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Liberia's infrastructure is riddled with cracks but returnees have the expertise to effect requisite change

By unknown | Feb 02, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

MONROVIA - Ciata Victor gave up a high-paying tech job, a spacious townhouse and a First World lifestyle in Maryland to return home to an African capital that barely has electricity or piped water.

MONROVIA - Ciata Victor gave up a high-paying tech job, a spacious townhouse and a First World lifestyle in Maryland to return home to an African capital that barely has electricity or piped water.

After 26 years of watching from afar as her native Liberia was ravaged by coups and despotism, Victor says she's home to stay. And she is optimistic enough about her country's future to have started a business - running a seven-computer Internet cafe off a generator and a borrowed satellite hook-up.

"There's some now who say they will not come to Liberia until Liberia gets running water and electricity. I just wanted peace," Victor said.

As this West African country works to rebuild itself from years of war, moneyed Liberians who spent decades abroad are starting to come home. It's a trickle that the year-old government hopes will swell, supplying investment and a much-needed educated class in a country where few went to school during 14 years of fighting and instability.

Now 45, Victor was 19 when she moved to the US to attend college in 1980, the same year Liberia's government was overthrown in a coup. Nine years later, warlord Charles Taylor launched a rebellion that threw the region into a conflict from which it only emerged when he was ousted in 2003. Taylor has been charged with war crimes by neighbouring Sierra Leone and is awaiting trial.

In 2005 Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first woman elected president in Africa. Many Liberians said her installation heralded a new era for the country's three million citizens - including those who hadn't been back in years.

Victor said a speech that Sirleaf gave on recovery and reform to the US congress in March gave her the confidence to make a trial visit.

"I visited in May and I felt pretty safe. So I went back [to the US], gave my job 30 days' notice, sold my townhouse, packed a container - and on July 31, I came home," Victor said.

Most Liberians with means fled during the war. Liberia's historically close ties to the US - it was created in 1847 to resettle freed slaves - meant that many of them ended up in US cities.

Sirleaf started calling on the Liberian diaspora to come home during her election campaign and many did return to take posts in the government. But Liberia's biggest sign of hope might be entrepreneurs like Victor starting businesses with their own funds.

There is already foreign investment in Liberia - Firestone operates a rubber plantation, Mittal Steel is redeveloping iron ore mines and foreign governments have promised aid.

Meanwhile, the UN has brought in 15000 peacekeepers and other expatriate workers along with the upscale restaurants that serve them.

Henrique Caine, who is trying to start a construction equipment rental company in Monrovia, said the foreign presence was part of what spurred his return.

"I look on the news and I see a lot of white folks from Europe and America in Liberia, and I say: 'Well, it can't be that bad. So it's time for us to start going home'."

Caine keeps a house in the Baltimore area where his wife and children live, but travels to Liberia once every few months. On this trip, he was trying to get a container of jackhammers, concrete mixers and other supplies past customs at Monrovia's port.

Caine says it's become easier since he started considering a business under the interim government, which has been accused of widespread corruption, but he still has had to pay some bribes at the port. And he's had difficulty securing US investors for a company in a country so recently known for child soldiers and no-go zones.

Victor says her Internet cafe has yet to turn a profit after six months. Running the generator alone eats up most of what she makes from e-mail surfers and people use their laptops in her wireless lounge. She's funding the enterprise with personal savings and advertising sales from a website that she runs to keep members of the Liberian diaspora connected. Her relatives in the US still call her crazy for moving back.

"I flew back into the same airport I left out of. And it looked better back then," said Caine, who was 13 when he left in 1985.

Victor describes the Monrovia she knew as a child as a place where children were more familiar with books than guns. She said it was hard to come back and find buildings had gone and people had disappeared.

But the pioneers share a heady optimism that might be just what a devastated Liberia needs.

Barkue Tubman, who did marketing for singers like Missy Elliot and Nora Jones in New York before she moved back, says her ultimate goal is to bring a performing arts centre to Monrovia, and to get the cultural life going again.

Many of those who stayed, or couldn't leave, are more cautious. Just half an hour outside of Monrovia, aid workers in the village of Quenyodee say they've had to cajole residents into rebuilding their houses.

T-Max Jlateh, a popular Monrovia radio talkshow host, said some of those who stayed through the war resent the ease with which those in the diaspora can move back, but added that, mostly, Liberia is thankful for whatever help it can get.

"Some of them have quite a lot of expertise that this country really needs," Jlateh said, "even if they don't exactly blend in at first." - Sapa-AP


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