Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Photos of Harper by Aaron Leaf

Several wonderful photos of Harper, Maryland, posted earlier this by Aaron Leaf, whose year-long role supporting human rights reporting at Monrovia's Heritage newspaper, is sadly coming to an end. Also, an excellent person to follow on Twitter.

Good luck with your future endeavors, Aaron!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Historic Photography of Africa from the UK National Archives

(old capital of German Kamerun)

Via one of my favorite websites, Things magazine, comes the UK National Archive, which has a digitized their much of their holdings onto Flickr. This includes a delightful project called Africa Through A Lens, which is a totally jaw-dropping treasure of historic photographs from across the continent, from Sudan and Somalia (I had forgotten there was any such thing as British Somaliland) to Sierra Leone to South Africa and Swaziland.

Views of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). Date uncertain.

The project has 25 sets arranged by country, both erstwhile crown colonies like Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Tanzania and Zanzibar are organized separately), and non-Commonwealth states like Togo, Mali and Madagascar.

Nothing from Liberia, sadly, but nearly 1,500 scans just from Nigeria and Ghana. In total there are nearly 5,000 images here of all variety of subject, mostly landscapes, and scenes, but some portraits. I've only just got a start on perusing.

Definitely check this out in full size.

Have a look around: there is a lot of great stuff here taken by hundreds of individuals over many decades. I've particularly geeked out on the many historic photos of settlements, cities, and architecture, which I've concentrated on relaying here. This includes some vivid shots of Antananarivo (bottom of post) and an incredible series of aerial shots of many of Nigeria cities from 1929 and 1930, including several overviews of Lagos from 1,000 feet over the water, looking down on a peninsular port city of perhaps 100,000 people. The utility of the early documentation of Nigeria's urban settlements evince the value of these records beyond simply intriguing visual artifacts.

Both images of Lagos, Nigeria, November 1929.

There's also a lot of work to be done: most all of the photos have scant labeling, without much attribution or even dates. That part I am a bit perplexed about, maybe I am missing something but I can't believe that nearly all of the pictures had no dates to them.

The Archive is actively seeking assistance on the project, crowd-sourcing input, and also has a warning that some of the transcribed notes might be offensive in terminology and the like. I didn't see any examples of this myself so far, but certainly the entire trove was transferred from the Colonial Office, and thus orginated through the bureaucracy of colonial administration. [Update 5/25: More on this issue from Scarlett Lion's post about the Archive from this past February.]

A huge bonus is that, given the age of the photographs and the Archive's general policy, all the photos are unrestricted by copyright. Enjoy.

Three images of Antananarivo, Madagascar. Dates uncertain.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Economist Bylines from Monrovia

On Friday, on the Economist's online Africa blog, Baobab, a post appeared about the Lebanese in West Africa. The report concerned Liberia extensively, including interviews with some of the most prominent businessmen in the country, Ezzad (also spelled Ezzat) Eid (owner of the Royal Hotel and City Builders, among other enterprises) and Abdallah Shehny (of the prominent Shehny Brothers congolomerate), as well as the head of the Liberian Business Association, Mr. Sam Gibson.

There are several comments that I might make about the Lebanese and their involvement in Liberia's economy. I'm not educated enough on all the details of commerce in the country to contribute to the discussion about whether or not they unfairly collude, or even if they "send money out of the country," as Mr. Gibson "grumbles."

To that, I would first offer that, as they are unable to establish citizenship in Liberia, they are actually encouraged to not more permanently reside excess capital in the country. Secondly, I would point out that any foreign investor would naturally want to repatriate profits, as it would be only logical to do generally (and which is ensured by Liberia's investment code).

Traders from the Levant have operated in Liberia and West Africa for at least 100 years. Many of the most prominent "Lebanese" in Liberia were born in Liberia, are not the first-generation of their family in Liberia, and/or have mainly ties to the country, more so than to Beirut. I wonder what would be different if people Lebanese/Syrian descent were allowed to own land, becomes citizens, and participate in all sectors of the economy and society. (For more, read this article from Fall 2010 in the Liberian Observer)

Also, my friends and colleagues in the business community in Monrovia, both Liberian and foreign, generally argue against the oft-repeated assertion that Lebanese mostly ship out their profits. I can personally observe that, in the years I have been in Monrovia, I have seen remarkable expansion of Lebanese-backed businesses: hotels, supermarkets, gas stations, building-supply stores, etc., both in the central sections of the city along Tubman Boulevard, and on the far fringes of the metropolitan area, along Somalia Drive. Lebanese businessmen may be repatriating profits, but they are clearly also investing in expansion of their own businesses and the country's economy.

