An aerial view of Monrovia with Providence Island in the middle. Mamba Point sits to the left. Photo by Derrick Michael Kollie
By Sean Boda
“The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.” These words, emblazoned across the top of Liberia’s coat of arms, embody the significance, and the contradictions, of a nation founded by Black Americans fleeing slavery and oppression in the United States. That emigration, supported by a $100,000 grant from Congress to the American Colonization Society (ACS), began the United States’ longest and most unique relationship with Africa. Two hundred years ago, Jan. 7, 1822, the first group of free Black men, women, and children from the United States arrived on Providence Island, a small island at the mouth of the Mesurado River in what would become the city of Monrovia, the world’s only foreign capital named after a U.S. President. This was at a time when many of America’s founding fathers were still alive, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was still more than 40 years away. Twenty-five years later, in 1847, Liberia became a free and independent African republic—the first of its kind.
Over the course of the 19th century, roughly 16,000 Black Americans emigrated from the United States to Liberia with the support of ACS, an organization formed in 1816 with the explicit purpose of establishing a homeland for free and freed Black Americans in Africa. Motivations varied between the mix of slave owners, abolitionists, and religious leaders who founded ACS. The reality of 19th century America meant some abolitionists and Black Americans themselves believed that Black Americans would only find true freedom in their own homeland, and white slave owners feared that the presence of educated, free Blacks could motivate unrest among the slave population. The motivations of the actual immigrants also varied widely, from evangelical fervor to bring Christianity to Africa, to economic opportunities, to the frequent stipulation that freed slaves relocated to Liberia as a condition of being freed by their owners. In Liberia, these American immigrants were eventually joined by thousands of Africans rescued and freed from the transatlantic slave trade (outlawed by the United States in 1808) by the U.S. Navy.
Liberia became a beacon of hope for the African diaspora, attracting immigrants from colonies in the Caribbean, and, after independence in 1847, from across the African continent. Africa’s oldest republic, modern day Liberia, survived a 14-year period of civil war from 1989-2003 and an Ebola epidemic from 2014-2016 to become a stable democracy in West Africa. The country remains an important partner of the United States.
The United States’ diplomatic history with Liberia reflects its importance as a historical partner and ally over the past two centuries. In fact, 10 of Liberia’s 25 presidents were born in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln first recognized Liberia in 1862 and established the first American Legation in 1864. In the 1940s, Liberia became an important ally during World War II. The United States built Roberts Field, which remains Liberia’s only international airport, as well as the deep-water port of Monrovia because of the logistical significance of Liberia as America’s gateway to Africa during and after the war.
A short film shot on a drone by an embassy family member visiting post and traveling around Liberia. It includes footage of Monrovia, Nimba Mountain, Robertsport, Blue Lake, and more. Video by Chris Westland
In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first democratically elected female president in African history, and, in 2018, Liberia experienced its first fully democratic transition of power in 74 years. Current President George Weah, a former soccer star in Europe, managed the drawdown of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, stabilized double-digit inflation, and signed a freedom of press act that decriminalized defamation and insult. In fact, Liberia is one of the few countries in the world to go from hosting a U.N. peacekeeping mission to contributing soldiers and police officers to U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Embassy Monrovia hosts a number of agencies in addition to Department of State staff, including a robust USAID mission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes for Health, Peace Corps, and the Department of Defense (DOD). With around 70 direct hires, the community is as diverse as it is close knit. The new embassy compound, inaugurated a decade ago, is a fantastic place for nature-watching. Backed by old-growth trees, the spacious chancery is a pollinator’s paradise, with cattle egrets, yellow-billed kites, and Monrovia’s largest population of diurnal straw-colored fruit bats calling the grounds home.
“For me, this post has offered it all: Nature-watching from my office window, a chance to see U.S. history from a different lens, and extraordinarily candid conversations with my high-level Liberian counterparts who view us as true and trusted partners,” said International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) Director Sunshine Ison.
Officers serving at Mission Liberia are almost spoiled for the frequent and close contact with government officials that is available to them.
Just a short walk away, the former embassy compound—a stunning piece of property abutting the ocean—boasts a pool, gym, tennis and basketball courts, children’s playground, and other amenities, as well as embassy housing. The large open spaces are appreciated by families with children who enjoy running and biking around the property.
“We love it here. We feel very safe, we’ve developed lifetime friendships, the kids can run freely in the compound, and we love how the school is family oriented,” said Community Liaison Officer Saoussan Hanna.
