Sunday, April 27, 2014

A luxury hilltop hotel overlooking the beautiful scenery of the ancient city

From an April 9th, 2014 Letter in FrontPageAfrica, written by the head of the Liberian Community in Italy, lodging a complaint about the Liberian Ambassador there. It's worth reading in full but I liked this passage in particular, and how it somehow resonated with Monrovia, the Ducor Hotel in particular:

After it was disclosed that the Ambassador had selected his nine persons and had taken them into the hotel to meet the President, we the members of the Community walked to the Luxury Hilton Hotel, just 200 miters from the Embassy, where the President and her people were lodged. An hour later, the Ambassador instructed Security officers to move us from the premises of the hotel as our presence post a serious risk to the President.
While we walked alone consoling ourselves for the waste of time, energy, finance, we also reasoned on a comment the Ambassador often makes: ‘’ I am the President’s favorite and I enjoy full powers as Ambassador and nothing any of you can do to stop me, after all, the Liberian people noise often last for two weeks’’. All things considered during the 8 or 9 hour episode, we saw some level of truthfulness in Dr. Mohammed Sheriff’s comment. Silently, we thought to ourselves that all the messages we constantly hear of a Liberia that is being built in the atmosphere of Social Justice, Economic Progress, and the Rule of Law, Liberia still had ‘’Supermen’’ with full powers who did what they wanted and how they wanted it with impunity, even if the violated our basic rights of ordinary Liberians.
As we went away, occasionally turning back to gaze at the Luxury hill-top Hilton Hotel where the Ambassador with full powers and Her Excellency presumably sit drinking expensive Italian wine and overlooking the beautiful scenery of the ancient city, most of us were overwhelmed by the weird sensation of the recent mayhem we experienced as a people and a nation, a mayhem that came upon us for 14 years, mostly as a result of the behaviors of these ‘’supermen’’ with full powers. These extraordinary men with full powers stand willfully above the Rule of Law depriving their Countrymen of their basic humanities. These big men drives posh vehicles (The Ambassador in Rome has 3 official cars, Mercedes E Class 280 with number plate PD 028 CD, a Jaguar X-Type marked PD 029 CD and a Lexus IS200 with registration number PD 031 CD) and live in expensive villas all at the expense of poor tax payers, and yet these ordinary people are treated with injustice and view as the inferior class.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Visual Artist Makes Monrovia Animations

French “Visual Artist” François Beaurain has been mining the landscape of this city for at least the past year for photographic projects. Most recently, his animated GIFs on Monrovia, a series he calls Monrovia Animated, have been tossing around the internet for the past few weeks, and finally bubbled to the surface on Fast Company Design, in the slightly-awkwardly titled “Slums of Liberia Spring to Life in these Animated GIFs.” Quoting from FastCo's post:
In his GIFs, Beaurain juxtaposes the static dilapidation of the impoverished capitol [sic] with the colorful and repetitive energy of its citizens, turning them into "a piece of the conveyor belt that animates the city."
Many of Beaurain's GIFs were captured at the ramshackle Ducor Palace Hotel. Once one of the few five-star hotels in Africa [sic], it was closed before the Liberian Civil War, and has been rotting ever since. Beaurain has used the hotel's environs, ravaged by time though they may be, to set into relief the vibrancy and vitality of his subjects.

I actually think some of those that do not take place in the Ducor, and do take place in "the Slums of Liberia" are the most interesting, particularly #068 Monrovia Waterfall (above) and #45 Beauty Salon, with its simple, brilliant gesture of the mis-synced mirror image. I love the simple moment captured in #057, Swept Out (below); so much truth in those few seconds of action, as opposed to the more choreographic attempts. 

As for the use of the Ducor itself, the project is most successful when brightly-dressed, versatile young bodies are moving expertly across the dilapidated spaces (#026), especially the several that emphasize the boundaries of the architectural gestures, such as those that employ the hotel's massive, circular porte-cochere (#34, 36, & 38). 

In terms of how the art relates to Liberia itself, yet another visual co-option of the abandoned Ducor Hotel to intrigue an artistic audience is growing tired from overuse. But at least this newest attempt is expertly executed, and worth checking out. 

Monday, April 7, 2014


Gabriele Asare, posted on YouTube

Like many other West African cities, Monrovia is beset with large colonies of bats, when not hanging over the city from the ruins of stately Cotton trees, they swarm the skies like a plague of locusts. There are about five or so such trees in central Monrovia, broad and ancient, that rise above the rooflines of the oldest parts of town.

Denuded and presumably dead, they are enlivened by the diabolical presence of hundreds and thousands of flying mammals. Once, while driving up Snapper Hill to the Ducor Hotel, I passed one of these great dead oaks, its countless inhabitants clinging under each huge limb like dried fruit, while a few diurnal specimens flittered about. A single bat, ready for a nap, landed upside-down on a branch. It was the straw that broke the camel's back in real life: the weight of that one small flying-mouse was too much; the great old bough came crashing down as if struck by lightning: thunder clap and all. Dazed creatures, panicked by the pruning and blinded by the afternoon sun, flew chaotically in all directions: some directly into the ground, some into a chain-link fence where they became entangled. Within moments, a price had been put on a bar, and I am told by a friend who lived nearby that bat soup was the weekly special.

