Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chimpanzee on Mamba Point

I didn't get my camera out quite fast enough, but I was able to get this shot of a baby chimpanzee, which for some reason was hanging out in the guard house of an apartment complex on Sekou Toure Avenue in Mamba Point. I am guessing the guard working there was trying to sell it foreigners in the area. They are unbelievably cute, although what you do with them when they become larger and several times stronger than adult humans is another issue. There are a few in cages at Thinker's Beach, and I've heard that there is an island near Marshall with wild groups. Other than that, you occasionally see chimps, as well as monkeys, around town.

Ripped from the Liberian Headlines: Rape-by-Mistake & Flippant Verbosity

From the Analyst ("Liberia's Most Analytical Newspaper")
Jan 23, 2009:

...Says Fighters Mistakenly Raped Women [SIC!!??!!]

Defunct MODEL rebel leader Thomas Nimeley[,] while denying allegations of human rights abuses and expressing pentinence Thursday[,] conceded that his rebels mistakenly raped women.
"My forces mistakenly raped women; I am not saying that there were no atrocities committed. If anyone did something to somebody, I am saying that I am sorry," Mr. Nimeley said.

Ibid., Editorial Page:


A stark characteristic of primitive political decadence particularly in Liberia posits that any rhetorical verbosity, no matter how flippant and ludicrous, immediately attracts popularity and qualifies one for political office. Thankfully this ancient relic of a shameful past is rapidly evaporating as a new age of enlightenment evolves in Liberia. No more will individuals indulge in frivolous rhetorical irrelevancies and cajole the ordinary ear into a fictive claim to substantive public policy knowledge. Devotees of this Stone Age mentality will now be exposed to a rude awakening of a conscious public prepared to scrutinize their mere loquacity under the microscopic telescope of logic and contextual relevance.

(The editorial continues on for seven more paragraphs...)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Liberian Primer 2

Five more words and phrases heard in Monrovia:

Vexed. I am sure you already know what this word means. To be vexed is to be angry, of course. But when is the last time you used this word? Well, in Liberia, this word is far more employed than Americanisms such as to be angry, pissed off, steamed, got your Irish up, or what have you. A classic example of how Liberian speech is peppered with colorful, fancy words that are rarely used elsewhere. In daily conversation, people intimate and jubilate, and bad children make their parents vexed. Pronounced FEST, you'll hear this at least once a day, although you might not catch it at first. 

Haste. Again, not a new word, really. But when is the last time you asked someone if they were in haste? 'Hurry' is hardly ever heard here. 

Crawfish. I am on a roll hear with words that appear familiar and mundane. Yet, like the use of the word Jeep, I think this is another fascinating relic of the American connection to this country. The only two places in the world where shrimp are referred to as crawfish that I know of are the American South and Liberia. When I was tasting a shrimp dish recently, my friend explained that in Liberia they call it C-R-A-W-F-I-S-H. I told him I already knew the word. 

Ever-since. This is used when you have been waiting too long for something or someone. I was recently in a meeting where one man told a colleague, who was supposed to be preparing a report, that he had "been waiting for it ever-since."

I want to believe. One of my favorites. Such a great nuance that is so applicable to American speech yet is absent. Very often used in places where Americans might begin a declaration with "I think," as in, "I want to believe that she feels love for me," as opposed to simply, "I think she loves me."

Sunday, January 25, 2009


All hyperbole must be invoked to convey the impact of Barack Obama's election on the African psyche. I was in Africa on election day and witnessed the messianic build-up to November 4th and the muted, smiling disbelief that greeted November 5th.
That euphoria is now manifested in business names, such as the new Obama Video Club below. Business owners aren't worried about copyright issues here, and like to emulate their favorite sports teams and musicians (see the post of naming Taxis from last week). So you have Fly Emirates taxi (referencing the Arsenal Football Club jersey sponsor) and you have the Xzibit barber shop (named after the American hip-hop artist).
Now comes Obamamania. Besides the video club I have seen an Obama Filling Station (Yes we can, as in a container of oil) and an Obama cook-shop. Aside from this, Obama is being a popular baby name, a popular subject for pop music songs, and is also becoming a slang term for everything from beer to sex to the United States itself.

