the border of Liberia and Guinea that, until then, had only ever been found in remote villages in the Congo rainforest: Ebola. The virus quickly spread throughout the Mano river region, and the virus began killing thousands in the most horrific fashion. Ebola is spread by bodily fluids and physical touch and kills 50% of people infected – victims die from bleeding internally and through their eyes and other orifices. The highly contagious virus spread into the slums of Monrovia - the first time this virus had entered a large city. Things looked like they were about to spin totally out of control when youths raided a Monrovian isolation centre where Ebola patients were being treated and “liberated” them into the surrounding slum. Yet miraculously, despite Liberia having just 50 doctors when the epidemic began, with the decisive help of the USA army medical corps, this desperate situation was brought under control and two years after the epidemic began, the nightmare was over leaving almost 5000 dead. Sadly, the Ebola epidemic put a halt to much of the progress that was being made economically but nevertheless many people hail Johnson Sirleaf's two presidential terms as a success considering the state that she found the country in when she assumed the presidency. 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (on right) collects the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee (centre) and Twakkol Karman (Yemeni)  

It was surprising though to find quite a few Liberians who were not so impressed by Johnson Sirleaf. Some pointed to the finding of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that found her guilty of having funded Charles Taylor in his early years and that ruled that she should not be allowed to hold political office. Others claimed that she and/or her family were corrupt and demanded that she and other politicians be made to answer to a war and economic crimes commission. These critics scoffed at her award of the Nobel Peace Prize as an attempt by the international community to influence Liberians in the  elections that were imminent at the time. It was all quite confusing and hard to understand. 

In the most recent elections George Weah, perhaps Africa’s greatest footballer ever, was elected president. An incredible rags to riches story. His presidency unfortunately coincided with the ending of the United Nations peacekeeping presence in the country. Tens of thousands of highly paid United Nations employees brought an enormous amount of money into the country on a monthly basis, and when they left abruptly, the economy suffered noticeably. Fans of Weah point to his focus on local agricultural development to boost the use of Liberia’s incredibly fertile land and abundant water sources in order to reduce the importation of food. His detractors point to his lack of technical expertise and education in sharp contrast to his predecessor. Again, opinion is very much divided. To its credit, Liberia has seen a democratic change of power without violence and the hope is that, as political stability becomes the norm, voters can demand improved performance from their leaders.

While the task facing Liberia’s leaders is daunting, they are far ahead of a country like the DRC both politically and economically and the peace that prevails seems like it will endure. Liberians, like the Congolese, have been forced to become incredibly entrepreneurial and independent and if the government can just get basic infrastructure in place, the people themselves will do most of the rest. Unfortunately it seems that infrastructure like roads and electricity have been terrible for so long, that the population and the government lack the ambition or belief that things can and must change fast. Incremental improvements to the roads are not enough – an ambitious project of linking the major towns to the capital within a few years is needed. Much can be achieved in a short time – neighbouring Sierra Leone serves as an example. Even if toll roads are the only viable form of finance, the savings in time, fuel and “bus” fares would more than compensate for the extra costs of the toll fees. 

Depending on whom we spoke with, there is either a sense of optimism about the future or a sense of resignation that the country will continue to muddle along slowly and in the process fall further behind the rest of the region and the world. One hopes that Liberians will take time to appreciate how far they’ve come in the last 20 years while at the same time not accept the status quo indefinitely just because it’s better than war.

