By Jonathan S. Morris
I have just returned from Bopolu City, the political headquarters of Gbarpolu County, Northwestern Liberia. I have been to other towns in Gbapolu County, but this was my first visit to this historic city. Situated in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains covered with dense tropical rain forest, Bopolu is unique in that the surrounding hills and mountains provided its inhabitants a fortress and natural defense against their enemies in the past. Bopolu is an ancient city whose date of establishment is unknown. The city’s popularity and significance were recorded when the returning free African American settlers established friendship with its famous King, Sao Bosoe, who was commonly known as King Boatswain, because he was a boatswain by vocation. His friendship with the returning free slaves led to a defense pact that later saved the black settlers from complete annihilation by a confederation of unfriendly indigenous kings determined to destroy their settlement.
Amidst the growing tension, the poorly armed and ill-prepared settlers, sent for King Boatswain, their friend, who upon arrival, assembled all parties – the settlers and their native adversaries- in a conference. And after a speech characterized by authority and supremacy, the feared King ended with a powerful threat that quelled the rebellion against the settlers: “Haven’t you sold your land and accepted payment; let the Americans have their land. And whosoever is not satisfied with my decision let him tell me so. Or if you obliged me to come back to the coast again to settle dispute, I will do so by cutting your heads from your shoulders as I did to Old King George on my last visit to the coast to settle dispute.”
Benjamin J.K. Anderson, the Liberian explorer, mentioned Bopolu dozens of times in his book: “Narrative of a Journey to Musardu, the Capital of the Western Mandingoes”, (pages 2-5, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), stating that he commenced his exploratory journey to Musardu, the capital of the Mandingo Empire, from Bopolu.
The land is hilly with dense tropical rain forest in most part, rich in timber, diamonds and gold. But the rain forest is rapidly dwindling due to uncontrollable logging and charcoal burning. The inhabitants of Bopolu, yea, Gbapolu County as a whole are generally friendly and accommodating. They are a beautiful people, predominantly Kpelle-speaking mixed with descendants of Mandingoes, some Golas, Vais and other smaller groups. My beautiful wife hails from Gbarpolu County and because of that connection I have come to love the County and its people.
The inhabitants of the county are yearning for better life and deservingly too. But to begin to think of ways to bring about a better life for the noble people of this great county whose King left a mark on Liberian history, we must turn our attention to the condition of the major roads that lead to the city. You get to Bopolu by two ways, either by way of Tubmanburg or by way of Suehn. If you choose the Suehn route, which is better and shorter, you reached Bopolu in three and half hours driving on average 20 to 25 miles per hour. But if you choose to go by way of Tubmanburg; it takes you “forever” to reach Bopolu city.
Please don’t take that route; it’s going to be a disaster because Tubmanburg route is assiduously bad and extremely long. It takes forever to get you to Bopolu City Trust my word. Starting from Brewerville Store at the intersection of the Monrovia-Tubmanburg Highway going west through Suehn Township, the distance to Bopolu City is approximately 90 miles, a distance that one could cover in two hours or less driving at 40 mph. But no! There is not a path in the entire route that offers continuous smooth drive at 40 mph for even an hour.
The best vehicle to travel on the Bopolu route is a 4WD, preferably a Jeep, even in dry season. I was told by the locals that the road becomes worse when the rain sets in. And the muds cannot go away even in the middle of the Dry Season.Climbing up or coming down some hills on the Bopolu road can be nerve-wrecking. Consider this hill (picture below, half-concrete pavement, this Hill is located a few miles from Memem’s Town, before reaching Bopolu city.
Gbarpolu County is one of the most mineral-rich or natural resource-rich areas in our nation and yet the most depressed, impoverished and under-developed region of the country. With such a wealth stored underground and a lengthy history of successful mining activities, I am baffled that Gbarpolu County should be the least developed region in this country. International economic researchers described the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, as the period of “Growth Without Development “ when the Liberian economic experienced unparalleled economic growth but there was no development in infrastructure, health, education, clean and safe drinking water, sanitation and so on.
During this period the Liberian economy grew at 14 % per annum, second only to Japan in the world. The researchers published their report in a book entitled “Growth without Development” Gbarpolu County was a major contributor to the economy that made that growth possible. A larger portion of Liberia’s diamond exports were extracted from Weasua, considered to be the diamond-rich area in Gbarpolu County. I was told that in those days ordinary diamond miners used to charter air taxis to fly to Monrovia from Weasua for lunch and back whenever they found a diamond of great value and it was regular.
The national leaders, the miners and their European and American partners ignored the need for the construction of modern highways to link Monrovia to Bopolu and Weasua and accepted or allowed such affluence slip away leaving behind the land and the people poor and destitute. These rich guys left the region that has contributed so much to the economy of this country. This region should have been connected with the best road networks and the inhabitants should have been among the wealthiest people in this land. Gbarpolu County produced wealth in this country but its people never enjoyed any social benefits.
What then can be done as people of this region to change things for the better? I think first we must encourage investment. But no investors will be willing to put his money in a place where it takes him four or five hours of drive time when it should take him an hour or less when the road is good. This leads me to a theory of development that I derived when I was in community development work years ago- that no development will take place in a region until people, goods and services can be transported from one point to another in that region fast, easy and cheap.
Second, most development come about through community action, citizen group action and individual action combined. It will take community action to change things around for the people of Gbarpolu County and not necessarily government action alone, though desirable. Development is not free and it is not cheap either. If you want to live better you must pay the price. It begins with the people themselves who are dissatisfied with the condition of their road and decide to do something about it. There is a need for the community to rise up, tax each other and raise money to charter yellow machines to fix their roads.
Is this impossible? No. The sooner the better or else this coming raining season will render Gbarpolu County inaccessible when the rains set in. Though I am not from Gbarpolu County by birth but because my wife is I am willing to join and contribute to an effort to fix the road. We need leaders to bring all of us together for this just cause. I feel sad to see school children walking the dirt road for miles in dust in the heat of the day waving “papay please carry us”.
And when I stopped, took and dropped them I discovered that the distance they have to walk to and from school was about thirty minutes to an hour daily five days a week. Their ages range between six and fourteen years. They fall in my grandchildren’s age group, walking and waiving for ride like I did forty or fifty years ago on dusty roads. I am willing and waiting to join a community action group that will be organized to focus on fixing the Bopolu road.
About the author:
Jonathan S. Morris is the Chief Administrator at the Seventh Day Adventist Cooper Hospital on 12th Street, Sinkor. He can be reached at [email protected], [email protected] or cell numbers: +231-778-172-407, +231-881-989-555.