Monday, April 7, 2014


Gabriele Asare, posted on YouTube

Like many other West African cities, Monrovia is beset with large colonies of bats, when not hanging over the city from the ruins of stately Cotton trees, they swarm the skies like a plague of locusts. There are about five or so such trees in central Monrovia, broad and ancient, that rise above the rooflines of the oldest parts of town.


Denuded and presumably dead, they are enlivened by the diabolical presence of hundreds and thousands of flying mammals. Once, while driving up Snapper Hill to the Ducor Hotel, I passed one of these great dead oaks, its countless inhabitants clinging under each huge limb like dried fruit, while a few diurnal specimens flittered about. A single bat, ready for a nap, landed upside-down on a branch. It was the straw that broke the camel's back in real life: the weight of that one small flying-mouse was too much; the great old bough came crashing down as if struck by lightning: thunder clap and all. Dazed creatures, panicked by the pruning and blinded by the afternoon sun, flew chaotically in all directions: some directly into the ground, some into a chain-link fence where they became entangled. Within moments, a price had been put on a bar, and I am told by a friend who lived nearby that bat soup was the weekly special.

Even absent such a spectacular event, these tree-colonies are remarkable scenes though they are in many ways unsettling. The nearest image to the hive of half-frenetic, half-febrile activity would be vultures on a carcass, yet a carcass would never have so many ravenous attackers. When frenzy hits these nocturnal clans, the sky darkens a shade, the already-brief evening hour hastily blotted out with each small pair of slightly-translucent stretched-skin wings. The Wingéd Monkeys, lifting off to the shrill commands of the Wicked Witch of the West, come to mind.

This threatening aspect has grown with the swelling of the Ebola panic which has swept into town and onto the headlines of the newspapers. A popular fact shared among acquaintances is that fruit bats are the carriers of the virus, and Guinea has gone so far as to ban the eating of bats. So it is not too far from the mind to think of the immune risk when the sky darkens with the flittering, furry beasts, carrying death from afar. A report from Abidjan, from earlier in the month, chronicled just this wariness, of wrath of sky-borne couriers of the fever. Even before all the attention given to their presence due to the virus, they were seen as pests to eradicated. Both the U.S. Embassy and at times the local government have chopped down trees hosting bats.

Laurent Guilard posted in the Daily Motion

Despite lending themselves so excellently to be wicked omens of doom, the chattering communities of bats are an amazing site in the middle of the the concrete jungles of urban West Africa. I hope they remain overhead.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Literary Break: Guinea Highlands

The sudden three-week full-stop of posting has been mainly due to some exciting, life-changing preparations and the travel and distractions that go with them; the time since the last week of March has flashed by. Secondarily, the social and journalistic atmosphere of this stretch of West Africa has been dominated by the near-panic of the Ebola outbreak which started in innermost Guinea, in the mountainous frontier near Sierra Leone and Liberia, to which the virus has spread via the well-plied trade routes down to Monrovia.

Amidst the paranoia and panic, and my own preoccupations, I thought it'd be timely to post the below book excerpt, which has been sitting in the Drafts folder of this blog for literally years. It's beautiful, evocative description is the best anecdote to the hysteria around the place of origin of the Ebola virus. I hope you'll enjoy, and in the meantime I am getting myself situated and I'll be back to more regularly postings shortly.

©Google Earth.
High up in the wooded flank of the Guinea Highlands, a land of icy streams and alpine pastures, rises the stripling Niger, and its affluents, the Dion, the Sankarani and the Milo. Southward, beyond the rocky watershed, the mountain streams have bored their way down the cliffs and are lost in the vast stifling rainforest that blocks off the Highlands from the Gulf of Guinea. But on this northern flank, each river has carved out a delightful valley of its own, and the most delightful of all is the Milo Valley, an African garden of Eden.

It was here, in the district of Konya, that the kola trade had flourished since the Middle Ages, providing its own bonanza. The kola nut was grown in the clearings of the forest, marketed in the valley and then carried laboriously across the wilderness for hundreds of miles to the mud villages and mud cities of the Sudan and beyond. The nut, one of the few stimulants allowed by Islam, was served as a luxury throughout Islamic Africa, and the Middle East. To organize this demanding trade came the Dyula, Muslim immigrants from the coast. The Dyula metropolis was Kankan, a teeming village of mud huts on the banks of the river Milo.

The lines of trade pushed out and became more sophisticated. The arterial trade routes designed for the delicate and perishable kola nut-- fair markets, dry storehouses, trustworthy guards, able porters -- could also supply delicate girl slaves from the forests. In return back came ingots of salt from the Sahara and the luxuries of North Africa that the caravans had brought from still further away: fine cloth from Morocco, pottery from Tunis, horses from Arabia.

Sometimes, a passage in a book can, in a few sentences, transmit the essence of an entire world. Thomas Pakenham's ‘vast, scholarly and delightful’* 1991 epic, The Scramble for Africa details many of the European campaigns, and the figures who led them, into the interior of the continent for the sake of crown and glory. The above passage, conjuring a tropical Switzerland is itself so intriguing and magical, and in Pakenham's history, sets the scene for the French campaigns from both the coast and the desert to source the Niger River. The book as a whole is a vast, essential chronicle how the global slave trade, stretching its wicked tentacles deep into the the remotest redoubts of the region—increasing their vulnerability just as the European armies penetrated further into indigenous domains.

Today, the heart of the Guinea Highlands is nominally protected by a National Park designation: The deep verdancy at the center of the above in the Google Earth image is the Parc National Haut-Niger. Three symmetrical clouds float over its center. At right, a slightly larger bit of cloud hovers just to the west of a white-grey mass that is the city of Kankan. The Niger, quickly widening as it enters southwesternmost Mali, can be seen at upper right. West African Manatees have been scientifically verified as far upriver as this border region; the Parc's population, thought to be several thousand, have reported dugong sightings deep in the park's interior, thousands of miles from the delta, and the Gulf of Guinea. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Can One Be in Conakry?

