TagLiberia

The ruins of a mining economy, by Danny Hoffman

 Around the 23-minute mark in the short film, Uppland, an unidentified voice speaks over a series of historical images of Yekepa, Liberia. Male and American, the speaker is presumably a former resident of the town. Yekepa was a LAMCO company town in Liberia’s Nimba Mountains, home to hundreds of the Swedish mining conglomerate’s employees. “Life was pretty nice there,” the voice says. “But you weren’t really living in a real world.”

 Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s short film is conceived as an archeological project, an excavation of the physical and psychic ruins of industrial mining in West Africa. Lawrenson, a Scottish filmmaker and writer, and Doherty, a Northern Irish architect, set out for Liberia after Doherty comes across photographs of Yekepa from the 1960s and 70s. Such images are not hard to find. Iron ore mining was a central pillar of Liberia’s post-World War 2 economy. Foreign mining giants like LAMCO, backed by the Liberian governments of William Tubman and then William Tolbert, rapaciously harvested the country’s reserves until the global price crashes of the 1980s. Today the detritus of company towns and massive iron ore pits litter northern and western Liberia. These ruins occupy a prominent place in the lives and memories of Liberians and non-Liberians who inhabited the mines and their supporting towns. The “pretty nice life” that iron ore mining made possible is a complicated and important thread in the story of Liberia. So, too, are the consequences of a political economy that so thoroughly shaped the “real world” of most of Liberia’s inhabitants.

Lawrenson narrates the film and describes the origins of both the town and the project, though fortunately he dispenses with the usual filmmakers’ journey and arrival tropes. The visuals are primarily scenes of ruins: abandoned industrial equipment and infrastructure; housing; and the terraced hillsides and massive pits carved into the mountains. The film’s 30-minutes are divided into four variously timed chapters. The first, Yekepa, is ostensibly anchored by the contemporary town. A small population still lives there, including at the gated campus of ABC University, a Bible college. Old Yekepa, the brief second chapter, is framed by a visit to the abandoned village of Yeke’pa. The Bible college’s carpenter happens to be a community leader among the population displaced by the mining operation, and he leads the filmmakers back to the village’s original site. New Yekepa, the third chapter, travels to the site to which the displaced were relocated. There the residents describe the inadequacies of their compensation and tell their own version of how geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the iron ore deposit and captured the mountain’s guardian spirit. The final chapter, Stockholm, briefly brings the film to the apartment of a retired couple who describe the suburban Stockholm aesthetic of Yekepa and the failure of the company to leave much of anything behind.

Each chapter weaves together historical still and moving images, on-camera interviews, and beautifully shot observational footage. Given that neither Lawrenson nor Doherty are ever named or made visible in the film (Doherty is simply referred to as “the Architect”), Uppland is surprisingly personal and reflexive. Lawrenson speaks frequently in the first person and includes both narratives and visuals that make the filmmaking process an engaging subplot. For example, the filmmakers cleverly include a few seconds of footage of Thomas, a young man assigned to keep an eye on Lawrenson, trying in vain to direct the action of people walking into and out of the camera frame. Uppland avoids most of the pitfalls of the narrated, exploitation documentary genre, its disembodied voice-over never becoming too authoritative, outraged, or self-indulgent—a rare achievement in this ever-expanding field.

The sum total of the film is nevertheless familiar. It is a galling portrait of the harvesting of African resources and the damage done to both land and people. The mountain that once housed the deposit is now a giant stagnant lake. New Yekepa appears as a soulless, impoverished, and somewhat embittered place. The Swedish retirees, meanwhile, are surrounded by a national museum’s worth of artifacts in their bright, comfortable looking apartment. And everywhere there are rotting husks of metal and concrete, useless now that the mine has closed.

Both visually and narratively, Uppland is too clever and interesting a film to stop at that. “Life was pretty nice there, but you weren’t really living in a real world” is a line that could arguably have been spoken by everyone in the film and everyone behind it. Certainly, this is true of the white foreigners who worked for LAMCO, who appear in their greatest numbers in swim trunks, splashing around in the company’s swimming pool. The Swedish retirees speak of their intentions to leave a sustainable economy at Yekepa, but “it’s a pity” is the best they can offer as commentary on the fact that they failed to do so. The American professor at the Bible college certainly seems to be having a good time, but his alienation from the “real world” around him is absolute. His earnest Old Testament history lesson about the disappearance of manna is deliciously apropos of the surrounding context but obviously lost on the man himself.

That the past was better but never real even for the Liberian residents of Yekepa is painfully clear in a conversation with two men named John, both former local employees of LAMCO. They fondly recall the town’s hospital, schools, and ice cream shops, all of which they claim made the residents of the town feel like they were “living in America” right there in the rainforests of northern Liberia. But they are unreliable narrators. One of the Johns describes the perfect racial harmony and integration of Yekepa, but there are no black bodies in the swimming pool images; a line of school children shows whites in the front and blacks in the back; and footage of a white Swede tending his vegetable garden is contrasted to a young Liberian houseboy stripped to the waist mowing the lawn.

