Monday, July 23, 2012

Liberian Culture on Currency


Last post we looked at the front of Liberian bills and were introduced to a "Who's Who On Liberian Currency."  This post flips the bills over and describes the "What's What" on the back of the Liberian bills in current circulation.  Let's start with the L$ 100 bill and work our way back down to the L$5...

Back of a Liberian $100 bill - "Woman At Market"
A Market Under Roof - These designated market spaces under roof
help keep the market from spilling over into the street
and provide shelter from the elements
According to the Central Bank of Liberia the back of the L$100 is a market woman with her child at market.  This is a very common scene in Liberia.  The traditional marketplace in Liberia is dominated by businesswomen.  There are men selling wares at these markets as well, but they usually deal in woodworking, instruments and cinder block (among many other things).  Far and away however, women dominate the Liberian marketplace. 

Market women also hold a special place in Liberia's recent history as it was women praying and singing in a fish market that helped spark Charles Taylor's demise.  Calling themselves "The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace" and organized by now Nobel Peace Laureate, Laymah Gbowee, the women successfully united in mind and resources to force change in their war torn Liberia.   These events are described in the award winning documentary, "Pray The Devil Back To Hell", which is definitely worth a viewing.   

Children selling bitterball at market in Liberia
The fact the the L$100 has a women at work with her child also reveals another reality in the marketplace: child labor.  In general this is not the sort of abuse that has been associated with child labor.  More often than not the children assisting their family with the market are treated fairly and hold a place of honor within their family for selling at market.  This is more akin to how life used to be in the US when many families had their children waking up with the rooster crow, milking cows, gathering eggs, helping with harvest, etc.  These children take pride in their work and are happy to pitch in to help.  We'll discuss actual child labor abuse in Liberia a little later...

Back of Liberian $50 bill - Man Harvesting Palm Tree on Palm Plantation
A Palm Nut from a Palm Oil Tree
The back of the L$50 depicts a man harvesting a palm oil tree on a palm tree plantation.  Palm oil is a central part of Liberian life.  Local commerce, cooking, exports and even rituals depend on this tree.  From palm wine to cooking oil to my favorite palm butter; the palm oil tree holds a special place in Liberian society.  In 2009, Sime Darby opened a massive palm oil tree plantation and is currently working on land between Monrovia and Robertsport.  If you take the drive to beautiful Robertsport you'll drive right through it.  If you visit Liberia, be sure to try the palm butter on rice - as they say in Liberia, "Palm butter rice too sweet o yeah!"

Back of Liberian $20 bill - Men with wheelbarrows at market
I'm not sure I understand the significance of the back of the L$20.  The Central Bank of Liberia claims that this is a depiction of a man on a farm.  The picture though is of many men at what appears to be an outdoor market area with a line of wheelbarrows in front of them.  Here is a clearer image of the L$20 than what my iPod camera took.  I am guessing that this signifies the rebuilding of Liberia?  Whatever the case it shows the mostly non-mechanized manner in which much construction is done in Liberia.  Having been in construction for several years myself I was intrigued by the Liberian processes of construction.  I was also impressed by the persistance to build something in difficult circumstances with almost no machinery (just a few hand tools or a wheelbarrow in many cases).    
A pile of "hand made" gravel in Johnsonville, Liberia

For example, this simple pile of rocks I took a picture of during construction of Heart of Grace School in Johnsonville.  Solid rock was first exposed out of the ground on site and then broken in the ground with a sledgehammer.  Why?  In order to have gravel for their cement mix.  What here would have been a simple order of gravel scooped into the back of a truck and dumped on site took weeks to do in Liberia.  Not to mention the fact that their was no eye protection as the men pounded solid rock with sledgehammers.  Several men suffered from rock chips flying into their eyes.  

Here is another example in this video, a school built from trees cut down and milled on the premises (the middle of the bush in Compound 2, GBC).  Again, this would have been a simple trip to the lumber yard over here, but in Liberia nothing is that easy.  These trees were chopped down with hand axes (try that sometime and see how long it takes!) and then sawed into boards with handsaws (again, you might want to see how not easy that is!).  The boards were then carried through the jungle about a mile on rough terrain until arriving at the job site.  In the video the men are applying some sort of tar like substance that will deter termites.  I may not know what the symbolism of the back of the L$20 is exactly, but I know the hard work symbolized by those wheelbarrows!