Not that anyone would advise flying to Guinea this week, but that had been in my plans just a few days ago. That necessitated the 21st century ex-pat-in-Africa ritual of researching how to fly from one country to its next door neighbor. Although having long since obtained my PhD in this subject, I am struck by the double shock of (1) how difficult this logistical information-gathering still is; (2) how infrequent, indirect and expensive the flights are. West Africa in particular, a checkerboard of francophone and anglophone countries, remains astoundingly difficult to move around in, even just crossing a single border.

Case in point, to fly to one Mano River Union capital (boasting two airports nonetheless), to the capital city of its larger neighbor: Monrovia to Conakry. There are no direct flights, at all. There are not really any connecting flights, either, in the more conventional sense of, getting halfway there and having to stop and switch planes.

There is only very, very, indirect. Like, Casablanca indirect. Or, slightly better, Dakar indirect. No wait, that involves flying in the opposite direction, to switch in Accra first. Same with the third Mano River capital, Freetown, which is directly in between the other two: that itinerary goes on to switch in Banjul before heading back down to Conakry. Twenty-six hour journey, that one: more than ten hours longer than driving.

That is the shortest flight route out of Robertsfield. It also costs $1,975. United States Dollars.

How about from convenient little Spriggs-Payne, which, from the middle of last year, has once again been host to the puddle-jumper network of ASKY Airlines?

Oh, much better: $620, a third of the price (for a one-way ticket). But this is still a three-stop journey, in the wrong direction two out of the three times: Monrovia-Accra-Lomé-Abidjan-Conakry. Eight-hours, forty minutes. Only one seat left at this price!!! I guess I am lucky I won't have to fly to Brussels first.

Guess there's more than one reason not to go to Conakry this week.

Friday, March 21, 2014

“A Short Drive Through Town”

As she looked for her car key she asked if I must get back right away or would I like to come with her for a short drive through town. 
‘Bori at night is simply fascinating,’ she said… 
She certainly knew the city well, from the fresh-smelling, modern water-front to the stinking, maggoty interior.  
We drove through wide, well-lit streets bearing the names of our well-known politicians and into obscure lanes named after some unknown small fish. Even insignificant city councillors had their little streets… 
I began to wonder whether Jean actually enjoyed driving through these places as she claimed she did or whether she had some secret reason, like wanting me to feel ashamed about my country's capital city. I hardly knew her but I could see she was that kind of person, a most complicated woman.  
We were now back in the pleasant, high-class area. 
‘That row of ten houses belongs to the Minister of Construction,’ she said, ‘They are let to different embassies at three thousand a year each.’ 
So what, I said within myself. Your accusation may be true but you’ve no right to make it. Leave it to us and don't contaminate our cause by espousing it.  
 ‘But that’s another Chief Nanga Street ’ I said aloud, pointing to my left.  
‘No. What we saw near the fountain was Chief Nanga Avenue,’ she said and we both burst out laughing, friends again. ‘I’m not sure there isn’t a Road as well somewhere,’ she said. ‘I know there is a Circle.’ 
Then I promptly recoiled again. Who the hell did she think she was to laugh so self-righteously. Wasn’t there more than enough in her own country to keep her laughing all her days? Or crying if she preferred it?  
‘I have often wondered,’ she said, completely insensitive to my silent resentment, ‘why  don't they call some streets after the many important names in your country’s history or past events like your independence as they do in France and other countries?’ 
‘Because this is not France but Africa,’ I said with peevish defiance. 
She obviously thought I was being sarcastic and laughed again. But what I had said was another way of telling her to go to hell. Now I guessed I knew why she took so much delight in driving through our slums. She must have taken hundreds of photographs already to send home to her relations. And, come to think of it, would she— lover of Africa that she was—would she be found near a black man in her own country?  
…‘I was wondering whether I could see you again,’ 
‘Do you want to?’ 
‘Why not? Let me call you tomorrow?’
An excerpt from the end of chapter 5 of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, written in 1966. Posted today on the first anniversary of his passing. It’s a shame that, if people read any Achebe at all, it is only his best-known work, Things Fall Apart, which is monumental, but not his only masterpiece. In looking for this passage, which I thought was a brilliant, multivalent telling of an African city, I came across so many other great little moments just in the 137 pages of this story, which I enjoyed just as much as his other books.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Going Rate for Office Space in Monrovia Is...

…$385,000 per year?!

In what seems to occur with ever-increasing regularity, the Liberian government was exposed in a shocking headline, the boldface type squeezed together to fit in all the zeros. Such an eye-popping figure jumped out of the latest j'accuse on one of the most recent controversies: the Liberia Telecommunications Agency supposedly signed a multi-year lease for a newly-built office compound in Congo Town, priced at $1,155,000.

How could any property, no matter how grand, command such a price in the world's fourth-poorest country? But the seven-figure phalanx is only the most densely-formed particular of the tale, which perfectly reflects both the artifice and the reality of this city’s social and political transacting.

Monrovia, like many African cities, is a place where astronomical real estate prices, rivaling office and residential rental rates in American cities, spike above a dismal landscape of unlit, unplumbed $10-per-month rooms, home the vast majority of the city's residents. The elite amalgamation of government, philanthropy and diplomacy, which is meant to serve these desperately poor people, sprays enormous volumes of expenditure, not towards their desperate constituents below, but high aloft into this stratosphere, above the zinc roofs and over the walls into the freshly-finished, $3,000 per month sea view apartments and quarter-million-dollar per year office compounds.

Another gated compound. Photo courtesy FrontPageAfrica.

What makes the situation, if not worse, than at least politically expedient, is these huge windfalls are initially captured by the tiny foreign commercial class, whether Lebanese, Syrian, Spanish, Chinese, Egyptian, Turkish, or American. Only secondarily does this non-citizen strata remit the ultimate rent to the Liberian elite: most of whom are currently or recently in government. It is not just a fact but a common practice that many of the tenants and ultimate landlords are one and the same. It is no wonder, then, that for decades and decades the Liberian government is constrained of office space, and must perennially turn to the private market to find suitable accommodation, and must pay the prevailing price.

The LTA saga casts all the usual characters precisely in this reinforcing relationship: the quasi-regulatory agency, headed by a returnee with an only-famous-in-this-town last name; the landlord-builder, not Liberian but a semi-mysterious, Chinese firm with a participation rate in the post-conflict boom that dubiously prolific, who together strike a deal for one of the plethora of "Upstairs Buildings" which have risen up across Monrovia since 2006 by the dozens.

Then, there are the brass tacks: the sums, the numerals, the commas, the zeros. And why not? It is a difficult country, hard to secure land, hard to build, hard to wait for a return on investment. Hard to trust someone. So it's the logic of the market, the invisible hand(s). It is the fee that is commanded. Who’s to say if it is a waste? There is no alternative.

And so, in one of the few remaining countries in the world where the GDP works out to less than one dollar per person per day, a million dollars doesn't buy you very much: a few years at your appointed office, high aloft with a view to the ocean, the air-conditioning floating down from the wall-mounted unit, relentlessly holding back the tropical heat outside the walls. After a few seasons, time is up, the keys are turned over, and it is someone else's turn to pay fictitious lease rates, and feel the artificial air soothe their skin.

The rent is so like that man-made cold air. It doesn't last long, and has to be relentlessly replaced. As soon as the machine is shut off, the oppressive heat outside leaks through the cracks. Like that cold, the rent is gone; it’s floated away into the atmosphere.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Building of the Month: A-U-G House

A small, strange structure sits facing a stretch of the increasingly-clogged Tubman Boulevard in the middle of Congo Town. It has all the proper dimensions of an average Liberian domestic compound: one lot, one story, ringed by a concrete fence.

But this building is strikingly different than most of Monrovia’s homes, which are usually finished in mustard-and-mint painted concrete, with bars on the windows and capped by a cascade of zinc sheeting. But this single-level building is squared off and faced with dark, glossy tiles, sheets of imitation lapis lazuli, plastic glazing mirroring the traffic crawling past.

This is A-U-G House. But what is it? Is it still a home, a residence? Surely it was at some point. But has it now been glamorized, gleamed-up and cubed, for a commercial purpose?

What is A-U-G? Or, perhaps, who is AUG? Is it refer to August, this city's most torrential month? Is it short for Augustus? Are they initials? A member of an elite family starting with a G?

No one seems to know. At least, not when the compound is approached and inquiries are addressed to nearby loiterers. The goings-on behind this indigo edifice remain as baffling as the young man lounging prone in the dust between the house and the pavement in the picture below.

No matter. Architecturally, it is certain that this is a quite compact, dense example of the transformation of this once-sleepy seaside city, at one time characterized by wide-porched mansions shaded under plum trees, into the premier post-conflict, post-modern development capital. The forces acting on Monrovia make A-U-G house is not so much surprising as inevitable. This rapidly-changing city froths with steroidal injections of charity from Seattle and Washington and the high-fructose syrup of aid from Brussels and Beijing, as it is simultaneously imbued with the aesthetic sensibilities of Beirut, suburban Atlanta and inner-city New Jersey. The final station for the world's philanthropic freight train is one-story high, covered in a cheap, slick veneer shipped from Guangzhou and Dubai, intending too look enviably modern but really masking a crumbling but more honest structure underneath.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Liberia to Have a Sovereign Wealth Fund?

A surprising phenomenon has been growing across the African continent over the last few years: plans by more than a dozen African governments to develop Sovereign Wealth Funds. These large pools of government revenues, which are diverted from the current budget and instead invested offshore in financial markets for future savings, rather than spent currently or in-country.

These investment vehicles are much associated with affluent economies such as Singapore, China, or the UAE, and not the desperate circumstances of the world's least developed countries. But they have spread across Africa this decade, and Liberia could be considering establishing its own fund. Below is the better part of a February 13th Reuters article:

