Journey to Liberia II

“I shouldn’t have come alone.” I whispered, eyes darting nervously around the technicoloured foyer. “I really shouldn’t be in a hotel by myself.” I sighed, my usual calm disposition giving way to panic. Although my life was not in any imminent danger, from the moment Tamba the driver unloaded my luggage, I felt an uncomfortable ball of anxiety building from the pit of my stomach, crawling via my midriff and settling in my chest. Was it the dim lit foyer? My palms begun to sweat. I felt unsettled about something, and the more I could not figure it out, the more anxious I became.

“It is not usually this empty,” greeted the owner of the hotel. Before I could respond, It came to me. It was the silence, I was intimidated by the silence in the hotel! Krystal Oceanview Hotel is positioned near the coastal enclave of Mamba Point. Aside from the intermittent splash when the waves meet the shore, It can be an incredibly quiet place. This was a sharp contrast to noisy Accra where hotel waiters balance trays in their palms to avoid bumping into gregarious guests. I had expected Monrovia to be like Accra, but in fairness, it was 4pm on a Thursday evening and most people were at work. Nevertheless, I still could not cope with this silence. Fearful that my sanity was about to snap, I phoned a lady called auntie Miatta who my friend Kukua had promised would welcome me. ‘”Hi baby, welcome to Liberia,” she exclaimed. Her voice which was the perfect blend of Nina Simone’s raspiness and Maya Angelou’s depth, ignited my spirits. “Sleep. You sound tired. Tomorrow I will send a driver to bring you to the radio station to meet the whole family,” she promised. Oh can I come tonight? I wanted to say. I am really lonely in my hotel and I would appreciate some noise and a hug. But I offered some diplomatic pleasantries instead. As as soon as the conversation died, I felt sad again. Frankly, I was not mentally prepared for the realities of being in a  country that was recovering from war. In the same vein of honesty, I admit that although  I did want to be like one of those foreign tourists who ignore their crime-ridden cities to question the security of Africa, the silence and the emptiness of the hotel set my imagination on fire. Are the people violent? What if someone spazzes out from a bout of post traumatic stress disorder? What if someone breaks into my room? What if… my eyes skimmed across the yellow walls  for an emergency exit plan. I found none. That night, the voice of a CNN anchor kept vigil with me. I was alone and afraid. 

I did not need an alarm clock to wake up the next morning. The excitement of meeting Auntie Miatta at Radio Veritas drove me to the shower. She was poised and regal at the head of the table, her dark skin glowing like melted Milo. “Hello my daughter.” She stood up and folded me in her bosom, her long locks tickling my forehead. “Everyone say ‘ hi’ to my Ghanaian daughter, Amma”.  A unified “hello” echoed in the studio. She was in the middle of hosting a show called ‘ Lets talk about it’. The active panel was engaged in discussions about how to encourage Liberians to register to vote for the upcoming presidential elections. Fifteen minutes after I entered the studio, they opened the telephone lines and people begun to call in. Callers passionately aired their opinions about the voting process. Some wanted to draw attention to spotted incidents of multiple registrations, others called in to welcome their Ghanaian sister to Liberia. As I listened to the detailed accounts of their electoral expectations, it was evident that they were all committed to a singular objective – a transparent election process. 

Coming to Monrovia, I expected a taciturn group of people who had been traumatized into silence by the war. Not Liberians. They are gentle but assertive, polite but passionate. The latter is particularly rife when it comes to issues concerning stable governance in their country. I received an undiluted taste of this passion when I assembled a group of young people from the “Register to vote campaign” for an interview . S. Gibson has a firm handshake and mesmerizing brown eyes that widen when he emphasizes a point. He is proud to be known as a ‘serial caller’ because having lived in Liberia throughout the war, he has made it his mission to persistently call radio stations to report any malfeasance he encounters. Ulla has a charming smile and an effervescent personality. When war first broke out, she was a toddler whose family sort refuge in Ghana. Today, she is a bright university student who speaks with such authority and wisdom that I could see her being the next Chief Justice of Liberia. Tawe, Paypay, Monique, and Oliver are a small percentage of fearless and intelligent individuals dedicated to the rebuilding of Liberia. You need only to watch my interview to understand that they speak with eloquence and wisdom far beyond their youth. Naturally, I obliged when they invited me to join a float which was going to canvas the city to get more people to register to vote. The float was late. It had come up Ashmund street where we were waiting and turned around. “What! ” screamed auntie Miatta. She quickly placed a call to the group managing the float.

“Where y’all at? Hey! y’all better hoory up, I say now… I say when I see you I go cuss y’all real good. Now y’all come back men. ” Within minutes, they had all assembled in her living room. She greeted them with enthusiastic high fives. I started to giggle. “Auntie Miatta’” I teased, “did you not say you were going to cuss them real good?”  “Amma these are my family, we don’t stay mad at each other.” As we walked towards the float, she explained that these young people had taken time off school and work to encourage others to do their civic duty. The young musicians rapping on the float had chosen to use their music and their star power to motivate the crowd to vote. They do this selflessly as their contribution to the rebuilding of Liberia. As she says this, I take stock of where Liberia is at. Churches, mosques and schools have been renovated and coated with new paint to signify the birth of something new.  The city is booming with new businesses such as car dealerships, hardware stores and boutiques. Previously deserted markets are  now filled with women coaxing passersby to purchase their tomatoes and cassavas. Financial institutions like the Liberian Business Development bank and Western Union have expanded their operations to meet the fast growing demand in Liberia.  Restaurants have become a hot spot for the ambitious to discuss their political aspirations or their business plans. There are also several lifestyle magazines such as ‘Liberia Travel & Life Magazine’  which showcases all that is blossoming in Liberia.

