For the 2nd time, President George W. Bush crashed in on a country I am living in. The first time this happened was in 2003 in Bangkok, when Bush dropped in for the East Asian Economic Conference. Once again, Bush’s arrival brought the city to a stand still, and once again I left the city. This time I was invited by Jeff Austin from the Carter Center to join him and his mom on a trip to Bong Mines.
Bong Mines is located in Bong County, Liberia. They used to mine iron ore from the hills in Bong before the war. The train tracks used to haul all the ore to Monrovia’s port. As far as I know, these are the only working train tracks in all of Liberia. From there it was shipped abroad to be made into steel.
So the train guy had told Jeff to be at the port at 7:00am. Neither Jeff nor I had used the train before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Jeff was told he could bring his Carter Center (CC) vehicle on the train so he could drive around once he got to the mines. I drove my bike over and didn’t want to leave it in a train yard so Jeff said I could probably bring the bike on the train too. At 7:30 we still hadn’t found the guy. Finally around 8:15, after a random herd of cattle passed through the train yard, our man showed up.
One small train engine and a flat bed car rolled up next to us. They pushed the train car up to an embankment and we drove our vehicles on. Then we were off. The whole train was just for us. It was Jeff, his mom, me, Jeff’s driver, and about 6 Liberians. I’m not sure what all the Liberians were there for; maybe they were just hitching a ride. I suspect they were there to ensure that if we were held up, we’d out number the others. It’s kind of weird in a country that has outlawed guns, that to be safe all you need is more people…and maybe a machete.
It felt like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie, like we were two adventures traveling to remote lands with our dirt bike and pick-up truck ready to conquer whatever terrain lay ahead of us. Jeff and I rode on top of the truck as we moved through the jungle with the wind in our hair and the bike sitting next to us. It was awesome. We could walk around wherever we wanted and do whatever we wanted. Jeff and I were both terribly excited about all of this. We both remarked about the extreme amounts of liability we weren’t bothered with, being in a country that isn’t sue happy. I was slightly bothered by how neo-colonial I felt about the whole trip. It was a little absurd that a whole train (and who knows how much diesel) was used for the recreation of three people. But we were contributing to the local economy, and learning about the country…and it was awesome.
When we got to the mines I was really impressed by how big the operation had been at one time. It was weird to think of Liberia as being an industrial power. Before the civil war Liberia was one of the more prosperous countries in Africa. Now all that was left was the huge steel skeletons of refineries and warehouses. We found a local who agreed to be our tour guide. Jeff’s mom rode around in the pick-up while Jeff and I took turns riding the bike.
We first saw the mines, which were strip mines. In the absence of electricity to run the pumps, the mine had filled with water. All that was left were some cut away hills and a big lake. We then went to the refinery where they took the ore from the mines, added some chemical, and made little iron pellets. The pellets were then shipped off to be melted down elsewhere. At one place the whole road was covered with these pellets. Our tour guide Genius and I would run and slide down the road over the pellets. It was a lot of fun.
At one end of the mining area, there was a big plain. It felt very African. It was the kind of plain you’d expect to see lions and giraffes walking on. In the distance you could see the smoke from people making charcoal.
There were some people “mining” at the mines. We came across a couple groups of guys who were digging up the ground around the mining buildings to collect the scrap metal from the old buildings. They were paid $5 for every 100kg of scrap metal they found – not a lot of money. It seemed ironic that what was once used to mine iron ore, was now being mined for iron.
On the ride back we all sat in the truck on the train and listened to the live news of Bush’s visit. Everyone in Liberia loves Bush. They see him as the man who made Charles Taylor leave. Bush did publicly demand Taylor step down, but never followed it up with any military action. He did send a few marines over as a humanitarian assessment team and had an aircraft carrier swing by the coast on it’s way home from Iraq, but no American troops ever did anything in Liberia. The war didn’t end until an Economic Co-op of West African States (ECOWAS) peace keeping team arrived. Nonetheless, they love him here, which is quite different from the rest of the world. The radio announcer was pretty funny. My favorite quote: “Bush is waving to the people, he’s waving to me. I’m waving back, I’m waving back!” There was an expectation that Bush would announce a huge aid package for Liberia. So there was a little disappointment that he only promised a million text books for Liberian schools; he gave Ghana $500 million. America is the largest donor to Liberia though, so American has been giving its fair share.
I was also told that Bush’s 8 hour stop over in Liberia cost $50 million. About 400 people came a week before Bush arrived to secure the place. All the cars Bush and his entourage rode around in where shipped over. Also shipped over were a few helicopters – makes me feel good about my spending so far in Africa.