Friday, February 24, 2006

Off to Ghana for a week. I will post some photos as soon as I get back.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006



Naming Your Town

Classic Liberian dialogue: "What's this town name?"


"What's your name?"

"William Faulkner."


Home Sweet Home

I'm back in Monrovia for a few days, and will be in Ghana next week on leave. There is something comfortable about coming back home to the Nigerian APC sitting out front. It just helps you sleep easier at night.



Just a friendly health reminder for everyone at home.

Sunday, February 19, 2006



Across the River

After taking a day to dry out from my last patrol, I set out this Wednesday to the town of Gboata, lying on the border of Liberia and Guinea. It is a small town, of maybe one or two hundred people. Its market day, so the town chief is out. We sit down and meet with the school principal, instead. By the looks of the town, all the adults are at the market, as we are quickly surrounded by dozens of kids, and two adults. After a while, two teenagers show up as well. The principal teaches in a school on the edge of town, with about one hundred fifty students. Both he and the five teachers who work for him are all 'volunteers'. Although obstinately working for the government, they just laugh when asked if they’ve been paid.

This is all too common a problem. In Monrovia, there are a number of slightly odd signs about, which warn "stop bribery in our schools." According to our security guards here in Gbarnga, this is the only way that the teachers make a living, by letting their pupils purchase better grades from them. The children of our guards, however, are all lucky enough to be able to send their kids to schools run by various missionary organizations. There, the teachers are paid, and the quality of their education is much better. But in the smaller towns, the residents aren't so lucky. You would hope that in the bush, all the residents of a town would gang to support the teacher, and in theory, this is what does happen. But the reality is that when the teachers are put in the position of depending on others for survival, they tend to show more leniency to the families that help them a little bit more.

Surprisingly, the town does have some promising government presence of a different kind. The far edge of town is manned by two officals, one who works for the Liberian customs agency, and the other who works for immigration. They even have a little gate crossing the road, and a Liberian flag on a crooked, twenty foot long bamboo pole to make it all look official.

The closest operable market for the town is across the river, in Guinea, so today, on market day, a large number of people will head over there to sell coffee and coconuts and cola nuts. The market is also better stocked than most in Liberia, allowing them to buy second hand clothing and batteries and little cubes of chicken soup. The customs agent reports that he dutifully writes down the names of everyone crossing the border in his book, and that nobody who doesn't live nearby crosses the border there. Only locals, he says, about ten or fifteen on market day. The rest of the week, it's quiet.

We have them join us in the truck, and we drive the one kilometer past the town, and to the river. The river however is currently just a large creek. A huge tree lies across the water, just to the side of the road. We get out of the truck and run across. Too easy. We look back at the river and comment that I'll bet people can drive across. Of course, they reply, no problem. The water is less than two feet at its deepest, so Liu and I try to gauge how firm the sand is. "I'll try it," proclaims Liu and he demands the keys from me. He runs back across, starts up the car, and promptly drives into Guinea.

We had noticed a couple people up the road a little further, and while we were messing around at the border, a minivan full of about twenty people with five feet of cargo on the roof stops up there, and they begin to unload. We jump into the car and try to drive on by. An old man, who had been there from the start, keeps waiving us over and yelling something at us, so I park and we get out, next to the van. Nestor, another team member starts rattling off in French with the man, and promptly informs us he is Guinean customs.

We try and negotiate our way past him, wanting to drive up a mile to check out the market. He refuses so we throw a load of questions at him, through our interpreter. He claims much the same; that no one comes by except on market day, and even then only ten or so. Another vanload of people arrives, and they start unloading, waiting patiently to have their stuff checked. It appears the standard procedure involves the customs agents at check through the baggage, which is quite promising. The agent tells us he checks for weapons and drugs. When I ask about people smuggling gold or diamonds, would he notice those, he waves me off, "they use the main road."

We bid farewell, and return back across the border. The two Liberian agents have taken their places on a couple previously unseen wooden chairs, waiting for the people to cross, sitting upright, and trying their best to look official. At least they're trying.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Forty Workers to the Rescue

Several days ago, a patrol in the south east extreme of our sector came back with news of a gold mine not too far from the town of Rock Crusher, where they had been. The problem is that the town of Sega is inaccessible to our vehicles, and is about a two hour walk from the furthest extent of the drive. The locals also bragged about a nearby waterfall, not too far from the mines, said to be the largest in Liberia. None of the towns are on any of the maps we have, and the area is completely untouched by the UN. Immediately, Shahab and I started making plans.

We decided to go with a four man patrol, with two people staying with the vehicle, and two of us on a foot patrol to the mines and then the waterfall. We gather plenty of food for a full day, and set out at 0630 on Monday morning. It is three hours down to Rock Crusher, and we arrive a little after 0930. Asking directions to the waterfall, the locals point down the lane of empty stalls that are used for the local market once a week. Curiously, we drive through the narrow lane, worried about knocking down the feeble structures with our big, white SUV. After making our way through there, and rounding a couple houses, a small path shows itself in the grass, and that quickly opens up into a full-fledged road. Its no wonder previous patrols ever discovered the road, without three locals insisting that there is a road there; you never would have noticed it. We blast out of Rock Crusher with the GPS recording the path of our new-found route. I wonder how many other hidden roads lay waiting to be discovered on the opposite sides of towns we fly by every day.

We pass through three little villages, tucked away into this little corner of Liberia, each time asking for the waterfall, and each town verifying that the end of the road is Kpallah. Through each village, the road continues to get sketchier. As evidence of how little this are is traveled, the road never continues through the towns. We just have to wind through the huts in the direction the townspeople point us toward, and the road eventually picks up again on the other side. Nearly four hours into the trek, we pull into Kpallah. The village of Sega is an hour and a half to two hours walk from here, with the waterfall another thirty minutes to an hour past that. We pull our bags out and ready ourselves for the hike. Berhanu lets us know that he is going with us, so we decide to leave Nestor with the truck.

According to the guidebooks, Liberia is covered by two types of terrain, broadleaf forest, and grassland. The term grassland is deceptive, however, as the grassland is covered with a thick tangle of bushes and vegetation which rise about ten feet high. The area is still fairly heavily forested, with dozens of trees, coconut, pineapple, banana and rubber, springing up every acre. The primary difference between the two types of cover is that in one the canopy is forty feet above your head, in the other, you walk through the thick of the jungle canopy. But Liberia is also a fundamentally humid place. There is no escaping the 80% humidity, and many mornings we awake and drive to breakfast through some of the thickest fog imaginable. Although the fog will burn off by early morning, the rest of the humidity hangs in the air, and leads to generally overcast days. If you take a look at some of the aerial photos from my helicopter patrol, the distance is quickly obscured by clouds, destroying the possibility of nice clear photography.

The reason this is important is shade. On our foot patrol last week, we were blessed by the overcast Liberian skies. Although the temperature was in the high eighties, and we were certainly soaked with sweat from our two hour walk, we were able to survive quite well. On Monday, however, the skies were mostly open, and unlike the western part of our AOR, this was grasslands, not proffering much in the way of shade. The temperature was in the low nineties, and I’m sure the heat index would have been well over a hundred.

We set off from Kpallah, with one man as our guide. We start our march south, making good time over the nice wide trail. We quickly cross a stream on two thick tree trunks, and make our way up a steady hill. The trail curves slowly to the east and then back south after passing through a small village of a dozen huts. Ten minutes into the journey, a stream of sweat, building up on my forehead, rolls down, and lands solidly my glasses. Another falls down before I can clear my distorted vision. I remove the glasses. We make our way across the endless litany of hills and descents, and wind our way south. Occasionally a felled tree lies across the path, requiring us to pause, and exert ourselves to climb over. We cross three more creeks, each time balancing on a thin tree trunk bending under each step. A little over five kilometers and one hour into the trek, we pause as a second village, this time of four homes. We are informed that Sega is only a half hours walk from here, and we press further.

The trails back into the bush are covered in a large variety of butterflies, constantly swarming around. They are predominantly quite small, most less than one inch in length. The most common have black wings will two yellow stripes down them. There are dozens of others, green and red and blue and orange. At one point along this path, I step on a small branch, half the length of my foot, and two dozen, tiny little black and orange butterflies scatter every which way. They are minute, all around a quarter inch in length, and they fly in a tight little flock, pouncing together on random parts of the track in large groups.

The sun has been dominating us, as we move under small blocks of shade and heat, and it is taking its toll. The path pushed relentlessly upward, somewhat steep for the first distance after the second village. The ground levels off a bit, gives me some temporary relief, and continues to push upwards. Another large felled tree, this time several feet in diameter requires us to take a detour off the main path and around it. We pause for a little food about twenty minutes into this leg just before a final small stream. I eat a cookie, but I am sweating so hard that I can’t salivate. I try to drink some water, but the crumbs absorb all the moisture and I can’t wash it all down. I take a second cookie, and decide that’s enough. We get back up, and finish the five minute walk to Sega. We enter a small clearing of three houses, but our guide directs us to the left, and we soon enter the main village, with more than twenty building.

The townspeople soon gather around to gawk at the three drenched, soaking visitors. Suffering from severe heat exhaustion, I lie down on the first shaded bench I can find, and ask Shahab to take the villagers over somewhere else to interview them. I stay there and try to cool down and recover slightly. Too quickly, Shahab, Berhanu and several of the town’s men return. I am not in good enough condition to continue the additional half hour to the waterfall, but the gold mine is only about five minutes away. I’m feeling good enough to make it there, so I ask our guide if he will carry my pack.

We head out on a tiny path, with about four men having just joined us. Two of them were just walking out of the jungle with shovels and a flat metal pan, but turn back to lead us to their workplace. After a few hundred meters, the jungle opens enough to allow room for three or four small holes in the ground, each five to ten feet square, and filled with water. They direct us past, and crawling over a few more, we reach a slightly larger clearing, with a dozen more similar holes. Four more guys are at the back of this one, shovels in hand, watching as we arrive. Some of our guides shout something in Kpelle, and the workers set aside their shovels, and make their way over to us.

The holes are three or four feet deep, and all about the same size. There is one trough laying next to one, with several pieces of carpet in it, similar to the one we had seen in Dean’s Town, but smaller, to be used for separating the gold and the mud. In the town, when we had asked what they do for work, the answer had been, ‘farming.’ Shahab had directly asked how many people worked at the mine, and the reluctant answer betrayed their feelings about us knowing about the mine. If we had not known about it before hand, we probably never would have found it. The workers here are similarly reluctant. They are not hostile, but unlike Dean’s Town, where the workers had proudly showed us the process, here the answers are more tentative. They don’t volunteer anything until directly asked. Answers are as short and direct as possible.

They claim that the boss man is in Monrovia, where he sells the gold. Of course they have a government permit for the mine, despite the fact that the county mining agents we had interviewed had never volunteered this location to us. The workers claim that they will pull out maybe one or two grams of gold per week, but we have the feeling that the mine is a little more productive than that. The workers are paid L$500 for each gram, and are supported by the local village for food. According to what they volunteered, this accounts for a weekly income of $8-15 US that is split between the eight workers.

We pack up and thank them for their time. What hopes I had that I might make it to the waterfall have been dashed by the twenty minutes of standing, so we split up. Shahab and Berhanu heading off with two guides to check that out, and I head back to Sega to rest. Reaching town, I sit in an open, covered structure with a bunch of children and a couple of the towns women. I negotiate for a small bunch of bananas, and pay them about fifty cents after they refuse to take any money for it. I eat one, and spend my time taking photos of the kids playing. One baby is deathly afraid of the white man, and starts crying every time I look his way or wave at him. Each time, his mother laughs and then starts feeding him to shut him up. She keeps trying to encourage him, and this process repeats every twenty minutes. Two of the boys pull out two baby opossums to play with. One mother, probably a couple years younger than I, informs me that they are having some ‘bush meat’ for dinner. I try to tell her that you should not let the children play with the animals like that, because they carry disease. She dismisses me. A little later, a little girl, of about five comes back over, this time playing with a large beetle as if it is a doll. At one point she even puts it in her mouth. Every time I take a picture, I turn on the preview on the back of the camera, and show them the photo. People will come running from across the village to crowd around and take a look at the little, three inch photo.

