Reinventing the Wheel: In Liberia, Civil War and Economic Collapse Have Seen the Humble Wheelbarrow Become a Vital Player in the National Economy. Popular Josh Meets the Men Who Keep Monrovia Moving

By Josh, Popular | Geographical, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Wheel: In Liberia, Civil War and Economic Collapse Have Seen the Humble Wheelbarrow Become a Vital Player in the National Economy. Popular Josh Meets the Men Who Keep Monrovia Moving


Josh, Popular, Geographical


All day, every day, they come streaming across the Montserrado bridge in both directions, carrying everything from freshly baked goods to soggy trash. Policemen direct the wheelbarrow traffic like they would cars. One wheelbarrow rolls by with a load of bras of all sizes, hawked by a young male entrepreneur talking on his hands-free mobile phone. An older teenager pushes a load of dried bush meat, the legs and arms of small furry animals sticking out in all directions. One guy has decorated his rig with an old telephone and walkie-talkie, along with a row of cheerful stuffed animals.

The use of the 'wheel', as it's known among operators, is by no means unique to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, but nowhere else are wheelbarrows so plentiful or so much a part of economic life as in the city. As soon as daylight breaks, thousands of wheelbarrow operators begin moving goods all over town, either as independent sellers or as unionised deliverymen. Many of these mostly young men were combatants in the civil war that ended in 2003, and the wheelbarrow is the key to their survival in an abysmal economy.

Liberia was founded in 1847 by former slaves from the USA, much to the dismay of the area's original inhabitants. The tiny Americo-Liberian minority proceeded to conquer the countryside by brute force, creating a de facto apartheid system that lasted until 1980, when the government was overthrown by a 'native' Liberian, Samuel Doe.

Political instability gave way to a full-scale civil war that lasted from 1989 to 2003, when President Charles Taylor fled the country and 15,000 UN soldiers arrived to keep the peace. In 2004, Taylor was taken into UN custody for alleged war crimes, and in 2005, Liberia elected the first-ever female African president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Throughout the country's often rocky history, the wheelbarrow has prevailed.

Many wheelbarrows are modified, outfitted with a car wheel, reinforced with welded steel braces and repeatedly repaired. Anybody can rent one for 20 or 25 Liberian dollars per day (16-20 pence), depending on the size, although the operators make a lot more from making deliveries. On a good day, they can rake in as much as 2.50 [pounds sterling].

Jerry Scott works alone in the suburb of Congo Town, pushing an artfully arranged load of coconuts held down by homemade rubber straps. 'I climb for the coconuts in the morning and then I sit down and cut away the peels. Then I go out selling.' Twenty-six years old, Scott recently finished high school. 'I paid for all my education with the money from this business; he says.

Young male immigrants from Mali and Guinea are well known in Monrovia for their own particular wheelbarrow business: supplying roasted 'cow meat' for lunch. A small charcoal grill is attached to the bottom of a metal box, often a two-drawer filing cabinet, which is then welded onto a wheelbarrow and painted in bright colours. Other young men install a car battery and a home stereo system on their wheelbarrows, blasting the latest tunes as they walk the streets selling cassettes and CDs.

'The wheelbarrow is very important because most people can't afford cars and trucks to transport goods,' says TR Sieh, who makes wheelbarrow deliveries in Duala Market, north of town. …

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