MONROVIA, LIBERIA—A U.N. factoid-finding mission sent to war-ravaged Liberia discovered that the West African nation is roughly the size of Tennessee, members of the U.S.-led team reported Tuesday.
"Did you know that the flag of Liberia was modeled after the U.S. flag?" asked Sieber, who has eight years of factoid-finding experience with CNN Headline News. "The white star represents freedom, and the 11 red and white stripes stand for the 11 signers of the Liberian Declaration Of Independence."
Over the course of the mission, the team—composed of sound-bite engineers, fun-fact-checkers, and a trivia-pursuit squad—collected more than 300 informational tidbits about Liberia's geographical features, sports records, cuisine, and indigenous plant and animal life.
"The average U.S. citizen is woefully ignorant, not just about Liberia, but about the African continent as a whole," Sieber said. "For example, did you know Sapo National Park in Liberia is Western Africa's largest untouched tract of rainforest? Well, it is. It's also home to a great variety of animal species, including elephants, leopards, giant forest hogs, and the rare pygmy hippo."
Added Sieber: "The Black Spitting Viper, also at home in Liberia, can spit venom distances of up to 20 feet."
The team began the mission on Aug. 12, during a period of unrest following the resignation of Liberian President Charles Taylor. Members gathered at the U.S. embassy—which, they noted, is home to the country's very first pay-telephone. From that point forward, the mission was a flurry of measuring, comparing, and contrasting.
"The fun-facts started flowing as soon as we got into the helicopter," Sieber said. "The pilot told us the OH-6A Cayuse light observation helicopter was first used during the 1995 peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. A minute later, he told us Monrovia was named after James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president. I thought, 'Wow. That's interesting, and also easy to remember.'"
"Liberia has 1585 kilometers of borders—with Cote d' Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone," Sieber continued. "But get this: That's only 72 more than the number of ships in the nation's merchant marine."
Václav Mikulka, the team's legal counsel, told reporters he unearthed his first item of trivia shortly after landing in Monrovia.
"Liberian taxis are a bargain!" Mikulka said. "You can travel from downtown to Sinkor for 15 Liberian dollars or 38 cents American!"
According to spokesman Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, the U.N. was "pretty surprised" by the team's report.
"I was completely unaware that, until 1999, Liberia had two different $1 bills: the JJ Roberts and the Liberty," Abdallah said. "I also didn't know that Liberian soccer player George Weah, named the World's Best Player in 1995, is known as the 'Lion King.'"
Abdallah said the U.N. plans to act on the findings immediately, by distributing them to the media along with pictorial representations of the facts.
"To increase our understanding of the confusing situation in Liberia, we'll need to see some colorful icons," Abdallah said. "But for now, try this one on for size: Although Liberia has 47 airports, only two of them are paved. Isn't that interesting? Two of 47!"
After waiting patiently for Abdallah to complete his comments, Kenzo Oshima, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and a four-time Jeopardy! winner, provided a short list of his own favorite Liberia factoids.
"Well, some of the research team's findings were pretty good, but did you know..." said Oshima, pausing briefly for dramatic effect, "that the original settlement of Liberia was purchased for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $3,000? What a steal! How about this: Liberia's oldest known resident is Moriba Magassouba. He's a retired farmer living outside of Liberia's second-largest city Zwedru, and just turned 103!"
"Did you know... that last year, Liberia received 200 inches of rain?" Oshima added. "Oh, and watch out, because in Liberia, kissing is considered a dirty and disrespectful act."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said he was excited both by the facts themselves and by their potential impact on Liberia.
"We're hoping this report leads to a better understanding of Liberia, so that we can move toward solving its many problems... and those of the rest of the African continent, too," McClellan said. "And get this: Hilary Johnson, elected in 1884, was Liberia's first native-born president. I'll bet you would've thought it was later."
"Look at this factoid: The youngest of the children who fought in Liberia's civil war were, get this, only 6 years old. Crazy world, eh? Truth is stranger than fiction, I say."