Looking at slums from the Hotel Ducor

February 16th, 2015

In late September to early October 2014, I traveled to Liberia to document the ebola outbreak for a few nonprofits (through Silent Images for SIM and Samaritan’s Purse). I covered most of the ebola stuff in a previous post.

There wasn’t a lot of free time in this trip. I’m normally able to cram in a few free days on a trip, to wander around and see the country. And, after all, there’s not a whole lot of quality sightseeing to do in ebola-afflicted Liberia. The furthest I went solo from the SIM/Doctors Without Borders ELWA compound was taking Dr Fankhauser’s Mitsubishi Pajero out for a quick joyride to get b-roll shots of Monrovia, and that almost ended in jail due to a few eager Liberian cops who saw a big white dollar sign driving down the road.

The night before I flew out, Fankhauser took me to the city center of Monrovia, right out on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. There is a huge hill at the end of the peninsula, and on top of this was built the Ducor Hotel.

For a long time, the Ducor was one of the only five-star hotels on the entire African continent. It was built in 1960 with 106 rooms on eight floors. Idi Amin swam in the pool while carrying his gun, or so they say. Then, in 1989, the Ducor closed right before Liberia erupted into the first civil war. Eventually it was entirely inhabited by squatters, who occupied the hotel for almost 15 years. It was cleaned out in 2007 and sold to Muammar Gaddafi. His plans to renovate the hotel were obviously stifled by extenuating circumstances (namely, NATO bombers blowing his convoy to bits) and so the hotel is back in the hands of the Liberian government.

It’s an amazing place. Or, it would be, if it wasn’t absolutely abandoned. Pull up to the circular drive, tip a security guard $5 to watch your vehicle (or it’ll be chop-shopped) and then you have free reign of the entire building.

Down below, to the north, you can see the West Point district. The population of this little subpeninsula is unknown, but estimated to be 75,000. It’s one of the most densely populated slums in the world. I’ve been told varying things by different people. West Point is an enigma: it’s not governed, monitored, registered, recorded, or patrolled. It’s sort of like the Walled City of Kowloon of Hong Kong fame, except it’s just shacks and shanties.

I was told that whites don’t enter the area, and apparently the only white aid worker who consistently enters West Point is a woman who started an orphanage years ago and still lives there. There are four toilets in the entire slum, which means that the only actual lavatory is the beach (incredibly hygienic since the primary means of income is fishing).

I’ve been to many slums throughout Africa. Kibera in Kenya is supposed to be the largest urban slum in Africa (between 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 residents at around 2000 per acre) and Khayelitsha in South Africa is supposed to be the fastest growing (at around 400,000 by current estimates). I didn’t enter West Point, just look down on it from the outside, but it looked horrid. There is a massive wall across the base of the peninsula, and I’m not sure whether it’s there to keep the residents in or other people out.