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Young Liberians Work as Wheelbarrow Pushers

The World Trade Organization is meeting in Hong Kong this week, in the effort to implement a plan aimed at lifting millions out of poverty through freer trade -- poverty such as that in war-shattered Liberia, where official unemployment is 80 percent.

In this West African country, one of the few jobs available for young men is to become a wheelbarrow pusher. After a quarter century of destruction of the country, the wheelbarrow has become essential for carrying goods to carry on living. VOA's Nico Colombant spent time with one wheelbarrow pusher in the capital Monrovia -- a 25-year-old grade school dropout with two children.

"Good morning, Shadrock is my name. Here's my wife and here's my daughter."

It's a sweltering early morning on Lynch street, and Shadrock, the head of household in this abandoned shack where ten families live, wastes no time to go to work -- as a wheelbarrow pusher.

Today's he's carrying a cooler filled with plastic bags of colored, sugary water he sells to children.

He says he didn't have enough money to finish school and this is what he must to do. “They don't have money to send me to school so then I decided to do the work, to get my pay, my daily bread and find food for my children for the day.”

First stop though, the pharmacy. His body weak and aching, his head malarial, he says he needs pain tablets every day to cope with his job out on the streets.

Entering the pharmacy, he says, “Pain tablet I can use for the whole body. So how much?" he asked the pharmacist.

“Every day, pain tablet. Because, no resting. You can't stay in one place, every day around. I get at least $10 or $15 (20 or 30 cents U.S.) worth every day, pain tablet for your body or your body will hurt you. Each time, you finish selling your market, you have to buy pain tablet.”

What's in his cooler for now are mushy leftovers from the day before of what he calls "cool-aid", which he has a hard time selling to children looking for something cold to ease the pounding tropical heat.

So Shadrock heads to the market to get an icy batch. Along the way, he crosses one of the city's many other wheelbarrow pushers.

These young men are essential to the local economy. They carry everything from soap to canisters of water, used clothing, cinder blocks and jars of gasoline. For their efforts, they make just several dollars a day.

Shadrock needs to cross traffic, UN checkpoints, and a bridge to get to the market.

Sometimes, Shadrock gets mugged, making his situation even more precarious.

At the market, Shadrock can get what he needs -- new batches of cool aid produced by dirty hands and then frozen in generator fueled freezers.

Many of these workers are former child soldiers, trying to scrape by and rebuild their lives now that the war is over.

Shadrock dreams of going back to school to become an electrician, realizing that this is the only way to make his situation better.

“So me now, I don't go. I have to go to school. I stopped ever since, you have no idea, I was small. Now I see my friend improving but me, I see no improvement on my own side so I just decide to sell to people. After school, everything. I want to learn electrician work. I want to learn a job that I will love.”

Back on the streets, Shadrock now has goods he can sell.

Some wheelbarrow pushers belong to unions or own their wheelbarrow, but Shadrock is at the bottom of the wheelbarrow chain.

He rents his wheelbarrow and gets to keep just 10 percent of the money he makes.

There is no public electricity here, so something cold can feel like a real treat.

He counts his proceeds from a recent sale, “I got 15 dollars, right here -- small, small,” he says.

$15 is about 30 cents [U.S.], of which Shadrock will keep just three cents.