Thursday, March 31, 2011

Making it from Liberia to America (via Al Jazeera)

Yesterday's post reprinting a passage from Teju Cole's Open City about the journey of a young Liberian across North Africa to reach New York, reminded me of this documentary short produced by Casey Kauffman of Al Jazeera, which was posted at Bombastic Elements last fall. The story begins on the streets of Monrovia and ends up in the US:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Excerpt from Teju Cole's Open City

The following passages are from the recently-published novel by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole's Open City, which has already met with wide acclaim, from the New Yorker, and the New York Times, and has been discussed in the Economist, and on Bombastic Elements.

The book describes several months 2006-7 in the life of Julius, a young Nigerian-American Columbia University psychiatry resident. Set largely in Manhattan with a side trip to Brussels, parts of the main character's childhood in Nigeria included. Aside from his African identity and some great passages recalling his Nigerian youth, Julius visits an immigration detention center with his girlfriend's church, and encounters a young Liberian man there, who tells of how he came to be locked up in Queens (pp. 64-69):

The man who sat in front of me had a broad white smile. He was young, and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, as were all the other inmates. I introduced myself, and he smiled immediately and asked if I was African. He was as good-looking, as striking in appearance as any man I had ever seen. He had delicate cheekbones, a dark, even complexion, and the whites of his eyes were as vivid as his white teeth...

He lowered his voice a bit, leaned toward the glass, and said that America was a name that had never really been far away when he was growing up. IN school and at home, he had been taught about the special relationship between Liberia and America, which wa like the relationship between an uncle and a favorite nephew. Even the names bore a family resemblance: Liberia, America: seven letters each, fur of which were shared. America had sat solidly in his dreams, had been the absolute focus of his dreams, and when the war began and everything started to crumble, he was sure the American would come in and solve the whole thing. But it hadn't been like that; the Americans had been reluctant to help, for their own reasons.

His name was Saidu, he said. His school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, had been shelled, and burned to the ground in 1994. A year later, his sister had died of diabetes, an illness that wouldn't have killed her in peacetime. His father, gone since 1985, remained gone, and his mother, a petty trader at the market, had nothing to trade. Saidu had slipped through the shadows of the war. He was pressed many times into fetching water for the NPFL (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia), or clearing brush, or moving bodies away from the street. He got used to the cries of alarm and the sudden clouds of smoke, he learned to lie low when the recruiters came calling for either side. They would accost his mother, and she would tell them he had sickle-cell disease and was in the throes of death.

His mother and her sister were shot in the second war, by Charles Taylor's men. Two days later, the men returned and took him away with them, to the outskirts of Monrovia. he carried a suitcase with him. At first, he thought the men would make him fight, but they gave him a cutlass, and he worked on a rubber farm with forty or fifty others. At the camp, he saw one of his mates, a boy who had been the best soccer player in school: that boy's right hand had been severed at the wrist, and had healed to a stump. Others had died, he had seen corpses. But it was seeing that stump where the hand used to be that did it for him; that was when he knew he had no choice.

That night, he packed his soccer shoes, two spare shirts, and all his money, around six hundred Liberian dollars. At the bottom of his tattered backpack, he placed his mother's birth certificate. The rest of the things in the suitcase he emptied into a ditch. The suitcase itself he threw into the bush. He did not, himself, have a birth certificate, which was why he took his mother's. He escaped the farm, walking the road alone in the darkness, all the way back to Monrovia. He couldn't return him, so he went to the burnt ruin of his school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, and cleared a corner there. He thought that if he went to sleep, maybe he would die. The idea was new to him, and it felt good. It helped him sleep…

That night he slept in the breeze from an open window, until a hissing sound woke him up. He opened his eyes, but kept his body still, and in the charred darkness he saw, across the long room, all the way at the other end, a small white snake. He tense, wondering if the snake had seen him, but it continued to move, as though it were looking for something. Then a gust came through the window, and Saidu saw that the "snake" was actually an open exercise book, its pages fluttering in the wind. The memory of that apparition remained, he said, because he often wondered, then and later, if it meant something for his future. Morning came, and he stayed at the school all that day, hiding, and slept there when night fell. That night again, the book moved in the darkness and kept him company; he stayed half-awake and watched its pages rising and falling, and sometimes he saw it as a snake and sometimes as a book.

The following day, he saw some ECOMOG soldiers from Nigeria, who have him boiled rice. He pretended to be retarded, and he hitched a ride with them, traveling in their armored truck as far as Gbarnga, in the north of the country. Then he went on foot to Guinea, a journey of many days, switching between his sandals and his soccer shoes. Both gave him blisters, but in different places. When he got thirsty, he drank water from puddles. He was hungry, but he tried not to think about it. He couldn't remember how he walked the ninety miles to the small town in the Guinean hinterland, or how that brought him, on the back of a farmer's motorcycle, to Bamako.

By now, the idea of getting to America was fixed in his mind. In Bamako, unable to speak Bamana or French, he'd skulked around the motor park, eating scraps at the marketplace, sleeping under the market tables at night, and dreaming sometimes that he was being attacked by hyenas. In one dream, his mate from school came to him, bleeding from his severed hand. In other dreams his mother, aunt, and sister showed up, all of them crowding around the market table, all of them bleeding.

How much time passed/ He was unsure. Maybe six months, maybe a little less. He eventually befriended a Malian truck driver, and washed his truck in exchange for food. Then this driver introduced him to another one, a man with light brown eyes, a Mauritanian. The Mauritanian asked him where he wanted to go, and Saidu said America. And the Mauritanian asked him if he was carrying any hashish, and Saidu said, no he had none. The Mauritanian agreed to take him as far as Tangier. When they left, Saudu wore a new shirt the Malian driver had given him. The truck was packed with Senegalese, Nigeriens, and Malians and they had all paid except for him. It was extremely hot during the day, and freezing at night, and the water in the jerry cans was carefully rationed…

In Tangier, he said, he had noticed the way the black Africans moved around, under constant police surveillance. A large group of them, mostly men, and mostly young, had a camp near the sea, and he joined them. They wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold wind from the sea. One man next to him said he was from Accra, and told Saidu that journeying through Ceuta was safer. When we enter Ceuta, the man said, we have entered Spain, we will go tomorrow. The following day, they went to a small Moroccan town near Ceuta in a van, a group of about fifteen of them, then they went on foot to the border with Ceuta. The fence was brightly lit and the man from Accra led them down to where the fence met the sea. A man was shot last week, he said, but I don't think we should be fearful, God is with us. There was a boat waiting, operated by a Moroccan ferryman. They held hands in prayer, then loaded up, and the man rowed across the shallows. They completed the ten-minute journey to Ceuta undetected, rolled ashore, and scattered into the rushes. Ceuta, as the Ghanaian had said, was Spain. The new immigrants split up in many directions.

Saidu entered Spain proper after three weeks, through Algeciras, on a ferry, and no papers were required. He found his way across the southern part of the country, begging in town squares, lining up at soup kitchens. Twice he picked pockets in crowded corners, throwing out the ID cards and credit cards, keeping the cash; this he said, was the only crime he had ever committed. He went all the way across southern Spain until he crossed the Portuguese border, and he kept going until he got to Lisbon, which was sad and cold, but also impressive. And it was only after he arrived in Lisbon that the bad dreams stopped. He feel in with Africans there, working first as a butcher's assistant, and then as a barber.

