Archive for April, 2022

A farewell to Harper (end)

April 11, 2022

Harper port offers some hope that things might get marginally better but the rest of the town fills me with sadness. Yes, we knew this ten years ago: that the homes would almost certainly never be rebuilt because once you have finished that job someone might show up with a document telling you that the house you have just restored is not yours… Nobody wants to risk kissing goodbye to their house and the investments they have made. So nobody bothers and Harper’s decay is unstoppable as a result. Atrocious governance, corruption and war…each can take the blame for causing this decaying ruin. 

Another abandoned house. Covered in graffiti, smelling of human faeces. When inside, be alert. It is entirely possible an armed somebody arrives, who can make you regret you ever entered…

By the way, Harper is slowly but surely becoming an Ivorian town, with the electricity, the food and many other products all coming from across the border. You will hear quite a bit of French, too. This is because the 1989-2003 wars sent thousands of Marylanders into Côte d’Ivoire. Today, getting supplies in is so much easier from Tabou, San Pedro and even Abidjan than it is from Monrovia… Anyway, back to the story…

Recording Lawrence’s band. Pic: Martin Waalboer

Here we were, ten or so years ago, in a small community centre, with electricity provided by a loud generator outside, whose decibels had to be drowned in music. This was achieved by cranking up the volume of the band to maximum distortion. It was triply apt that the song the band was rehearsing was Bob Marley’s “War”. First, because we were in a place that had been destroyed by not one but three wars. Second, because we were able to witness first-hand a rare post-war performance by a band. I had seen only one before, in 1998: the Kailondo Band, playing in the Kailondo Hotel, a Monrovia Old Road establishment that had been set up with money whose provenance was unclear. The owner of the hotel was also the band lead singer and not a very good one. The band’s repertoire consisted of one song. One, which to the delight of the crowd had highly salacious lyrics. What was less delightful was that this one tune with no chord changes at all was repeated three or four dozen times between say 10pm and 4am. Every night. The one thing these two bands had in common was the atrocious sound quality. 

The third reason was that Lawrence, the lead singer and guitar player freely confessed to having helped himself to food during those wars, just like so many others. ‘I didn’t want to do it,’ he explained during a break in the rehearsal, ‘but you know what it’s like: your stomach is the Boss.’ He spoke these words as I was interviewing him under what could easily be the most monumental tree in all of Harper. It stood outside the community centre and was home to an astonishingly large number of bats. A common sight in Ségou, Freetown, Abidjan…

But today, there are no bats to be seen because the tree has fallen. Closer inspection reveals that it had been completely hollowed out. Nothing could have saved it. The building on whose roof the tree seems to have landed is the Community Hall, where we filmed and photographed and recorded Lawrence…

And that is somewhat symbolic for the state of Harper. As we walk away from the town’s centre looking for transport, someone in a tricycle taxi sees us and proceeds to make gun gestures,  pretending to shoot us. A madman (a zogo? Impossible to tell) hurls abuse whilst following us until he tires of his pointless game. We pass a palm wine place. It looks uninviting, with a few early guests listlessly hanging around a table. It’s all rather depressing.

Harper cannot be rescued, let alone restored to its former glory; it does not want any of those things. One could argue, as many have done, that the wars made visible the rot that was already present in a society that had been lying to itself about its origins and destination. Neglect is currently finishing the job those wars started. The Dream Called Harper is in the process of being buried under a thick layer of indifference…

What remains are the stories. There are so many of them and we only managed to capture a few. Stories about the businesswoman who ran a bar and a guest house, about another who lost all of her wares when the ship carrying them sank on the way from Monrovia; about all the other ships that perished along this coast; about the unforgettable Melita Gardner; about the ladies selling food and drinks and managing to survive just after the wars; about the aspiring activist/politician and the Ecobank branch he used to manage; about the old open air coffee place, the darkly mysterious tailor in his workshop, the American aid worker and his short-lived Beach Resort and Bar, the friendly policeman at Harper Port, the town historian Simulja Dweh Wernah at Hoffman Station, about radio enthusiast and now company spokesman Martin Nyeka, the folks and scenes at “NGO Hill”, the excellent food at the UNMIL Pakistani contingent (PakBatt, long gone of course), the Ivorian pro-Gbagbo refugees taking up the streets leading to the PakBatt barracks and playing their coupé-décalé and zouglou. And that’s just for starters. 

These stories, we hope, will eventually find their way into a book we would like to produce, as an incomplete record of this town and its incredible history. But another visit? Well, to paraphrase that old Leiber and Stoller song: I’m not ready for another disappointment…

Retrieved from April 2020. Unfortunately the piece accompanying this picture is badly written and riddled with mistakes. Let me pick out just two: contrary to what the piece claims the Doe regime received more US aid than any other Liberian government and secondly, the civil war in Liberia was – sadly and emphatically – not the first one to break out in the West African sub-region. 

