Saturday, 26 October 2013

Liberia - The Way to Africa

As well as reading literature that comes from the place I'm blogging about, I also quite often read travel books by adventurers, mostly European or US citizens, who have ventured out into the great unknown! 

For Liberia, I've read two travel books - the first was Chasing the Devil: On Foot through Africa's Killing Fields (2010) by Tim Butcher, a former correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, who reported from Liberia in 2003, during some of her darkest hours - the second Journey without Maps (1936) by Graham Greene, the famous writer, adventurer and MI5 operative, who travelled to Sierra Leone and Liberia, during his first trip outside Europe. 

I really loved Butcher's first book, Blood River: A Journey into Africa's Broken Heart (2007), which records his journey through Congo-Kinshasa, following in the footsteps of the explorer, Henry Morton StanleyChasing the Devil is Butcher's second book and I also really enjoyed his depiction of Sierra Leone and Liberia, as he walked on foot through both countries, following a journey made by Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara. 

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
I find Graham Greene a fascinating character and I've read one of his novels, The Quiet American (1955) set in Vietnam.  He seemed to travel everywhere and I have a feeling I'll be running into the work of Graham Greene (and perhaps, Tim Butcher) as I research for future blog posts.  It was interesting comparing the two works following the same route, to see how much or little had changed in Liberia in the seventy years that separated Greene and Butcher's journeys.  Here are a few of the things that I've noted:

Sierra Leone - a country in reverse?

One of the greatest symbols of 'modernity' and the Industrial revolution is the train.  I was fascinated to learn that, whilst Graham Greene travelled by train to Pendembu - the start of his walk in Sierra Leone - seventy years later, Butcher couldn't do this journey by train, as the train system in Sierra Leone no longer functions. 

As a symbol of 'progress', the disappearance of the train system makes me wonder whether or not Sierra Leone is going backwards, instead of forwards?  Mind you, we also ditched much of the regional rail network in Ireland, once the British left - it doesn't necessarily mean we went backwards or stopped progressing, we just did what we could afford and I guess, for the government of Sierra Leone, it must be the same reason?

When the Greenes visited Sierra Leone, it was still a British colony, with all the trappings of 'civilisation' and a European-style infrastructure, as unsustainable as that may have been.  In the 1930's, Liberia was one of Africa's least explored countries, a real 'Heart of Darkness' and Butcher suspects that Greenes' trip may have been funded by an anti-slavery organisation, back in England, who wanted to find out what was really happening in Liberia's hinterland.  I'm sure the British government was also quite interested in this country neighbouring one of their colonies. 

The joys of travelling light

As well as 26 porters, three personal servants and a chef, the Greenes travelled with; six boxes of food, two beds and chairs and mosquito nets, three suitcases, a tent, two boxes of miscellaneous things, a bath, a bundle of blankets, a folding table, a money-box, a hammock.  I guess it wasn't easy to travel light in Africa in the 1930's, although I do think the bath was taking things a bit too far!  I'd also love to know what was in the boxes of miscellaneous things - no doubt a good deal of whiskey, if the rest of Greene's account is to be believed! 

By contrast, Butcher travelled with a voluntary companion, as well as a paid guide and driver and as much stuff as they could all carry between them.  In fairness to Graham Greene though, for most of the journey, he flouted the expectations of that time by walking through the jungle, rather than being carried by the native porters in a hammock, as most other Europeans would have done. 

Barbara who?

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
Butcher does a really good job at including Barbara Greene in Graham's story - considering that Graham barely mentions her at all in his book and you sometimes wonder what she was doing, whilst he was philosophising, admiring the breasts of native women and getting drunk?  Barbara wrote her own account of their journey, Too late to turn back which, if the title is anything to go by, suggests that she found the whole thing quite hard going! 

Having initially accepted Graham's proposal to accompany him to Africa, after a few too many glasses of champagne at a  wedding, Barbara eventually rose to the challenge and even took over the management of the trip, when Graham fell ill. 

Alarming digressions

Having finished Butchers incredibly readable and informative book, I was slightly apprehensive about tackling the eccentric and chaotic world of Greene.  It really struck me how awareness of the reader/audience is much more important nowadays, than it was in the time of Graham Greene.  Greene's book was well-written, because he was a great writer, but it was also rambling, full of anecdotes and digresses often enough to alarm the modern reader. 

