Archive for March, 2022

A farewell to Harper (2)

March 31, 2022

Downtown Harper, most of Cape Palmas and the port, picture made 12 years ago from a plane belonging to either Elysian Air or the UN

I visited Harper about half a dozen times between the start of the century and now. My friend and partner-in-excellent-reporting Martin Waalboer did as well and he has produced a highly evocative video that captures Harper’s rise and fall. It’s here, on his website and the production is entitled A Dream Called Harper.

A Dream Called Harper captures the grandeur that was so very clearly envisaged by the 19th Century town founders, and which was the deliberate target of the armed gangs that washed over this town three times. In 1990, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia looted Harper. In 1993-4 another armed gang, George Boley’s cruelly misnamed Liberian Peace Council burnt it and then in 2003, Ivorian-backed rebels of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia did some more looting and vandalising and killing and raping. A UN team visited the town in and found desolation and desperation. Even today, Harper does not feel half as lively as Pleebo, a thriving and bustling market town just 24 kilometres down the road.

From the extreme damage that was inflicted on this town, one can easily imagine, as a lot of townspeople do, that this vandalism was driven by pure hatred. How else can you explain the extensive looting and burning sprees of these homes? The rich classes in Harper and elsewhere are living in wealth and their privileged position must be materially destroyed.

It still remains surreal to try and understand what happened here and not be totally taken aback by the extreme intensity of the violence that was rained on Harper – and indeed all Liberians towns and cities. This is how one member of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described her feelings, when I spoke with her during the TRC hearing in Harper City Hall in the first decade of this century: ‘I don’t think we’re bad people. I believe we are good people but something has gone very wrong.’ Those empty ghost-like concrete carcasses that are scattered around old Harper Town offer eloquent testimonies of that sentiment. Part of the TRC’s work was to offer an explanation for the causes of Liberia’s descent into hell, which they did admirably. Their report is here.

Maryland Avenue with the old cinema rising above some old homes

How do you recover from this? The shortest and possibly most honest answer is: you don’t. But most will anyway because they must. Like Victor, a young lad barely out of his teens, one of the former child soldiers I spoke with. He did not want to discuss what he remembered of his own part in the war but was very keen to talk about his school plans. In the capital Monrovia, many miles away, a group of youngsters with similar pasts just told me the truth in the most succinct way possible: ‘We spoil.’ Liberian shorthand for: we destroyed and made a mess. They also told me that the leaders who enticed, cajoled, recruited, forced, lured or deceived them into participating had all lied to them.

Those on the receiving end also had to cope. Like our dear friend Melita Gardner, whose incredible life story merits a novel all its own. (Here is a short piece, in Dutch.) From being a highly active member of her church and community to becoming a widow and having to bring up a large family all by herself to getting caught up in the war and having to reunite her entire family in a refugee facility in Côte d’Ivoire to organising emergency aid to the victims of the fighting to becoming a Development Officer in Harper City Hall to…is there anything she hasn’t done? Harper residents told me that if there is one person who should have a monument in their honour, it should be her.

But even Melita had to make the move out of Harper, and into the United States, still the place of reference for so many Liberians. Few if any of the old inhabitants remain and those who arrive have little time for the storied streets and homes and houses. Or what’s left of them.

Part 3 shortly

A farewell to Harper (in four parts)

March 30, 2022

Photo credit: Martin Waalboer

Downtown Harper, Liberia. This was the place where I stayed on my very first visit, more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, it’s called “Neufville House,” after the proprietor, DK Neufville. I met him in person during another visit but like many Harper burghers he now resides in the capital, Monrovia.

Back then, the house was already falling apart, because when war came to Harper in 1990 people had to flee and could no longer maintain their homes. The city’s inhabitants had just started moving back in when I first got here. Sure, the floors were creaking at Neufville House, of course there was no electricity, water came from the well in the front yard but everyone in the house was very welcoming and accommodating. Besides, I could already see many other homes that were in a far more advanced state of decay than my friendly guesthouse.

I will readily confess: the minute I set eyes on it, Harper fascinated me. How it could be that this small town in a remote southeastern corner of Liberia could be home to such a collection of magnificent and stately homes…

Who built this?

Harper sits next to Cape Palmas, a long finger of rock, high above the slow, mesmerising surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, Africa’s coast turns northeast and becomes a sweeping arc across neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and into Ghana. An old lighthouse, no longer in use, marks the end of the rock.

Cape Palmas was settled by the Maryland Colonization Society (you read that right) in the 1830s. The region was named Maryland County, after the American southern state and its capital was named after a US Senator, Robert Goodloe Harper. Harper was a leading figure of a larger operation, the American Colonization Society (you read that right too), which established Liberia in 1822. Maryland joined Liberia in 1857 and its patrician class became a key force in the True Whig Party, which dominated Liberia for 133 years. Who built this? This ruling class did. They were free from the American slavery they had left behind, they were getting rich and they wanted to show off.

In downtown Harper

Not much is left of the old grandeur but you can certainly still see that this was intended to be an elegant and pretty place, built by the leading families in city and country: the Andersons, the Neufvilles, the Gardners, the Gibsons and most of all the Tubmans, including Harper’s most illustrious son, William Vacaranat Shadrach Tubman, who became Liberia’s 19th and longest-serving president. He ran the country as a benign autocrat from 1944 until his death in 1971. There was a direct line from him, through his parents and grandparents, to the slavery days in the United States: his grandparents’ passage to Liberia was paid for by their former owner, Emily Tubman, whose surname they adopted. His father had served in the Liberian army and his mother came directly from the state of Georgia, USA.

And yet, these “Americo-Liberians” (we’ll leave the complexities surrounding these and other terminologies to one side for the time being) went on to recreate these familiar southern states on African soil, including the stately homes, a dress code worthy of the upper classes – and people who would now serve them: the indigenous populations of Liberia. And even when it is eminently true that the story is a lot more multilayered and complex than presented here, the principle of the thing means that you can readily see that this was never going to end well.

William VS Tubman himself collected a fairly typical crop of Liberian professions: soldier, preacher, lawyer, politician. If there is one thing Liberians are extremely good at – and I do mean extremely good – it is eloquence. Look no further than three of these four professions to understand why this is a country where people are practically born with the gift of the gab.

President Tubman set about developing his country and his home town, Harper. The homes got even more grandiose than before. City roads were paved, electricity arrived, hospitals were built, decent schools opened, a city hall appeared, as did a museum and public library. ‘We had everything here,’ one resident would recall. And numerous were the older men and women who volunteered the word “Paradise” when asked to describe their town in the days before the wars. But it was outside appearance; Liberians call Tubman’s long reign “Growth Without Development”…

Part 2 shortly