Saturday, July 4, 2009

Don't raze me, Broh

Monrovia has an opinionated and controversial mayor, a woman whose idea of leadership involves bulldozing the informal sector -- literally. Of course, "informal sector" is really a bland euphemism for the poorest of the poor. People who "belong" to the informal sector often live on less than $1 a day with little or no access to health care or education, and do not know where their next meal is coming from.

What little they do have is often transitory -- a plastic bag of belongings, a mattress if they're lucky, or for the truly fortunate, a shop or shelter built out of discarded planks and hammered out tin. Mayor Mary Broh, as you can read in this article, intends to clean up Monrovia by knocking them down. With logic I need to have explained to me, she believes this will encourage people who fled to Monrovia during the war -- and stayed -- to go "back where they came from."

In classic blame-the-victim style, she claims that the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world "want to stay in the city and slum ... because they are just too lazy. Nobody wants to go back to the soil. Laziness is the root of this whole thing." Here's what it looks like:

A week ago, we were dropping a friend off after beers in town and turned off the main road towards his compound on the beach. On the way, we passed shacks where people lived and worked, showing Nigerian movies for a small fee or selling rice and soup to passersby. The blare of Nollywood drama and the light from small lamps cut through the darkness as we drove, winding our way through a dusty football pitch and along the beach.

Last weekend, we were supposed to collect the same friend on our way to Robertsport, only a bulldozer blocked the road and a crowd of silent people had assembled. "You're going to have to walk here, man," Nate told him on his mobile. "It looks like they're bulldozing your street today." We parked a reasonable distance away and, taking turns and making sure we stayed in each others' line of sight, went to see what it looks like when what little people have is demolished by a Caterpillar. It felt Palestinian.

So why am I smiling? My future roommate made this shirt, which cost $8 and is silkscreened on a secondhand H&M t-shirt he bought from the market. My $8 purchased my shirt -- and a free shirt for one of the men or women who live in or run businesses from the shacks. And I wore it out to a fun Liberian party last night, all pretty and political.

We dropped the same friend off last night and his street is now empty, broken signboards and pieces of demolished lives littering the dust, no lights from people who were just trying to make their way. I wonder where they're sleeping.


  1. just wanted to post here too, since (as i said on nate's blog) i think i've been remiss in commenting (and other than invective hurled at nate in email to blog *more* haven't really been too vocal)

    but... thank you guys both for blogging - it's being read and enjoyed, and both the slice of life stuff as well as the bigger picture commentary are really interesting.

    more pictures please! those are something that it's very hard to get if one's not there, and which adds great context

  2. There are a lot of great blogs about various projects in LIB, recently came across yours. SO happy to see an expat covering the Mary Broh and her "clean up" campaign. Finally some much deserved indignation on the topic publicized!

    I often find myself thinking that I wish Broh (and her buddy ESJ who supports her actions) took to heart Obama's sentiment:

    "People will judge you based on what you build; not what you destroy."

    Thanks for the link to that article!


  3. I heard about this from an African friend who shockingly thought this was a good idea. I wish such people would go walk around their country a little and actually see and meet the poor.

  4. You wonder where they are sleeping? Why not take the $8 US you paid for that shirt and give it to the poor that lost their homes? Better yet, offer them your home. Or, better yet, help them get resettled on land that is actually theirs.

    My mother is working tirelessly to make a better life for the people of Liberia. She has a pretty good idea of what life is like there since she is from there and knows that Monrovia has no business housing more than a third of the country's population. Wearing a shirt that mocks her efforts to clean up a dilapidated city is not very political; I would call it narrow and a bit one-sided.

    Once you can tackle the issue of overpopulation, public health hazards and squatting, you might have a better argument for wearing that shirt. Until then, your money may be better spent elsewhere.

  5. Last I heard, Mary Broh (your mum) ordered her *own* shirt, which is the best reply, don't you think?


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