I lived in Liberia from 2011 to 2013. As I discovered Liberia day-by-day, I shared it with readers through this blog. The blog was not meant to be political, professional, or otherwise serious. It’s just one foreigner’s musings on life in Africa’s Lone Star Republic.

I have since returned to the US after 13 years of living abroad (3 years in Africa, 7 in Europe, and 3 in Canada). I started a new blog, Home Strange Home, in which I blog about the ups and downs of my re-acculturation experience.


Monkey Island

Lunch is ready!

Lunch is ready!

On Sunday, we made an amazing visit to a place called “Monkey Island.”  It is about a 1.5 hour drive outside of Monrovia, past the Roberts International Airport, and then down a dirt road to the waterfront. Along the dirt road, you pass the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research (yes, such a thing exists, and yes it does look like a great setting for a horror film!).

People call it “Monkey Island,” but actually there are six islands, and they don’t have monkeys on them, but rather chimpanzees.  They are not wild chimps, but chimps that were previously used for hepatitis studies and vaccine tests, and then released into the “wild” as their “retirement.”

We visited three of the islands via motor boat, hitching a ride with the men whose job it is to feed the chimps every day. They rotate between three islands on one day and three on the next, so all the chimps are fed every other day.  The journey starts at a dock at the end of a dirt road, where the men load a large quantity of food from the back of a truck into the boat – mostly fruit (papayas, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and oranges), but also coconuts, sugar cane, and cornbread (which is apparently baked just for the chimps). And for drinks, some barrels of water and a jug of milk!

The food is paid for by the New York Blood Center, the same organization that established the laboratory in 1974, which was later forced to shut down due to the civil war. The chimps have to be fed regularly because there is simply not enough food on the islands to support them (in the wild, chimps move from place to place in search of food, sleeping in a different locations each night).

Observing the chimps was an exceptional experience, and unlike anything you could get anywhere else in the world, as the observation is surely too close to be safe – the boat pulls right up to the shore, and the chimps come running to collect their food. The men actually get out of the boat, and wade to shore to hand them their food (even individually feeding them milk out of a plastic cup).

A friend of mine who did the trip last year said that one of the chimps jumped on the boat and grabbed him. Fortunately, on this occasion the alpha male settled for merely throwing a rock at us.


A palaver hut.

A palaver hut.

I had never heard the word “palaver” before I came to Liberia. I heard someone refer to a “palaver hut,” which I soon learned is a traditional circular hut made from clay and bamboo or wood, with a thatched roof.  In West African villages, it is traditionally where visitors are received. The location of the hut can be selected by the village elder, chief, or spiritual elder, and the villagers work together to construct the hut. And in the palaver hut, people palaver…

“Palaver” means a prolonged discussion or conference.  Traditionally, villagers gathered in the palaver hut to discuss an issue until it was resolved. The dictionary also defines palaver as “a long parley, especially one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc.”  In fact, it seems that this is the original meaning of the word.

I looked into the etymology of palaver and, while it is widely used in Liberia and West Africa, it is not a Liberian or even an African word.  “Palavra” means word in modern Portuguese and in early 18th century Portuguese it also meant talk or discussion.  Early Portuguese traders on the West African coast (c. 1720-1730) used it to describe their negotiations or discussion with natives.

It was adopted by various West African pidgin languages to more broadly mean a discussion, argument, dispute, negotiation, etc.  The place where such disputes were settled – the village hut – became known as the palaver hut.

Mount Coffee

A fun day out at the hydroelectric plant.

A fun day out at the hydroelectric plant.

Bona fide tourist sites are a bit thin on the ground in Liberia. But one place that is very interesting to visit as a short day-trip from Monrovia is the Mount Coffee Hydroelectric Power Plant. I know it sounds like anything but a fun way to spend your Saturday, but trust me, it’s Ducor good.