********** END OF LIBERIAN HISTORY **********

After a couple of hours of sitting by the side of the road, we wondered where on earth our driver might be. We thought about calling him but no one had his number. Ask the “car boy”, someone suggested, he must have the driver’s number. The car boy’s seat was on the back of the pickup on top of the load. While we were uncomfortably squashed inside the vehicle, we still felt grateful to not be the car boy: a teenage boy whose job it seemed was to jump up and down from the back, fill and carry jerrycans of water to cool down the radiator, check tyres, check oil and do any other grunt work the driver demanded. The other passengers started laughing infectiously, like you do when your situation is tragic  - as ours undoubtedly was. They explained that the teenage kid who was the ‘car boy’ was in fact also a paying passenger! His mother had paid our driver to take him home to Monrovia from Ganta, which is an easy three hour journey along a beautiful tar road. But once the mother had left, the driver got offered this deal to transport some merchandise to Zwedru, and so he changed his plan. The poor boy had no choice but to stay with the vehicle and accompany the driver to Zwedru - he was now travelling in the opposite direction of his original destination! And, given that we were not even halfway to Zwedru yet, it seemed like it would be many days before he would arrive in Monrovia. To add insult to injury, his status had changed from ‘paying passenger with seat inside car’ to ‘car boy with seat outside car on top of roof’. From our perspective: a total injustice. From a teenage boy’s perspective: total adventure!

Fixing the suspension on the way to Zwedru

At 10pm our driver returned from his mission with spare parts and a mechanic, and this time the repair job was pretty effective. This was a good thing since the really tough driving was about to begin. 

Stopping and starting, we covered a good 30 kms until we hit the mud swamp. The road ahead was blocked by a sedan stuck in a big mud hole. Everyone got involved, pushing and shoving and just when you thought it was hopeless and the car would never get out, it suddenly moved forward and was free. Next, it was the turn of our heavily overloaded pickup and sure enough we got stuck. Badly. After an hour of pushing, our driver gave up and went to sleep in the cab. We were deep in the forest with no villages anywhere near us so everyone else milled around waiting for who knows what. We gave thanks that Liberia’s notoriously heavy rains kept away that night while we all waited outdoors for something to happen. As time passed, more cars began appearing from either direction adding to the queue waiting their turn to tackle our mud hole. At around 3am, a group of guys from the back of the queue came to see what the holdup was. They woke our driver and decided to give pushing another try and miraculously we got out of the hole. We had been on the road for 14 hours and had covered 100 kms. We were not even halfway to Zwedru. There was nothing on the way. No hotels, no restaurants, no where to stop for amenities, nothing but magnificent, thick forest for kilometres. 

Our vehicle continued slowly grinding its way along. After about an hour’s travel we encountered a truck blocking the road and a queue of cars waiting for it to be moved. Our driver, exhausted, turned off the engine, slumped forward and went to sleep until everyone else got their cars unstuck. At 5am we reached a village and gratefully ordered tea and fried eggs at the roadside tea shop, the first food available since the pineapple we’d had for dinner the day before. Liberia has cute little teashops on most street corners where you can order: Lipton Tea, ‘Nescafe Tea’ (instant coffee)  and ‘Over Tea’ (Ovaltine). These beverages seem more or less interchangeable and generically referred to as “tea”. This is perhaps the only country where one can order tea and be given hot chocolate. You can also always get an omelette fried with onions on a fresh baguette topped with mayonnaise.

While we ate, the driver fixed the radiator by pouring a raw egg into it. Sorts out radiator holes in a jiffy! Snuff tobacco does too, apparently. And we were good for another 10 kms until something audibly snapped. It was the left suspension and the wheel had to come off again and the axle re-attached to the leaf springs. This took another two hours. 

Going no where slowly. Waiting for repairs.

24 hours into our journey to cover the 215 kms to Zwedru, we were still 107 kms away. We’d had no sleep, it just wasn’t possible, being so squashed. We hadn’t even brushed our teeth, we felt rough. 

With the left suspension fixed, we hobbled along again for a few more hours until the right suspension snapped. At this point everyone was pretty much at the end of their tethers. We started to talk about finding other transport. This wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much at all in the way of alternative options as most passing vehicles travel fully loaded. There are always some motorbikes around but we were still 74kms away. That’s a long time on a motorbike on these roads when you’re that tired. 