Even absent such a spectacular event, these tree-colonies are remarkable scenes though they are in many ways unsettling. The nearest image to the hive of half-frenetic, half-febrile activity would be vultures on a carcass, yet a carcass would never have so many ravenous attackers. When frenzy hits these nocturnal clans, the sky darkens a shade, the already-brief evening hour hastily blotted out with each small pair of slightly-translucent stretched-skin wings. The Wingéd Monkeys, lifting off to the shrill commands of the Wicked Witch of the West, come to mind.

This threatening aspect has grown with the swelling of the Ebola panic which has swept into town and onto the headlines of the newspapers. A popular fact shared among acquaintances is that fruit bats are the carriers of the virus, and Guinea has gone so far as to ban the eating of bats. So it is not too far from the mind to think of the immune risk when the sky darkens with the flittering, furry beasts, carrying death from afar. A report from Abidjan, from earlier in the month, chronicled just this wariness, of wrath of sky-borne couriers of the fever. Even before all the attention given to their presence due to the virus, they were seen as pests to eradicated. Both the U.S. Embassy and at times the local government have chopped down trees hosting bats.

Laurent Guilard posted in the Daily Motion

Despite lending themselves so excellently to be wicked omens of doom, the chattering communities of bats are an amazing site in the middle of the the concrete jungles of urban West Africa. I hope they remain overhead.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Literary Break: Guinea Highlands

The sudden three-week full-stop of posting has been mainly due to some exciting, life-changing preparations and the travel and distractions that go with them; the time since the last week of March has flashed by. Secondarily, the social and journalistic atmosphere of this stretch of West Africa has been dominated by the near-panic of the Ebola outbreak which started in innermost Guinea, in the mountainous frontier near Sierra Leone and Liberia, to which the virus has spread via the well-plied trade routes down to Monrovia.

Amidst the paranoia and panic, and my own preoccupations, I thought it'd be timely to post the below book excerpt, which has been sitting in the Drafts folder of this blog for literally years. It's beautiful, evocative description is the best anecdote to the hysteria around the place of origin of the Ebola virus. I hope you'll enjoy, and in the meantime I am getting myself situated and I'll be back to more regularly postings shortly.

©Google Earth.
High up in the wooded flank of the Guinea Highlands, a land of icy streams and alpine pastures, rises the stripling Niger, and its affluents, the Dion, the Sankarani and the Milo. Southward, beyond the rocky watershed, the mountain streams have bored their way down the cliffs and are lost in the vast stifling rainforest that blocks off the Highlands from the Gulf of Guinea. But on this northern flank, each river has carved out a delightful valley of its own, and the most delightful of all is the Milo Valley, an African garden of Eden.

It was here, in the district of Konya, that the kola trade had flourished since the Middle Ages, providing its own bonanza. The kola nut was grown in the clearings of the forest, marketed in the valley and then carried laboriously across the wilderness for hundreds of miles to the mud villages and mud cities of the Sudan and beyond. The nut, one of the few stimulants allowed by Islam, was served as a luxury throughout Islamic Africa, and the Middle East. To organize this demanding trade came the Dyula, Muslim immigrants from the coast. The Dyula metropolis was Kankan, a teeming village of mud huts on the banks of the river Milo.

The lines of trade pushed out and became more sophisticated. The arterial trade routes designed for the delicate and perishable kola nut-- fair markets, dry storehouses, trustworthy guards, able porters -- could also supply delicate girl slaves from the forests. In return back came ingots of salt from the Sahara and the luxuries of North Africa that the caravans had brought from still further away: fine cloth from Morocco, pottery from Tunis, horses from Arabia.

Sometimes, a passage in a book can, in a few sentences, transmit the essence of an entire world. Thomas Pakenham's ‘vast, scholarly and delightful’* 1991 epic, The Scramble for Africa details many of the European campaigns, and the figures who led them, into the interior of the continent for the sake of crown and glory. The above passage, conjuring a tropical Switzerland is itself so intriguing and magical, and in Pakenham's history, sets the scene for the French campaigns from both the coast and the desert to source the Niger River. The book as a whole is a vast, essential chronicle how the global slave trade, stretching its wicked tentacles deep into the the remotest redoubts of the region—increasing their vulnerability just as the European armies penetrated further into indigenous domains.

Today, the heart of the Guinea Highlands is nominally protected by a National Park designation: The deep verdancy at the center of the above in the Google Earth image is the Parc National Haut-Niger. Three symmetrical clouds float over its center. At right, a slightly larger bit of cloud hovers just to the west of a white-grey mass that is the city of Kankan. The Niger, quickly widening as it enters southwesternmost Mali, can be seen at upper right. West African Manatees have been scientifically verified as far upriver as this border region; the Parc's population, thought to be several thousand, have reported dugong sightings deep in the park's interior, thousands of miles from the delta, and the Gulf of Guinea. 

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