Follow the signs for Bones Beach down a newly paved road in Monrovia, Liberia, and an octagonal structure the color of the sand emerges in front of the sea, surrounded by poppies, tiger lilies, hibiscus, lemongrass and bougainvillea.
Inside, Nigerian musician Fela Kuti plays on the stereo, and guests lounge on high-backed bar stools or on the zebra-striped dining room chairs. Painted wooden masks adorn the walls. It's Saturday night, and out on the deck, the first flames of the fire pit for the weekly barbecue begin to flare. Guests watch the sun disappear behind the huge crash of ocean waves.
While much of Monrovia is on the mend seven years after the end of more than a decade of civil war, just out of town there's an oasis of calm -- Kendeja, a resort built by African-American multimillionaire and Black Entertainment Television (VIA) founder Robert Johnson, who's also chief executive of RLJ Companies.
A five-star resort, Kendeja is the first new hotel to be built in Liberia in a decade, providing a glimpse of how the tropical West African country could begin to look if its fragile political stability and fast-growing economy remain intact.
A Responsibility to Support Liberia
After hearing Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speak in 2006 at a Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Johnson was moved to create a business that would establish a connection between the African-American community and Liberia.
"I believe passionately that African Americans have a responsibility to support Liberia, much like Jewish Americans support Israel," Johnson said in a statement. "Given the long historical relationship between our two countries, we have a special responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that President Sirleaf succeeds in her effort to rebuild the country. There is a window of opportunity, and we have to be sure that the opportunity is realized."
Kendeja represents Johnson's "continued support for President Sirleaf," RLJ partner Cory Printup tells DailyFinance. Sirleaf is running for a second term in elections scheduled for next October. Johnson, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $550 million, also partnered with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. to create a $30 million development fund for small and midsize businesses in Liberia.
Tapping Pent-Up Demand
Since opening in March 2009, the $12 million resort has become the place to stay in Liberia for U.N. personnel, visiting government officials and celebrities -- Emma Thompson, Tony Blair and President Sirleaf herself. It's also attracting wealthy Liberians returning for the first time since the civil conflict forced them to flee the country.
It seems there was some pent-up demand for a place to escape hot and crowded Monrovia. The hotel occupancy rate averages 85%, says Printup. "We reached break-even three months after opening," he notes.
A new Delta Air Lines (DAL) flight direct from Atlanta -- a deal Johnson helped broker -- should make it easier for more Americans to rediscover their roots.
Much of Liberia remains in tatters years after fighting that wiped out infrastructure and drove up foreign debt. The country was founded by freed black slaves in 1822. A revolt against the long-standing Americo-Liberian elite led to a coup in 1980. Former President Charles Taylor, who is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone, instigated a series of civil wars in 1989. A peace agreement ended fighting in August 2003 and sent Taylor into exile in Nigeria.
Sirleaf is the first democratically elected leader since the war ended. In five years, she has slashed $4.9 billion in debt, attracted $16 billion in investment and increased income per capita by one-third.
Beyond the Hotel, a Different World
Nevertheless, at Kendeja, two security guards man each side of the private beach -- and beyond, the differences couldn't be more striking.
About 85% of Liberians are unemployed. There are an estimated 10,000 ex-combatants -- most of whose schooling was cut short by the war. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with the majority of the population living on less than a dollar a day.
In October, hundreds of demonstrating employees barricaded the main entrance to Kendeja, demanding higher wages. Residents of the area complain they were kicked out of their homes with false promises of jobs. And when the Kendeja cultural center, the only of its kind in Liberia, was razed during construction of the resort, local artisans lost a venue to perform traditional dances and sell their wares. "There's a large artist community here, but the hotel management gives us no assistance," says James Sibley, a wood carver.
Kendeja provides power for an elementary school next door, but residents complain there's not enough clean water and sanitation. And the children who lost a soccer field in the construction of the resort now have nowhere to play.
Something Good From the Bad
But for some, Kendeja serves as a sweet reminder of life in Liberia before the war.
"When I came back, I was literally in tears. I couldn't recognize anything," says Kuo Dolo, the food and beverages manager and a Liberian who fled to the U.S. in 1993. "To see good things coming out of something like that, it makes me feel good about coming back."
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