The easy walking distance between most embassy housing and both compounds is a huge quality of life benefit for embassy personnel. The neighborhood, Mamba Point, is a hilly area that juts out of the ocean where dramatic waves crash on the rocks below, wooden fishing boats sail by, and hundreds of thousands of migratory fruit bats roost during the dry season.
Liberia also has a wet season, with Monrovia claiming the superlative, “wettest capital in the world.” While technically true, fierce rainstorms are interspersed with blue skies and stunning sunsets, and many officers cite the rain and clean air as a unique positive element of their tour. Unfortunately, these frequent rains from May through November cause havoc to the road network outside the capital—especially dirt roads which often become impassable. This can constrain Mission travel and turn one-day trips in the dry season into multi-day hauls during the rainy season. But getting “out of town” is both popular and an adventure for work and for recreation. Mission staff can easily get away to local beach resorts, or head “upcountry” to access national parks and wildlife refuges. Almost 70% of Liberia’s land surface is tropical rain forest, and elusive wildlife, such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, and pygmy hippopotamuses, call this land home.
Of course, transportation is just one of the many challenges facing Liberia, but the day-to-day difficulties of operating in a developing West African nation are mitigated by working with perhaps the world’s most pro-American population and having consistent access to the highest levels of government.
“Our 200-year history with Liberia, their pro-American predisposition, the meaningful impact of our work, the great post morale across agencies, and the high quality of life for officers and families is a combination unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere,” said Political and Economic Counselor Joel Kopp.
The friendly people in Liberia remember the fact that the United States stayed. The U.S. embassy remained open during the brutal 14 years of civil conflict, which included heroic efforts from U.S. Marines, local staff, and leadership to protect American and Liberian citizens and help negotiate a ceasefire. The U.S. embassy stayed during the Ebola crisis as well, bringing in health and military support to help stop the spread of the disease. And most importantly, the Mission is still there, working together with Liberians to continue to rebuild and work toward a more self-sufficient country less reliant on donor support and better prepared for the next century of the bilateral relationship.
The government and people of Liberia are celebrating the bicentennial of the arrival of the first American immigrants throughout 2022. The kick-off events in February coincide with America’s Black History Month, an appropriate coincidence given the important chapter of Black history which Liberia itself represents. The bicentennial presents unique opportunities for the U.S. mission to emphasize the strong historical ties between the United States and Liberia, while also focusing on the current and future partnership.
U.S.-based companies have also played important roles in Liberia’s development. Firestone, for example, has for more than 95 years operated one of the world’s largest rubber plantations in Liberia, making significant contributions to the country’s social and economic development and leading the private sector in providing employment, education, and health care opportunities for thousands of Liberians.
The United States is the largest bilateral donor to Liberia and has provided over $4.4 billion in assistance since 2003. Today, U.S. development funding provides around $110 million each year, the majority of which goes to health and education.
“With one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, nearly a third of children chronically malnourished, and routine stock-outs of essential medicines, it is very rewarding to see firsthand the tremendous impact of the U.S. government support to the health sector,” said USAID Health Officer Jessica Healey. “Working directly with the minister of health and her dedicated team, USAID is rebuilding Liberian health services to fight current and future outbreaks of malaria, Ebola, Lassa fever, polio, tuberculosis, and COVID-19. USAID works directly with local communities to save the lives of thousands of Liberians every year from treatable diseases. What better way to spend our health resources.”
Over the next year, USAID will be celebrating 60 years of a successful development partnership with Liberia that has helped build key Liberian institutions. Those institutions include the country’s two leading teacher institutes and the major tertiary health care provider, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center.
Peace Corps, which has been in Liberia since 1962, remains extremely popular and many returned Peace Corps volunteers maintain their ties with Liberia. The country’s largest basketball tournament, for example, was established by Peace Corps volunteers in the 1970s. The DOD and the Department’s INL bureau helped the Liberian military and police, respectively, build from scratch after post-war demobilization. Public Affairs manages a network of American Spaces across the country, which gives the Mission a permanent presence in difficult-to-reach areas. Their exchange programs, including the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, and the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, are extremely popular and competitive. It seems nearly every government minister has ties to the United States, whether because they lived there, studied there, or have relatives residing there. Everyone, it seems, has a connection with the country many Liberians consider a big sibling.
Liberia’s potential is immense, and its future is bright, despite many ongoing challenges. This old nation with a young population, the majority of whom was born after the civil war, is eager to build upon its historical legacy of freedom and pan-African leadership, and fight the pervasive corruption that is holding the country back. As Liberians build Liberia’s future, the United States will continue supporting the historic partnership, working together.
Sean Boda is the public affairs officer at Embassy Monrovia.