Those were the longest two years of his life. He slept in a crowded living room with ten other Africans. Three of them were girls, and the men took turns with them and paid them, but he didn't touch them, because he had saved almost enough for the passport and his ticket. If he waited another month, it would be one hundred euros cheaper, but he couldn't wait; he had the option of saving money by flying to La Guardia, and he'd asked the ticketing agent if she was sure La Guardia was also in America. She had stared and him, and he shook his head, and bought the JFK ticket anyway, just to be sure. On the passport, which was made for him by a man from Mozambique, he insisted on using his real name, Saidu Caspar Mohammed, but the man had had to invent a birth date, because Saidu didn't know his real one. The passport, a Cape Verdean one, arrived on a Tuesday; by Friday, he was in the air.

The journey ended at JFK Terminal Four.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Africa on Mike & Molly

I don't regularly watch too many sit-coms, but the first-year show on CBS, Mike & Molly, which takes place in Chicago, features a Senegalese character, Samuel, a waiter at a local diner who the main characters befriend, played by Nigerian-born Nyambi Nyambi.

This has led to some interesting portrayals of African culture in the show, particularly last fall's Thanksgiving show. One memorable exchange, (not available in a video clip on the website):

Samuel: "Have you ever had monkey brains fresh from the skull?"

Mike: "That's disgusting."

Samuel: "Oh, but you're fine with old bread from
a bird's ass?!"

Another moment of hilarity, when Samuel invites a big crew to Thanksgiving dinner, setting the stage for the somewhat tired Sit-com holiday dinner table motley crew:

Africa on 30Rock

Last week's episode of the hit NBC sit-com 30Rock featured a storyline where the Tracy Jordan character, played by Tracy Morgan stops working and leaves 'for Africa' -- hilarity ensues.

Among the dialogue's gems, Tracy scolds Liz Lemon, Tina Fey's character, at the beginning of the episode:

"Click, click, click! Yeah, that's right: I just put you in your place in African."

I suppose there is an opportunity to be offended here, but I think the comedy is not in perpetuating American stereotypes about Africa, but in making fun of that ignorance itself. I think its OK to laugh. doesn't provide scene clips, but the entire episode is online. Watch from the opening and then skip to 20:00 to see the parts where Tracy video chats, with tropical plants behind him and West African garb. If you can't see where this is going, SPOILER ALERT below the video:

The humor is that, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Tracy is not in Africa but still somewhere in New York, his character's normal level of obliviousness is extended to his knowledge of Africa. Veteran African travelers will pick this up earlier than it is revealed to other viewers: NO WAY you can do a video skype from most parts of Africa to the US!

Monday, March 28, 2011

UPDATE: Map of the Liberian-Ivoirian Frontier, Draft 3

In light of the increasing warfare within Ivory Coast, the situation along the Liberian-Ivoirian frontier continues to deteriorate alarmingly. This third draft incorporates information published by the United Nations last week, underscoring that the refugee inflows have begun to rapidly inundate Grand Gedeh County, south of the intense battling between Bloléquin and Duékoué. This report highlighted the arrival of Ivorians in to the villages of Janzohn/Janzon, Sewaken/Sweakan, and Tuzohn, which is a significant town in the history of Liberia's civil war fighting and Samuel K. Doe's home town.

If anything, is even less able to absorb displaced persons that Nimba County, and at least 6,000 have crossed the Cavally River in the last week. With only 125,000 people, Grand Gedeh would be overwhelmed with even a small portion of the refugees escaping the violence across the western departments.

As Elizabeth Dickenson wrote in her excellent Foreign Policy essay, advocating for foreign intervention in the Cote D'Ivoire standoff, Liberia has four counties that border Cote D'Ivoire, and with rebels eyeing the key port of San Pedro, which is an economic lifeline to the isolated River Gee and Maryland Counties, it is unfortunately anticipated that all four counties will soon feel direct effects of the violent escalation.

As with the previous iterations, this map is available for reuse under Creative Commons rules-- please credit me and Moved2Monrovia.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

UPDATE: Map of the Liberian-Ivoirian Frontier and Nimba County Refugee Settlements

I've been preoccupied with other projects over the last week, but I did want to provide a slightly updated and revised map visualizing the refugee inflows to Nimba County over the last week. Mainly, I have added some indication of the general path of Pro-Ouattara forces across the area, clearly moving from the frontier deeper into Cote D'Ivoire, aiming at major towns. In addition, a Reuters report from 15 March on the refugee situation was filed from the Nimban town of Zodru, which has been added.