Lastly, I would be interest to know how frequent it is for Liberians to export money from the economy, as a great many of the more wealthy Liberians, both businessmen and politicians, maintain a second home and/or family in the United States or elsewhere. In my years of living in Monrovia, I cannot report to observing particularly decent working conditions or employee treatment among any group of owners of any descent/nationality. Liberian employees generally enjoy few protections, perks, or benefits, regardless of their boss's ethnicity.

Given my lack of expertise in that area, I'll limit my comments to those observations and questions. But what I would point out, given how rare it is to have a publication so prominent and widely-read as the Economist to byline from Monrovia, that it is a tremendous shame that the column included this:

Easy relations with the political elites and the money to pay bribes also help. Liberia's Lebanese are unable to buy property and are banned from 26 industries, but simultaneous patronage by officials is common. "I budget for bribes," admits a Lebanese. "Anyone wanting to do business here does."

I do not dispute the accuracy of the sentiment whatsoever. When I say its a shame, what I mean is that its hugely lamentable that Liberia's reputation continues to be so poor among its own business leaders and commercial participants. If not already regarded as such, this sentiment is now reverberating among the readership of the Economist, exactly the type of sophisticated international professional that Liberia should be working to win over. As long as this is the report on the ground, that will be a losing battle, and investors will remain elsewhere.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Just How Easy (or Hard) Is it To Get African Visas?

©2011 Matthew M. Jones/Moved2Monrovia. Click for larger version.

"Africa is Open For Business!"

Its hard to avoid hearing this slogan recently: verbatim on CNN, and in the pages of major publications. Global consultancies will tell you this, too. But what does this mean, in practical, personal terms? Sub-Saharan Africa is made up of more than 50 countries, almost every one of which at least states that they're trying to attract foreign investment.

There have been attempts to measure this. The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings have exploded in popularity in recent years (with the Caucasian Republic of Georgia mentioning its top-reformer status in television advertising). This index, surprisingly, does not compare one of the most basic measures of ease and welcome, and one that reflects directly on a country's efforts to open its doors to potential investment: How simple and straightforward is the entry process for foreigners into these countries?

I've often thought about this before in the last four years of traveling across the continent. But two recent incidents reminded me of this. The first was the report from the Cato Institute, titled "Why Is Africa Poor?", which, among other bemoanings, wondered how many potential tourists and foreign investors have been put off by the hassle or perceived chore of getting a visa to visit an African country (speaking of the Republic of Georgia):

To increase its share of the tourism business, Africa will have to liberalize air flight and visa regimes. In the formerly communist country of Georgia, for example, it is not necessary to acquire a visa for visitors who come from countries with a GDP per capita of $10,000 or more. Compare the Georgian system to the difficulty of entering many African countries or, for that matter, the difficulty of leaving African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one has to run a gauntlet of security and other checks—informal and formal.

I wonder how many visitors from rich coun- tries to Africa have been put off by the challenge of just getting to the continent or getting a visa. Yet I suspect that few, if any, overstay their welcome. The number of tourists to Georgia has nearly quintupled from 2003 to 2009—a war with Russia notwithstanding.

I don't know what an "air flight regime" is, and am not endorsing this report wholeheartedly, but I agree with part of the above sentiment.

Separately, but similarly, last week's surprising headline incident, in which veteran diplomat John Campbell was unable to gain entry to Nigeria in time to attend a graduation ceremony of an American University backed by former vice president Abubakar. Just to underscore: among many other career acheivements, Campbell is the former Ambassador to Nigeria. So you'd think he might be familiar with getting into and out of country...which makes you wonder how he was unable to get his visa. Hmmm.....

With these in mind, I conducted a very unscientific investigation into the sometimes-murky world of obtaining an entry visa into Sub-Saharan countries. Before going further, please read and agree to this legally iron-clad disclaimer: I can't guarantee that what I've gathered is accurate, and this information is subject to completely change. I obtained 95% of this information from the State Department's website, which is a great source, as well as the websites of various foreign diplomatic missions in Washington and New York. This does not cover requirements other than those for US Passport holders, and will not go into scenarios like obtaining visas for neighboring countries in Africa can sometimes be easier, and sometimes more difficult.

