In the front parlor of a dilapidated mansion with a god’s-eye view of the Atlantic a group of young men huddle around a light fixture that washed in from the sea and is covered in barnacles. They chip away at it with a hammer and a machete to open it and see if it can be made to work. They are not having much luck, a commodity that is in short supply around here. The building has no electricity or running water. Wind pushes through broken windows. There are holes in the roof. Rainwater has collected in puddles on the grand marble staircase and throughout the house, a faded yellow modernist structure on the edge of a cliff in the sleepy city of Harper in southeastern Liberia about 15 miles from the border of Ivory Coast.
The short iron fence that surrounds the regal mansion, known locally as “the palace,” bears a monogram—“WVST,” for William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, Liberia’s longest-serving president, known for his 27 years of autocratic rule beginning in 1944. But the home of the man called “the father of modern Liberia” because he opened the nation to foreign investment and industry is now in ruins and occupied by squatters, a symbol of how decades of political turmoil have shaken up the old order established by freed American slaves.