Thursday, March 24, 2011

Open call to African romantic fiction writers!

Thanks to Jeremy at Naijablog for allowing me to repost this content. All you Liberian authors, get to work and represent! I can't wait to see the book covers for the series. -Elie

"Ankara Press is a fresh new voice publishing romantic fiction for the African market. We believe that today’s African woman deserves a romance that reflects the full richness her life. We want to showcase the modern African woman in all her strength and complexity while giving her the tools to shape her own destiny. In our stories, independent, capable women meet handsome, charming men who will respect their choices.

We are seeking strong, original voices who can tell fast-paced and engaging stories. We want scenarios that discard dangerous notions of male dominance, control and manipulation. Above all, we want writers will allow African women to see the best version of themselves in print.

If you think you are just such a writer, contact Chinelo Onwualu at: for submission guidelines.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part III of III)

We welcome guest blogger Matt Jones of MovedtoMonrovia fame for the third installment of his interview, inspired by the must-see Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks, Matt!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.
AC: What are some of the risks and challenges historic architecture faces in Monrovia?

Coleman or Cooper House, Front Street. Original construction date unknown. Photo November 2008.
Matt: Right now, there is basically no value to any historic architecture in Monrovia, from any era. The city's oldest buildings are its most dilapidated, and would even in a much wealthier city take significant resources (and probably regulatory mandate) to see preserved. I've mentioned several times the loss of the Cooper House on Front Street on Coleman Hill downtown. One day it was just gone, and I asked someone about it and they said, well, maybe a better thing will go there. This is not unique to Monrovia by any means, and there is on-going debate everywhere about the merits of preservation and the incursion of the state into property ownership. Personally I think its a shame, and reflects badly on a society.
The rubble of the demolished Coleman House. Photo January 2010.

Overlaid with this lack of appreciation, which I want to stress is prevalent worldwide, is the weight of this history. This is something I can't fully speak to in the situation of Monrovia, especially as a non-Liberian. Do certain groups see settler houses as a sign of oppression, a bitter reminder of a stratified society? Do they see the huge structures of the state-- the Executive Mansion and so forth--in a similar negative way? As a symbol of state largesse? Do they think of these issues at all? Is there pride, or potential pride in the city's heritage, from all eras? I'm optimistic that the potential for a positive appreciation for this heritage exists. Many non-African societies have adopted an academic or ironic approach to architecture from unpleasant eras--the French honor the monarchical past, younger generations in Eastern Europe often adopt Iron Curtain buildings as their own. I don't think these kinds of conversations take place in a milieu like Monrovia, where decisions are based on essential needs and opportunities. I don't think it rises to a level of aesthetic discourse, I think the cultural defense is a challenging one; I think the economic argument, regretfully, is rather weak.

AC: What can citizens can do to support the preservation of historic Monrovia?

Executive Mansion soon after its completion c.1960-65.
For those Liberians who want to make Liberia a better place, I would encourage them strongly to consider the merits of preservation. First of all, it is everyone's heritage, and not just of one strata of society--it is part of the national heritage of Liberia as a whole. Secondly, I think I could defend a decent economic argument that if Liberia's historic architecture is lost, it will have a negative impact on the country's development. I am completely serious when I assert that Monrovia has the latent potential to be a sort of French Quarter of West Africa-- the place a Lagosian or Accran or Dakarian couple goes for a long weekend, in future years and decades when there is a leisure class of urban Africans. If, in the meantime, Monrovia replaces those settler homes and even, I would argue, its mid-century modernist heritage, the city would be undercutting its most distinguishing built assets.
Postcard showing Broad Street dominated by the brand new Ducor Hotel, c. 1960-65

For the time being, although market forces are surely now and will for some time be against them, there is nothing stopping concerned Monrovians from approaching the government for establishing preservative action. This can take the form of citizen action committees, to raise awareness of the issue and get the conversation going. Eventually, it usually takes real money to be able to wrest control of individual properties from those who don't value them, but I think a public discussion about appreciating Monrovia's buildings would actually do a lot to heal old wounds. Sometimes I wonder if Liberians of settler heritage are cautious about honoring that past too much.

AC: What would you like for Liberians to know about their capital's architecture?

