The Tragedy of Liberia

Bob and Gerry Branch invited us to stay at their apartment in Monrovia while JoAnn and I were ‘trained.’ In this photo, Bob watches a funeral parade outside his window while Jo looks at the camera.

(At the end of the last blog, my ex-wife and I found ourselves stranded in New York City because we had mistakenly flown to JFK one day late and missed our flight to Africa. In this blog, we reach our destination.)

We made it to the right terminal on the right day and at the right time. In fact, absolute paranoia insisted we be three hours early. We watched lots of planes take off and land.

Finally, we found ourselves flying across a rough Atlantic. To quote Snoopy, “it was a dark and stormy night.” Lighting danced between the clouds as we struggled to deplete the airplane’s complimentary booze supply. We toasted the fact we had made it, we toasted Liberia, we toasted Jo’s mom for her hundred dollars and we toasted toasting.

I finally managed to fall asleep and only awakened when the pilot announced good morning. Jo and I scrambled to look down and were met by a vast sea of green broken occasionally by small clearings filled with round huts. Tropical Africa!

There was brief stopover in Dakar where French-speaking Senegalese served warm coke and ginger snaps for breakfast. It’s the type of meal you really should forget but never do.

An hour later we were dropping in to Robert’s Field, Liberia’s International Airport. A stewardess wrenched open the door admitting a sudden blast of heat and humidity. Luckily, roaming the streets of New York City in August had prepared us. What we weren’t prepared for was the view.

Striding across the tarmac to greet us was my old friend Morris Carpenter from community college days in California. He had joined the Peace Corps the year before and been assigned to Liberia. By some quirk of fate we had been assigned to the same country and would end up living closer together than we had in California.

All grins, we tumbled into each other. I couldn’t resist saying, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

Morris, as he put it, had been camped out on the Peace Corp’s Director’s desk in Monrovia for a month seeking a change in assignment when our arrival was announced. He quickly volunteered to pick us up. The Director, recognizing the opportunity for Morris-free time, had agreed even faster.

On our way into Monrovia, Morris filled us in on life in the Peace Corps as ‘it really was.’ One year of living in Liberia had coated his youthful idealism with a thin veneer of cynicism. There were good reasons.

Liberia was a country that had been born and nurtured in paranoia. Its origins dated back to the early 1800’s when slaves were being freed in the New England and there was a growing concern about the expanding population of free black people. While most Northerners accepted that slavery was wrong, few were willing to accept their freed slaves as equals.

In the South, where slaves outnumbered their owners, fear replaced concern. Insurrection was a real possibility. Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and a number of other prominent Americans proposed a solution: ship freed African-Americans back to Africa. The American Colonization Society was founded and a portion of the west coast of Africa purchased. Approximately 11,000 freed slaves eventually shipped out.

Life was bleak and dangerous at first. The natives weren’t overly happy at seeing their long-lost cousins appropriate tribal lands and the Americo-Liberians (ALs) constituted a very small percentage of the total population.

The ALs had learned their US lessons well though and soon established themselves as the ruling elite. They took control of the government, education, and military. The natives were regarded as second-class citizens.

Power and privilege were the results but it was power and privilege accompanied by an underlying fear that the majority native population would rise up in revolt. This in turn led to a siege mentality and paranoia somewhat similar in nature to that felt by the white minorities in the Southern United States prior to the Civil War. I would see and experience several examples of this paranoia during my stay.

Close economic and political ties were maintained with the US over the years. Starting in 1926 Firestone entered the country and eventually cut down vast swathes of rainforest to plant rubber trees. As we drove by a rubber tree plantation on our way to Monrovia, Morris explained that the industry was now suffering from labor problems that the military had been called in to quash. Apparently workers were striking to earn twenty-five cents an hour.

On an outward level, there were a number of similarities between the United States and Liberia. English was the national language, the currency of the country was well-used American Dollars, and the flag was red white and blue complete with eleven stripes and one star. Upon arrival we even learned that the commanding general of the Liberian army was named George Washington. Not surprisingly, the government and the judiciary system were patterned after the American system.

In reality the government was a one party state controlled by the Americo-Liberians and whatever justice existed was heavily weighted toward keeping them in power. While change was underway when we arrived, it was too little and too late.

The failure to educate and bring large numbers of tribal Liberians into the economic and political system from the beginning was one of the major factors leading to the tragedy that Liberia would suffer over the next three decades. Americo-Liberians, tribal Liberians and the country would suffer terribly due to this negligence.

Morris dutifully dropped us of at Peace Corps headquarters to begin our orientation and take care of miscellaneous bureaucratic chores. While we had been playing at the World’s Fair, our fellow volunteers had been sweltering through hours of meetings. Now it was our turn.

Another married couple from Group VI, Bob and Gerry Branch, generously agreed to host our stay. They lived in a second floor apartment that overlooked one of Monrovia’s main streets. It provided a birds-eye view of life in the city.

Monrovia was overflowing with impoverished young people living in crowded tin shacks.

Monrovia was bursting at the seams with impoverished young people escaping from rural areas. Tin shacks fought for space as extended families struggled to find shelter from tropical downpours. Taxi and money-bus drivers, using their horns for brakes, filled the air with unceasing noise while the barking and growling of mangy dogs filled in around the edges. Evening air was tainted with the unique smell of cooked palm oil, smoke and moldering garbage.

Of course it wasn’t all bleak, assuming one had money. Monrovia had several good restaurants, a modern movie theater, an air-conditioned supermarket and a large paperback bookstore, all of which we came to appreciate over the next two years. Most Americo-Liberians did quite well. President Tubman lived in an impressive mansion on the outskirts of the city.

President Tubmans Mansion in 1966.

For our part, we were quite relieved to learn that our assignment wasn’t in Monrovia. Originally, we had been assigned to an elementary school down the coast in Buchanan. It was supposed to be a plum assignment so naturally another couple grabbed it when we failed to turn up.

We were left with their jobs; Jo would teach first grade and I would teach second in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. (Upcountry was anywhere inland.) Apparently this was our punishment for partying too long in Auburn. So be it…

(Note… in my March 3 blog I reported on how Phil Weisberg was arrested for holding up a sign criticizing Mrs. Tubman. Phil has since responded that he wasn’t arrested but was seized by security agents and later released.)

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