Friday, February 20, 2009

One Wheel and Two Strong Arms Carry Liberia's Freight

The ride from suburban Brewerville, where we are staying and where Lott Carey is located, into Monrovia is endlessly fascinating. One market area after another lines both sides of the road right up to the pavement. Sitting in the car passenger's seat, one is within arm's length of market stalls selling everything from rice, fresh produce, CDs and used clothing. Hardware, tools, women's lingerie, dried fish and "fresh" meat, lappas, motorbikes and shoes are all available at the market. The roadside between the pavement and the sellers stalls (what we might call the "shoulder" of the road - here that area functions as a combination sidewalk, freight lane and cab lane all in one narrow space pushed up alongside moving traffic!) is choked with people. People are everywhere and all are hustling and bustling. Everyone has some kind of business to attend to and everyone is trying to get somewhere. The city of Monrovia is so overcrowded and the population is so dense, it is much like India or China in that people are very closely packed. Public transportation is almost non-existent. Those factors combined with the fact that most of the country's roads were destroyed during the war means that traffic is a really huge problem!

Traffic is such a major problem it often takes as much as an hour to go twenty miles into the city from here in the suburbs. Rev. Sam-Peale, our very gracious host, thinks it is very funny that we love to get caught in the traffic. Sitting in an air conditioned car inches from the hustle and bustle is endlessly entertaining for us. It really rivals any television or movie I have ever seen!

In Liberia fuel is far more expensive than labor. Two strong arms and a wheelbarrow are the delivery trucks of Monrovia. We have seen wheelbarrows loaded with as much as 400 pounds of rice being pushed down the street. We have also seen wheelbarrows stacked with huge loads of lumber being pushed and pulled along by as many as three or four men uphill!

Some merchants hire wheelbarrow operators to deliver goods from their stores to their customers, some operators hire out to individuals who are shopping and need their purchases carried home. Some merchants have their own wheelbarrows that serve as portable kiosks filled with their merchandise. Anything sold in a market stall is also sold from a wheelbarrow.

Wheelbarrows are all over the city and the wheelbarrow operators are self-organized into unions according to their particular sector of the city. Today we visited the "union hall" of the National Association of Wheelbarrow Operators-Liberia who operate out of the Duala Market area. I had a nice chat with one of the union leaders who told me that his group, NAWOL, has 400 members. He explained to me that the wheelbarrows are all marked with a number and the operators show up in the morning at the Union Hall (an outdoor area adjacent to a sort of general retail store) to get their assignments for the day. He assigns them a number, they find the wheelbarrow and begin to work. It seems that the numbers are assigned according to what has to be carried or delivered.

The wheelbarrow unions are a close group of independent people who look out for each other, defend each other in a very tough business environment and help each other in times of trouble such as sickness or family problems. They are an incredible group of workers who keep commerce going in this city and surrounding areas.

Some reading this blog may recognize the shirts the guys are wearing in the picture. I delivered a small gift to a few of them when I visited today. T-shirts from union brothers in the US were greatly appreciated and are now being worn very proudly by the wheelbarrow operators of Duala Market!

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