Liberia: Clay-Ashland, the 176-year-old Township in Need of a Bridge 

“Ten days have passed and we are still waiting for the problem to be fixed. When you are as cut-off geographically as this area, it is more frustrating,” said Esther Tamba, a 46-year-old mother of three.

Like many remote settlements in Montserrado County, Clay-Ashland has for decades been fighting a silent war: isolation.

Nearly 176 years after its establishment, Clay-Ashland Township, has just remained out of the parameter of progress in Liberia. And now, it has been cut off as the only bridge that connects it with its closest neighbor — the Township of Virginia — has collapsed.

This nightmare, for hundreds of Clay-Ashland inhabitants and others from nearby townships and villages, is something that they never dreamed of again after trying hard to self-construct the now-destroyed bridge a few years ago.  Clay-Ashland, which is one of the several isolated settlements in rural Montserrado County electoral district 17, saw its only bridge destroyed on July 10 as a result of heavy rain.

And for Esther Tamba, a 46-year-old mother of three, the situation at hand is frustrating as there is no end in sight.

“Ten days have passed and we are still waiting for the problem to be fixed,” Tamba says. “When you are as cut-off geographically as this area, it is more frustrating.  Clay-Ashland has remained outside the perimeter of progress and is miles from anywhere,” she complained. “Bikes and cars are unable to cross the bridge. We are stuck in this town, life is getting tough for us, no way to sell, no way to go out.”

“Our township is over one hundred years old and  yet we still complain of a bridge at this time.” 

Tamba lives in Millsburg, which is a separate Township but is accessible via Clay-Ashland. It is the route she used to commute to Virginia and then to Iron Gate, in Brewerville, to sell dried fish.  But since the bridge collapsed, Tamba no longer goes to the market daily to sell, but rather thrice a week, reducing her income in an already impoverished environment.

In time past, Tamba and others used to ride motorbikes to get to Clay-Ashland. Now they hardly find one, so they have to walk. Depending on the distance, it takes some people 30 minutes to reach Clay-Ashland before getting the produce to cross over to Iron Gate, which is in Virginia Township.

Lost in the heart of rural Montserrado County — St. Paul River District to be precise, Clay-Ashland is a township of national historical repute. Located 10 miles (16 km) from the capital city of Monrovia, the township is named after Henry Clay — a former slave owner and co-founder of the American Colonization Society (ACS) who favored gradual emancipation — and his estate Ashland in Lexington, Kentucky.

Established in 1846, Clay-Ashland was part of a colony called Kentucky In Africa, because it was settled by African-American immigrants primarily from the U.S. state of Kentucky under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. The Kentucky society bought a 40-square-mile (100km²) site along the Saint Paul River and named it Kentucky in Africa.  Clay-Ashland was the colony’s main town.

Clay-Ashland has produced two Liberian presidents, legacy educators, and perhaps one of just a handful of Liberians who have had an audience with a British monarch. 

They include Alfred Francis Russell, the 10th President of Liberia, who resided in Clay-Ashland, and William D. Coleman, the 13th President of Liberia, whose family settled in Clay-Ashland after immigrating from Fayette County, Kentucky, United States when he was a boy.

Moses Ricks, a successful farmer and Baptist missionary who founded the prestigious Ricks Institute in 1887 to provide a Christian education to indigenous youth in Liberia, also grew up in the town. Martha Ann Erskine Ricks lived here after her father purchased her freedom from slavery. In 1892 she received a Royal audience with Queen Victoria of England because of her famous Liberian quilts.

The True Whig Party, which dominated Liberian politics for more than a century, also has its roots in Clay-Ashland, where it was founded in 1869.  Yet, the road leading to the township is bumpy and now, its only bridge, built by the residents, is damaged — cutting off the township from Virginia. 

Without the bridge, getting into Clay-Ashland now requires walking across a narrow beam on the side of the damaged bridge with steel rods sticking out of it. Alternatively, a makeshift wooden footpath has been built over the creek for easier pedestrian access; but this is not even safe for motorcycles to cross. 

There is a detour, albeit much more expensive in terms of time and other resources needed to reach Clay-Ashland. But it requires one to travel through Brewerville and a web of other towns to get to Clay-Ashland. 

The bridge was built nearly five years ago and connected Clay-Ashland to dozens of villages​ and other towns that depend on it for access to the rest of the county.

“I have been living here since 1997, and there has been no good health care, no good roads, no good school. This district has been completely forgotten,” said Theodosius Kwneah.

“We have been managing this bridge since 2017, and on July 10, it finally collapsed. We have been working with the government to help us, but things have not been working,” Kwneah added.

“And the situation has caused problems for schoolchildren who are reportedly having trouble getting to and from their respective school campuses,” Kwneah.  “At the same time, marketeers have also complained about the difficulties they face in transporting their goods to market. They have indicated that prices of basic commodities are soaring.” 

In Clay-Ashland, families depend on agricultural activities for survival. However, the collapse of the bridge means they are having a hard time transporting their goods. Morris Richard, the Mayor of Clay-Ashland, said that the township inhabitants have for too long complained that the bridge was not guaranteed and as such, it could collapse at any time.

“The bridge that was constructed here before was damaged several years ago and the citizens decided to self-build this one that has now collapsed,” Richard said. “We have been cut off as a result of our bridge being washed away. Everyone here is suffering. We need help. Clay-Ashland is too old to be suffering for a bridge at this time.”

It is not clear what is the total population of Clay-Ashland and the other settlements that depend on it for access to the main thoroughfare. But with legislative elections on the horizon and politicians badly in need of votes, a brand new, fully-functional bridge might establish much goodwill between the affected townships and a (political) donor.

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