Bats

Those are some funny looking birds.

Those are some funny looking birds.

During my early days in Monrovia, at the beginning of the dry season, I often walked home from work.  One evening, on my homeward stroll, I looked up to admire the dusk sky, and noted a dense flock of birds flying past.

This happened a few times, before I realized that they weren’t birds at all, but bats.  There is one tree in particular on Benson Street, near the new US Embassy, where they love to flock en masse, and it was only when I walked past it one evening that I realized that hundreds of bats were emanating from it and dispersing themselves all over the city.

Bats are nocturnal, so during the day they just hang out, sleep, and groom themselves. At twilight, they are particularly active, which is when you often see them flying across the city. At night they hunt for insects, catching them while they fly (they are “aerial insectivores”). If you dislike bugs (including mosquitoes), then like bats. Because bats eat one-third of their body weight in insects each night.

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Mambas

I just want a kiss.

I just want a kiss.

Sometimes you take a name so much for granted that you never question where it comes from. Well, we live in a neighborhood of Monrovia called Mamba Point, and it turns out it is named after, well, the mamba snake.

Black mambas are the largest and most dangerous venomous snake in Africa. They grow up to an average of eight feet (2.5 meters) and travel up to 12 miles per hour (20 kilometers per hour). Their skin isn’t actually black; rather it is their mouth that is black.

Black mambas are aggressive snakes that don’t hesitate to strike. They spring up and strike their victims on the head. They can strike up to twelve times, but even one strike contains enough venom to kill a dozen men within one hour. (And there is no hope of surviving without anti-venom.) Of course, most of their prey are smaller, so they usually only have to wait a few minutes for the venom to kill their prey.

Fortunately, I’ve never seen one in my neighborhood. I doubt that there are too many living around here anymore, as the area has become quite developed and heavily populated. I imagine there were more mambas in the past when the area was less urban. I’d be curious to know if anyone has seen a mamba in Mamba Point.

Ocean House

Life is hard.

Life is hard.

Liberia is a not a big country in terms of population, and its capital Monrovia is a small, sleepy place. It can get a bit suffocating on the weekends as there is not much to do and not many places to go. As a little escape from the  urban ennui, my husband and I took a short taxi ride just to the outskirts of the city to spend the weekend at the Ocean House, a new bed and breakfast that just opened.

Actually, it could be Liberia’s first bed and breakfast. There are plenty of commercial hotels and grimy guest houses, but this is the first place I have seen with character. It is tastefully decorated, well managed by an Liberian-American family, and delightfully serene.

For once, there are no televisions, and no bad music blasting on a bad sound system – only the birds chirping and the waves crashing in the distance. And, did I mention that they have hammocks and serve banana nut pancakes for breakfast? Thumbs up.

Country Cloth

Liberian style.

Liberian style.

Liberians, especially Liberian youth, seem to be strongly influenced by American popular culture, which includes their style of dress. Compared to other West African countries I’ve visited, in which the majority of women wear ‘traditional’ African dresses (often with a spectacular headpiece fashioned in matching fabric), the ladies in Monrovia tend to dress in western styles, i.e. jeans paired with funky shoes, bling earrings, and a tight-fitting, brightly colored top that screams “I’m going clubbing” (in the middle of the day). Many young men also model their dress after American hip-hop culture, with baggy jeans, gold chains, loose fitting T-shirts, and flashy trainers.

That said, several of my co-workers, particularly the middle-aged and older ones, regularly show up to work in some beautiful African outfits. In particular, one of my colleagues who hails from Lofa (a county in the north, near the border with Guinea) frequently wears beautiful “country cloth” shirts. Country cloth is a thick cotton cloth that is hand-spun, hand-dyed, and hand-woven on a foot treadle loom. Usually the fabric is died in muted colors like navy, black, and tan.

The cloth is made in strips (about four inches wide) which are then sewn together to make a piece of striped cloth. It is then fashioned into a heavy, loose-fitting shirt that is elaborately embroidered around the neck and pockets. Men generally look very impressive when they wear it! Especially if they don a matching cap.

A President, A Capital, a Fast Food Joint

Would you like fries with that?

Would you like fries with that?

It’s one of those random pieces of trivia that could win you a pub quiz or a game of Trivial Pursuit: why is the capital of Liberia named Monrovia?

I never knew the answer until I moved to Monrovia and learned about the history of Liberia, which is intimately intertwined with that of the United States. Just like the American capital is named after President Washington, so the Liberian capital is named after President James Monroe.

Liberia is a Republic founded by freed black American slaves under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which President Monroe was a supporter of.  In 1824, during Monroe’s term as fifth President of the United States, the site at which the original settlers had landed in 1822 was renamed Monrovia in his honor.

(Mind you, it is slightly ironic, seeing as Monroe owned dozens of slaves himself, and like other non-abolitionist members of the ACS, his support may have been motivated by the desire to rid the US of freed blacks who could potentially inspire rebellion if they continued to live side-by-side with still-enslaved blacks.)

Amusingly, Monroe also has a fast food joint named after him – “Monroe Chicken” on Randall Street in downtown Monrovia. The decorations are all red, white, and blue and a picture of President Monroe hangs on the wall, alongside some historical quotes and a bastardization of Liberia’s motto (“The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here”) into “The Love of Chicken Brought Us Here.”

Cheesy, I know. But their chicken sandwiches are pretty good.

Cotton Tree

Try climbing that one.

Try climbing that one.

I’d never heard of a cotton tree before I came to Liberia. I thought cotton was picked from a plant, not grown on a tree. I’m being facetious – the cotton tree has nothing to do with cotton fiber (I don’t know why it takes that name). But it’s a pretty damn impressive tree. They are among the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. The trunk can grow to six feet in diameter and, at the base, it throws down wide roots that a person can easily hide behind. In Freetown, in neighboring Sierra Leone, there is a massive cotton tree that is famous because it’s allegedly where the first group of freed African American Slaves landed in 1792 and celebrated their arrival.

Cotton doesn't grow on trees.

Cotton doesn't grow on trees.

Watering Holes

Just like in London.

Just like in London. Err, maybe not.

Just like Club Beer is never in short supply, nor is there a shortage of places in Monrovia to drink it. While some 10 to 20% of Liberians are Muslims, the majority is Christian, and many people do drink alcohol. Local drinking spots are numerous and never far away, although they usually don’t amount to much more than a collection of plastic chairs, a bad sound system blaring popular West African music, and a few shelves with a limited range of bottles for sale.

Of course, there are also a lot more up-market places that cater to wealthier Liberians and members of the expat community who are desperate for a cocktail or a glass of wine. And there is even – would you believe it – an English pub in Monrovia. Well, perhaps it is not surprising – I find that wherever in the world I go, there always seems to be a pub (although usually it’s an Irish pub). In any case, I’m not sure the Red Lion pub is particularly English… it could be the most bizarre “pub” I’ve ever been to.

Best to stick to the Liberian watering holes in the future…