Black Reflections: On Our Family's Year in Liberia
A volunteering opportunity moved African American Teri, her husband and two children to the west African nation of Liberia. While her family is now based in the UAE, their love and appreciation for the African continent has them gearing up for a return move. Teri shares her warm reflections on her family's year living in Monrovia, Liberia, below.
Where in Liberia did you live and how long did you live there?
I moved to Monrovia, Liberia in August 2012 and stayed for about a year.
How did you end up living in Liberia and what were you doing there?
My husband, two children, and I moved to Liberia to do some volunteer work. I also served as an administrative consultant at a college in the region.
Please describe your experience immigration wise, of moving to Liberia.
This is a bit tricky because we entered and remained in the country on visit visas. Our intentions were to stay and I was actually offered a job at the college, but we ended up leaving. If we had remained in the country we would have converted our residency status. It is fairly easy to get residency in the country.
Would you say Liberia has a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities? Can you list some examples? How easy is it for a foreigner to start up a business?
There are definitely entrepreneur opportunities in the region. Liberia is a developing country with lots of potential. Technically, there is need in every business sector you can think of, however, there is a particularly dire need for quality healthcare facilities, schools, public transportation, and housing. Waste management and environmental services are also greatly needed in the area. Clothing and cosmetics are popular business ventures for the locals, but I don’t think these industries are very lucrative because these markets are saturated.
Acquiring a business visa and licensure isn’t hard. Honestly, the government channels aren’t as formal in this country as they are in the States. If you know the right person or if you are willing to pay a little extra you can probably get your documents fairly quick.
Any advice for potential expats? What industries are potential hiring the most, if any?
Education remains a crucial area of need for the country. Expats are almost sure to be able to procure a post in this sector if they have at least postsecondary certification. A degree is generally not required to work in primary and secondary public schools due to the severe teacher shortage. International schools do require higher level qualifications because many expat children attend these schools. Graduate credentials are usually required at the tertiary level (a master’s or higher is preferred, but some colleges take bachelor degree holders).
That being said, the pay leaves a lot to be desired. It is a rarity for a teacher to be paid more than $200 per month and that’s actually considered good by local standards. International schools and university teaching posts pay a bit more, but the salary isn’t competitive in relation to more developed countries.
There are a few high paying jobs with the UN, NGOs, and other global organizations. These positions are highly coveted as you would imagine so you must be highly and appropriately qualified for most of these posts.
Competition in other employment sectors is pretty tight. Many of the locals don’t have jobs or if they do they are significantly underpaid. So expats should expect to create their own opportunities if they intend to live in Liberia.
What was everyday life like in Liberia for you?
It was peaceful, laid back, and full of exploration.
How were you welcomed as an African American? Or as an American in general?
Liberia was colonized by freed slaves from America. As such, the culture is closely linked to America. The people love America and American people. Our family was well-received by the locals.
What did you love the most about living in the Liberia?
I loved being amongst my people without dealing with racial undertones. We didn’t have to deal with being treated differently based on the color of our skin because everyone around us had visible melanin in their skin. It was like being home.
Another aspect I enjoyed was eating fresh, organic food without overpaying for it. We raised chickens and ducks at our rental property and we bought fruits and vegetables from local growers. The food was so clean that it tasted different. I lost weight and I wasn’t even trying to. I felt vibrant and energetic every day.
Easiest things to adjust to?
The laid back lifestyle was a breath of fresh air. Liberians are not rushed at all. They take life one moment at a time. I enjoyed this a great deal because I had just left a very hectic and busy life in America. Living in Liberia was like an extended vacation.
Another bonus was having extra help. We hired a maid, a driver, and other helpers so we didn’t have much to do in terms of housework, shopping, driving, etc.
I also enjoyed being in nature. I have always been a nature lover and most of my time in Liberia was spent outdoors. Most of the people in the country spend a great deal of time outside. You are almost certain to see children playing in the community even on the hottest days. This is refreshing since many American children are constantly glued to computers, televisions, etc. and don’t play outdoors as much.
There are mounds of untouched forest land and wilderness that create the most captivating landscapes. The terrain is also diverse as there are beaches in the city and mountains and waterfalls in the interior (rural) regions of the country.
Most difficult things to adjust to?
As I mentioned, Liberia is a developing country, which means that the infrastructure is not very stable. There are a good number of people still living in villages or substandard housing. The country has a way to go in terms of electricity and indoor plumbing. Most of the expat communities are equipped with these facilities, however, we stayed on the outskirts of Monrovia proper. We did have running water, but we had to use a generator for power. This was very expensive given that gas was $5 per gallon at the time. Thus, we could only run the generator intermittently throughout the day which was very inconvenient.
The country does not have a streamlined public transportation system. They have taxis and buses, but they are very crowded and dirty. Sharing taxis is the norm so there could potentially be six or more people riding in a car together (most taxi drivers use Toyota Corollas!). It took about four months for our car to be shipped to the country so we were relegated to using public transportation. We chartered a taxi every time we went out. Chartering a taxi is the same as hiring a private car with a driver (to avoid sharing), this can be expensive if you do it often enough.
