Ode to Monrovia - I

Farzana Rasheed pays tribute to the capital city of Liberia, where she has lived and worked since her 20s.

Ode to Monrovia - I
Monrovia is a great city. It stands despite all the derision, complaints and comparisons to more ‘modern’ cities.

I’ve lived in Monrovia for thirteen years and truth be told, I’ve both mocked and complimented its ‘shabby’ beauty. When I first arrived here, the city was hidden in near-total darkness. Its abandoned buildings were full of refugees and trash. Over time, light has been restored to the city as the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) was pumped with money and resources, but whenever one returns from a trip abroad, one is shocked by how remarkably dark Monrovia is. Light is still a luxury for many of Monrovia’s residents, especially Liberians. The LEC has not managed to extend its services to everyone and Liberians rely on a variety of solutions for light. Most businesses, too, cannot only depend on LEC and have back-ups.

As such, life in Monrovia is completely Do-It-Yourself (DIY). Buildings and homes are the handiwork of make-do plumbers, electricians, welders, and masons. They’re mad scientists in a way, always on beck-and-call, guesstimating, measuring, fixing and trying.

The Masonic Lodge in Monrovia
The Masonic Lodge in Monrovia

Monrovia has refashioned itself with a do-it-yourself zeal in the postwar years

Generators are the heart machines of Monrovia. They are constantly humming, pumping precious power to buildings, businesses, students, schools, tailors, supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. There are the tiny Tiger generators, buzzing like energetic electric hummingbirds, keeping smaller establishments alive and, then, mega dinosaur-size silent generators supplying electricity to hotels and factories. Generators require gallons of fuel and tend to break down, especially if not properly maintained.

Streets in central Monrovia are overcast by a crisscrossing web of hanging electrical lines, all wrapped around buildings: over poles, vents, moss-covered balconies, zinc roofs and jutting empty air conditioner cages. I often wonder why Monrovia doesn’t see more electrical fires because of all these naked cables. The poles - most of which could be nicknamed ‘leaning towers of the LEC’ - on which the electric meters are mounted, are works of random chaos. They look like tall vertical mountains, their peaks hidden by swirling clouds of wires.

Junction of Newport and Benson streets
Junction of Newport and Benson streets

Silver Beach, Monrovia
Silver Beach, Monrovia

For every genius spark of the LEC, we have the equally luscious Water and Sewer Corporation, which is still trying to rehabilitate its infrastructure and provide piped water to the residents of Monrovia. I know the service to some parts of Monrovia is quite OK, but in our own experience, we didn’t get any water and instead received very high bills. Still, I don’t know whether the sewage system is being maintained - because there are open sewers all over the city. For a city that receives an amount of water equal to the flood of Noah and more, it is an irony to see that residents of Monrovia don’t have piped water. Surely, there must be a way to harness the splendid amounts of rains that we receive in the rainy season and have piped water all year round.

The push push boys can be seen hauling water across the streets of Monrovia in makeshift carts. The water is drawn from wells and filled in jerry-cans, which are packed into the carts, which are then pushed on the sloping streets. One can see a couple of men steadily pushing the cart, the muscles on their arms and backs taut, glistening with sweat in the beating sun. Their effort and speed shows the backbreaking labour that they are performing. We have sometimes had our water tank and buckets filled with this water when the water truck was not available or when our water harvesting system broke down. One jerry-can goes for 25 LD. That’s about 25 cents. There must be 20 cans in one of the carts. That means the push push boys break their backs for one trip, for hardly $ 5 or $ 6.

These push push boys haul water (locally pronounced “wataw”) up into apartment buildings in Central Monrovia or apartments above stores. There are Indian and Lebanese business families all over Monrovia. These families receive and pay for the water and go about taking care of their households.

Walking to work
Walking to work

One can’t miss the presence of Indian and Lebanese businesses and their communities of families, children, schools, shops, supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. I’ve learned that some have been here for generations. I’ve met Lebanese businessmen and heard their stories of how their parents came to Monrovia decades ago, started with a job or a small store and then built their business over time. My former landlord was the head of the Lebanese business community for many years and speaks with a Liberian English accent, just as most Lebanese and Indians do. I would see him sporting a cigar and a very languid style, and I would often admire the overall Al Pacino vibe. He told me he first watched Godfather in the Relda Cinema in Sinkor when it was released back in the 70s. Later, my oldest Liberian friend insinuated that he had acquired some land up country through some aggressive means, which in my early Liberia days I did not understand as the tension between locals and ‘focals’ (foreign locals).