According to press reports, the majority of the displacement of people in the last week has been occurring in Abidjan itself, where residents are emptying the capital in the wake of shelling which has killed dozens, seeking refuge in the West and Cental parts of Cote D'Ivoire. But at the end of last week, there had been a handful of reports about the continued inundation of the Nimba County border communities with Ivoirians.

Separately, I have represented some of the movement within westernmost Cote D'Ivoire of both refugees and the Forces Nouvelles, which have been moving generally east and south. Both displaced citizens and fighting forces have been concentrating on the major towns such as Duékoué and Danane--with IDP camps being established in the same areas as skirmishes. Battling up to March 16th had been reported from Toulepleu to Duékoué, with Bloomberg reporting that Blolequin is in the hands of Pro-Ouattara forces.

Again, as with the previous draft, anyone is welcome to reprint this map under general creative commons courtesies--specifically, please just give credit to me and this blog. Additionally, please comment below or contact me if you have specific information that would augment this map and therefore make it more useful to anyone. Thanks to those intrepid journalists and hard-working organizations that are working on these front lines.

The situation within Cote D'Ivoire is deteriorating rapidly, with enormous displacements occurring over the last few days, again especially within the country but also into Liberia, Guinea, and a report out yesterday that thousands are streaming into Ghana. In the next week, if it seems appropriate to update this map, I will release a new draft.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pepper Coast

I had learned during my very first trip to Liberia that it was known as the Pepper Coast, but I had never heard the term "Malagueta" before I saw this historic map recently.

Malagueta peppers are now more closely associated with Brazilian cuisine, there is a popular restaurant in Astoria, Queens called Malagueta, and a lot of Brazilian, Portuguese, and even Mozambican food use melegueta peppers, which in Mozambique are called "piri-piri."

These peppers originate in the Liberia-Sierra Leone area, which for centuries (originating with the Portuguese in the mid 15th century) was known as the Malagueta Coast, as can be seen from this old Dutch map above (Cape Palmas is labelled and easy to spot, as the boundary between Malagueta (in yellow) and Guinea (in pink)--matching the Liberia-Cote D'Ivoire border of today; and Cape Mesurado and the St. Paul river, among other tributaries, are discernible). The peppers were later brought over to Brazil, and although the term Pepper Coast has survived the Anglophone colonial period (there are several companies named Pepper Coast in Monrovia), the later colonization caused the disuse of the geographical term Malagueta.

The peppers themselves, however, are easy to come across in markets throughout Liberia. And they are hot--I also learned in writing this that there is actually a measurement for the spice intensity of peppers--but if you can handle it, they are tasty.

Fiamah Market, March 2010

NAIJARail: Nigeria's High Speed Railway Network

'By 2015, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is on schedule to have over 8,000 kilometers of state-of-the-art high speed passenger rail. At the end of Phase 1, a network of six lines will connect more than fifty of the country's major cities, with new regional lines extending across the country. Extension work, terminating at neighboring capitals, is to continue past 2020. NAIJARAIL will be one of the world's premier transport systems, and by far the most advanced rail network of Africa.

'With a projections maximum speed of 220km/hour, mainline service is expected to average 150km/hour across the entire network. Cost estimates from the 2008 plan require an outlay of more than US$200b over six years, or approximately US$25m per km.'

