Thursday, December 23, 2010
Aside from generally appreciating the historic architecture of Liberia, I've never conducted my own investigation into the areas which A Land and Life Remembered covers. I've never explored the St. Paul river area; I've never been to Arthington, White Plans, Clay-Ashland, or the other hamlets along the riverbanks from the ocean to Mount Coffee.
I have been to Grand Bassa County, but I hadn't realized that I had been though the towns of Fortsville and Hartford, mentioned in the book, until later. I realized that I must have driven through them on the way to Buchanan last year when I looked at the map. Apart from what is in the architectural tour, I did take some photographs of some old-style houses in Robertsport, Buchanan and what I think is Hartford on my trips around Liberia in 2009. I'm no photographer, even when it comes to architecture, and I tend to like to oversaturate my photos in Liberia to give a sense of the atmospheric intensity:
I always admired the antiquity and unique style of these houses, which look remarkable even in their teetering, unkempt state. Of course, its usually really difficult to ascertain just when they were built, and by who. Its also interesting that really no one seems to be building in this fashion now: almost all houses built in Liberia today are ranch-style, and out of concrete, which makes the structures that much more noticeable and remarkable to come across.
What I also find really intriguing, but is not discussed in the book or elsewhere, is the somewhat curious choice of zinc panels for the structures. In some ways, such as resisting rot and security, it might be desirable, but I just imagine that rolled metal would be a difficult building material to come by, especially, say, more than 50 years ago. Maybe these were originally wood-sided constructions (maybe the underlying structures are still wood), but at any point that metal sheeting was incorporated involved importing the material.
My inclination would be to undertake an exhaustive, multi-county survey to see what still stands, especially those properties featured in Max Belcher's photography. Given the hydra-headed scourge of war, looting, poverty, neglect, abandonment, tropical deterioration, and the complete lack of any sort of historical preservation movement, much less regulated restrictions, it is all the more incredible to come across a "Way Back" House, as my Liberian friends exclaim when we come across them.
I also wonder, given that Belcher's survey did not seem to cover anything north of Tubmanburg or south of Grand Bassa County, that no truly country-wide index of historic architecture has ever been covered. I've read Mississippi In Africa but I don't think I've ever seen a picture of Greenville, in any era. This also reminds me of Glenna's haunting photography from her many trips to Harper, which are not to be missed.
Having recently finished my last post about photography of Liberia, in the late 1970s, involving Canada, It really hadn't occurred to me that I could continue posting on such a specific topic.
But then... I decided at the last minute to go to Montreal last weekend. Its obviously quite a different place from Monrovia: its big and built up and it was very, very cold when I was there, with plenty of snow already on the ground and enough still falling to keep the streets covered.
Therefore it was all the more startling to discover this in a wide, snow-blanketed courtyard just west of the skyscrapers of downtown:
The front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture was draped in an enormous black-and-white photograph of an historic house in Arthington, Liberia. It turns out that the museum has included the photo survey of Liberian settler architecture, taken by Max Belcher between 1977 and 1986, as part of its current exhibit, Journeys, on how architecture manifests the journey of ideas across the globe.
Beginning in 1977, Max Belcher journeyed to many of Liberia's historic American settlements, particularly along the St. Paul river and in Grand Bassa County, and photographed the historic homes there. He then traveled across the American South, looking for comparative architecture. He was able to draw a clear parallel in the architectural stylings that the original American settlers brought with them.
This project yielded a book, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, which was published in 1988, with text by Svend E. Holsoe (one of the world's great Liberianophiles and founder of Friends of Liberia), and Bernard L. Herman. Herman summarized the project for the CCA's exhibition catalog.
The book is not currently in publication, and copies of which are for sale online for as much as $250.
Not only is the book a tremendous resource for the documentation of a rapidly deteriorating stock of historic structures, the timing of the project is rather incredible. The first series of Liberian expeditions took place prior to the Doe coup in 1980, and the entire publication was released in 1988, on the eve of more than a decade of civil war, which of course destroyed the entire country and probably more than a few of the delicate, dilapidated structures that the book documented.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
As readers of this blog, and visitors to the Moved 2 Monrovia website come to find, I've really developed an interest in Monrovia's history and geography. I have even drawn some maps of my own, which I have been developing into a handy tourist map of the city--I hope to be able to announce details of this soon.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Saturday, October 30, 2010
To finish off the recent posts about flying to Monrovia, there is a bit more to say about Roberts International Airport, Monrovia's and Liberia's main international gateway.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
I didn't post any celebratory entry on Delta's inaugural flight to Monrovia last month, even after viewing my friend's somewhat surreal picture of a sleek US-registered B767 on the rainy tarmac at Roberts International. At the time, I thought I might be on one of the first flights, and so was just waiting to give a first hand account...and maybe I was feeling a bit left out, as I am not in Monrovia at the moment and couldn't take part in the festivities.
