There’s a posse of amputees outside the UN Drive Supermarket. My van rolls into the lot and four of them limp toward 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 twelve-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 DVDs. They have no idea what I’ve 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 than 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 in 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 18th of July. Today is not the 18th of July. It’s the 19th. I’ve just been sold yesterday’s paper. Ernest accelerates, and I don’t stop him. I’ve learned that mid-July—any day in mid-July—is the 26th. People sell for the 26th, beg for the 26th, 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:
As part of activities to commemorate the 160th Independence anniversary of Liberia on July 26, the Liberian government has announced that there will be two fireworks displays, one in Monrovia and another in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County respectively.
Speaking at a news conference yesterday at his office on 12th Street, Monrovia, Mr. Boakai said this year’s celebration will be celebrated with moderate pomp and pageantry to make people proud and happy.
“The fireworks display is intended to help heighten some of the good feelings experienced by Liberians before the war.” He said the fireworks were acquired through the Chinese ambassador accredited to Liberia.
—The Analyst, July 19, 2007
A reporter present posed a long question, asking 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’, the next, 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.
Fourteen thousand one hundred forty-one United Nations troops are stationed in Liberia, keeping peace on a $688 million budget. For every 15,000 civilians in this West African country the size of Tennessee, there’s a soldier in a pearly aqua helmet, camouflaged from collar to boot. With troops recruited from forty-nine countries, the UN has an ethnic camouflage, too. Liberia is not occupied by any one foreign power but is 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. 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 RLL stories for the WSJ, but first, I need to learn how 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 I 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 sounds like marbles in my mouth (ECOWAS, WOLPNET, WARPNET). Driving with Ernest, I don’t know what I find more shocking: the utter lack of beauty in this place, or that I’ve arrived not having mulled over the term “post-conflict,” like one fails to take “rainy season” to mean, literally, 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 kiddie 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 for 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 to be 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, and Virginia. They had the backing of the American Colonization Society, whose membership 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 of a 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 eighty-eight freedmen east across the Atlantic. They bought a coastal plot of land, where two million West Africans who spoke sixteen different languages 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, either. The deal was made at gunpoint.