In Postwar Liberia, Paradise Amid the Poverty

Sushi chefs work at the Barracuda Bar, one of Liberia's newest hot spots for foreign aid workers.
Sushi chefs work at the Barracuda Bar, one of Liberia's newest hot spots for foreign aid workers. "They drive the best of car, go to the best of entertainment center," says one Liberian. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 30, 2008

MONROVIA, Liberia -- The second sushi bar to open in ragged postwar Liberia did not settle for having its chefs wear simple T-shirts, or for serving $25 worth of sliced fish on plain white plates.

Instead, the Barracuda Bar -- the new favorite hangout of ambassadors, U.N. officials and legions of aid workers whose shiny white SUVs jam the parking lot most nights -- opted to dress its staff in Japanese-style robes and red bandannas. Bigger orders of salmon and yellowtail arrived not on flatware but on little wooden sushi boats. Lobsters languished sullenly in a tank near the door, waving their antennae as customers walked by.

As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

"They drive the best of car, go to the best of entertainment center," said Allen Weedor, 42, the Liberian manager of a modest bar in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town. "You can't really see what they've done."

The offices for aid groups and U.N. agencies that line major thoroughfares evoke as much discontent as gratitude in Monrovia, the capital. Their signature white trucks offer vivid contrasts when most vehicles on the road are worn-out old coupes with broken windshields, torn upholstery and thoroughly battered bodies that bespeak the troubled times Liberia has endured.

A U.N.-maintained list from 2005, the most recent available, catalogued more than 600 nongovernmental organizations, donor groups and agencies of the world body working in Liberia. Their missions included tending to nearly every facet of national life: food, health, education, forestry, farming, religion and rebuilding the electrical grid, water systems and roads.

Yet whatever the accomplishments of these groups, Liberians say the benefits of this massive international investment are far more obvious in the parts of town inhabited by the foreigners themselves. The number of swimming pools is burgeoning. Casinos are opening. Beach-side bars are springing up and sprucing up.

At the Abi-Jaoudi supermarket, ground coffee can be bought from Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and Seattle's Best. There are eight types of Chi-Chi's salsa and 90 types of cereal, including six varieties of Special K. Pop-Tart lovers have 16 options; if they can't decide between strawberry and blueberry, they can get a "Splitz" Pop-Tart, with both.

A bag of these expensive imports can easily exceed the monthly salary of a Liberian lucky enough to have a job. A dinner for two at either of the sushi bars is much more -- especially if the meal is augmented with a few $8 caipirinhas or mojitos, as is possible at the Living Room, Monrovia's original, and somewhat less fancy, sushi spot.

There is another side to aid work in Liberia. Eliane Van De Velde, 35, a Belgian public information officer for the U.N. mission here, now on maternity leave, said many Westerners leave behind their families to work in a place that often is dangerous and disorienting.

"There are a lot of people who are there because they love the work," Van De Velde said.

Yet over several years in Liberia, Van De Velde said, she witnessed the most urgent needs ease as the aid flow grew sharply. As the money poured in, so did the amenities geared toward Western tastes.

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