Saturday, January 21, 2006
The city of Monrovia is a tangle of crumbling concrete buildings, ranging from two to 10 stories tall. Only one of them has glass in its windows, and many are missing the façade and outer wall, with everything exposed but the frame, and pockmarked by bullet holes and years of neglect. Many of the business and most of the schools and government buildings are surrounded by a concrete wall, creating a protective compound to shield it from war. We are convinced that a week and a half ago the country received a shipment of paint, the first in years. Even post-inauguration, the city continues to be painted for the first time in over a decade.
Between the buildings and compounds and the water are crammed a mess of shacks and shelters in which the population of the city live. Most are comprised of a skeleton of wooden poles, roofed with random pieces of corrugated metal, and with walls made of whatever scraps of wood, metal or cloth that could be scavenged. The lucky shop owners have been able to squat in an empty metal freight container, which can be effectively locked to protect whatever worn tires or produce they have in inventory.
So jetting north today in our Nissan Patrol gave me my first wonderful sense of space I’ve had since getting here. After crossing the St Paul River, the next ten miles are an open marsh, with wide pools of water surrounded lush green vegetation. There was a definite sense of people living out there, with dozens of kids swimming in various ponds and streams along the side of the road, but we did not pass too many villages or homes.
A few miles on, we were out into the rain forest that covers much of the country. Villages dotted the countryside, each one a walkable distance from the last. In the most hopeful sign for the country was a very real sense of repopulation of the countryside. At every village we flew by on our way north there were a number of small huts in various stages of construction. There are about three or four primary types of architecture that you see up here. Along the road were a number of mud brick factories, but we only saw a few scattered buildings made from them. Inside Tubmanburg, a town of a couple thousand, the architecture was mostly unchanged. Surprisingly, the town was not very built up, and contained only about a dozen concrete structures, mostly Churches or government buildings, and none more than one story tall.
By far the most prevalent kind of structure is of a mixed, wooden-mud brick construction. Long, narrow tree branches of about a three inch diameter are used to frame the main load bearing points of the house. Then, a grid of thinner poles is used to form the walls, placed in a grid of with about six to nine inch spacing. This is done for all the exterior walls with slightly thicker poles in the vertical and narrower ones lashed horizontally. A thick layer of dried weeds is used for the roof. The frame of the building is plastered with about six inches of mud and allowed to dry.
In a few of the villages about half of the structures were of a simple A-frame construction, with the same reed roof. But, judging by the number of latticed huts being worked on, a significant repopulation of the countryside is underway. A Pakistani Major at the teamsite claimed about 80% have returned to their villages in the area. During the civil war, many different rebel groups would sprout and quickly take large sections of the countryside. It was easy to see how this could be done. Of the dozens of villages scattered through the forest, none held more than one or two dozen families. Exposed and vulnerable, a group of five teenagers with weapons would instantly dominate a village. Give them a means of regularly acquiring gasoline, and they could control an entire region. As a result, the war saw half of the rural population flee to the defensible squalor of Monrovia.
With the UN has come a reestablishment of security for these villages. People have started to filter back, to basic homes, but with space, clean water supply, and the ability to start some basic agriculture. Slash and burn farming was evident in several acre-sized regions of ashes. The agriculture, though, was sparse, little more than small gardens, none more than a quarter acre, interspersed among the huts and rubber trees.
After checking out Brian’s teamsite and Bomi Lake, we turned around and returned to Monrovia by two in the afternoon. I’m sure I’ll be posting a few more pictures of the countryside, but it was nice to return to the relative modernity of our apartment with electricity and air conditioning. With the lush vegetation that covers much of this country; it is unbelievable that it has been destroyed to the point where it has to import most of its food. This country will not be able to go anywhere until it has repopulated the countryside and is able to make the move from its complete dependence on foreign aid, past the point of subsistence farming, to having the infrastructure for a real agricultural economy.