Liberian Primer I

The Encyclopedia, or at least Wikipedia, does say that Liberia's official language is English. Of course that doesn't mean that Americans can understand Liberian speech.
Liberians have their own way of speaking, called Collonqua, which is difficult to get a handle on. Right now I am halfway there, but at first it helps to know the many ways Liberians use English words uniquely. There are hundreds of examples, and in fact Liberians speak Book-English, which they call Serie, very eloquently, usuing plenty of ten-cent words when an American would just mumble something. I recently heard a man scolding his daughter wag his finger and say, "I will have no toleration for this type of behavior." as opposed to say, stop that.
There are lots of words and usages that have died away in the States, giving the Liberian language a wonderfully archaic quality. Hair is still "barbed", one "enters" a building rather than "going in", cars "carry" passengers rather than take them. I was told when arranging for a driver to meet me on arrival that he would "reach" the airport to "receive" me. Cars also "bend" at "junctions" instead of turning at intersections, and "branch" at forks in the road. Here are five more of my favorites:

Spoil. This is really common, unfortunately because lots of things are spoiled here. Spoil in American English is really limited to be a description of overripe food, but in Liberia it means more broadly to ruin or destroy. Anything messed up to the point where it probably can't be fixed is spoiled, whether its a physical object, or a process.

Fine. This is pretty simple, but a good one to know. Usually, when Americans respond in conversation by saying "fine!" it is sort abrupt, and might carry the meaning, "stop talking now". In Liberia it is instead the equivalent of "you're right" or 'your understanding is correct'. It can be a little alarming at first, when you think you are relating relevant facts in conversation, and the audience seems to be telling you to shut up.

Keno. Yes, bar-room casino games are popular in Liberia, but that's not what I am referring to. I use the word Keno as an example of words that you hear, that you think you understand, but which only throw you off from following the conversation. You endure a few sentences of bafflement until your mind kicks in with help from the context. In this case, "keno" is actually canoe. Today I had a Liberian tell me that his building materials were delivered by Keno, and I tried to picture how the lottery game facilitated his supply chain. Another example is, when I gave a friend printed pictures of his family, he lamented that he didn't have an I-beam. At first I wondered how structural steel could be related to viewing family photos, until it dawned on me that I-beam was actually album.

Eat. The particular usage I find interesting and somewhat sad is the term "eat the money." That's when you pay for someone to do something and they just take the money and don't do it, such as when you go to get something fixed and they charge you upfront and don't fix it, and don't give you any money back. I guess we don't have a similar phrase because that doesn't often happen. Its commonplace here.
Incidentally, to be a regular weightlifter is to be a "bodyman" who "eats iron."

Jeep. This is one of my favorites, as it manifests the long and unique history between the United States and Liberia. The term SUV is roaring ahead, but when I showed some kids pictures of my car at home, they all yelled Jeep! Jeep! This likely is ultimately a legacy of the huge American armed forces presence here during World War II. I have asked around to hire (or as they say "charter") a car for the week, and was asked if I wanted a Jeep.

Yellow Cab

Monrovians rely heavily on taxis for transport, particularly since the city is spread so linearly, and because so few people own cars.
Taxis are only for individuals if you pay for every seat in the vehicle, known as a charter. Otherwise, all your money gets you is one seat, and sometimes not even that, as it is common to see 5 or 6 in the back of the tiny vehicles.

There are also cars available for hire, and sometimes these seem to be acting as regular taxis, pulling off to the side of the road and packing with people. I haven't really figured this out yet.

Taxis here are generally small hatchbacks, always painted yellow, in addition to other decoration. Lots of them are named, usually something religious like "God Willing" or "Jesus has chosen" or a bible phrase anyway. A lot of others show football enthusiasm: "Man United", "West Ham", even "Fly Emirates."
Some other monikers are pretty catchy: "Skill is Work," others are hauntingly enigmatic: I saw a taxi yesterday called "Laughter is Not Friendship". I still haven't figured out what that one means, maybe I missed that bible quote.