Resource-rich African countries are busy setting up sovereign wealth funds, but critics say the funds may not serve the long-term interests of poor countries that still need to invest in basics such as schools and roads. 
Three oil producers, Angola, Ghana and Nigeria, started funds in the last two years. Before them, only Botswana, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea had such schemes. Other countries are following. Zambia and Liberia announced plans for funds last month. Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have similar intentions. 
The funds can serve useful purposes, analysts say. Commodity earnings can be split into one fund for infrastructure and another for savings that can be used as collateral for even bigger amounts. 
"Africa needs higher savings," said Razia Khan, the head of Africa research at Standard Chartered Bank. "If it is done properly, the sovereign wealth fund and the accumulation of long-term savings essentially means that countries are improving their creditworthiness and opening up access to bigger sources of financing on more favourable terms. It does not preclude investment in infrastructure." 
But critics say Africa could reap more from its resources by investing in education, energy, and transport to feed other industries, rather than parking the money in liquid but low-yield assets in safe havens, as sovereign funds tend to do. Many successful wealth funds belong to countries with surpluses and rich citizens, which can afford them. That is not the case with many sub-Saharan African governments struggling to feed or educate their people, said Kwame Owino, the chief executive at the Nairobi-based Institute of Economic Affairs. 
"It would be a luxury to have. The political will may exist, but the economics of it suggest that a sovereign wealth fund is not a good idea for many sub-Saharan countries," he said. 
"In many of these countries as well, transparency is a big problem and the amount of leakage that takes place in public funds is a reason to be concerned." 
Liberia is looking at various models of wealth funds, including Norway's, the world's most transparent sovereign wealth fund, Finance Minister Amara Konneh said. The west African country also wants to avoid the so-called "Dutch disease", where a dependence on resource extraction causes other industries to wither. 
Botswana's $6.9 billion Pula Fund was the continent's most transparent on the Linaburg-Maduell index, with a rating of 6 out of 10. Nigeria's $1 billion kitty had a rating of 4 in the third quarter of 2013. The country added $550 million to the fund in February. 
"We have a real governance deficit," said Aly-Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based independent analyst. "My concerns are that in a majority of these countries where there is a commodity-related windfall, it is proven already that in those countries the governance is the poorest of all the African countries." He cited Nigeria and Angola as example. 
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for more than three decades, appointed his eldest son to run the country's $5 billion fund in 2013. That undermined confidence in how it will be managed, given the country's reputation for squandering or siphoning off petrol dollars...Angola's money bags have been stuffed with cash since the end of the country's civil war in 2002. It is now investing in developed-market equities and bonds issued by sovereign agencies, investment-grade companies, high-yield emerging market assets and Africa's hotel sector. Nigeria's reserve was created in 2011 for three main purposes. One is infrastructure, another is a collective savings account and another is a so-called stabilization fund, to cushion against commodity price shocks. A remaining 15 percent is unallocated.
The brief mention of Liberia is attributed to this January interview with Finance Minister Konneh, in which he states that Liberia is ‘looking’ at a Sovereign Wealth Fund. Liberia is a long way off from having one, and is obviously a much smaller, much poorer, and much less developed economy than even Nigeria, with all that giant country’s poverty, inequality, underdevelopment and other major problems. Yet Nigeria has staggering poverty, but instead of injecting its oil revenues in its own development, it has in the last few years opted to set up a separate, off-shore fund.

While some of the funds may be invested in capital projects, like public infrastructure or stakes in private ventures, a good portion of it stays outside of Africa, invested in bonds and stocks. Instead of investing in children’s health or education, the money purchases US Treasuries. Instead of teachers’ and nurses' salaries, the profits from the crude are going into the pockets of fund managers in fees paid in Geneva, London, and New York. From a Bloomberg report from February on Nigeria’s new fund set-up:

Goldman Sachs, UBS AG and Credit Suisse Group AG were among four managers named in August to help run a $200 million fixed-income fund. Eight more managers will be appointed before the end of June, with two expected to be announced next month, Orji said.

So, not only is the money not injected into the domestic economy, it is sucked up into the global banking industry and first-world finance markets.

This is not necessarily inherently evil: prudent savings for future generations, and global expertise in managing and allocating the proceeds from extractive industry could do a lot of good. The Center for Global Development has covered this topic in some detail over the last few years. In October 2011, it published a brief paper, “What Role for Sovereign Wealth Funds in Africa's Development?” that surveyed the proliferation of Sovereign Wealth Funds across Africa, looking at established funds like those in Botswana, and more recent developments such as those in Angola and Nigeria.

The paper raises a lot of the structural problems latent in a undeveloped, resource-rich economy, such as an inability to accept large injects of capital and the high likelihood and risk that such big accumulations of government cash and authoritarian attempts to disperse that cash within the country’s administrative budget would end badly. The heart of the paper sets out the ideal best practices for a successful SWF.

Which all sounds good, but starting point in so much of the discussion of African SWFs (and much else in the world today) remains the unchallenged notion that global financialization is good.  While acknowledging how incongruous it is for the world’s poorest countries to be launching investment funds, there is little exploration in all this discussion of whether or not more current spending, on infrastructure, on education, on health care, would be a better “investment” in the future than offshore investments in U.S. Treasuries or even just in foreign currencies—piles of cash.

The paper was also published before the launch of Nigeria’s fund, which has hardly been immune from Nigeria’s notorious politics, but more positively may direct some of its investment into Nigeria’s decrepit power sector. In the case of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, most of what has happened thus far is that the President’s son was appointed manager last June, a controversial Swiss firm as given a huge contract to manage the fund, and a massive expensive London office building was purchased as the fund’s office. The result on the streets of Luanda? The city’s street vendors were harassed by the police and banned from trading.

I know little about economics, but even after reading these papers, the drive to funnel resource revenues into offshore funds still seems a bit shocking, especially in our current age when the over-financialization of even the U.S. economy is widely questioned.

Most startling, and difficult to accept, is the idea that rather than better-paid teachers or more paved roads or clinics, megabanks like Goldman Sachs or politically-connected Swiss-registered outfits will be receiving their fee for managing the assets of the world’s poorest people, who are excluded from enjoying the benefits of their country’s natural resources, and that rather augment public and private spending, by buying low-risk assets such as government bonds or foreign currencies, the world's poorest are essentially lending the world's richest money. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Modern Railways, May 1965: New for Nigeria

I've kind of moved on from the posts earlier this week about Nigeria's railways, but here's something I found in the tubes of the internets back in August, the cover of Modern Railways from May 1965:

“New for Nigeria: As part of their expansion program me, the Nigerian Railways, have recently ordered twenty-nine locomotives equipped with Sulzer 6LDA28-C six-cylinder pressure charged diesel engines of 1400 h.p.  The new locomotives will be used for mixed duties on the route from Lagos to Kano in the northern district of the Federation. The main contractors are A.E.I. and the locomotive builders are Metropolitan-Cammeli.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Yak Hunting in Liberia

 All Photos in this post are the property of Patrick Smith.

