When in Liberia…

I have always wanted to visit Liberia. As a child, I listened wide-eyed as my mother and her friends exchanged stories of their travels to Liberia’s capital Monrovia. From snippets of their animated accounts, I pictured a sophisticated and advanced city, where ambitious Africans traveled to sell fine cloths and household goods. With this image dancing in my head, you can imagine the frequency of my heart palpitations when three days after returning from Kumasi; my carefully crafted plans to visit Liberia appeared to collapse with the incremental delay of the Air Nigeria flight. It was a bright Thursday morning and I was at the airport, hoping to board an Air Nigeria flight from Accra to Monrovia. After two hours of waiting, I stopped monitoring the clock hanging in the departure lobby and allowed my mind to think of what Liberians must have gone through during the dark war years between 1989 and 2003.

I was still a teenager when news of civil unrest in Monrovia captivated headlines in Ghanaian newspapers. On Christmas Eve in 1989, a band of rebels led by a man called Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast in an attempt to overthrow President Samuel Doe’s 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 where the insurgency had a stronghold. Media reports and human rights organizations estimated that at least 200 people, primarily members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, were killed by troops of the Government of Liberia during the counterinsurgency campaign“. (www.globalsecurity.org)

As the prospects of a full-blown civil war escalated, several warring factions sprang up and increased the brutality. “Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and foreign investors and businessmen fled the country.” Samuel Doe himself was captured in 1990 and images of his brutal execution were distributed to several media outlets in Africa. Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) gained control of most of the country and in a matter of months, refugee camps had to be opened in Ghana and other West African countries to accommodate thousands of Liberians fleeing from a very bloody war. For fourteen years, the NPFL and rival warlords from other warring factions fought each other and looted Liberia’s rich diamond reserves. They killed tens of thousands of people and essentially shredded the social fabric of a country that used to be a vibrant economic hub in West Africa.

After several failed attempts, in 2003, a unilateral ceasefire was declared in Liberia and Charles Taylor was forced into exile. Three years later, he was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since war ended in 2003, Liberians have been taking steps to rebuild their country. In 2005, they voted the Unity Party into power making its political leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the first female president of an African country. Encouraged by these advances, Liberians abroad have started returning to their homeland to contribute to the development of their country.

It has been 9 years since Liberia got back on track and I could not wait to jump on the plane to see all that the country had to offer. When I finally landed at Roberts International Airport, I was dumbfounded. Sprawled before my very eyes was the physical testimony of what fourteen years of civil war can do to a country. It is a very modest airport planted a few steps from the tarmac. About thirty of us disembarked and walked through a narrow doorway that led to a partitioned customs area. An immigration officer flipped through my passport. After stamping it, it she winked at me and muttered.  “My sister, make me smile.” I stared at her baffled. I did not know whether I had missed a joke or if she was waiting for me to tell her a joke. She could tell that I was confused. She elaborated.  “You know, Ghanaians are good at making people smile…” This time, she completed the sentence by rubbing her fingers together and winked twice.

“Oh I see,” I exclaimed. “You want money.”

Immediately, her index finger flew to her lips. “Shh, keep your voice down,” she pleaded, not wanting to draw attention to our booth. I empathized with the need in the eyes of the underpaid civil servant and gave her ten dollars. “This is for lunch.” I added.

“Oh thank you my Ghana sister, the exit is just on your left.

I walked onto the parking lot trying my best to blend in with the locals, but the taxi drivers had already deciphered that I was a foreigner. They approached me one after the other, offering to drive me into the city.  I clutched at my belongings tightly and politely told them I had arranged for a car. My eyes surveyed the grounds to familiarize myself with my new surroundings. Even though the airport was incredibly small, the breadth of land it is situated indicates that had civil war not intercepted its development; Roberts International Airport could have easily been one of Africa’s finest airports. Yet here it was a stark reflection of progress derailed.

“You wan taxi?” A voice boomed through my thoughts, bringing me back to reality. I looked up to see a well-dressed man dangling his Renault car keys in 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 disoriented foreigner who could not locate the driver the hotel had sent. Goodness, 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 with an exasperated expression on his face and a partially closed Manila folder in one hand. With one glance, I made out the reversed red inscription as ‘A-M-M-A’. “Hi, you are looking for me!” I chirped. He did not respond. “Krystal Ocean View Hotel?” I continued.

“Yes, yes” he gushed. “I been waiting for you 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 of a white station wagon.

Roberts International Airport is about one and a half hours drive 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 the tenderness in his eyes, I asked him how he had fared during the war. Tamba explained that he stayed in Liberia for the entire duration of the war. When things got really bad, he and his family hid in the bushes and ate cassava and greens to survive. By the time conflict was over in 2003, he had lost three children to the war. “But it is all in the past” he sighed. “Liberia is coming back. We are moving forward. You wait Amma, you will see more signs of this when we hit Monrovia,” He beamed. I was excited.

****

I shouldn’t have come alone,” I whispered to myself, eyes darting anxiously around the techni-coloured foyer. “I really shouldn’t be in a hotel by myself.” I sighed, my usually calm disposition giving way to panic. Although my life was not in any imminent danger, from the moment Tamba the driver unloaded my luggage inside Krystal Oceanview Hotel, I felt an uncomfortable ball of anxiety building from the pit of my stomach, crawling through my midriff and settling deep within my chest. Was it the dim lit foyer? This was supposed to be one of Monrovia’s premier hotels so why was it devoid of people? My palms began to sweat.

“It is not usually this empty,” greeted the concierge behind the counter. Before I could respond, it came to me. It was the silence; I was unnerved by the silence in the hotel! Krystal Ocean View Hotel is perched on the coastal enclave of Mamba Point. Aside from the intermittent splash when the waves hit the shores, it can be an incredibly quiet place. On the day I arrived, the area had no power due to load shedding. The hotel’s somber ambiance was a sharp contrast to noisy Accra, where busy waiters palm trays above their heads to avoid bumping into gregarious guests. I expected Monrovia to be like Accra, but in fairness, it was 4 pm on a Thursday evening and most people were at work.

I walked up to my room on the second floor. In the confines of the yellow walls, the silence was haunting. A tap in the bathroom was dripping. Occasionally I would hear the soft thud of footsteps around my doorway, just as quickly it would vanish. Fearful that my composure was about to snap, I grabbed my cell phone and phoned a woman called Auntie Miatta. She is a friend of my childhood friend Mansa and Mansa had assured me that Auntie Miatta would make me feel at home. The phone rung twice before she picked up. ‘”Hi baby, welcome to Liberia,” she chimed after my introduction. Her voice, which was the perfect blend of Nina Simone’s raspiness and Maya Angelou’s depth, ignited my spirits. “Amma get some sleep” she coaxed. “You sound tired. Tomorrow I will send a driver to bring you to the house so you can meet the whole family.” 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. Instead, I offered some diplomatic pleasantries and thanked her for taking my call. I slowly put the phone back in my handbag and curled onto the bed. I felt sad again. I was not mentally prepared for the realities of being alone in a country that was recovering from war. Much as I did want to be like one of those tourists who ignore their own crime-ridden cities to question the security of Africa, the bareness of the hotel sparked my imagination in different directions. Are the people violent? What if someone breaks into my room? What if… my eyes skimmed across the yellow walls for an emergency exit plan. I found none. All that was around me was an antique dresser near the door and yards of yellow curtains to match a reddish carpet.  I squeezed my eyes shut and willed sleep to consume my body. When that failed, I reached for TV’s remote. That night, the voice of a CNN anchor kept vigil with me. I was alone and afraid.