Quietly, life in Monrovia has become routine. A week goes something like this. Monday evening: Mongolian barbeque at the Mamba Point Hotel. Tuesday evening: usually at home, drinking a Club beer, reading, watching a movie, or playing cards. Wednesday: Lebanese pies at the Mamba Point Hotel. Thursday: home again, perhaps a jog, or maybe beers at the casino next door (more frequently the latter now that Rich, our casino patron par excellence, has returned). Friday: party-hopping. There’s always a party, as somebody here is always coming or going, sometimes permanently, sometimes on extended leave, but regardless providing a never-ending stream of pretexts for revelry. Saturday: out to a bar or nightclub, maybe The Pepper Bush, Taboo, Agenda, or Zanzibar Blue. Sunday: sleep in, perhaps a breakfast of homemade oatmeal pancakes, and then to Silver Beach for an afternoon of sunning, swimming, football and euchre, followed by a large bowl of mango and pineapple gelato at a restaurant in Sinkor. And then the week begins again …
Now, I don't mean to suggest that life here is monotonous or repetitive. Far from it. I simply mention its regularity to note how easily and unconsciously you acquire customs and habits no matter where you find yourself, whether in the American suburbs, in the city of Manhattan, or in a tiny, tropical country on the edge of West Africa. Of course, there is variance to our Liberian routine. There are afternoons shopping in Waterside’s markets for lengths of cloth known as lappa, later to be sewn into African clothing; explorations of the city and its neighborhoods on foot; walks along the beach in Congo Town; night swimming in the ocean; field trips to leeward counties; a day at Robertsport beach in the north; a visit to an orphanage; or the launching ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, by and large, the weeks here pass consistently and predictably.
Always looking to shake things up, we jumped at the chance to attend the 2006 Miss Liberia Pageant this weekend. A necessary caveat: If I was anywhere else in the world, I would have scoffed at the idea of attending a beauty pageant, and I'd certainly never pay US$25 for a cheap seat. But in Liberia the idea of the pageant seemed altogether novel, and the price tag didn’t even make me blink. It was, simply, an event not to be missed. So, on Saturday night, six of us piled into two cars and drove across the Mesurado River and past the Monrovia Freeport stoplights (the only two working traffic lights in Liberia) to a conference center in the suburb of Virginia, originally built for the 1979 summit of the Organization for African Unity.
Less than half of the seats were filled when we arrived at 10pm, and the program didn’t get underway until well after midnight. We divvied up the contestants beforehand for our entertainment. I laid a quick claim on Miss Bong County. She didn’t let me down. At around 12:30am she debuted covered in ivy from head to toe (above, looking rather like a thicket of kudzu), with her front covered in a breastplate resembling the puffed chest of a cobra. Another contestant apparently took her cue from Björk’s infamous Oscar appearance as she did her runway walk wearing the full-fledged plumage of a peacock, as well as its neck and head (below).
The pageant's pace was excruciatingly slow. By 2am only the the first phase—-the ‘traditional’ African costume competition—-was completed. Our stamina caved mid-morning, and we left with three quarters of the show to go despite the magnificence of our seats (we snuck backstage to inhabit three dusty and abandoned press boxes positioned above and just to the right of the runway). I will therefore leave a more thorough description of the contest to the fine reportage of the Monrovia newspaper, The Analyst, below.
On Miss Bong County, Patrice Juah, crowned Miss Liberia 2006: ‘The judges did not say the basis of their decision, whether for her majestic steps, eloquence or beauty, but she was declared the winner.’
On Miss Lofa County (1st runner-up): ‘No one knows why she came to this point because the judges did not say it, but she performed her talent in a traditional Sande dance.’
On Miss Maryland County (2nd runner-up): ‘She pushed for the kill with a contemporary traditional folk dance. Many in the audience described it as superb and classical.’
On Miss Bomi County’s talent: ‘Her talent was about putting Liberia's broken pieces together. By that, she reorganized the Liberian map on a beautifully designed piece of plywood.’
On Miss Grand Gedeh County’s talent: ‘Miss Kulo Turay of Grand Gedeh displayed her talent in karate. She was garbed in long karate attire, and displayed a Konfu. She climaxed her talent by breaking a block, apparently made out of sand into pieces. She had no explanation for it.’
On Miss Montserrado County’s talent: ‘She perfectly cut a piece of lace and manually sewed it to perfection, much to the applause of the audience.’
On Miss Grand Cape Mount County’s talent: She ‘stunned the audience with a perfect Vai traditional dance, much to the taste of the audience.’
On Miss Sinoe County’s talent: She ‘displayed in full military attire and marched with the Liberian flag posted on her shoulder.’
On the ceremony in general: ‘It started rather slow-pace, with a docile mood and dangling enthusiasm. The musical band tried to cover up, but efforts were measly.’
On the program’s delays: ‘The recess was somehow ephemeral; the audience grew impatient because time was taking away.’
On the President: ‘Already, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has expressed unhappiness with the exercise.’
A quote from a representative of a sponsor, Today's Woman, Inc.: Monologues were discouraged because ‘Liberians tend to overuse monologues at these kind of events.’
A quote from ‘a male’ on the swimwear competition: ‘Real buttocks and slimy skin and sparkling tights I have seen in public now for the first time.’