Nuhu Ribadu, Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria, was quoted by the BBC to estimate that Nigeria's leaders had wasted or stolen approximately US$380,000,000,000 since independence.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Guest Blogging at Anonymous Country

I'm very honored to have been invited to guest blog on Monrovia architecture this week at the excellent Liberia-based Anonymous Country, written by my friend Elie Losleben. Her questions gave me a great opportunity to explore some ideas I have been developing about Monrovia's architecture recently. Check it out--I hope you all enjoy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Map of Ivorian Refugee Locations in Nimba County

Although I have never had any interest in making this blog political, I certainly wouldn't wish to seem like I am either oblivious or uncaring of some of the more important challenges facing little Liberia--in general and especially this week.

Today, as the Charles Taylor trial draws to a denouement in the Hague (a topic I have only ever mentioned to underscore the aloof absurdity of Miss Campbell), there is another increasingly dire topic to cover which I have otherwise avoided: the rising tensions in next-door Cote D'Ivoire, which has for several months been spilling into Liberia, in many senses.

I don't hesitate to tweet or retweet relevant articles from other sources, but I just don't think I have the expertise or time to cover this topic any better than professional journalists, which just today include articles in the Atlantic, and the Guardian, for example. As for pictures, there is really nothing more arresting than the brilliantly-talented Glenna Gordon's series of photographs on behalf of UNHCR. The below is taken by Glenna for UNHCR, from a series post on her site.

©Glenna Gordon for UNHCR. All Rights Reserved.

I am not on the ground, either in the border region or in Abidjan, so it makes no sense for me to attempt to contribute. I am relying on the same information as everyone else, which is basically a few intrepid reporters and photojournalists, and the front-line aid work of UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, whose tremendous work I have seen first-hand, and the Liberian government agency, the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, who are working cooperatively to handle the flow of people over the border, which the UN reported this week topped 75,000-- of which perhaps 30,000 has come in the last two weeks. An eventual figure of 450,000 refugees, of which perhaps 200,000 persons externally displaced to Liberia by the fighting has been repeatedly printed. The Red Cross is still working inside Cote D'Ivoire.

So, this is plainly no space for desktop blogging. However, I have done what I can in producing the graphic below, which I think is basically a dress-rehearsal grade draft of a workable (if static) map of the situation. It focuses on Nimba County, although the Ivorian border also touches Grand Gedeh, where the UN also reports inflow of refugees, especially around Toe Town on the Zwedru Highway. There is a very close link between Maryland County and adjacent Cote D'Ivoire.

However, the more northerly reaches of the boundary are important in several aspects: chief being that the pro-Ouattara forces are generally in the north. Logistically, it is no coincidence that the main inflows are at villages and crossings where the Ivorian highways reach nearest to the Liberian frontier, as can be seen in the map (roads in yellow).

Secondly, there is much less reliable information about the flow of either arms or mercenaries from Liberia into the tense conflict zone, but I don't think many would argue that this is not happening. Its likely no coincidence that the town of Toulepleu, shown on the map, the third and largest settlement taken by pro-Ouattara forces as of this post is within an extension of Ivorian territory which reaches furthest into Liberia, and the other two are also along the frontier. There are reports that both sides have Liberian soldiers. The forces are reportedly heading east and south, meeting fleeing civilians face-to-face.

Cartographically, I have included whatever towns have been included in reports out of the region as having received refugees. Some 40-50km to the west, in central Nimba, the UNHCR has been setting up a more substantial camp at Bahn, and moving people out of the overwhelmed frontier towns such as Luguato and Duoplay. There may be other towns with handfuls of refugees, and I have not come across the reports. As another aside, it is also amazing to consider these same towns were the sites of earlier refugee camps for earlier stages of the Ivorian civil war and, in previous decades, both Liberians fleeing the fighting, and those instigating it.

As I said, I consider this a draft, and I would like nothing more if this could be useful to anyone in either aiding these operations or reporting on them. I'd only ask for named creative credit(both for Moved 2 Monrovia and myself), as one would receive under something like a creative commons license.