The townspeople ask me about help. They need clean drinking water, a school, a clinic, a lot of the same complaints that we hear in most villages. We try to tell them that if they fix the road, then NGOs will come. But they don’t go places unless they can drive there. We insist that the trail could be easily fixed, and the locals tell us that it had been a road before the war.

After an hour and a half the others return. They are desperate for a rest, and we hit the trail back home after twenty minutes. It is after two, and we want to make it back to the car by four so we can be home by dark. Once again, our local guide takes my bag, and for the first bit, we are going strong. I completely don’t recognize the trail for the first half hour. It is still quite wide, big enough to drive a car down if the bridges were repaired and the trees cleaned up. It is quickly apparent that the road was not only allowed to fall into disrepair, but had been broken on purpose. Because of the gold mines, and in order to protect the town, the village cut itself off from the outside. It is apparent from looking at several of the felled trees that they were cut down, with the nice straight cut mark that tells of a power saw. At the mine, several of the workers had said that there was no mining there during the war. But, later, one other had pointed to the first few holes, and tells me they are from the war. Maybe he meant before the war, it is hard to tell. But, whether or not it worked, Sega had tried to insulate itself from the rest of the country. But now, it is struggling with the consequences of that decision, and I’m sure, trying to decide what the likelihood of more war in the future if they do repair the road.

We get to the second village, one third of the way back, and moving quite a bit slower than before. We collapse there and rest for ten minutes, before pushing onward. The hills are not significant, and according to our GPS track we never climb or fall much more than 200 feet, but the road is killing us. We wind through the bush, for forty five minutes more. Along the entire path, there are lots of little trails branching off every several hundred meters, each time diverting into the real bush. Here, where we are walking, it is cleared, nice and wide, but the small footpaths dodge off to the right and left. Most of them go to small farms. Not too big, though, not much more than what we would consider a small garden. Like the rest of Liberia, much of them are wild cassava, cocoa nut, banana trees and the rest. The agriculture remains little more than hunter-gatherer in nature. Some of the more sophisticated farms are small fields of rice, which require careful irrigation. But I see little evidence of these along this route, nothing is directly on it. Just small paths to the scattered farms.

We make it to the first village, now two thirds way back to the vehicle, but just about unable to go on. The GPS informs us that it is only 2.1km, straight line, but there is a long slow curve, adding significantly to the hike. We press on, only to have me call another halt halfway. Now we have 1.4km straight. Berhanu surprises us by pulling out a box of pineapple juice, having hid it from all of us this entire time. We down the box, and summon the courage to finish. When we finally make it back to Kpallah, and the vehicle, it took us three hours to retrace a path we covered in little more than ninety minutes that morning. With the tree of us in bad shape, we decide to let the new guy drive us back. It is a little after four, and we should be able to make it most of the way back to the teamsite by dark. We pull out of the village, and three minutes later, come to a narrow bridge, about fifteen feet long, and composed of seven or eight logs. It is just wide enough for our car, but we send someone out to guide him. They get their signals crossed, and we wind up with our front right tire hanging precariously off the bridge.

We’re stuck. We switch drivers, but the weight of the vehicle is now sitting on the front differential, and we won’t move anywhere. We scavenge a few decent sized logs and attempt to place them under the front tire, but we can’t find anything long enough. We get something in front of the tire, and try and go forward and get it back onto the bridge, but quickly break the half-rotted log.

