Saturday, 9 November 2013

Liberia - Measuring the future

One of the 'facts' about Liberia that I've come across time and again is that it's one of only three countries in the world that haven't officially adopted the International System of Units or SI (often referred to as the 'Metric' system) for measurements - the other two countries being the United States and Burma/Myanmar. 

Investigating a bit further, it would seem as though the reality is more complex than that - Liberia is surrounded by countries, such as Guinea and the Cote D'Ivoire, which were part of French West Africa and have used the metric system since colonial times.  Although Liberia hasn't yet officially adopted the SI - it would seem as though this system is being used more and more in every day life, as a result of influence from neighbouring countries.

Global measures

Pera Anona for sale in Sicilian food store at 4 euros per kilo
The French have lost a lot of ground in recent centuries, whether it's the decline of the French language as an international means of communication (except in aviation and the Eurovision!) or the smaller role that France now has in world affairs.  But at least they've left us with a really logical system of measurement! 

The result of many years of negotiation and standardisation, the International System of Units, that was adopted by most of the world in 1960, is largely based on the Metric system of measurement which Napoleon popularised during his conquest of Europe in the early 1800's. 

There was a time when every country/culture had its own measurement system - these systems often varied from one town to another - which, understandably, hampered a more global recognition of measurement standards, important to carrying out trade.  I think it was inevitable that either the French (metric) system or the British (Imperial) system would prevail - but there is a good reason why the metric system became more popular in the end. 

A revolution in measurement

The beauty of the SI or metric system is that it uses a basic measurement unit, eg. a metre (US spelling, meter) or a gram and all bigger and smaller amounts are given affixes, such as kilo- or milli- which are calculated to the power of 10 - eg. 100 times bigger, or 1000 times smaller.  Put quite simply, 1 kilometre = 1000 metres, as kilo means 1000.  Likewise, 1 kilogram = 1000 grams - perfect!

The Imperial system and US customary measurements

Signpost in Russia showing distances in kilometres
If you compare this to the Imperial system, once favoured by the UK and the British Empire, and the very similar US customary measurements still used in the United States and Liberia - 1 foot = 12 inches, 1 mile = 1760 yards, 1 pound = 16 ounces and 1 stone = 14 pounds!  You can see that it's a bewildering array of terminology, not to mention the seemingly random conversion ratios!  I fully understand why the world prefers metric!

My experience of measurement

I was born in Ireland in the 1970's, at a time when the Imperial system of measurements was alive and well.  Then, sometime during the 1980's, we started changing to the metric system and now I'm pretty confused and, like many people in the UK and Ireland, I use a mixture of both.  I've got no idea what an ounce is - but I could probably measure 250g of flour quite easily!  I've got no real concept of a yard, but I do still think in miles, although I have a vague awareness of kilometres!

Anyone who's read my other blog, Walking the Chesters, will know that I'm very fond of hiking - it's a hobby I picked up in Slovakia, which I then continued when I moved to France, about twelve years ago.  Funnily enough, I first started walking in kilometres and I got used to this - so when I returned to Ireland/UK, I had to relearn the distances in miles and now I feel much more comfortable using miles again, as this is what I've used most of my life.


Weighing three ounces of butter
British and Irish people (in common with our fellow English-speakers across the Atlantic) seem to have an innate fear of 'converting to metric'!  Distances seem longer in kilometres - we seem to get less food for our money in kilograms and, despite government efforts, it's been a bit of a battle to get people in the UK (and, to a lesser extent, in Ireland) to truly convert to SI.  As with Liberia, we have a mixed reality of measurement that doesn't necessarily reflect official policy. 

But it's only a matter of time - the UK and Ireland have already officially adopted SI, even though the UK still uses some imperial measures.  Liberia seems to have retained US customary measurements, out of some bizarre deference to US-Liberian relations, but this is already changing.  The days of the Burmese maik, peittha and hkwet are surely numbered, as they open up trade with their metric neighbours.  Even the US has made some concessions to the metric world, although I'd be surprised if the US or UK completely abandoned measurement in miles - there would be too much of an uproar!

It's a fascinating subject to have touched upon and I'd like to explore the concept of measurement again, in future blog posts. 

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