Liberia's elites leave American comforts for war-torn home

Africa's best and brightest have long flocked to rich countries for opportunities unavailable at home. Brain drain costs the continent millions of dollars per year, depriving it of thousands of sorely needed professionals.

But the reverse is now true in Liberia, a country of 3-1/2 million that is trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of a debilitating civil war.

"It's crazy – everywhere I go here, I meet someone else I knew from the States who's just come back," says Gama Roberts, a Web designer who recently left a lucrative job and comfortable life near Atlanta, Ga., to start a Web-development business in a capital city where few have running water or electricity.

Since 1990, Africa as a whole has lost some 20,000 professionals per year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. The cash-strapped government does not have records on the number of skilled Liberians who've moved back from developed countries in the past year. But anecdotal evidence indicates that highly educated professionals who, like Mr. Roberts, left decades ago and found success abroad, are coming back in droves to help rebuild a country they've long seen as too dangerous or underdeveloped.

"It's a concrete manifestation of the confidence people have that peace is here to stay," says William Allen, director of Liberia's Civil Service Agency. "There's clearly a reversal of the brain drain going on, and it's a validation of the confidence Liberians in the diaspora have in the future of the country," he says.

"If you use the current cabinet as a microcosm, you begin to get the picture," he adds, listing government ministers who left six-figure salaries and top slots in the UN, the World Bank, business, and academia.

Indeed, the trend is "positive and critical for Liberia now," says Robert Rotberg, an expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It would be precedent-setting for sub-Saharan Africa if it is sustainable."

Liberia's loss of intellectual capital began in 1980 with military intervention in politics and intensified in 1989, when former leader Charles Taylor – now on trial for war crimes – invaded the country in a violent coup, says Mr. Allen. Nearly 30 percent of Liberians with tertiary education left in 1990, and nearly 40 percent left in 2000, according to a World Bank study.

But some two years ago, a trickle began to head home, when a transitional government took power after Mr. Taylor's ouster. That trickle became a wave with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's election as president last year.

Roberts, a polished individual with stylish plastic-frame glasses, says Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's victory played "a huge role" in his return after 20 years in the US. "I don't think I'd be back if [international soccer star and challenger] George Weah had won the election."

Indeed, most recent returnees interviewed say they probably wouldn't have come back had the Harvard-trained Johnson-Sirleaf not won in free and fair elections last November. To many here, this – coupled with Taylor's arrest – has led to a tangible sense of a fresh start for the country. "Johnson-Sirleaf has done a critical thing: She's given Liberia hope," says Mr. Rotberg.

Roberts left Liberia at age 10. After years of feeling left out when relatives and friends who'd been living in Liberia traded stories, he decided last year that he'd visit after completing business school.

When he did so, in January, Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration inspired him to register his company in Liberia. He wrestled with options for a few months. Then his employer, Bell South, offered a generous voluntary severance package. That, along with the house he sold, was a sign, he says, that he should make a permanent jump.

Within weeks of moving here in August, he had landed two contracts, and says he may soon need new staff to meet the demand for Web development and IT services. Many offices,located in crumbling buildings that evoke a more prosperous past, have power for only a few hours per day because of the high cost of running generators. Still, business needs for an online presence – which most in Liberia don't yet have – are pressing.

The skilled arrivals go "beyond bringing in new capital," Allen says. "The real value is the transfer of knowledge, and that you can't measure in dollars."

Roberts says he "wouldn't trade it for the world."

Eda Henries, who fled when she was 6 and eventually attended Georgetown University in Washington, also moved back in August. She's starting a farm on family land that sat unused for decades. With the help of her uncle, who studied agriculture at Purdue University, she's turning 25 acres of the 150-acre forest property into fields for cassava, hot peppers, and potato greens, a Liberian staple. The business will produce, package, and ship hard-to-get food products to Africans living in the US, while providing jobs locally.

A city girl from her teen years in New York, Ms. Henries says she misses things like Target and Starbucks, and that working in the undeveloped countryside took getting used to. But, she says: "Once you realize the potential of this place, you don't have time to worry about bugs."

Her sister arrived last month to help. "It seems like half of her ninth-grade class has moved back and are starting or restarting businesses," says Henries.

Some Liberians are thinking of moving their families back. Computer engineer Augustus Payne left his wife and two young daughters in Minnesota a year ago for his first visit since 1991. He planned to start a consulting business that he could run from Minnesota, but ended up buying land for a house. "I was impressed with all the construction going on, and I didn't want to feel left out," he says.

But after deciding that the land, overlooking a lagoon, was too small, he set up a restaurant. It's been doing brisk business. In June, things were going so well that he started adding hotel rooms that will open this fall. He'd like to move back permanently, but his wife is concerned about their children's education. For him, the motivation is simple, he says: "I want to reconnect with my people."

One woman's plan for tourists

Hesta Baker-Pearson is on a mission. With a Messianic zeal to attract tourists to the palm-fringed beaches, virgin rain forests, and cultural history of this forgotten country, this pioneer moved both her 6- and 13-year-old sons from the leafy Atlanta suburbs to Liberia's devastated capital, Monrovia, this summer – 26 years after she left – to start the bimonthly magazine Liberia Travel & Life.

Years ago, after more than a decade in publishing, she found herself at a convention in Florida watching as a Nigerian businessman reviewed a pie chart of the billions of tourist dollars spent per continent. Only 1 percent was spent in Africa. "Africa is so rich, but the people are so poor," she thought. "Something must be wrong."

She decided to bide her time, save, and then return to do for her country what she knows how to do best.

It hasn't been easy. There's little functioning infrastructure. Some hotel and restaurant owners aren't sure it's worth it to buy ads in the magazine. Stifling bureaucracy has been a frustration. Finding a decent school was tough. One son was chased home the other day: Other kids heard his accent and said, "Ah, white boy."

"Sometimes I have to close my eyes to the negative and focus on the positive," she says. "It is a sacrifice, but it will lead to a sustainable economy for Liberia. This country is so beautiful."

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