Back of Liberian $10 bill - Man tapping rubber tree
Rubber is an important part of Liberian history.  Harvey Firestone got tired of paying high prices for rubber for his tires as the British held a monopoly on rubber plantations and fixed prices.  Then he met the financially strapped Republic of Liberia that happened to be right smack in the middle of a prime rubber tree friendly environment.  He negotiated hard and received a concession of 99 years for 1,000,000 acres of Liberia (4% of Liberia!) with exclusive land rights (meaning he could mine for diamonds, gold and take timber and/or rent out to those who did).  He also forced the Liberian government to take a $5million loan from his finance company, which virtually put the Liberian government under Firestone's control.  Needless to say, Liberia as a whole got a raw deal and the US got cheaper tires for their automobiles.  There is a good overview of this deal found here.

An Old Tapped Rubber Tree
Still producing after all these years!

One of the more damning accusations against Firestone concerns labor abuses.  The labor is cheap in Liberia and the daily quota of rubber demanded of workers means that parents often have their children help out to meet the quota.  The nature of this work is very demanding and often dangerous and does seem to me to verge on child labor abuse.  Surprisingly, many Liberians do not see it that way and prefer that outsiders not interfere with their family structures.  This is an all around touchy issue in Liberia.  To learn more from the 'against Firestone' perspective check out this website "Stop Firestone".  For a pro-Firestone perspective, check out Firestone's site.
Soon after snapping this picture of Firestone HQ in Liberia
security guards demanded my mother leave the premises
photo by Carolyn Vogel

In 2011 Firestone was acquitted of child labor abuse in Liberia by a US District Court.  However, an interesting legal precedent was set in that US corporations are now held liable for human rights abuses when committed in another country.  I'm not sure why it took until 2011 to see that it wasn't OK for US corporations to abuse people as long as they weren't in the US when they did it.  

Baby rubber tree being grown by an independent
farmer, in this case an NGO 
Another common commercial structure in Liberia is for independent rubber tree growers to grow, tap and sell their own rubber at substations to the major rubber tree corporations in Liberia (of which Firestone is just one).  This model has caught on like wildfire among Liberians with appropriate land resources and many NGO's are also creating a sustainability plan by using some of their land to grow rubber trees to sell and help fund their humanitarian work.  Several of the NGO's I've worked with in Liberia use this strategy.

Back of a Liberian $5 bill - woman harvesting rice
Slash and Burn Rice Farm - Zondobli
Rice is the staple food of Liberia and price changes challenge the entire economic and political infrastructure (i.e. 1979 Rice Riots).  One of the main problems an outsider will see with rice production in Liberia is that it remains at the sustenance level in many communities.  The traditional way of farming rice is the slash and burn method which is highly ineffective, dangerous, nomadic and ecologically damaging.  Liberia is also home to perfectly suited for rice paddy farming, which is a much more productive method of farming rice and helps tie a community closer to their land so that it can be better developed with hospitals, schools and roads.  Good luck convincing any one of this though!  Liberian slash and burn rice farming is deeply steeped in their culture.  Communities exchange intrinsic currencies like trustworthiness, hard work, status and respect by assisting each other in their complex system of traditional rice farming.  Rituals, dances, magic, commerce, relationships and of course food are all a part of these traditions and time after time Agricultural NGO's have beat their head against the wall trying to change these ways.  These patterns don't seem likely to change any time soon.

Bowl of Rice with Greens - Yum!
When in Liberia see if you can get some good whole grain country rice.  Be careful as there will probably still be rocks and chaff in the mix, but the taste is outstanding.  Whether you get some of this rice or not you will be offered rice to eat!  Rice is everywhere and is usually topped with an amazing array of different sauces and soups poured over them: collard greens, potatoe greens, bitter ball, palm butter, pepper soup, cassava greens, pumpkin (which is actually what we would call squash); these are just a few of the main toppings for rice.  Meats of all sort are sometimes added to these toppings as well as some good old fashioned hot pepper!  

Here comes the end of the Liberian currency overview as they do not have a Liberian $1 bill.  For an up to date rate of exchange with the USD check out this converter at XE.


  1. Anche oggi ho imparato qualcosa che non sapevo!! buona giornata...ciao