Monday, July 02, 2007

A lesson in history and humility

Places like Monrovia have a penchant for knocking you off the mountain of self importance in a hurry. For me this happened on one of the work trips there. First, I will describe the events in the self-aggrandizing manner they happened leading up to that precise humbling moment of understanding how little I understood, and the extent of my insignificance.

I was helping set up a conference with some auspicious title like 'Rebuilding Civil Society in Post Conflict Communities'. Our journey towards self importance figuratively had started months in advance during the preparation, and literally kicked off as we met that friday at the Minneapolis International airport.

Despite a sizable Liberian diaspora, travelling to Liberia from Minnesota is not as straight forward as it might seem. We are spoiled to expect the choice of multiple flights on multiple airlines at any/all time of day for any destination. Flights to Monrovia are typically limited to 2 or so flights a week from Europe on 2 airlines. In our case, the itinerary had us travelling to Brussels via DC, and then onward to Monrovia on a 'milk-run' flight (whereby the plane makes several landings, and you only deplane at your destination).

We did eventually make it to Brussels for our milk-run flight, but not after several cancellations and flight delays had us and our luggage rerouted through several other countries and airlines. We made several full sprints down unending airport hallways to make it, and I was fully resigned for my luggage to be en-route to Mongolia instead. But all 12 of our suitcases and boxes (of material) successfully appeared on the trundling conveyor belt in the absolute chaos of the Roberts International Airport’s cramped luggage hall. