Living with the Past in Liberia

3 minute read

Like much of West Africa, Liberia is a country of dark, heavy skies emerging from bloody civil war. But like everywhere else in West Africa, there’s also much more to the place — elements that make it unlike any other. A street friendliness that all but snuffs out Monrovia’s reputation for street violence. A patois that is both thuggish and warm. Strange points of excellence, like an ambition to become the first biomass-powered country in the world or the proud possession of some of the world’s best surfing breaks.

Liberia’s history is particularly arresting. The country was created in the 1820s by former American slaves shipped back to Africa by philanthropists who purchased their freedom — hence Liberia — only to watch their freed charges, dressed in top hats and hoop skirts, exploit the local population. It’s a tale that holds some hard lessons about human nature, and charity, and has divided the country between locals and Americos ever since. After more than a century of oppression, in 1989, the indigenous population staged a coup that led to two civil wars, the second of which ended in 2003. The fighting displaced a third of the country and left 200,000 dead. In a country of just 3 million, no one was untouched.

Glenna Gordon has been documenting Liberia since 2009. She made her latest collection of images during the run-up and aftermath of last October’s general election. In the images, she tries to present “a wider view of Liberia as neither a place filled with mythically strong women led by the cult of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” who won the Nobel Peace Prize days before the poll and is due to be inaugurated for a second term today, “nor merely a post-civil-war success/failure story.”

Johnson Sirleaf’s opponent was Winston Tubman, the nephew of the former President William Tubman, himself a grandson of a former American slave. During his nearly three decades in power, from 1944 to ’71, William Tubman ushered in massive foreign investment. One of the things Gordon examines most closely is America’s historical, cultural and economic legacy in Liberia. “I seek out signs of a time before the conflict — remnants of the past that are easy to romanticize today,” Gordon says. “I seek traces of war wounds — psychological and physical — and examine the improvisations used to hide the pain … and embrace the present.”

Gordon has been photographing and writing about Africa for various publications since 2006, including TIME. You can see more of her work on her website and blog.

Perry is TIMEs Africa bureau chief. His latest book Lifeblood: How to Change the World, One Dead Mosquito at a Time was published in September.

A taxi drives by an antirape billboard in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.Glenna Gordon
A shop that rents and sells wedding dresses in central Monrovia.Glenna Gordon
A young boy looks out of a decaying building in Monrovia. Though many buildings have been repaired since the war, much is still in disrepair.Glenna Gordon
A school house on the Liberian border with Ivory Coast.Glenna Gordon
Cells in Monrovia Central Prison intended for two prisoners are often crowded with up to seven inmates. Some sleep on hammocks made from empty rice bags tied to the cell bars and windows.
A man looks out over downtown Monrovia from the Ducor, once a four-star hotel.Glenna Gordon
A signboard depicts President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf helping to save Liberia.Glenna Gordon
Vice-presidential candidate George Weah speaks to his running mate Winston Tubman during a rally with heavy media presence.Glenna Gordon
Weah, Tubman and their attache sit at a campaign rally.Glenna Gordon
The presidential campaign drew heavily on images of primates, animals that are often anthropomorphized in Liberian culture. Liberia's opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), embraced chimpanzees and other animals as their mascots. Here, a chimp is dressed in an opposition T-shirt and a bow tie.Glenna Gordon
CDC supporters do a dance meant to mock monkeys, the symbol of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's political party, to a song called "Monkey Down Down."Glenna Gordon
A woman who works in conservation holds a baby chimpanzee at a Lebanese restaurant frequented by expatriates, as a waitress passes behind her.Glenna Gordon
An elderly woman votes with the assistance of another woman in a makeshift voting booth.Glenna Gordon
The Liberian military were on alert as U.N. helicopters circled overhead before the announcement of election results. Many feared Liberia would descend back into violence.Glenna Gordon
A woman waits for transportation outside of the Health Ministry in Monrovia.Glenna Gordon

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