“Yak Hunting in Liberia” is the brilliant title of a post by Patrick Smith on the blog Ask The Pilot. Although Paul’s not referring to Tibetan pack animals in the title, he is talking about something nearly as exotic: a vintage Russian-made jet, a Yakolev Yak-40, which was used for short, regional flights across the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world. Almost a 1,000 of the 30-seaters were manufactured in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Read his post for more details and photos, but I am reposting here as I have long seen this disused, slowly decaying aircraft, lying forlornly in the overgrowth at the edge of RIA's runway. I've never approached the aircraft, the way Paul did, but I could read the faded “Weasua Air Transport” markings along the fuselage, and knew this to be an erstwhile air operation in Liberia which only lasted until about 2006, but remains the current local service agent for Kenya Airways, KLM, and Air France. The plane clearly will never fly again, but it’s unclear what will become of its remains, or whether Weasua will revive as an airline—as Liberia currently doesn't have a national carrier.

For more about Patrick, see his Flickr page.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mapping Nairobi's Minibuses

This made the rounds on the web in the last few weeks, and since I am on the topic of public urban transport this week, and it’s a good project, I’m posting it here: Digital Matatus, a multi-year project that has created a map of all the informal minibus routes in urban Nairobi.

Image of Digital Matatu Map.

The various actions of Nairobi’s various matatu operators have been organized by a coalition affiliated with MIT into the familiar aesthetic of the transit map. From the About section of the Website:

Collaborative research and mapping for Nairobi’s Public Transit[We] are working toward standardizing and opening transit data for Nairobi’s Matatus — the informal and de facto city bus system — and expanding our findings, tools, and processes globally. Building on past Kenyan-based digital mapping efforts and open source transit software, the group will produce a comprehensive framework for collecting, opening and mapping Matatu transportation data toward a mobile and equitable Nairobi. Currently underway, a primary round of data collection and local student design workshops are growing the understanding of this otherwise misunderstood and complex system. The first series of tools will be entering development this spring to improve on data collection and transport information management in the decentralized Matatu system. This project uses Nairobi’s active mobile phone community to develop a standardized Matatu bus route for Nairobi informal buses. By developing crowd sourcing applications we hope people in Nairobi can develop, contribute, maintain and own their own transit information.

A cool project, even if there are some lingering questions of how up-to-date a decentralized, "crowdsourced" map can be without active management, and also how well the intended end-user adopts the product, as I question whether Nairobi's harried commuters are really downloading a map from a website. What happens when a driver changes routes? Does this happen often? Do they set a fixed schedule? 

Right now, there isn't much that's exactly digital about the static product, other than it was drawn using open-source software. It's currently a PDF file. Nonetheless, very neat.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Plan for Rail Network linking West African Capitals

Yesterday's post on the development of actual, non-fictional regional railways reminded me of this Reuter's report from February 4th, a month ago, detailing plans to upgrade and expand the railway line that runs from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, primarily for mining operations but also for passenger services. Reprinted in full, with emphasis added:
Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast have decided to turn over operation of the Abidjan-Ouagadougou railway to mining company Pan African Minerals, and the line will be extended to its planned manganese mine, Burkina Faso's prime minister said.Burkina's premier Luc Adolphe Tiao told Reuters that French conglomerate Bollore's contract to operate the 1,260 km railway from the Ivory Coast port of Abidjan to Burkina's capital Ouagadougou had expired. 
"We've decided to create a new railway company. This company will be in charge of rehabilitating and operating the line," Tiao said in a recent interview.Pan African Minerals, which is developing a large manganese mine at Tambao in the northeast of Burkina Faso, will control 55 percent of the new operator, Tiao said. 
The start-up of production at Tambao is a priority for the government of Burkina Faso as it seeks to diversify its economy and tax revenue away from reliance on gold and cotton.Tiao said the governments had sent a letter to Bollore last week to notify it of their decision. The railway currently handles 40 freight trains and 12 passenger trains a week, according to Bollore's Web site. 
Bollore will hold 25 percent in the new rail operator, and the two governments will each control 10 percent, he said. 
A spokesman for Ivory Coast's Transport Ministry confirmed that a letter was sent to Bollore last week with the plans for the new company. 
An official spokesman for Bollore Africa Logistics, the transport and logistics division of the French conglomerate in Africa, could not immediately be reached for comment.A source at the French firm confirmed, however, that a new company would be created, in which Bollore would hold 25 percent and Pan African minerals 55 percent, to renovate the railway line and extend it as far as the town of Kaya, which lies some 100 km northeast of Ouagadougou and 210 km south of the Tambao mine. 
The source said the contract for Bollore's Sitarail unit to provide freight and passenger services on the Abidjan-Ouagadougou line runs until 2035. The new operator will be in charge only of manganese shipments from the mine, the source said. 
The prime minister said that Pan African Minerals, which is controlled by Romanian-British entrepreneur Frank Timis, was expected to start production at its manganese mine in 2017. 
An extension of the rail link from Ougadougou to Tambao should be completed by 2017 in time for the start of production, he added. The Tambao mine has raised its estimate of reserves to a total of 100 million tonnes of manganese and will produce 5 million tonnes per year, Tiao said. 
The extension of the Abidjan-Ougadougou railway is part of ambitious regional plans to create a rail networking [sic] linking several capitals in West Africa.Technical studies are underway to extend the planned line from Kaya to Niger's capital Niamey, according to the government of Niger. The study is due to be completed in March 2014. 
Studies are also underway to extend an existing line in Benin, which runs from the port of Cotonou to the town of Parakou, as far as Niamey.
 The background story on the switch control from French industrial giant Bollore to Romanian-British billionaire Frank Timis's Pan African Minerals is also intriguing.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lagos Underground

Yesterday's spoof on an imagined Monorail transit system for Monrovia, something I have had hanging around for years, reminded me of Jeremy Weate's 2007 remaining of the London Underground system. As seen in a six-year old post on the Naijablog, Weate took the famous tube map and simply replaced the station names with locations across Lagos.

As excerpted from that blogpost:
As with the London version, I have taken quite a few geographic/artistic licences for the purposes of design clarity and readability. My thinking is ppp: companies with deep pockets could sponsor the design & build of some of the stations to reduce the strain on the public purse, and in return pick the name of their choice (see Zenith, Silverbird, IBTC). On the other hand, some of the station names strongly signal a poetic sense of place, as with Palace (for the Oba’s Palace on Lagos Island), and 1004, standing for the eponymous flats. Again, for ease of use, I have left out the Five Cowrie Creek that separates Lagos Island from Victoria Island below it – those familiar with the morphology of Lagos can project it onto the map in their imagination.
What a joy Lagos would be with this metro system (it could be part overground, and part underground, depending on geology). As with the London version, I have kept a light rail system heading due East towards Ajah and Epe from the shared stations of Lekki/The Palms – this is it to cater for the marshy terrain along the Lekki peninsular.
Just imagine how convenient it would be if Lagos had this metro. The highbrow set could take the Falomo line (Piccadilly renamed) from their Bourdillon mansions to catch a classical music concert at Muson – at last not having to worry about parking and ‘settling’ awon boys; one could shop for a picnic at The Palms, then drink and eat it all on the new-look Bar Beach; or one could stock up on no-one-need-knowjuju fetish-wear at Oyingbo market before heading for the Silverbird cinema (connecting onto the Circle line at Kuramo Waters).
While this is all fun, as in my own case, would that we lived in a world where such public works projects were reality, rather than bloggers' graphic follies. More positively, a light-rail system is in the works for the urban area, supposedly set to open imminently, and various high-speed rail projects are advancing in Nigeria.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Monrovia Monorail

‘The Ministry of Transport and the City of Monrovia are excited to announce the groundbreaking of a new public transit system which will transform transportation across the City of Monrovia. In cooperation with and support from development partners, the Metropolitan Monrovia Monorail (“MonMon”) system is designed as a single-track elevated monorail system, the first of its kind for the African continent. When construction is completed in 2020, the $1.5bn, 14-mile line, hoisted aloft by concrete pylons, will feature two-dozen stations, stretching from Red Light in Paynesville to Freeport on Bushrod Island, with multiple stops in Central Monrovia, Sinkor, and Congo Town. The multi-car train will have a capacity to whisk up to 1,000 passengers per hour above the traffic of Monrovia's busy streets. A possible Phase Two envisions the addition of a second elevated track, which would allow for multiple trains, greatly increasing capacity.’ 

For more information on this project, see here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tuk-Tuks and Tricycles

The woes and wherewithals of Monrovia's commuters shift along with the changing the means of transportation available to them, in a city that is seems increasingly clogged with traffic week by week. 

In the wake of the government's controversial pehn-pehn ban, which is still in force if not very strictly enforced—the law is holding but is dependent on traffic cops' enthusiasm for pulling over every motorbike with a passenger—the streets of Monrovia have in the last few months featured a vehicle new to the country:  a growing fleet of banana yellow auto rickshaws, which by all appearances seem to have been imported from south Asia. While these tuk-tuks offer more space, more shade and perhaps slightly more safety than the dodge-and-weave pehn-pehns, they take up more space in the choked traffic of the city, and can't slip between bumpers in heavy traffic like a two-wheeled vehicle. But at least they can be on the main streets, whereas passenger motorbikes remain banned.

This is entirely new for Liberia, although the substantial Wikipedia article on tuk-tuks notes that cities in East Africa, Nigeria, and Madagascar all feature auto rickshaws.

Not to be outdone, a more inventive faction of the pehn-pehns army has fought back for market share, by surreptitiously transforming their 2-wheeled motorbikes into three-wheeled, bonneted taxis. The Heritage reports from this week [emphasis added]:
A painstaking investigation conducted by the Independent Authoritative Heritage has established how some motorcyclists are locally transforming their motorcycles into tricycles to enable them ply the main streets in Monrovia and its environs. Motorcycles are widely refereed to here as ‘Pehn-Pehn’, while on the other hand; motorcyclists are called ‘Pehn-Pehn’ riders.    
This latest development comes in the wake of the mass importation of tricycles into the country. The tricycles have since taken the place of motorcycles, which were banned by the Government of Liberia (GOL) late last year  from plying the main streets of Monrovia and its environs. 
The government said it took the action in order to reduce the high rate of accident cases caused by ‘pehn-pehn’ riders. The government’s action also followed an incident which involved a motorcyclist and a bus drive in which the motorcyclist lost his life and the busallegedly set ablaze by some motorcyclists in revenge of the death of their colleagues. 
In the same vein, the motorcyclists were reported to have wounded several police officers, including Col. Darlington George, Deputy Police Commissioner for Operation.
Accordingly, on Tuesday, February 25, 2014, our reporter ran into one of the transformed motorcyclists on Benson Street, Monrovia. The rider, believed to have gone for lunch,  parked the self-made tricycle at the intersection of Gurley and Bensons Streets.
It is not clear whether authorities of the Liberia National Police(LNP) are aware of this made in Liberia tricycles.
But some onlookers, who spoke to our reporter, said they had seen similar made in Liberia tricycles commuting passengers in central  Monrovia without any attempt by traffic police to question the riders.
“These locally made tricycles are different from the imported ones- we do not know why the police are not detecting them. The police are not just serious people in this country. All they do is to run behind cabman for $5 dollars business leaving behind potential threat to citizens,” remarked one of the bystanders.
Beautifully colored with yellow, the cage contained an old safari motorcycle as if it is an imported one.
According to our reporter, the bystanders were seen arguing among themselves that the tricycle was not a locally made one, but rather imported from India, one of the countries where tricycles are common in the transport industry.
The well self-designed tricycle has a distance beauty that convinces anyone that it is being imported from a foreign country. The local manufacturer is reported to have used wheelbarrow tyers at the back of the tricycle, while the front tyer is believed to be the original tyer of the Safari (Honda) motorcycle.
Already plying the streets of central Monrovia, observers say the new technique by motorcyclists is believed to be working well, as there has been no report of police detecting such technique even though their presence is felt at major street intersections downtown Monrovia.
Meanwhile, the government last week announced that there were plans to stop tricycles from plying the main streets in Monrovia and its environs. 
Against this backdrop, the government is cautiously calling on business owners and the general public to stop the importation of the tricycles into the country. 
As in the case of motorcycles, the government pointed out, this is part of its ongoing measures aimed  at protecting lives and properties, as well as reducing accidents cases, mainly in Monrovia and its environs.    
Note how the locally jury-rigged motorbikes are described in such deceptive fashion in both the reporting and by the passengers and by-standers, in contrast to the admiring manner in which the imported 'tricycles' are referred.

This photo ©Heritage Newspaper Liberia

But apparently, the government has noted the new developments, with rumors that even these three-wheeled vehicles, imported or makeshift alike, may be added to the forbidden forms of transportation in Monrovia.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Monrovia Central Park Opens

I've already posted the building of the month for February, but I have something of another architectural review to post—more like something of a landscape architecture review.

Monrovia Central Park officially opened last week. The formal name is Chevron Monrovia Central Park —as a major source of funding for the park's realization came from Chevron Liberia Ltd, the local subsidiary of the San Ramon, California-based super major that is working some of Liberia's offshore oil blocks.

Monrovia Central Park isn't exactly central, in the sense that it is not located within the historic core of Central Monrovia, but is across the river, on Bushrod Island, and not far from what up until now has been Monrovia's only park-like setting: the historic Providence Island, which sits forlornly in the middle of Mesurado River, it's tiny surface a half-neglected barrenness bisected by the busy Gabriel Tucker bridge connecting Bushrod Island with Central Monrovia.

Heretofore, Monrovia has not had any other real parks: no dedicated public open spaces, other than the small, over-formal grounds of Centennial Pavillion Grounds There are a few non-dedicated open areas, such as the erstwhile make-shift football pitches at the end of the Spriggs-Payne runway, which were cordoned off in 2011 as the airport re-established control over its periphery. There is also the beach, although those are not exactly treated as public parks either by the public nor government authorities, who have made moves to wall off many beaches to the public in recent years, as has been previously noted on this blog. 

Monrovia Central Park is also not on the same scale as its Manhattan namesake. The postage stamp public garden wouldn't be hosting any carriage rides or ice-skating, even if the climate was more amenable. There's hardly enough space to kick a ball back and forth.

Also, the park suffers from a sort of over-intervention that is actually common to Liberian landscaping. There is far too much concrete, and far too little grass. These rough-shod surfaces take the shape of a surfeit of sidewalks and low walls, sitting areas where even the benches and tables are crudely cast in cement. This echoes the inner courtyards of many private residential and hotel compounds in Monrovia, which are often paved over into an unwelcoming expanse of hard surfaces, radiating heat.

There are some nice features added to the park, including several playground areas with slides and swing sets. The most monumental aspect is an enormous two-story palaver hut, the largest I've ever seen. There a number of smaller, thatched-roof stands around the perimeter, like picnic pavilions.

There is still a fair amount of grass and large trees, which is definitely a worthwhile amenity, and all-too-rare in comparison with most of Monrovia's compounds. Perhaps the most successful detail is the waterfront pavement, which acts as a sort of riverside promenade, which even includes a boat dock, perhaps for a future water taxi service, but also utilizes the Park's location, with a pleasant vista across the wide mouth of the Mesurado, looking south towards historic Central Monrovia and Providence Island.

Hopefully, Monrovians will be able to make use of the park, especially young children, and hopefully this is only the first open space that is formally set aside for the city's residents. Excerpted from the Executive Mansion press release:

The President challenged the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) to ensure that the Mesurado River is cleared of garbage, to allow those boating to have a garbage-free environment at all times...
The President seriously frowned at the Waterside section of the river, where makeshift latrines are built along the bank, terming them as unacceptable and should be removed immediately.She also instructed the committee to include the clean-up of Providence Island, to make it a tourist attraction and, at the same time, to complete the construction of the monument on the island. When completed, the monument will address one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that such a structure be erected in honor of those who paid the ultimate price for peace in Liberia.President Sirleaf encouraged parents to join the government and its partners in the effort to create an enabling environment for Liberian children. The park, she said, will go a long way in allowing the Liberian child to play once again, where they will know no war. She called upon parents to be good partners in achieving this objective.

Satellite Photos ©Google, other images taken from the Monrovia Central Park's Facebook Page. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Building of the Month: The Ruin at Clay Street & Camp Johnson Road

One of post-conflict Monrovia’s primary architectural characteristics, featured through the M2M Architectural Tour, has been its ruins. The city is bookended by abandoned monuments, or rather monuments to abandonment—the never-was Ministry of Defense in Congo Town as you enter the capital, and the Ducor Hotel, situated both at Monrovia's highest point and atop the termination of the long Mesurado peninsula (with the oceanside Hotel Africa complex in Virginia as an eastward outlier). Megastructures of the country's former affluence and importance dot the cityscape: the Pompeii of Post-Conflict.

Aside from these larger commercial complexes, there have always been lots of smaller-scale ruins across the city, from shells of sprawling split-level '70s ranches the fin-de-belle-époque to skeletons of historic mansions in town. If the hulks of five-star hotels and the unfinished frames of intimidating ministries are mausoleums of Monrovia's Cold War relevance, these domestic dilapidations mark the graves of personal tragedies: families and businesses fallen. 

Carey Street, 2008 & 2009.

