In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Rumor from Monrovia
  • Michael Coles (bio)

“He is going on safari,” an acquaintance taunted. “You like hiding behind your lens?” another asked. A gauntlet of jabs swirled through my head as I crammed film canisters into Ziploc and x-ray bags while preparing for a trip to the West African country of Liberia. I was aiming to photograph stills of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) clinic in the war-torn city of Monrovia for a documentary film. My energy was primed, yet the reactions of folks to whom I mentioned this trip grated on me. “We don’t know enough about you to write an obit,” a supposed friend swiped.

I never got to see much of the African bush, or for that matter any exotic wildlife—just a look at a certain urban Africa and the aftermath of a fractured city. Monrovia had been brought to its knees by back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003. The wars had killed over 200,000 people, and reportedly half of Liberia’s population of 3 million had been displaced.

In the summer of 2005, Monrovia appeared post-apocalyptic during the rain season. Electric grids were destroyed. No running water. No sewage. After sunset, danger was omnipresent, tangible. The city felt pre-medieval. An MSF doctor let me know that the going rate to have somebody killed was 50 U.S. dollars.

Where is Liberia? Who knows or cares about a country whose lone-star flag so closely resembles that of the United States, whose history is inextricably tied to freed American slaves, and whose capital is named after the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe?

Upon arriving at Roberts Airfield, I took note of UN planes on the ground. A substantial UN peacekeeping force was at hand to help secure free elections. I had read and heard about Charles Taylor’s various crimes and manipulations, Monrovia’s notorious past of child soldiers and beheadings. [End Page 147] Lurid news descriptions bordered on the sensational and phantasmagoric. Taylor now was exiled in Nigeria, yet his presence still could be very much felt.

On the drive into Monrovia, our car sped and swerved along a half blown-up road, unsuccessfully dodging stray dogs and mortar-size potholes. “The man is still strong,” one of the drivers said in reference to Taylor. He then added that Taylor liked to import and use powerful witch doctors from Togo. Perhaps that explained the constant possibility of volatility that tainted the air. Some Liberians seemed to expect Taylor to return and rule Monrovia again.

In the following days, I would walk through streets where garbage spewed out of cemeteries. I passed through markets, gazing at carts full of football-size mollusks next to slabs of meat laid out on streets buzzing with flies. On other city corners, leopard skins were sold alongside sneakers. Torch workers protected their eyes with flimsy sunglasses as they patched up roads and buildings. Children balanced large trays upon their heads, selling 30-pound fish pulled from the ocean.

Amid lowered eyes, hips and muscles, tank tops and colorful umbrellas filled the streets. Humidity was thick. Bands of dark clouds pushed out into the ocean as building swells moved in. The sun broke a little between rains every afternoon, gleaming on broken concrete and sewage streams rolling though passageways.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

© Michael Coles

[End Page 148]

Click for larger view
View full resolution

© Michael Coles

Monrovia appeared to be a matrix of a crumbling world: bullet holes riddled the infrastructure of streets, buildings, and abandoned buses. Walls surrounding residences were topped with shards of glass and spikes. Political posters of the two presidential candidates for the upcoming free elections stuck to these walls—George Weah, an international soccer star backed by the French, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a candidate supported by the United States. For all the grit and ruin, the city was trying to stand up and carry on.

Many Liberians seemed to possess an Atlas-like strength, a grim patience, and a kind of cool—never mind the squalor and suffering endured for so long. It is hard to...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 147-152
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.