One half hour into this, it starts raining. Hard. I pull out my light raincoat, but I guess I’m the only one with the foresight to always carry one with me. One hour ago, the cool rain would have felt good. But now, we’re already drenched with sweat, and we have a little more than an hour before dark. We continue to work on the car, and move it backwards, almost off the bridge, but then another temporary log breaks. The embankment to the creek is vertical, about five feet, and we can’t prop anything under it to get the tire on something solid for traction. With all the weight hanging forward and right, the other tires just spin when we try and move the thing. We repair back into the vehicle for a five minute break, and to share a hot MRE four ways. We continue to try to wrestle logs that weigh more than we can lift in our condition, to make some sort of progress.

Shortly after we got stuck, two women carrying baskets on their heads had passed by us, and they apparently had spread word that we needed help. Over an hour after getting stuck, a hoard of thirty to forty Liberian men shows up, all at once. They throw themselves at the problem, and within thirty seconds, four of them are carrying one really nice log from well into the forest that we had desperately needed. A little while another one arrives. We quickly back off, with Shahab behind the wheel to try and back whenever the locals want us to give another try. I spend much of my time, sitting on the bridge, just watching the chaos. There are men everywhere, shouting and gesturing and pointing. They try having twenty people just push the car, with many of them lifting up on one corner. The put logs in various places. Rocks several times the size of my head are found and heaved into place. They try rebuilding part of the foundation. They try placing the jack in several different places. But every time we try and back the vehicle, it doesn’t move. Instead, the spinning of the three tires instead causes some torque spin, with the rear of vehicle slowly inching right, with every try. Shahab and I are worried that when we get the thing off the bridge, it will be at an angle pointed off the road, where we can'’t straighten it out again to get across the bridge.

We have no radio comms to inform our team where we are, and that we are stuck. We are running dangerously low on fuel, and are tired. It is now well after dark, and even if we get it on the road, we have a three hour drive ahead of us. The most bizarre part of the night came when I was sitting on the edge of the bridge, watching the work. I see a figure on the opposite side of the road climb up the embankment from the creek, not using their hands. I realize it’s a woman, with two cats under her arms. She crosses the road, steps by me, crosses the bridge, and disappears into the darkness. What she was doing down in the creek with the workers, and why she had two cats, I don’t know.

The Liberians have been slaving away for several hours, and are still working tirelessly, shouting back and forth in Kpelle. Even if we had the energy to help, we wouldn’t understand what they were saying and would be more of a nuisance than a benefit, so we just stand back and appreciate the help. They dig out a significant amount of dirt, and add foundation for a log under the bridge. Working with just two flashlights, the rain continues to pour. At one point a couple other Liberians come walking down the road, carrying some produce in bags. The others start shouting, “help a brother out! Help a brother out!” and the new workers throw themselves into the operation. More than four and a half hours into it, with nearly a dozen people pushing, the vehicle finally grips, and begins to pull itself out. A cheer goes up. We get off the bridge, and back up.

At this point, we still need to get over it. It is pitch dark, so with Shahab driving, I slowly marshal it across. I have two Liberians, one on each side of me holding a flashlight on each front tire. Shahab has the parking lights on, trying to make out my directions without blinding me. The bridge is just barely wide enough for the car, and we have both tires perched on the crown of the two outside logs. We inch the car across, making adjustments more than once every foot. We finally get across.

We gather everyone around, and thank them for their help. Its nine o’clock, and we can make it home by just after midnight, but nobody is too happy with driving after dark. Their leader informs me that he is hurt, so I give him some first aid, and thankfully it’s just a shallow cut. The four of us, thank them again, and give them some “small, small”. I gave them $20 US, and the rest a little less than that. Still, that’s two weeks worth of labor at the gold mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Into the Bush

The nice thing about Liberia is that you never get lost; you’re simply exploring areas that don’t exist on any accurate map. The official, printed maps are horrible, with roads that don’t exist, and town names that are simply incorrect, where anything is there. Instead, our team relies completely on a large hand drawn map in our office, which has been definitive. It isn't to scale, but it does show the roads and towns that are there.

