Saturday, November 26, 2011


Have you ever lived in a compound? Worked in a compound? I remember when I was a middle school a friend of mine told me that her father's family in Chile lived in a compound. There was a big house surrounded by high walls, topped with coiling razor wire, with security guards out front. At the time it sounded like a castle, and that her family must have been one of the richest and most powerful in the country. Little did I know how much time I'd be spending in compounds in the future.

Compounds in every country I've been to have a number of similar features: the property is surrounded by high walls. These can vary from 8 feet to 12 feet from what I've seen. For instance when I was in Juba, the walls were 8 feet but were being raised to 8 or 10 after a number of robberies had occurred in the area, so the height of the wall matters. Walls are almost always made of cement, and are invariably topped with coiled barbed or razor wire, or with pieces of broken bottles with the sharp edges sticking up. There is almost always only one way to enter a compound, through large metal gates in the front that are locked at all times unless someone is coming or going. Then there are guards, always one, often more, who open and close the gates and generally stand around watching who comes and goes. Depending on where you are the guards may or may not have guns. In Liberia none of them do because firearms are completely banned, but in much of Latin America the guards do have some pretty intimidating weapons.

At first it feels strange to work and live in compounds, when I was in rural S. Sudan I worked and lived inside the same compound, so while the commute was just a few steps, it makes your world incredibly small. In almost every place I've worked you spend your day going in and out of compounds, greeting guards, occasionally showing ID if you're going into a UN compound. But the idea that what's inside the compound needs to be protected from what lays outside it becomes the norm. Here in Liberia most of the people I've met (who can afford it) live in compounds. Imagine if you've ever lived in an apartment or condo complex, now just surround it with walls and barbed wires, replace your doormen with security guards, and you've got the idea.

I remember when I was younger my family went on vacation with friends, and our friends didn't like the idea that the house we were all staying in was inside a gated community, because it implied the exclusion of the locals. Here there are certainly Liberians who work at businesses and organizations that are located behind high walls, but living within a compound seems to be an exclusively ex-patriate thing to do. On one hand, it's understandable, I've heard stories about a number of robberies and home invasions that have occurred in Monrovia. On the other hand a friend of mine lived on the top floor of an apartment building in Harlem and was constantly being robbed as people would hop from building to building and came down from the roof. It's not just here that crime occurs, and the security standards for the UN and other organizations exist for a reason. But what feels strange, is that it doesn't feel strange any more. I expect it, and though I still occasionally stop to wonder what it must be like to live in a place where the international community has come to "help" and "rebuild", but feels the need to wall themselves off and protect themselves from the people they're ostensibly here for. I think about it sometimes, but it's no longer my first thought when I see the razor wire. It doesn't even phase me.

No comments:

Post a Comment