Monday, June 30, 2014

Ten Years since A Continent for the Taking


Lacking refugee camps or any other appropriate shelter, Monrovia's huge internally displaced population took up residence in the gutted and bombed-out shells of what had been a once-proud city's most prestigious addresses. Somehow, the entire fron fa├žade of the massive, boxy structure of the Libyan-built Foreign Ministry, for example, had been neatly sheared off in the artillery duels between the Nigerians and Taylor's fighters during one of the rebel leader's attempts to capture Monrovia. And squatters now used the ministry's offices as overcrowded apartments, seeming to pay no mind to the fact that their whole lives were on display to the passersby on one of Monrovia's busiest avenues.  
 
This same gritty resourcefulness was at work at the Intercontinental Hotel, once a majestic skyscraper that stood on the city's highest ground like an exclamation point, announcing the cosmopolitan pretensions of the old Americo-Liberian elite... Like nearly every other monument to the Americo-Liberians, the Intercontinental Hotel had been shattered and left to rot in the moldy damp of Liberia's persistent tropical rains.

Howard French's description of mid-1990s Monrovia, from his landmark chronicle of his journalistic journeys across Africa: A Continent for the Taking was published ten years ago this spring. The book contained several photographs of Monrovia from that time, including the rare shot of the Foreign Ministry, a skeletal shell on a treeless forecourt, astonishingly contrasting with the building of today. Although the historical events accounted in the book are now fading further into the past, the book is still highly recommended reading for that very same reason.

Not only does this past June mark ten years since this release of the book, but French, who since his years as an African correspondent has now spent much of his time in, and become equally expert on, China, has a new work out about Africa, China's Second Continent, which was reviewed favorably by no less of an authority than Stephen Ellis. On the summer reading list.

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