Monrovia from the harbor, around World War I.
Matt: What I hope for, is that Liberians see Monrovia as a beautiful city. It might seem silly to talk about it that way, with its potholes and puddles, noisy generators, barbed-wire walls, overflowing squatter communities, and open trash heaps, its clusters of mud-huts, its ruins. But to me there is no question that Monrovia is laid out on a rather dramatic natural situation, bounded by the ocean and the marsh, interrupted with fierce outcroppings of rock. I think in a number of ways, the manner in which Monrovia has been built over the centuries also make it a nice city. And today, although it is far too crowded for its infrastructure, it is still a great little city.
A German postcard showing Broad Street around the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of its architectural heritage and current additions, aside from what I've said already about preservation, it to decide to make the city beautiful when building, and deciding to build (which means, considering saving the structure that exists). This was the attitude that, by many individually and collectively in previous eras, gave us the tiny but handsome settler capital along Broad Street, and the imposing, futuristic campus of Capital Hill, the serene retreat of the Ducor Hotel, and the sleek playfulness of the LBDI Bank in Sinkor. People designed their surroundings to be pleasant, and something to be proud of. I would hope Monrovians can be proud of their city, and its architecture. That's how you take the best of what you have, and make it better.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part II of III)

This is Part II of a three-part series where I interview MovedtoMonrovia's Matt Jones about the city's architecture, inspired by his Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks to Matt for being such a good sport!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: What do you think are some of the most interesting buildings in Monrovia?

Ducor Hotel in its heyday, c. 1960s.
Matt: They say that cities like Berlin and Rome suffer from too much history, and if Africa had such an example of this, I think it might be Monrovia. Monrovia is a small city, heavy with history, which as part of two centuries worth of "layering" that I spoke of above, has produced some remarkable buildings. 

The Ducor is obvious, and might not be my absolute favorite, but it is classic. A rather talented international architect, Neil Prince, who specialized in deluxe hotels, designed the Ducor, and I think he did an incredible job of delicately overlaying the complex upon an absolutely tremendous natural setting on the crown of Snapper Hill, with the pool and tennis court on their own terraces. The whole setting--the panoramas of the ocean and city, down to the winding approach, recalls Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. I wonder if its popularity as an expat pilgrimage is not the post-failed state irony of an abandoned luxury hotel, but the intricacy of the spaces themselves. I hope the hotel's imminent reconstruction preserves this harmony with the location.

Ducor Hall at Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street. Photo January 2009.
For the best of Old Monrovia, I really love the Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street, the block right around Ducor Hall, which is a delightful little mansion and still has a few stained glass windows. Its a wonderful little corner of the city, overlooking the harbor like some New England whaling town's procession of captain's homes. 
 Laundry drying on rocks behind the Star Radio Building, Snapper Hill. The Masonic Temple is at right background. Photo July 2009.
I totally love the abandoned French Embassy on Mamba Point, which is a magnificent example of tropical modernism, and has a very accomplished interaction with the huge basalt rocks on the site. They must have had some sweet poolside diplomatic receptions back in the day. Its gorgeous, I hope it is refurbished one day. It would make an awesome house or small hotel. This might be the handsomest building in the city.
Abandoned French Embassy, UN Drive at Benson Street. The two wings of the modernist residence envelop the pool. Photo May 2009.
If Monrovia is post-colonialism's Rome, then surely the Ministry of Defense in Congo Town must be its Colosseum. Repeating my observations from the Moved2Monrovia architectural tour, I find the duck-billed porte-cochere a fantastically idiosyncratic gesture, especially for a military complex. The courtyard of the structure is an amazing space. There is a sort of meeting area on the top floor which is thoughtfully done. I'm not completely comfortable with the original intentions of the building, and I don't want to be seen as celebrating its vacancy in a detached way, but its a very interesting spot to visit.
The never-occupied Ministry of Defense in Congo Town, with its duck-billed port-cochere. Photo August 2009.
The National Bank Tower opposite the EJ Roye strikes me as a very handsome monolith of raw concrete. It would make a great occupied building--especially if converted into apartments. I hope its deemed structurally sound and someone develops it. I think it would say a lot about Liberia's progress if its tallest buildings ceased to be skeletons.
 A courtroom of the Temple of Justice under refurbishment, March 2010. Originally built by an Italian contractor in the 1960s.
I could go on. The Ministry of Justice, which I believe was designed by Italians, is a very oddly shaped building, but has some truly stunning, modernist courtrooms, which totally changed my opinion about the place--I was lucky to have a tour from a friend last year who was in charge of refurbishing this wing, which I did a post about. The Ministry of Education on Broad Street is sort of an overbearing structure in a sorry state, but I love the open, high, colonnaded gallery shielding the sidewalk, where the daily newspaper and book vendors are. That is a very successful urban space.
Ministry of Educationon Broad Street, with its large, sheltered sidewalk gallery.
AC: What is your favorite African city, from an architectural perspective?
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Matt: That's another tough one to answer, but I think for all the reasons above I would say Monrovia for sure. First of all, I have only been to a handful of African cities--Nairobi, Accra, and Dakar--which are each very different. Dakar is a very romantic city; Accra is like a miniature L.A. in Africa-- I love spending time there, but its very different from Monrovia.