As this is already a long post, I'm also not going to index any of the basic details of visa applications, like the different types of visa (based on purpose of visit and length of stay), or important steps like getting required vaccinations, or any discussion of fees. Again, this is a subjective survey, and this information could change as I write these words. In summary, do not fly to Africa without required entry visas. Doing so can result in being flown back home at your own expense, or being detained, fined, or imprisoned.

The ease or difficulty of US citizens entering the 50-plus Sub-Saharan countries covers a broad spectrum: some countries are as wide-open as Netherlands, some so unwelcoming as be almost North Korean.

Starting with the more hospitable category, the good news is that several of the more popular destinations for American visitors are among the easiest to get into, and in almost all cases don't require a visa. These are popular business, development, and tourist destinations like Botswana, Senegal, and Mauritius. Others are something of a pleasant surprise, with no pre-arrival visas required for Americans to enter Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, or Swaziland. [Update 5/21: Rwanda grants most tourists a 90 entry visa-free, but seems to have different requirements for aid workers, students, or businessmen. Thanks to Jina Moore for this suggestion.]

Similarly, many states allow the vast majority of American visitors to just show up unannounced and gain entry, but there are a few details that might be relevant. For instance, South Africa is somewhat infamous for requiring at least one entirely blank passport page per entry, and anecdotes abound of customs officers insisting on even more virgin territory, supposedly in case a visitor transverses through other countries in the region and seeks another entry into SA. This in turns leads neighboring countries, like Namibia, to reportedly mimic this requirement. Rather than be booted back onto a 15-1/2 hour flight home to New York, a cost you would be responsible for, travelers should take note, and consider having extra pages added to a passport.

Likewise, some countries let Americans in without a problem, but getting a visa beforehand can still be strongly advisable. Kenya is a prime example: A pre-arranged visa can be a huge time saver, easing your life just when you are your most miserably jet-lagged. Rather than waiting in a long line and filling out paperwork in the groggy disorientation of arrival, sail past border control, and its queues. In 2008, I went ahead and got a Kenyan visa in Washington before I left the states, getting my passport back two days after I submitted it. Weeks later, I passed a long line at Nairobi's JKIA after a long overnight flight. I was very proud of myself.

Similarly, other countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania routinely grant Americans visa-free entry at Addis Ababa's Bole Airport and at Dar Es Salaam Airport, respectively, but at other entry points, like land borders, this might not be the case. The scene at Entebbe Airport in Uganda is reportedly similar.

In some other cases, arriving without a visa might involve basically applying for the visa at the airport, and waiting around in Immigration to get clearance. Not the sort of chore anyone would choose to undergo, but at least the option is there, especially when hopping around the continent with loose plans. Madagascar and Mozambique likewise do not require a prior visa, but its much easier if you already have it. [Update 5/21: Zambia allows tourists to pay for a single-entry visa at border crossings, but have much more strict visa regulations for most other visitors. Thanks to Shelby Grossman for this clarification]

Separately, countries such as Namibia let many tourists in through major entry ports visa-free, but do require visas workers or students. For many countries, foreigners who show up at remote land crossings can expect greater scrutiny than if they were to arrive on a scheduled flight at the capital city's airport.

The murkiness of the next category down could be considered quintessential of travel in less developed states. Several countries may, or may not, usually, or occasionally, grant Americans visa-free entry in at some entry ports, but then again, maybe they don't. Its always best to play it safe, but in the case, try to get a visa beforehand at all costs.

Ghana is a classic example of this. Technically, there is a process to get a Ghanaian visa upon arrival, but from personal experience this involved (1) Almost not being allowed to board the flight from Chicago to Amsterdam; (2) Waiting 45 minutes in a stuffy, crowded Immigration office at Kotoka Airport 24 hours later, during which I was lectured for not being an emergency asylum case or refugee. It wasn't a process I would wish on anyone. I did get a single-entry visa, but this ended up being a hassle a week later, when I got invited to a neighboring country, but then realized that I couldn't leave Ghana without applying for a visa in that other country. If I had had enough notice, I would have sent my passport to DC before I left.

Similar "I've heard they do, but I can't guarantee you" or "It was different a couple years ago" stories come out of Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Djibouti. Also, unrecognized Puntland/Somaliland supposedly grant visas at points of entry--but is this the sort of detail to be left to chance? For those intrepid enough to be venturing to these two regions, perhaps the answer is yes.