Lunchtime came around and this time we’d happily broken down in a village where we could get a hot meal: the options were rice with potato leaf stew and deer meat or bean stew with deer meat. There was only bush meat in these parts. If you were lucky it might be deer meat but it could also be monkey. After two hours it started getting hot and our car was still sitting on bricks, waiting for something or other to happen, who knew? We sat nodding off with exhaustion. Another car came by claiming to have space for a couple of passengers. This sounded hopeful though a bit confusing: we’d have to pay again of course and they had to go and load something first somewhere else. It wasn’t clear if we could take the spare seats in their vehicle or not. Our brains weren’t working well enough to follow the pidgin. Also there was the issue of finding our driver. He had disappeared in search of spare parts. We needed to find him before we could take any other transport since our backpacks were buried in the load. One of the passengers went walking around the village trying to find our driver but in the end he couldn’t be found and the other vehicle left to fetch something, promising to return. Our driver then appeared and fixed the car and so we had to decide whether to wait for the other vehicle which was nowhere to be found or continue the journey with our vehicle that was now ready to go. We chose the devil we knew, and sure enough the devil we knew broke down five kilometres later.

Wheel studs broken again... on the way to Zwedru

We were now 67 kms away from Zwedru and the shadows were lengthening. We couldn’t face another night on the road so we managed to wave down a motorbike and we had to bid farewell to our travel buddies who were too scared to travel by bike, Congo-style. After our motorbike accidents in the DRC we had sworn never to have both of us and our luggage on one motorbike again but at this point we’d had enough. Liberian roads, though muddy, don’t have the dangerous deep soft sand found in the southern DRC and so after a thankfully uneventful journey we arrived in Zwedru in time for dinner. We had completed 215km in 36 hours. 

We met up with our travel companions the next day and found out that they had stuck with the vehicle until late into the night when they too gave up and took motorbikes. We were invited to the family funeral that our travel companion was attending which was an interesting experience. Funerals in Monrovia are dance- and alcohol-filled affairs with fierce debates about politics.  

After a couple of days recovering in Zwedru, we began searching for an “NGO car”. We’d received a tip to avoid the merchandise pickups and find a car that transported NGO employees around the country. Since the end of the civil wars there has been a proliferation of NGOs in the country and NGOs have the best cars: new, strong, comfortable 4x4’s and they don’t carry loads. To find one, you have to find a transport-fixer-guy in the main vehicle parking area in the town and then he uses his contacts to find out which vehicles are going where. By mid-morning there was good news: a brand new Land-Cruiser-NGO-Car heading for Fish Town. Nice! 

The two of us had the comfortable backseat all to ourselves. Even though the road was bad, the car handled like a champion and we sat back and enjoyed the luxuriousness of it all. The car belonged to one of the Catholic Church’s development agencies and the employee being driven to Fish Town, our next stop, had very interesting views on politics and, of course, his own horror story to tell: 

"NGO car" cruises past trucks stuck in the mud (towards Fish Town)

He was 10 years old when the civil war started and his family moved from town to town fleeing ahead of the approaching rebels. They lived in the forests and in the many houses abandoned by families who had fled to become refugees in neighbouring countries. These empty houses became temporary homes for countless people as they moved through the country trying to stay out of harm's way. When in a civil war situation, it seems that bravery is not an asset. Those who fled at the first sign of danger were most likely to survive. Those who decided to wait-and-see often suffered horrifically. One day a group of rebels found his group. They separated the women and children from the men and then shot the men. That was how he lost his dad. 

"NGO Car" cruises through the mud

We arrived in Fish Town in the early evening after the easiest and most comfy journey we’d had since Namibia. Unfortunately, there was no fish in Fish Town, no cooked food of any kind it turned out. One restaurant owner, who was completely out of food, took pity on us and managed to scrape together a plate of french fries and one piece of chicken for us to share. 

The next day we had to cover the last 130 kms to our final destination of Harper. Although Rejane wasn’t feeling great - a tummy bug - we were keen to push on and get to the beautiful coastline of Harper. We spotted an almost full minibus that had been two days on the road all the way from Monrovia - we understood their pain - and they made room for us. For this stretch we had no soldier or NGO-car authority to help us get waved through the endless checkpoints. So we just had to swallow the irritation at the shakedown attempts and the endless paging through our passports. Amazingly, the road from Fishtown to Harper had been newly and expertly tarred and so we reached Harper that afternoon. From Monrovia the journey had taken us a full week.

