Liberia: the importance of roads

A comparatively good stretch of the road.

A comparatively good stretch of the road to Buutuo.

If, like me, you like playing computer games like “Civilization” or board games like “Settlers of Catan”, then one of the first things you learn is, that you need to build roads if you want to be successful. Why that is so important in the real world and what happens if you don’t have adequate roads, is something that can be seen in Liberia.

In Liberia a lot of roads are so bad that only motorbikes and the rare, big four-wheel drives can use them. This obviously means that it’s a lot harder to get things to the communities and that travelling to and fro takes much longer. However, before I got here I never really appreciated that having a road or not has a direct impact on what kind of future people have.

Cutting branches and trees to make space for the trucks

Sometimes you literally have to hack your way through.

Where is the food?

One of the things that has confused me since I arrived was that while there are plenty of farms and while you can see fruits and vegetables in many villages, the markets in the towns are depressingly empty and it can be really difficult to find food, even if you have money. The reason for this was explained to me in a small village in the west of Nimba County, close to Buutuo.

Their problem, the villagers said, is that they are pretty much confined to a life of subsistence farming. Because the roads are so bad, they cannot bring any produce to the market. What they don’t eat spoils. This also explains why I always see the same things on the markets, for example peppers, spices, garlic, boiled eggs – all things that are comparatively lightweight and don’t break  easily.

Stuck

Bridge before Toweh Town

If you think the roads are bad, you should hear how some of these bridges creak!

However, the implications are much bigger than a limited choice of meals to put on the table. Because (almost) everything the farmers produce in excess of their own needs rots, they cannot start to save money or assets and without savings they never have the means to improve their own situation. In addition they cannot benefit from any improvements in efficiency because the additional produce would just be wasted. They are literally stuck.

Of course a lot of villages have “road committees” which are responsible for maintaining the roads. However, without the right equipment, diggers and earth compactors all they can do is keep the weeds from growing on the track that is their lifeline.