Back on the float, they are rapping, dancing, shouting and asking people to get registered. “They are wonderful kids.” Auntie Miatta remarked, beaming proudly at them. The crowd is just as impressed. I join them in the celebration. By now, I know some of the lyrics so I can sing along. Ulla is amused, she passes the mic to me to address the crowd. ” Errm… errm… your vote is your power, please register to vote.” I squealed in my English sounding accent. We all burst into laughter. One of the boys pulls me aside “You know auntie Miatta, she has a heart of gold. She opened that school in front of her house so the little girls who used to wander the streets can get an education. Now over 200 boys and girls attend Obaa girls School. She uses money from her singing gigs to pay their school fees because she does not believe any Liberian child should be without an education.” As if she sensed that we were talking about her, she came to join us, waving at the crowd, reminding them of their civic duty.

We posed for pictures and laughed at ourselves. I could not believe I had known them for just a day. It felt like I had known them since childhood. Like we had walked the deserted streets of Snapper Hill together, missing family members who had fled or died from the war. They talked openly up about how war had set their lives back. About the pain of being a refugee; wanting to come home, yet not having a home to come to. We continued the conversation over dried rice and fish. “Amma watch out men, the food hot.” They were all concerned about how I would handle the spicy sauce. Their instinctive compassion brought tears to my eyes. How wrong I was to question the safety and security of my visit. Liberians have gone through a gruesome war, but their humanity remains intact. They are prepared to use the lessons of the past to usher in a new dawn of healing and opportunities. That night, I crawled into bed like a tired babe who had just found her mother. Feeling safe and loved in the bosom of my childhood dream land, I closed my eyes and slept.

Journey to Liberia

Monrovia. It sounded too exotic to be the name of a capital city in West Africa. I formed this opinion as a child listening wide-eyed as my mother and her friends traded stories of their travels to Liberia. From snippets of their animated accounts, I wove a lush tapestry of a sophisticated and advanced Monrovia where the posh and ambitious travelled to trade. With this image dancing in my head, you can imagine the frequency of my heart palpitations when on January 14th 2011, my carefully crafted plans to visit Liberia appeared to collapse with the incremental hourly delay of Air Nigeria.

When I finally landed in Roberts International Airport, I was dumbfounded. There lay the physical testimony of what 14 years of civil war can do to a country. It is a small airport with a narrow entrance. However, the breadth of land it is perched on hints to the fact that had civil war not intercepted its potential, RIA could easily have been one of Africa’s finest airports. Yet there it lay, a stark reflection of progress derailed. Please note, that my reference to the aforementioned civil war is unintentionally casual – words cannot possibly describe the gruesome brutality that was imposed on Liberians December 24th 1989, when a band of rebels led by Charles G. Taylor, invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast in an attempt to overthrow the oppressive Samuel Doe government.

As Charles Taylor’s forces,” the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), advanced toward Monrovia, they targeted people of the Krahn and Mandingo ethnic groups, both of which the NPFL considered supporters of President Doe’s government. In response to this insurgency, President Doe launched an unrelenting wave of violence against the inhabitants of Nimba County. Media reports and international human rights organizations estimated that at least 200 persons, primarily members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, were killed by troops of the Government of Liberia during the counterinsurgency campaign”

With the escalation of war, several warring factions sprung up and increased the brutality. “Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and foreign investors and businessmen left the country”. But the most devastating consequence of this war is the loss of lives and the displacement of Liberians who are still trying to make sense of the carnage that befell their beautiful country”. From 1989-2003, warlords looted the rich natural resources in Liberia, they killed tens of thousands of people and shredded the social fabric of a country that used to be a vibrant economic hub in West Africa. “Oh Liberia” I murmured in a solemn trance.

“You wan taxi?” A voice boomed through my thoughts, shaking me to reality. I looked up to see a well dressed man dangling his Renault car keys at the direction of his taxi. “No ma men.” I answered in a pseudo Liberian accent; An exaggerated bravado added to mask the fact that I was a confused foreigner who could not locate the driver the hotel had sent. Lawd, where is the man who is supposed to pick me up? I was making my way to a kiosk to buy a new SIM card when I spotted a lean man carrying an exasperated expression on his face and a partially closed Manila folder in his hand. With one glance, I made out the reversed red inscription as ‘A-M-M-A’ and chuckled at the advantage of having a palindrome name. “Hi, you are looking for me!” I chirped. “Krystal Oceanview Hotel?” I continued. “Yes, yes” he responded. ” I been waiting for hours. My name is Tamba. I gon drive you to the hotel.” With that, the exasperated face gave way to an enthusiastic smile and he hauled my luggage into the trunk.

Roberts International Airport is about 1.5hrs away from Monrovia. Each side of the paved road that leads to the city is bordered by a vast stretch of rich green vegetation. If you take a moment to enjoy the view, you will catch your breath at the sight of tall Palm trees gracefully caressing the clouds, back, forth, side to side… in unison with the gentle breeze. “What a beautiful country” I gasped. Tamba smiled in agreement. Encouraged by his warmth, I asked him about the war. He had stayed in Liberia for the entire duration of the war. When things got really bad, he and his family hid in the bushes, surviving on cassava and greens. By the time brutal conflict was over in 2003, he had lost 3 children to the war. “But it is in the past” he sighed. “Liberia is coming back, we are moving forward, you wait, you will see more signs of this when we hit Monrovia”. He beamed.

Therein lies the truth of the spirit of Liberians. 15 years of war had robbed the country of infrastructural development but, it had not broken the resilient spirit of Liberians. This is the spirit fuelling signs of the new Liberia I see. The construction of new buildings, the restoration of roads and the opening of new businesses. I was looking forward to what Monrovia had to offer… To be continued