A JOURNEY OF NO STEPS
GADLING, SEPTEMBER 2013
WHEN I THINK ABOUT LIBERIA, I'm back in a van with Ernest. He's driving, the van is shuddering, sounding like a just-dropped bag of scrap metal, and I'm somewhere in the chasm of the van's back seats, bobbing, as we ride out the force of the latest pothole.
We spent our days like this, Ernest and I. His job was to shuttle around a group of grad students from Harvard-in the morning, to the government ministries where they interned, and at night, back to a gated, barb-wired compound where they slept. When one of the interns urged her little sister to come join (just pitch an article and come research it) Ernest was saddled with a 25-year-old white American who had places to be only if she could arrange interviews, and zero grasp of what "post-conflict" means for travel.
Mostly, we drove, Ernest and I. I want to say that I can count the number of steps I took in Liberia. What's true is that I could have, had the idea occurred to me on day one, when I made it through the dilapidated hangar that was Monrovia's airport and walked toward the blessed outline of my big sister and the white jeep behind her. If I'd known this was as much walking as I would do in this post-war world, I might have counted and come up with some number in the hundreds to show how seldom my feet had touched the ground in Liberia.
Ernest was lanky and said very little. On our first day alone together, I spotted a woman on the sidewalk balancing a tray of pale cucumbers on her head-hands free-and marveled aloud, thinking my awe for a Liberian woman might flatter the Liberian man who drove me. Ernest leaned out the window and shouted at her, thinking I wanted a cucumber. The rest of the day, we kept quiet.
Radio voices filled the van. The same radio voice-a woman's-assured us, as Independence Day approached, that fireworks were not the sound of war coming back. Four years out of conflict-a conflict that had claimed more than 200,000 lives, dragged on 14 years, and left the majority of Liberian women victimized by rape-nobody was very used to peace.
Peace was the topic of my article-I owed a magazine 600 words-and Ernest helped me hunt down interviewees, making do with the most bare-bones of directions. No one I called had a complete address; instead, they gave me coordinates. Look for the Gender Ministry. ...Go past Truth and Reconciliation. ...Have you seen the UN building? There was no way to miss the UN Mission in Liberia, then the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. Wrapped in a giant slinky of barbed wire, it looked like a dystopian Hilton.
I didn't ask for Ernest's permission to move to the front of the van; I just climbed into shotgun position one day. He never asked why I kept my notebook open on my lap, copying down every billboard slogan-NEVER AGAIN LIBERIA and REAL MEN DON'T RAPE and EVEN WAR ENDS. I copied them down because I started and then couldn't stop, because signs -- cries for peace -- were all over this city, and because it was a way to map the coalescing city, to get my bearings in a place I would never wander alone.
We had one route: Tubman Boulevard. Ernest looped Tubman endlessly, and so did every Liberian in possession of a vehicle. Traffic was crushing late in the day, and the bands of former boy soldiers selling Fruit Loops and newspapers on the roadsides made the prospect of crossing Tubman on foot even more daunting. When Ernest offered to carry me across in the van, pulling U-turns that made the old car groan and shake, I did not object.
One summer night, I called Ernest to arrange the next day's ride. I had no idea what to say when he put his wife on the line. She'd had malaria, and I'd been asking about her, so I figured Ernest was just connecting us. Touched, I brought it up the next day. Ernest smiled. "My wife didn't believe me that I drive white people."
I told my family about Ernest, too. I remember pausing, midway through an email to my parents, realizing my mother was certain to suspect I'd fallen in love with this person named Ernest. My report was dripping with affection. I started deleting, wondering how I'd clarify. There was no way to tell my mother what lay at the root of my fondness for Ernest: every day, this man in Liberia shielded my life.
The threat of violence was subtle, but abiding. You could feel it in the parking lot of the Lebanese grocery, where the former soldiers on crutches had way too much time. You could feel it in the number of jeeps marked UN, the number of billboards about rape, the number of times the radio assured us fireworks were not war coming back. It was all this intentionality, more than anything, that told me violence had lifted but not yet left Monrovia.
One day, though, the urge toward violence was in the air, humming. Ernest had just dropped me off at the gate of the UN Mission for an interview. I was parched, and bought two tiny glass bottles of mango juice before going in, giving one to Ernest, who tucked his shyly away. I was always choosing between two brands of awkwardness with Ernest. I felt either like a racially queasy American pushing for kinship with a man just trying to do his job, or like a white-gloved white lady with a black servant. So I bought juice for two. It was easier to enjoy my juice having given one to Ernest, even if he hid his from view.
Across the street, police in riot gear were assembling at one gate. Below their shields, young men sat cross-legged on the ground. They were former soldiers, boys who'd turned in guns to the new government, and they were protesting. I couldn't make out what they were chanting, but I knew why they were on the ground: police orders. Things had reached that pitch.
Down at the other gate, I couldn't get through the metal detector. A hulking German man stood behind it, sweating and oddly stern with me. I remember just how the metal detector framed him-perfectly-and how he drew out the word "wrong"-"you picked the wrong day." There was something in his face and voice I'd never seen before, but recognized right away: He feared for his life. If anything went wrong at these gates, if there was the slightest spark in that mob of teenaged veterans, there might be blood on his side of the fence.
I was soon back on the street, squinting across it. The van. Where was the van? Not just the van, Ernest. The chanting was louder and I did not see Ernest. Tubman was all honks and heat and back-to-back yellow cabs. I stood there and did the only thing I could think to do: try to cross.
Ernest must have been taking a sip of the mango juice when he saw me, because when he appeared-running at full speed into the honks, through the bumpers, across Tubman Boulevard-he was carrying the bottle, uncapped. That's how quickly he ran to part traffic for me.
There are a few things I will always see in the room of memory Liberia claims. I'll see signs that read NEVER AGAIN, and signs that echo, NEVER AGAIN, LIBERIA. I'll see the loud race of amputee boy soldiers hobbling to sell newspapers to whoever stops their car. I'll see potholes the size of kiddie pools, rain blurring windows and barbed wire hedging everything. But here's what I'll watch, again and again, like a three-second movie that says everything: a lanky man sprinting straight into traffic, hands up, juice sloshing, because it was that fragile, because it was still under threat all through this place–life.