Club Beer

Libeerian.

Libeerian.

I’ve never been much of a beer drinker. Given the choice, I prefer wine or, better yet, neat whiskey. Sadly, I don’t get a very good pick of either in Monrovia. But as for beer, well, there is plenty of that. At least certain types – Heineken, Corona, Guinness, and the ubiquitous home-grown staple, Club Beer.

A bit like how Coca Cola seems to reach every unelectrified remote rural village in Africa, you can always count on finding a Club Beer in Liberia, even when nothing else is available for purchase. It’s brewed locally by Monrovia Breweries on Bushrod Island (just north of the city), so it’s cheaper than any of the imported beers. It’s almost always sold in small or large bottles; I’ve only ever seen it for sale on tap in one place (Marlin’s Corner).

Like I said, I’m no beer drinker, but apparently Club Beer is a “pale lager” that gives you a “bitch of a hangover.” Check out their video ad on YouTube. Club Beer: just for you!

Lizards

Working on my tan.

Working on my tan.

I happen to love lizards. As a girl, I used to keep iguanas and green anoles as pets (my mother drew the line at actually letting me keep snakes in the house). I used to spend whole afternoons, in my back yard or at local nature reserves, hunting for critters like salamanders and frogs. Well, it turns out Liberia is a lizard-watchers paradise.

The little (and sometimes big) buggers are all over the place, even in urban environments like Monrovia. When I walk up the steps into my compound, a good half dozen lizards scurry away, especially during mid-day and afternoon when they are all hanging out, basking in the sun, and bobbing their heads away. When I open the shadier door to my house, I often disturb a couple geckos who speed across the walls. On a couple occasions I’ve even seen geckos on the wall in my room. I let them mind their own business…

Firestone Rubber Plantation


There are 118,000 more acres where that came from.

And 118,000 more acres where that came from...

Firestone is one of those all-pervasive brands that I have always been aware of, something that you see almost every day thanks to their ubiquitous tires. But, before moving to Liberia, I never gave the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (owned by Bridgestone) much more thought.

It turns out Firestone has played such an important role in Liberia’s history that the country has actually been called the “Firestone Republic” (echoing the term “banana republic”). Firestone’s involvement stretches back to 1926, when the company signed a 99-year concession agreement with the Liberian government and started the single largest natural rubber plantation in the world. It originally spanned one million acres, 4% of the country’s land.

The Firestone empire.

The Firestone empire.

We recently visited the plantation, which is about 50 miles outside of Monrovia in a place called Harbel, named after the founder, Harvey Firestone, and his wife, Isabelle.  It’s right near the Roberts International Airport, which incidentally started as Firestone’s private landing strip.  Driving around, we were amazed by how vast it is – 118,000 acres or 200 square miles (the size of the concession was renegotiated downwards by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).  Rows upon rows of neatly planted rubber trees stretch off to either side of the well-paved roads that crisscross the plantation.

The place is like its own mini-Republic, with its own housing, churches, schools, hospital, banks, post office, supermarkets, markets, roads, and taxis (not to mention the more exclusive Firestone “Staff Club,” which includes a golf course, a tennis court, a gym, a restaurant, and even a verandah with a spectacular view). All of these amenities exist because some 6,500 people live and work inside the plantation (and allegedly not all happily – some human rights groups have criticized Firestone’s working conditions and accused them of using child labor).

A rubber tree being tapped for its white latex sap, which is then refined into rubber.

A rubber tree being tapped for its white latex sap, which is then refined into rubber.

Before visiting Firestone, I had never given much thought to where rubber comes from. It comes from a labor-intensive process of tree-tapping, which involves making an incision into the bark of the light-colored trees and collecting the white latex sap in a bucket. There is an art to the cutting – the tappers start at a certain distance off the ground, make small cuts, and work down and around the tree at a 30 degree angle.

The tappers go to work early in the morning, cutting each tree one by one. They then leave the trees for several hours to “bleed” their latex, which runs down the incised bark into small red buckets that are hung from the trees. The bark eventually grows back, and the tree can be tapped again.

The workers pour the individual collections into a bigger bucket, which are taken to the factory on the plantation. If left, the liquid natural rubber latex coagulates into a solid gooey lump that looks like a large wet wiggly marshmallow. The water is extracted from these lumps to get solid rubber (which is brown).  That rubber is exported to the US to be converted into tires at Firestone’s factories. In addition to car tires and plane tires, rubber is also used for products like gloves and condoms.

Coagulated latex tapped from the rubber trees.

Coagulated latex tapped from the rubber trees.

Although rubber grows well in Liberia’s tropical and humid climate, interestingly it is not indigenous to the region. The rubber tree originally comes from South America.  Europeans gathered its seeds, germinated them in Kew Gardens (near London), and then spread the rubber tree throughout the world to places like Malaysia, India, Congo, and Liberia. And the rest is history…

P.S. In addition to visiting the plantation, I have taken information for this post from BBC, Wikipedia, LiberiaPastAndPresent.org, and The Nation. If you know more, please comment!

Bittersweet

A Liberian memoir.

A Liberian memoir.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir by Helen Cooper, an “Americo-Liberian” who grew up as a privileged child in one of Liberia’s elite families in the 1970s and whose world changed forever with the 1980 coup. I have heard some criticism of the book for supposedly presenting a biased view of Liberia, but I liked it – for someone who is new to Liberia, it is a good introduction to the country’s history and culture.  And, regardless of the setting, it also happens to be a well written memoir which is at times heart-breaking and other times entertaining.