The next category, shaded yellow, are those countries which definitely require a visa beforehand, but the application isn't usually a big deal (aside from the very low-tech errand of getting passport photos at the local CVS or something). Somewhat interestingly, this is the smallest group: Cape Verde, Sao Tomé, Mali, Togo, Gambia, and Eritrea. The downloadable visa application for Mali is one page of pretty basic contact info, and gives the applicant the option for length of visa (single/multiple, etc) and asks virtually no questions about itinerary, financial resources, etc. Perhaps not the flagship example, the Republic of Togo has a delightful new website with absolutely no information about visas.

Other countries requiring a pre-departure application are a bit more involved. This can vary depending on the type of visa but it is common for the Embassy to require either a list of references in the home country (Liberia) or a letter of invitation, from a colleague, hosting company, or personal friend, in addition to sending in proof of vaccinations; head shots taken just so, with this color background, not that; and some sort of proof of itinerary or return ticket, which frankly in the age of Expedia and Kayak can pretty easily be bluffed. Still, this is an involved process, with lots of instructions and procedures, which take time both to complete and be turned around. In something of a setback, two years ago, Cote D'Ivoire slipped into this category from previously granting visa-free access to most Americans.

This process is challenging enough when visiting one country, but can really start to add up as it is common for a traveler to be planning to pass through several countries. Expect at least 3 days to a week of turn-around, per visa. Although it adds to the cost, consider using a passport rush service, which often work their relationships at these consular offices to get paperwork turned around just a little bit faster. There are several good agencies in both Washington and New York.

The last two categories are the more notorious. To varying degrees, these countries just do not make getting a visa quick or simple. The process is complex, lengthy, taxing, and difficult. Anecdotal reports tell of month-long processing, and of having applications returned due to insufficient documentation. While outright denial of a visa is rare, the clock can basically run out, if several weeks go by and the visa hasn't been issued before departure. Those in this category include some of the continent's largest countries: Nigeria, DR Congo, and Sudan, along with other least-developed economies not having solid reputations for ease of process or access to information. Guinea-Bissau is on the outer edge of this category, as their embassy in Washington "temporarily" ceased function in 2007. South Sudan is challenging because of its transitional diplomatic circumstances.

Special mention goes to the all-out Kafkasque nightmares: booming Angola and rather less burgeoning Mauritania. Their remarkably complex, involved, invasive processes rank proposed travel to the country at the same level of effort as applying to graduate school (often with a similar wait time). Both these countries reportedly take the particularly painful step of sending the applications to the home country for evaluation. This takes several weeks. For Mauritania, the State Department's own report states:

Mauritanian visas require an invitation or sponsor, can take up to several months to process, and must be obtained prior to travel.

Not exactly open for business. The Fort Knox Prize might go to Angola, whose invitation-only, submit your diplomas and bank-statements life audits make Greece's Mount Athos look like a public library.

Angola is awash in petrol-cash. In terms of prices, Luanda is the Moscow of Africa. Most foreigners arriving at the direction of their multinational employers, so Angola is not looking for the odd frontier market investor to kick the tires. However, other African countries aren't so flush with investment, and there's no question a few of them could make the process easier, which would probably yield more foreign interest as a result.

This already-long post could enter into a whole discussion of how African countries are, on the whole far more open to US Citizens than America is to them. If there is truly a Fort Knox award, it would probably be the country of Fort Knox. African governments have simply reciprocated US visa rules and fees schedules-- precious income for many foreign ministries and bureaux of immigration that would be lost if barriers were lessened.

It seems obvious to say that, if you need a visa beforehand, then you can't drive out to the airport and fly over for a meeting the next day. It might not seem to be a big deal, except that, in the world of international investment, it is sort of normal to jet off between New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc. at the last minute. Many of Africa's leaders, citizens, and boosters have the lofty goal of including Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali, Dakar, Accra, and many other African cities to that circuit of world business capitals. While there are bigger obstacles to overcome to progress on that, visa restrictions are an impediment to that. The government of Rwanda seems to be aware of this, as they have eased visa requirements for US Citizens in the last few years.

More generally, I have often wondered how much African governments realize that they are competing against each other (and the rest of the world, for that matter) in the chase for slice of global investment capital. In looking past the hype of how Africa's doors are open to business, it is an important to have some perspective: there are more than fifty sets of doors, and each with their own keys.

I'd be interested to hear any particular anecdotes, or horror stories, or if any of the information above is deemed inaccurate, please don't hesitate to offer up other advice-- I'd much rather be told I am definitely mistaken and correct the map above than disseminate incorrect information. [this post and map were updated on 5/21 to reflect certain suggested improvements.]

