Landing on the tarmac in Liberia, heat warped the thick air around the C-141. Military vehicles drove out to meet us, heavily guarded with a contingent of men in U.S. issue uniforms. They looked like they meant business, but when they saw my uniform and insignia, they greeted me with jokes and smiles as natural as the humidity that stuck to your skin. A representative of the U.S. military mission showed up and introduced himself to me as Colonel Reeves. I had arrived to provide technical support for communications equipment vital to the security of U.S. personnel, and he was expecting me. I quickly passed through customs. He had me sit in the back seat of the vehicle he arrived in, while he sat in the passenger seat. A Liberian drove; something I would see this repeated throughout my month's stay. It was always wise to let them drive, just in case there was an accident. Besides, cabs were cheap, rides were handy, and most of what you needed was in downtown Monrovia, or nearby.
Like beer. It cost 50¢ a bottle in the hotel bar, where you could swap stories with the ex-pats or, most likely, listen to the tales they told. There were Brits and Belgians and Danes and Germans making tons of tax-free money. They got drunk on the cheap beer, which was quite good, locally brewed by European-owned breweries. You'd see them lined up all day long at the bar in the El Meson Hotel. That's where I stayed, in a room with a balcony upstairs, facing the street.
A young woman named Kah worked behind the bar. She was from the Mano tribe, and switched back and forth between English I could understand and Pidgin with ease. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was on her radar as soon as I pulled up a stool. She filled me in on things my American colleagues didn't think to tell me, and thanks to her, I was almost able to understand Pidgin English before I left. I had only been there a couple of nights, when she took me to the Brown Sugar Disco for a night of dancing. She liked the way I moved, and took care of me for the rest of my stay.
The people were unanimously polite and friendly, with a good sense of humor. Still, most were extremely poor, living in sweltering cinder block, metal, or wooden shacks with no running water or electricity. Huge extended families depended on connections with those who had jobs, especially those in government positions. Tribal blood ran thick and strong, and kept things going despite an economy that had to import all of its food. The nation also depended heavily on assistance from the United States, despite having the valuable resources of rubber, iron and diamonds.
A few days after I arrived, a man on the street, Jerry, approached me and asked if I was interested in diamonds. Curious, I told him I would like to see them; and he took me into the hotel across the street. We passed the receptionist, who smiled at us. We climbed up two flights of stairs, and walked to a door at the end of a hallway. Jerry knocked; and the door opened slightly to an eyeball, which scanned us quickly. The door opened fully, we went in, and it shut quickly behind us. The room was empty, except for a few chairs, three men, and a safe. One light bulb burned above. It didn't look like any jewelry store I had ever been in. I suddenly lost interest. The men in the chairs found me amusing, but told me that they did, indeed, have diamonds for sale. They told me the prices, which meant nothing to me at the time. I told them I'd think about it and let them know later.
Since the diamonds didn't interest me, Jerry asked me if I would like to try some palm wine. We took a cab to the other side of town and entered a simple shack with a makeshift bar in back. The palm wine came in a small bottle, with a cola nut stuffed inside. It was clear and possibly had been distilled. I drank it until the world began to change, and then I started looking for a cab. Or maybe the cab was there waiting for me. Somehow, I ended up back at the hotel. To this day, I cannot tell you what palm wine tastes like.
There were a lot of new tastes, although many of them echoed the food from my native Georgia. Barracuda in spicy palm butter was memorable, and there was rice, lots of imported white rice. I also had some great-tasting steak, but was ill for three days after eating it, purging myself through every possible exit of a strain of bacteria yet to have been cataloged by my immune system. When traveling, one should always be open to new culinary adventures, but it also pays to be careful in areas where refrigeration is a luxury.
Out on the streets, kids sold cigarettes one stick at a time. Gold, or something that looked like gold, was readily available. Vendors sold precious stones and masks everywhere. I bought masks and shipped them home in boxes. They may have been made in mask-shops for tourists, and never worn, but every seller was able to tell me which tribe they belonged to, and why. There were even small "passport" masks that fit in the palm of your hand. Show one of these in your travels, and your hosts would know your tribe, as each one had its own style. There was also music for sale on every corner, sometimes pirated American rock and country, sometimes local musicians, and lots of reggae. Reggae was very popular. I heard Burning Spear booming from bars on several occasions.
One steamy night, Kah suggested we go to a movie. When I asked her what was playing, she said she didn't know but that it didn't matter. When you went to a movie in Liberia, you just went to a movie and took in whatever was playing. We grabbed a beer and a bite to eat at the hotel before we went outside to find a cab. It cost two dollars to go anywhere in the city. Like most vehicles in town, the cab we took was of a Japanese make, part of a fleet owned by a wealthy Druze family. The hotel was also under Druze ownership, as were many other businesses. Refugees from civil war in Lebanon, they had taken their assets and nestled themselves in niches where needed.
Kah told the driver, a local, where to take us. We arrived within minutes, dodging huge potholes and ignoring traffic lights that only worked intermittently. The movie theater looked like a converted warehouse, with room for a thousand folding chairs. We found choice seats, directly facing the screen in the distance, and the place filled up quickly. Kah knew a lot of the people sitting around us. A loud, incomprehensible chatter filled my ears until the projector lit up somewhere behind us.