So, this past Wednesday, on patrol, Shahab and I headed north to the Guinea border to check out any smuggling activities going on. Heading about 60 km north, we run in to a platoon of Bangladeshis who are escorting some government officials to remote towns, and talking to the villagers about the importance of securing Liberia’s borders. The country has no armed police force, no border security or army, and only about 100 cops for the entire county. The only enforcement is the local people, and we rely on them to inform us if they see anything suspicious.

After sitting in an open hut in the town of Shamkpalai listening to the conversation, which was taking place mostly in the Kpelle language, we hop back into the car to continue to Darninia. We pass a nice clinic on the outskirts of town heading north. We cross bridges that get ever more sketchy, and I start sending Shahab out to check each one. He’ll walk on a tree trunk, and after it quivers too much, he'll note the more sturdy one laying next to it, and marshal me onto the good ones. The road, which as this point was passable, starts dwindling down; it soon is little more than a footpath. I place one front tire on the path, and let the other meander across the grass, and we soon pull into Lawah. We get out and start asking the locals how to get to Darninia, as we’ve reached the end of the road. They tell us it is a three hour walk, and vehicles can’t go there. We ask about getting to Kolonta, which should be on the way; and they tell us we can drive there, but we missed the junction at Shamkpalai.

We head back to the clinic, and after asking a few nurses, spot the alternate road to Kolonta. It’s not a road really, just another footpath, but the jungle has been cleared, giving a nice wide berth to drive down. Just slightly wider than a car. After marking our spot on the GPS, we launch westward. For the first time, we’ve spotted a gross inaccuracy in the team map, and we’re still not sure where everything is. The trail is actually quite nice for a vehicle. Unlike the mud roads that soon accumulate ravines and potholes in the rainy season; the grass keeps the ground flat. From time to time the jungle closes in on us, and tree branches reach out and lash at the paintjob. We pass one steep clearing, where dozens of trees have been cut down, and a small stack of nicely planed boards lays next to the road. Four miles along the trail, we pull into a town of two dozen houses. For the first times on patrol, I immediately feel a little uneasy. The town is completely full of women, even the children are only girls. One mother is feeding her baby as our white UN mammoth pulls out of the jungle and into the town. The people just kind of stare at us, completely startled by our sudden presence.

We ask a few women the town name, and after much wraggling, confirm that we'’ve reached Kolon’s Town. A couple teenage boys show up, and we ask the way to Darninia. The vehicle can’t go there, they inform us, a one hour walk. Shahab looks at me expectantly, “you ready for a hike?” We grab our bags, unload unnecessary stuff and grab our extra water. Our two guides launch ahead, and we’re off into the bush. For two miles, we roll over hills, wind through the trees and hop over streams. The footpath is quite nice, and fifty minutes later, we roll into yet another village, the fabled Darninia. We round up some villagers (strangely enough, this town is completely men) and sit down to quiz them on the border. The border is along the river, another hour walk. But, when they cross into Guinea, the locals head back a ways to yet another village, three hours away, as there’s no canoe at the closer area. I think both of us are disappointed that it’s getting late and we don’t have the time to go and actually cross ourselves. That'’ll have to wait for another patrol.

The villagers subsist on fairly basic agriculture, bringing palm oil and food to Guinea to trade for clothing and some other small goods. The closest market is across the border in Guinea, so that’s where they bring their goods. We ask about some of the geography and locations of other villages. We quiz them on what all people bring across the border, and if they’ve seen suspicious activity, or large numbers of non-locals. Finished with our reportage, we ask if they have any pineapples or bananas to sell. The answer is negative, and our stomachs grumble in anger.

