Plenty Bulletin Spring 2007 Vol. 23, No. 1
I just got back from Liberia at the end of January. Monrovia is turning into a fast paced metropolis where foreigners enjoy a quality of life that their US dollars can still easily buy.
When I went in January 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had just been elected. People could barely confine their enthusiasm and the optimism that peace and a good president would bring prosperity. The Peace Keepers’ tanks sat at key intersections, making everyone feel safe from the marauding armed ex-combatants of the past. There was no crime and hope was an abundant commodity. Anyone visiting was easily caught up in the enthusiasm including me. But under the skin of the country, I felt a foreboding. While foreign nationals and newly returned Liberians were spending US dollars, purchasing new shiny cars and frequenting the new clubs, bars and restaurants, Liberians were literally barefoot. But it is hard to see one’s feet when smiles and tempestuous conversations that speak of great tomorrows are all you can get in conversation.
I returned to the US and kept doing what I do — trying to raise funds, trying to bring the plight of Liberian Non-Governmental Organizations like IMANI HOUSE to the forefront and get some money for our programs. Imagine serving 11,000 women and children in a clinic, offering maternal and child treatment, dental, prenatal, immunization, general treatment, short stays and referrals and not being able to get enough drugs, a decent microscope or pay our member staff a living wage. But still the programs went on. Adult Literacy has three instructors, and sixty-five students. The government has knocked down the Water Street Market, but the students still come to class and our small apartment classrooms are packed. The tailoring class has fourteen students and many of the students from former classes now have their own businesses. We have two farm projects, one with a community of a hundred farmers who are doing cassava multiplication and another for general crops. We just sent over our second intern, Karin Sosis, who raised over $2,000 to pay for her own expenses.
On my trip this January, things look much different in Monrovia. The smiles are gone; struggle has taken its place. It felt like spring and summer had been usurped by winter and even one was hunched over pushing wheelbarrows up hills. The air was thick with reality this time, but the foreign nationals have never skipped a beat. In fact I don’t think they even noticed how desperately poor the majority of Liberians are.
The government is doing an excellent job of not stealing the resources, and instead investing in rebuilding and integrity under President Johnson-Sirleaf, but it has so little money.
With Lebanese businessmen now forced to pay the legitimate taxes on imports, they have passed the cost onto the consumer. Some things are sold for US dollars (usd) only and Liberians aren’t paid in US dollars. I made my usual trip to the Duala market to do my shopping as a Liberian would only to find that the prices are so high that Liberian government workers earning the equivalent of $35usd/month would have serious difficulty feeding their children.
My guestimate is that a Liberian would need about $300usd a month for basic survival. What is the average income of the average Liberian? Like I said a schoolteacher gets $35.00usd a month! The only difference is that he/she does get paid nowadays unlike before. How is everyone making it? Some have relatives in the US or Europe who send money. Everyone is trying to do some kind of business, and Monrovia is over-congested with people trying to survive.
You’re probably wondering about crime. Yes, it is on the rise with house break-ins and petty crimes. Crime is driven by the extreme poverty, unemployment, lack of skills and inflation caused by the expatriate influx. I believe that this can be turned around.
But there is light in the tunnel. There’s a good president and some good politicians in government. There are young Liberians who were in exile during the fourteen-year war who are starting to come home and invest. Liberians usually find a way when there is no way and they will survive this too. Peace is valued and the people vow to strangle (figuratively speaking) anyone who talks about starting war. The police and army are being retrained, and at least one commercial airline is traveling back into our airport.
The bottom line on all of this is that Liberia needs to develop the capacity of its local non-profits, government agencies and entrepreneurs if it is going to climb out of the rice sack it finds itself in right now. On my last two trips, I spent most of my time giving group training to staff in organizational management, fiscal and infrastructure development and fundraising.
For more information about Liberia—Suggested reading: United States Policy Towards Liberia 1822 to 2003 by Lester S. Hyman.
Imani House has been on the frontlines of support and development programs in Liberia. The programs are run by Liberians from the bottom-up, offering health, education, and agriculture since 1986. Plenty has been a friend, supporter, and colleague of our organization since 1991. We welcome any and all support. A small number of skilled volunteers are also accepted. We are anxious to restart our soybean growth and utilization program. During a visit to a program in Nicaragua started by Plenty, my husband Mahmoud and I got to see first hand what local groups can do with soybeans to build a viable, progressive enterprise. We welcome grant writers and technical people and others interested in helping us restart our soybean program.
Thanks Plenty for the great work that you continue to do to help indigenous people empower themselves and for the help and encouragement that you continue to give IMANI HOUSE.
Peace in not a cliché.