Changing The Narrative: Facts On Liberia
At 8 years old I saw my first dead body. I was asleep at around 2AM when the first gunshot started. We fled in the middle of the night with whatever things we could carry from our home out of Monrovia. This was my third experience with the civil war that started in 1989, but this time I understood what was happening. Liberia as I knew it was slowly disappearing and my family would leave it all behind in hopes for a better life.
The United States became home for over a decade. The Liberian civil war lasted for 14 years. A nation of hundreds of years of history and culture is sadly only remembered for those 14 gruesome years of war. While it is true that bad news is often preferred over some good-old-fashioned-feel-good news, Liberia is so much more than what the media shows.
I am on a mission to change the narrative.
My name is Zuleka and this is my Liberia.
Fast Facts On Liberia
- Liberia is just a little bit larger than Tennessee
- Founded by Free Slaves
- Population- A little over 4 million
- Capital: Monrovia- named after U.S President James Monroe
- Official language: English (16 other indigenous languages)
- Religion: Majority Christian & less than 10% are of the Islamic faith and a small portion still practices traditional indigenous religion
Fun Facts On Liberia
- The first elected female Head Of State of Africa was Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia
- Media mogul Oprah Winfrey traced her ancestry to the Kpelle Tribe of Liberia
- Liberia has the third largest maritime registry in the world (meaning next to Panama and the Marshall Islands, there are more ships flying the Liberian flag than any other country) and the first to join Maritime Anti-Corruption Network
- Liberia is home to the only African football (soccer) player that won World Best Title: George Weah
- Liberia is one of the only three countries that still doesn’t use the metric system for measurement.
How Liberia Came To Be
Like America, there were native Liberians minding their business and living their life before Slaves returned from the United States of America in search of a “free land”. Liberia as we know it today was “founded” by Free Slaves or African-Americans. The American Colonization Society was an organization that formed in 1817 that sent free African-Americans back to Africa where they could establish a free independent nation called Liberia.
They left from America looking for a place to settle and Liberia and Sierra Leone were the ending points. They went back and did the exact same thing that Americans did to them: they started treating Natives like slaves. They felt like the superior ones coming from American and all…
The settlers and natives had battles and the power struggle led up the Civil War. The settlers knew nothing about the people, the land or their cultures, yet they called them “bush people” and tried to bring democracy and freedom to liberate them. Sound familiar? They would even set up the government excluding the Natives and denying them the right to partake in the development of this new nation.
Liberia’s first President was an American from Virginia name Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Settlers/Americo-Liberians would rule Liberia until the 1980 military coup that led to the first ethnic or Native president–thus the beginning of Liberia’s civil war.
The Civil War lasted from 1989-2003 (1989-1997 then again 1997-2003) There were sporadic breaks in between where rebel leader, Charles Taylor, was elected president. But then more war just continued when other rebels decided they didn’t want a rebel leader as president. An estimated 250,000 would die during this period of war and more than a million people like myself were forced into migrating to other countries.
Moving Away From Liberia
Originally there are 16 tribes that are all known for different things and located in different places. My mother is from the Kpelle tribe, the largest. The Americo-Liberians formed their own unofficial tribe called “Conger”. The other 16 tribes for the most part got along and speak their own dialect with their tribes. But the civil war made people not trust each other. Natives are mostly blaming other tribes for “selling out” to the settlers (who were not White, but Blacks from Virginia and Maryland). While I can only speak on my mother’s tribe and I am not even qualified to do that because I was raised in the city and being “Native” was frowned upon, the settlers taught our people to be ashamed of our tribe.
So here I was, an ashamed Liberian leaving my country for the USA to escape people FROM the USA in my own home country and I had to rebuild my life. And honestly the rebuilding part was hard. The adjustment and leaving everything I know behind. I’ve learned to not be attached easily for that reason. My family literally escaped the war dressed up as random people and snuck into the back of a truck.
Once I left Liberia and got to America, people were not kind.
Most of my bullying in America were by African-Americans. Saying things about me like:
- “African booty-scratcher.” We are both African so what does that make you?
- “Go Back To Africa.” I would but forced migration brought me here.
- “Off the boat.” Ain’t no boat coming here from Africa! We buy $1400 plane tickets.
- “I wanna go to Africa someday.” Who is holding you? We welcome Americans with open arms.
- “I want to go to Africa. I want to see a safari.” Africa is so much more than that.
- “I wanna go to Africa to help poor people.” Just don’t! Africa does not need your old clothes or help. There are poor and homeless people in the USA.
