Monday, September 24, 2007


On Saturday morning I bought a pair of Fila basketball shoes along Riverside market for 22 USD. The vendor wanted 26, but a friend of mine persuasively bargained him down. Just northwest of downtown, Riverside market is a hubbub of activity on Saturdays. It had been the largest market in Monrovia before the war, and has just recently been outpaced by Red Light.

Local commerce in Liberia is somewhat of a wonder to me - mostly because the national infrastructure is prohibitively underdeveloped. Where there are roads, it is conceivable that goods and services will follow. The goods may be well worn - at least several points removed from their point of origin and, mostly likely, destination - but if there’s a near by road then patience will eventually yield profit.

At Monrovia's Riverside, there is an endless stream of pedestrian traffic and international contractors to provide a market. What’s puzzling, however, is where the goods came from in the first place. There’s an endless variety of American throw backs: from squeaky clean Air Jordans, college football jerseys, Tupperware, dishware, Singer sewing machines, etc. Equally represented are Middle Eastern and German goods – though these nationalities have a stronger hold in grocery and convenience stores than street side markets. The goods themselves are seemingly new. Granted the dress shoes may need a polish, but on whole, merchandise appears to be stream into the country on a regular basis.

To my knowledge, however, the road to Riverside isn’t any less mogul-ish than those in the rest of the city. There are two traversable roads that run the length of Liberia, and they are often impassable during rainy season, so commercial vehicles are rare. Roberts Field International (the airport) is the end (or beginning) of every flight that passes through Monrovia – and I can’t speak to ever having heard of a rail system. Further still (and largely by consequence), Liberia completely lacks manufacturing capability. Though resource rich, Liberia’s raw materials are shipped abroad for processing and manufacturing. Not even Firestone (as I understand it) has a manufacturing plant in country. What’s left, then, as the commercial portico to the country, but its seaports? My guess (which I’ve had confirmed by just two acquaintances) is that certain “rights of passage” are understood between merchants and those working the docks. A small offering of incoming merchandise may ensure the safety of the rest of the shipment.

The coast is hub for various spokes of commercial exchange - legal and extralegal. In the earliest morning hours, young men push wheelbarrows of sand from the shore towards inland neighborhoods, where they reinforce structures and walls with sand bags. Smaller boys carry buckets of snails to the markets, and fisherman frequent the waters from dawn to dusk. So, I suppose, it’s reasonable to image goods of all kinds, from all countries, making their way to Riverside.

The shoes fit, that’s for sure – but I’m withholding further judgment until I see how well they wear.

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