There has been some vocal griping about the pricing and routing of the new service, especially within the Liberian diaspora. Its true that its not very exciting in that it is essentially just another connection to Accra, and only once-a-week. Its certainly not the return to the glory days of wheels-up-at RIA, touch-the-ground-at-JFK connection, which was normal in the golden era of Pan Am's African network.
I could go on at length about Roberts Airport and its history. Not only do I find myself there with some frequency, but I wrote most of the text for the Wikipedia entry, and I even was scolded to pare back my text, as it was deemed to be "unencyclodepic" -- which is a word without a real definition, although don't even begin to argue that with anyone who posts on WIkipedia. Their loss-- instead, I'll provide some of what I know here.
The press coverage of Delta's first landing created a only-in-2010 experience of having an article in AllAfrica.com quote a local newspaper report, quoting a Deputy Information Minister, regurgitating, nearly verbatim, a central passage of the Wikipedia article. Therefore, I had the bizarre experience of reading my own words back to myself via the internet.
I really believe that Delta should be commended for surviving the multiple twists and turns that is rather typical of getting an investment underway in many parts of Africa. I think they showed remarkable determination to serve Monrovia, especially for a corporation. I am not alone in seeing this as one of the most visible examples of recent progress for Liberia. Its a giant leap forward, and Delta chose Monrovia over Abidjan, and before deciding what to do about serving Nairobi or starting flights to Luanda. But Delta had lifted expectations by announcing at various times that the new service would more directly link Monrovia with New York, or at least, Atlanta.
Therefore, Brussels Airlines continues to provide the only plane that one can board at Robertsfield and land on another continent-- its been that way for at least a decade. Monrovia's flying public are not in love with Brussels either-- some of my Liberian friends have questioned the reasons (security? tropical diseases? racism?!) for the separate T-gate area at Zaventem/National Airport for flights to Africa.
I've also heard tales of cancelled flights leaving people stuck in an African city for half a week as another airbus is flown from Belgium. I myself have had only rather positive experiences on SN. Again, the airline deserves a bit of credit for sticking with Liberia, although I am not naive enough to think its because of anything other than the high airfares (Once, at the Brussels Airlines office in the Episcopal Church Plaza, I was told it was $1347 to fly to Brussels, and $1430 to fly to New York. During holiday periods, I've been quoted over $2K to get back to the US).
At about the same time, I was around the corner at the Kenya Airways office on Broad Street, inside of what is referred to as "The KLM Building" -- recognizable as having a large "G.S.A.- KLM" sign hanging over the sidewalk, and featuring two interlocking full-time ticket offices inside, one for Kenya, one for KLM. As far as I could tell, the KLM office mostly sells tickets for connecting to Amsterdam via Accra on Kenya Airways, its alliance partner.
At the time I was purchasing such a ticket, I asked about KLM coming back, as it used to serve Robertsfield for years. The ticket agent told me a team from KLM had just been visiting the office that week, assessing whether to re-start service. Then I came across, via the Wall Street Journal, an announcement from Air France/KLM that they plan to serve Monrovia by next summer--no word yet on whether this will be a prestigious non-stop, or a routing via another African city. There'll likely be howls of protest if its just another link to Accra.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
To start, let me say that I decided against entering the fray of the Vice Guide to Liberia controversy earlier this year. Once other bloggers had so thoroughly and eloquently expressed their views, I didn't feel like I had much left to add. Although, as one of just a handful of young, white American males in Monrovia, I felt the whole sophomoric, hyperbolic, melodramatic drivel was especially unhelpful. I don't mean in the sense that I had to worry about being a target for some kind of backlash against me personally. I was not envisioning a scenario where I would be harmed in an Anti-American street protest, or personally attacked. But at the same it also isn't going to make my time or my work in Monrovia any easier.