Mount Coffee is located in Montserrado County on the Saint Paul River, about 20 miles outside of Monrovia in a place called White Plains. It was opened in 1966 and was operated by the Liberia Electricity Corporation as a hydropower dam generating electricity. It had a maximum generating capacity of 64 megawatts and supplied 35% of the country’s electricity. It also supplied drinking water to Monrovia through the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation.

Those were the good old days. During the first civil war in 1990, Charles Taylor’s rebel forces took control of the dam and shut off power and water to the capital. Over the years of conflict, the plant was further damaged, looted, and stripped of every single piece of valuable metal which was then sold for scrap and exported. Since then, the plant has never been operational.

There is a lot of talk about “rehabilitating” Mount Coffee.  There wasn’t much structural damage, aside from a hit to one of the columns with a RPG.  The shell of the facility is largely in place.  That said, it will still cost several hundred million dollars to rebuild.

But Liberia needs it badly – there is no domestic electricity generation in Liberia today.  All of Liberia’s “current” comes from generators, which are fuelled by expensive imported petrol.  Even the power that is supplied by the Liberia Electricity Corporation to the capital’s limited electricity grid is produced by generators (albeit larger ones than the individual generators you see in many shops and restaurants).

This means that Liberia has one of the highest costs of electricity in the world – 54 cents per kilowatt hour.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, as a point of comparison, that is five times as much as in the US.  That means businesses and landlords spend a huge amount of money on electricity, which is a real hamper on Liberia’s economic development.

Cheese… Or Not

Not so funny when it's all you can get.

Not so funny when it's all you can get.

My husband and I are cheese lovers. At our home in France or Holland, we always kept a selection of cheeses in our refrigerator, hard and soft, pungent and mild, to dip into as a snack or savour as an after dinner treat. Sadly, Africa doesn’t like cheese much, and frankly cheese doesn’t like Africa much either.

Firstly, there is the climate issue – in the hot and humid climate, it’s hard to keep cheese fresh, less actually produce it here. Secondly, cheese isn’t at all part of the traditional diet in Africa. In fact, many African people are lactose intolerant, and can’t eat cheese at all.

So, one is left with a pretty sorry cheese “selection” – Laughing Cow, Kiri, Milkana, Baby Bell in wax, individually wrapped Kraft slices, and other mass-produced, highly treated, heat-resistant “cheeses” (using the word liberally). Of course, it is possible to buy nicer cheeses imported from Europe, but they cost an arm and a leg.

Looks like the cow gets the last laugh…

Flag of Convenience

How convenient.

How convenient.

There are a lot of ships out there flying the Liberian flag. But that’s not to say the Liberian shipping industry is well developed.  Rather, foreign owners of merchant ships register their ship in Liberia (a sovereign state different from that of their own), and fly Liberia’s flag on their ship.

This practice is known as “flag of convenience,” because the ship operates under the laws and regulations of its “flag state,” which are more lax, and therefore reduce the operating cost for the ship owners. For example, the ship owners follow the labour and environmental regulations of the flag state, and avoid the taxes, restrictions, and standards of their own countries (which is why the practice has drawn criticism from labour unions, environmental groups, and others).

The profit-oriented ship owners are happy, but so is Liberia, because the government gets a steady revenue stream from ship registration fees.  Liberia is one of the world’s largest ship registries in terms of deadweight tonnage, second only to Panama. It is estimated that some 3,500 ships fly the Liberian flag, with a weight of 113 million gross tons (over 10% of the world’s ocean going fleet).

Melegueta Coast

Melegueta pepper pods with grains inside.

Melegueta pepper pods with the grains inside.

In old maps or books, Liberia is often referred to as the “Grain Coast” or “Pepper Coast” by the British or the “Melegueta Coast” by the Portuguese.  This name comes from the melegueta pepper plant, which is indigenous to the swamps along the West African coast and is abundantly available.

Its flowering pods produce red-brown seeds with a peppery taste, known as “African pepper” or “grains of paradise.” It is botanically unrelated to the true pepper plant, but can be used as a substitute for black pepper. The melegueta pepper grains were transported from West Africa to Europe by ship, and to North Africa by camel caravan across the Sahara.