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Rebuilding Liberia's middle class

Working to make a comeback after the country's destructive civil war.

Webster and Davidetta Togba-Cassell in front of the house that they rent with friends. (Myles Estey/GlobalPost)

MONROVIA, Liberia — The community of New Kru Town lies just beyond Monrovia’s port. Like much of this capital city, the neighborhood is characterized by crowded zinc shacks, packed tightly on sandy ground.

Only a few concrete houses dot the community, most still bearing the scars of the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 after tearing the country’s infrastructure to shreds. The war also dismantled Liberia's middle class.

Davidetta Togba-Cassell, 26, survived part of the war in an Ivorian refugee camp, and the rest in the chaos of Monrovia.

Despite these massive hurdles, she succeeded in obtaining a university education and today keeps a room with her new husband in one of the New Kru Town houses. They share the rent for the house with friends and it is spacious and clean with a fenced-in yard. They own a small generator for electricity that they use when they can afford the gas to run it: like most of Liberia, the house has no electricity and no running water.

With a degree in political science and economics from the University of Liberia, Togba-Cassell has a job as a special assistant to a senior member of the senate that earns her about $300 a month. Though not a competitive salary on the international market, in Liberia, this is an upper-middle salary, more than four times what policemen or entry-level civil servants earn, and 10 times above the "dollar-a-day" that more than half of all Liberians are said to live on.

While she enjoys her job and realizes she is fortunate, Togba-Cassell does not see those in her income bracket enjoying many amenities associated with the term "middle class." She doesn't have a television or a car or other means of personal transport. Vacation travel is out of the question as the couple have hardly any money saved. Togba-Cassell worries about lacking money in case of a medical emergency for her or her immediate family.

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“There is no middle class in Liberia,” she emphasized from her porch. “You either poor, or you got something to eat.

“In Liberia here, we work full time — from morning until 6 p.m. or whatever time boss has to leave — and at the end of the month, you get something that cannot support your family,” she said.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first woman head of state, is struggling to build a middle class, according to her cabinet ministers.

“We don’t have a strong middle class yet, but we consider the middle class in Liberia to be people with university degrees, people who use their skills to earn money, people in small and medium businesses,” explained Liberia’s Minister of Labor Taiowan Gongloe.