165 Years Young And Counting: What Have We Really Got To Celebrate?


Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first president of Liberia

We Liberians know how to throw a good party.

Whether we live in zinc shacks or in immaculate mansions, we thrive on celebration. I’ve been back in Monrovia from London only three weeks now and have already attended four graduation parties and one baby shower.

For us, life is an endless party.

That’s what I imagine July 26th will be like this year, as it has been in previous years, a synchronized, country-wide block party, with transnational celebrations throughout the Diaspora — from Accra to Conakry, London to Oslo, Philadelphia to Minneapolis.

On July 26th, Liberians all over the world will be belting out the National Anthem, singing with great glee the part of the song where we “ENJOY, ENJOY, ENJOY, ENJOY!!!” Because this is what we know how to do best.

The calls for July 26th have already started. “Happy 26th!,” I keep hearing over and over again. “My 26th on you, oh!,” people keep saying in jest. I can’t help feeling this grinding sensation under the tongue, though, like something is not quite right.

The fact of the matter is, I’m not convinced that we have so much to celebrate after 165 years as the “first African republic.”

I wonder what will happen when the music comes to an abrupt halt, as it will inevitably.
I wonder what will happen when we realize that our middle-aged regional neighbors, with larger populations and fewer resources, are light years ahead of us.
I wonder if we’ll ever really wake up, if we’ll ever sober up to the realities that are too difficult to ignore.

Last year, Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia used to be lit with light poles the height of paw-paw trees. Now it’s as dark as the Guinea forest. This is a recipe for countless accidents.

Dr. D. Elwood Dunn will serve as the orator for the 165 Independence Anniversary.
[/B]Though there have been some improvements, some roads in Monrovia are still riddled with holes the size of bomb craters. Driving on SKD Boulevard, once heralded as the first major post-war road reconstruction project, is like riding a bucking bull in an American rodeo. Across the Bridge, Somalia Drive looks like a civil war memorial, with two cracked narrow lanes surrounded by puddles of red dirt.

But what I’ve just described is merely cosmetic. What about our psyches?

No matter how much we party to numb our pain, we cannot escape the tragedy of being both human and Liberian at the same time. Recently, I attended the funeral of my former student Derek Reeves, who was only two months shy of his college graduation from Stella Maris Polytechnic. Small in stature with the maturity of someone three times his age, 24-year-old Derek was a brilliant mind whose future was dotted with endless possibilities. Derek died while he was waiting to be airlifted to the newly built Jackson F. Doe Memorial Hospital in Tappita for a CT scan. Unfortunately, JFD has the only CT scan machine in the country.

Although an official police report is forthcoming, Derek’s family and friends say he was brutally attacked by pem-pem riders who valued his laptop more than his life. He likely suffered from internal bleeding. As I glanced quickly at his lifeless body in a coffin filled with a featherbed of white pillows, I felt deflated and angry. Derek’s death is a gross indictment of our health care and security systems.

If Derek had been a minister’s son, or a cousin/brother/nephew/friend of someone with national prominence, he may have gotten immediate medical attention. If his family had had loads of money to transport him to Ghana or the U.S., he may have survived. Most of us who can afford to do so leave the country for health care, which means we do not bother making it more efficient for the vast majority of people who can’t leave Liberia.

Derek’s death shows that Liberia is still deeply divided amongst the haves and have-nots. His death reminds me that the specter of the civil war still hangs over us with unresolved angst. Young men who are unemployed and idle pose the greatest threat to our record nine-year peace. People talk about how bad the armed robbery situation is getting nowadays. It used to be worse before the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and the Police Support Unit (PSU) were established. But we haven’t arrived yet.

The more things change the more they remain the same. In a recent conversation with 2012 national orator Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, he told me that in 1979, when he gave his first July 26th speech a few months after the rice riots, the government had “mental reservations” about real transformation and change. Dr. Dunn said that the same reservations exist today, with the current regime obsessed with eradicating material poverty, but not concerned enough about eliminating poverty of the mind.

It seems to me that our country has been in perpetual degeneration, like we’ve grown younger and younger with each passing year. Liberia has discovered the fountain of youth and we haven’t bothered to tell anyone else about it. In a cosmetic sense, this sounds selfishly positive. Developmentally, it’s a tragedy of errors.

On July 26th, rather than burning the midnight oil with countless parties, perhaps we should be more reflective this year. On July 26th, rather than extolling 165 years of independence, perhaps we should be talking about how we need to grow up.

[B]Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey[/B] is an opinion fellow with [LINK=http://www.newnarratives.org/]New Narratives[/LINK], a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at