WITNESS MAGAZINE - XXII - Dismissing Africa - 2009
THERE'S A POSSE OF AMPUTEES OUTSIDE THE UN DRIVE SUPERMARKET. My van rolls into the lot and four of them limp towards the spot it's about to take. The amputees are male, older than teenaged, but barely. Some are missing an arm; most lack a leg.
Sitting shotgun in a 12-seater van, I have some clear advantages over the amputees: height, for example, locks, money, limbs, an overprotective driver named Ernest. Nonetheless, when I call over their heads—"Do you have today's paper?"— I hear the meekness of a woman outnumbered.
One amputee lifts a box full of Chiclets. Another: combs. I see "Desperate Housewives" DVD's. They have no idea what I asked for.
"NEWSPAPER!" Ernest finally yells over me. A pile of publications is shoved through the window. I pluck out three—pretending to have a better reason that their color photos—Ernest reverses, and the amputees retreat. All but one.
"My Sistuh!" a boy with a round face and a widow's peak propels himself alongside the van. His crutch works loudly—a boing with his body weight; a click-click, trading it off mid-air. "It's the 26th of July, my sistuh. Give your brother something for the 26th!"
I look down. The newspaper on my lap is dated the 18 th of July. Today is not the 18 th of July. It's the 19th. I've just been sold yesterday's paper. Ernest accelerates, and I don't pause him. I've learned that mid-July—any day in mid-July—it's the 26 th. People sell for the 26th, beg for the 26 th, remind cagey foreigners they've walked right in on the 26th: Liberian Independence Day.
THERE ARE "FIREWORKS IN THE HEADLINE OF MY DAY-OLD NEWSPAPER.
"[Fireworks] experts from the People's Republic of China have arrived in Monrovia to add flavor to celebrations of the country's 160 th…"
"We felt ," said the Vice President at a press conference, "that this event should be celebrated with moderate pomp and pageantry."
A reporter present posed a long question. Whether: " the fireworks display would not cause panic ...among citizens…just emerging from years of civil war characterized by…sporadic firing of rockets and other terrifying bombs…?"
The Vice President's reply: "I want to assure all Liberians that the display is harmless and hence call on them not to panic on the day of discharge ."
THE FIRST LETTER I SAW THROUGH THE WINDOW OF MY AIRPLANE WAS A 'U,' FOLLOWED BY AN 'N,' both on the side of a red cargo trailer. Then, another U, another N, on the hip of a resting helicopter. I might have mistaken our landing for a fuel-stop on an island called "Un," had I not already met seven peacekeepers on my flight.
15,071 United Nations troops are stationed in Liberia, keeping peace on a 721 million dollar budget. For every 20,000 civilians in this West African country the size of Tennessee, there's a man in a pearly aqua helmet, camouflaged from collar to boot. With troops recruited from 48 different countries, the UN has an ethnic camouflage, too. Liberia is not occupied by any one foreign power, but host to an armed international community.
The Inter-nat-ion-al Com-mun-ity: My sister, an intern at the MOF, picks me up at the airport in an SUV from AED, contracted by USAID to handle TOT for the MOE.
WTL: Welcome to Liberia.
THERE'S A WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTER IN MONROVIA, covering amputee soccer leagues. When I ask him how that's going, his eyes twinkle: "Liberia is a candy store for journalists," He tells me. "People have forgotten how to live. They're just re-learning." Therein, I presume, lay the stories: the Re-Learning Life stories. I'd like to write R-L-L stories for the WSJ, but first, need to learn to live here.
Every day, Ernest drives me inside the gates of a Lebanese-owned hotel. There, I suck down an overpriced instant coffee, take out a notebook, and write down what I'm doing in Liberia. I have a simple magazine article to write, but need to start somewhere simpler. " Buy newspaper," is the first item—always—on my list. The amputees sell them, right across the street. Right across one of Monrovia's only functional streets, which means two lanes surging with non-stop Peugeot taxis, which means, I need Ernest, the van, and time.
Next, I make appointments with people at places I cannot find. No one can give me a street, a number, an address. Instead, they offer landmarks ("You've seen the Fed Ex?"), Ministries ("Next to Gender"), acronyms that feel like marbles in my mouth (ECOWAS, WOLPNET, WARPNET). Driving with Ernest, I don't know what's shocking me more: the utter lack of beauty in this place, or that I've come not having mulled over the term "post-conflict," like one fails to take "rainy season" literally, to mean a season of rain. Constant rain: like a shower left on low. Post conflict, I now think: having recently fought a war.
I make the propaganda signs my makeshift coordinates in Monrovia. There's SUPPORT ARMS COLLECTION, at that curve, where the slum down in the marshes comes into view. There's REAL MEN DON'T RAPE, back behind the old stadium. There's SMALL LIGHT TODAY, BIG LIGHT TOMORROW winding around the embassy. And by that kiddy-pool of a pothole, there's THE PROCESS IS ON. Then: NEVER AGAIN LIBERIA. Another: NEVER AGAIN LIBERIA. Five, six, ten times a day: NEVER AGAIN LIBERIA. We loop and we loop.
What's most helpful is EVEN WAR ENDS.
EVEN WAR ENDS marks where downtown Monrovia starts and also where I cease to get out of the van. Beyond EVEN WAR ENDS the streets are a commercial chaos of boys selling tube socks, hair dye, grilled corn, dish towels, plastic baggies with roughly twenty Fruit Loops each. Beyond EVEN WAR ENDS everyone is young and male and pushing something. I know little about mobs, but feel sure these are the ingredients of one. A newspaper article about ex-combatants puts it this way: " There continues to exist a pool of young men that has previously fuelled conflict." An accompanying photo shows soldiers rioting for retirement benefits. Some of the retired soldiers look eight years old.
ON JULY 26, 1847, LIBERIA WAS "ESTABLISHED."
The establishers were not born in West Africa; they were freed African American slaves from Maryland, Georgia, Virginia. They had the backing of the American Colonization Society, whose member list reads like the index of a U.S. History book: Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, James Monroe. Some of these men felt that freed slaves deserved their own republic in Africa; others feared emancipation would bring insurrection. A quarter million slaves lived in the South, and further south, Haiti's plantations were wet with blood.
"The Elizabeth" was the name of the ship that sailed 86 freedman east across the Atlantic. They bought a coastal plot of land, where two million West Africans spoke 16 different languages, and had no familiarity with the word "Liberia," or its Latin root, " liber": free. Whether the tribal chief who sold "Liberia" for three hundred dollars in muskets, beads, tobacco, clothes, rum, and mirrors understood the term "sale," didn't matter; the deal was made at gunpoint.
THERE'S A STATISTICS I HEARD TOSSED AROUND MONROVIA'S EXPAT CIRCLES. They say that within five years of civil conflict, there's a 50-50 likelihood a country will fall back into war. When I ask for predictions, everyone balks: too soon. What they will wager on, though, are the Chinese fireworks. Recently, the Chinese ambassador boasted to a group of Harvard interns that the explosives from China would spell out PEACE, PROSPERITY, and DEVELOPMENT in the night sky. The interns, never having seen fireworks spell out anything, were skeptical. But never having seen Chinese fireworks, no one could entirely dismiss the possibility. So, they coined their very own acronym—as if Monrovia was running low—and placed bets. If the sky over West Africa did read PEACE, PROSPERITY, and DEVELOPMENT on the 26th of July, the PPD believers would buy each of the PPD cynics a beer.
THERE'S ANOTHER WAY TO READ THE CHAOS BY EVEN-WAR-ENDS AND I TRY. I try to believe the Liberians who tell me Monrovia recently looked worse. Far worse. Very recently. They tell me about a capital where there was no commerce . This summer, shops are open. Shops the size of tool sheds, painted the same six primary colors. HAPPY BUSINESS CENTER. DIVINE PERFECT SALOON. BIG DREAMS SUPERMARKET. Anyone who opened up my notebook would think I was brainstorming board game pieces for a Milton Bradley game called "Prosperity Land." SHINE YOUR EYES BUSINESS CENTER. SUNSHINE WOOD WORKSHOP . I'm driving by wet trash heaps, over muddy craters and there's ACHIEVER'S ARENA: RAISING UNCOMMON ACHIEVERS. There's NEW CREATION RESTAURANT. GOOD GUYS TRADING CORP. WHAT NEXT ENTERPRISE.
Traffic bottlenecks and boys hawking Werther's candy encircle the van. Ernest stares vacantly past the gold wrappers, at the car ahead. Taxi drivers paint mottos on their bumpers in white letters. Liberian bumpers say NO MAN KNOWS TOMORROW , or THE STORM IS OVER, or A LONG HOPE.
I'm in a foreign country, but feel more like a guest in a moment. The moment NGOers call post-conflict. Post-conflict, but developing. Past weighing, future pulling. The moment embassies re-open, but edge their fences with barbed wire coiling like giant slinkies. The moment one newspaper ad calls for war crimes testimonies, while beside it, the new steel mill seeks engineers with graduate degrees.
Ernest's radio dial flits from ACON to talk of Sino-Liberian relations to Celine to warnings that the sound of fireworks is not the war coming back. This is a moment, without agreement, on whether, celebration is due.
Finally, traffic budges. We trail the cab ahead, whose bumper reads:
THE MATTER OF TIME .
LIBERIA'S STORY DOES NOT FALL INTO STEP WITH ITS NEIGHBORS' IN AFRICA. Not quite. While a wave of independence movements swept the continent in the sixties— in 1960 alone, fourteen African nations threw off colonial rule—the groundswell in Liberia took longer. It was not as evident that Liberia should rise up against its colonizer because the colonizer, in Liberia's case, was Liberia. Or America-Liberia, as the tiny elite considered it. Less than 5% of the population, Americo-Liberians dominated all wealth, all power for 133 years. President Tubman, who tinkered with the constitution to prolong his rule from 1944 to 1971, used one percent of the national budget on the maintenance of his private yacht.
When his successor, Tolbert, took over in the seventies, all it took was a price-hike. In 1979, rice riots broke out. A year later, young soldiers, members of the Krahn: one of Liberia's poorest ethnic groups, fought their way into the Executive Mansion. Their leader was a 28-year-old with an eighth grade education, Samuel K Doe. To call Doe's 1980 coup a turning point for Liberia would understate the tumult ahead for a nation which—though stratified enough to draw apartheid comparisons—had seen almost no violence since its odd first birthday in 1847.
Doe disemboweled the President and declared martial law. Thirteen of Tolbert's Ministers were stripped to their underwear, tied to wooden posts, and shot on the beach.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTER RECOMMENDS I GET CREDENTIALED. Credentialed to ask questions in Liberia. Press credentials can be bought for 25 US dollars from the Minister of Information. It feels fitting to call Gabriel Williams, a short man with a boxer's build, Minister. He speaks of the New Liberia with evangelical zeal.
The Minister returned to Liberia just recently, after fleeing in 1993 when his work as a reporter brought death threats. By 1993, Samuel Doe's reign of terror had ended, but not without turning the country's ethnic differences into ethnic rancor. Killings, under Doe, were localized yet massive. Example: when Doe's men raided a community in Monsterrado County, villagers sought asylum in a Lutheran Church. All 600 of them were burned inside it.
Into this climate of terror, with ethnic boundaries now carved in blood, walked Charles MacArthur Taylor, an Americo-Liberian with degrees from New England colleges. Taylor recruited thousands of rebels in the interior, many of them young boys, who raped and looted with unmatched ferocity. Taylor's failed siege on the capital in 1992, left 3,000 dead.