Harper has beautiful stretches of white palm-tree lined beaches but the infrastructure is still totally bombed out from the war years. Even for unfussy travellers like ourselves, there was barely anywhere vaguely nice to stay, no matter how much you were willing to pay. The only guesthouse in town is in an area that was once an affluent Americo-Liberian suburb but all of the houses had been abandoned during the wars and were slowly disintegrating. Those houses that had functional roofs were now occupied by “squatters” who lack both the resources and the incentives to maintain the buildings. As a result, wandering through parts of the town, the scene had a distinctly post-apocalyptic atmosphere. There was little visible, recent construction activity despite the war having ended almost two decades before. 

Derelict Americo-Liberian mansion, Harper 

That night, Rejane’s tummy bug morphed into symptoms more typical of Covid and we began to contemplate what that would mean for two travellers in a remote part of Liberia where there was only occasional electricity, no running water and a fragile, under-resourced health-care system.

We had been very careful throughout our trip to wear our N95 masks indoors and on public transport and so far all our numerous tests required when crossing borders had come up negative. When we arrived in Liberia, we tested negative on arrival, and at that point in time, the whole country was seeing an average of just eight new Covid cases per day. Mask-wearing was mostly non-existent, even in banks and shops. At the time we arrived, in June 2021, Liberia had experienced fewer than 100 Covid deaths in total and the consensus on the street and amongst the elite was that Covid was more-or-less a non-event. It was the same story that we’d heard and seen throughout our journey so far.  Lulled into a false sense of security we had a couple of meals in indoor restaurants for the first time on our whole trip. Little did we know but the infamous Delta variant was in Monrovia and Liberia’s biggest Covid wave had already begun.

Fast forward a week and Rejane was feeling grim. She tested negative for malaria on one of the malaria-self-test-kits we were carrying. Dave, who had no symptoms at this stage, headed off to the local government hospital to find out whether they were able to test for Covid there. The JJ Dossen Hospital seemed in decent shape, not too dissimilar to what one would see at our local rural hospitals back home in South Africa. The helpful hospital staff confirmed that Covid tests were available, although judging by their response, these tests were not often performed nor requested. The two of us returned an hour later where we both did rapid Covid tests. While waiting outside for our results, there was a distinct change in attitude from the hospital staff when their relaxed easy smiles were suddenly replaced with concerned looks. Fifteen minutes later a doctor appeared and beckoned us to follow her. As we walked with her, she confirmed what we now suspected: we had both tested positive for Covid19.

This Covid test was positive

By a stroke of good fortune, the JJ Dossen hospital was receiving support from a remarkable international NGO called Partners in Health (PIH). We’d heard the PIH name mentioned over the years - particularly during HIV activism days in the 1990’s - but we had never come into direct contact with it. PIH believes that quality health care is everyone’s right and its mission is to ensure that people in the poorest countries get access to the best health care and not merely the minimum level of healthcare that the country can afford. Prior to PIH, most international health NGOs and the World Health Organisation argued against making expensive treatments available to poor countries as this would divert resources from other, more cost-effective interventions that could have a greater, broader impact. 

Partners in Health, and its remarkable founder, Dr Paul Farmer, had a different approach. They looked at the needs of each individual patient and did everything humanly possible to get them the treatment that would save their life, no matter the cost. This profoundly humanist approach was initially criticised by public health experts: how could one justify spending US$20,000 treating a single Multi-drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB) patient in Peru when one could save many more lives by spending that money on cheaper interventions like childhood vaccinations or providing clean water and sanitation? Of course, that argument means saying to the person who is dying from MDR TB, “sorry we can’t justify the expense of saving your life” while a few thousand kilometers away, another patient in a rich country would receive the life-saving treatment free of charge. PIH would not accept this blatant inequality in health care and, through its relentless focus on providing even expensive treatments to the poorest communities, a remarkable change began to happen. PIH’s activism led to drug companies dramatically lowering the prices of expensive treatments so that they became affordable to the poorest countries - the cost of treating MDR TB fell by 96%. What’s more, PIH had already proven false the claim that these diseases were too clinically complex to manage in the poorest countries. Models of treatment developed during the years when PIH was using expensive treatments could be replicated in poor countries who could now access previously unaffordable treatments. 