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Tourist's Guide to the Belgian Congo, c.1960

Continuing on with some emphemera of Pan American's erstwhile African operations, this 5-page tourists' guide to the Belgian Congo was published by Pan Am in 1960 as part of their annual New Horizon's World Guide publication, which was something of the Lonely Planet aof the dawn of the jet era. The entry indexes vital visitor information for the colony, reached by Jet Clipper from Idlewild via Dakar, Monrovia, and Accra, and afterwards to Johannesburg, in journey listed at 27 hours duration. Published just months before its independence, the guide describes a city and country on the verge of what I have read described as a brief, jubilant era of post-indendence promise, years before the world knew of Mobutu or the Mai-Mai.

It was, in so many aspects, a simpler time. Section headings such as Cigarettes and Tobacco and Motion Pictures are certainly quaint, but more interestingly there is virtually no talk of either tropical disease prophylactics or personal security or safety. There is also absolutely no discussion of politics. Its almost unimaginable to assemble a short dossier on an African country for a foreign audience and not have these subjects be the primary themes.

What is unquestionably the most alarming passage is the quoted population figures on the first page, which provide statistics distinguished by race: a hundred thousand "Europeans" and a round figure of 13 million "Negroes." Leopoldville is described as having firstly 20,000 white and additionally 400,000 native inhabitants. Not that you don't hear reckonings of "ex-pats" or "non-Africans" or for that matter "Lebanese" in many sub-Saharan cities nowadays, but the contemporary hint at a Jim Crow worldview is a bit discomforting. Its also a remarkable figure of "Europeans" --I had previously read that lots of Belgians lived throughout the Congo and remained there after independence, but its interesting that only one in five was thought to live in the capital. I wonder if there are 100,000 Europeans in the DR Congo today (maybe there are).

What is nearly as startling is to realize that this number of people listed is the estimated population of just the city of Kinshasa alone nowadays, with DR Congo guessed to have as many people as Germany, possibly more. Its my experience that a good rule of thumb is that the population of an entire African country at independence is now the estimated population of its capital or major city. [Let's call it Jones's Law].

The last page suggests an ambulation around the orderly little capital city on the banks of the wide river, with the "native market a 'must' for color photographers...A tour of the European Quarter should include the Museum of Native Life, St. Anne's Cathedral, King Albert Monument, Pioneers Monument, and Stanley Monument."

The final paragraph urges Jet Clipper passengers to consider a sightseeing tour up the Congo by rail or train, and compels readers to visit the cannot-miss Kivu region, with Lake Kivu renown as the "Jewel of Africa." From there, travelers are urged to see the "7-foot tall Watussi natives," and not far away is the other extreme: the "jungle home of the Pygmies." Unquestionably, an unforgettable corner of the globe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pan Am's West Africa Routes, c.1962

Before both Blogger and the Omega Tower came crashing down, I think I was blathering on about arcane details of Liberia's aviation. So let me continue with this: a detail of a golden-hued, wall-covering route map of Pan Am's global operations. Printed around 1962, it originally adorned the backwall of a check-in counter or ticket office at one of the airline's global offices. In the early sixties, Liberia was entering its Golden Age of the post-war Open Door era, and in concert with this prosperity and Cold War cooperation, Pan American's base at Robertsfield was growing to prominence.

The map shows the route from New York Idlewild to Roberts International via Dakar, which continued on to Accra, Lagos, and Nairobi (and perhaps Entebbe and Dar Es Salaam); a second trans-Saharan route from Europe via Rabat, Morocco reached the Guinea coast at Conakry, connecting at RIA, and then continuing on to Abidjan, Cotonou and Douala. A third leg from Lagos stretched down to Leopoldville, terminating at Johannesburg.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the majority of Pan American passengers to Africa passed through Robertsfield, which Pan Am managed under contract from the Ministry of Transport. Even to this day, the RIA logo mark is a modified Pan Am globe emblem (below).

In the early 1980s, Pan Am had a weekly nonstop from JFK to RIA, but in the following years pulled down its African network, ending its service to Liberia in 1986, and ceasing operations in 1991. I've got half a dozen of these old Pan Am maps as well as other ephemera of RIA history in the M2M collection, so I'll keep posting these periodically.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

In Memoriam: Bob Marley (in Africa)

A little trivia for the 30th anniversary of the death of Bob Marley: his 1980 World Tour started in Africa, and although it is best known for the triumphant Independence concert at Rufaro Stadium in what was then still Salisbury, later Harare, Zimbabwe, the tour actually kicked off in Libreville, Gabon, before moving on to the newly-liberated Zimbabwe, and then onto Europe and the United States. Marley would be gone just 13 months later.