I ask the Minister to recommend a book that will make sense of this carnage, and he pulls one off the shelf: his. While biding time in Sacramento, California, the Minister wrote a scathing, 456-page rant against Doe and Taylor. The preface reads, " This book is about how Liberia, which was founded to be a light in the then dark continent of Africa, fell from grace to become 'The Heart of Darkness.'
The Minister has a new project: the 26th. He's the one in charge of crafting and controlling the public message. Last year, when Liberia turned 159, a fire erupted at the Executive Grounds. As if it wasn't ominous enough that the seat of the Liberian government leaked smoke—on Independence Day—the fire was in the President's office, and so was the President. Since THAT 26th, the Executive Grounds have been smoke-stained, boarded up, and unused. This year, the Minister promises me, no one will set fire to the President. The official gala is taking place across the country, in Buchanan, Liberia's second largest city. The Minister has arranged for a caravan to transport the Liberian media cross-country. Handing me my press credentials, he invites me along.
ERNEST HALTS BENEATH THE TRAFFIC LIGHT AT THE CORNER OF BROAD & LYNCH. It's odd to wait for a light to change in Monrovia, because in Monrovia, you almost never do. When this traffic light was hung in 1998, it was the first, post-conflict traffic light, the only traffic light, in Liberia.
By then, one in seven Liberians had been killed in war. All infrastructure was obliterated, enabling Charles Taylor to divvy up diamond-rich land into personal fiefdoms. Nonetheless, Liberians, tired of the bloodletting, assumed that their country's best shot at peace was to vote the rebel leader into office. Taylor won the 1997 election in a landslide.
President Taylor hung the 1998 traffic light on the 26 th of July, an ornament of minimal pomp, for a country crawling out of war. But under Taylor, Liberia did not crawl out. Another rebel army formed, and five more years of fighting ensued. The worst was 2003, the summer Liberians call WWIII, when mortar fell like rain and drugged soldiers raped in a haze. World War Three happened to coincide with Bush's five-nation Africa Tour. Liberia was not on the summer itinerary, but when mortar hit the refugee camp inside the US Embassy and Liberians piled the slender corpses at the ambassador's gate, pressure mounted for a response from Bush.
Bush's response: "We're deeply concerned that the Liberian situation is getting worse, and worse, and worse." On July 25 th, he finally ordered three naval ships to the coast of West Africa, where they would bob at sea for two more weeks.
Worse, and worse, and worse.
IT'S STILL DARK ON THE MORNING OF THE 25TH WHEN I MEET THE MINISTER AT HIS MINISTRY: INFORMATION. He looks rather stunned that I've come, I feel rather stunned that I've come, even more so once Ernest pulls away. The media caravan is already full of media, so the Minister motions me towards an SUV, where three stocky men already take up the back seat. Making room for me involves shifting, pressing, huffing, and moving a backpack. No one makes any introductions.
I appreciate the familiar female voice on the radio reminding us with her usual calm that fireworks are loud, serial, and not the war coming back. Someone's coconut perfume is failing to mask his body odor. I look down at my hand, and see something there in pen. Yesterday, I'd gotten lazy about taking out my notebook and instead wrote a billboard sign right on my skin. Now, to the nameless male companions to my right and to my left, my hand warns in capital letters: RAPE LEADS TO JAIL.