The story of Partners in Health is beautifully captured in the award winning book: Mountains Beyond Mountains. A book everyone interested in a better world should read. 

Rebecca, the friendly PIH doctor, led us to a new Covid isolation ward recently built at the hospital by PIH. The lesson learnt during Liberia’s Ebola epidemic was that if people were forced to isolate at a hospital where living conditions were bad, these patients would either run away or they would not come forward to test in the first place, in order to avoid being forced to isolate in uncomfortable conditions at the hospital. So when the Covid19 pandemic began, one of the first actions by PIH was to build a nice, new isolation building to encourage Covid19 patients to isolate themselves away from their families. 

We were not forced to isolate at the hospital but the reality was that our guesthouse wasn’t great, it didn’t have a kitchen nor a restaurant and we wouldn’t be able to go out and shop without interacting with people. So as we were shown around the brand new and, as yet, unused isolation facility we couldn’t believe our luck. We had our own room, a clean bathroom and toilet, three hot meals a day, 24 hour medical care and the rather comforting sight of an oxygen machine right next to our beds, should things take a turn for the worse. 

We returned to our guesthouse to fetch our bags and had to deal with a rather annoyed guesthouse owner who demanded proof that we had tested positive for Covid as he thought we were just making up stories in order to leave without paying. When we paid him in full, he was somewhat mollified but still suspicious.  

We returned to the hospital and collapsed on our beds. By this stage Rejane was feeling truly rotten and despite her trying to put on a brave face, the visit by the hospital’s Mental Health Team picked up she was feeling worse than she was letting on and in no time she was hooked up to a drip which helped matters considerably. 

Pretending not to be feeling grim

Our first priority was to contact our fellow passengers who we had travelled with en route to Harper. Thanks to the ubiquitous use of WhatsApp this was easily done and we were super relieved to find that not a single one of our fellow travellers had been infected. For us that is excellent proof of the effectiveness of N95 masks and validation of our policy of religiously wearing them on all public transport even when on those uncomfortable 36 hour long journeys. It was really heart-warming how people who had only known us for a day or even just a few hours contacted us throughout our stay at the hospital to check on how we were doing.  

The helpings of hospital food were very generous

At 9pm every night and 6am every morning, a nurse in a full hazmat suit tested our oxygen levels, temperature, blood pressure and pulse and sternly ordered us to take our medication and drink more water when our blood pressure was too low. Every day we would get friendly enquiries from the hospital kitchen as to which typical Liberian dishes we preferred. The food in Liberia is rich and hot - chilli hot. So hot it is hard to eat and we are no chilli slouches. Stews are cooked into thick broths often with three different kinds of meat in one dish with dried fish added for extra flavour. Rolls of beef skin were common though not particularly appetising. We’d get a mound of rice to eat it with but sadly not much in the way of veggies. Dave’s sense of smell and taste disappeared and surprisingly this meant he couldn’t taste the heat of the chilli either. There were also various delicious porridges served and rolls with omelettes. We got fruit most days including delicious mangoes and oranges. 

After about a week Rejane was feeling much better while Dave was still coughing up all sorts of gross green and orange phlegm. Most people who have had mild/moderate Covid know the anxious feeling after a week or so when you’re feeling really sick and know that the days to come are when things either start improving or get much, much worse. But lucky for us, our coughs gradually got better - we never needed the oxygen machines - and after 14 days we were ready to rejoin the outside world. Despite our repeated offers to pay for the health care we’d received, we were told that all our care was within the PIH budget. In the end, we settled on the compromise of making a donation of necessary supplies directly to the hospital which eased our sense of guilt at having used resources not intended for us.  We had grown very fond of the friendly, caring staff who had been so kind to us. The day before we left, a new Covid19 patient, who had recently returned from Monrovia, joined us. After we left, we remained in contact with the hospital staff and were sad to hear that the ward filled up to capacity with some people passing away. The staff were understandably anxious and fearful. 

