03 August 2006

I'm back!

2 August 2006
1915 hrs

So, it’s been a while. Not having a computer since mine passed away is a serious detriment to getting on the internet or, for that matter, to typing things. I’ve been left with that old slow method of writing: a pen. Unfortunately, that meant no blogging.

Liberia is still good times. I dragged some friends to Buchanan this weekend and we visited my old house and neighborhood. We stayed in a little guest house near Otis Spot, where C and R learned how to play checkout instead of checkers. We arrived near evening and went off walking up Upper Buchanan Road in the cool after the rain. As we walked along, we greeted the people who passed and I fell into conversation with an older man who asked where we were going. “I used to live up here, in the big white house.” I told him. He stopped in surprise and said, “I live in that house!”

We came at the house from a strange angle past the guest house, because Upper Buchanan Road now ends before it gets to the house and we had to take a smaller path. “No cars passing this way,” the man explained. There is a family in the guest house and a family in our old house. I walked through the house with the man and it seemed even smaller this time than in 2000, so small that I can’t imagine how we ever fit a table and chairs and a bench and bikes and a piano and living room furniture all into the main room. The kitchen is still bare and empty, but the cooking table is set up in the living room. The bedrooms are all occupied instead of empty.

I liked seeing it occupied by someone. It was so lonely in 2000, sitting there all alone. I’m happy that a baby is crying on the porch and girls are plaiting each others’ hair.

The family living there kept asking me questions, “What was this small room for?”

“Oh,” I said, “It was the laundry room. We had a machine there to wash the clothes.”

They looked at me strangely. Who has a machine that does the washing?

“And this room. We call it the dark room. Why are there no windows?”

“Oh,” I said, “This room had an air-conditioner and there were no windows so that the air would stay dry. We kept our books and important papers in here. We called it the dry room.”

It’s strange how these things that have always been a part of my life and are also a part of theirs have such different impressions on us. Rather than being dark, I thought of the dry room as cool and comfortable, a haven in which to read or rediscover my old stuffed animals or type on the old Apple computer with the dot matrix printer with the holes in the sides of the paper that I would tear off and use to make paper chains.

After we chatted for a while and took pictures with the family, I led the group down the path to the office and then up over to Liberia Christian High and then back. Kids came up beside us and clamored for photos all the way. I said hello to everyone as politely as I could, worried that I would encounter someone I should know and would insult them by not recognizing them.

When we were almost back to the old barracks, we turned away from town again and walked out to the Fanti town on the beach, where the flash on the camera induced shrieking and dancing from all the kids who gathered on the beach to watch us. Big canoes bobbed in the water. Two of us were dragged into the house of the town master, a lovely little beach-side cottage surrounded by flowering plants and a mossy lawn to look at his wood carvings of lions (of which there are none in Liberia) and women carrying baskets on their heads.

Later we ate at the biggest restaurant in Buchanan, an eight table Liberian food place that eventually turned out to be closed on Sunday per a city ordinance, which meant that the next day before heading back to Monrovia we found only sugar top muffins and fanta. We drove around and around on Saturday night looking for something else, something bigger. We drove out to the port. We drove around the former LAMCO (now the home of a lot of squatters, a Bangladeshi battalion, and a bunch of Nepali military police). Nothing. Not one restaurant. Even the bars were closed. The biggest event in town was about a hundred people milling about a signboard that had a movie, possibly Troy, projected onto it outside of the high school.

In the morning we went to World-Wide Church, where I had to go up and introduce my friends, where everyone raised their hand and murmured excitedly when asked if they knew my father, where I held a baby and got peed on.

It was good to be back in Buchanan. Everything was green and beautiful. The town looked washed clean by rain. If this is even possible, it seemed poorer than in 2000. But not as afraid. It’s smaller than it ever was when we lived there. This time, it didn’t feel as surreal as the last visit, when I felt like I was walking into the past and might not make it out. I’ve been in Liberia for a while now and things feel familiar rather than strange. I wandered around through little paths behind Otis Spot on Sunday morning, feeling safe and comfortable and at home.

A few brilliant moments on the Buchanan trip:

“I bought a windshield for him in Accra and chartered a canoe…”

“A canoe? You chartered a canoe to bring a windshield from Ghana to Buchanan?”

“Yes, and it broke on the way.”

“Of course it broke. It was a glass windshield in a canoe on the Atlantic Ocean. A chartered canoe, no less.”

“What do you want to be the title of the book about your life?”

“I eat glue, like that t-shirt that guy was wearing.”


