Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberia's Tourist Potential Remains Untapped

From the mellifluous remarks by the Montserrado County District #12 Representative, the Honorable Richmond Anderson, to mark World Tourism Day, as chronicled by the Insight Newspaper. Emphasis has been added:

“The eco-system of Liberia is incomparable to the sub-region; we have the best,” he said as he laid out attractions such as waterfalls, lakes, lagoons, rivers and mountains among others which put Liberia at an appreciable vintage ahead of other countries.He added that research he had done proved that Liberia has over 300 clear and beautiful coastal lines ready for marine-aquatic tourism operation, about 200 lodging facility and 25 travel agencies.“The airline industry is currently booming with the active participation of Liberians. Cataloging all of these tourist potentials,” he said, “and being cognizant of the fact that tourism brings about rapid infrastructural and super-structural development to any nation, and serves as a catalyst to enhance economical, social, cultural and political development, one is tempted to wonder as to whether Liberia is experiencing fresh developmental transformation.”He said it can be averred that the country was yet to tap into the tourism potential when he made reference to the historical Providence Island which should have been a center of tourist attraction.“Beyond reasonable doubts, it should be by now a center of touristic attraction but to the contrary it remains an oasis of degradation and depletion.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dampened Liberia

Monrovia is extraordinarily rainy, and this year's rains have been extraordinary. I was told by a professional in rain-water collection that its rained almost twice as much as usual this year. It's the second half of September, and yet the rainy season doesn't seem to be slowing down. It's still raining. One week in August, it rained more or less continuously from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening, cycling from drizzles to downpours. Streets fill with water. The clouds are low and the light is dim-- as depressing as a Scandinavian winter.

I wrote about the rainy season last August, including the phenomenon of motorbike guys drying off in the wall-sized exhaust vents of huge generators, who are almost always designed to spew their filthy smog out into the street. The very same observation of the very same half-clothed huddle was mentioned in a recent Baobab column about Monrovia's rainy season, which is copied below.

A sudden stiff wind offers momentary respite from Monrovia’s punishing humidity, but it is only the harbinger of worse to come in Liberia’s capital. As huge rain-drops begin to spatter the ground, people scarper for cover. Motorcycle-taxi drivers abandon their bikes as the heavy sky empties its load.In the month of July alone, Monrovia sees almost double the rainfall that London does in a year. It is the wettest capital city in the world, fighting back the floods from May to November. During this period, those who drive to work in UN or Liberian government cars complain of patchy internet service and the increasingly pot-holed roads. But as ever, it is Liberia’s poor majority who really bear the brunt.Monrovia is a tropical, seaboard city with many communities built on Mangrove swamp. Mosquitoes multiply as the water level rises. On higher ground, wells overflow with the run-off from the city’s open sewers. Water-borne bacteria thrive; typhoid and dysentery spread. Worse still, the capital’s controversial mayor, Mary Broh, has chosen this rainy season to demolish many of the city’s squatter settlements. With this looming threat, new roofing seems a poor investment for Monrovians...Over the past fortnight, at the height of the rainy season, the main roads to many regional capitals have been impassable. With key arteries blocked, the prices of basic items spiral. In Voinjama, in northern Lofa County, a gallon of petrol can fetch almost $9. In Sinoe County in the south east, a single egg, at the end of its long journey from India, sells for more than 50 cents.Nine years after the end of the civil war, the lack of decent roads to places like Sinoe County seems a damning indictment of the government’s approach to rural development under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sinoe, after all, has attracted large international concessions agreements for Palm oil, gold and timber. Many locals, who were told the presence of these companies would improve their lives, now blame the swift degeneration of the roads on the weight of foreign firms’ lorries laden with the Liberia’s bounty.Back in Monrovia, smiles return as the rain finally stops. In the prosperous Mamba Point area, near-naked motorcycle-taxi drivers dry themselves by the heat of a big generator, still the main source of electricity for those with sufficient means. President Johnson Sirleaf has promised that work will finally begin this year to restore the country's huge Mount Coffee hydro-electric plant, which has been left derelict since 1990. Time will tell if Liberia's water curse can be turned into a blessing.

