Liberia: Slum Dwellers Beg Mary Broh

A public latrine in Buzzy Quarter, Monrovia.  

-- to avoid shutting down homes that have no restrooms 

When Mary Broh announced that she would levy fines and shut down homes found to be without toilets, she did so with the hope of reducing open defecation in the heart of the city and its environs.

But little did ‘General’ Broh know that the announcement could scare and divide people living in slums. For some people living in Soinwein, Buzzy Quarter, and West Point, the announcement would affect them badly, while for others, it will bring relief.

“I am now afraid that many of us will be evicted from our homes just because of this policy. We are begging Mary Broh to help find another alternative like building more public restrooms,” says Michael Johnson, Chairman of the Soinwein, a slum in Monrovia. 

Slums in the city of Monrovia are usually informal settlements, characterized by inadequate housing and squalid living conditions. They are often overcrowded; with many people crammed into very small living spaces with homes built without any urban planning or adherence to zoning regulations.

But the sanitation problem is not unique to these slums but the entire Monrovia, which has for the last two decades experienced poor hygiene and sanitation. Many streets, avenues, and alleys in such areas mostly reek with running sewage, without anyone being held accountable to clean the areas.  

But if Broh acts on her threat, Johnson believes many homes in Soinwein will be shut down and their residents fined, since they are already clearly in violation.

“Only a few homes here have toilets. The majority use the public restrooms, which is three. It is not easy here,” says Johnson.  “I am not going to lie, open defecation takes place here and the product ends up in the dirt, which is then poorly disposed of. Sometimes, the Center Street drainage, which runs through Soinwein, is used for defecation and dumping of waste.”

Instead, he is begging the General Services Agency (GSA) boss to temper justice with mercy and leave them as they are unable to pay the proposed fine or build toilets due to the congested nature of their community.

“Even if you create space in the house, there is no space for a septic tank due to the closeness of each house,” Johnson added. “Even if you find space, you will have to kick a family of more than three out of a room to make room for the toilet and that is not an easy thing to do. It could be a renter or own family.”

Chairman Johnson pleads, knowing that Broh is a workaholic who hardly backs down on her plans.  The GSA boss, who is nicknamed “General Broh” because of work ethic, was appointed by the Monrovia City Mayor, Jefferson T. Koijee, to chair the Citizen Engagement Board (CEB) as a means of helping clean the City of Monrovia ahead of the country’s bicentennial celebration.

The bicentennial, which begins in December 2021, marks 200 years since the first repatriates left New York and headed for Africa, landing in what is today Liberia in 1821.

When Madam Broh seemed to have been relegated to a quiet, backend position at the GSA, she bounced back under the auspices of the CEB -- her first move being to shut down a major restaurant, Sajj House, for poor solid waste management. It was after that incident, she threatened to shut down any homes that were found to be without restroom facilities.

“If we go to a house and find out that those homes do not have a toilet, we will shut it down and fine the owner,” she noted.

Before the appointment,  Madam Broh served for years as Acting Mayor of Monrovia and, during her tenure, the nation’s capital was transformed through her leadership in the war against poor waste management. This earned her the title, ‘General’ Broh, affectionately given by the public,  because of her uncompromising stance when it came to enforcing city ordinances, especially concerning waste.

Beginning with City Ordinance #1 Madam Broh used them as the legal authority for her actions then, and even now, to address all sanitation and environmental issues.

“We love Broh”

 But while Chairman Johnson has complained about limited space, residents of Soniwein and Buzzy Quarter communities appeared to be happy with the announcement by Madam Broh.  They claimed that it is a diabolical lie that homes in slums cannot have restrooms due to lack of funds or because of space.

Many of them, who are tenants, urged Madam Broh to close down homes that have no toilets since landlords seem to care less about the sanitary conditions of their tenants, and more about their money. 

“We live in houses without toilets but we are paying rent of more than US$40 per room. We are forced to do the extraordinary when nature calls. Sometimes, we have to take bath in the dark and not in the day,” the tenants said. “This is why we love Mary Broh. It is because of her that people clean up every first Saturday. If she goes to any house and the person  does not have a bathroom, let the home be shut down.”

Chair Disgrees

But  Kofi Kwakwa, chairman of the West Point Ghana Community,  disagrees with the tenants and complains that closing homes without toilets will not solve the problems, but make lots of people homeless. 

Instead, he calls on Madam Broh to spare them and focused attention on buildings occupying the front view of the city, which are also not clean and decent. According to him, the ugliness of Monrovia and its poor sanitary conditions are visible just by walking the streets of the city and not the slums, which are far from the front view in the city.

“Poor communities should not be the focus, but the homes lining the front view of the city. The vast majority of them are not clean and they, too, suffer from restroom problems like poor homes,” Kwakwa argued. “For example, the old Ministry of Education building is suffering from a restroom problem and has not been given a facelift in years. But it is standing there on Broad Street.”

He added that the implementation of such a policy and cleaning of Monrovia should start from buildings occupying the front view of the city and not people in the back. 

“If the capable cannot clean their homes, I do not think poor communities will do anything. Our community is jam-packed, so it is difficult for every inhabitant to build a toilet,” Kwakwa noted.

“It is unfortunate”

However,  Kwakwa’s argument that the congested nature of slums means not every home will have a restroom, as has been rejected by Bob Robertson, Director for City Planning, at the Monrovia City Corporation.

Robertson added that the policy intent is to ensure that every structure in Monrovia that is filthy will be closed. and is not this policy is not discriminatory and no stone will be left untouched.

“It is unfortunate that people built houses and carelessly added toilet facilities. For now,  the threat is aimed at cautioning Monrovians to construct latrines in their respective homes, but this does not mean that it will not be acted upon,” Robertson noted. “Also, the announcement is about changing the dynamic so that when people are building a house, they will think about restrooms first.”

He added that the fine will depend on the environmental losses caused by the open defecation, which will then range from US$150 to US$200.

“We are not fining tenants but prioritizing owners,” Robertson said further.

Meanwhile, James Gono, the chairman of Buzzy Quarter, has disclosed that he has been warned by Madam Broh to inform his people to construct toilets or face the consequences.

“I have had meetings with my people but to have every home with a toilet is difficult. “Let us be frank -- this is a slum, you have walls everywhere. When you start to dig toilets you will pollute the water,” he argued.

Like chairmen from other slums, Gono is also complaining about land space to build latrines.