12 takeaways from our visit to one of the world’s least-developed countries
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For more than five years, TPG has helped sponsor the non-profit PeaceJam to inspire young people around the world to action in their communities through the stories and teachings of Nobel Peace Laureates. In addition to financial support, TPG employees travel to visit several of the PeaceJam “jams” — including Ghana, Guatemala, South Africa and Liberia.
Katie and I were honoured to be selected to travel to Liberia to attend the PeaceJam conference held the week of Thanksgiving in 2019.
While living and working as digital nomads, we have visited 38 countries over the past three years. However, our travels heavily skewed toward developed countries as we write about flights, hotels and destinations that have broad appeal to TPG readers. In fact, our only visit to a country classified by the United Nations as a Least-Developed Country was an involuntary overnight in Ethiopia because of a misconnection on Ethiopian Airways connecting through Addis Ababa.
So, we were looking forward to the experience of visiting Liberia, one of the world’s least-developed countries, according to the U.N. And we were especially excited for the opportunity to meet the hundreds of PeaceJam participants, mentors and two Nobel Peace Laureates: Liberia’s own Nobel Peace prize winner Leymah Gbowee and India’s Kailash Satyarthi — who has facilitated the freedom of more than 80,000 enslaved children.
Here’s what we learned from our visit to Liberia:
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves
At a glance, it’s easy to mistake the Liberian flag for an early U.S. flag. There’s a reason for that. Liberia is one of three countries in the world — the others being Sierra Leone and Haiti — that were founded by freed slaves. Liberia declared independence in 1847 with a constitution modelled after the U.S.
Liberia’s main international airport has a new terminal
There are two international airports in Liberia, with most of the flights going into and out of Roberts International Airport (ROB) — which is located about 40 miles outside of the capital city of Monrovia.
Before the trip, our PeaceJam coordinator warned that the airport terminal was one of the least-developed airports she’d ever flown through.
But, when we arrived, we were surprised to find a new and relatively modern terminal. As it turns out, the new terminal opened in early 2019. The PeaceJam coordinator hadn’t seen the new building under construction as she’d arrived and departed on the middle-of-the-night Royal Air Maroc flights.
Still, you’ll want to have managed expectations about the country’s only international airport. There are two jet bridges, a simple lounge for business-class passengers. Some boarding passes and baggage tags are written by hand.
The traffic can be awful
Infrastructure is one of the most noticeable signs that Liberia is a least-developed country. During our stay, we traversed hundreds of miles by taxi, private car and a group van. Even near the capitol, we never saw a working stoplight and the roads rarely were wider than two lanes.
Almost all of the roads that we travelled on were paved, however, and it seems Liberia has plans to expand its main roads. We saw spray-painted Xs on many buildings, kiosks, sheds and signs along certain roads to show where construction is planned. On buildings not completely in the way and on some walls, lines were drawn showing how much would have to be removed for the new roadway.
The PeaceJam mentor explained that these were marked by the government to show obstacles that need to be removed as part of the country’s plans to widen the roads.
Some roads had been closed down for construction, but work on these roads wasn’t immediately obvious — making the traffic situation even worse. For now, you need to plan extra time to get around Liberia because of the traffic.
Although you may be able to arrange a rental car, you probably want to hire a driver to take you around the city. Our group of TPG employees paid about £195 per day for a van, driver and gas.
There’s a unique way of selling gas
On our drive from the airport, we noticed a stand selling what looked — at first — to be large jars of honey.
Later, we saw other larger stands with signs stating it was a “filling station.” We asked our driver and found out that there aren’t many working gas pumps. Plus, many Liberians can’t afford to fill up a gas tank. So, entrepreneurial Liberians have set up informal filling stations along the main roads.
The population is very young
Travelling around this West African country, we saw many children and young adults but not many older adults. We wondered if Liberia was as young as it seemed or if older adults were just indoors in the heat of the day.
So, we checked the CIA World Factbook. As it turns out, just over 6% of the population is 55 or older, and the average age is 17.8 years old — which ranks 217 out of 228 countries in the CIA World Factbook. This young population is, in part, due to two devastating and recent (1989-1997 and 1999-2003) civil wars that killed up to a million Liberians.
However, things have gotten better over the past few decades. Liberia’s life expectancy has soared from less than 35 years in 1960 to nearly 64 years in 2018.
