After just two weeks in Liberia, my boss at the Liberia Democratic Institute (LDI) informed me that I would be joining a team that was has headed into “the bush” for about a week. The LDI is headquartered in Monrovia, but it has a national scope and it has one satellite office elsewhere in the country. While I was a bit nervous (due to minimal details), I was mostly thrilled! Spending time in an African capital can quickly make one feel a bit claustrophobic; these cities are rarely walkable and even the most walkable examples are not terribly safe during the hours in which one would like to go for a stroll or hike. Additionally, most travelers know that if you really want to see a country and know its people, then you need to get the heck out of the capital. In Africa, it is almost always the rural areas that tell the true story of the country’s past, present, and future.
On June 18th I departed for “the bush!” I was one of five LDI staff heading out to Liberia’s Grand Gedeh and River Gee Counties, both located on the complete opposite side of the country from Monrovia and each bordering Cote d’Ivoire. Our mission was two-fold: 1.) we would visit one remote town and work with a community to finalize a constitution that would allow them to reap the benefits of new forest-governance legislation that finally permits rural peoples to benefit from logging activities conducted by international companies, and 2.) we would hold an election in a different town for a group of people seeking a political office that would establish representatives to the body that oversees this new national forest governance program. So, back to the initial departure. The plan was to leave at 9am on the morning of the 18th… we did not leave until 4pm, and for a journey that was
expected to take 9-14hrs! We finally piled into our 4-door pickup truck, after having fully loaded the rear bed, and we headed to our first stop. A few minutes into the trip, we stopped in a rather infamous spot on the outskirts of Monrovia (appropriately) named Red Light. This place was outrageously packed with merchants, pedestrians, and all kinds of road-traffic. We had to pop into this area briefly so as to have some guys secure the top of the truck’s bed with a tarp, until we located these guys we had to roll at a crawl while two of my co-workers walked slowly beside the truck so as to ward off would-be thieves aiming to grab stuff out of the (currently) exposed bed.
Bed secured, we truly got on our way. Ultimately, we would arrive in Zwedru (Grand Gedeh County’s capital) at 5:30am the following morning after 13.5hrs of traveling along a fully dirt and decrepit road. The following are some highlights from that drive. First, we drove past rubber tree plantations that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was my first time to see rubber trees, and I was told that the foul stench penetrating the truck was actually the smell of rubber dripping out of the trees in the raw form of latex. After driving beside the orchards for an hour or two, we eventually found ourselves surrounded by pure, lush, beautiful rain-forest. So, we drove and drove and drove, all while listening to the same 6
songs played on a loop the entire time (the songs were of Ghanaian and Nigerian origin and everyone in the truck, save for me, sang along to EVERY song). Again, the road (essentially Liberia’s highway) was all dirt and filled with crater-sized holes, we passengers got thrown around every second and the truck took a serious beating as well. At 2:30am, and on our second driver, we experienced a flat-tire. In fact, it was a full blow-out and the tire was destroyed, we spent an hour changing the tire in very challenging conditions… on the side of the dirt-road in the depths of an African rain-forest. Tire changed, I took the wheel and proceeded to demonstrate my off-roading skills for the final 2.5hrs of the journey. I am proud to say that my passengers applauded my quick and smooth driving, and I informed them that it was an art-form acquired on some of the more infamous routes in both Kenya and South Africa.
We arrived at the LDI’s satellite office in Zwedru at 5:30am. We stopped, I emerged from the truck, and as the sun began to rise the first thing I noticed was the minaret of a mosque. Seconds later it was blasting the voice of an Imam reciting the first prayer of the day (with all due respect, the Imam sounded more tired than I felt at that very moment). I was then informed that we had just 30mins before we had to drive, for 3hrs, to a remotely located town for our first project. This, to say the least, was a ROUGH deal. So, I splashed water on my face and got back in the truck, and we headed to Grand Gedeh’s Ziah Town. The road to Ziah Town was far worse than the road from Monrovia to Zwedru, which came as a bit of shock to me. Additionally, the forest in this area was even more dense and engulfing and, while it put me back in Tanzania’s Marangu and Venezuela’s Canaima, it was at the same time wholly unlike anything I had ever experienced before. On the way, I was informed that, while away from Monrovia, I would essentially be living off of “bushmeat.” For those not familiar with the term “bushmeat,” it is used to describe any random creature that is found in the forest and used for human consumption. Those of us that have spent our (entire) lives fearing an encounter with it have done so due to the apprehension surrounding the possibility of being served: 1.) a species of Primate (e.g. a monkey) 2.) an endangered species 3.) an animal that had been ill and, last but not least 4.) road-kill. So, I was less than thrilled, but I adapt and I do what I have to do.
By the time we arrived in Ziah Town I had been awake for 28hrs straight, and the end was nowhere in sight… at least it was turning out to be another incredibly hot and humid day! The community meeting came to order, and we (LDI) proceeded to facilitate the dialogue that would result in the completion and acceptance of a constitution. This document would establish an unprecedented amount of organization and empowerment in rural Liberia. Specifically, the constitution would finally allow the newly formed Community Forestry Development Committee (CFDC) to obtain and distribute money generated by the logging activities of international companies (in this case, specifically, the Italy-based Euro Liberia Logging Company). As mentioned in an earlier blog-posting, the Liberian rain-forest, and the communities that live in and around it, had been exploited for many years by both international logging companies and corrupt governments. This terrific new development was made possible when, in 2009, the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed into official legislation the Act to Establish Community Rights Law of 2008 With Respect to Forest Lands. The meeting was lengthy and contentious, but it eventually ended successfully. We concluded our day by making the 3hr journey back to Zwedru, I could finally go to sleep and knowing that I had the next day completely free!
M.A. Candidate, Sustainable International Development/Coexistence & Conflict
Keep reading – Part II is located here.