The Milky Way from Liberia

Monrovia, Liberia–To land at Roberts Field in Liberia at night is to glide into a pool darkness. Lights are few and far between.

The airport is located in a rural area approximately 50 kilometers from the city of Monrovia, the nation’s capitol.

On the drive into Monrovia, it’s possible to actually see the dust lanes that we know as The Milky Way. In most of the world light pollution obscures this clear view. But, on a clear night in Africa the stars shine brighter than anyplace on earth. It’s a glorious site.

Unfortunately, in Liberia this clear night view is not the result of benign reasons. It occurs because the nation’s infrastructure has been all but destroyed by
on-again-off-again war. The electric grid is virtually inoperable.

So, too, are the water and sewer systems and many of the basic institutions. Schools, hospitals and government offices are all broken. Some are functioning under limited capability, but most not at all. Civil war has taken a costly toll, not only in human life, but also in physical capital. Buildings were destroyed, equipment looted, furniture stolen and electronics destroyed.

A truce achieved three months ago has brought a welcome period of peace. However, the people must begin nation-building from the most basic starting point.

There are no longer children on the streets brandishing weapons as they were at the height of the insurrection. Liberia, as Congo, Mozambique and Sierra Leone before, saw its children abducted and compelled to take up arms. The after-effect of traumatized children, broken families and shattered communities has not yet healed.

People speak joyfully of peace and freedom of movement. It is a welcome relief to travel across the country. Travel permits were required in rebel-controlled

However, just below the surface of polite conversation is an unexpressed, partially disguised fear. It takes the edge off the joyfulness of peace.

In many areas roving gangs of disarmed young people intimidate and rob those returning home from work in the early evening hours creating a self-imposed curfew that results in people staying indoors at night.

People are tired of war. No one knows how many fled their homes, some walking into Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. Others sought refuge in Monrovia. Camps for the internally displaced continue to operate and many people are still too fearful to return to their
former homes. They express dread at what they will find and the reconstruction task that lays before them.

Behind this unease is more than one experience of re-building only to see the work go up in smoke as another period of fighting ensued. War began in 1989 and continued with varying intensity through 2004. There were periods of relative peace followed by outbreaks of fighting as new leadership struggled to gain control of militias and territory.

This state of unease is perhaps most descriptive of the mood here. There is great relief that the fighting has abated and the streets are safer. But under an interim government no real definitive forward movement has taken place. Schools, hospitals, even food service at jails, depends mostly on churches and non-governmental organizations. The government cannot provide the most basic social services.

The United Nations is providing security. UN vehicles and those of non-governmental organizations are ubiquitous. In the run-up to national elections in October 2005 there seems no dialogue yet that reveals a real platform. Perhaps this will develop in the coming months. The country needs leaders with

Liberians are remarkably adept and certainly qualified to bring this country out of its current state of depression. But they will need partners and adequate resourcing because they face a long, difficult challenge. The church and people of good will can provide the support necessary to sustain civil society for awhile, but this will not be sufficient for the long haul.

Eventually, the government must take responsibility for necessary services. As long as the Milky Way is visible from the airport, it means electricity isn’t flowing sufficiently. It is a reminder that the country is in a tentative state–paradoxically, it is a sign of hope and fear under the African sky.

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