- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

GANTA, LIBERIA

When evening falls on war-torn Liberia, the one-eyed jungle cats come out to play.

They are the motorcyclists of Ganta, a remote, northern city on the edge of the Guinean border. As they stalk passengers along broken roads, their single headlights blaze through the darkness.

While cars are seen by the handful in this no-stoplight town, there are thousands of bikers here - most of them Liberian youth. This pack runs after only one kind of prey.

“I want plenty money,” teenage biker Prince Dolo said. “Motorbike is instant money.”

During the past five years, Liberia has slowly emerged from a 14-year civil war, but widespread poverty and an estimated 80 percent unemployment rate make it difficult for most Liberians to bring home an income.

The bikers of Ganta are an exception. Shortly after the war ended in late 2003, Liberian refugees who had fled to neighboring Guinea began bringing motorcycles across the border to Liberia. In Guinea, motorcycle transportation is widespread. Soon, bikes were wheeling into towns all over Liberia.

In December, Mr. Dolo gave up going to school to “ride traffic,” as the biking business is called here. He is among many Liberian youth who are trading class and after-school studying for the lure of fast money. The nameplate on the front of his shiny red bike reads: “My Money-1.”

Mr. Dolo’s father bought the red bike several years ago for about $850. When the family needs extra money, he rents it out to drivers like his son. Mr. Dolo transports people for about 30 cents a ride. After a long day of running people around under the burning Ganta sun, he makes up to about $15. A police officer in Liberia makes about $80 a month. A newspaper journalist makes about $20.

Mr. Dolo, 18, said that he plans to go back to school. He will be in only the sixth grade, typical of many Liberians whose educations have been disrupted by the country’s protracted series of civil wars that lasted from 1989 to 2003.

But for now, school can wait, Mr. Dolo said. The money is where the rubber meets the road, and it’s just too good to pass up.

Liberia officially was founded in 1822 by free-born black Americans as an experiment by a group of abolitionists and slave owners called the American Colonization Society. The new settlers and their descendants began oppressing the indigenous Liberians, leading to a coup d’etat in 1980. Tribal rivalries and the desire for power among different factions led to war in 1989, when rebels led by warlord and later President Charles Taylor invaded Liberia.

Fighting didn’t end until late 2003, shortly after Mr. Taylor fled the country. But by then, Liberia was stripped of all power, running water and most of its infrastructure. An estimated 200,000 people died while tens of thousands became refugees in other countries. Now, more than five years after the war’s end, Liberia is experiencing peace and democratic rule under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. But most Liberians continue to struggle to rebuild their lives in a burned and broken land.

Here, most people are on a hunt for money. This has led to high rates of stealing and armed robbery, especially in the capital, Monrovia.

But hustling for money also has made poverty-stricken people into overnight entrepreneurs, such as the bikers.

In a matter of hours, those with a dream to ride can speed down the open road, the wind full on their face.

Most Liberians do not have the cash to purchase a motorcycle, which costs between $600 and $850, so groups of people pool their “small money.” Others buy on credit. Small lending houses have popped up around Ganta, including one called the Billionaires Club.

Without credit opportunities, it would take most riders years to earn and save enough to pay for the shiny, new bikes.

There is one intersection where Ganta’s broken, trash-laden roads meet at the city’s center. That is where one will find Paye Suah’s Filling Station - what amounts to a funnel and a line of jumbo Blue Plate mayonnaise jars filled with pink fuel. Here, rows of red, blue and silver motorcycles glisten in the sun.

Musa Kromah, general manager of the bike lot, and his older brother were refugees when they spotted the bikes in Guinea and saw a business opportunity. After relative peace returned to Liberia, so did they - with a new pack of bikes. Today, the brothers sell about 15 bikes a month.

Mr. Kromah will sell you one of these beauties for about $700 on credit, with about $100 interest on every bike.

But a ticket to ride takes more than creative financing. It also costs Liberians a good amount of risk.

Emma Stewart bought a motorcycle and hired a driver to zip people from point to point. She began making more than $5 a day.

But after two wrecks, the bike no longer runs. Ms. Stewart is in a predicament. She borrowed $850 from a cousin to buy the bike. She doesn’t have extra money to repair it.

Ms. Stewart has two teenagers to feed and said her estranged husband doesn’t help out.

Today, the spoiled bike with a shattered dashboard rests in the dark behind the front door of the Stewarts’ humble mud-brick home. It is the most expensive item in their house, and they don’t even own it.

The extra money had helped supplement the income Ms. Stewart makes as a caretaker of elderly patients and buy medication to regulate her epileptic seizures.

“She’s really suffering for us,” said Ms. Stewart’s son, Elijah. “No money for her to buy some of the drugs.”

Motorcycle accidents are frequent along Ganta’s crumbling asphalt and red dirt roads, and some are fatal.

Most bikers will spend more than $800 on a new bike but won’t spend $20 on what is known in the motorcycle world as a “brain bucket,” or a helmet.

The Liberia Motorcycle Transport Union, founded in 2005 at a time when peace still was fragile, is trying to encourage riders to be more conscious of safety. The union registers bikers in an effort to mobilize the large number of young bikers and also holds motorcycle safety workshops. Most bikers have never taken a safety course.

It is common to see up to four people on one bike - including babies squeezed between adult passengers. Other bikes carry passengers plus large loads - plastic jugs, sacks of coal, heavy bags of Liberia’s staple food of rice. Helmet laws often are not enforced.

Emerging from years of brutal civil war has given Junior Dileah a new perspective on the fragility of life.

Mr. Dileah has seen enough death and doesn’t intend to see more resulting from a bike crash. During the war, his two older brothers were beheaded. Mr. Dileah found their bodies but not their heads.

Mr. Dileah said he hopes war will never come again. He isn’t looking back in his rear-view mirror. All that matters now is a slab of wide open road, the freedom to live in peace, and all of the opportunity behind the growl of a bike and the whirl of wheels.

Mr. Dileah’s grandfather once told him, “Your life is chicken egg.” In other words, life is delicate. Protect yourself. Be careful.

Today, Mr. Dileah carries that message on his bike as he cruises Ganta’s now-peaceful roads. “I take it easy,” he said, “so the passenger can be encouraged.”

His bike nameplate reads “Chicken Egg.”

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