DURING WWIII, JULY 26TH FELL ON A SATURDAY. Charles Taylor appeared before a soccer stadium of thin, beleaguered refugees. Half of the country's population had been displaced by civil conflict. Rebels controlled 2/3 of Liberia, and their attacks were now within earshot for Monrovians. Taylor, wearing a white suit and sweating, promised to leave the country, but only once peacekeepers arrived. A false rumor spread through Monrovia that peacekeepers had arrived. Liberians poured into the streets, waving green ferns, dancing, bouncing, ignoring the panicked Defense Minister who yelled, over the crowd, in futility, "We will notify you when it is time to jubilate. The streets are not yet safe." Mortar got that public message across. Documentary footage from mid-July captures the sound of intermittent fire: dull distant booms mixed with the spittly rages of machine guns. The foreign reporter holding the camera drops down in the roadside grass, and the film records him mimicking the gunfire with a strange, soft pow-pow-pow-pow-pow, as if the sound made him think of a video game. Though I can't help making a trite association, either, listening much later, much further away, I catch myself thinking: sounds like fireworks.
JUST PAST THE AIRPORT, AT STOP MOB VIOLENCE, a billboard our jeep brakes and everyone gets out. Everyone but me. Once I'm confident the men are done peeing in the reeds, I look out the window to see why else we're here: to hang signs. We'll be adorning the route to Buchanan with giant birthday cards. One of my travel mates, it so happens, is the country's billboard laureate. As we drive, he points out what's his: STOP CHOLERA AND DIAHRREA; PREVENT MALARIA WHILE PREGNANT. Had he caught sight of RAPE LEADS TO JAIL before I smeared it off with sweat, the billboard artist might have known he was among an avid follower.
His newest signs, rolled up in the trunk, read, BHiHhhhhLIBERIA AT 160: CHANGING MINDS, CHANGING ATTITUDES. We hang the second sign outside the Firestone Plantation, where the city gives over to a forest of rubber trees. In Monrovia, it's easy to forget that Liberia has more rainforest than any country in Africa . En route to Buchanan, the land becomes a collage of lime and emerald green: ivy draping over plantain patches, palms that reach the underbellies of clouds, bamboo as tall as willows, jutting out of the milky brown soup of rainy season.
There's a bridge, where twenty-some villagers await the President. The sun is losing its pink rim, softening to early-morning gold. One little girl is wearing a scarlet red dress, the kind that any wise mother would make her daughter save for special occasions: so she could look this awake, this expectant, this proud. We squint up at the unfurling birthday message: L I B E R I A N R E N A I S S A N C E.
75% of rural Liberians cannot read. During the war, shooting, looting, and raping meant no schooling. Liberia lost a decade of education. I have to wonder what part of the literate 25% know the word "renaissance." Who, exactly, are these birthday cards for? I ask the Minister, but he's transfixed now by a row of camouflaged soldiers staggered across the Firestone Bridge, facing the water. "The President must have left Monrovia," the Minister says, corralling us back to the jeep.
BY AUGUST, TAYLOR WAS GONE, seeking asylum in Nigeria, leaving Liberia to one of the largest peacekeeping forces in world history to Liberia. Only the Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon have required more UN soldiers and dollars to stabilize. 22 Liberians ran for President in 2005. When none won a majority, a run-off between the top two was scheduled: George Weah, an uneducated soccer star, versus Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: a mother and widow and a Harvard graduate. In October, the percentage of female voters was a mere 15. Three weeks later—three weeks of dogged voter registration efforts—Liberian women constituted 51% of voters, and Africa had its first democratically-elected female President.
THE "IRON LADY" IS MAKING HER WAY BEHIND US IN A 22-CAR SECURITY DETAIL. They're slower, though, because at least one of the 22 cars is filled with rice, crackers, candy, and cash in small denominations—alms for the 26 th—which the President hands out herself. First though, UN troops hop out to open the truck latch. One of the security men tells me that, still, when the children along the road see the troops with guns, they scamper and make for the trees. Still. He has noticed they send their littlest siblings back first, those born post-conflict, who have no reason to believe that armed men hopping out of jeeps is war coming back.