To this end, I would more than welcome input from anyone with fresh information on facts, figures, statistics, dates, or locations. Please either send me a message on twitter, make a comment to this post, or if wanting more privacy, email me (Please see About M2M page for contact information). Thanks in advance for anyone contributing, and also for the tireless work of helping these unfortunate people caught up in larger conflict. And thanks to those bringing this story to the world and keeping it on the front pages.

Please note that, as with quite the majority of Liberian place names, spelling is loose and varies: Duoplay (which yields web results talking about stereos) is often Duorplay, and Luguato is also Lugatoe, for just two examples. Even on the Ivorian side, Toulepleu becomes Toueleupleu and Binhouye is also Bin-Houye, etc. I am not wedded to any particular transliteration myself, but it can be difficult to do web searching when a towns name has a variety of spellings.

I hope that I am, in some tiny way, contributing to the improved welfare of the refugees and those Liberians who are effected as well. More than anything, I am praying that instability does not increase within Cote D'Ivoire--or spread to Liberia.

Monday, March 7, 2011

BBC Podcast about Liberian Rubber Tappers

I forgot to mention it the first time around, but the always-insightful podcast series from the BBC, African Perspectives, has re-released their episode on the lives of Liberian rubber tappers on the Firestone plantation.

As of the date of this post, there are two weeks left to download it directly from the BBC website. If you're reading this and don't see the podcast at the link above, I think it be more or less permanently available on iTunes, especially if you subscribe to African Perspectives, which is a good idea generally.

The mini radio documentaries are generally just under 30 minutes in duration, and span the continent from interviews with African first ladies, investigative reporting as to why the Congolese army commits so many rapes, to how a centuries-old Chinese shipwreck was found off the east coast of Africa.

Incidentally, the BBC also provides a daily collection of their reporting from Africa, from Egypt to Liberia to South Africa, in a daily podcast called Africa Today, usually about 15 minutes long as is issued every weekday.

M2M Architectural Tour of Monrovia Update

Just to make an official release announcement, I spent a few hours tonight updating the Architectural Tour for the first time in several months. Added five buildings, including talking specifically about the Coleman and Cooper Houses, the Chase Manhattan Plaza (but I need more images of it for sure) and the previous post of the stamps inspired me to include the Ministry of Finance, which is sort of growing on me, but I will definitely have to make an effort to sneak a photo of the inner courtyard to exhibit its best qualities.

I also added the Hotel Africa, which I just got an amazing vintage magazine advertisement this past weekend (more later on that). I've never really explored the inside of the structure itself, but there are some cool pictures up now.

I could still keep adding to it-- M2M readers will have to let me know when it is too much. There are actually two more buildings which I would immediately like to add, but right now the counter is stopped at a nice round 25 (although the actual number of buildings mentioned is more like 32).

Hope you all enjoy and share with everyone you know in the entire world.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mid-century Stamps of Government Buildings

I recently purchased this set of 1960s-era Liberia stamps, which were issued to celebrate several of the grand new governmental edifices of the Tubman administration's Open Door golden era.

One, at center left, presents the Executive Mansion, looking much the same as today. Another, at right, features a dashing perspective of the Capitol Building, in its original, space-age, Florida motor-inn porosity with the east wing vanishing into the background. The Capitol is shown in its original form, before its airy galleries were cemented over and its ground floor porchway was bricked up into its present-day, bunkered appearance. For more pictures of the Capitol, check out the M2M Architectural Tour.

This duo is teamed with a pair of bi-chrome prints (the brown one being a $1 AIRMAIL), with a sharply angular view of towering Treasury Department, soaring into a partly-cloudy West African sky. Today the building is the Ministry of Finance, still lords over the corner of Broad and Mechlin Streets (US-style governmental "departments" became the present-day "ministries" during the Tolbert years).

There is actually mildly interesting multi-storeyed open courtyard in the interior base of this structure, which isn't evident from the street. Like most buildings in Monrovia, the Ministry's present, dilapidated state makes whole complex rather bleak, unfortunately.

Note the swaying palm in several of the illustrations, recalling the Republic's seal.
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