Leaving JJ Dossen's Covid Isolation Ward after 14 days

Liberia was struck hard by their Covid Delta wave and it remains a mystery why it was hit harder than neighbouring countries. While we were at the hospital, the rainy season began with torrential downpours almost every day. This lowered the sweltering temperatures but might also have forced people indoors more than normal which would also contribute to higher rates of transmission. However, neighbouring countries have the same climate and the Delta variant was also circulating there, yet somehow there was no big wave of infections. It seems there is still so much unknown about this virus and how it manifests in Africa and all we can do is reiterate what we said in our last blog that more of the billions of dollars spent on Covid research needs to be directed to Africa to understand what is going on here.

As we gingerly emerged from the hospital it was noticeable how many more members of the public were wearing masks. We moved into the Pastoral Centre guesthouse set up by the Catholic church which was basic but comfortable and had a more reliable electricity supply than the rest of the city, thanks to the church’s generator. After having been in Harper for over two weeks, we finally got to visit one of its beautiful beaches and swim in the ocean. 

We didn't take many photos in Harper and unfortunately the only photos we have make it look grim. We visited this lovely beach (photo not ours)

A road through a huge tree, Harper, Liberia

Liberians are super friendly and happy-go-lucky people and we grew very fond of the country, despite spending half our stay there inside a hospital. However, walking around Harper, the seemingly endless sight of once magnificent Americo-Liberian homes now standing derelict gives an overwhelmingly post-apocalyptic feel to what once must have been a wonderful holiday town. If you were dropped in Harper without any information, you would think that a war had ended last month and not two decades ago. The biggest problem seems to be that the Americo-Liberians who fled the conflict don’t seem to have an intention of returning any time soon. Yet, they are still legally the owners of these derelict houses and Liberia wants to honour their property rights, appreciating the fact that these people didn’t voluntarily abandon their houses - they were fleeing war. But there is now an impasse: it is unlikely that investors will want to invest in a city that looks like a warzone but it will continue to look this way unless the owners of these houses either repair or sell them. Speaking to Liberians, the consensus seems to be that few, if any, of these Americo-Liberian families will ever return and perhaps they were just holding on to the ownership of these properties in the hope that when Harper returns to prosperity they can sell these properties for more money. But Harper will not return to its former glory until these homes are repaired. A catch22 situation. Perhaps the Liberian government needs to give an ultimatum that either these homes are renovated or sold within a certain period of time or that they will be expropriated by the state and sold to people/companies that agree to rebuild or renovate them.

Former President Tubman's abandoned mansion

Liberia is full of surprises and when we passed a giant, impressively built building with tall columns and a beautiful mural on one side, we were intrigued. On closer inspection we found that this was the local Freemasons Lodge - it turns out that many of the Americo-Liberian elite were freemasons, including many of the past presidents. This lodge was situated in a prime location and despite suffering the same decay as much of the rest of the city, it still makes a grand sight. Another building we visited was the abandoned home of Liberia’s most famous leader: President William Tubman. This too must have been a magnificent house with sweeping views over the ocean. Despite now being abandoned and partially occupied by homeless people, hints of its former glory were evident in the beautiful architecture and the spacious rooms.

Harper's derelict Freemason Lodge

After taking it easy for a few more days we began to make plans for returning to Monrovia so that we could head on to Sierra Leone. We weren’t keen on a repeat of the road trip the way we'd come but there weren’t many other options. The only flights out were from the small airport which has no commercial flights. There are a few private flights on a small plane each week but these could only be booked by one of the NGO’s. Like ‘NGO-car’, there was ‘NGO-flight’, a great crowd to be in with, if you could arrange it somehow. After asking a local NGO for help, we managed to book two seats on the next plane only to have our plans thwarted when the airline cancelled all flights until further notice due to members of their staff catching Covid. Doh!

So we were back to trying to find an NGO-car. 

