Life in Liberia

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In 2009 I travelled to Liberia, a country in West Africa bordered by Sierra Leone to its west, Guinea to its north and Ivory Coast to its east.

My visit was before the media made liberia mapLiberia famous for the terrible outbreak of ebola.

I will admit I had limited knowledge about this country before my visit. I had heard about the civil war that went on in the  country in the early 1990’s, about Charles Taylor, who was charged (convicted in 2012) of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court linked to his involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. But I was not aware of the country’s history.

Photography was not the purpose of my trip, but as always I brought my camera with me wherever I went.  These are the photos I took while driving and walking around the capital Monrovia and the city of Tubmanburg.  This is life in Liberia as I saw it.

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Liberia’s name refers to “freedom” (liberty) because freed American and Caribbean slaves were sent here instead of to their countries of origin in the 1820’s with the help of the American Colonization Society for the purpose of establishing a new country.  Despite the area already being occupied by local Africans the new country officially became the Republic of Liberia in 1847, with a government modeled on that of the United States and naming its capital city Monrovia after the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe.  The Liberian flag has a striking resemblance to that of the United States and the two countries are considered to be close allies.

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (above) is the current President of Liberia.  She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.  In 2014 she was listed as #70 on Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

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Over 200,000 people were killed in Liberia’s long and violent civil war that ended in 2003.  Many thousands more fled the fighting. The conflict left the country in economic ruin and overrun with weapons.

Today the country is still being rebuilt and many live in poverty.  The capital remains without electricity and running water.  Corruption, unemployment and illiteracy rates are high.  There is definitely work ahead (photo below).

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Understanding the history of how this country came to be is important when trying to understand the challenges the country has been faced with.  In addition to civil war and political unrest it has struggled  with its double cultural heritage: that of the freed slave settlers and of the indigenous Africans.

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I keep being amazed at how women in Africa carry loads of stuff on their heads – in addition to their baby on their backs.  Impressive!

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Above:  This man has figured out how to run a gas station without electricity and gas pumps.

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Pia pictures 236English is the official language in Liberia but there are also about 15 indigenous languages spoken within the country. Obviously this has influenced the style of English that is spoken.

According to my research there are basically four varieties of English spoken in Liberia: Standard Liberian English, also called Liberian Settler English; this is the language of those people whose African American ancestors immigrated to Liberia in the nineteenth century. Only about 5% of the population speaks this variety of English.  Other varieties are Kru Pidgin English; Liberian Kreyol language (Vernacular Liberian English); and Merico language (Americo-Liberian).

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Photo above:  A reminder to people of why taxes need to be paid.  Electricity, clean water and infrastructure are some of the main areas that need work.

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Although some main roads in Monrovia were paved and in a fairly good condition (above), driving to Tubmanburg was a different story (photo below).  As most people do not have their own vehicles I saw more people walking beside the road than I saw actual vehicles on the road (below).

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Above:  Children giving us a greeting as we drive by.

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The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was established in 2003 to support the implementation of the ceasefire agreement and the peace process following the civil war.  It is a multidimensional peacekeeping operation comprised of military, police and civilian personnel.  The UN mandate is to assist the Government of Liberia in the consolidation of peace and stability and in the protection of civilians (2013).

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In response to incremental improvements in Liberia’s security situation, UNMIL’s military strength has been reduced from 15,000 at its peak to around 5,279 today (2015).

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Above:  An UNMIL control post on the way from Monrovia to Tubmanburg.

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Although I was based in the capital Monrovia I spent two days driving back and forth to the city of Tubmanburg in Bomi county – an area located a few hours drive northwest of Monrovia.

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Tubmanburg used to be the centre of a diamod mining centre and an iron ore until it was largely destroyed in the first civil war.  During the second civil war it was the headquarters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebel group.  Now it is the location of the Happy People Food Center.  Love the name!

pia tubmanburg 100pia tubmanburg 139pia tubmanburg 123As of the 2008 census, Tubmanburg had an estimated population of 13,144.

One of its residents, “M. Vee” runs his own construction and wood work shop.  He was happy to pose for me (below).

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As in the rest of Africa, football (soccer) is the most popular sport.  All you need is a ball!

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The most famous beaches in Liberia are the surfing ones near Robertsport, but there are some beautiful beaches in Monrovia as well.  Some have bars and restaurants along the beach – but be aware of strong and dangerous currents.

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I will end this post with my favorite photo (above).

This photo is similar to the photo I posted earlier: an amazing group of kids who kept me company while I had to wait in their village in Tubmanburg for a few hours.  We exchanged Norwegian and Liberian children’s songs, they asked me about my life, my computer and camera.  They loved seeing the photos I took of them (except the shy boy who kept turning his back on me every time I went to take a photo).

They laughed and smiled so much.

I have this photo framed – and they are still making me smile.

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