Perspectives

March 23, 2009
Food instability and poor infrastructure affect Liberians

A woman carries food from an aid organization in Liberia.

Though its civil war ended years ago, Liberia remains politically and economically unstable — and more may suffer as food and fuel prices rise around the world.

Glenna Gordon is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Monrovia, Liberia. She has reported from Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Rwanda and writes at the “Scarlett Lion” blog about encountering a trio of problems in Liberia: food, money and transportation.

Tryin’ Small

Before I came to Liberia, friends and colleagues warned me that it wouldn’t be easy. It isn’t. But in ways that are different than I expected.

FOOD

Thomas is a nice young man who comes to our house about once a week to wash clothes. On Tuesday, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind picking up a few things for us at the vegetable market. I don’t have time to go and haggle over the price of an avocado every week, and it’s a way for him to earn a little extra money.

He brought three moldy heads of cabbage, tiny onions (not the shallot kind, the picked-before-they-were-fully-mature kind), mushy potatoes already gone bad, instead of a pound of fresh tomatoes about a dozen small jars of tomato paste, and four avocados that won’t be ripe for at least a few weeks.

The best part was when I asked Thomas why he didn’t bring fresh tomatoes, he looked confused, and then asked me if I was referring to the “bush fruit.”

Fifteen dollars later, I plan to give all guests who visit my house over the next few weeks a small jar of tomato paste as a parting gift.

MONEY

There are no ATMs or banks linked to the international banking system in Liberia. That means no Visas, Master Card, Barclays, or any other bank card will get you cash if you stick the piece of plastic in a Liberian ATM. It’s all EcoBank, all the time.

I’ve been trying to get my bank at home to wire money to my EcoBank account. This isn’t easy. I have to fax them a form. There aren’t a lot of working fax machines in Liberia. Since that technology is based on land lines (which there aren’t) and became vogue in a tech era of yore (when Liberia was at war), this is difficult. My boyfriend found one, and faxed the form. The bank won’t accept it because it was a scan, and not a fax. I’m not sure how that happened.

Finally, through only slightly duplicitous means, we got money into our EcoBank account here. I went to the bank yesterday to withdraw. The bank’s computer system was down.

TRANSPORTATION

There isn’t really public transportation in Liberia in any sort of organized way. You can flag down a yellow taxi (literally a falling apart four door small vehicle), squeeze in the back where four people always sit, or in the front, where two people sit next to the driver, and pay about 5 LD for a ride (that’s Liberian Dollars equivalent to about eight American pennies). But, there aren’t enough taxis in town and you might wait up to an hour to catch a ride which may or may not take you where you need to go, since there are also no set taxi routes.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Casierunder a Creative Commons license.

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Comments

6 comments

#6

Oh and by the way, there is a Visa/MC atm that is working in one of the hotels in Monrovia and yes, you can wire all the money you want through Western Union.

#5

Kai, I have to agree with you on all your points. I have not been there yet but we are funding many public works programs from planting 30,000 acres of rice, to water pumps, latrines, a huge ferry that will go from Monrovia to Greenville, many roads, etc. This isn’t in a few years, the rice will be planted in Dec and harvested in March. This rice is not being sold for export, it is rice that is sold just enough to pay for labor, my company doesn’t make a dime. We do this as one of many concessions to be able to work in Liberia and I think it is great.

Hold on to your hats people, this country is about to take off. Laugh now but mark my word, you will hear great things about Liberia mostly because of the administration as well as the nice people of Liberia

B.

#4

Hi Kai,

I will be heading over to Liberia in early November and am researching how to wire money there safely. Can you tell me which banks you use in New York and Monrovia (Ecobank)? What special instructions are needed? I am interested in doing business in Liberia, but I do not feel comfortable bringing all cash as some people stated I must do.

Thanks,

Vincent

#3

my organization is looking to do business in Liberia, we are interested in Infrastructure and infrastructure related projects. our team is made up of (3) african american businesses that would like to provide training to local workers in the community. We look forward to your feed back and or resources.

Thank you

#2

Big up Liberia and the First woman president of Liberia Paul Coffee and Marcus Garvey would have been proud if they could have live to witness such a monumental gesture by the people and country of Liberia. Now their is a country that America should pay a little attention to after all they love america so much that they module their Ideals somewhat from America,But with a little help from the International community and maddam President I do believe Liberia future is bright and full of hope, after all we are a mighty people, one love!

#1

Your description is cheerful and funny. It does reflect the reality only superficially and very partially, though.

The market you refer to (subject: food) is at the corner of Benson and Mechlin Street. If you know the times when the fresh goods come (fish, meat, vegetables, fruit - and all in abundance and very fresh) - then you would find it better and cheaper than what you find in a European or American “fresh market”. I suggest from my 10 years experience in Liberia (and 28 years in West Africa) that your “house-boy” who washed your laundry, did what you said: he made some extra money… by buying cheap, unripe or rotten goods for less money, so more could stay in his pockets. As for the tomato: tomato always comes in cans, the other is called “fresh tomato”. As for your laundry-boy: you do not have an idea what poverty, hunger, want, means to a young person. And you have not looked into the mirror when you stood beside underprivileged, uneducated but intelligent people who know that their future is “very limited”.

This market is now under scrutiny, the chief of the Monrovia City Corporation wants the marketeers to move to a centralized place. Well, as for me, that marketplace would be too far, my daughter is too young to go there by herself, and I can’t buy there in the early evening after my job - but of course there is an undisputed need to organize and clean up - but first find and implement acceptable alternatives.

As for the money: a wire transfer through N.Y., London, Brussels, takes three banking days to come to my account, because I know how to instruct the foreign bank. The internet banking is working, the ATM machines are working, the telephones are all cellular GSM and cheaper than in many “civilized” countries (at least compared to the technical advance) - you might not be very acquainted with other African States, and that makes your humorous report even more funny.

Transportation: for months the government has limited the passengers to one next to the driver, with four seats in the back. I do not know where you looked, but I can see buses running at very inexpensive fares along the main road (the ring road all around Monrovia). There is much to be done to improve public transport (and not buy producing cheap Tata cars) - but more is to be done in other countries, where the transport situation is a pure catastrophe, while here I consider it only difficult.

What I missed in your very foreign story is the mention of the streets, the major improvements, the security: you saw the night street lights?(I actually enjoy 24 hours current, with occasional breaks), the water supply, the cleaning of the streets in the morning? police patrols (yes, there are still armed robberies, are there not? What about any other capital?), fixing of the roads, cleaning the clogged sewerage pipes, breaking down the illegal slums, rebuilding cheap housing facilities, international investment coming in…?

Wasn’t it funny enough to mention the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world, 90% unemployment and illiteracy, official 4% HIV of the POPULATION, an average income of around 50 US cents, the miserable school education, the mother/infant death rate, the former warlords or direct supporters-turned senators or preachers?

But in all, you had to keep the story short and funny in this time of financial crisis, who would pay for another serious report about some mini-country somewhere in West Africa? For that, it contained a fair amount of humour. Yes, some things are funny, aren’t they?

To call the Government of Madam Resident Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf politically “unstable is a little beyond humor or fun - it is an affront and insult of a new generation of political approach, gender equality, anti-corruption and empowerment of the indigenous Liberians, and not only the former elite.

Next time you come to my family’s country, let them (and me) show you around a bit, there are things to really see!

Kai Kubel, German, 50

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