EACH TIME THE MINISTER BEGS FOR HOUSING IN BUCHANAN, he's told it's the 26th. The accommodations promised to the Minister—the accommodations the Minister promised Liberia's reporters—don't exist. And every hour, Buchanan doubles in size, overtaken by guests of the President. Just after she drove beneath our final banner, hung like a finish-line rope over the town's entrance, the sky began dimming. First with rain, then for night. He calls and calls, with each call, small-talking less, pleading sooner.
"It's Independence Day," they tell the Minister, as if he could have missed the signs along the highway. Happy 26th.
"WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OR DISADVANTAGES OF RECLAIMING OUR FUTURE?" crisp 12-year-old boy voices fill the padded room where the Minister awaits his turn on Liberian radio. On the other side of a glass panel sit three young boys. They're wearing headphones and moving the sound dials like kids playing spaceship with convincing expressions of duty.
While the Minister calls through his cell phone, begging for beds, I stare through the glass at little boys staring at me, staring at them, for being so young and knowing how to adjust the sound for callers who never bother to turn off their radios before opining on the advantages and disadvantages of reclaiming their future.
There are as many former child soldiers in Liberia as there are UN peacekeepers: 15,000. When asked about his "Small Boys Unit," Charles Taylor explained that many of his young recruits were orphaned by Doe's murderous regime. "We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble," said Taylor.
"WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OR DISADVANTAGES OF RECLAIMING OUR FUTURE?" the little voices re-ask, live. It's a terribly-phrased question, pushing—if not containing—its answer, reminding me how I bungled my own question to Jewell Howard Taylor. We were sitting in her front parlor, a lofty room with oil paintings of the rebel-leader-turned-President-turned-war-criminal, Jewell's ex-husband, Charles Taylor.
Unconvincingly divorced, Jewell is a senator now, one of 11 women elected after the war. She's eager to align herself with a Liberian minority that has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or the blood shed on account of either. "The problem," she explains, "is that you have a nation that has been predominantly run by men." It's hard not to stare at the portraits of Taylor in his white suit, but even harder to miss the gigantic photo of Hillary Clinton, facing the front door.
Jewell and I were talking about Liberia's past and Liberia's future, when I asked the Senator which she thought voters associated her with? As soon as I pose the question this way, I know Jewell will claim the future. And she does, with a nod. "The future."
A visitor in a moment, a highly post-conflict moment, I'm aware how little I can do in Liberia. A week here, and the grand total of my footsteps is countable, negligible, pitiable. But I can buy the newspaper; and I can write down signs; and I can ask questions. Sitting in a room wallpapered with a war criminal's face, there's an obvious question to ask, and it takes me a long, long time. This one has to be posed correctly—without facilitating its answer. It's also important that I look the Senator in the eye.
"Do you feel responsible for the damage done during the war?"
"Of course," Jewell said. But just as quickly, she swooped up and out of apologetic terrain. "There were a lot of people caught up in the war," the Senator said. One of the most bizarre habits of her ex-husband was how he referred to himself in the third person, as in, "Charles Taylor will not back down," or "Charles Taylor will be Liberia's sacrificial lamb." And because Jewell sounds so well-rehearsed, I have to wonder if her answer—"It was a Liberian issue, not a Charles Taylor issue,"—is a direct quote from the war criminal himself. "Wars always bring all kinds of problems," Jewell tells me. "Atrocities are committed and things happen."
Later, I locate Taylor's answer on the record. When asked by a journalist whether he was responsible for war crimes, crimes like the gang rape of 69% of Liberian women, or the recruitment of child soldiers, or the amputation of these children while soldiers, or more generally, a death count that neared a quarter million, Charles Taylor said this: "The whole problem is like the chicken and the egg….There are too many skeletons in the closet to begin to apportion blame."
The chicken, the egg, many skeletons, no Taylor.
"Forget blame," he closed.
""WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OR DIS...?" the voices continue in the car as we speed away from the radio studio. The sky is nearly-dark, and someone has finally offered to help us, in spite of the 26 th, or maybe because of the 26th. Regardless, w e follow the 26th Samaritan down a bumpy dirt road, lined with tin-roofed homes, stopping at the largest one. Before I can discern how large, though, I'm stymied by a pack of little girls. They all look five. More appear, then a few boys. This staring, I'm used to. What disarms me is their stillness. There's none of the usual grabbing hands, no where's-my-26 th, lady-it's-the-26th. These are stone children, multiplying. By the time the Minister reappears—ready to proclaim the housing crisis averted before the sun sets on the 25 th of July—there are at least two dozen kids on or near the porch. "The journalists can fit here," says the Minister. I ask the obvious question: "What about the family?" He says something about an office, plenty of floor space, cots. "It's not a house," the Minister finally clarifies, as if these five-year-olds really were stone miniatures. As if more weren't climbing onto the porch as he spoke, coming from god-knows-where. "It's an orphanage."
WEARING A HEADSCARF AND HOUSE DRESS THAT FALLS LIMPLY OVER HER THIN BODY, the Minister's sister could easily pass for the Minister's mother. I'm supposed to sleep in her bed, a queen-sized mattress that could fit a quarter of her ten children. I’d lobbied hard to stay at the orphanage, wary of treating Liberia like my candy store, but was more concerned that I’d seen this country from a car, rolling through on Firestone Tires. “No really, I’d prefer to stay here,” I finally got blunt, but the Minister wouldn’t hear me. I’d thrown caution to the wind, and the Minister of Information caught and confiscated it. His sister however, listens when I say I won’t sleep in her bed—not alone. I’m relieved when she, not the Minister of Information, agrees to join.
"This is a lovely room," I say later, to dull the awkwardness of strangers undressing.
She laughs a cold laugh. "You don't see the bullets?"
I look up at the bureau, at four divots, splintering the wood. "Rebels ruined this house," she says. A fact: rebels ruined this house. There’s a line of holes in the opposite wall. She painted over, in green.
During the civil war, the Minister’s sister took her ten children into the bush. Returning to reclaim the house, she found doors broken off their hinges, furniture smashed or taken. None of this woman's children died during the civil war. They're watching the end of a dubbed Sandra Bullock movie. Do Liberians know what renaissance means?, I’d asked the Minister. I do not ask his sister, once shown the bullet holes she has painted over with green.
"MY SISTUH!" yells a familiar voice. That boing and click-click, boing and click-click.
I keep walking, knowing which amputee this is.
"My sistuh!" he says, "Newspapuh!"
There’s a new newspaper in my hand, and I’m sure he’s seen it. And of course, my sharp little brother knows the 26th is over. Today’s headline confirm, “FIREWORKS SPARK PANIC: War Memories Rekindled.”
I look out across the street. I can cross streets in Liberia now, but with all the same dread as day one. Herds of cabs push in both directions. Before I realize what he’s doing, my brother is boing-clicking ahead of me, boing-clicking towards the thin line, holding up one arm to stop traffic. Miraculously, they stop, and I realize I have one option: cross.
I do, the boing-click, boing-click behind me. On the opposite roadside, as my amputee gives a short speech about the price of crutches, I rummage for a small bill, startled by the thank-you rising in my throat. Like I’ll be startled a month later, when a Wall Street Journal article about amputee soccer reaches me, startled by the admiration I can give to these three sentences, and their author:
When Mr. Parker takes a shot on goal, he resembles a gymnast on a pommel horse, suspended from his crutches and swinging his leg through the middle like a pendulum. When he races for the ball, his stride is a cross between a gallop and a hop, a motion that is both graceful and athletic. After he scores, Mr. Parker performs a joyous, airborne jig...
For those three lines, let the reported call this place a candy store. For that airborne jig, I take back my snide acronym. Relearning to live. Boing-click. He leaves me on the shoulder of the road, newspaper in hand, and propels himself back through traffic.