My ex-landlord always talked about how Liberia was his home and how he felt completely Liberian, having spent all his life here. Over the years, I’ve met more Lebanese nationals who run businesses - from supermarket to generators to building materials to garages to furniture shops to restaurants to hotels to apartment buildings. The Lebanese came to Liberia and Sierra Leone as early as the 1920s for trade, a few decades before Indians started to also venture to Liberia.

I’ve heard of the same Lebanese and Indian families spread across West Africa. There are cousins in Freetown, in-laws in Guinea, and aunts in Abidjan.

View from the author's rooftop
View from the author's rooftop

Despite the unfairness of an outdated logic, entire communities that help to run this city, Indians and Lebanese, are not even granted permanent residency. Every year, owners of supermarkets, restaurants and shops selling the most basic items needed by the public must spend several hundred dollars per person on residence- and work-permits and much more in bribes and commissions. At the same time, the new elite of NGO and UN workers operates tax-free. The traditional trading communities who are integral to this city and conduct business despite the poor infrastructure are locked in a permanent temporary status whilst later settlers working in the international development industry are granted a gratis welcome. Ironically, the Liberian diaspora, which roams free, one foot in America and one foot in Liberia, apparently using two different passports as and when convenient - despite that Liberia does not allow dual citizenship. I keep meeting Liberian-Americans whose main affairs in their return trips are to lease out properties, leaving the Lebanese and Indians to build apartment blocks, shops, supermarkets and showrooms in these family-held plots.

In this sense, the Indian and Lebanese business communities have a compromised existence in the country: with the host government, the public, and their own national identities.
The Masonic Lodge symbolises the Liberian state imitating the American 'mother'

I spend most of my days between my office and apartment on Randall Street. I walk every morning to work, skipping and hopping, with my three-year old daughter by my side. Before we reach our office in less than five minutes, we have passed at least 10 auto parts shops, stores selling electrical materials and fixtures, imported furniture showrooms and a couple of supermarkets. We meet so many security guards who dote on Kavita. There are several money changers sitting under a yellow Lonestar umbrella stand, behind a small wooden and glass box, decorated with US $ 1 scratch card strips and stacked with Liberian dollar bundles. Sometimes, we see a checkers game in progress, with a small group of onlookers huddled around the players. One is bound to pass by a woman, boy or man pushing a wheelbarrow full of goods: toiletries, soda cans nestled between slabs of ice, green and red shiny imported apples, biscuits, socks, underwear or shoes. There are often used shoes lined up on the pavement. There are the DVD hawkers. We see and greet the women selling bananas, peanuts, kola nuts, egg sandwiches full of mayonnaise laid in fula bread, and, Kavita’s favourite: kala, saushes (sausages) and plantain. There are also the gronah boys who loiter on the streets, offering the tinted glass for cars, wheel changes, and other types of car repair services. They have recently started to tease Kavita, which I find extremely annoying. In the previous apartment building we lived in, we’d frequently find one of them asleep on the stairs, eyes red, intoxicated and, if I asked him to leave, he would say he was a citizen of Liberia and try to pick a verbal fight with me. There is a group of children who live in an abandoned, dilapidated building on our way to work, who we have seen grow up on the street, bathed in a bucket on the sidewalk, eating their breakfast of rice and soup out of a plastic bowl with a big metal spoon, having their hair braided and playing with makeshift toys. From this building, you can often hear sermons or the singing of a choir during a morning or evening church service.

Right before, we arrive at our office, situated in an alley opposite a generator and engine repair shop; there are pillow boys, selling pillows in twos.

There a few storefronts locked permanently for quite a few months, and some even for a couple of years now. Usually the rents are so high that the landlord is not able to find a new tenant. The rents for 1,000 square ft on Randall Street can be as high as $ 35,000 or even higher per year. These rents do not include any maintenance, light, or water. Such shops are even taken for warehouse spaces on main streets in central Monrovia. Conditions of most buildings in central Monrovia are quite poor. For some reason, the buildings look shabby, crudely made and designed, and erected purely for business purposes. Zinc roofs dominate solid structures and even shacks that are wedged between the streets, access to which is through narrow lanes. The paint is almost always crumbling, usually exposing an older paint layer. The buildings look tired. Laundry hangs out to dry on the main street.

But not everything is ‘shabby’ about central Monrovia. There are very big cars parked all along the central streets, especially on Randall Street - with notable license plates. You’ll often pass by suited, booted young Liberian professionals, walking the street, sporting the latest fashion trends and holding smart phones: bankers, lawyers, workers in multinationals or even procurement officers - or rather deal makers - working in NGOs.