By contrast, Butchers writing was 'tight' and on topic, cleverly blending several different strands of the story, to meet the expectations of a modern audience.  I guess the modern commercialisation of the Arts and literature means that the days of eccentricity and digression are over - the reader needs to be wholly involved at every moment, or else a book won't sell.  I can't help feeling that we've lost some of the disorder of a previous age, when writers were less focused on the market!

The Way to Africa

Scenes around Liberia by Tweefur
In total contrast to Butcher, who wanted to follow Greene's journey as closely as possible, Greene himself had no idea where his journey was going to end.  His original visa only allowed him to travel to the capital, Monrovia, through the western part of Liberia.  Instead, perhaps because he had a hidden agenda, he meandered through Lofa province, (French) Guinea and Nimba, eventually reaching the coast at Grand Bassa, now called Buchanan. 

Greene had the vague intention of finishing his journey on the coast at Sinoe (now called Greenville) in eastern Liberia, which was believed to be the centre of an illegal slave trade.  He cut his journey short because he couldn't bear the monotony of travelling through the jungle and because he was running out of money (not to mention whiskey!).  Butcher, on the other hand, obsessively followed Greene's original journey and knew exactly where he was going and how he intended to get there. 

For Greene, this wasn't just his 'way to Africa' but, in many regards, his way to the world.  Anyone who has lived abroad will recognise the importance of that first 'seminal' experience - when you're disorganised, miserable, experiencing culture shock - hopefully you learn from it and do a better job at planning the next trip!  The experience certainly toughened Greene up for later journeys, including his time spent in Sierra Leone, during the Second World War, as a British intelligence officer.  It also helped him cut his teeth, in terms of writing and he went on to write many, many more books and novels, which have informed and entertained countless millions ever since!

I look forward to Butcher's next book and I'm curious to see if he will follow the pattern set by his previous two works.  For Greene, alas, the way to Africa is no more!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member, tweefur aka Teri Weefur, who is originally from Monrovia, but now lives in Silver Spring, USA.  She has created an interesting set of photos called, Scenes around Liberia and she also has a website

Thanks Teri for sharing these images of Liberia, using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Liberia - The Land behind the Mask

Like many West African nations, Liberia is well-known for its masks.  Used in traditional rituals and tribal ceremonies, the mask plays a very important role in concealing the identity of the main actors in a ceremony - it could be your next-door neighbour or your grandfather - masks facilitate an illusion, a mystery or a private space where human identity is hidden from public knowledge.

African masks are usually made from wood, leather, tin, glass beads or natural materials.  However, they are endowed with their own power and become something more than pieces of wood or leather.  In West Africa, masks weren't traditionally made as decorative objects, but rather fetishes with significant spiritual value, independent of the mask's creator or bearers. 

African masks can represent idealised human forms (anthropomorphic) or animal forms (zoomorphic) - they can cover the face, the whole head or even the upper body.

It got me thinking about the importance of masks to human culture, so I've made a list of different ways that masks are used across the world.

Concealing identity - one of the most important uses of a mask is to conceal someone's identity.  Whether it's a Poro devil carrying out an initiation ceremony in the Liberian jungle, someone robbing a bank in Basingstoke or Michael Jackson concealing the identity of his kids - the main purpose of a mask is to take away the real identity of the wearer, so they can remain anonymous, for any number of reasons.

African figures, Horniman museum
Violence - masks are often used to hide the face of someone committing an act of violence.  The mask I'm most familiar with from my childhood is probably the balaclava - a favourite fashion item of the IRA!  I guess, by putting on a mask, the wearer is removing themselves from the responsibility of a violent situation or, at the very least, concealing their identity, so they won't be legally prosecuted afterwards. 

Let's be honest - masks scare us - at Hallowe'en, or any other time of the year - seeing another human being with their identity removed taps into a sense of fear that runs deep in the human psyche.  Perhaps this fear or phobia also extends to the debate around niqabs and burqas?  Certainly a lot of the debate in the UK has focused on veils as a barrier to communication, something which stops us from interpreting facial expressions. 

Eroticism - somehow connected to fear, is the erotic aspect of masks.  By giving people anonymity, masks can also remove normal societal restrictions on sexuality.  I suspect that a lot of traditional ceremonies use masks for this reason, although the secretive nature of initiation rites means that we may never find out the truth. 

African mask, Horniman museum
An obvious example of using masks in this way is the Masquerade Balls of 15th and 16th century Europe, thinly disguised orgies for the upper classes.  A toned down version of this tradition is kept alive by the Venice carnivale and Venetian masks are famous the world over.  Anyone who's seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999) will understand the power and sensuality of masks and masquerade balls!