These facts are lucidly illustrated in these graphic artefacts that adorn the walls of the Bob Marley restaurant at Universal Orlando Theme Park in Florida. Watch the beginning of the clip below for Marley talking about his travels in Africa. The video starts off with the interviewer asking Marley, where else have you been in Africa besides Ethiopia?

Requiem for The Omega Tower

Image courtesy of

A fact that many don't know about Liberia is that, until yesterday, it was home to the tallest man-made structure in Africa. This wasn't an office building, or inhabited skyscraper, and wasn't even freestanding. It was the Omega Navigational Transmitting Tower, a 1,410foot steel spine standing in northeastern Paynesville which was built by the US Navy in 1973 as a node in a global navigation and broadcasting system that, in the age of Global Positioning, has become obsolete. The Omega Tower has been inoperational since 1997, when the system was shut down. Since that time, the tower had become a hazard, with a risk of collapse. The Liberian government asked for assistance in demolishing the tower.

Yesterday, in what was reportedly something of an elaborate ceremony, attending by both President Sirleaf and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States government assisted the Liberian Government in dynamiting the Omega Tower. The structure set a new record for apparently being the tallest structure in the world brought down by explosives, which the Executive Mansion Press Liaison promises to be entered into the Guiness Book of World Records.

Above images courtesy of FrontPage Africa

The area is reportedly be transformed by a $500,000 donation by the American Sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha into a new marketplace, to relieve congestion at Paynesville's Red Light market zone.

Radio transmission towers of all types are somewhat invisible to many people: they are simply part of the landscape, the infrastructure of utility, like their smaller cousins, telephone and electricity poles. However, in an underdeveloped country like Liberia, the sight of such substantial pieces of modern equipment can be somewhat startling.

Elsewhere in Paynesville, closer to ELWA Junction and SKD Stadium, the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) has multiple transmission towers off of the main road, in an area that is often called "LBS Community." Albeit much smaller and shorter than the Omega mast, these towers are still quite substantial for the country. One of them even has a tapered frame, something of a Equatorial Eiffel Tower.

Its of course understandable that the Omega Tower was not only obsolete, but dangerous in its dilapidated condition. Its surely progress that a half million dollars will be brought into the country, especially for what sounds to be such a worthwhile project, that will improve market conditions and efficiency, while moving the bustling exchange off the main northern highway out of the city, which causes such an agonizing headache to pass through almost any time of the day or week.

All the same, I didn't welcome the news of the Omega Tower's razing with much happiness. I can't find a link now, but a few years ago, there was a story about Monrovia's large metal transmission poles being torn down and showing up mysteriously at the Freeport. I wish I could find the reference; the implication was that in the midst of postwar recovery, Liberia was losing what little precious infrastructure to theft.

Again, this is not the same sort of incident, but it is sort of lamentable that Liberia's pride as host of the continent's tallest tower was lost down this week, and to a violent explosion no less. Its also one more small step apart for the United States and Liberia, from that golden age of the 51st State to a different future. There is no more giant maypole on the horizon.

A video taken from atop the Omega Tower in November 2007:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More African & Liberian Art on Auction

More African and Liberian Art is up for sale during the Spring Auction season in New York this month. On May 12th, the Bonham house will hold an auction of Fine African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian Art.

The African collection is wide-ranging with a large stock of wooden masks and figures from Mali (including excellent Bamana and Dogon items) and Burkina Faso (Mossi, Lobi, Bobo, Mumuye, Igbo, Yoruba and others from Nigeria, Ghana (Ashanti and Akan) and DR Congo. From Cote D'Ivoire, Baule and Senufo are included with Dan and Gola pieces from the Liberian frontier area, in addition to a few choice Dan and Grebo works from Liberia itself, such as the Dan animal figure, at top. A few other highlights, with links to the catalog:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Rainy Day in Monrovia, September 1976

There are more airline-related topics that could be posted to follow what has been put up so far this month, but in following from yesterday's clip, its seems appropriate to post one of the other vintage super 8mm films that have been posted on YouTube by lamorak.

Just in time for the beginning of the rainy season is this clip of an incredible deluge hitting the center of Monrovia in September, 1976. I've seen it flood when it rains in Monrovia, but nothing quite this biblical.

