Life in Monrovia
The first thing one notices upon arrival in Monrovia is the incredible number of people thronging the streets all day long. From one end of the city to another, there seems to be hundreds of thousands of people walking to and from mysterious destinations. Walking has become a national sport. The streets are so crowded that it is sometimes better to just walk anywhere downtown than to ride a car. One afternoon, I jumped out of our taxi in front of the Ministry of Finance to catch up with a funeral procession on Broad Street. I passed the procession, took pictures and sat on a bench to catch my breath, waiting for the taxi to reach the corner of Center and Broad Streets.
“There are much less people now than just two months ago,” said my cousin Modibo who runs a goldsmith shop on Gurley Street. As the war advanced toward Monrovia, people from Lofa, Bomi, Bassa and Bong counties all flocked into Monrovia, creating a massive population movement that would only rescind with the return of peace in the countryside. Some of the displaced people have moved out, going to camps near Kakata and Salala but the bulk of the people are still living in Monrovia.
Every vacant and abandoned building is filled with displaced people. One morning, while on Ashmun Street filming schools, we heard voices of children singing. We looked for the location of the children and ventured inside the unfinished building of the National Bank. As we made a narrow passage between the many small “markets” of kola nuts and biscuits, we could hear voices of adults and children. Indeed, in the backside of the terrace, there was a school for displaced and abandoned children. They had made separations between one side of the building used as a school and the other side used by displaced people, who cooked, smoked and drank just a few feet away from the children. The teachers made sure the kids never walk through that side of the building. A ground of displaced teachers from other counties with the help of a churchwomen group had started the school. Classes went from day care to 7th grade, with 20 to 30 students in each class. Right behind the school, stalls encroached on the street, eating up half of Broad Street.
Monrovia wakes up early. Water carts pushed around by two or three people are the first to ply the roads, delivering bath water to customers. Taxis are the next group to ply the road and they follow very specific itineraries. They go from Paynesville, Red Light all the way to Duala Market and back. People get in and out of taxis along the road. Taxi no longer “go inside”. Starting from 4 PM, there is a scramble to get a seat in any vehicle to get out of the city center. People fight; push and some times fights break up among would-be passengers. Nobody wants to be stranded downtown in dark Monrovia. After hours, there are specific spots where to find a ride, like in front of the Ministry of Finance, or the Sports Commission.
The other most noticeable thing is that the whole city has turned into a giant market place. It is no longer just Waterside. Everywhere in the city, people are selling things. From “ice-cold-water” to scratch cards for cellular phones, from second hand clothing to boiled eggs and oranges, there are plenty of things to buy. A friend told me that most of the goods came from warehouses and stores that were looted during the war. A university student we interviewed said he made about US$5 a day selling bras at L$60. One wonders where people get money to spend in a city where average salary is about $20 a month. But then again, one just has to look at the huge Western Union billboards scattered all around town.
As a sign of things new, the sirens of the presidential convoy are an awaking call for many people in the city. Chairman C. Gyude Bryant goes to work at the Mansion very early, before most of his staff. Many mornings, his motorcade would wake us up, coming from Mamba Point all the way to the Mansion, on Capitol Hill.
Most mornings, I would walk to Sabanoh Printing Press on Broad Street to read headlines; some times I would buy newspapers and exchange a few words with some journalists. And as we stand there talking about daily stories, the city fills up. Mini buses, taxicabs with six passengers, pick-ups with ten to 15 people standing in the wind bring their loads of people to the city. The front of the Sports Commission, the streets around Finance, the areas around BTC
Monrovia has now become a dangerous place for rogues. It is not uncommon that people accused of stealing run to the nearest police station. This is because many such people have died at the hands of vigilantes who burn them alive. Once a thief is caught, he is mobbed, beaten and some time doused with gasoline and set on fire.
