In Liberia’s national museum, there is a beguiling mahogany sculpture called Twin Mother, a gracefully carved bust of an African woman breastfeeding twins. “You have to feed both your children at the same time,” Lamie, the energetic guide, explains, introducing this as a symbol of Liberia’s troubled past. “You can’t let one develop and neglect the other.”
This, in a nutshell, is the story of Liberia, the oldest African republic. Founded by free US blacks leaving the slavery and racism of plantation society America, they arrived in Monrovia by steamship in 1822. Lighter-skinned, Americanised and well-armed, the settlers created a new nation at the expense of the Africans who were already there.
An interest in this history is key for anyone thinking of holidaying in Monrovia. But if, like me, you find it fascinating, the Liberian capital is a veritable gold mine. Where else can you see an African newspaper published in the 1830s, as you can at the museum, or walk a gallery of black presidents dating back to 1847, as you can in the Centennial Pavilion next door? The statue in front shows a settler woman and a native woman, naked from the waist up, in supplication to two Americo-Liberian men wearing top hats and tails.
Liberia’s years of war had their roots in these divisions, and the scars are still visible. There is the odd burnt-out or pockmarked building, now being reclaimed by assertive flora. The Masonic Grand Lodge, founded in 1867, is one of the most breathtaking ruins I’ve ever seen on the African continent: a huge, Palladian-style construction that betrays the scale of ambition once wielded by the Americo-Liberian elite – and the backlash against it.
The old has not disappeared from Monrovia but the new is thriving. Less than a kilometre away I walked sceptically into Tides – a bar which looks closed down from the main road – only to ascend on to a glorious wooden terrace hovering above the swelling Atlantic, a half-moon of yellow sand on one side, and the container ships of the open ocean on the other. There is nothing, I found, quite like the specific delight of an evening Club beer on this balcony, the sun melting gloriously into the moody horizon. Drinks come quickly but don’t order food if you’re in a hurry.
Liberian food – which I found to be served much more quickly everywhere else – is delicious. The country is a great place in which to sample West African staples such as jollof rice, fufu – a heavy dumpling made of pounded cassava – okra stew and pepper soup. But it also has its own unique cuisine, a combination of southern American influences and the innovation of its indigenous ethnic groups.
In its embassy and hotel district Sinkor, I sat among a well-heeled but casual Liberian crowd, eating salty bitter-leaf stew, cooked with melon seed and soaked in palm oil, served with ebba – a lightly fermented corn dough. But the main event in Liberia is white rice, an obsession for which I’ve heard Liberians mocked by other Africans, eaten with “crawfish gravy”: crawfish in a fragrant and seasoned sauce, or palm butter – a gloriously rich stew. Now I’m eating it as they do, this love of white rice is beginning to make more sense.
I was last in Monrovia for any decent length of time in 2008, five years after the war ended, and since then the city has, from a visitor’s perspective, been transformed. It’s far safer and easier to get around. There are services like Solo Cab – a kind of offline Uber. And Cookshop.biz is an online platform that allows you to order for delivery from the city’s numerous Lebanese, pizza, Italian, sushi, Thai and Liberian restaurants. For every 10 meals ordered, one is donated to a school-age child for free.
It’s impossible to enjoy yourself in a country which, although coming up from the desperation of war, is still one of the world’s poorest, without asking how your presence is contributing to the local economy. Few of the hotels and restaurants I visited were actually locally owned. But all made local employment something they are proud of, even the unexpectedly high-end Royal Grand, a hotel which opened last year offering a level of luxury that was inconceivable last time I visited. The general manager, Canadian-Lebanese engineer Wael Hariz, tells me with pride about the apprenticeship scheme he launched to upskill young Liberians.
The Grand’s Donut Bar is great for people-watching, attracting young African consultants, lawyers from other more developed hubs such as Nairobi or Accra, trustafarian students and old African-American men lamenting their president’s latest Twitter meltdown over coffee and deep-fried apple fritters.
Libassa Lodge, an eco-hotel 45 minutes outside Monrovia, has made ethical tourism a core principle. Funded in partnership with the forestry authority and a wildlife sanctuary, it feels like a genuine retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. I could comfortably spend a week here, I thought, swimming in the four pools that run down to the shore, snorkelling in the lagoon, and doing wildlife tours.
Liberia is a genuinely viable tourist destination now, especially if you combine a couple of days’ sightseeing in Monrovia with stints at the beach resorts a few miles outside the capital. I spent a lazy Sunday at RLJ Kendeja, founded by the creator of America’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) network Robert Johnson. Staying here will set you back a cool $250 (£195) a night for a double room, but for $15 (£11.50) a day (offset against purchases) I could pay to use the facilities – in my case sitting at the beachside bar drinking fresh coconut, admiring the lone adrenalin junkie who was attempting to surf the ever-violent Atlantic waves and currents.
Monrovia is not all rosy. It’s neither a cheap destination nor hassle-free. I was grateful for my trusty driver, even though he was so unused to tourists he had no idea how to find most of the things I wanted to see. But we found them eventually, with a little help from other, equally bemused, local people; tourism is quite obviously still an anomaly in Liberia.
At the same time it’s hard to reconcile, when you’re here, that it is a nation synonymous in the western imagination with the plague of war. On a continent of misunderstood countries, I’d say this one is a contender for the most unjust treatment.