We set off back to the vehicle, and get to a junction that the boys had informed us was an alternate route back, but hilly. We ask about taking the alternate route back, and our guides just giggle at us. Nervous about our hosts’ reactions to the route, we confer about what to do. Somewhat apprehensively, I ask Shahab, “you want to take the adventurous one, don’'t you?” His confirmation settles that, and we off, back the long way. We wind through a different set of trees and over various other creeks. This route is a little more informative, and we pause to check out some palm trees that have been felled for harvesting, and the palm oil that is being pulled out, some being made into wine. We meet a woman and her two small kids living in an open shelter, nothing more than a thatch roof over some open wooden supports. They have a bunch of dried prawns lying in a pan next to the fire, which they fish from the streams. Soon after, the boys stop to grab some raw cassava root, and promptly start peeling it with some pocket knives. I grab a little for myself. Its texture is somewhere between an uncooked potato and a tree branch. Surprisingly enough, it tastes like a tree branch. As we rumble alone the path, small grains of wooden blandness sit in my mouth; I down a half liter of water to wash it away. Fifty three minutes later, we emerge back into Kolon-ta, every inch of our uniforms soaked with sweat.

During much of the war, the entirity of the local populations fled Liberia, crossing into Guinea, Sierra Leon and elsewhere. The fighting followed many of them. Now, nearly three years after Charles Taylor was forced into exile, the population is just now reestablishing itself. Most of the villages are still waiting for the fruits of their first harvest, and many are still subsisting on the backs of the United Nations WFP. I press many of the town chiefs to get a feel for the number of people still missing. They never want to offer an estimate, as many will never return. Thousands have decided to try Monrovia, different parts of Liberia, received invitations to resettle in the US, or have been killed. My feeling is that 80-90% of Liberians have returned, but many are still flowing back. A recent trip to the Liberian office for Refugees and IDPs showed hundreds still returning to Bong County each month. I spoke with a nice kid, Joseph, today, who returned to Gbarnga only two weeks ago. But Joe spoke of the DR Congo, and of Zimbabwe and of Sudan. Despite the appearance UN peacekeepers there, war still ravages on. He tells me Liberians, on the other hand, are tired of war. Liberia will be fine, now. A sentiment I’ve heard a hundred times since I’ve been here.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Hunting Gold

30 Jan 06

Last week, Monday, we set out for Dean’s Town, which was known to be home to a large number of large gold mines over the past couple of decades. Dean’s town is in the far east section of our AOR, and nearly three hours drive, 120km from the team site. We set off early in the morning, and one hour away, we came across the destroyed bridge shown below. We got out, spent twenty minutes figuring what had happened, and checking up on the situation. After crossing the temporary bridge, we were back on our way, turning East, crossing through Money Sweet-ta and a dozen similar villages. We hit another road and head southwest along the old railway for about twenty minutes before reaching another artery and cross what remains of the rails. Through another two villages, at the second one we stop to confirm directions. In a town with twenty or more houses, there is one old man in the ghost town. We call him to confirm the village name, and the fifty year old springs up with the spryness of an eight year old, bounds across the hundred yards that separate us to welcome his visitors. His enthusiasm for any sort of human companionship made me feel bad for only wanting to get a town name and jump back into the car. He wants to know my name, and welcome us in. I shake his hand, exchanging the traditional Liberian greeting, reversing the handshake, loosening and half releasing until you are just holding his four fingertips and then snapping our middle fingers as we pull our hands away. It feels odd, engaging in what I consider a third grade secret handshake with every Liberian and respectable elder.

I pile back in to the Nissan Patrol, and ten kilometers later we roll into a weird oasis. We’ve reached an apparent gold company mining camp, several large concrete buildings, electrical wires running between them, an HF radio antenna and air conditioners hanging out of the windows. But what really caught our attention was a shining yellow Caterpillar tractor.

The saddest thing you note around here is any means for carrying burdens except for human beings. In Monrovia, just up from the Gabriel Tucker Bridge, always you pass two kids probably not more than ten, pulling a cart, by hand, of a hundred gallons of water up the steep hillside to sell downtown. On Yesterday’s patrol, between villages we passed a column of over twenty kids, each carrying one piece of corrugated aluminum sheeting, four feet by eight feet. The train was nearly a half mile long, carrying a load five miles or more, for what amounts to enough roofing for one small house. One thing this country could use is a simple beast of burden, something other than dozens of children.