Maryland county is famous for this Palm Butter dish

One additional problem we now had was that our unexpected two week stint in the hospital meant that our tourist visas had expired. A road trip involving dozens of checkpoints with an expired visa did not sound like fun. We contacted our friendly immigration lady we’d met in the airport on arrival and she explained that visas could only be extended in Monrovia. But not to worry, she said, we could call her if any of the soldiers at the checkpoints gave us a hard time. 

Sports Betting is big across Liberia, including Harper

Dave began to search for an NGO-car only to find that one had left an hour before. We were encouraged to grab our bags, jump on motorbikes, and try to catch up with it. After a high speed journey to the small town of Pleebo we had to give up the chase and settle for finding another pickup. it was either that or be stuck in Maryland province until heavens knows when. It had been raining torrentially over the three weeks we’d been in Harper so we braced ourselves for even worse road conditions. We were happy that our pickup chose to take a different route to that which we’d come on - this time hugging the coast for most of the journey which was a lot shorter. 

Within a few hours of starting our journey we devised an effective way of talking our way through our visa problem at the checkpoints. Rejane would lead the way, while Dave pretended to be busy doing something in the pickup truck. The soldiers/police were generally quite enamoured with Rejane’s feminine presence and she would chat them up friendily in her basic Liberian pidgin making sure to distract them from inspecting her passport too intently. Dave would appear at the end of Rejane’s show and was invariably waved through with only a cursory glance at his passport. This strategy proved highly effective and got us through 18 of the 20 checkpoints we encountered. The two checkpoints where this approach failed required a call to our friend at immigration and thankfully, in a small country like Liberia, it turned out she was well known and respected so in the end, our visa problem proved much less of a hassle than we’d expected. 

Sadly, our transport was not as hassle free. This time we spent not one but two nights squashed on an even smaller backseat with two elderly gentlemen. We hit mud swamp after mud swamp (each one took hours to get through), the radiator broke (which Dave fixed with his epoxy glue) and a wheel literally came off while we were driving. There were moments of despair that morphed into periods of deeper despair. Hours stuck on the side of remote roads gave us ample time to admire Liberia’s magnificent forests. There was exhaustion that you feel deep in your bones and camaraderie that lifts the heart and fuels the energy needed to eventually, finally reach Monrovia. 400 km that took three days to travel. 

Coastal road from Harper to Monrovia

Trying to get around the logging truck: fail!

Trying to get around the logging truck: success!!

Bush meat for lunch

Skillful mud driving. For this deep mud hole, the driver disconnected the air filter. We have no idea why - but it worked.

Epoxy glue meant for fixing the tent came in handy when the radiator broke

Our seat for 3 days and 2 nights

Another breakdown - time to appreciate Liberia's magnificent forests

Local villagers made their own "toll road" around the mud holes

This truck was stuck for 2 days with about 10 trucks waiting behind it

Our legend driver and travel buddy

After just a day’s rest in Monrovia we were forced to make sudden plans to cross into Sierra Leone as there were rumours that the land borders were about to close. We rushed to get another Covid test which proved a bit of a fiasco. Liberia chose to give just one company the monopoly on Covid testing and this inevitably led to the most disorganised, inefficient Covid testing situation we’d yet encountered. It was only through a stroke of good luck that someone sitting next to us in the queue had a contact in senior management who was able to ensure that we got tested in time for our departure. 

Lively Monrovia public transport hub

Shoe shine and tea: sights and sounds of a Monrovian transport hub

And then we jumped onto a shared taxi and a few hours later we were at the Sierra Leonean border ready for our next adventure.

As tough as our travels through Liberia were, we felt that the hardship forged a stronger, deeper affection for this plucky little country. Liberia came through for us during our toughest travel experience and we will forever be grateful to friends new and old who helped us on this part of our journey. 

Our most powerful memory of Liberia is the incredible friendliness of its people.

Liberia! My Man! Good luck and keep on hustling. 

Best Book on Liberia:

Besides “Madame President” and “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, we also recommend the brilliant book by the Liberian New York Times journalist Helene Cooper called “The House at Sugar Beach”.

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