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Even With Peace, It's Hard To Be A Liberian Entrepreneur


For years, the small West African nation of Liberia was associated with violence, child soldiers, blood diamonds, 14 years of one of the world's most brutal civil wars. Now Liberia is celebrating a full decade of peace. Tamasin Ford brings us the story of one enterprising young woman there who's learning to operate in the new Liberia.

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: A noisy generator puffs out dirty black smoke. The children don't seem to notice. They're watching a screening of Charlie Chaplin projected onto a big white sheet. Twenty-four-year-old Pandora Hodge goes from community to community screening movies for free. She discovered the slapstick comedy of Chaplin's silent movies were an unusual hit with the kids.

She's trying to raise awareness of her cinema project, the country's first art house movie theater, as well as the film festival she's launching next year. Tonight's screening is on Peace Island, a settlement of ex-combatants and people who lost their homes during the war. Under the pouring rain, Pandora talks of the challenges of trying to do business here.

So no water, no grid electricity and no roads.

PANDORA HODGE: No roads. No. And we're in the heart of Monrovia.

FORD: But there is peace. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf marked a decade without war in a speech about the nation's progress. Under her reign, Liberia has had its crippling foreign debt forgiven. It's received billions of dollars in both aid and investment and economic growth has been impressive.

HODGE: I in person don't even dream or don't even think that I would want the war to come back in Liberia. Me, personally, I'm enjoying being free. You know, just even wake up in the morning and have only dry rice to eat, you know, peace.

FORD: Pandora was born into war. There's one memory of the conflict she'll never forget.

HODGE: The feeling of hunger. Even the wells start to dry because you cannot get water. I think people were so hungry that they would drink all the water from the well. There was time that we lost people, but to see your family starving, you know, that's horrible.

FORD: The first 14 years of her life were spent moving from place to place, hiding from guns. She wants life to be different for the next generation, normal.

HODGE: Everybody (unintelligible) this is Pandora's Basket (unintelligible) and...

FORD: Pandora's Basket, another one of Pandora's entrepreneurial projects. It's a weekly cooking class.

HODGE: We're going to have ginger in the (unintelligible) and then we have (unintelligible)...

FORD: It's also the start of her restaurant and catering business. She's found a venue. Now she's looking for an investor.

HODGE: This is the right - this side, the (unintelligible)...

FORD: A cinema, a film festival, a restaurant - not bad for a 24-year-old. But there are a few obstacles in her way: electricity. The city's supply was cut off during the war when the hydro plant was destroyed, along with every pole and every wire. People have got used to expensive gas-guzzling generators. According to the UN, electricity costs are the highest in the world, painfully driving down people's profits.

But that's not the only challenge.

HODGE: I will be firm with you. Like corruption in Liberia is so difficult. You know, you're trying your best, you're try in your weak way to actually say, you know, I want to do something. I want to this thing. I want to go for it. But then you reach there and then you get this huge stone standing in your way.

FORD: (Unintelligible) corruption.

HODGE: It is, yes.

FORD: President Sirleaf cited corruption as the major public enemy in her inaugural speech in 2006. It's still the enemy today, pushing Liberia to the bottom of most world corruption indexes. The following morning, Pandora joins nearly a thousand people at Monrovia's main hospital. They're not sick. They're in their running gear, about to take part in the Liberia marathon.

HODGE: (Unintelligible) but I really want to run it too. I think that would take me there.

FORD: President Sirleaf says the marathon symbolizes the country's upward journey, the fact that it's stable and safe enough to host such a big event. Liberia may not have electricity or proper roads and it's riddled with corruption, but it does have peace.


MONTAGNE: And that's Tamasin Ford reporting from Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamasin Ford