In Central Monrovia, there have been half a dozen such ruins featured in the Architectural Tour over the last five years: a few compelling examples where an intact, multistory stone or concrete shell stood vacant amid the crowded, chaotic bustle of the town. a Victorian-style façade, still grayish-white with old paint and once-resplendent with double-height front porch, now rooflessly houses a carpenter's yard on Carey Street. About a block away, a grandiose triple-decker whose front entry had been built out into a video club and garment shop, the front parlor home to a wide, green plum tree that reaches up to the crumbling eves, a second vines over the back of the house.

Carey Street 2009.

The most magnificent of all, unquestionably, was the Ruin on Camp Johnson Road at the corner of Carey Street. Like so many of Monrovia's old buildings, its original purpose was difficult to ascertain, although by its size and location is was almost certainly an anchor of what was once Monrovia's fifth avenue shopping street. Taking up an entire lot, the four-story high structure had five wide windows all around, and some sort of interior circulation shaft, perhaps a central stairwell, or almost as if a larger building had been built up around the outside of a smaller inner building. Whatever the relationship between the two elements, they unmistakably recall an outer peristyle and inner cella of a Greek temple.

Camp Johnson Road, 2013.

The scene is made rather less like the Acropolis in Athens and rather more like Angkor Wat by the last and third element: a massive, vining tree, sprouting knottily out the inner sanctum and over the top of the concrete structures like a dome. At its ankles, like many other of Monrovia's ruins, was an arcade of small shops, a bustle of hustle: a baby-care store, a bar and restaurant with an enclosed sitting area, painted in bright lime green. If Monrovia is post-colonialism's Rome, than here is a scene of Canaletto, or at least of Hubert Robert, as the ordinary citizens reoccupy the old edifices, not to keep their livestock, but sell plastic toys and warm Club Beer.

Hubert Robert, French. Roman Ruins, c.1760.

This arrangement was an arresting site. First, like all of Monrovia's other war wreckage, it is ruin porn, less ironic than the Ducor and less hilariously menacing than the Ministry of Defense, as the previous life of the building is not evident. It is striking both for the visual orchestration, and that such a feral germination had proceeded with only disregard and accommodation, without intervention or mitigation—without anyone on the busy street around it taking any action to stop it.

But it has stopped. As of earlier this week, the concrete-block walls have been knocked down. A pile of rubble covers the twisted roots of the thick-trunked tree, which will undoubtedly meet the blades of chainsaw in the coming weeks.

Photo ©Glenna Gordon February 2014. 

What will come in its place here is not known: another cement shop front, with heavy iron doors, selling used mattresses or auto parts. Perhaps the second floor will be apartments. A diesel generator will run outback. One more store for Camp Johnson Road. Jobs will be created, commerce will commence: it will be another step in the march of progress and recovery, and Monrovia will become more like every other West African capital, with one less of its unusual sights.

Special thanks to Glenna Gordon for use of her Instagram photo. All other photos ©Matthew M. Jones.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Far West, A Mushroom City

I think I bought these flashcards on eBay a couple years ago. Printed in Italy in 1978-79, they must be part of a larger set of fast-fact cards on places around the world. They would suggest something educational, although in reading the short summary on the back suggests that either these were for an adult audience in the pre-digital age or that pupils from thirty years ago were under a much higher expectation for reading comprehension than would be the case today—with terminology like “autochthonous peoples” and “insalubrious districts” casually included the explanatory text. 

The card presents a dynamically industrializing state, with the orderly and ultramodern Freeport on the front, and much of the back discussing trade and economics. The tabulation of figures is also remarkable: Liberia exported 250 million dollars worth of goods in that year, 90% of which was iron and rubber, or around 800 million dollars in 2013 inflation adjustment. 

As mentioned in a post from a few months back, 2010's figure was 823 million dollars, although a third of this was the offshore ship registry. The whole country had only 1.2 million people; Monrovia only 180,000. There are probably more than 1.2 million people in greater Monrovia today. My favorite sentence, unquestionably, is “…Monrovia, which until then had looked like a Western film city with twisted wooden posts, developed and acquired one of the finest ports of West Africa, which became a free port.” Great sentence, although I cannot imagine that the unfamiliar reader would be able to understand the connection between a wild west film set and pre-modern Monrovia. Although this was enough for the front of the card to declare Liberia “An African ‘Far West.’”

The card for Abidjan is perhaps even more fascinating. First, the image itself is so banal as to be mesmerizing; it seems to be calling attention to how remarkable such an ordinary scene of an office building parking lot was in sub-Saharan Africa before 1980. The back caption states that the block is “the Ivory Coast data-processing centre at Abidjan.”

The remainder of the back text is mostly devoted to an unusual description of Abidjan's socio-economic  “hierarchy” —the Europeans concentrated in the more attractive districts of Plateau, Cocody and Marcory, the industrial zone in Petit-Bassam. Then there are the majority-African districts: Adhamé, Koumassi— “high-rise towers of rented flats,” an intriguing image; and then “the ‘areas of spontaneous settlement,’ or shanty-towns.” 

Then: “as fast as these insalubrious districts are renovated to clear them of the slums, new ones spring up alongside to house the influx of immigrants from Upper Volta, Mali, Nigeria, etc.” The echo of an earlier, imperially-sactioned racism informs a modern sociological assessment. The final two paragraphs summarize the economic sectors in almanac form. “Abidjan really is a mushroom city,” it declares. 

These cards not only recall the pre-decline era of post-independence, when Africa hummed with progress and industrialization; for me they also remind me of early childhood memories, flipping open the family Atlas or taking down a volume from the Encyclopedia set, to look up a distant, exotic city or country, described in a handful of paragraphs. The brief, essential words conjured the cityscapes in my mind: “a tourist complex on the lagoon,” —what would a ten year old American kid see? Rare was the encyclopedia image of an African city in those days, and even if the entry had an illustration, it was but one small photograph in the decades before Google image search. It was left to interpretation, and the imagination.
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