I learned a lot of interesting facts about Liberia from reading this book.  Early on in the book, Cooper explains the use of the terms “Congo” people and “country” people.  For those who know their geography, it may seem odd to hear Congo in Liberia, since Liberia is nowhere near the Congo River.  But there is story behind it.  Congo is the label given by native Liberians to the freed American slaves that arrived by ship and settled in Liberia in 1822. But why?

Well, around the same time these freed blacks were arriving from America, Britain – which had abolished the slave trade in 1807 – was dutifully patrolling the coast of West Africa and seizing slave ships.  The Brits would free the slaves on board and then proceed to dump them in Sierra Leone or Liberia (even if they didn’t come from there originally, which most of them hadn’t).

Since many of those illegal slave ships came to sea from the mouth of the Congo River, the native Liberians referred to the freed African slaves as Congo people.  The freed African American slaves just happened to be arriving in Liberia around the same time, and while they looked very different from the freed African slaves (most of the Americo-Liberians being light-skinned mulattoes), all newcomers simply became known as Congo People. In turn, the Congo people called indigenous Liberians country people. This Congo / country divide formed the basis of many problems to come.

Petrol by the Jar

Fill 'er up... err, almost.

Fill 'er up... err, almost.

It’s about the most rudimentary petrol station you’re going to get: a makeshift wood shelf on the side of the road, two petrol-filled jars (often recycled mayonnaise jars), and the sawed-off top of a plastic jug for funneling the petrol into the fuel tank.

Of course, there are much more sophisticated places to fill up in Liberia – the French oil group TOTAL has been steadily expanding its chain of modern service stations throughout the country, replete with service bays and mini supermarkets called Bonjour. The stations are incongruously shiny and modern; they look like they’ve been plucked from a French autoroute and airlifted to Africa.

But outside the main population centers, on those long stretches of road through the bush with no service station in sight, it’s those enterprising small vendors that will save the day if your tank runs low.

Abandoned Buildings

The former French embassy.

The former French embassy.

I previously blogged about the abandoned Ducor Hotel, which may be the most magnificent abandoned building in Monrovia, but it is hardly the only one. Given Liberia’s long history of war spanning over two decades, there was substantial destruction to the country’s infrastructure and building stock.

Driving outside of the capital, you see many empty, roofless, crumbling buildings that appear to have once been beautiful houses, now reduced to sad shells of rubble.  Even in downtown Monrovia, which has been rebuilt and enormously improved since the end of the war, a number of buildings remain abandoned and unfit for use.

Not far from our home in Mamba Point is one such building – the former French Embassy.  After the war, a new French Embassy was built in another part of town, Sinkor. But the site of the old French Embassy remains unused and undeveloped, the retro building decaying in the equatorial heat and becoming engulfed in a riot of tropical vegetation.

The guard let us have a peek around and even take home a coconut from one of the trees in the compound.  He told us that a couple of buyers had expressed an interest in buying the property (which is in a prime location), but apparently the French government still owns the plot and doesn’t want to sell it. I often wonder what Monrovia will look like in 10 or 20 years…

Blue Clay People

The ups and downs of Liberia.

The ups and downs of Liberia.

Once I knew I was moving to Liberia, as an avid reader I immediately set about trying to find books about the country or books written by Liberians.  There are surprisingly few.  I’m making a comparison to other African countries like Rwanda, Kenya, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I’ve read multiple books about in the last 5-10 years, ranging from non-fiction to novels to travel writing.

I asked around for reading recommendations and my various acquaintances in Liberia kept suggesting the same handful of books to me.  There was one book that no one mentioned to me and yet I was lucky enough to stumble upon – Blue Clay People by William Powers.

I’m not sure why it has such a low profile (perhaps because it was published in 2005?), but for anyone interested in Liberia it is well worth the read.  Powers tells the story of his two years spent living in Liberia (1999-2001) and working for Catholic Relief Services. His mandate was to “fight poverty and save the rainforest.”

He is self-admittedly young and green and is quickly confronted by the “brutal” reality of Taylor-run Liberia and the environmental and human destruction wrought on the country by war.  He soon concludes that his mandate is at best contradictory and at worst farcical.  But he falls in love with Liberia and struggles, professionally and emotionally, to have a positive impact on the country.

He addresses several challenging themes throughout the book.  As a reader, you feel him wrestling with them in his heart and his day-to-day life – the pitfalls of international development aid in a conflict/post-conflict environment; the debate about handouts versus “sustainable” development; the ethics of his relationship with an African woman; and whether as a modern aid worker he is no more than a “secular missionary” in a neo-colonial reincarnation of The White Man’s Burden.

Two of my favorite quotes from the book are as follows: “Like most people who go overseas to do development work, I did so expecting to find out what it’s like to be poor… That’s not what happens. Instead you learn what it’s like to be rich, to be fabulously, incomprehensibly, bloated with wealth.”  And, commenting on his own discomfort surrounding his relationship with his domestic “servants” (maid, cook, driver, gardener, etc.), he writes: “I had landed in a strange reconstruction of the southern antebellum plantation system, and I was unwittingly cast in the role of master.”