There aren't many specific landmarks to pick out, but the traffic seems to be navigating the center of town: Benson, Carey, Randall, Gurley, and Mechlin Streets are likely candidates. I'm tempted to say that one shot looks up toward Broad Street from the intersection of Benson and Gurley Streets, but that might be totally off. Maybe someone will recognize a particular sign or billboard, but I know these street pretty well, and I'm not too confident I can spot a specific location among these 4+ minutes of clips. Not that, aside from the vintage taxis and other contemporary models of the traffic, the city looks any different, almost-thirty six years later.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Business Class Travel in Liberia, 1975"

Continuing to look back at Air Liberia. Here is one of three amazing archival Super 8mm films of life in Liberia, c. 1975, which were posted under a pseudonym on YouTube. This one shows the airport at Greenville, Sinoe county, on a windy, somewhat gloomy day about thirty-six years ago.

A few ex-pat businessmen iare waiting in a dingy, lightless concrete house, acting as a terminal. Several long shots pan across the dank, decrepit waiting room: concrete chipped, paint peeling, water leaking into puddles.

Perhaps the plane isn't on time. One businessman naps in an old chair, head against the concrete wall. Another, blonde-haired, smartly-dressed man orders a Heineken from a Liberian fellow manning a forlorn, concrete-block bar. Passengers are weighed on a standing scale, their briefcases on the counter.

Two employees of Air Liberia, in full uniform, slowly push the luggage cart across the grass field. A head-wrapped woman cuts across the field toward her home, through the tall grass, a lazy gait across the landing zone. The blonde fellow paces outside in the open breeze, bored, impatient.

Finally, a small plane appears over the trees, lining up with the airstrip against the grey sky. The speck becomes an oblong, banana-yellow trimotor, touching down a few yards away, its wheels make a small cloud as they hit the dusty earth.

Only when it comes to a stop does the ground crew reach to the edge of the clearing to get the gangway stairs. The plane is fueled up: a groundsman squatting on the wing. It starts to rain. The passengers dash out from the small terminal to board the aircraft in the warm drizzle, anxious to head back to Monrovia.

President Doe's Air Force 1

More of Liberian Aviation Week, more posting from the M2M archives. Yesterday's post mentioned that the ill-fated Air Liberia's only jet aircraft was supposedly used exclusively for "VIP" transport. Apparently, restraint lessened further. Here is a postcard showing Samuel K. Doe's state aircraft, a Boeing 707. This plane was apparently last seen at a London-area airport in 1990-- unconfirmed rumor that part of the Doe family used the jet to flee the country at the end of Doe's reign.

It cannot be confirmed whether or not this aircraft ferried then-Chairman Doe to Washington on his state visit to United States, where he was received on the portico of the White House by Reagan in August 1982. It was moments after this shot was taken, during the course of a press-covered reception, that Reagan famously gaffed, referring to the Liberian head of state as, "Chairman Moe."

August, 1982: Note the Shoes!

An equally well-known photograph from the two-week America trip shows what is reported to be a full-honor armed forces arrival ceremony (fit for a former Master-Sargeant) with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger:

Nonetheless, how fitting that perhaps the only two large Boeing jet airliners that were ever registered in the country were exclusively a governmental perk, and seemed never to have been used by a Liberian airline to grow its scheduled passenger services.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Air Liberia

Continuing on the same theme from the previous post, it seems an appropriate time to post these images of Air Liberia, which I've had around for a few years. The first is the comically-shaped Britten-Norman Islander aircraft. The sunny location, with its mountainous background, is difficult to judge; could be California, could be Yekepa.

The second it the pride of fleet Boeing 737-200, which Air Liberia reportedly used only for Government VIP operations. How typical. The photo's background definitely looks more Kansas City than Kakata, so presumably this was some sort of publicity shot taken by the manufacturer as the plane made its way to West Africa.

Ben Guttery's Encyclopedia of African Airlines gives the historical highlights of shifting priorities and management that kept Air Liberia bouncing along the bottom.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Liberia National Airlines, April 1967 Schedule

A previous post lamented the current lack of any domestic air service in Liberia in the wake of Elysian Airlines' demise. Its also interesting to explore how extensive such domestic operations once were. From the depths of the internet comes this delightful artifact: the schedule of Liberian National Airlines from April 1967, showing services from Robertsfield to Buchanan, Rivercess, Sinoe (presumably landing at Greenville) and Cape Palmas (Harper, Maryland).

Whats especially interesting is that the service includes a flight between Spriggs-Payne airfield and Robertsfield, a distance of scarcely 50 kilometers, a hop which the schedule allows twenty minutes to complete. A box below details the leg northward to Freetown from both RIA and Spriggs on Wednesdays. A separate matrix details passenger fares and excess luggage charges.