What was your social life like in Liberia?
It was quite active. I was with my family so we often took the children out and about in the community. Also, since we volunteered we were around locals quite often. We were invited to and attended local weddings, school functions, graduation parties, and other celebrations.
Can you share a few details on the cost of living in the community that you live in USD estimates?
Housing is generally less expensive than in America. We rented a 3 bedroom/3 bathroom home with a 3 bedroom/1 bathroom boy house (guesthouse) for $500 a month. We would have paid more than double this amount in metro Atlanta.
Groceries were very expensive at the Lebanese owned stores. Most of the items were imported from America and Lebanon. So, you could easily pay two to three times the actual cost. Imported goods are substantially overpriced in this region.
However, locally grown foods were very cheap. It was also quite economical to buy live chickens and fresh fish from the local farmers and fishermen. Eating out was reasonable as well. You could generally get away with spending $5-$10 per person for a decent meal at a casual dining restaurant.
I am not sure about utilities as we didn’t have any utility bills. Our water came from an underground pump and we used a generator for electricity.
We had prepaid phone and internet plans that were exorbitant, though. I was paying about $80 a month for a pay-per-minute internet plan. Our phone bill was more expensive because we made quite a few international calls. I don’t remember the exact rate, but I would estimate that we spent about $100-$150 on average per month for two cell phones.
Did you always dream of living abroad?
I always dreamed about traveling, but not living abroad. Though, it wasn’t a shock to my family or to me that I ended up living abroad because of my love for travel.
You’re currently living in the UAE but considering moving back to Africa. Can you share why?
Africa will always be in my heart. My husband and I planned on purchasing real estate in Liberia but the Ebola scare ravaged the land about a year after we moved. We still intend to move back to Africa, but to a more stable region. We love the continent and wish to explore more of what it has to offer.
Do you have general advice for a parent wondering about moving with their child to an African nation?
I think every child from the African diaspora should visit Africa at least once. It would be even better if they could actually live in an African country. There’s nothing like seeing and experiencing the land of our ancestors. I think living in Africa instills a greater level of pride and love in our children for themselves and for their people.
Best advice for someone who wants to move to an African nation?
My best advice is to investigate where you want to live. Also, ensure that you have enough financial resources to support you while you are in Africa. Sometimes it can be more expensive than you think to live in an African country. You don’t know what will happen while you are there so over-prepare for your journey.
Understand that Africa is not a land full of black Americans, it is a very dynamic continent with diverse groups of people. Know why you want to move and have a plan of action. As wonderful as Africa is, everything doesn’t always work as efficiently as it should. You may get frustrated, lonely, or homesick at times but know that you are among family. And, know that you can have a great life in Africa.
What would you say to encourage more African Americans to visit Liberia or the African continent at large? Do you think it is an important visit and if so, why?
The world is changing. We no longer have a safe haven in America. Our people are being destroyed in this country. African Americans must start thinking globally before we are pushed even further to the fringes of American society. We must also start thinking and building cohesively if we intend to protect our progeny.
Even more, Africa is set to expand into greater financial frontiers through its booming oil, diamond, gold, and other natural resource industries in the near future. Many African nations have the fastest growing economies in the world right now. Other nations are taking advantage of this financial hotspot while leaving our brothers and sisters in Africa destitute at the same time.
I saw this too often when I was in Liberia. There were foreign-owned construction companies peeling back layers of rock with heavy equipment while locals struggled to chip away at stones with a sledge hammer in their bare hands. These foreign companies sold the raw materials at premium prices to builders within and outside of the country. Though, the locals could scarcely afford to build their own home with the meager resources that they were able to obtain.
As African Americans, we need to support our people and help build Africa for Africans instead of letting other people steal this great land. The only way we can do this is to return to the Most High so that He can restore us to our former glory. We need to educate our brothers and sisters about the importance of restoring and maintaining our heritage.
What did living in Liberia teach you? Or how did it change you?
It taught me that America is not the world. As Americans, we tend to have a restricted view of life on other continents. Everything starts and stops in America for the average American. I was like this before I left the country.
I never gave much thought to what was happening globally. In my mind every place was like America. But, to my pleasant surprise this is not the case. Life is different all over the world and being in Liberia gave me a living, breathing lesson that I will never forget regarding this dynamic. Living in Africa really opened me up to the idea of living and traveling abroad on a whole. I see and approach the world completely differently now.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would like to say thank you Kaylan for what you are doing for Africa. It is vital that we present the positive side of Africa because this continent has been pushed to the wayside for far too long. Many of our people are afraid to return to Africa because of the information that has been propagated through the media and this is unfair to Africans throughout the diaspora. We need to unite as a people and the only way we can do this is by dispelling the myths and lies that degrade our people worldwide and get back to our Creator.
Is there somewhere we can follow your experience?
I regularly blog about my family’s homeschooling journey (traveling, autism, unschooling, etc.) and other educational issues at Natural Homeschooling.