Last month, two Liberians were honoured with Global Citizen Movement Awards in New York.
The first was President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the architect of Liberia’s gradual rebirth. The second is Dr Rajesh Panjabi, whose organization Last Mile Health is leading a healthcare revolution in Liberia’s remotest regions. (Dr Panjabi is a U.S. citizen, but he was born here, and divides his time between Last Mile Health and Harvard Medical School).
At the Africa Governance Initiative, we build systems that help the government deliver its priority projects. Most of that work happens in government offices in the capital, Monrovia. But President Sirleaf and Dr Panjabi like to get out of Monrovia into the rural areas where two-thirds of Liberians live, so last week I decided to follow their example.
Travelling around Liberia is slowly getting easier. The first time I went to Liberia, in 2007, I took a ‘bush taxi’ to Buchanan, about 150km from Monrovia. It took four hours on a terrible road, and I was squeezed in so tightly that when the taxi stopped I couldn’t move my legs.
Earlier this year, a new road to Buchanan opened, one of the projects that AGI describes in our case study on Liberia’s 150 day action plan. It’s now an easy two hour drive. So if you want to get off the beaten track, you have to go further afield. Like Bopolu, where I went last week: only 100km from the capital, but still 3 ½ hours away on an unpaved road, a sea of mud in the rainy season.
I went to Bopolu because I wanted to spend some time away from the laptop, phone and email, to reflect on how Liberia is doing after ten years of peace, and write up my reflections in a letter to the President. It will go through a few iterations, but I have a first draft, about how the government can respond to its biggest challenge: jobs for young people.
I also went to Bopolu because I wanted to remind myself of what life is like when you leave the paved roads and air-conditioned offices in Monrovia. Bopolu is a county capital. There is a superintendent’s office, a UN military base, a small hospital, a school, and two guesthouses. That’s it. Nothing to do except sit on your porch and watch the rain come down. Evening dining options are tea-and-bread, or spaghetti and beans ladled out of a Tupperware. The beans were delicious with some sweet potatoes and pepper sauce.
I had been hoping to hear the President address the UN General Assembly around 9pm. Unfortunately, you can’t get ELBC (the government station) in Bopolu. Besides, by 9pm the rain was so heavy that people left their porches, turned their generators off and went to sleep. I walked the dark, deserted streets for a bit, and when they turned to mud, I turned in. I didn’t set an alarm: you wake with the sun in rural Liberia, because everyone else does.
Liberia is not a tourist destination, but it’s generally safe and friendly to travel around. The rural guesthouses are basic, but comfortable. The taxis have improved along with the roads, and break down less. They still put two on the front seat, so you end up pressed against the door, or with the gear stick in your left leg, but it’s better than bouncing in the back of a pickup, or rattling your spine on a bike. Life is expensive off the paved road, though. A taxi costs three times as much per kilometre. A motorbike costs ten times as much. There is no electricity grid in Bopolu, but in Monrovia, over 10,000 homes are now connected to the grid, and paying less than half what they used to spend on generator fuel. When the new power stations are turned on, it will be a quarter.
The next day the rain stopped, and I headed back by a different route. We passed through several stretches of road that were flooded knee-deep, and villages that were being reclaimed by the forest. I stopped in Tubmanburg for some breakfast. A group of men were arguing in the tea-and-bread shop. I picked up snippets of conversation: 2004, our team, we won then, now we’re back. I thought: 2004, the first uneasy year of peace in Liberia. Which armed faction were they part of? Then someone mentioned Chelsea. They were talking about the Premier League. Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge trumped George Weah’s return to Liberia.
Maybe that normality is the best thing about Liberia. People have got used to peace, stability and slow, gradual development. According to Afrobarometer, three-quarters of Liberians expect their life to get better next year. Last week a court in The Hague confirmed the sentence of former President Taylor for war crimes in Sierra Leone, but it felt like a non-event. Liberia has moved on from the civil war. There are new challenges: creating jobs for young people, bringing development to the counties, managing natural resources, fighting corruption. But a period of normality is a good place to start.