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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Lost City of Bong Town

The Lost City of Bong Town

I always hear from Liberians, “Oh this place used to be fine before the war.” or “The war spoiled this whole area.” And they say these things in other places like Kakata and Careysburg. And I nod silently and think “Uh huh. Maybe.” But when Arthur Barclay told me that my home during the last 17 months used to be called “Germany” or “Small America” I had to question him.
“Small America?” I ask. “This is Bong Mines. I've seen most all of Bong Mines.” He shook his head fiercely and rebuked my words. “But have you seen Bong Town?” I looked at him a bit confused. Bong Mines...Bong Town...are they not the same thing? Arthur took me on a long Sunday walkabout and showed me as he explained.

Bong Mining Company (BMC) was started and operated by the Germans. It began sometime in the 1950s. Arthur was born in Handii the village one hour north of the mine. He went to work for BMC in 1973 and was working there 15+ years until the war started. The mine was large, and I've found a few aerial photos online of it. The pellet plant, the conveyor belts, the crusher (which crushed rock) and the railroad. Nearly all of which took extensive damage during the war. The area was filled with heavy equipment, fine items, and large trucks. Who wouldn't want to capture that for their side during the war? My point exactly. The area was captured and recaptured over 50 times during the course of the civil war. Over 50 times can do a lot of damage. Then add in looters, scrapers, natural storms, and untouched vegetation growth for about twenty years. The place looks very different now.

The mining equipment is in horrid shape, and all the metal has been stripped to be sent away to be melted down. Even the cement is still being taken to build houses elsewhere. Only large foundations still remain and even those are falling apart. I've seen the mine. I've seen the old pellet plant and the crusher. I had not seen Bong Town.

Bong Mines was the 'camp' area. Holding many compartment style houses for mine workers. It is located on my side of town, the area that I now live in. Everything to the right side of the main road in my town was Bong Town. This was were the international staff lived as well as the officers and high ranking Liberian staff. Bong Town was the ritzy part of town and you'll read why soon enough. Bong Town was looted as well during the war just like other areas...but instead of being inhabited like the other compartment style houses in Bong Mines, they were eventually left abandoned. Forgotten.
Often times I had looked down that shabby coal-tar road from the main road that ran past the German-built hospital, but never before ventured down that way. I never really saw Liberians go there, and the place seemed to lead to know where. A dead end. No, Arthur tells me. “Bong Town is in there.” In there? I think. Where? It's all bush... It looks like an untamed jungle to me.
And Bong Town is an untamed jungle....with the skeletons of a town that was once so beautiful. Arthur took me through Bong Town that cool Sunday morning. We walked down that narrow coal-tar road I'd always overlooked. The road was black, with a sparse pot holes here and there. The farther in we went, the farther I seemed to leave Bong Mines behind, and enter this completely different world. To a quick glace, the road and surroundings appeared to look like a random paved road in the dense jungle...but upon closer inspection...you could see it. The slivers of gray and decaying houses poking through the green jungle. It was like a game. Can you spot the building remains through the thick jungle forest? Can you only see the tops of the buildings? Do you see the doors? Windows? Driveways and bathroom tiles? It was like being in an abandoned Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs and wilderness took over. But at least here, I did not see any dinosaurs...but I'm not ruling out the possibility. :)
There were over 200 houses in here. All with nice bathrooms, running water, electricity, television sets, and of course they all had air conditioning. A few even had snazzy European cars parked outside them. Now, only the cement walls remain. Even the zinc roofing and wood was stolen to be re-sold. And some of these houses are even loosing there cement walls to Liberian builders in the area who do not want to spend extra money on buying cement blocks for their building projects. Those cement blocks, which look a lot like the pile my landlady has been accumulating are surely the same blocks that were pieced together to make the very house I now live in. My house, I just realized, is made from old blocks from Bong Town. Taken illegally, but who's really doing any enforcement? And Bong Town isn't being used for anything now....Liberians probably do not see it as stealing.
So the tour has more meaning now as I know my house was once parts of Bong Town. Maybe as part of the head security officer's house, the Austrian economics teacher's house, or the head operations office building. The ghost houses of residential Bong Town were garnished with Y-shaped driveways, small cobblestone walls, and remnants of backyard gardens. Trees thicker than 10 inches were growing there. Vines that curled in and around windows, and roots that wound around doorways to reach soil on the other side were everywhere. I felt like Laura Croft in tomb raider as I ducked under a thick mass of roots to see inside what was once a living room (though I've very glad that old house was not booby trapped).
I saw the large flat expanse that was once a golf course. It hadn’t accumulated too many trees since it was cleared in such a large amount. As Arthur and I left residential Bong Town and continued on, I was informed that there were many other things here...not just a golf course. We picked our way through the dense bush to the recreational area of Bong Town. Now, the bush was so thick, I couldn't see it all unless I brought a cutlass. But I did see the nearly Olympic-sized pool, tennis court (all three of them) and the shower/locker rooms. Arthur pointed out the direction of the basketball court, bowling lanes, and shooting range. Is your mouth hanging open slightly right now? Mine was too...all day. Arthur also took me to the casino/club that was overlooking the tennis courts, bowling alley, and pool. The club I'm told was tricked out with six by twelve foot windows and a large bar. I closed my eyes and tried to picture this place before the war. I'd get a gin and tonic and stand by the large windows to watch the tennis match. Or I could move to the side room which held the VIP bar (still slightly visible) and hang out on a plush couch and watch any sports game on the multiple televisions mounted on the wall.
I opened my eyes to see the sunlight streaming through the jungle and open ceiling into the VIP bar area where I still stand....dazed. Arthur ducks his head through the doorway as a tree's roots are consuming the top two feet of the doorway. “Are you ready to see the reservoir?” He asks. I just bob my head a little and follow him out of the club. As we turn back down the road I look back at the club and wonder what the sign looked like that must have hung outside....and how many different colors used to shine over this road every night.
The reservoir held the clean water of Bong Town and it's a pain to get there. Such a pain, I almost change my mind halfway there. Even as I write this post to you now, my feet are tingling and sore in various places. Turns out the reservoir is not a frequently visited area and it's well overgrown. The jungle rips and tears at my clothes and skin as we hike and I begin to wish I'd worn close toed shoes. We have to jump over a few large ravines in the road. It looks as though someone had dug up the road. Turns out I'm right. “People come looking for copper piping and other buried metals to take and sell.” Arthur puffs as he continues his hike on up the hill. I follow, trying to match his pace and not get too torn up by the thorny vegetation. We finally reach the reservoir and I'm panting, bleeding from my jungle scratches and sweating like hell. The entrance to the reservoir looks like a dungeon. There is a little bit of light inside from the doorway and I can see two large holes in the floor from scrap metal hunters. “What's over the banister?” I ask Arthur. But before I let him answer I'm awed by the booming echo of my own voice. I look over the banister as Arthur joins me. “This is where the water was held...you can't see it unless you have a flashlight.” Damn...I think. I didn't bring one. I use my camera's flash with surprisingly good results. The bottom is maybe thirty to forty feet down, completely drained and still rather well intact. There is a shadowy staircase to my right, but we're out of time for this place if we want to try and reach Bong Town School. I get attacked by the vicious undergrowth as we hike back down to the road, jumping over the ravines once again.