Hygiene - a much more mundane, but universal, use of masks is related to hygiene.  Surgeons all over the world wear masks, as do dentists and other health professionals.  Surgical masks have become very popular in the heavily polluted cities of East Asia and I remember seeing TV news footage of people in China wearing masks during the SARS outbreak in 2002. 

Masks can be used as a form of punishment - I'm thinking here of a 15th century tradition in the UK where women who gossiped a lot were forced to wear a contraption called a scold's bridle, which preventing them from talking.  I'm also thinking of the 'man in the iron mask' of 17th century France - an unidentified prisoner who was forced to wear a mask to conceal his identity - possibly because he was an illegitimate (or legitimate?) heir to the throne.  And I can't help but think of Hannibal Lecter, the character played by Anthony Hopkins in the film, Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Actor getting ready, Beijing Opera
In Korean, Chinese and Japanese traditions, masks are used to establish the characters of a story - in Peking Operas, both masks and make-up are used to identify characters and let the audience know if they are goodies (the red and black ones) or baddies (the yellow and white ones). 

Masks can be used to hide scars or other facial deformities.  I'm thinking Darth Vader from the Star Wars series of movies.  Or the Phantom of the Opera, or The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch, 1980)

In our magic-less, scientific age, it's more likely that you will see masks being sold as souvenirs - whether you're in Venice, Kuta, Bamako or Iqaluit - I'm pretty sure you will be able to pick up a mask as a souvenir.  Work of art, retainer of magic, vessel of illusions - masks are certainly a vital part of human culture. 

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to re-use them with attribution to this blog. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Liberia - Three Questions

In keeping with my new 'strand' of research, I have done a quick Google Instant test on Liberia - to see what kind of questions people are asking about this West African country.  The questions people ask are sometimes quite predictable, to be honest, although I guess the following questions are probably quite relevant to anyone who is learning about Liberia for the first time.

Do Liberians speak English?

This seems to be one of the most popular questions generally, if you type Do (nationality) . . . into Google.  We seem to be a bit of obsessed about whether or not the rest of the world speaks English and I guess this type of question reveals a deep-rooted awareness (or even phobia?) of our own monolingualism. 

The Vai script of Liberia
There is a psychological condition called xenoglossophobia or Foreign Language Anxiety - which I'd imagine is a pretty genuine condition for many people trolling the Internet!  I think I have the opposite condition - xenoglossophilia - ie. love of foreign languages. 

I've lost count of how many languages I've started to learn and I'd like to think I can speak four languages reasonably well (my native language is English, but I also speak/know Irish, French and Russian)

And in answer to the question - well . . . kind of - English is the official language of Liberia although many people, especially outside the capital, speak English as a kind of creole, which might be difficult for non-Liberian English speakers to understand. 

Actually, there are more than 30 languages spoken in Liberia - including Mande languages like Kpelle and Vai (which has its own script) and some of the main Kru languages, like Bassa and Grebo.  To learn more about African linguistics, have a look at my blog post about Togo

Does Liberia have oil?

Protest sign by Toban Black
Another Western obsession!  Well, there are many oil-producing countries in the world, but Liberia isn't one of them.  In fact, West African countries in general aren't big producers of oil, with the exception of Nigeria and Cameroon. 

Nigeria produces more oil than Norway or Azerbaijan, which I found surprising, until I remembered having read about the environmental and human rights issues between Shell and the people who live in the Niger Delta. 

It's probably better not to have oil, as oil seems to bring trouble and, given Liberia's recent past, trouble is something the Liberian people could do without!

Are Liberians American citizens?

I was a little bit surprised by this question and why so many people might think that Liberians are American (I presume they mean US) citizens?  Liberians are not US citizens, although they do have a long history with the United States and, as I mentioned in my first blog post, Liberia was established by an American society to repatriate freed black (African) slaves from the United States. 

You might have noticed that the Liberian flag looks remarkably like the flag of the United States - also, Liberia is one of only two countries in the world whose capital is named after a US President (James Monroe - Monrovia).  And the other country is?  You guessed it . . . the United States (George Washington - Washington D.C.)

Flag of the United States of America
I think it's fair to say their relationship with the US is still important to Liberians today.  Until fairly recently, the US was by far the biggest donor of aid to Liberia, although this has now changed and the EU and UK have given most aid to Liberia in recent years.  I wrote quite a bit about 'Aid' when I was blogging about Togo - if you want to read more, just click here

Despite their close relationship, the United States government refused to recognise Liberia as a country during its first 15 years as an independent nation.  And the reason?  Well, according to Tim Butcher in his marvellous book Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit (2011) - the thought of having to accept a 'coloured' Liberian diplomat in Washington D.C. was too much for a racially-charged nation that was soon to tear itself apart over the issue of slavery, during the American Civil War. 