The movie started right away, with no previews or fanfare. It belonged to the genre of motion pictures made in the 1970s that involved women in prison. The plot quickly unfolded, developed around rough and busty beauties with lots of hair, all of whom seemed to enjoy conflict for the sake of conflict. There were gangs, of course, polarized into the opposite camps of black and white. The tone was set by the liberal beating of a black woman by the despicable white gang while white prison guards looked the other way. The movie might as well have been titled "America: Land of Racism." As the only white person (and I mean pale, freckly, red-haired white) in the theater, I began to draw considerable attention. This caused me no discomfort, but Kah was obviously embarrassed, especially as the crowd evolved into a frenzy of indignation at the injustices they saw graphically portrayed before them. The make-believe horrors on the screen were having an effect on the audience. Kah told me I should hide, but I never feared for my safety. I found the people of Liberia to be friendly, generous, and free of bias. How they were able to descend into the prolonged bloodshed that followed only a few years later is difficult to imagine. It is hard to accept that it is the nature of man to do so, just as we are capable of the majestic call of a symphony, or the bold statement of a skyscraper, or the inviting touch of a poem.
At the conclusion of the movie, the black women overcame the evil white gang, along with the help of a couple of white prisoners who objected to the gratuitous inhumanity. As the credits were rolling, I was quickly escorted out to the nearest waiting cab.
A few days later, I was in my hotel room, preparing to go out for some barracuda in palm butter, when I heard an odd sound that began to grow in intensity, like a flock of birds migrating against my paradigm. I opened the door to the balcony and walked out with a bottle of beer in my hand. I think that is how so many wars begin, with spectators drinking beer on balconies. Large crowds formed, congealing into a mob that pulsated up and down the main street, snake-like, fattening itself on every curious dissenter that ventured into its domain. They yelled and screamed, pointing to the top of the tall building down the street, where smoke poured from the uppermost windows, and flames caressed the sills behind the gray clouds. I ran downstairs, through the bar, and found a small crowd of European ex-pats standing in the doorway, all holding bottles of beer. I recognized one of them, a Brit engineer, and asked him what was going on. He quickly caught me up on events.
The top floor of the building, maybe 30 floors up, housed the government ministry responsible for dispensing payrolls to state workers. Most of them had not been paid in months, and a desperate populace watched as the records went up in smoke. The people on the street felt sure that the fire was set deliberately to cover up suspected inconsistencies in government treasury accounts. Presumably, public funds had been shifted into private coffers. This type of corruption is not unheard of within any nation on this planet, although it may be more discreet in some of the more affluent and well-established governments. Here, it had a huge impact on a strained economy.
As the fire grew on the top floor, so did the crowd, the noise, and the movement of the mass through the downtown business and entertainment district. It was starting to look like a full-scale protest, but there was no indication that violence would break out. It was a splendid show of humanity at its most spontaneous-acting out frustrations on a basic level. Even more basic, though, were the disturbances that began to occur on the fringes of the demonstration. Pickup trucks, loaded with uniformed personnel, drove into the crowd. Police wielded long sticks, which they used to strike at people as the trucks swooped in towards the mob. People in the path of the police tried to run but were blocked by the angry reptile of which they were part, trapped in a no-man's land where men wielded sticks traveling at 40 miles per hour. This was crowd control, and it began to work as more and more people were brutally struck on whatever parts of their bodies presented themselves. The crowd dispersed quickly. I went inside the bar for another beer.
Samuel Doe, a former senior NCO in the Liberian army, led the national government. He had staged a successful coup in 1980, overthrowing the Americo-Liberian elite that had ruled since the country's founding by freed American slaves. His regime was characterized by the execution of rivals, the repression of free speech, and strong support for the USA. I asked Colonel Reeves how we could bolster such a regime. He told me that we supported anyone who was against communism. That was policy. Under Doe's leadership, relations had been severed with the Soviet Union and financial assistance was flowing in from the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. was supporting Iraq in its war with Iran. The U.S. also supplied what was later to become the Taliban with weapons and money in Afghanistan. In Europe, the Cold War continued with the deployment of theater nuclear missiles. American forces were fully upgraded. It was a massive global chess game that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
As we drove to work one day, we passed a beach, which Reeves told me was named Redemption Beach. Rows of posts still stood buried upright in the sand. It was here that Doe carried out numerous executions of political rivals. Some of them were said to have lived through the firing squads, protected by magic that allowed them to laugh in the face of bullets. One night in a bar, someone offered me this treatment, as well as the means to earn a quick promotion. It would require a trip outside of town and a minimum of $125. Besides laughing at bullets, there was a spell that would allow me to disappear at will. Many people claimed these spells worked, but I, for one, was not willing to test their performance. When I left the country, a few days later, I had no more magical power than I was given at birth. Kah had my address, and we corresponded for a while, but it was obvious that distance, lack of funding and military obligation would probably prevent us from seeing each other again. The letters eventually stopped. Looking back, it is quite possible that she may not have survived the coming war, unless she was able to leave the country as did so many others.
The Liberia I left was a struggling nation but, for the most part, very optimistic about the future and inhabited by people who had hope and dignity. In 1985, things began to fall apart, as a revolt against Doe was brutally repressed. A full-scale civil war officially started in December 1989, and lasted until 1996. Another followed on its heels from 1999-2003. Doe was tortured and executed in 1990, and an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives during the entire 20-year period of intense savagery. Much of the war was conducted by child soldiers, who were either forced into service by threat of death, or who fought in exchange for the only available food. Many who survived are victims of rape, which was used extensively as a weapon of war. Today, poverty is rampant, the economy is in shambles, and remnants of militias continue to carry arms in the countryside.
There is hope on the horizon, however. In January 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first democratically-elected female head of state in the history of the African continent. Security is gradually coming under the control of the multinational peacekeeping force, and investors are beginning to show interest in the country's natural resources again. The people, once divided and brutalized, are rising to the occasion. Humanity has many sides, and they have all revealed themselves here. Grace may give way to barbarism; but only temporarily. A nation and its people continue to heal.
(published in Whistling Shade)