Posts Tagged ‘Harper’

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.

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


March 24, 2010

Harper, Liberia aerial view

Paradise lost – to be found again. Probably the shortest possible description of the Liberian town you see above. It’s been there for close to 180 years but it was looted and destroyed in the 1990s.

Harper lies in a far corner of Liberia and feels closer to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire than it does to the Liberian capital Monrovia. One of the reasons is the roads. They are atrocious. So you just hop across the river to your francophone neighbours and get your supplies from there.

The word is potential. Look at this – also taken from the aeroplane.

Atlantic Ocean to your right; Lake Shephard to your left

Problem is, as hinted before: how to get there. The road is for those who are adventurous in spirit, or, as is the case with most Liberians, simply have no other options. The sea is definitely not an option: too may horror stories of piles of rust piled with goods and people and then sinking. There is an air link but it’s expensive, as I have found out (see previous entries on this topic…).

So for now, this undiscovered gem will remain just that. An undiscovered gem. HERE is a story on the Radio Netherlands website about what happened to this elegant but damaged town. More to come. (Oh and music lovers – I have NOT forgotten my forthcoming entry on world music…)

Liberia: two cities

March 16, 2010

The capital: Monrovia. Big. Massive. Loud. Very loud: a cacaphony of car horns, engines, sirens, radios, arguments, shouts: “I say my man I beg you!” Loudspeakers blaring American music clog the ears. Noise pollution. Air pollution. Overcrowded. A fierce and merciless daily struggle for a place on one of the clapped-out taxis on Tubman Boulevard, the main drag. Expensive, for everyone. Did I mention loud? I think I did.

But it’s the seat of government, it’s heaven for thousands of petty traders, it’s the heavily air-conditioned headquarters of the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL, the peacekeeping operation now in its 7th year), it’s where the Chinese are building roads, apartments, restaurants and offices, it’s where you get your business done. And then leave.

Harper. At the southeastern tip of the country. Quaint, quiet – a lot quieter than the capital. Clean air, beaches, a fishing village, beautiful architecture you can still see through the destruction and looting and burning that happened here between 1990 and 2003. One locally run restaurant – great food and a lot cheaper than in the capital. Three small places to stay – very basic but at one-sixth of the Monrovia rate. One employer: the local rubber company. Two banks, a few tea shops, some trade, a small market.

Potential aplenty – but no takers. Where are the investors? You can set up an ace centre for water recreation in the port area, there’s a lagoon that shouts out for tourists and seaside restaurants, But for now, there are few jobs and even fewer when UNMIL closes as they inevitably will. Roads are bad, the only fast connection is by air (expensive!) so equally inevitably, people leave when they can. For the capital. And if need be (this is a true story): they walk from here to there.