We pass another 'jungley spot' on the way and Arthur tells me about the playground that used to be there and how it was one of the nicest playgrounds he'd ever seen. It even had a small carousel. I continue to follow him, still speechless and busy taking pictures. Workers would drop there kids off here to the daycare school and continue onto work. School buses ran along this road carrying students; black, and white to Bong Town School...the international school. My school, Bong Central High was used over in the camp as a junior high and elementary school. Bong Town School was the high school, filled with science lab equipment, international teachers from dozens of countries, and a set of textbooks for every student. Would I ever love to have seen that school back in the day. Turns out, I won't be able to see it today. Arthur can't find a way to it through the thick bush and we have no cutlass. “Next time.” He says and I nod determined that I'll get to see more than just one small outside wall of Bong Town School later. He tells me about the school's quality instruction and that graduates of Bong Town School got their placement tests waived if they chose to go on to University of Liberia or Cuttington University. My principal, Ma MJ, used to work at that school as did her husband Mr. Stewart.
Arthur takes me along one more ambiguous road and tells me that it is the road to the supermarket. Of course it is. I shake my head and follow. He stopped to point out his old office to me. It looks like all the other old dilapidated buildings of Bong Town but this one means a lot more. This was where Arthur worked for years and years. Where he made a good living off of about $850 USD per month, and his job was a mid-range paying job. He told me of how there was a laundromat nearby (useful since he didn't have a family in his early years working for BMC) and a sandwich shop encase you didn't have time to make it to the mess hall.
I ask him if any returning BMC workers from Germany go to see Bong Town when they revisit Liberia. He shakes his head. I guess it's a little too sad for them to see. We're quiet for some time and then I finally ask him if seeing all this makes him sad too. He nods, still smiling. “Yes. We fought an ugly ugly war here. The Liberian people did so many bad things to their country and people.” He's somber, yet his smile wrinkles near his eyes are crunched. Despite all this....unimaginable destruction and loss, he's still happy. A trait of the Liberian people that will continue to surprise me even after 17 months of living with their destroyed and failing system. After loosing so much...after seeing so many horrible war crimes...after surviving so many attacks...so many nights without food....living in constant fear...and no end of the war in sight for so many years. Arthur is alive...his wife and three children are alive...and the war is over. There are many many things he is thankful and happy about.

As for me, I'm honored to have Arthur share his memory of this incredible place...this diamond in the bush....the Lost City of Bong Town.

1 comment:

  1. Dear PCV,
    My name is Britta Hansen and I work for a USAID horticulture program at the University of California Davis. http://hortcrsp.ucdavis.edu/ I am also an RPCV (Response) from Liberia Zorzor 09-10! I found your lovely blog and that is why I am contacting you. My organization HortCRSP are in the process of searching for small organizations who are working to improve fruit and vegetable production in Liberia. Our program then funds time and travel for a graduate student in agronomy or horticulture to work with the organization over the course of a year to solve a specific issues they are having in production, marketing, nutrition etc. I am attaching some additional information as well as a link to our website. Basically I know that PCVs are often the best source of information on the ground and I would love it if you would be able to distribute some of this information to an organization that you might know of or work with. We always get a strong response from organizations in East Africa but being so connected to Liberia I know exactly some of the struggles people have in growing fruits and vegetables for sale and consumption. I would be happy to answer any questions that you have via email, skype or phone.

    Engaging U.S. graduate students in international development
    The Trellis Fund provides small-scale, in-country development organizations access to U.S. graduate student expertise, providing benefit to both the student and the in-country institutions. With a focus on impact and expansion of locally proven ideas, the Trellis Fund matches the organizations with students and provides modest funds to support the organization’s farmer outreach program.
    Proposals and applications
    For organizations: Organizations in 18 developing countries are invited to identify a horticultural problem facing local farmers and the type of expertise they seek in a U.S. graduate student. The organization will submit a project proposal with their intended objectives, activities, gender program and a $2,000 budget by March 4, 2013 for consideration. Organizations that have not already been funded by Trellis will receive priority.