There is also a hand signal system in place to communicate to the driver which direction you wish to go, so that the taxi can head in a likewise direction. Pointing down to the ground is to indicate that you want to stay on the main boulevard, either heading in or out of town. For the market area of the Paynesville suburb is to shake an open hand to the side. That area is called the Red Light District, but this is Africa, not Amsterdam. It simply got the name because there was a traffic light along the road there. To point up means that you want a taxi that is turning on to the Old Road area, and to point straight away from your body is to indicate the airport short-cut which heads towards Spriggs Payne airfield.

Moved To Monrovia

Well, as you might actually already know, I am in Monrovia, Liberia, which you can easily find on a map or Google earth. But here is a better understanding of the city that I have moved to.
Monrovia is most easily understood by taking either Manhattan or San Francisco as a template for reference. San Francisco offers many similarities because Monrovia is also a peninsula, at the end of which is the old port and city center, from which bridges cross a natural harbor to the suburbs.
Manhattan is a useful comparison because the long Montserrado Peninsula is divided into three districts that act as a Downtown, Midtown, and Uptown in a roughly similar way to New York City.
The old city, what the Liberians call "In-Town", originated as the first settlement of freed American slaves who founded Liberia, and occupies the westernmost tip of the peninsula. Today it is a major business and financial capital for the whole country, with most banks and law offices, but also with the city's principal pedestrian shopping precinct on the waterfront (called "waterside"). On the ocean side is what is called Mamba Point, where there are a few nice hotels and the massive American Embassy. Coincidently, the American Embassy occupies a clifftop redoubt on the Northwestern tip of the peninsula, not unlike the Presidio in San Francisco.
Going east, one reaches the capital area, where the Executive Mansion, Senate, and Temple of Justice all face one another. Continuing on the main road is Sinkor, which until about 20 years ago was more like a suburb of the small capital city, but today is truly a part of Monrovia proper, with many businesses, embassies, and government ministries in this area, along with a couple of hotels. I am currently staying at one on the main road there. Midtown Manhattan might also come to mind in the grid pattern of the streets, numbered 1st, 2nd and so on. This is where I am right now.
After that comes Congo Town, which is more residential but still a busy area with a lot of ministries and aid organizations (I'll be using the term NGO sooner or later, and for those unfamiliar it stands for Non-Governmental Organization, which is either like the Red Cross, MSF/Doctors Without Borders, or a faith-based charity or the like).
The name Congo Town is interesting. Briefly, the history of the term is that when Liberia was founded, it was very poor, as it was solely funded by American Colonization Societies sending freed black families to Africa. Monrovia is named after President James Monroe because he secured the lavish sum of $100,000 to help found the country. Anyway, one of the ways that Liberia was able to get financial support was to agree to help Britain and America. Both countries had abolished the slave trade, but continued to capture vessels from other nations that were still shipping people across the Atlantic. The British and Americans had the dilemma of what to do with these people -- who were from all over Africa, and really had no idea where they themselves were from in terms of macrogeography, so could not likely be returned to their home lands even if the funding existed to do that. Therefore, these people were put on shore in Liberia, and the Freed American Black Liberians were given funds to settle them. These people came to be known as "Recaptured's" or "Congoes" and so the settlement outside of Monrovia came to be known as Congo Town, and is today a busy part of the city.
Descendents of Congos and Freed Americans have over the paset 150 years all come to be known as Congo, to distinguish them from the native peoples of the 16 indigenous tribes of Liberia, who have been known as Country people.
Now I hope you have a good understanding of where I am, or at least you can refer back to this post later when I am describing the town. I have actually been working on some maps of the city as part of a real estate marketing study that I am helping to conduct. Once these are finished, I will post them soon so to help illustrate my location. Have a great day!
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