Liberia is a state built on a history of migration. From the transatlantic slave trade to its contemporary generation of transnational citizens, images of elsewhere have always informed this West African country’s local and national discussions of integration and exclusion. This paper shows how historical imaginations and representations of ‘here’ and ‘there’, of ‘suffering’ and ‘escape’, inform contemporary discourses of belonging in Liberia. I argue that the imagination of civilisation – kwii – and distinction plays an important role in the ways distance and mobility are perceived and articulated, both from a physical point of view and a moral-social point of view, at transnational and local levels. Rather than being merely tied to a national elite, the imagination of mobility is, I demonstrate, linked to an ethos of suffering articulated at all levels of society, informed by the experience of structural violence and crises over time.
This section introduction explores the imaginative dimension of mobility in two West African countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Building on literature that highlights the existential dimension of movement and migration, the authors explore three socio-cultural patterns that inform representations of im/mobility: historical continuities and the longue-durée perspective on mobile practices, the association of geographical mobility with social betterment, and the interaction between local aspirations and the imaginary of global modernity. The three individual contributions by Bedert, Enria and Ménard bring out the work of imagination attached to im/mobility both in ‘home’ countries and diaspora communities, and underline the continuity of representations and practices between spaces that are part of specific transnational social fields.