"FIREREWORKS SPARK PANIC: War Memories Rekindled"
The artillery and riffle-like sounds that preceded the colors were celebratory…But too many war-weary residents with more terrifying images of such sounds in a war-ravaged capital that seen some of the bitter gun battles on the continent, they rekindled memories of the war and its aftermath.…A 76 year old man in Plumkor was seen gathering his belongings and tying up a bundle to the amusement of his friends and neighbors. 'Yor keep laughing,' he said, 'I am not waiting for any mortar to fall here.”
I DO WONDER WHETHER THIS VERSION OF THE 26TH was hatched in the mind of a reporter sleeping, pillow-less on the hard, rain-soaked floor of an orphanage. What I saw in Buchanan was more in line with what the Vice President had promised: "moderate pomp."
Liberia 's 26th bore an uncanny resemblance to an American 4th of July—circa 1847. A brass band played "Que Sera," while dignitaries filed into a pavilion whose walls were white, aisle carpet, red, and columns painted a fresh blue. JFK was invoked in two speeches, only heightening my historical vertigo. Ask not what Liberia can do for you…the keynote speaker bellowed. The president wore a pale blue dress, a burgundy head scarf, and pearls. The darkest hour, she reminded Liberians, in closing, is just before the break of dawn.
"What about the fireworks?" I asked, startled by the post-lunch flight of guests. Dignitaries were piling back into range-rovers, Monrovia-bound.
Fireworks? Liberians looked pityingly on my expectation. "It always rains on the 26th."
The Chinese and I should have known.
And so the gala that evening was under-attended, over-staffed, and so deflated the DJ had to blare "Lady in Red" to fill the empty pavilion with something. Waiters set trays of fried shrimp and mini turkey sandwiches on tables. A crowd of uninvited Liberians, muddy-sandaled boys, who'd been standing behind security lines since morning, began crowding against the double doors. I watched one waiter pass a loaded tray of appetizers outside, and watched that tray come right back, in seconds—like a clean fish-hook—bare.
"NOW!" one of the waiters grabbed my arm and pointed to where everyone was rushing: outside.
Outside: on the edge of a wet driveway, where a UN jeep skidded loudly in the mud, a crowd of troops and gala hangers-on stared through the rain, at fireworks.
An explosion of blues opened with a pa-pa-pa, dripping twin aqua spiders down the wet sky. Next: well-timed red florets, soon outdone by straight lines of gold, ripping through the smoke. A loud, lone green, gone before my ears lost its echo.
"You scared!" the man in front of me had turned around, amused by my flinch-ready face. I glanced down at my hands, where they gripped my bare upper arms, and thought: THIS is what it looks like to brace yourself.
Every July since the early eighties, I have seen fireworks. Sit me in a field among hot-dog eaters and kids waving glo-stick necklaces, and I know what the fire+bang signifies: a country showing off ammo to a home crowd, to patriotic effect. But here, from the edge of a muddy driveway with men wearing machine guns, fireworks felt like an exercise to wait out.
Finally: someone yodeled like a frat boy at a tailgate. I looked gratefully in the direction of that yodel, then back at a red blast, its glittering trail, mashes of bright white light with delayed bangs and impatient rounds of purple—glow worms—overtaken by more white, piling up into what I recognize, with relief, as finale.
T he night rain was an ocean, dropped through a colander. Driving off, I expected the 26th—the public 26th –to look drowned out and done. But the road we took was not yet dark. The shed-shops were glowing. Small lights in small businesses, opened after hours. A private party at BLESSING BUSINESS CENTER. Teenagers packed into DIS & DAT BEAUTY SALON. An older crowd at NEW LIGHT VIDEO RENTAL. People at WIND BLOWS BAR & RESTAURANT . At CHANGING FACES BEAUTY SALOON. At NEW LIFE WOODWORK SHOP. I'd watched for PPD and listened for panic. But the 26th closed with neither. Just a summer moment imploding. Smoke with rain. If renaissance, the cautious sort.