Sunday, 26 January 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Monrovia'

There's a saying that every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running. Africa gets up early, so do I when I'm here...

I set off from Mamba Point Hotel in the western part of Monrovia. A city of around one million souls is mostly up and on the move. Monrovia is named after an American President in the 1800s, it's vibrant even at 0700 hrs. It's a young city. I've read 40% of the population is under 14 years old.

Talking of President's, it's rare in Africa not to see their images everywhere. This is the only African country with an elected female President, I see no sign of her on the streets. The President's CV is impressive, elected twice and a Nobel Prize winner. I'm heading west now, but later I'll be in taxi's probably listening to public opinion on the job she's doing. After all, the people who should be running any country are taxi drivers and hairdressers. They have all the answers. No sign of Ellen....

Running north up UN Drive alongside the Atlantic Ocean as this city sparks into life, no one notices me, they're mostly ambivalent and why wouldn't they be. Traffic is pretty orderly and drives on the right side of the road, the typical mix of 1980's cars and older, interspersed with some big fancy Chelsea tractors, big 4 by 4's. Not too many though, this country is poor. Really poor. This city seems to function OK. Just like London, every other vehicle is a taxi, here they are mostly yellow and run down, with an occupancy level of more than the usual four passengers. I see no bus stops, there is little public transport. Taxies are cheap and help run this city. Some of them even have names, there's a white one full of cuddly toys, disco lights and furry dice called 'Sweet Jesus'.

When you see a black Range Rover anywhere, it makes you think. Footballer? Drug dealer? Crook? Successful businessman? In Africa, it's more....politician? Someone connected?

Continuing along UN Drive, I jog past probably the most secure building in Monrovia. A prison? No. Bank vault? No. The President's house? No. It's the US Embassy. It's vast, impressive and secure. I turn right and pass more secure buildings. Not in the same league as the US Embassy. They're all side by side; the UN, Unicef and WFP. A lot of aid remains in this country, even after the war finished 12 years ago. Most cities have a diplomatic sector - the main embassies, excellent hotels and decent infrastructure. Monrovia seems no different, this is probably the best part of the town.

The roads for an impoverished West African country are in good shape, the government has apparently done well. The distinctive hum of generators is apparent; so good roads, electricity is a work in progress. I'm on to Benson Street. Liberia is one of only two African countries never colonised. It has significant ties to the US, hence naming a street after George Benson?

Benson Street is slightly downhill, so I pick up the pace. This city is flat, and no relief, so hilly is relative. Street cleaners in smart blue coveralls are in evidence sweeping up, the town is clean for West Africa. Waste management and having 27 different coloured bins for recycling isn't the highest priority where many waking up will do so hungry.

I get onto some of the small joining streets heading north, I want to push up to the Mesurado River. There are US references everywhere but no major international brand names to be seen. Shops are preparing to open, all are grilled, and most have significant metal plates all over them, no window shopping here. There's no Starbucks, no Pret A Manger, not even a Holland and Barratt anywhere (ha, thankfully). Many of the shop owners seem Lebanese. Every other shop is an electronics shop of some kind.

These side streets have plenty of energy, it's enjoyable running down them. I get over to Water Street and need to turn back to the hotel. Time to head south. It's already hot and sticky, you don't need to do layered-up here. You don't need headphones or entertainment, the streets provide this. Moreover, you need all of your senses working overtime as it can be like a virtual video game. The storm ditch you can fall in, the rock you can trip over, the guy carrying wood on his head that you might have to duck under, the doors opening on the taxi's that you swerve to avoid, and so on...

I hit Johnson Street heading south and run past the old national football stadium. One of the most famous footballers in the world a few years back was George Weah. A great player, who is today a prominent political player in the country, even running for President in 2005.

Back on United Nations Drive heading west back to Mamba Point. There is the odd policeman around, and there's plenty of local security, means this is a decent area. I go past St. Teresa's Covent School, the kids are so smart in their green and white uniforms, big smiles and happiness everywhere. I pick up the pace... and think fleetingly of my late departed Auntie Teresa from Ireland.

I come off the Drive just to see the beach, which is called Miami Beach. This is where any similarity ends. It's not wide and has a significant camber, which means not great for running. There are stray dogs and rubbish everywhere, but always good to see the ocean. I notice a 'Golds Gym', which of course isn't what you might call a franchise operation.

As I near the hotel I hear, "Papi" shouted from over the street. It's the rental car driver from the previous day who picked me at the airport. "Papi", is a respectful greeting. I like it a lot, smile and wave back. His name is Shelton, and while he's not the world's greatest driver, he's certainly entertaining. He was yesterday when we had a policeman chasing us on a bike taxi...but that's another story...

I like the look of Monrovia, the feeling and first impression is a good one. I enjoyed this run. The next early morning run will be in Freetown, Sierra Leone...