Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Far West, A Mushroom City

I think I bought these flashcards on eBay a couple years ago. Printed in Italy in 1978-79, they must be part of a larger set of fast-fact cards on places around the world. They would suggest something educational, although in reading the short summary on the back suggests that either these were for an adult audience in the pre-digital age or that pupils from thirty years ago were under a much higher expectation for reading comprehension than would be the case today—with terminology like “autochthonous peoples” and “insalubrious districts” casually included the explanatory text. 

The card presents a dynamically industrializing state, with the orderly and ultramodern Freeport on the front, and much of the back discussing trade and economics. The tabulation of figures is also remarkable: Liberia exported 250 million dollars worth of goods in that year, 90% of which was iron and rubber, or around 800 million dollars in 2013 inflation adjustment. 

As mentioned in a post from a few months back, 2010's figure was 823 million dollars, although a third of this was the offshore ship registry. The whole country had only 1.2 million people; Monrovia only 180,000. There are probably more than 1.2 million people in greater Monrovia today. My favorite sentence, unquestionably, is “…Monrovia, which until then had looked like a Western film city with twisted wooden posts, developed and acquired one of the finest ports of West Africa, which became a free port.” Great sentence, although I cannot imagine that the unfamiliar reader would be able to understand the connection between a wild west film set and pre-modern Monrovia. Although this was enough for the front of the card to declare Liberia “An African ‘Far West.’”

The card for Abidjan is perhaps even more fascinating. First, the image itself is so banal as to be mesmerizing; it seems to be calling attention to how remarkable such an ordinary scene of an office building parking lot was in sub-Saharan Africa before 1980. The back caption states that the block is “the Ivory Coast data-processing centre at Abidjan.”

The remainder of the back text is mostly devoted to an unusual description of Abidjan's socio-economic  “hierarchy” —the Europeans concentrated in the more attractive districts of Plateau, Cocody and Marcory, the industrial zone in Petit-Bassam. Then there are the majority-African districts: Adhamé, Koumassi— “high-rise towers of rented flats,” an intriguing image; and then “the ‘areas of spontaneous settlement,’ or shanty-towns.” 

Then: “as fast as these insalubrious districts are renovated to clear them of the slums, new ones spring up alongside to house the influx of immigrants from Upper Volta, Mali, Nigeria, etc.” The echo of an earlier, imperially-sactioned racism informs a modern sociological assessment. The final two paragraphs summarize the economic sectors in almanac form. “Abidjan really is a mushroom city,” it declares. 

These cards not only recall the pre-decline era of post-independence, when Africa hummed with progress and industrialization; for me they also remind me of early childhood memories, flipping open the family Atlas or taking down a volume from the Encyclopedia set, to look up a distant, exotic city or country, described in a handful of paragraphs. The brief, essential words conjured the cityscapes in my mind: “a tourist complex on the lagoon,” —what would a ten year old American kid see? Rare was the encyclopedia image of an African city in those days, and even if the entry had an illustration, it was but one small photograph in the decades before Google image search. It was left to interpretation, and the imagination.

No comments:

Tweets by @moved2monrovia