Back to Liberia, 20 years later

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ALTHOUGH the West African country of Liberia does not often attract the attention of the international news media, black Americans and Africanists have always paid special attention to this Ohio-size country of 2 million people, founded in the 1820s by ex-slaves and freedmen from the United States. Another group of Americans follows any news of Liberia: the roughly 3,300 former Peace Corps volunteers who have served there the past 25 years. I was one of them, living in the capital city, Monrovia (named after US President James Monroe), while working as a ``public administration'' volunteer from 1965 to '67. Twenty years after my arrival in Liberia, I returned for the first time, as a Fulbright professor of political science at Cuttington University College, some 115 miles inland from Monrovia, near the town of Gbarnga. This time I had a family: my wife, who also taught nursing at the college, and our two children, aged 10 and 13, who attended the Campus School. I also had a very different position.

We recently returned to the US, and I these comments on changes and non-changes:

My memories of Liberia in the mid-1960s turned out to be still valid in 1985-86 with respect to the friendliness of the Liberian people - with a few exceptions, of course, such as the ``rogues'' (thieves) at the airport who stole our camera. Although Liberians are divided by class and ethnicity, they all seem to have a zest for living and a sense of humor that helps them cope with the various problems of daily life.

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After 20 years, one expects to find change, and for me it was especially evident in Monrovia. The city has about quintupled in size, and has all kinds of urban features such as multi-laned streets and traffic lights that were not much in evidence 20 years ago. There are not many new buildings - a couple of the more notable ones are the large US-built John F. Kennedy Hospital, a massive complex built for the 1969 OAU meeting, and a huge new Chinese-built sports stadium. But the general impression I got was that there has been modest progress in improving the quality of life for Monrovia dwellers. The benefits are unevenly distributed, to be sure, but this is hardly new - the size of the shantytowns in places like Bushrod Island has merely increased.

Foreign newcomers to Monrovia occasionally got depressed by open trash piles and unpaved side streets, etc., and found it hard to believe when I assured them that things were considerably better now, compared with 20 years ago. The military coup of 1980 (Liberia's first) brought the ``tribal,'' or non-immigrant-descended, population into control of the government for the first time. But in many ways the new elite has turned out to be not much different from the old elite, which was dominated by the``Americo-Liberian'' descendants of the early pioneers who came from the US, bringing their language, religion, and life styles with them.

In terms of material changes, in addition to new roads and buildings, television has made its presence known; even upcountry, antennas aimed at Monrovia sprout from houses of all descriptions in areas blessed with electricity and (in more distant locales) relay or booster stations. The origins of imported consumer goods were considerably more varied than in the mid-1960s. There were few American cars, for example, and many Japanese and even South Korean ones.

Most interesting was the evidence of ``South-South'' trade - goods and machines from India and Brazil, plus more Liberian consumer goods available, such as matches and insect spray. Sadly, virtually no goods come from other African countries, and most of the rice, Liberia's staple food, is now imported.

In terms of the influence of foreigners, Indians now vie with the more established Lebanese merchants for control of the retail business, very little of which is run by Liberians. The American presence is still considerable, with a substantial embassy, Voice of America, and AID community centered in Monrovia.

The Peace Corps is also still in Liberia, but with considerably fewer volunteers: around 170, down from 350 in the mid-1960s. The volunteers have a much greater variety of jobs, however. (One impression will sound familiar to former volunteers - the staff in the Monrovia offices appears to have at least doubled, despite the falloff in number of volunteers.)

Peace Corps volunteers spend a lot of time asking themselves just what they are doing, and why. I was gratified to be able to discern two long-term effects of the Peace Corps in Liberia: the considerable number of good Liberian teachers and students who say that a specific volunteer ``got them interested in biology,'' or helped him or her through school; and second, the impressive number of ex-volunteers in the Foreign Service or other parts of the US foreign policy establishment.

The latter, part of the impact of returned Peace Corps volunteers in general, is clearly the most important change of all, and is a vindication of the foresight of John Kennedy and others (such as Sen. J.W. Fulbright) who saw the long-term value of people-to-people programs such as the Peace Corps.

Charles Hartwig is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Arkansas State University.

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