Liberian English is different than U.S. and U.K. English
We understood that English was the primary language in Liberia, so we were surprised to find that there was a language barrier. Most Liberians speak “Liberian English,” which has very little in common with U.S. and U.K. English.
Many Liberians who we met could speak both versions, and printed signs were typically in a language we could read. However, some PeaceJam participants from more rural areas seemed to struggle to understand our U.S. English and preferred to speak with their friends in Liberian English.
There are 16 tribes in Liberia
Although the country of Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, they only made up a small minority of the population when the country was founded in 1822. The vast majority of the population were — and still are — descendants of 16 distinct African tribes.
Relationships between these tribes are both historically and currently complicated — far too complicated to do them justice in this article. However, tribal/ethnic identity is considered to be one of the major causes of the two Liberian civil wars that devastated the country between 1989-1997 and 1999-2003.
Cellphone service can be hit and miss
Katie and I both use Google Fi for cellphone service for our travels around the world. Although Liberia is listed as a supported country, we had no phone service the entire week that we were in the country — despite going through extensive troubleshooting steps with Google Fi.
We didn’t buy a SIM card at the airport upon arrival, as we assumed we’d be able to get Google Fi working, and we were unsuccessful at buying a SIM card for the rest of the trip. We passed many so-called “business centres” and “recharge stations,” but few had the ability to register a new SIM card. And we struck out each time that we found one that did. Either the person who was able to register new SIM cards wasn’t there or the registration system was down.
Liberia has an ecolodge and wildlife sanctuary
Because of limited flight schedules on the airlines we reviewed, we arrived in Liberia a couple of days before the rest of the TPG team. After spending the first night at The Farmington Hotel next to the airport, we met up with our PeaceJam coordinator, Lauren and her husband, and travelled to the Libassa Ecolodge.
The ecolodge provided a fascinating example of how some Liberians are hoping to build resorts to attract foreign tourism. Liberia’s visa policies make it difficult for potential tourists from many countries to visit, leaving the Libassa Ecolodge we stayed at quite empty.
There is a wildlife sanctuary on the same property as the Libassa Ecolodge. Having experienced infuriating faux ecotourism in the past, we were sceptical of this so-called sanctuary. But, after touring the sanctuary with a keeper, we were relieved to learn that this really seemed to be an ethical sanctuary.
The animals were almost all rescued after being hurt or improperly being kept as pets. Some animals were too permanently injured to be released, but the keepers had plans for those that were candidates to be released.
You might not want to get in the water
The Liberian beaches are generally beautiful, but we were told that we probably wouldn’t want to swim in the water. And, although we found the beaches to be a popular hangout, few people ventured too far into the surf.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the beaches face the open ocean, so we found that the waves were extremely strong and that there was a high risk of undertow. But also, as you get closer to the main city, we found that there was a significant amount of trash in the water and on the beach. We were warned that the water has sewage in it.
Liberia is a very cash-based society
Going into the trip, we were advised to bring as much cash as we expected to need. Most places in Liberia don’t accept credit cards, or if they do, you should bring cards with and without a PIN. We stayed at three of the best hotels in the country during our stay. At the ecolodge, the front desk could only accept cards with a PIN; the RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas only took cards without a PIN.
We saw only a few working ATMs during our entire time in the country. Most either were shut off or had signs indicating that they didn’t have cash. Two of the working ATMs were at the airport hotel, and both had a sign on top of them warning patrons that any distribution errors aren’t the responsibility of the hotel.
Liberia has its own Liberian dollar currency, but most places that cater to foreigners prefer to be paid in U.S. dollars. At the higher-end grocery store that we visited, the register accepted both U.S. and Liberian dollars. However, when we paid with U.S. dollars, we received change in Liberian dollars.
There’s an abandoned five-star hotel
From 1960 to 1989, Liberia had a five-star InterContinental Hotel located on one of the highest points in the capital of Monrovia. However, the Ducor Palace Hotel was closed and abandoned in 1989 as Liberia descended into civil war. The luxury hotel was heavily damaged but still stands today.
There were efforts to renovate the hotel in 2007, but today the hotel still is in ruins. You can easily approach the hotel by car, but to get inside the fence, you need to find (and tip) the right people. Also, bring some cash for the informal band of parking attendants and tour guides who will hassle you for a tip whether you want their help or not.
If you want to help make Liberia — and the world — a more peaceful place, we would love it if you would donate directly to the PeaceJam Foundation, or simply learn more about how to get involved with the Nobel Laureates and their individual causes.