Home to Freed Slaves
By Liz Goldner
journey of soil from Providence Island, near Monrovia, Liberia,
to the home of Common Ground 191 in Laguna Beach, CA, began
in August 2006. The collection of that soil began with correspondence
between Florence Geegbae Dukuly, Cultural Assistant/Executive
Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and Gary Simpson,
creator of Common Ground.
end of 2006, Ms. Dukuly was not returning emails and we have
not been able to make contact with her. We thank her for her
help in collecting and sending out the soil and we wish her
well. We like to trace the journey of soil on its destination
to Laguna Beach, but have been unable to do so with soil from
Liberia, possibly due to long-term volatility within that
country. It is fortunate however that Common Ground now has
two pounds of soil from Liberia.
Liberia has always had copious natural resources,
including iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold and hydropower,
as well as a climate favorable to agriculture. The country
has produced and exported basic products, such as raw timber
and rubber, but has had little local manufacturing.
Since 1989, civil war and government mismanagement
have destroyed much of the country’s economy, especially
the infrastructure in and around Monrovia, Liberia’s
capital. Many businessmen have fled the country, taking financial
resources and expertise with them. Only a few businessmen
have returned. Embargoes and local corruption have further
hindered the country’s ability to export its resources,
resulting in widespread poverty.
the last few years, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, has taken steps to reduce
corruption, build support from international donors and encourage
private investment. The embargo on timber exports has been
lifted, opening a source of revenue, but diamonds, another
natural resource, remain under UN sanctions. The reconstruction
of the country’s infrastructure and the raising of incomes
continue to depend on generous financial support and technical
assistance from donor countries.
of the current disastrous social and economic conditions,
Liberia has an illustrious history. Officially called the
Republic of Liberia, the country was founded as an independent
nation by the American Colonization Society, with support
of the American government, for freeborn and formerly enslaved
In 1822, two vessels of freed slaves attempted
to land on the mainland of what is now Liberia. But after
natives attempted to assault the ships, the ships sailed down
the coast to Cape Messurado, landing on Providence Island,
the site of the soil collection for Common Ground. The new
colony was named Liberia to signal the liberty that it had
brought the black settlers. The main village on the coast
of Cape Messurado was later named Monrovia in honor of President
James Monroe, whose efforts had made the colony possible.
Over the following years, African-Americans gradually immigrated
to the colony and became known as Americo-Liberians.
On July 26, 1847, the Americo-Liberian settlers
declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia. The
settlers regarded Africa as a "Promised Land," but
still referred to themselves as "Americans." They
were recognized as such by local Africans and by British colonial
authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone.
religious practices, social customs and cultural standards
of the Americo-Liberians have roots in the antebellum American
South – ideals that strongly influenced the settlers’
attitudes toward the indigenous African people. Further, mutual
mistrust and hostility between the "Americans" and
the "Natives" was a recurrent theme in the country's
history, along with attempts by the Americo-Liberian minority
to dominate the natives. Nevertheless, over the years, hard
work by the Liberians and copious natural resources resulted
in a decent economy.
By the 1970’s, agriculture was providing
a livelihood for about 70 percent of the population and accounted
for roughly 40 percent of GDP. The rubber industry generated
over 100 million US dollars annually in export earnings and
provided employment for 50,000 people. Iron ore deposits also
attracted substantial foreign investment in the 1960’s
and first half of the 1970’s, encouraged by the Government’s
"open door" policy. By 1975, Liberia had become
the world’s fifth largest exporter of iron ore. However,
Liberia’s growth rates of percent in the 1960s and 4
percent in the 1970s, "characterized as growth without
development," mainly benefited a small urban elite.
More than a century of strife between the
“Americans” and “Natives” resulted
in a military coup that brought Samuel Doe to power in 1980
and ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule. Then, in December
1989, Charles Taylor launched a rebellion against Doe's regime
that led to prolonged civil war.
In 1997, relative peace ensued for a few years,
with Taylor as President. But major fighting resumed in 2000.
In August 2003, a peace agreement ended the war and prompted
the resignation of former President Taylor who was exiled
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected
President of Liberia. Complimented by a strong presence of
the United Nations, the country has begun the laborious process
of rebuilding itself. But with a continuing volatile security
situation, the process of rebuilding the social and economic
structure of the war-torn country remains sluggish.
Johnson-Sirleaf, born in rural Liberia, has
a personal history that in many ways mirrors that of her country.
As the daughter of the first indigenous Liberian to be elected
to the national legislature, she announced her senatorial
candidacy in the 1985 elections during the military rule of
Samuel Doe. She also gave a speech that was heavily critical
of Doe, and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment,
of which she served a short time. She then fled her country
and worked for Citibank in Nairobi. She held the post of Director
of the Regional Bureau for Africa at the UNDP, formulating
development strategies for African economies, and was Senior
Loans Officer at the World Bank.
Known as the “Iron Lady,” Johnson-Sirleaf
is working to have Liberia’s external debt of $3.5 billion
cancelled, and is striving to rebuild her country. In addition
to focusing her efforts to restore basic services such as
water and electricity to the country, Johnson-Sirleaf has
established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address
crimes committed during the later stages of Liberia's long
civil war. She is also working to re-establish Liberia's food
which is slightly larger than the state of Tennessee, is in
Western Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and is
between Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. The country is mostly
flat to rolling coastal plains, rising to rolling plateau
and low mountains in the northeast. The coastline is characterized
by lagoons, mangrove swamps, and river-deposited sandbars;
the inland grassy plateau supports limited agriculture. The
population of the country is 3,042,004, as of July 2006.
of Liberia, in Monrovia, opened in 1862, is one of Africa's
oldest institutes of higher learning. Civil war severely damaged
the university in the 1990s, but the university has begun
to rebuild following the restoration of peace.