The ruins of Yekepa make everyone look to the past and complicate their relationship to the real present. The residents of New Yekepa implausibly claim that their lives today would be better if only they hadn’t lost the written resettlement contract Clarke gave them when he forced them to move. And as the film abruptly ends, audio clips of President Tubman’s 1962 speech to LAMCO employees extol the virtues of mining, celebrating the company’s commitment to exploiting a wilderness inhabited only by spirits and bringing both wealth and civilization to Liberia’s upplands. The visuals, of course, are of a scarred landscape and still, rusting machinery.

In the film’s penultimate moment Lawrenson describes being approached by security guards as he filmed those ruins. It is cutting testament to the slippery unreality of memory and hope when they ask if he is here to restart the mine. Lawrenson smartly spins the encounter into a comment about his own position; the filmmaker must pack up and depart for Europe before he can engage them in meaningful dialogue, taking away the richness of his film and leaving them with their disappointment and their ruins. But the moment is more poignant than that. Rising world iron ore prices have led a number of multinational companies to revisit Liberia’s abandoned mine sites, and iron ore now accounts for about 30% of Liberia’s foreign export earnings. Small enclaves of foreign workers are building new company towns that are largely off-limits to local residents, who continue to inhabit the ruins of the old company towns. New mining equipment and infrastructure is being imported to do the work, much of it less dependent on human labor and therefore even less dependent on the “real world” of the people who live around it.

What kind of ruins this new mining economy will leave, and how they will be remembered, will no doubt be the subject of a film to come.

Danny Hoffman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington.
This text originally appeared on the blog Africa is a country

The legacy of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Why ‘great aspiration’ is not quite enough, by Leena Vastapuu and Maria Martin de Almagro

The first elected woman head of state in Africa, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has just stepped down from her office in Liberia. Her successor George Weah assumed the position on 22 January 2018.

In a recent interview with CNN entitled “Why Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf”, President Sirleaf and journalist Chude Jideonwo had the following exchange.

Chude Jideonwo (CJ): You are in your final days as the first female president of an African country. When you step down, there won’t be any more. What does that say to you?   Continue reading

Ebola: why has the previous existence of Ebola in the Mano river region not been discussed?

 

Processed with Snapseed.

Empty Ebola Treatment Center at ELWA outside Monrovia. November 1, 2016

Passage from a medical journal from 1982: The results seem to indicate that at least Liberia and Guinea have been included in the Ebola and Marburg virus endemic zone. Therefore, the medical personnel in Liberian health centres should be aware of the possibility that they may come across active cases and thus be prepared to avoid nosocomial epidemics.

Signs here and there in the city remind us of the recent Ebola crisis. An empty bucket outside a shop, hand sanitizer in the fancier restaurants, but not much more. Monrovians do not mention it much, unless you ask. It is not like the previous civil wars which people still like to refer to. If Ebola in Liberia was like a silent war, it also appears to have a silent aftermath. Riding a shared taxi I ask my co-passengers about this. Why do you keep talking about the war, that took place so long ago but not the Ebola crisis? A woman answers: the Ebola epidemic was simply too fearful. In the war you would know where the enemy came from, Ebola on the other hand came from nowhere and everywhere; it was an invisible enemy. Which one would they prefer? The war, is the unison answer amongst fellow passengers. And when I did not stress it anymore we quickly moved into other less ‘fearful’ topics. Continue reading

How John Richardson Joined the NPFL: Charles Taylor’s Confidant Speaks on Liberian Politics and American Warmongering, by Brooks Marmon

One of Charles Taylor’s best known and most eloquent defenders is John T. Richardson, a Liberian architect, who continues to speak with the former Liberian President two to three times a week. Richardson, an American trained architect who launched his career in the 1970s, winning contracts from the African Development Bank, USAID, and the World Bank to construct rural schools and hospitals across Liberia, became an international pariah several decades later when he was placed on a UN travel ban during the last years of the Taylor administration, which he served in various capacities.

Today, Richardson operates from a cramped but well decorated office in a gated compound just off Tubman Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Monrovia. His father, Nathaniel Richardson, was one of Liberia’s greatest historians of the era when the country was dominated by the True Whig Party (TWP) and the descendants of black American immigrants (in which both Taylor and Richardson have their roots).  Although the younger Richardson states, “I have no ambitions politically” he came, as a result of a self-described humanitarian impulse, to play a major role in the calamitous struggle to shape post TWP Liberia, serving as a loyal adviser to Taylor throughout Liberia’s 14 years of armed conflict. Continue reading

The Ties that Bind: Ex-Military Command Structures as a Foundation for Peace or Source for Insecurity? by Anders Themnér