Many of the African cities that I am most curious about, I haven't been to. High on my list is Lagos--a world unto itself, one that has been written about a lot by sociologists and architects like Rem Koolhaas in the last decade, and one that will be, in whatever form, one of the 21st centuries largest concentrations of humanity. Kinshasa, for the same reasons. Conakry and Freetown are supposed to have dramatic natural settings. I would also like to see cities like Kampala and Yaoundé, laid out over hills. I have seen a lot of video footage of Maputo which puts it high on my list. The planned capitals of Abuja and Yammassoukro would be interesting.

It's a great question because there aren't a whole lot of people who embellish an appreciation for African cities, which are most often the results of mercantile trading, colonial administration, and post-colonial politics, and often manifest the dysfunction and inequality of the state and economy, so their tough to love aren't really set out to be pleasing--but I find them fascinating.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part I of III)

A few weeks ago, I came across MovedtoMonrovia, a site developed and written by friend and fellow entrepreneur Matt Jones. His Learn 2 Speak Liberian English entertained me for a solid morning and his blog was full of great content, but it was the Architectural Tour of Monrovia that encouraged me to invite him to share more with us. Introducing Anonymous Country's first ever guest blogger! Thanks again to Matt for being so amenable to all my questions, and for the great images. 

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: How would you summarize Monrovia's architecture?

Matt: Generally speaking, I would separate Monrovia into four categories, that don't necessarily account for all of its built environment, but that encompass the most interesting and important layers of the city, which exist side by side.
National Museum (former legislature) Broad Street. Photo October 2009.

The first is the 19th-century settler architecture, the oldest buildings in the city. The majority are residential; about the only remaining non-residential structure is the National Museum on Broad Street, which had been the Legislature in previous eras. The Masonic Lodge might be a part of this, but its at a totally different style and scale than any other example of settler architecture, and I don't even know when it was first built. This is a heritage very unique to Liberia and one of the city's most singular assets, and something I talk a good deal about on Moved2Monrovia.

Postcard from Monrovia, c. 1970s. On the top left is the Executive Mansion, bottom left shows the EJ Roye Building dominating the vista of the harbor.
Secondly, there is the mid-20th century architecture, first emerging in the boom-time "Open Door" glory days of the Tubman Administration, from 1950s, with occasional additions up to the Doe years. These remain the city's largest buildings, originally built by international design and construction firms to house a greatly expanded state apparatus: the Capitol Hill complex remains the single biggest intervention the country's built appearance; this joined other ministerial buildings on Broad Street, as well as others like City Hall, and JFK Hospital, and especially that surreal manifestation of a one-party state: The E.G. Roye tower, the True Whig Party's foray into real estate speculation, which I understand used to have a lovely auditorium, but I've never seen it.

Episcopal Church Plaza at Ashmun and Randall Streets, formerly a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, built in the 1960s. Photo May 2009.
Relatedly, the international-standard commercial edifices of that period, chief examples being the Ducor Hotel, and several office developments in the center of town, such as the former Chase Manhattan Plaza at Randall and Ashmun Streets.

