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It’s still dark on the morning of the 25th when I arrive at the Ministry of Information. The Minister looks rather stunned that I’ve come. I, too, feel rather stunned that I’ve come, even more so once Ernest pulls away. The media caravan is already full, so the Minister motions me towards an SUV, where three stocky men already take up the back seat. Making room for me involves shifting, pressing, huffing, and moving a backpack. No one makes any introductions.
I appreciate the familiar female voice on the radio reminding us with her usual calm that fireworks are loud, serial, and not the war coming back. Someone’s coconut cologne is failing to mask his body odor. I look down at my hand and see something there in pen. Yesterday, I’d gotten lazy about taking out my notebook and instead wrote a billboard sign right on my skin. Now, to the nameless male companions to my right and left, my hand warns in capital letters: RAPE LEADS TO JAIL.
During WWIII, July 26th fell on a Saturday. Charles Taylor appeared before a soccer stadium of thin, beleaguered refugees. Half of the country’s population had been displaced by civil conflict. Rebels controlled two-thirds of Liberia, and their attacks were now within earshot of Monrovia. Taylor, wearing a white suit and sweating, promised to leave the country, but only once peacekeepers arrived. A false rumor spread through Monrovia that peacekeepers had arrived. Liberians poured into the streets, waving green ferns, dancing, bouncing, ignoring the panicked defense minister, who yelled over the crowd in futility, “We will notify you when it is time to jubilate! The streets are not yet safe!” Mortar got that public message across. Documentary footage from mid-July captures the sound of intermittent fire: dull distant booms mixed with the spittly rages of machine guns. The foreign reporter holding the camera drops down in the roadside grass and the film records him mimicking the gunfire with a strange, soft pow-pow-pow-pow-pow, as if the sound made him think of a video game. Though I can’t help making a trite association, either, listening much later, much further away, I catch myself thinking: sounds like fireworks.
Just past the airport, at STOP MOB VIOLENCE—a billboard with a cartoon riot—our jeep brakes and everyone gets out. Everyone but me, that is. Once I’m confident the men are finished peeing in the reeds, I look out the window to see why else we’re here: to hang signs. We’ll be adorning the route to Buchanan with giant birthday cards. One of my travel mates, it so happens, is the country’s billboard laureate. As we drive, he points out his work: STOP CHOLERA AND DIARRHEA; PREVENT MALARIA WHILE PREGNANT. Had he caught sight of rape leads to jail before I smeared it off with the sweat of my palm, the billboard artist might have known he was sitting beside a fan.
His newest signs, rolled up in the trunk, read, LIBERIA AT 160: CHANGING MINDS, CHANGING ATTITUDES. We hang the second sign outside the Firestone Plantation, where the city gives over to a forest of rubber trees. In Monrovia, it’s easy to forget that Liberia has more rainforest than any country in Africa. En route to Buchanan, the land becomes a collage of lime and emerald green: ivy draping over plantain patches, palms that reach the underbellies of clouds, bamboo as tall as willows, jutting out of the milky brown soup of rainy season.
We arrive at a bridge, where twenty-some villagers await the president. The sun is losing its pink rim, softening to early-morning gold. One little girl is wearing a scarlet dress, the kind that any wise mother would make her daughter save for special occasions so that she could look this awake, this expectant, this proud. We squint up at the unfurling birthday message: LIBERIAN RENAISSANCE.
Seventy-five percent of rural Liberians cannot read. During the war, shooting, looting, and raping meant no schooling. Liberia lost a decade of education. I have to wonder what part of the literate twenty-five percent know the word “renaissance.” Who, exactly, are these birthday cards for? I ask the Minister, but he’s transfixed now by a row of camouflaged soldiers staggered across the bridge, facing the water. “The president must have left Monrovia,” the Minister says, corralling us back to the jeep.
By August of 2003, Taylor was gone, seeking asylum in Nigeria and leaving Liberia to one of the largest peacekeeping forces in world history. Only to the Congo has the UN dispatched more troops. Twenty-two Liberians ran for president in 2005, resulting in a run-off between George Weah, an uneducated soccer star, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a mother and widow and a Harvard graduate. In October, the percentage of female voters was a mere thirty. Three weeks later—three weeks of dogged voter registration efforts—Liberian women constituted fifty percent of voters, and Africa had its first democratically elected female president.
“The iron lady” is making her way behind us in a twenty-two-car security detail. They’re slower, though, because at least one of the twenty-two cars is filled with rice, crackers, candy, and cash in small denominations—alms for the 26th—that the president hands out personally. First, though, UN troops hop out to open the truck latch. One of the security men tells me that, when the children along the road see the troops with guns, they still scamper and make for the trees. He has noticed they send their littlest siblings back first, those born post-conflict, who have no reason to believe that armed men hopping out of jeeps means that war is coming back.
Each time the minister begs for housing in Buchanan, he’s told it’s the 26th. The accommodations promised to the Minister—the accommodations the Minister promised to Liberia’s reporters—don’t exist. And every hour, Buchanan doubles in size, overtaken by guests of the president. Just after she drove beneath our final banner, hung like a finish-line rope over the town’s entrance, the sky began dimming, first with rain, then for night. The Minister calls and calls, and with each call, he small-talks less and pleads sooner.
“It’s Independence Day,” they tell the Minister, as though we missed the signs along the highway. Happy 26th.
“What are the advantages or disadvantages of reclaiming our future?” Crisp twelve-year-old voices fill the padded room where the Minister awaits his turn on Liberian radio. On the other side of a glass panel sit three young boys. They’re wearing headphones and moving the sound dials like kids playing spaceship with convincing expressions of duty.
While the Minister places calls on his cell phone, begging for beds, I stare through the glass at little boys staring at me, staring at them for being so young and knowing how to adjust the sound for callers who never bother to turn off their radios before opining on the advantages and disadvantages of reclaiming their future.
There are as many former child soldiers in Liberia as there are UN peacekeepers: 15,000. When asked about his “Small Boys Unit,” Charles Taylor explained that many of his young recruits were orphaned by Doe’s murderous regime. “We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble,” he explained.
“What are the advantages or disadvantages of reclaiming our future?” the little voices re-ask, live. It’s a terribly phrased question, pushing—if not containing—its answer, reminding me how I bungled my own question to Jewel Howard Taylor. We were sitting in her front parlor, a lofty room with oil paintings of the rebel leader-turned-president-turned-war criminal and Jewel’s ex-husband, Charles Taylor.
Unconvincingly divorced, Jewel is a senator now, one of eleven women elected after the war. She’s eager to align herself with a Liberian minority that has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or the blood shed on account of either. “The problem,” she explains, “is that you have a nation that has been predominantly run by men.” It’s hard not to stare at the portraits of Taylor in his white suit, but even harder to miss the gigantic photo of Hillary Clinton facing the front door.