Liberia is one of those strange anomalies history throws up from time to time – the African nation was funded by American racists, with a capital city named for an American president. Its population is largely made up of the descendants of freed slaves “returned” to the Mother Continent and the indigenous people they displaced when the American Colonization Society bought the land for their nation-building project.
The late 20th century and early 21st century were not kind to this former US colony. Back-to-back civil wars from 1989-96 and 1999-2003 caused slaughter, mayhem and tragedy, compounded by former president Charles Taylor’s use of child soldiers. Then, just a few years ago, Liberia copped the worst of the 2014 Ebola pandemic, which killed thousands and made pariahs of the close survivors.
Given all this hardship, its surprising and inspiring to see the level of optimism permeating Liberian society. States of Undress host Hailey Gates has travelled to Monrovia to meet Serina Cooper and Vanette Tolbert – granddaughters of a famous architect and executed president, respectively – who have returned from America to awaken Liberia from its “social coma”. With a fashion show.
Cooper and Tolbert aren’t just US-raised rich girls imposing American optimism, though – there's a legitimate groundswell locally, from Archel Bernard and her room of plan-making seamstresses using material sourced from local suppliers to Carnetta Montgomery working equally as hard at studying and modelling through dim memories of the 2003 fighting to keke-driving Abdullah with his childhood memories of being looked after by Charles Taylor. A keke is essentially a tuktuk, and Abdullah takes Gates out to West Point to see one of Liberia’s "development areas".
West Point is a crowded, ramshackle, litter-laden, prone-to-flooding shantytown where the local sex workers dream of being models and hairdressers when they’re not running into the ocean to escape beatings from the police. It sounds like a sentence from an OTT dystopian novel, but it looks as depressing as it reads. And places like this exist because if Liberia has one key problem, it’s corruption.
Corruption exists at every level of Liberian society, where you have to pay bribes to get official documents signed and police officers have to buy their own $75 uniforms on a $150/month salary. It’s such a hot-button issue that they have Integrity Idol instead of our televised singing competitions, billboards remind everyone to be vigilant against it and Jewel Taylor – senator and ex-wife of Charles – is campaigning against current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on a platform of fighting back against what she calls “moral decadence”.
For his part, Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in the UK. But with the election coming up on 10 October, his influence is nevertheless being felt in a nation that was so recently divided. There’s a great deal of optimism amid the chaos of Liberia, but it will take more than a fashion show to buoy that spirit into collective action. Especially one where the power constantly goes out while you’re getting ready and there’s a double-booked beauty pageant crowd getting restless outside the venue.
Watch the Liberia episode of States of Undress streaming now at SBS On Demand: