25 January 2008

Blue Clay People

I went to a big bookstore to buy a guidebook for the post-bar trip (no, I still don't know if I've paid for the ticket, therefore still can't make the announcement - it's a long story). I wandered around for a while and ended up in the African History section, where I picked up a stack of six or seven books that looked good. Had I the money, I would have bought all of them, even the ones I've already read.

I ended up with just two: Emma's War, which is about South Sudan and which I read in Rwanda but want to read again now that I've lived among the Nuer and been to places mentioned in the book, and Blue Clay People, which is about Liberia and which I read while I was in Liberia two summers ago but could not resist buying because, well, it's about Liberia. There are many places in Africa that I like and could picture myself living, but there are only two to which I feel a fierce devotion, in very different ways. One is Rwanda, because it was my first adult country and I threw all of myself into it for two years. The other is Liberia, because it was my childhood, and I believed, for those years of my childhood, that there was nothing more or better in the world than that country.

So I bought Blue Clay People, which is, by the way, a very well-written book, and I started reading it waiting to get my hair cut (the haircut is a whole different story, coming soon). I read for a while, and then I remembered something: when I read this book, I feel hopeless. About my life, and about Africa, and about the world. I felt that way when I read it in Liberia, and I felt so again today.

I have read a lot of harrowing books about wars in Africa. Some of them made me sad (A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali). Some of them have made me angry (Shake Hands with the Devil). Some of them have almost physically hurt to read (Mask of Anarchy).

Very few books, though, have left me feeling hopeless. I was in Africa before I knew the difference between a yellow crayon and a red, let alone Africa and the Americas. I grew up with checkpoints and guns and tuberculosis and beggars missing limbs at the door to the grocery store. I sat next to the bed containing the shrunken body of a man who died of AIDS, and held his wife while she wept, and held their six-month old baby (thinking, admittedly, "I'm not old enough for this. I'm not old enough for this.").

I don't want to go on with my Africa creds here, but I could. The point is this: none of that has ever made me feel hopeless. I don't feel hopeless for Liberia, or Rwanda, or Sudan, or Congo. Discouraged sometimes, of course. But Blue Clay People does leave me hopeless. I have been trying to figure out why it does, and how it can.

I don't really have an answer to that, except that maybe it's because you can tell, from the beginning, that the author feels hopeless about Liberia. Even the description of his first arrival in the country is tinged with having fought the crowds at Robertsfield too many times. Because he had, I suppose, by the time he wrote the book. He expected to change Liberia, and he couldn't.

I wonder sometimes if having started out in Africa is the reason why I never feel hopeless about it. Maybe I'm too close to expect to change anything except myself, and maybe a few friends, the same way you would anywhere. Maybe that insulates me. Maybe.

And maybe it's like anything - when you first move into a house, you notice that the door squeaks every time you open it, and you have to jiggle the toilet lever to get it to flush. When you've lived there for a while, those are just the things you live with, and they aren't that bad, except that you have to warn guests lest they be embarrassed that they can't flush. Instead, you notice that the couch feels really good when you lie back on it after a long day of work, and that you know exactly where everything is.

Maybe any country is like that, too.

Maybe at first you notice that you get pulled over six times in five weeks for not having a license plate (true story, y'alls) and that the police officer is hinting at wanting some money, but after a while you notice that you are having a good time joking with the officer about how long it takes to get a new plate. Maybe at first you rant about the market stalls in the street, but then you notice that you are stopping off to pick up a few things in those same stalls and it's so handy to have them right there.

I feel hopeless when I read this book, and I have to remind myself that none of that bad stuff is original to Liberia, and none of it will remain there. There is corruption everywhere, and violence, and the fact that we manage to insulate ourselves from it for a while, or build temporary structures to rein it in, doesn't mean it's not right here. I also have to remind myself that there is good stuff everywhere, that Liberia is more than the hopeless perspective of one aid worker for one of the largest international organizations in the country. (Also, I sometimes think the bigger the NGO, the more difficult to actually DO anything. That's got to be discouraging.)

Eighteen months ago, I was in Liberia. I walked to the cookie stand with a university student and he insisted on treating me to peanut cookies. I walked down a back road, said to be unsafe, and greeted everyone I met. When it rained, I took shelter under a random roof, and the family lent me their umbrella. Little kids looked up at me with big eyes, and the brave ones came with outstretched hands to shake mine. I sat in meetings planned and led by Liberians, and there were results. (Okay, sometimes there were no results, but we are talking about MEETINGS. Often, on any continent, there are no results.)

I have seen little snatches of the Liberia this book talks about. I've seen little snatches of that Africa. But having spent more than ten years of my life in Liberia... I sometimes think he's exaggerating. Not that he didn't perceive Liberia that way, but maybe perceptions and reality are not the same.

I believe, and I will continue to believe, that Liberia, that Africa, is a place of hope. Sometimes the statistics look bad, but there is hope in life, and Liberians live.

My favorite quote of all time, the one that I have used as an email signature for nearly eight years, is from Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer Manifesto:

Be joyful 'though you have considered all the facts.

1 comment:

Monday's Child said...

I swear.. if I continue to read your blog I will be back in Africa in no time...

I'm pretty decided about the adoption... it'll take a while... maybe a few years... but I know I definitely want my little girl to grow up on that precious precious continent....

Africa used to make me feel helpless... never hopeless... but so completely helpless...