15 November 2007

Liberia it is, then

Well, most of the hand-wringing and obsessive e-mail checking is done (who am I kidding? I'll persistently be an obsessive e-mail-checker). It turns out that we will not be in Sierra Leone come the beginning of the year. Instead, Mercy Ships is set to go back to Liberia in February, which is where we'll be joining them.

We're definitely excited about this opportunity. Since we've done all this reading on Sierra Leone, though, we're having to catch up a bit on what's been going on with Liberia. Excuse a bit of history.

Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, founded in 1821 by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed American slaves to return to; it gained its independence from the US 26 years later. Things were stable for a century and some, but between 1980 and 1989 a series of coups and counter-coups toppled the Americo-Liberian elite government in favor of a more authoritarian government under Samuel Doe, then a Master Sergeant in the military.

The country didn't really come into the modern eye until late 1989, though, when a ruinous civil war broke out, led by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian who had the backing of Burkina Faso, the Cote d'Ivoire, and Libya; he gained popular support in the face of Doe's supposedly dictatorial rule. Over the next fourteen years, however, the ensuing violence saw over a quarter of a million people killed and countless others displaced. Finally, in 2003, under pressure from western powers, Taylor stepped down and accepted asylum in Nigeria, from which he was extradited just last year to face trial.

Things settled down. On 8 November 2005, after a run-off election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—the erstwhile head of the UN Development Program for Africa, and a Harvard-educated economist formerly in the employ of Citibank and the World Bank—became the first female head of state to be elected in Africa. And she's brought about significant change, most recently including work toward the cancellation of Liberia's international debt.

As it stands though, Liberia is—according to some estimates—the poorest country in the world. Its population of 3.3 million survive on less than a dollar a day. Street lights first hit the streets of Monrovia just a few months ago, but electricity and running water are still unaffordable for most of the population. Pictures of the country one year after the election, courtesy of the BBC, can be found here.

So, that's Liberia where it is today, as far as I can tell from this side of our time there. Mercy Ships have accepted President Johnson-Sirleaf's invitation to return in February, to help in the rebuilding of the country's medical infrastructure. We're excited to get there.

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