Not only does it give some description of the incredible wetness, but its astonishing effects, in every meaning of the word dampening Liberia: making most of the country's roadways impassible to vehicles, virtually shutting down the interior trade networks of the nation.

Added to this the extremely common yet no less bizarrely extreme aversion of many Monrovians to getting wet. People miss appointments, fail to show up for work, with the endless excuse, the rain. As if rain was actually acid to the skin, yet many Monrovians do not own any type of raincoat.

When the rain starts, the city slows. Not as you might expect in many cities, where inclement weather induces caution in motorists and causes traffic: quite the opposite, the chaotic roads of the city are devoid of pedestrians, waiting taxi passengers, and motorbikes. Traffic streams along the boulevard smoothly: more than one friend has told me he loves it when it rains because it is so easy to get from one part of the city to the other (especially now that traffic has gotten so bad). I often wonder, with an economy growing at over 8% per year, how much quicker it might be developing if it had better roads and more plentiful, less expensive utilities. I also wonder, in weeks like these, how much of Liberia's GDP is lopped off due to the rains, and the lack of preparation for it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Liberian National Airlines from Freetown, c.1965-70

  • Speaking of old footage of flights to Liberia, and routes between Monrovia and Freetown, here is a short clip from another era. In some ways this reel, from some time between 1960 and 1974, is perhaps even more astonishing than seeing the Concorde parked on the RIA tarmac. Here's a Liberia National Airlines DC-3, landing and taking off from what I imagine to be Spriggs-Payne Airfield, but this dusty airstrip surrounded by encroaching greenery looks nothing like the asphalt tarmac, hemmed in by zinc houses that sits in the center of Sinkor today. I absolutely love the large Helvetica lettering, Liberian, printed on the side, which interestingly is nearly identical in styling to how American Airlines has long labelled their aircraft (although it wasn't the case back in those decades, so it couldn't be a copy). 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

British Airways To Fly To Monrovia

With little advanced rumor or speculation, British Airways has announced that it will start flying to Robertsfield on November 5th. The flight from London will be an extension of its Freetown service, which BA is taking over as part of its absorption of British Midland International (BMI).

The sudden news is in sharp contrast to the years of speculation surrounding any possible intention of Emirates to fly to Liberia (the latest speculation is that Emirates is still serious about serving Liberia, possibly sometime in 2013). There was barely a week between the Liberian Airport Authorities announced the agreement that BA officially announced the commencement.

This is the third intercontinental airline to start new service to RIA since 2010, when Delta finally began its Atlanta-Accra-Monrovia flights (earlier this year, the routing was changed to New York JFK-Accra-Monrovia). In 2011, Air France extended its Paris-Conakry service to both Freetown and Monrovia; AF still flies twice-weekly to RIA. For many years previous to this, only Sabena, which collapsed and was replaced by SN Brussels, which was renamed Brussels Airlines, had the only flights outside Africa to and from Liberia.

However, none of these routings are dedicated to Liberia alone: all stop in another African capital on their way to or from RIA. This seems at least partially due to security concerns around refueling and crew way-stationing, along with considerations of whether little Liberia has the market to fill a 250-seat widebody jet nearly once per day. Emirates, if it does come, will likely include service to Freetown or Conakry as part of its flights to Liberia.

Its not exactly clear whether British Airways, or its predecessor British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), ever flew to Robertsfield. BOAC's rival British Caledonian, which it swallowed in the same manner as it now is merging with BMI, flew from London to Monrovia for years, sometimes via Banjul, Gambia, or Freetown. Its not clear at this point if BA will sell tickets for the ROB-Freetown portion of its routings; currently ASKY and Royal Air Maroc serve this route a few times a week, and additional flights will offer some welcome competition to the capital next-door.