The overpopulation has dire consequences on health and environment in a city that has no running water and no sewage. Besides the trash generated, there are broken sewages all around downtown. The United Nations mobilized a handful of people who sweep the streets early morning but the garbage is rarely collected and when it is, it ends up on Mechlin or Lynch Streets. This unsanitary condition breeds millions of mosquitoes distributing their full load of malaria. The best medicine for malaria is no longer the two tablets of chloroquine we used to take. Now pharmacies give out a cocktail of tablets that include a strong malaria medicine, vitamins, antibiotics and aspirin. I once had to swallow seven tablets at once, twice on the same day as prevention against malaria. The worst scent in Monrovia is around the Ministry of Defense where green and yellow sewer water is all around the block.
Around 5 or 6 PM, one can get the latest gossips on Carey Street on a stretch from Gurley Street to Mechlin Street. There are three “discussion clubs” at these locations, called Hatai Club. Hatai stands for green tea, a beverage that came from Mali and Senegal and unknown in Liberia till few years ago. It is sold everywhere in town. It is supposed to have medicinal virtues that surpass the reputation of Guinness. And it is cheaper. There is a Hatai club at the corner of Gurley and Carey Street. Almost all reporters from the various media houses converge on this area. They sometimes have guest speakers. The first time I was there, they had a group from a church discussing HIV/AIDS. They talked about the fact that soldiers were coming to Liberia from everywhere and that with the money they bring, young Liberian could be exposed to all type of STDs, including HIV/AIDS.
The second Hatai Club I visited gathers at the corner of Randall and Carey. Here they talk about sports. The African Cup of Nations was just around the corner. These guys had the bio and credentials of every known African player and they had decided who would win the African Cup long before the game started in Tunis.
The third Hatai Club is just a few hundred feet away, still on Carey Street. The name was a very complicated one but it contained something like Higher Political Consciousness. When we stopped by they were talking about Kwame N’Krumah. A guy was arguing that had Africa followed the ideas of Kwame N’;Krumah, there would have never been presidents such as Mobutu and Doe because military coups would have never taken place.
One also notices early morning that breakfast has changed in Monrovia. Monikaba, a millet cereal with milk and sugar, longtime a Mandingo meal during the Ramadan, is now the most favorite breakfast in Monrovia. Young girls or boys at every corner sell cold water in small plastic bags.
Markets that were just a few stalls are now huge. Red Light market is miles long and large. Across the bridge, the market starts on the other side of the two bridges and extend to Duala and Cemenco. Scrap Metal stands and livestock market mix with gasoline “markets” across the bridge and link Freeport to Red Light. There is no vacant space. Rally Time market extends way beyond BTC.
BTC is in the most deplorable conditions. The buildings were all destroyed to make way for the Children Village. Although Pavarotti and Friends gave some $3 million dollars to the Commission headed by Senator Myrtle Gibson, not one new brick was laid on the ground. Those who lived in BTC moved to Camp Johnson Road and turned it into a market place. Another place totally destroyed is Providence Island. Displaced young men who stayed there after the cease-fire now occupy the island and former fighters are felling trees for firewood. Mamba Point is as crowded as it has ever been, with most international NGOS struggling to find space as close as possible to the US Embassy. There long lines everyday to get into the US Embassy for visas. Market stalls fill the sidewalk to serve the crowd. Some displaced people just stayed there after the war. This is where one finds the most expensive eateries, with a dish of potato greens going for US $20 at lunch.
Throughout the day, video clubs are filled with people who pay L$10 to watch two or three movies. Children flock in with adults to watch old American movies or Indian licks. Sometimes, pornographic movies are shown and anyone who pays can get in. The African Cup of Nations football matches were shown in place of movies. The beaches pay the price for this overcrowding of the city. People use them as open-air toilets….
There are very few traces of the June 2003 World War III anywhere. Besides a few bullet holes on walls, the city is almost as it stood after the April 1996 Fracas, when ULIMOI and NPFL joined to fight Roosevelt Johnson and the AFL….
So goes a day in certain parts of Monrovia, the most soulful city in the world….