In my experience, Liberia is a remarkably safe, friendly, welcoming place, with incredibly warm and approachable population who have, in both an individual and communal sense, an ability to put a foreigner at ease, and extend a gracious hospitality that I've not encountered elsewhere--and certainly remarkable for people who have faced and continue to encounter so many problems. I'm not the only observer of this point (see comments), verbalized especially in reaction to Vice's depiction of a dangerous, chaotic hellhole. Liberia has plenty of problems, especially within its still-fragile social realm, and I wouldn't walk down Broad Street at 2AM by myself or anything, but to depict the city as some kind of danger zone is utterly false.
Aside from however annoying and disappointing one finds the lazy sensationalism and gross ignorance of the Vice Guide, it is dangerous to the people of Monrovia, and not the other way around. Once again I am repeating what others have better articulated (see comments), but what we are talking about is Liberia's reputation, how it is perceived by the American public. The Vice Guide's misrepresentations make Monrovia and Liberia seem even worse than they really are, and are therefore doing harm (by the way, Vice eventually apologized). Unfortunately, the Vice Guide is only the most severe and extensive of Liberia's recent appearances in popular video, in which Liberia doesn't get the best profiling.
Earlier this summer, I learned that an episode of a show I had not previously heard of: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, was going to Liberia. I put this up on Facebook and was excited to watch it, and have Liberia gain some exposure, even if it was on one of those American-never-heard-of-this-place-before type of show.
At the end of of the half hour show, having been served palm butter and trying to surf in Robertsport, the schleppy, middle-aged New Yorker concludes:
"Liberia was tough for me, not so much physically as trying to wrap my mind around the place. The past is still too close and the good, I fear, too weak to overcome the bad just yet. This is a place that has endured the worst, that deserves better, much better. I'd like to sum up with hopeful words; a look forward to a brighter future...but I don't believe it."
A lot of people I know were really bothered by that. Of course, what he said was his opinion, and its his show. And I am sure he is not alone in assessing Liberia and feeling that its hopeless. But some of my friends felt that, in a public forum, he could have said something hopeful and encouraging, even if he didn't feel it personally. He might have felt a responsibility, if his sentiments were genuine, to be more positive, and improve Liberia's public profile.
As difficult as it is to admit, I will readily agree that Liberia is a tough place, with challenges so huge that sometimes its overwhelming. I get really frustrated in Monrovia, and I can be very critical and negative at times, and even feel hopeless. But then I go off to spend a lot more time and effort encouraging people to get excited about Liberia, to invest there, to believe in its future. Its therefore annoying when a celebrity chef from Manhattan drops in for a few days with a production crew, and informs his followers that Liberia is hopeless.
My third example is from the Daily Show, where Ellen has appeared previously. In an otherwise ingenious (and surprisingly enlightened, considering the judicial ruling at the end of the segment) report by Wyatt Cenac about Staten Island's lack of Supreme Court Justices, Liberia unexpectedly comes up.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Staten Island Supreme Court Justice|
At the beginning of the segment, a Staten Island Assemblyman, when asked by Wyatt to list some of the good things on Staten Island, almost immediately mentions the Liberian Community as one of the borough's main assets. I was momentarily optimistic, but I could already see that the Assemblyman had completely served up a softball for the comedian to swat back. Just as I thought, Wyatt, whose job is specifically to look for any joke he can crack, took the opening provided by the Assemblyman, and offered up another laugh at Liberia's expense:
Assemblyman Matthew Titone: We happen to have a lot great things going on here.
Wyatt Cenac: Talk to me about some of those great things.
Assemblyman: [pause, audience laughter] Staten Island is immensely diverse..we also have
THE largest Liberian population outside of Liberia.
Wyatt: No offense, but its Liberia.
Assemblyman: Well, clearly people coming from a civil-war torn country prefer to be on Staten Island then Liberia [audience laughter].
Wyatt: Its kinda like saying, 'Oh, do you want to get punched in the face, or punched in the balls?' [audience laughter]
Please read Palaver Hut's post, as I largely share the view expressed there. But beyond those comments, what I am talking about is the specific damage that can be done when Liberia is mentioned in American popular culture, in a negative connotation. Personally, professionally, and emotionally, it bothers me and worries me that Liberia continues be portrayed in this light, and used as a punchline. For large audiences of young people, such as the Daily Show, this might be one of the only contexts in which they hear about Liberia at all, and the country was served up for a laugh.
Do these personalities, entertainers, and programmers have a responsibility to use their platform to help Liberia? What about the Daily Show, with its flirtations with serious journalism, such as inviting President Sirleaf, only to equate the place with a kick in the groin a year and a half later? These wisecracks are more than unhelpful-- they are, I feel, actually harmful.