The presence of large groups of ex-combatants is often seen as a major challenge to post-civil war stability. Experiences of ex-fighters engaging in different forms of violence have prompted policy-makers and scholars (and to be frank, at times also myself) to ‘securitize’ the ex-combatant issue. This has particularly been true concerning the phenomenon of informal military networks. The sight of ex-fighters interacting with their former commanders, often on a daily basis, is commonly seen as a direct threat to the post-war order, especially since such ties should – according to official disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) jargon – cease to exist. It is true that ex-combatant networks can, and have been, employed for detrimental purposes. Officially dismantled command structures have, for instance, been used for wartime purposes in Macedonia, Mali, the Republic of Congo and Tajikistan; electoral violence in Aceh (Indonesia), Niger Delta (Nigeria) and Sierra Leone; riots in Liberia and Mozambique; and organized violence in Columbia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. However, recent research has also highlighted how ex-command structures provide vital social services that can further peace and stability. Informal military networks do, for instance, constitute an important source of employment, friendship and security for many ex-combatants. Continue reading

“Rogue, Rogue, Rogue…” – Marketscapes, Criminality and Society in Liberia’s Postwar Borderlands, by Richard Akum

“Rogue, rogue, rogue!!” In many communities in Liberia where the state faces security service provision challenges, this chorus whips up the pent-up wrath of violent mobs. The “rogue, rogue, rogue” chorus metes out swift and immediate ‘justice’. It results from the social interpretive dehumanization of the “rogue”, exacerbated by challenges posed by inadequate social and rational-legal control when borderland marketscapes overlap with residential communities. The postwar state and its international NGO partners have liaised with local community leaders to encourage communities to seek recourse through formal rational-legal justice processes. However, rational-legal justice processes are seen as costly, time-consuming and largely ineffective, hence the arbitrary lynching of some alleged “rogues” persists. The “rogue” who gets lynched is often more a victim of their method than their action. Two narratives of the “rogue’s” outcome emerge in the interpretation of postwar socio-political processes in Liberia’s borderlands – that of the community leader and that of the community member. Meanwhile, a geo-spatial interpretation of physical borderland spaces in two cities – Foya and Gompa – further elucidates the difference between the method and the action, which contribute to divergent outcomes for “rogue” transgressions. Focusing on marketscapes as dedicated zones of human and material exchange, connections arise between the “rogue” and markets. These connections are crafted to circumvent social controls, collude with the state and escape the arbitrary mob-lynching outcome reserved for the individualized “rogue.” Hence all “rogues” are not created equal to face certain death because of their actions. The difference in outcomes is in their operational and embeddedness rather than their actions per se.

Continue reading

Liberia: The Violence of Democracy, a book review by Elin Carlsson

During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Elin Carlsson is one of the students.

Mary H. Moran. Ethnograpy of Political Violence : Liberia : The Violence of Democracy. Philadelphia, PA, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006.
199 pp. ISBN 9780812220285.

In her book ”Liberia: The violence of Democracy”, the american anthropologist Mary Moran explores a phenomenon that has been widely discussed by several scholars of different areas of study; democracy. Moran puts democracy in a different shed of light as she challenge the popular western view of violence and democracy as two separate ontological states. According to Moran there is no such separation. There is violence in democracy as well as there is democracy in violence, a thesis which she intends to prove through the lens of Liberia. Continue reading

Stereotyping Africa: an appeal for a normal people perspective, by Robert J. Pijpers

The recent Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has spurred a range of responses from all over the world. Some of these responses exemplify the ongoing stereotyping of Africa and Africans. Public discourse, unfortunately, still has the tendency of addressing Africa as a country, a war ridden space full of sadness and its inhabitants as savage and helpless. But stereotypes are not limited to these images of misery.

Other stereotypes romanticize Africa and Africans, they convey an image of the exotic and unspoiled continent. Moreover, various perspectives convey an image of poor people as a noble poor. These images may be highlighted in the context of Ebola, but they are always present. They are part of many people`s understanding of Africa, part of ignorant perspectives on the continent and the people. Continue reading

The Math behind the Numbers: When Cash and Promises Soar, by Charles Lawrence

Liberia’s bi-cameral legislature comprises of 73 members of the lower house, called the House of Representatives and 30 members of the upper house, called the Senate. In 2014, Liberians will go to the polls to elect 15 of the 30 Senators for a tenure of nine years. These ‘mid-term’ elections are a constitutional requirement that ensures that all the Senate seats are not vacant at the same time. In this piece, I argue that elections should be a growth industry where best ideas and character flourish above cash and false promises. Continue reading

The “War” on Ebola, by Gudrun Sif Fridriksdottir

In the limited attention the international media has paid to Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Guinean people’s experiences and thoughts on Ebola an interesting metaphor has frequently come up – that of comparing Ebola to war.

“The Ebola outbreak has been like someone firing live bullets” – Emmett P Chea, Liberia (http://www.bbc.com/news/29331061). “Just imagine living somewhere where you are being invisibly terrorized” – Lucy Sherman, Liberian in the US (http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/hillsborough-regional-news/ebola-worries-from-home-follow-ut-student)

This has been in the context of either comparing the virus to war generally, as above, or comparing it specifically to the civil wars that Liberians and Sierra Leoneans have endured. Continue reading

© 2019 Mats Utas

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