Liberia Today

Liberia's Nobel Peace Prize–winning president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, won a second term in power in 2011, after rival party Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) – led by Winston Tubman and former AC Milan footballer George Weah – boycotted the second round of the violence-ridden vote, complaining of fraud. 'Ellen', as she is widely known, enjoys support from a loyal band of Liberians. Others criticise her for being a part of the old set of politicians and accuse her of failing to understand their woes.

Ellen also failed in 2010 to implement the findings of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a post-conflict justice organ that was modelled on South Africa's. The body's final report recommended that the president herself be barred from holding public office for 50 years, after she admitted partially bankrolling former leader Charles Taylor's rebellion that sparked the civil war.

Taylor was sentenced to 50 years behind bars by a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in The Hague in 2011. Many Liberians expressed frustration that Taylor was tried not for his role in the painful Liberian conflict, but for masterminding rebel operations during Sierra Leone's war.

Many middle-class Liberians were excited about the country's new dawn, but for others – particularly those outside Monrovia – the fresh coats of paint and eager investors in the capital did little to heal old wounds.

Today, Liberia is still recovering from the effects of the Ebola virus, which devastated the country economically and ruptured its struggling healthcare system. At time of writing, all eyes were on the 2017 presidential elections and what changes that might bring to a country that is struggling to stay on its feet.

Books

Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene's tale of adventuring across Liberia in the 1930s, is the Liberia classic. Less well known but equally recommended is Too Late to Turn Back, written by Greene's cousin and travelling companion Barbara.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's autobiography, This Child will be Great, explores pre- and postwar Liberia, including Johnson-Sirleaf's backing of Taylor's rebellion.

Culture

Liberia remains a country of exceptions. The old inequality hang-ups haven't gone away; you'll notice that Americo-Liberians and returning, educated Liberians often enjoy better treatment than those with indigenous roots. Various initiatives are under way to even things out, but the road to cultural equality is likely to be long.

Regardless of their roots, one thing all Liberians have in common is their devotion to family. Many people you meet will be supporting a dozen others. Religion is also important, with Christian families regularly attending revivals at churches.

The Liberian handshake has Masonic origins and involves a snappy pull-back of the third finger, often accompanied by a wide grin.

People

The vast majority of Liberians are of indigenous origin, belonging to more than a dozen major tribal groups, including the Kpelle in the centre, the Bassa around Buchanan and the Mandingo (Mandinka) in the north. Americo-Liberians account for barely 5% of the total. There's also an economically powerful Lebanese community in Monrovia.

Close to half of the population are Christians and about 20% are Muslim, with the remainder following traditional religions.

Arts & Crafts

Liberia has long been famed for its masks, especially those of the Gio in the northeast, including the gunyege mask (which shelters a power-giving spirit), and the chimpanzee-like kagle mask. The Bassa around Buchanan are renowned for their gela masks, which often have elaborately carved coiffures, always with an odd number of plaits.

Environment

Illegal logging both during and after the conflict has threatened a number of species in Liberia, including the forest elephant, hawk, pygmy hippo (nigh-on impossible to see), manatee and chimpanzee. Liberia's rainforests, which now cover about 40% of the country, comprise a critical part of the Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot, an exceptionally biodiverse area stretching across 11 countries in the region.

Liberia's low-lying coastal plain is intersected by marshes, creeks and tidal lagoons, and bisected by at least nine major rivers. Inland is a densely forested plateau rising to low mountains in the northeast. The highest point is Mt Nimba (1362m).

Movies

Pray The Devil Back to Hell is a 2008 documentary that focuses on Nobel Prize–winner Leymah Gbowee's efforts to bring the war to an end. An Uncivil War includes disturbing images of the conflict and America's alleged failure to help.

Shot in the years following the war, Sliding Liberia is a short surf documentary that beautifully captures post-conflict Liberia and a local surfer's effort to catch the waves, rather than go under.