Postcard of Ducor Hotel atop Snapper Hil, with President JJ Roberts Monument at left. c. 1960s
I own copies of, or have seen, a great number of the photographs that survived from this era, and I have also talked to a number of older Liberians about this, and of course read whatever history I can find. Monrovia was something quite unlike anywhere else in West Africa during in these decades: it was the most orderly, most impressive, most modern city in the region, and a proud symbol of Africans successfully governing themselves just as colonialism was ending. 
The EJ Roye Building, a vacant shell, and on the right the never-completed National Bank Tower. Photo November 2009.
By global, not just regional standards, Monrovia was a remarkably wealthy city, with a 5-star hotel and a Pan Am hub launching daily jets to New York, a local branch of Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, an Embassy Row on Mamba Point with representatives of all the world's great powers. Its hard nowadays to even imagine that era, when Accrans and Conakrians would come to marvel at Monrovia, but those buildings are almost entirely still with us. An adjunct to this category might be that only-in-Liberia class of never-occupied buildings from the later Doe era: the National Bank Tower and the Ministry of Defense, among others. 
The never-occupied National Bank Building, the tallest building in the country. Ashmun Street near Johnson Street. Photo November 2008.
Not very much was built between then and the present, the post-Taylor period, what might be called the "Ellen-boom" which only really got underway in about 2008--the new hotels and supermarkets, the massive new Chinese Embassy, the National Election Commission and other new state construction, and the enormous Nigerian megachurches. Most of this is totally forgettable, but there are a few commendable attempts to enhance the city. I like the LBDI Bank at Sinkor, designed by my friend Sylvanus O'Connor of AEP. He's very creative. Its very uplifting to see new construction around Monrovia, but most of it I just don't find very compelling--and most of it is not designed with any sort of aesthetic respect for itself or its surroundings. These have appeared mainly to answer the service and consumption needs of NGOs, the UN, and ex-pats, and most of time the only intention is to create guarded, air-conditioned office and residential space. 
New Office Building, corner of Newport St and Sekou Toure Avenue, Mamba Point. Photo March 2010.

 LBDI Bank, Sinkor at Tubman Blvd and 9th Street. Designed and built by AEP Consultants of Monrovia. Photo March 2010.
Lastly, what might be called the informal layer, created mostly in the late 20th century, is critical to recognize, and to achieve an understanding of Monrovia. This is what is often called 'architecture without architects.' This is West Point, which is similar to, if more crowded than, it was half a century ago, but also the areas that were mostly uninhabited before the war, both large and small: Fiamah, Wroto Town, Behind JFK, Jallah Town, Plumkor, Jorkpentown, Gaye Town, Chugbor, Slipway, and so on in a great arc around the entire city, from Chocolate Factory, north of Somalia Drive, to Thinker's Village on the eastern fringe of Paynesville's sprawl--quite aside from the tiny infills of squatters all across the city, from Mamba Point to Sinkor. Even before I came to Monrovia for the first time, I would fly over these territories on Google Earth, trying to make sense of them. I've been lucky to spend a lot of time in them since then-- some very dear friends of mine live in Gaye Town, another family in Fiamah.

Gaye Town section of Old Road Sinkor. Photo November 2009.
This is where at least one quarter of Liberia, and the majority of the city, reside: living in mat huts or handmade concrete houses across the metropolitan area. This isn't talked about very much, although I know many Liberians both in public service and private enterprise who are very aware of this situation and wish to address it. These small, marginal enclaves are microscopic compared to the scale of slums in other African cities, but it is hugely important to recognize that Monrovia is a city for 200,000 people with a population of at least 1,000,000. This is where the challenge is for Liberia, and for designers of all types trying to improve lives of African's urban dwellers.

The top of Redemption Road, looking west over Barclay Training Center and Mamba Point. Photo Jan 2010.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mama Liberia sends 2,000 bags to a Milan conference!

The Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op just exported its third bulk order of conference bags, this time to Milan.

The order was their biggest yet--2,000 bags! They've been sewing since October to meet the order, and I'm proud to say that their quality control has improved considerably. This used to be one of our biggest hurdles, and out of 2,000 bags, we only found 13 that needed to be returned to the Co-op!

After almost two years of my leadership, I've been slowly pulling away from the day-to-day management of the group, encouraging them to meet and make group decisions without me. I'm happy that they like to have me around, but they don't need me anymore to do their work. They do still need me to manage their sales, though--which I'm grateful for, as I'm not quite ready to let them go. I'll be running the new website, marketing and advertising, and coordinating orders with them for--I anticipate--the next couple of years, as they learn the computer skills and business know-how to do this on their own.

In the meantime, the Co-op is introducing a new item to its repertoire: hand-sewn duvet/comforter covers--a step up from traditional quilts that our market research indicates will sell better than their more traditional counterpart. We'll also be launching our website any day now, so stay tuned if you want to order a duvet cover!