- “I want a Dashiki from Africa.” We Liberians don’t call it Dashiki, we call it Lappa. And most of what you wear is made in China.
What is ironic is that these same people who would make fun of me, now ask me to bring them back African prints.
Yo, let me get a Dashiki when you get back from Africa.
No, this African Booty Scratcher will not get you a Dashiki because she doesn’t even know what that is. You want a Lappa shirt? I got you!
Or I had people in college call me Erykah Badu when I wore my head wraps. So where did you think she got it from?
Now I hope you don’t get it twisted because I love both of my identities. The freedom to be who I am and cuss out everyone comes with me being American. But the moral sense to give back and respect people and their culture comes from Liberia. And I don’t want to tell a bad story or a sad one. That narrative is all over the internet.
So let me tell you about Liberia: the country that gives me life.
Liberia doesn’t need to be “fixed”
I moved back to Liberia in 2013 fresh out of grad school ready to “fix” all the problems like many people that come to Africa. In my naive thinking as a Liberian-American, I set up a charity to provide resources to students in the rural parts of Liberia. You have to understand there are still schools where students sit on the floor without notebooks and pencils. Coming from the land of waste (USA), I felt obligated to provide the very minimum materials needed for schools in need.
In less than two years, I soon found myself asking the same people for help continuously and running out of ways to sustain the project. I depleted all my personal resources and didn’t see much of an impact. As I brainstormed sustainable ways to give back, Liberia was not waiting for me. Africa, as a whole is not waiting for outside intervention to be “fixed”. People here continue to live with or without the intervention of those trying to “save the world”.
When we think of Africa as this poor place waiting for people to “fix” it, we miss out on the opportunity of actually experiencing the true beauty of Africa. As I settled into Liberia to find a way to give back to a place that contributed to so much of my personal values, I realized Liberia gave back to me. Liberia gave me an understanding of who I was and I want to share pieces of it with the world.
So here are my Top 10 Reasons To Travel To Liberia
1. FOOD is life
I eat rice at least twice a day! There are other foods like plantains, cassava, yam, fufu (made from cassava), but rice will always be my sweetheart. Liberians are known for eating rice all year round. If you are a vegetarian or have problems with people eating meat, stay far away from me.
My daily meals here comprise of a little bit of everything! When I say everything, I mean a little bit of fish, pieces of meat from cow/goat/sheep, some crab, crawfish, and clam. Being close to the sea, the abundance of fish makes my kitchen table feel like Legal Seafood (Hi, Boston).
I like to think of the diet here as SEE Food; what you see, you eat! The fruits are colorful and the grains are farm to table. You see your chicken walking around days before it gets to your plate. There are no gluten free, sugar free, or devil-free food here. Whatever you want you can get (well except strawberries, I miss those). But there is certainly no room here for those made-for-America and White Jesus labels. Just eat!
2. PEOPLE are nice
Liberian people are some of the kindest people you will ever meet. In fact, at first interaction we refer to strangers as “my friend”. I would go to the market and vendors will be saying “my sister, come buy oooo” or I will need directions and often hear “excuse me yah, my friend” or “My friend, please direct me”. It amazes me that someone will refer to me as a friend or sister on our very first encounter.
After living in cold New England (weather and people), it is nice to be greeted with such warmth. For people that are supposedly in the Top 20 Poorest Nations In The World, their attitude is worth millions. It doesn’t matter how bad things are, Liberians will always say “I alreh ooo” meaning I am alright.
There are 16 indigenous groups/tribes in Liberia and they were there way before the settlers of Americo-Liberians. Officially the tribes of Liberia are Kpelle (the largest tribe and my mother’s tribe) Bassa, Mano, Mende, Grebo, Lorma, Fante, Dei, Belleh, Gola, Gio, Kru,,Mandingo, Kissi, Krahn,and Via. Unofficially, the Americo-Liberians refer to themselves as Congo, and can be counted among the tribes although they make up only about 2% of the population.
Liberians usually take on the identity of their father. So if you had a Grebo father who married a Kissi woman, you will be considered a Grebo person. But my father came from Sierra Leone and married my Kpelle mother so my identity in Liberia is a Kpelle woman.
Each tribe has their own unique cultural practices and traditions. You can see why when people try to put all of Africa in one box it annoys me. Liberia alone has 16 tribes with a million traditions and practices. I do not know and can’t speak on all of them. So the next time you ask me about a random ass tribal mark you saw on National Geographic, I have no idea, homie! And please stop asking me if I speak African!
3. LANGUAGE is easy
The official language is English, but that is just for the textbooks. I like to think of our English as fast-forward English or chopped up English with a dash of slangs. What you hear in the streets is called Koloqua (colloquial). A typical conversation with me in Liberia goes like this: do not enunciate your words , leave out the ending syllables of every word and add ooo to things just because.
ENGLISH: ” I am not going”
KOLOQUA: “I na goin’ nowhere ooo”
I remember talking to my mom on the phone in college and people will say what language were you just speaking and I’ll shrug and say “English, duh!” Technically, I was not lying, just speaking Liberian-English.
4. DATING is entertaining
Any given day, I find myself getting cat calls from random guys on the street. But their pick-up lines are just laughable. A guy told me I look like “a home cooked meal.” On another occasion, I was told “thank you for the body you got ooo.” There is no shame in their game. You will see men with wedding rings shamelessly making advances.
Liberian men will charm your ears off. If there ever is a girl that needed an ego boost, Liberia is the place for you. There is enough love here to go around and you can find it on every corner. The typical West African man is known to say the sweetest things in pursuit of a woman’s heart.
Dates are mostly on the men. We are not even going to talk about no feminism or equality when men are out here trying to wine, dine and make you the mother of their 7 children on just the first date! I wish I was joking. I have been told straight to my face over a nice meal “I cannot wait to get you pregnant!” or “You look like the mother of my 4 future children.” Check please! No amount of food is worth 18 years of torture. Oh! And I took my to-go box.
5. LABOR is cheap
Labor is ridiculously cheap! I have a driver, a cook, a security guard and an errand guy. I am not even close to what would be considered “rich” here. I quote “rich” because it is limited to finances and I see riches as more than that. When I say labor is cheap, I mean my cook makes $100 USD/month while my security is $70 USD/month. If you ask me, security is much more important, but I don’t make the rules. I guess making fufu is much more important than protecting my life. Oh well!
I think I live like a Queen in a place considered “poverty stricken”. I get to provide job opportunities for people that I’ve come to consider family. My cook has been with me since I was 6 years old. We got separated during the war, but when I returned, I had to find her. And I did. She is family now.
There are two reasons why labor is cheap: The lack of jobs means every and anything is a job, and the lack of opportunities and education. I do not take for granted that I had the opportunity to be educated which affords me the luxury of having certain things. I’m able to afford a driver, a maid and a security guard because of a steady income. I also have no family to provide for and a network of other people pushing me to want more.
I also like to think of myself as providing employment for three more people as my maid, driver and security are all providing for their families. The gap between those that can afford and those that are barely making it is huge. In 2014, the House of Representatives passed a law making minimum wage in Liberia $6/day for skilled workers and $4/day for unskilled…let that sink in.
But for the purposes of traveling to Liberia, it will take a little for you to make a big difference by providing jobs to those who need it.
6. RELIGION is fun
Religion is such a big deal here. I find myself caught between praise songs and prayers at every major event. The idea that people do not believe in God is unheard of. There is a church on every corner like McDonalds in New York. People question my life when I tell them I am relaxing on a Sunday instead of attending church services. Just about everyone has a church that they attend and if you do not, you are clearly a bad person. It is that simple.
The typical church in Liberia will last 2-4 hours. I love Jesus and want to see him someday, but there is no way I am sitting 2-4 hours to listen to how I can see Jesus soon. Nope, not today or ever! But for a visitor, you should visit on Sundays because they are so colorful and fashionable. People dressed up lavishly in African garments going to worship.
Church services are also loud. Singing and shouting on various corners on regular days and even more so on Sunday mornings. You know the song Easy Like Sunday Morning? Yeah, that does not apply here. There are pastors in the streets with baskets for tithe and people yelling on a megaphone in the market in hopes of “winning souls for Jesus”.
I grew up in the Lutheran faith and we are pretty low-key when it comes to worshiping. The loud noise and active recruitment of souls for Christ is not our forte. I sing from hymnals and repeat after the pastor and within an hour I am smiling out of service.
Liberians celebrates Thanksgiving like America. They celebrate this day as a day mostly in church giving thanks to God for being a free country when most of Africa was under colonial rule. Christian holidays are also big! On Good Friday, kids will dress up statues/stick figures they call Judas. At 3 in the afternoon, they drag the figure around beating it up for betraying Jesus. It is entertaining to see how much anger kids have beating up a man that killed their White Jesus.
7. MONEY conversions are good for shopping
We use Liberian dollars (LRD) and the United States Dollars (USD). When I go to the local market, I find people giving me prices in USD, but I negotiate in Liberian dollars. If you know about shopping in Africa, you know buying and negotiations go hand-in-hand. The exchange rate is currently 1 USD to 140 LRD, but that changes every other day. The cost of living is really cheap, but can be costly if you want to live like a Westerner.
Example: Sometimes, I want a nice cup of coffee or cappuccino so I go to the touristy area. That runs for about the same thing as a Starbucks on 5th Avenue. When I just want mixed coffee from a street vendor, it costs less than a 1USD. The choice to live my best life seriously depends on the amount of money in my wallet on any given day.
8. ATTRACTIONS are plentiful
Liberia is on the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. I can walk to the beach from anywhere in the capital city. You have to understand that I lived in New England (Boston & Rhode Island) for over 10 years. As far as I am concerned we had cold days and not too cold days. All the four seasons I read about in text books are FAKE NEWS! I remembered days I had to walk through snow storms to get to classes. I questioned my life then. I often wondered if my immigrant parents missed California or Florida when they chose Rhode Island.
Being in Liberia with such close proximity to beaches, I made a permanent spot in my closet just for bathing suits. When I am not lying around on the beach, I like to leave the capital to see other attractions in rural areas. There are waterfalls, mountains, and one of the largest protected rain forests in Africa.
I have a love hate relationship with nature though. I love being outside, but no bugs please! I also enjoy watching the stars on any given night, but I hate those annoying crickets.
Holidays like former president’s birthday or national fast prayer day are just excuses to hang out on the beach. Liberia will be 171 years old this July. That is 171 years of old stuff with rich stories to blow your mind. I spend most of my days finding new attractions in this old nation.
9. LAWS are ridiculous (OK, maybe this isn’t a reason to travel here, but something you should know)
So, customary laws allow Liberian men to have up to four wives. So if I were to marry a Liberian man in a traditional ceremony, he can bring 3 more women into that marriage. Surprise! Imagine on your honeymoon and three other chicks pop up like where can we put our stuff? It is not a regular practice, but this law exists. I just wanted to throw it out there.
P.S. I will not be getting married to a Liberian man in a traditional ceremony. You want 3 wives, I got wigs homie. Let’s go!
Also, same-sex marriage is illegal in Liberia. There is a general negative attitude towards the LGBTQ communities in Liberia. In fact, their existence is a secret. There’s harassment and a stigma associated with this community. The religious aspect of Liberian culture makes them discriminate in the name of White Jesus and hell. Every other law for crimes apply so I just try not to get arrested by not stealing, killing, running traffic lights (there are not that many lights, though), etc.
10. TRANSPORTATION is madness
Taxi cabs, luxury cars, buses, Kehkeh (tuk-tuk) and motorbikes are all my method of transportation here. When I lived in rural Liberia, I had a motorbike. There is so much freedom that comes with running through the open road (mostly dusty roads, but that is not the point). In the city, I get around with a vehicle. We drive on the same side of the road as the US.
There is entirely too much happening on the roads to be in the drivers seat so I’ll settle for the passenger’s seat. The traffic rules are nonexistent and street vendors walk between cars. I spend way too much time in kehkeh because it gives me an opportunity to be close to the happenings of the road. I spend about $100 LRD to have the kehkeh all to myself for an hour navigating through the madness that makes me love this place.
My Life In Liberia
My Life in Liberia can be summed up with the Nike slogan Just Do It. The United States offered me opportunities I am grateful for, but Liberia will always be home. There is a care free sense of life with a hint of love here for me. The memories of the war and my childhood that was erased only fade in the back of my head. I am creating new memories here every day. I live a life with almost no trace of the war because I refuse to allow that to define my Liberian identity. I watch everyday as people pick up their pieces and move the F on! There is no room to play victim. I ride around in my kehkeh and people watch or lie around on beaches getting all my life. And I love watching African-Americans wanting to come to Liberia to seek their roots.
Wakanda and Zamunda are not real places. You want to identify with Africa and her diverse cultures, buy a plane ticket and see for yourself. There is no Vibranium in Liberia, but there’s fufu! I mean it is pretty damn magical if you ask me.
My name is Zuleka and my Liberia is bullet holes, kehkeh and beaches.
When can I host you?
About The Author
Randell Zuleka Dauda is a Liberian-American who uses her platform to educate people about Liberia as she strongly believes Africans need to tell their own stories in order to change the images and narratives of the public. She currently sits on the board of the Gbarnga Lutheran Mission Project and is an advisor to Anything is Everything . Both local 501c non-profits run by locals looking to revamp the Liberian education system, so no White savior complex here. You can reach Randell at email@example.com. She can also be spotted in a head wrap and smiling on IG. Follow her below: