By Shan Wang – Boston.com Staff:
Last week, the Massachusetts Avenue Orange Line stop shut down after a woman vomited on the platform and a bystander called 911 to report a woman “from Liberia” who “has Ebola.”
She was from Haiti, but the misunderstanding shows just how little most Americans know about the West African country, beyond the current Ebola outbreak.
Liberia is where Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., contracted the virus before coming to Texas. Liberia is where the Ebola virus has raged most fiercely, with 4,665 recorded cases and 2,705 deaths. Countries—including North Korea, weirdly—are barring travelers from West African countries hit by the disease. Americans are calling for travel bans as well. Random local hair salons are quaking in their boots.
So, pop quiz: Where is Liberia? What is it known for? If your answers to these questions are “Africa” and “Ebola,” we’re here to help. Here are some other noteworthy nuggets you may not have known about the country.
Liberia is a small country on the West African coast, roughly the size of Kentucky, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. The World Bank estimates it has a population of about 4.3 million people (roughly the number that live in Phoenix, Arizona), with over 3 million of them clustered in its capital city of Monrovia.
The country boasts soft sand beaches, rainforests, and even a few mountain peaks. McDonald’s hasn’t made it there yet, but there is a Stop & Shop supermarket in Monrovia. Robert L. Johnson, the first African American billionaire and a big supporter of Liberia’s current president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, opened the RLJ Kendeja Resort and Villas in Monrovia a few years ago. It’s 78 rooms on 13 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The resort also offers free wifi, free parking, and a poolside bar, but based on the CDC’s new guidelines, heading to Liberia for its beaches is probably considered nonessential travel.
Liberia, “Land of Freedom”
In 1816, a bunch of white Americans (including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) formed the American Colonization Society, an organization with the goal of “returning” black Americans—who were born and raised in America—to Africa. Makes all the sense in the world, right? ACS worked successfully with various state legislatures to secure funds for the new African settlement. One member, prominent slave owner John Randolph, called free blacks “promoters of mischief.”
In 1822, 86 emigrants, supposedly “volunteers,” traveled with white ACS members to a cape on the coast of West Africa. Two years later, the settlement was renamed Monrovia, after then president and ACS member James Monroe. The following decades were difficult for the settlers, who were trying to hold onto a culture they brought over from the U.S., and who did not integrate with the land’s indigenous people.
Liberia declared its independence from the ACS in 1847. Joseph J. Roberts, a Virginia-born black American, became its first president. At the time, it was the only free republic in Africa. Until a coup in 1980 by Samuel Doe, all Liberian presidents were descendents of freed American slaves.
Michael Jackson’s 1987 song “Liberian Girl” brought the country a little bit of pop culture fame. But Liberia really burst into headlines worldwide in the 1990s when Charles Taylor (who is now serving a half-century sentence in a Rwandan prison for war crimes) and his rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) assassinated Doe and seized control of most of the country. Rebel factions ripped the country apart, even after a tenuous 1995 peace agreement that installed Taylor as president. According to the UN, under Taylor’s leadership, Liberia traded weapons with rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. Peace in Liberia was finally brokered in 2003 after Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, but not after more than 250,000 people were killed in the conflict.
After the War
The U.S. hasn’t had a female president yet (looking at you, Hillary). But Liberia does in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who came to power after a series of post-Taylor politicians. The Harvard-educated Nobel Peace Prize winner has been at the helm since 2006, winning re-election in 2011. Sirleaf has fought to end a long history of corruption by Liberia’s leadership and is credited with bringing in foreign investments into a country that is still recovering from a 14-year civil war. Still, Liberia is poor (1.3 million of its people live in extreme poverty), and the Ebola crisis has highlighted just how desperately it needs both hospital beds and qualified doctors.
“Instability and years of conflict in Liberia have pushed us to the bottom of this table in terms of the size of our middle class,” Sirleaf said in her 2011 Commencement Speech at Harvard University. “We stubbornly refuse to accept this and are preparing a new development agenda that aims…to graduate Liberia from development assistance in ten years.”
Why Is Liberia So Vulnerable?
Why is Liberia suffering, while other countries nearby are Ebola-free? The simplest answer is infrastructure. Poor roads have hindered transport of patients and medical equipment. Summers in Liberia are incredibly stormy, and floods block these already badly constructed roads. Now that the country has closed its borders, much-needed supplies are even more difficult to come by.
Moreover, Liberia has one doctor for every 100,000 people, compared to 242 doctors for every 100,000 people in the U.S., according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
Liberians in America
Liberians abroad face intense discrimination as they’ve never had before, even spurring the Twitter campaign #IamLiberianNotAVirus:
The U.S. government doesn’t have official figures on the total number of Liberians living in America today, but the unofficial tally is as high as half a million. New York City is home to large numbers of Liberian Americans (there’s a “Little Liberia” on Staten Island), as is Rhode Island. But Minneapolis takes the cake. Despite a climate that couldn’t be more different from the African country, the Minnesota city has the largest community of Liberians outside of Liberia in the world. READ MORE OF THIS STORY