Sometimes I pass by my friend Bendu’s shop to have a chat with her. She is sandwiched in an alley between two buildings. She bakes little cakes in a small coal oven; prepares peanut and sesame candy; and, sells soft drinks, cold water and cigarettes. I enjoy watching passersby. Sometimes, members of the less suited and booted Liberian public will stop by for a soft drink and a piece of bread for lunch. They pay Bendu 20 or 30 Liberian Dollars, usually produced crunched up from a pocket or wallet. In the evening, other sellers will put away their wares near her stall. She herself waits until 8 or 9 PM to go home, so as to save money - because the taxis charge more during peak hours.

At nighttime, makeshift restaurants appear against the locked gates of stores. Women will be cooking on coal pots and serving rice and soup and fried fish to street diners.

Even though Monrovia is quite makeshift, it is also a very photogenic city. Its brightly painted iron doors contrast sharply with the crumbling paint of the cement walls. There are newly constructed buildings next to bullet ridden, half broken structures, half covered with vegetation. The artistry of shop signs is especially striking, with its simple graphics and letterings. You’ll find it on barbershops, restaurants and even stationery shops. There are wheelbarrows, motorcycles, beat-up Nissan taxis and keke everywhere. You’ll see women with tubs of fruit and vegetables balanced on their heads walking down the street. Streets slope in Monrovia, and that makes for some very interesting scenery. With its sharp contrasts, Monrovia is heaven for expatriate Instagram and Facebook accounts. Oh look, I’m living such a brave and adventurous life in post-war Africa…

Monrovia is not decaying. Although it might feel at times that it is bearing more than it can bear, with a lack of reliable and affordable services, Monrovia has refashioned itself with a do-it-yourself zeal in the postwar years because it cannot wait for the state or the foreign do-gooders. Children trot to school. Food is cooked and eaten fresh every day. School children study either under a light bulb at home or under a street lamp. Come rain or shine, commerce carries on. The main banks often torture the public with slow service but somehow life continues. Deals are made. Newspapers print whatever they like. Rumours and low rumblings are shouted and whispered. Monrovia still stands along with other sister capitals in the region.

I spend most of my time between my office and apartment building on Randall Street, hardly leaving this part of town, except for our evening walks.

I have lived in five different locations in Liberia since 2003, all within walking distance. I lived in two homes in Mamba Point and three different apartments on Randall Street. Since I love taking walks, my evening walks have taken me round the same familiar bends for the last 13 years.

Haresh has been a good walking partner and now Kavita, our three-year old daughter, also joins us. Our latest evening exercise regime involves us taking our dog, Bijli in our car up to the top of Benson Street Hill. We run laps and then work out with Liberian athletes who love to come to this scenic spot. We have met runners, football players and ordinary men, women, and even children working out.

This spot is one of Monrovia’s most beautiful vantage points, with a stunning view of the city, its grid of streets in the fore and the water and greenery in the background. A few high-rise buildings - including the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank - grace the sky.

We run laps with the Masonic Lodge on one side of the Street and the ‘new’ American Embassy on the other. The Masonic Lodge is a beautiful classic building with Doric columns in its perimeter wall. I have photographed it hundreds of times, at all times of day and during both the dry and rainy seasons. But lately, I can’t even take a photograph of the Masonic Lodge or of the city without risking the admonishment of the US Embassy security guards. Even a photograph of running up the hill triggers a lengthy conversation where I discover we are not even allowed to take a photograph of the US Embassy wall. I was once even escorted to the US Embassy and had to fill out a form when I took a photograph of us exercising on the hill. A Liberian-American friend told me she was accosted in a high-rise apartment building in Mamba Point after she took some sunset photographs of the ocean. A US Embassy facet might have been in a corner of her shot. Does the US Embassy employ a separate department to ensure the public does not photograph its buildings? One wonders…

Fancy cars are usually parked in the parking lot of the Masonic Lodge in the evenings and, one often sees important-looking men and rarely women file in and out of the Lodge. There is the one time I heard live piano and singing in the night. Once, I asked some fellow exercisers what they thought was happening in the building and they told me that’s where all the secret politics of Liberia happened. Essentially, he meant that’s where the pie was divided. Once, we saw a Masonic Lodge meeting participant thrash one of the female US Embassy security guards for telling him how to park his car. He bellowed, threatened to have the lady fired and, let out a tirade against American foreign policy. The fellows who were sitting on the sidewalk pointed out that he probably had his family living in the US, paying taxes there, building up the US instead of Liberia.

After we finish our exercise, we usually peel oranges and suck them. It is one of my favourite times in the day, in my favourite part of the city: on one side the tall and mighty American Embassy and the building opposite it, a Freemason structure, a symbol of the New World society. The Masonic Lodge in Liberia symbolises, in a way, the Liberian state imitating the American ‘mother’, the country whose slave trade produced a by-product: the thirst for statehood in the tip of West Africa.

Farzana Rasheed is the CEO of the New Africa Technology Company, Monrovia, Liberia