Monrovia, Liberia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/20/15

Personal Experiences from Monrovia, Liberia

Monrovia, Liberia 08/20/15

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I have lived in a number of other countries as an expat, but this was my first African country.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Home is near Philadelphia. The last time I did it, it took about 24 hours with layovers included. Monrovia to Brussels (with a touchdown in Dakar) to Washington to Philadelphia.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2013-2015.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most housing is in apartments of wildly varying levels of quality. Housing that is up to developed country standards is very expensive. Sinkor and Mamba Point (where the U.S. Embassy is located) are the most common areas for expats to live. The distance from Sinkor to Mamba Point is roughly 4 miles, takes about 15 minutes with no traffic, and can take between 20 and 45 minutes at rush-hour times. Anyone (i.e. NGOs, non-USG) who has to negotiate their own lease should make sure to specify 24-hour electricity, 24-hour security, and running water.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Everything is imported, so most things are very expensive. A pint of Haagen Dasz ice cream was $15 while I was there. Bleach is made locally and not very expensive, but most other cleaners, soaps, pre-packaged foods, etc. are very expensive. Brand selection is limited, and quality is not always the best.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I brought preferred cleaners, laundry detergent, shampoo, cooking oils, and a number of other household staples that I used a lot. Also bring favorite comfort foods!

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Many restaurants in town will do take away or even deliver. Monroe Chicken (a local chain) is the closest thing to Western-style fast food available (loosely modeled on KFC). There is plenty of street food available, but buyer beware: hygiene standards are unknown on the street! There are no international franchise brands.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes carry malaria and yellow fever. There are also bitey red ants and little black ants that get into the sugar. Roaches and millipedes are also common.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

The post office is unreliable, and there is no address system in the country. I managed to send some post cards to the U.S. and Europe, and those usually arrived at their destination but took a long time. Fedex, UPS and DHL are available, but rates are high. It is common for expats to ask around the expat community if anyone can take a small package to or from Liberia to the U.S. or Europe.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

I had a housekeeper who came once a week to clean house, do laundry, iron and a few other chores, and I paid her US$100 per month. I also had a person who washed my car three times a week for US$30 per month. Finding domestic help is easy, finding someone who can consistently do the quality of work you want can be more time consuming.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

I used the gym at work, but there are one or two private gyms in town. The gym in my apartment complex charged non-residents about $100 to use it - including free weights, treadmills, and cycling machines (frequently not working). There is also a 25-meter pool and a tennis court with a basketball hoop. There are one or two boxing gyms as well.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Liberia is a cash economy - U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Liberian dollars are usually used for smaller purchases, street food, produce, etc. A few ATMs are available (Ecobank), but they are not always reliable.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Liberia is an English-speaking country, but Liberian English can be very difficult to understand sometimes!

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. There is very little infrastructure, and what there is, is in poor condition. Most buildings do not have elevators - or if they do, the unreliable electricity makes it inadvisable to use them. There's no such thing as handicapped parking, and there are none of the other accommodations for the disabled that can be found in developed countries.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There are few buses and they run irregularly. Most people get around by taxi or (especially outside of Monrovia) motorcycle taxis (called pehn-pehns). Drivers are often unlicensed and do not follow good safety practices. Vehicles are often poorly maintained if not on the verge of collapse. Motorcycle riders are often incredibly reckless. U.S. government personnel are not allowed to use local taxis or public transport for safety reasons.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

AWD/4WD is not necessary but recommended, especially if you're going to drive yourself to the beach. A vehicle with high clearance is a good idea - Monrovia's main streets are paved, but often with enormous potholes, and side streets are not always paved, or the pavement has broken down. It is best to drive with doors locked and windows up in crowded areas. People have been known to reach into cars and take things. Motor oil and basic parts are available locally, but they can be expensive, so it is best to bring brake pads, filters, spark plugs, etc. with you. Toyotas are probably the most common vehicle, so they are most likely to get fixed properly. There are a few car dealerships in town, but the quality of work varies, and service is not necessarily up to Western standards.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

I spend $80/month for 20 GBs of 3G internet from Cellcom. Other options are available, although many use USB stick mobile data modems or hotspots.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There are three major cellular service providers. Coverage outside of Monrovia is unreliable. Complaints about service are common for all three companies. There are often problems with disappearing credit or network failures. Call rates, including international, are fairly cheap. Data is more expensive, but there are a variety of plans depending on data usage.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

There are one or two vets, but services are limited.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Affluent Liberians are snappy dressers, but with the heat and humidity, lack of infrastructure, and lots of rain, business attire is a little more relaxed than it is in New York or Washington or London. Liberian society is a little bit more conservative about women covering up than the U.S. or Europe would be, but within Monrovia you can pretty much see everything, and most expats wear whatever they want without any trouble that I noticed. Dry cleaning services are available but highly inconsistent quality.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Most of the crimes against Western expats are thefts and burglaries, especially crimes of opportunity. Mob violence can occur, especially after car accidents.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Ebola seems to be over in Liberia, although it's still present in Guinea and Sierra Leone as of this writing. Malaria is extremely common. Typhoid can also occur. Only bottled, boiled or distilled water is safe to drink. Produce should be disinfected with vinegar or a bleach solution, especially if you don't plan on cooking it before eating it. Foodborne illnesses and gastrointestinal complaints are common, although most of the big hotels and restaurants catering to expats do a fairly good job with the food (there are occasional failures). Health care in general is abysmal. Spurious and counterfeit drugs are common. Bring a good supply of over the counter and prescription drugs with you. Non-U.S. government expats should have medevac insurance. There is one subscription service clinic that I know of that caters to expats, and the USG, UN, and larger NGOs and multinationals often provide their own medical services to employees.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air gets pretty hazy during Harmattan (roughly January to March), and during dry season people burn vegetation to clear land for farming, which puts a lot of smoky haze into the air. Sometimes locals burn trash as well. Otherwise the air quality is not bad.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The rainy season is from May to October --- it rains just about every day, often with hours-long downpours. The beginning and the end of rainy season can have some fairly violent night-time thunderstorms. Dry season can get fairly hot, and the humidity is always high. After a while, 65% humidity will feel like a dry day. Daytime temperatures are usually between 75 and 95 degrees - a little cooler in the rainy season, a little warmer in the dry season. The sun is very strong.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There is an American International School of Monrovia (AISM), but I have no children and therefore not much experience with the school.

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2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are no preschools or daycare centers, but local childcare help is fairly inexpensive. But it may take some time to get domestic staff to understand exactly how you want them to do things and then do that consistently. This depends on how much and what kind of experience that person has had in other expat households.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Probably only through the AISM school, although there are personal trainers who will also work with children (e.g. tennis or swimming lessons).

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There is a large NGO community as well as a handful of multinational mining, oil, and logistics companies. But there are only a handful of places that most expats socialize, so in a way, it's a very small town.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Dancing at Sajj, happy hours or quiz nights at Tides or Fuzion. There are several nightclubs and bars, but not much else. Most people make their own fun.

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3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

LGBT people are not widely accepted in Liberian society, but expats have not had specific problems that I know of. It may not be very easy to meet other LGBTs though.

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4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There is no religious violence that I've observed, although there is often heated debate about whether Liberia is a "Christian" nation. There are a large number of Christian sects, especially of the evangelistic variety, and Liberians get extremely enthusiastic about church services. There is a sizable Muslim population as well, and there can be some prejudices against them, especially since they are usually associated with particular ethnic groups (Mandingo, Fula) that are seen by some as "foreigners" even though these groups migrated into Liberia long ago. Liberia is a male-dominated society, and women have mostly household and caregiver roles. But Liberian women can be very outspoken and of strong character, and there are increasingly more women in business and government. Rape and violence against women is a problem in Liberia.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

There's not much infrastructure, but LIberia is a beautiful country - there are some beautiful beaches in Robertsport and Buchanan. Harper is especially gorgeous, though difficult to get to, and there are some nice beaches closer in to Monrovia as well. There's some good surfing in Robertsport.

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6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Going up to the urban ruins of the Ducor hotel for the best view in the city; surfing in Robertsport; amazing seafood if you buy it fresh from local fishers; pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruits to die for.

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7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

African fabric (lapa) and clothes and bags made from lapa, wood carvings, baskets.

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8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can leave your winter clothes behind. It's basically between 75 and 95 degrees year round. Although western grocery staples are expensive, as is eating out, there's not a whole lot else to do. So saving money is easy.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, but only if you don't have to pay for your own housing!

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but it's not for the ultra-picky or faint of heart.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

bug spray, crocs, umbrella, sun hat, flashlight, patience, and a sense of humor.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Blue Clay People/William Powers; Mighty Be Our Powers/Leymah Gbowee; The Darling/Russell Banks; Another America/James Ciment; Journey Without Maps/Graham Greene; Chasing the Devil/Tim Butcher; Long Story Bit by Bit/Tim Hetherington.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This place is not for the faint of heart, but is totally worth the effort. It's a beautiful country with wonderful people.

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