A farewell to Harper (3)

April 2, 2022

Maryland Avenue, as you approach downtown Harper

And now it is March 2022 and Martin and myself are catching a bus from Pleebo into Harper. We’re feeling excited; after all, getting into Harper on a bus is already special but doing so on a scheduled service gliding over a tarred road while popular music blares from its many speakers is extra special, we cannot deny it. The bus is part of a larger consignment of public transport vehicles, a gift from India. The trip is uneventful, as is the unmarked terminus, at the spacious and pretty Tubman University Campus. The entrance into town feels familiar but as the walk progresses, from one old familiar spot to another, spirits start to sink. Especially when the optimism that still held as late as 2010, when the idea that somehow this gem of a town could still be rescued and maybe even restored, slowly gives way to despondency. 

Things have deteriorated. A lovely open air coffee place where you could have an excellent breakfast? Gone. The Ecobank branch with the off-and-on ATM, depending on the satellite connection? Turned into a house. The bank branch is now in Pleebo. The famous Tubman home, a landmark in downtown Harper owned by the nephew of the late president? Falling apart, but still inhabited by tenants, who pay their rent to the owner who lives…in Monrovia. 

To be fair, opposite that house is a new coffee place, run by an efficient young man who uses only the barest minimum number of words necessary to do his work. But this is one of the very few new developments in town. Our walk, first intended to be a festively nostalgic link-up with the Harper we knew, is getting progressively more disappointing. The seaside open air restaurant and bar? Replaced by a walled-in restaurant. The Masonic Temple, symbolically perched on a hill looking down on downtown Harper and on to Cape Palmas? Caving in. But the lighthouse, which was reported to have disappeared, has not moved. The light has, though. It is rumoured to have been carted off to Tabou, in Côte d’Ivoire, where it is working…

The compound next to the lighthouse used to house staff working for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL); we stayed there, too. And the main UNMIL building, pictured here, stands empty and unused; the mission folded in March 2018, after fifteen years. It can arguably be considered one of the UN’s relatively rare peacekeeping success stories. Nearby is the police station, opposite the regional administration building. In its large front yard a wrecked car sat for years on end. That car has finally been removed but the police station is now flanked by at least two vehicles (both foreign gifts, of course) that have clearly run their last mile – all tyres are flat. 

zogo headquarters?

Transport problems are ubiquitous for the police force. That is one reason they are unable to do anything about the latest menace to hit Harper and indeed the entire country. On the longish but always pleasant leisurely walk to the Cape and that lighthouse, we are accosted by an unknown busybody demanding what we are doing here. None of your business; this is a public road. He had emerged from the former seaside home of Liberia’s 19th president and was not the only rather unsavoury and mistrustful individual to hang around that building. The explanation for this unforeseen and unwanted unpleasantness was located just a few metres away and across the road. One of those ghostly buildings, destroyed by a rebel group had been adorned with fresh graffiti. 

I remember the old graffiti, left behind by the fighting gangs in the 1989 – 2003 wars. But this had nothing to do with those wars. The authors of these new slogans are unlikely to have any active recollection of these wars: too young or not even born. Yet they carry the same kind of rage, reeling against a system that does not work for them, a self-serving elite that does not listen to them, a future that holds no purpose for them. Excluded, they invent their own lifestyle, which revolves around drugs and crime. In many ways, they are the continuation of the notorious Small Boys Unit, the drugged-up fighting force Taylor had invented to terrorize the country with. But today, and as a sign of these times, there is just nihilism, no leader and not even a cause to pretend-advance. Just nothing. 

“Zogos” they are called and they have turned parts of Harper and many other places around Liberia (and of course its capital in particular) into no-go zones. They steal, break into cars or rob people on their way from store to home to market to wherever. They may even kill you for a few dollars. They stampeded their way into a church just outside Monrovia in January and killed 29 in their quest for money and loot. 

A small section of what will be a larger port

As things stand today, Harper port may well be the only economic activity set for an increase, as the hinterland starts producing more palm oil. This may generate new jobs at the port. After all, the only economically viable method of transport is by ship; while there is now a paved road all the way to Fish Town (130 kilometres away), the rest is the same sandy muddy nightmare it’s always been.  

But the chances that these boys in their ghostly hideaways will get their hands on any of these jobs is virtually nil. And then what? It is an uncomfortable question to ask; attempting to answer it can turn distressing really quickly.