On a warm Friday night in Paynesville, a Liberian community founded by settlers from the United States and their descendants 150 years ago, music is thumping from all directions. An Ebola-induced curfew was lifted about two weeks ago and young Liberians are thronging in the thousands to enter Royal Plus, a nightspot not far from a series of emergency Ebola treatment units on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. These hulking facilities line the long route to Monrovia from the country’s international airport, which continues to be serviced by only a handful of the international carriers that made stops in Liberia before the height of the Ebola crisis.
While the economic effects of Ebola have been significant, the country has reached the halfway mark to a declaration of being Ebola free and Monrovia’s youth are now ready to have fun. As Takun J, one of the leading proponents of Liberian urban music, known locally as ‘hip-co,’ notes, “We can’t escape from entertainment.” Despite the challenges wrought by Ebola, Takun’s nightspot, Block 146, remained open throughout the crisis. Live performances, beauty pageants, and film-house screenings are starting to resume as normal. Indicative of this shift, the line for admission into Royal Plus is dozens deep, despite an admission fee of 200 Liberian dollars, which at more than $2 U.S. is greater than the daily incomes of most Liberians.
Cash is freely flowing both inside, where empty beer bottles cover the cement floor and plastic tables, and out, where food vendors have emerged from hiatus with small, improvised charcoal grills to sell hot dogs, liver kebabs, and in a nod to the country’s historical connections to the United States, potato salad. After a series of promotions for one of Liberia’s leading cellphone companies, a number of live musical performances, almost exclusively in English, take the audience until 3 in the morning. At this time, those with their own cars or the money to hire a taxi take their leave, while the less plush drowsily imbibe the selections of the DJ (featuring a heavy dose of Chris Brown) until public transportation resumes around 6 a.m.
At the end of August, following an outbreak of Ebola-related violence in West Point, Monrovia’s poorest township, the authorities introduced a curfew that was progressively relaxed until it was finally removed at the end of February. (It was also briefly lifted to allow for New Year’s celebrations.) In its early stages, the curfew was vigorously enforced in Monrovia. Stories abound of corrupt officers using the opportunity to relieve violators of their property and take joyrides in the fancy automobiles they ensnared at roadblocks.
Tarek Ghosn (who like many of the owners of Monrovia’s more upscale bars, restaurants, and clubs, is Lebanese), owner and manager of Lila Brown, one of the few beachfront bars and restaurants in Mamba Point, an exclusive community home to a variety of U.N. offices and Western embassies, notes that he often sent his staff home early to avoid problems with the curfew. By 7 p.m., when Ebola relief workers were starting to wind up their jobs, he’d be alone in the kitchen firing up the pizza oven. As the curfew relaxed and the police officers accordingly backed off, Ghosn extended his hours and often let his staff sleep on premises. One bar manager notes that by November “it became standard how much you’re going to pay the police officer” for permission to operate outside of the curfew.
Ghosn states that one of the silver linings with Ebola is that he was able to work intensively on training his staff and now has full confidence in their ability to manage the bar in his absence. Ghosn adds that while his doors were always open through the Ebola crisis, business was tough. Noting that “every dollar counted,” he cancelled all promotions, revamped his menu, and engaged in guerilla marketing to get the scared expatriates staying at the fancy hotels across the street to venture out to his establishment.
Meanwhile, Tides, a beachfront establishment on the opposite side of Monrovia’s peninsula—which lies beneath the shell of an elite hotel destroyed during the civil war and which is one of the few Liberian owned establishments attracting an international clientele—has taken the reverse approach: It is looking to institute its first happy hour in a drive to market itself to the new class of aid workers who have arrived in Liberia to fight Ebola.
Managers of Monrovia’s bars note that by the end of November and December, the situation had improved significantly and people were more comfortable spending time out. Innovative party promoters, such as Hazem ‘Double H’ Harb, the co-founder of Hott FM, one of Monrovia’s most popular radio stations and host of a weekly karaoke night, notes that at the peak of Ebola, “People were scared, people stopped going out.” Even with the end-of-year improvements, Double H notes that many Liberian Americans did not visit their families for the 2014 Christmas season, putting a significant dent on income from holiday events.
No longer able to focus on parties and physically bringing people together, Double H devoted his energies to spreading awareness of the disease through radio, working with UNICEF and other international relief partners. He is looking at ways to assist Ebola orphans in continuing their studies. Event promoters resorted to innovative means to bring entertainment to expats and Liberians thirsty for fun, including occasionally opening nightclubs in the day. His own Twitter and Facebook feeds became dominated by statements seeking to bring levity and comic relief to the situation.
Both customers and proprietors agree that a great deal of normalcy has returned to Monrovia’s nightlife. Sitting outside of Executive Rock, a beachfront bar just down from the abandoned Executive Mansion and just up from the site where a dozen prominent Liberian officials were executed following a coup in 1980, Nathaniel Pettiquoi sips on a herbal-infused whiskey named after a former president of neighboring Guinea. He notes that at the peak of the Ebola crisis, “We used to get together, but not like now. We were afraid of each other.” Rather than taking a 10-minute drive to Executive Rock on a daily basis as he did before Ebola, Nathaniel shifted to visiting two to three times a week, from around 6 to 8 p.m., supplementing this with increased visits to drinking spots closer to his house.
While Ebola never stopped fun seekers entirely, its impact can still be widely felt. A number of the Liberian-American and foreign owners and managers of clubs who fled the country at the height of the crisis have yet to return. As a result, many of the establishments targeting upper-class Liberians and relief workers remain closed. An Ebola relief worker can no longer relish a refreshing Oreo milkshake at the Bamboo Bar, an open-air rooftop establishment overlooking downtown Monrovia’s busiest intersection. Cookshop.biz, an online food delivery service, closed shop in August and has yet to reopen. The local touts continue to complain that business remains below pre-Ebola levels, providing them with fewer opportunities to derive much needed income from guarding the cars of wealthy patrons or selling cigars and chewing gum.
Nonetheless, the vibrant nightlife scene that Monrovia enjoyed before Ebola is slowly returning. In the face of war and disease, the country continues to show great resilience. A number of musicians recorded Ebola awareness songs, which unlike the regional and international efforts that have gained greater attention abroad, can actually be heard on the local airwaves. As a measure of the nation’s health, Monrovia’s nightlife scene shows that while the situation is improving, more of that characteristic Liberian initiative and creativity are required before partying returns to business as normal.