Despite the sleek jetcraft zooming across the glossy cover of the brochure, LNA operated only two sputtering Douglas DC-3s to run its entire network, so recalling this as the golden age of Liberian domestic air travel may be somewhat rose-tinted. According to the Encyclopedia of African Airlines (Ben R. Guttery, 1998), LNA eventually merged with Ducor Air Transport to form Air Liberia in 1974, a carrier which survived until the outbreak of fighting in 1990.

Special thanks to Björn Larssen of Timetable Images for allowing the reposting of the above images.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier. Part 4: Air France to Monrovia

After yesterday's post about the new services from Spriggs-Payne, its well past time to note the arrival of a new major airline to Robertsfield last month. After a small delay of its inauguration, Air France has launched a twice-weekly extension of its Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Conakry flights to both Freetown, Sierra Leone and Monrovia.

This gives the first European airline to return to RIA since Ellen's election, and offers a bit of competition to Brussels Airlines' dominance of the market. It also offers travelers easier connections from the United States. I know many people who prefer to connect from New York, Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia in Europe rather than routing through Atlanta or even the 10-hour non-stops from JFK on Delta.

By the way, for those who are just looking to shuttle up to Conakry on a Tuesday and back down to Monrovia, this is technically possible. I was quoted a roundtrip airfare, all taxes and fees, of $3,333.30. I'd love to know how that figure was arrived at. It'd be funny if it wasn't so outrageous.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier. Part 3: Spring 2011 updates from Spriggs-Payne

Last fall, I gave a run-down over the few posts about the commercial air services into and out of Monrovia. It can be a bit tricky, because African airlines tend to come and go, and connecting within Africa, between countries or domestically, can involve differential calculus (not to mention a higher fare than from the United States to Europe, in many cases).

I was even tripped up last fall, as Elysian Airlines, the Cameroonian carrier that had set up a pretty solid operation at Monrovia's secondary airport, Spriggs-Payne Airfield in Sinkor, had suddenly ceased flying at some point in the middle of last year, without any formal announcement. This happens relatively often in Africa. Slok Air, a Gambian carrier, has still never admitted that it is finished, even though it has not flown since mid-2008.

The collapse of Elysian's operations left Spriggs-Payne without any scheduled commercial service. Given that Elysian's Friday service down to Harper, which normally returned on Sunday or Monday, the closure of the station also left Liberia without any scheduled domestic airline flights. Given that it can take days to traverse Liberia's roads to the distant counties such as Maryland, this was a serious setback to the country's transport infrastructure.

Although there are no reports out that any airline has relaunched service to Harper, I am happy to report that the void left by Elysian has been filled by not one but two airlines.

Note: this route map does not reflect the current ASKY flights out of Monrovia.

The first is Lomé, Togo-based ASKY Airlines, a young regional carrier that is partly backed by Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian itself began flying to Robertsfield from Addis Ababa via Accra in late 2009 to great fanfare, but then withdrew that service, disappointingly. Instead, smaller, newer ASKY came into Spriggs-Payne late last year. ASKY started with non-stop service to Abidjan, Accra and Banjul (last year's route map above). The service to Abidjan was helpful in particular, as Brussels Airlines had switched its pit-stop from Europe from Abidjan to Accra in mid-2010. Banjul was later dropped, and at the beginning of this year, Abidjan appears to have been substituted with Bamako, Mali--an interesting choice. Service is with small prop aircraft--current schedule is below.

Secondly, Manu River neighbor Sierra Leone got its own airline at the beginning of this year. Fly 6ix has already been designated that national carrier by President Koroma, just in time for that country's 50th years of independence, its Golden Jubilee. With a single Embraer regional jet, the young carrier operates three-times a week service from Freetown, connecting to Banjul, Conakry and Monrovia. As can be seen in the schedule below, the airline flies non-stop from Spriggs-Payne (MLW) to both Freetown (FNA) and Conakry (CKY).

A recent airfare search on the airline's website showed a roundtrip fare from Monrovia to Conakry of $672. Pretty typical. Additionally, these intrepid little carriers, although using modern aircraft, can be subject to huge delays if a maintenance issue grounds an aircraft. Fly 6ix appears to have only one plane. Passengers could be stuck for days if something doesn't go according to plan. Still, these small steps forward are definitely progress. A key to making African economies grow faster is to integrate them, and the region can definitely use better infrastructure--for all modes of transport.

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