Image credits: 

The image of Vai script is from Wikimedia commons and in the public domain, as is the image of the United States flag.

The picture of the protest placard is from flickr user Toban Black who is from Canada.  You can see more of Toban's work on his blog

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Liberia - The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here

West Africa is a fascinating place.  With a population of around 300 million people - living right next door to Europe, I can't help thinking that West Africa will be a true test of Europe's commitment to the world, if not a major partner in Europe's future prosperity.  We tend to overlook West Africa and think about markets across the Atlantic or in Far East Asia - but our ties to West African countries go back a long way - a chequered history of repression, blame and guilt.

I've blogged about West Africa before - when I researched Togo, exactly three years ago and I'm really looking forward to my next virtual journey to this part of the world, as I blog about Liberia over the coming weeks.  With a population of about 4 million, Liberia is a small fish in a big pond, but it holds an important symbolic place in the hearts and minds of all West Africans, as the first West African 'nation' to rule itself.  Liberia became an independent nation in 1847 - 110 years before Ghana became the second West African nation to gain independence. 

Liberian school girl by Ken Harper
Ten years ago this month, Liberia emerged from years of civil war that bankrupted the economy, killed a quarter of a million people and left the country's infrastructure in ruins.  Whilst a lot has been done to rebuild the country, Liberia still has the second-lowest per capita income in West Africa, being slightly ahead of Niger.  The current government faces a whole host of challenges, as it draws international criticism for its failure to address corruption and restore social services to the Liberian people. 

I've already had my first 'myth' about Liberia exploded - ie. the idea that Liberia was established as some kind of benevolent act of charity, funded by the United States.  It's true that many supporters of the American Colonisation society had a genuine desire to do the right thing, by establishing (what was then) a colony for freed slaves back in the 'homeland', on the West African coast. 

The reality is that the freed slaves were born in North America and were ill-prepared to survive in the tropical jungles of West Africa.  Was the establishment of Liberia really an act of kindness in the pursuit of Liberty, or an attempt to 'cleanse' the United States of freed blacks, who could unsettle the slave population of the Southern states?

Local radio station by Ken Harper
The survivors of this attempt at (re)colonisation must have been a tough bunch and, until modern times, Monrovia has remained the centre of Americo-Liberian culture. 

The country's motto is quite revealing - The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here - which means, 'we' are not from 'here', but from 'elsewhere'.  Liberia found itself in the unusual position of an African nation colonised by North American Africans.  Apart from the population that was 'brought here' - like most West African nations, Liberia already had a complex ethnic make-up - the addition of Americo-Liberians was another layer on top of an existing tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions that had been there for centuries.

The Americo-Liberians of Monrovia dominated Liberian history until 1980, when the tribal people of the hinterland rose up in a bloody revolution that saw Samuel Doe, of the Krahn tribe, take control of the country.  Doe unleashed an ethnically motivated campaign against the Mano and Gio tribes of Nimba county and was ousted in an equally bloody take-over by Charles Taylor, who got a lot of his support from the restless north-eastern part of the country.  A civil war ensued, which lasted until the mid-90's before settling into an uneasy 'peace' as Taylor held firm to the reins of control.

Figure in stairwell by Ken Harper
Just last week convicted of war crimes in relation to his meddling with Sierra Leone, Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003 and was later extradited to the Hague to await sentencing for the murders, rapes and acts of terrorism that he has been found guilty of aiding and abetting. 

Liberia's current leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is one of only 17 women in the world who currently lead national governments.  She is one of the two female leaders in Africa - the other one being Joyce Banda of Malawi.  President Johnson-Sirleaf very much represents the emergence of civil society in Liberia, especially in relation to the peace movements, mostly led by women, that emerged in the early years of the 21st century.  Tasked with rebuilding a country in ruins, Liberians have managed to sustain the mood for peace and make the first steps in the direction of economic recovery. 

Image credits:

A quick search for Liberia on Flickr currently brings up the photos of Ken Harper, a college professor at Syracuse university - originally from Indiana!  I wanted to highlight some of Ken's photos.  All photos were taken as part of the Together Liberia project.

Thanks to Ken for sharing them with us using the Creative Commons License