Beware of Liberia's "Broad Street"

By George Werner

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 21, 2002

Like many exiles, I find it very hard to dismiss memories of my home. When one flees a war zone, all that one often takes with oneself are memories-painful and otherwise. Many store these memories as images of the world left behind. Some keep them as stories worth telling later on. Images or stories, memories follow us wherever we go and can define and shape our dreams and choices. Sometimes, too, the paths we choose in life are strewn with discarded images of our past, and our conversations with others are colored by our past experiences.

A case in point, I want to re-member Broad Street, one of the most visible symbols of Liberia, in a way that may seem intangible to the reader. To do so, I am drawing on the ideas of a Liberian poet who once wrote: "Broad Street is where the nation was born, Broad Street is where the nation will die."

When I was in Monrovia recently, I visited the city center several times a week. When I did, I passed through Broad Street where thousands of people, men and women, young and old, dreamers and absent-minded ones, get off taxis carrying their life possessions in black shopping bags (commonly known as mind-your-own-business-bags in Liberia) and disappear into the office and business sections.

It is not long before this crowd finds itself back in Broad Street with a spirit very different from the one they had gone with. Often I stopped, looked, and listened to this on-and-off flow. There is so much about this on-and-off Broad Street scene that captures my imagination. When everything has been said about it, Broad Street still remains this-a question to which all Liberians must find an answer. We have not only "street problems" to think about in Liberia, there is also the "problem of the streets".

This beckons a number of questions: Why are there so many people on Broad Street on a daily basis? How do young Liberians view Broad Street? For the thousands of people who cross it daily, what does Broad Street represent? What social constraints has Broad Street abandoned? What killed the life in its green trees and yielded a wilderness of despair on its sidewalks? What smells does Broad Street emit? What does Broad Street tell us about Liberia and Liberians?

The first official presidential residence was on Broad Street. That relic, like so many historical objects in Liberia, is now disintegrating. The Executive Pavilion, the house in which our presidents are inaugurated, is on Broad Street. There are at least three historically important religious buildings on Broad Street. The Ministries of Finance and Education are on Broad Street. The National Museum is on Broad Street. Photo studios dot Broad Street, and Revoli cinema is erected on Broad Street. If you want to be heard or seen, go on Broad Street and you will have audience. The National Basketball Court is on Broad Street staring at Telecommunications Building. Not only does Broad Street accommodate flashy cars and fashion statements, it also brings together Liberians who live on the margins. Most frightening of all seems to be the fact that all streets in Monrovia take their lead from Broad Street. Broad Street certainly has it all!

Many Liberians often speak of the warfront being somewhere either in Lofa County or in the villages and towns bordering Sierra Leone. I see the battlefront in Broad Street, in the conversations and despairing faces of all those who cross it daily. While Broad Street occasionally exhibits the opulence of Liberia's privileged few, it also symbolizes Liberia's immense neediness. In a sense, the real "ceasefire" must take effect on Broad Street. If there is to be real peace in Liberia, all Liberians must beware of Broad Street-for this is where Liberia was born and the space in which Liberia could die.

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