So for us to see a tractor, especially one in working shape, is a rare order. We get out of the truck and ask for the manager. Apparently there is one man working there. A geologist, trained in the states, is collecting samples in preparation for opening up some mechanical mining in the area after the embargo is lifted. We sit down with him for nearly an hour, asking about the region, who is mining there, etc. He claims that although his company has exclusive rights to the area, there is plenty of mining done by the people in town, half a kilometer up the road. The company doesn’t want to kick everyone off their land, as they have to work around there. We thank him for his time and head into Dean’s town.

At the edge of the village, we pick up the local pastor, and he helps us find the Town Chief, Mining Inspector and the Justice of the Peace. The mines draw plenty of ex-combatants for work, and they quickly earn a little money, get drunk and cause trouble. The Justice of the Peace complains to us quite loudly about how there is no order in the town and no respect for the law. There is frequent fighting, but no weapons, and no organized gangs. There is no Liberian National Police (LNP) presence, and the UN Peacekeeping troops only do infrequent patrols.

The Mining Inspector is young, maybe early twenties, and he assures us that there is no illegal mining in the area. There are about seven legal claims, of which two are active, and of course, there’s no alluvial mining at all. His talk of two mines confirms the claim by the company employee of two primary leads being followed. We pile back into the car with the Mining Inspector, and head out of town, to check out the mines. We pass several open areas, were large dirt holes show evidence of human mining activity, but they all look somewhat abandoned. We pull up to the one mine that is working today, and we meet the miner and some of his workers lounging next to the mine.

The mine itself is incredible, about a forty foot hole in the ground, with about a dozen workers in it, digging it by hand. The thick heavy clay of the Liberian soil is damp, and some water collects in the bottom of the mine. A number of workers are toiling away with hand shovels, taking some dirt, and tossing it up, ten feet to the next terrace as the soil works it’s way up. The bottom of the mine will quickly fill with water, so a pump is used to dry it out, and siphon the water into small pools on the side that’s used to process the ore and separate the gold.

We move over to one of the the pools, where three women are standing in knee deep water, taking the dirt, and panning it in large bowls. They remove the aggregate, and look for some small flakes of gold. The washed soil is then piled next to a still, which is a ten foot long run of wood. The mine workers place a wheelbarrow basket with large holes in it at the top of the still, and put small woolen rugs along the length of still. Two additional workers stand at the top, one shoveling dirt into the top, and the other throwing water over it, periodically stopping to check for flakes of gold. In the half hour we are there, the women find some, as do the men at the still.

The mine workers operate in teams of about five to fifteen, with one boss man directing the work. Each team operates the full length of the process, first pulling the dirt out of the mine and then washing it to look for the gold. When they get lucky, a team will clear about one gram of gold in one day. The miner pays the boss man 500 Liberian dollars (or about $9 US) for each ounce, but then takes back 200 LD because he feeds all the workers. So for one day of extremely physical labor, the mine workers are luck to have $5 US to split between the team, with the boss man deciding how much each person’s share is at the end of the week. It will average to a little more than fifty cents a day, depending on the type of labour you do. One worker I interrogate admits to making about 1500 LD, or about $27 US in the past month. The miner tells us there are about forty people working at his mine, and we see three teams in action, one digging, and two washing their dirt. [See photos below]

We spend a while talking and joking with the mine workers. All of them are ex-combatants, and they inform us that they are simply re-processing the same mine that the LURD had exploited during the war. These mines were a key source of financing for the rebels, but they had dug through it very quickly, and were not very through. The mine workers inform us that one of their number had been a general for Charles Taylor [see photo of him with Shahab below]. He is currently 21, and had joined the rebels when he was eleven, and had been elevated to the rank of general by thirteen. The shy figure looked away, obviously annoyed for being called out. When Shahab asked him how he became a general so quickly, the other mine workers shouted “because he was good at killing” while everyone else enjoyed the laugh.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Photos from the Gold Mine


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