A more unusual, unscheduled British visitor to RIA was the single landing of the Concorde at RIA in 1976, which was written about last year, as the supersonic jet was tested by its manufacturers. Above is a recently-posted vintage super-8 moment of the plane on the tarmac of Robertsfield, although unfortunately the footage shows neither the plane landing nor taking off. The jet stopped at Robertsfield on its way to South Africa, without carrying any passengers. Let's hope BA's newly-scheduled flights have more paying customers than that. As the world says goodbye to yet another airline in the global wave of consolidation, Liberia says welcome to another major carrier.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Postcards of Pre-Independence Luanda

Escola Industrial, c.1960

Yesterday's descriptions of the remarkable infrastructure of mid-century Angola reminded me of my collection of vintage postcards of various African cities. The most-often repeated description of Luanda, other than being crowned the world's most expensive city in the 2011 Mercer survey, is that it now teems with 4 million people, being one of the most pronounced examples of a small colonial capital, built for a few hundred thousands, now crowded with more inhabitants than the entire country had at independence.

 Luanda, 1950

 Aerial views of Luanda, 1955-60

Porto Largo Diogo Cao

Luanda has been experiencing a construction boom as the oil bonanza has dominated the city, but it has long been regarded as one of southern Africa's most beautiful cities, with its waterfront corniche. These postcards, from the 1940s, when the city had about 60,000 inhabitants, til about 1970, when it had grown to about half a million, show a smart, modern city, with huge technical works for emptying out the interior, as seen in yesterday's post.

While this tidy, mannered capital was then considered an integral part of the Portuguese state, and was divided unevenly between a tiny white elite and a native population, its a shame that so little of this place remains. This originally city, like so many 20th century plans of Africa's capitals, is being made over into an imitation Dubai, in Luanda's case, explicitly so. Perhaps that Gulf emirates are not the models to solve urban Africa's problems, and perhaps its useful to remember that these places are not starting out as clean slates.

 Waterfront Vistas, c.1965

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stop That Train, I Wanna Get Off

On Friday, Angola held elections. The results were announced this weekend: the ruling MPLA party received 74% of the vote, easily pummeling the opposition. Therefore the era of the 70-year old Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, in power since 1979, will continue for at least another 5-year term.

The campaign season got its start with the resumption of the Benguela Railway (CFB) to Luena, a station in eastern Moxico province, deep in the interior of Angola (which is twice the size of Texas). That Friday the first time in at least a twenty years that the train has reached this far. President Dos Santos was on-board the train to celebrate the "inaugural" journey, which made for great press.

That same day I was in Amsterdam's book market in the Spui, cracking spines of tattered art and history books, and rummaging through boxes of ephemera. Astonishingly, I found an old guide to the Benguela Railway, printed in English in about 1960, some 15 years before Angola's independence and the commencement of fighting that would halt the railway's operations. Feigning only mild interest in the item, I bought it €5.

Serendipity aside, this is a gorgeous, wonderful old article. Although I was seriously tempted to scan the entire 34-page pamphlet in all its vintage glory, I think the 14 pages below suffice for a blog post.

Like earlier late-colonial printed emphera that I've posted here, there is a strange mix of the delight of the dated item, brimming with mid-century optimism and the bizarre, uncomfortable anachronisms of its racist hegemonic presentations.

Both are on display here, along with the staggering scale of the infrastructure of the entire operation of port, rail, warehouse, and auxiliaries, which, although featuring ultra-modern sleeper cars running a passenger schedule to the border with the Congo, is clearly about movement in the other direction, exporting mineral cargo from to the port at Lobito and from there to other continents.

While the service has yet to reach the border with Congo again, President Dos Santos's Minister of Transport vowed on Friday to press ahead, resurrecting the entire service and connecting it with other Angolan rail operations and the networks across Southern Africa. This will be made possible, according to the Wikipedia article, with several hundred million dollars of assistance from the Chinese.

So, hopefully next year, the Benguela railway will then be returned to full service as a vital strap binding Angola together: transporting goods and people into the heart of the huge country, and extracting the vast interior's magnificent riches for shipment overseas-- 53 years after this marvelous infrastructure was documented in this gorgeous pamphlet.

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