When William Powers arrived in Liberia in 1999 as an aid worker, he found a country rife with poverty, environmental devastation and corrupt leadership. He also found one of the world's most beautiful rainforests and a people filled with optimism. Powers chronicles his experiences in the book "Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge" and he joins Living on Earth guest host Bruce Gellerman to talk about what it's like living in, what he calls, "a fourth world country."
GELLERMAN: Now, to Liberia where in 1999, William Powers traveled to the west African nation to take over as director of projects for Catholic Relief Services. Powers was fresh out of graduate school and filled with idealism and a healthy dose of fear. Seven years of a bloody civil war had ripped Liberia apart and the next seven years of so-called "peace" under then President Charles Taylor weren't much better.
Still, Powers believed in his mission to fight poverty and save Liberia's rainforest. He spent two years there trying to teach Liberians to live sustainably. But, it was the lessons he learned about, what he calls, "the fourth world" that endure.
William Powers has chronicled his experience in Liberia in a new book, "Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge." Mr. Powers, How's da body?
POWERS: Body fine-o.
GELLERMAN: You really have a voice in this book that really captures the sounds of the people from Liberia.
(Credit: William Powers)
POWERS: That's right. The Liberian English is actually a mixture of African dialects and, you know, English from the American South.
GELLERMAN: That's because Liberia was formed from American-freed slaves.
POWERS: It's America and Africa. It's our quasi-colony, the only one we actually set up in Africa. And you hear in the – for example, around Christmas time, people will say, "Compliments of the season," which comes, I think, right out the 1800s in the States. And, you know, the country was set up by former American slaves, as a way of going back to Africa. So, there's a good sense of it being sort of a part of ourselves.
GELLERMAN: You write very passionately at the beginning of the book about your first impressions, and I wonder if you could share those with us?
POWERS: Well, one of the first impressions was just driving from the airport into Monrovia. You're going along this road where all the telephone poles have been decapitated and the wires are hanging out like spaghetti, just coming out of the poles. And, then you end up in the downtown area of this capital city, which is just a bombed-out area, you know, buildings that are just falling to the ground and marked with mortar shells. And yet, against this background of total human devastation is the most brilliant ocean, palm trees everywhere, a lush kind of jungle that's right there coming out of every possible crack in the city.
And then, of course, arriving at my house at Carolina Farms, where I went through the gates and it was just this beautiful compound of villas, like Italian villas, on this river that empties into the Atlantic. And people with pet chimpanzees and a kind of bizarre new colonial world that I never had even dreamed of when I signed up to work with CRS in Africa.
GELLERMAN: Kind of ironic that here you've got this country that, you know, was of freed American slaves, and yet you're returning back to, basically, a plantation system.
POWERS: Well, that's the interesting thing. I mean, historically, the former slaves that went back established kind of a black on black apartheid system that was one of the worst the world's ever seen. It's almost like South Africa's. The True Whig party – which was these America Liberians, the ones who were former slaves – reestablished antebellum sort of master/servant relationships. And they'd build these houses just like in the American South – which you can still see today in Liberia – with fireplaces. I mean, who needs a fireplace in the tropics? And they would sit on the wraparound porches and watch the 99 percent indigenous Africans work their plantations.
And, interestingly enough, actually, Liberia was brought to charges on slavery in the 1920s by the League of Nations and it toppled their president and vice president. They were actually accused internationally of slavery. So, in a sense, when I arrived there, I mean, you just fall right into the top of that pyramid. You know, you're at the top of the hierarchy. You're now part of that master class, and everyone kind of looks at you in that way.
GELLERMAN: We're all familiar with the term "third world" countries, but you write about the "fourth world." What do you mean?
POWERS: That's right, yeah, the fourth worlds. That's a term that I coined for the countries that are not just poor, but the ones that are completely unstable, environmentally devastated. You know, the ones where Pandora's box has been opened and just can't be closed. I'm talking about the frontiers of anarchy, countries like Myanmar, like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, and maybe even now Iraq.
GELLERMAN: But here you've got a country that's been cursed by, you know, murderous, maniacal dictators, and yet blessed by natural resources – in particular, this vast rainforest.
POWERS: Yes, Liberia is just an absolute garden of Eden. It's got one of the largest percentages of rainforests, virgin rainforests, anywhere in the world. I would watch pygmy hippos tobogganing into rivers, just gorgeous rainforests rising up into the canopy, and howler monkeys and all kinds of wildlife. It's just incredible.
GELLERMAN: And the UN has a ban on the export of timber from the rainforest.
POWERS: Yeah, that's right. They were calling it "conflict timber" because when I was there during Charles Taylor's regime, he was actually trading timber for weapons and supplying the R.U.F. in Sierra Leone. And, of course, they were the famous people who chopped off, you know, people's limbs to terrorize them. So, ironically, not only was the country being just deforested at an incredibly fast rate, but it was also contributing to destabilizing the region.
GELLERMAN: There is a success story, however, in your book, and you talk about Chief Wah, a guy who experiments with fish.
POWERS: Yeah, he was a wonderful chief down by Sapo National Park where I worked, Liberia's only national park. And he was able to transform secondary bush into a veritable paradise of multi-story agriculture and fish farming, you know, contouring, different ways of preserving the land while saving the rainforests that were right around his village. And, you know, what he told me, he said "I don't need to go into the bush and I don't need to slash and burn any more because I'm producing everything right here."
William Powers (right) went back to Liberia for a visit in November 2004. Here he visits his former Catholic Relief Services colleague and friend, Liberian agronomist Augustine Laveleh (in white shirt next to W. Powers) at his new Monrovia home. Laveleh's former home was destroyed in the August 2003 battle for Monrovia when Charles Taylor was ousted.
POWERS: That's a really good question. He was one of the so-called master farmers that I worked with. He wasn't very educated, but like a lot of Liberians, he was innovative and optimistic and he was able to adopt these technologies. I think part of the reason also was that we came up with a song. Everything in Liberia, in the rural villages, is tied to singing and playing music and so on. And, I think what really had it take was the fact that we developed a song for swamp rice and for working in aquaculture. And, you know, once they had a song, everyone went out into the swamp fields and started harvesting rice and so on. It's kind of a beautiful thing to see.
GELLERMAN: What do we need to do to preserve the rainforests in Liberia?
POWERS: All the first world governments, as far as I know, have prioritized saving, you know, the last great rainforest on earth, not just the conservation groups. So, Liberia is maybe almost half pristine rainforest, so what I would suggest is that we set that aside as a UN biosphere reserve. Liberia needs stability and, you know, we need these rainforests, so let's make a trade. Let's do a quid pro quo and commit to Liberia for 20 years. And I'm talking about bringing piped water to a couple of cities, bringing some electricity to the country and committing to education. Because I think education is important for breaking the cycles of violence that have existed there. And, in return, we receive the kind of return that rainforests give us. So, I think it would be a fantastic move for President Bush to go for a, what I would call a, a peace-for-nature swap. You know, we help bring peace to Liberia and they hand over a good portion of their county to humanity.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Powers, you're still an idealist.
POWERS: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that's true, that's true. I think I am still an idealist.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Powers, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
POWERS: Yeah, it was really great talking with you. Thank you.
[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet "Wawshishijay (Our Beginning)" Kronos Quartet: Pieces of Africa (Elektra Nonesuch) 1992]
GELLERMAN: William Powers is author of "Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge."