Thursday, January 1, 2009


As the sun beats down on Liberia’s ruined capital city, Anthony Yeakar pushes a red metal cart packed with large water jugs through the dirty streets.

Mr. Yeakar, 23 and only in the 10th grade, dreams of being a doctor.

In a postwar Liberia, he will have to settle for being a water carrier, at least for now.

“Money is in water,” Mr. Yeakar said.

Five years after Liberia’s 14-year civil war, many are just like Mr. Yeakar, struggling to make a living in this country of nearly 3.2 million. Without basic infrastructure, like running water or a fully functioning power grid, most are forced to continue living as mere survivors.

The slow pace of rebuilding also has left Liberians with both the daunting task and the golden opportunity to capitalize on the government’s gaps. The lack of running water, for example, has spurred a water-selling industry in the clogged capital city.

Mr. Yeakar begins work at 7:30 a.m. by a city well in downtown Monrovia. He fills five-gallon jugs with water and lugs up to 30 of them at a time in his cart with the help of his half brother, Samuel.

The Yeakar brothers drop grimy jugs at businesses and government buildings, including the broken-down palaces housing the Education, Finance and Commerce ministries. The water often is used to flush waste down broken toilets.

They charge about 20 Liberian dollars, or 33 cents, per jug. A day’s work will yield between $11 and $14. They pay the well owner about $80 a month.

The brothers´ monthly take-home cash is a considerable sum in a country in which many workers on an official payroll make much less. A teacher here makes about $50 a month, a police officer about $60.

The Yeakar brothers work all week, including Sunday — when the crowds on Monrovia’s sidewalks are thin and many sellers are at home keeping God’s day of rest.

But Mr. Yeakar sees working seven days as a black-and-white issue.

“I have customers to supply, and they need water every day,” he said.

Daily sewage spills and the city’s mostly defunct power grid further complicate life.

With most of Liberia’s power coming from private generators, refrigerated water is a luxury. Those in search of cold, safe drinking water, eagerly buy plump plastic bags filled with chilled water — the equivalent of water balloons — for about 12 cents apiece. The water is treated and bagged at one of at least 15 water-purifying factories that have popped up in the Monrovia area in the last few years.

Some sellers keep the bags in coolers filled with blocks of ice. Others use a generator. Boakar Perry powers a deep freezer stuffed with the water bags for $500 a month.

About 50 young sellers — many of them children — visit his freezer throughout the day. They pay Mr. Perry about 33 cents for seven bags of chilled water, and then sell one bag to thirsty Monrovians for about 12 cents.

Mr. Perry, one of ex-President Charles Taylor’s drivers, began chilling the water about three years ago.

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has struggled to turn itself around since the brutal war ended in 2003 and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office two years later.

Back-to-back wars from 1989 to 2003 sparked vicious factional fighting that killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced millions, according to the Associated Press.

Since the fighting ended, Liberia has struggled to turn itself around.

But with Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s election, Mr. Perry lost his job.

Self-employment became the means to an end.

“I don’t have anything to do, and my family has to sustain itself,” he said.

Today Mr. Perry makes about $30 a day. But his generator costs cut his profit by more than half.

It’s frustrating, living in a capital city largely without basic infrastructure, he said.

But Mr. Perry, like many Liberians who are eager to fill the government’s gaps, has a remarkable hope and patience for a restored Liberia.

“During the war, everything damaged, and now we can’t get it overnight,” he said. “We just have to struggle and get it.” Mr. Perry and the Yeakar brothers are but two of Liberia’s water sellers, but they represent a country full of men and women who are living with the crippling effects of war.

Poor water and sanitation systems are leading to 42 percent of Liberian children under age 5 dying from malaria and 22 percent under 5 dying from diarrhea, according to the Liberia WASH Consortium.

Crime is high owing to the more than 100,000 ex-fighters who have returned to society without being fully rehabilitated. Now many of them terrorize Monrovia’s neighborhoods as armed robbers. The literacy rate is about 20 percent.

Most Liberians are desperate for work or education or both. The country’s unemployment rate, which does not account for self-employers like Mr. Yeakar, is estimated at 85 percent.

The capital city is clogged with people desperate for any job that will put them to work. Young boys push yellow wheelbarrows down the city’s broken sidewalks. They carry random, secondhand goods - sheets, folded jeans, shoes scrubbed into new life with a bar of soap and a little water.

Those who don’t have wheelbarrows turn their bodies into traveling displays. They carry phone chargers on their fingers, pirated movies in their arms, shiny steering-wheel covers around their necks.

William E.D. Warner, deputy managing director of Liberia Water & Sewer Corp. (LWSC), said restoring water is slow because Monrovia’s water system was destroyed over the 14 years of fighting.

Looters dug up the water pipes and sold them for scrap metal. The existing pipes eroded because they weren’t maintained. After the war, there was little money to restore the ruined infrastructure.

Today, those challenges remain. Looters continue to dig up water pipes for scrap metal. Residents hire plumbers to steal city water by illegally connecting their lines.

And when water is on, some people are afraid to drink it.

In rural Kakata City, a bustling town that seems to pop out of undeveloped countryside just an hour northeast of Monrovia, water pumps were turned on in July for the first time in 14 years.

Soon a rumor had flooded the town: The water didn’t have any medicine in it.

“They have been out of water, safe drinking water, for a very long time,” Kakata station supervisor Hilary T. Yoryor said. “They are afraid.” To allay fears, the LWSC is requiring residents who apply for running water in their homes to attend an educational workshop.

But even those who know the water is treated are waiting awhile before drinking.

Mohamed A. Kamara, 32, is one of about 25 residents who applied for running water in Kakata.

He was glad to have water back in Kakata after so many years of war, but he didn´t trust it at first. He said his 1-year-old son, Dauda, would drink only mineral water — the kind in the plastic bags — for a few months.

Until Liberians can trust the water system, they will continue to fill the pockets of sellers like Mr. Perry and the Yeakar brothers.

Back down on Monrovia’s frantic Broad Street, Mr. Yeakar loads his jugs onto his red metal cart and he still dreams of being a doctor.

He also dreams of a Liberia that is restored and can provide a better life for his 2-year-old son, aptly named Success.

“I will make sure he goes to school, and he graduates from school and goes to college, and graduates from there,” Mr. Yeakar said, “to be somebody.”

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