3 August 2006
1407 hrs

I’ve started driving in Liberia. I don’t have a car myself, of course, but I’ve started driving other people’s cars. The interns in our office have been assigned a great deal of work and we have very few resources with which to do them. Although now we have a few more because recently we received a stapler, which we refer to every time we speak of it as “the interns’ staple machine” as in, “Please pass me the interns’ staple machine” because its receipt was a big moment in our time here, a ream of paper, a closet with a door that locks, and two – count ‘em, two – laptops, which we need desperately because Liberia’s power system, i.e. generators with constantly fluctuating voltage, has killed two of our four computers and a third is on its way out while every single thing we do is on computers. No one else has computers, but when I asked the tech guy about it, he said, “Yeah, but everything you guys do is on computers.” So it’s okay that we have two of the very few.

Anyway, we need to work and work sometimes requires going places. Like ECOWAS. Or UNMIL. Or town. For a long time, we had to beg for rides, but then, one day, one work person gave me his keys and said, “Okay, go ahead.” And new horizons have opened before us. Yesterday we had to run a whole bunch of errands around town and it was getting to evening and we were tired and hungry. As we were driving through Bushrod Island, my fellow law student and intern M, who is Liberian but moved to the US in the 90s, was frantic for boiled peanuts in shells, even though we had just finished a whole L$20 newspaper cone of them. She tried unsuccessfully to roll down the window (it later turned out that the windows were locked from my all-powerful driver’s side of the car), but when she was unsuccessful, she opened the door in the middle of rush hour traffic, stretched up out the top of the door and shrilly yelled “GROUNDPEA!” I thought I would fall out of the driver’s seat with laughter.

Later, we were trying to get some information over the phone while driving down Old Road (whose rightful name I still have not determined). M gets sick if she reads or writes in the car and I was driving, so M handed a paper and pen to Ishmael in the back seat and then started calling things out to him, “Neutral! No, my man, I say, NEU-tral. Write it down! You writing it down?” And in the back seat, I heard Ishmael mutter, “How can I write? The car be rocking-oh.” And for some reason it was hilarious. Almost as funny as a few minutes later when we stopped the car and he said, “There river there!” when he tried to get out, and then a few minutes later when he got back in the car and said, clearly yelling at Eric, who was telling him that he was supposed to be getting in on the other side, “So-so water there!”

I laughed and thought the following two things:
1. I love Liberian English.
2. I love being in Liberia.

I’m greatly enjoying the yelling that goes on in Liberia. I think I mentioned it before. It’s not all actual loud yelling, although some of it is. It’s just that everything sounds like it has an exclamation point. It’s very different from the silence of East Africa. I like both, in different ways. Yelling is freeing, especially when I get to do it in Liberian English. It’s a part of me that I don’t get to use much in North America (watch out, New York – I’ll be yelling when I get back). But the quiet in East Africa is a welcome peace most of the time. The silence is another part of myself I don’t use much.

1922 hrs

Sitting in the office, hoping that things wind up soon and I get to go home. I have to either pay money for a taxi (alone, tonight, which gets expensive) or wait for one of the work people to drop me off. The normal car already left and I could have had it come back but I didn’t want to make the driver work until all hours of the night just because I am. I’m working for free, you see, and you can do this to yourself when you are working for free. It’s not so nice to do it to people who are working to support their families. So I’m waiting.

Tomorrow we are going out to Kakata. I don’t actually remember Kakata, if I’ve ever been there, but I remember hearing about it a lot when I was little. I’m sure it will take longer than it used to. The drive to Buchanan is 4 hours now, and that’s one of the better roads. C and R went to Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh county, and it took them almost 18 hours to get there. They slept in the car for two hours because the driver was tired and then drove on.

It surprises me that Liberia is safe enough to travel all night. Three years out from a war and you can drive overnight on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. The guard at our compound has a different opinion, though. He came up to me one night and said, “You have to tell your friends to come around to the front gate. It isn’t safe to leave the back gate unlocked. We are just coming from war.” Cities are more dangerous than countryside, though, often. One of my favorite memories, and my constant reference point for when people tell me they are driving somewhere far in the middle of nowhere, is when I was looking for Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. I was in western Uganda, having taken a wrong turn, driving crazily down dirt roads, trying to determine by the setting sun when I was going north, toward the park, rather than west, toward the Ituri region of Congo, where there was active fighting. I looked at the sun and I looked at the roads and I thought, “I am lost in Africa, but I’ve never felt so safe in my life.” I knew that I could stop almost anywhere if it started to get dark and someone would take me in and all would be fine.

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