For Liberians, old ties to US linger

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On a fading billboard near the road that leads downtown, Uncle Sam reaches down to shake the hand of a small African boy. "We've come a long way brother," the sign reads. "But we're still suffering."

The image of Uncle Sam is, for Liberians, a prescient symbol of their relationship with the United States. People here talk about their big brother across the Atlantic, the world's superpower, as if bragging about the success of an elder sibling.

But even as a handful of US Marines landed at the US embassy in Monrovia Thursday, Liberians are feeling like the abandoned stepchild.

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The arrival of the seven marines, intended to help West African peacekeepers and prepare for the possible landing of a larger American force, was played down by American officials here, who restricted access and were quiet about the mission's details.

Although the United States is helping fund the West Africans and the American ambassador has been actively involved in helping to negotiate a cease-fire between the government and rebels, Liberians are still waiting to see the thousands of US Marines they hear are somewhere offshore. The US maintains that President Charles Taylor must leave the country first.

"America and Liberia are almost the same, so they should come help us when there is a problem," says Edwin Sanders, as he cut hair outside Monrovia's heavily fortified American embassy. "We want to see the American Marines, we want them to help the Nigerians."

Although globalization has sent America culture to even the most distant corners of the world, Liberia is without a doubt the most American of African countries. Store shelves - many now looted or locked - are filled with imported foods like Snickers and Jiffy Cake Mix, and the English language has a vague Southern twang beneath its African rhythms. Even the flag has red and white stripes, with a single star on a blue ground.

Founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, settlers modeled Liberia after the society they left behind, even adopting the system of indentured servitude they escaped. While they dominated Liberia's politics and economy for more than 150 years, the Americo-Liberians, or the "Congo people" as locals called them - since some of the freed slaves came from there - never constituted more than 5 percent of the population. Yet the American imprint lingers.

In a two-story white house near the sea lives 77-year-old Miriam Peal Goe, a member of one of the last of the old Americo-Liberian families still in Monrovia. The house is cluttered with sleeping mats and pots, brought here by refugees taking shelter from the war, but on the wall hang two pictures of a young, stylish Mrs. Goe in a 1950s hairdo and square-necked dress. There's seemingly little left of that young, smiling mother in the toothless woman standing nearby. But Goe, whose father was an American preacher and mother the descendant of American slaves, remembers those days well.

"Everything was good," she says, playing with her walking stick as displaced children play at her feet. "We had light, water. And this was a clean city, not full of trash. I wish we could go back that way."

Most of the powerful old Americo-Liberian families fled to America in the 1980s after President William Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup. Goe's brother, who had just stepped down as minister of youth and sports, was among the first to go, followed over the years by three of her children and many of her other relatives. The rest simply accepted their new positions and melted into the mainstream of Liberian society.

Although the old Americo-Liberians are gone, their houses and monuments crumbling, ordinary Liberians still look westward for help and hope. Many Liberians, including the barber Mr. Sanders, have relatives who live in the US and who send money to Liberia via Western Union, another prominent American presence here. Millions of dollars come through the company's 16 branches, most of it from relatives in America.

The marble Masonic Lodge was once one of Monrovia's most impressive buildings and the bastion of Americo-Liberian power. But today the imposing statue of a black man in tails and a top hat towers over displaced people hawking vegetables and soap from plastic buckets.

Few of the more than 12,000 displaced people living here in the building know or remember much about it, or its place in Liberian history. A generation ago, those still called "natives" by Goe and her family would never have been allowed through its front door. Only Americo-Liberians were permitted to live in the posh Mamba Point neighborhood, now home to embassies and aid agencies, and even passage on the street was restricted. But 14 years of nearly constant civil war have erased the significance of the injustices of those days.

"People used to say they [Americo-Liberians] were more civilized," says Anthony Collins, who was hired as the property caretaker in 1987, but hasn't been paid since Liberia's first civil war began two years later. "But we erased those notions, because so many people get married to each other. Everybody together now."

Even as she remembers with slight longing the American-style pancakes and maple syrup of her youth, Mrs. Goe acknowledges the old Liberia is gone. In the end, she says, she's happy with her rice and potato leaves - common Liberian fare - as long as the Americans bring peace.

"They were always at our side, but this time they're letting us die," she says.

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