Paul Julien (1901-2001) was an anthropologist from the Netherlands who traveled through Liberia in 1932. Andrea Stultiens (1974) is a photographer and researcher from the Netherlands. She tries to connect the past that was documented by Paul Julien to the past as remembered in Liberia and the way it is connected to the present. Julien’s photographs are part of the collection of the Netherlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam.
In a response to last weeks column a reader remarked that history has ‘a way of being a pest’. He challenged his fellow readers to look at the changes that are or are not there in ‘the [current] Kru towns a few stepping stones away from Ashmun Street.’ I will let you be the judge of that, and would like to focus the attention this week on that same Ashmun Street and Broadstreet, of which the appearance did change substantially. Julien’s impressions in 1932 was ‘that all of Monrovia was built in a large meadow. The streets are overgrown with relatively long grass with rows of houses in it. Despite the grid the houses were planned in they still give the impression of a picturesque disorder..’ In these descriptions it obvious that Julien’s references are not African but European. Well traveled European that is. He continues with the remark that ‘The urban planning of the city did not take the local geological conditions into account. Ashmunstreet, for instance is interrupted by a huge rock that would make serious climbing necessary to reach the other side, where the street simply continues leaving the stranger who just arrived to wonder what happened here until he sees the city in a panoramic view from the lighthouse. Only then he will understand that it is not two streets, but only one with a small Himalaya in the middle. And this is what the situation has been like for years.’
The photographs help to imagine the street that ones was the centre of the city, without any traffic, overgrown with grass; ‘The types of beautiful houses one finds along Broadstreet have a very friendly appearance. Almost all of them have a front porch with arcades and a wooden conservatory that stretches along the full length of the building on the first floor. They are detached, and separated by low moss-cladded stone walls. When one takes a walk during the quiet afternoon hour, a gramophone can be heard here and there, or an old fashioned French piano or organ sounds the distance. All this creates the impression to be in a long forgotten corner of Africa, a small remote town on the coast that the traffic of he world passes by without touching it.’ While we chew on these changes we will next week be taken to Waterstreet, where the dynamics (again?) don’t seem to have changed that much in the last 80 years.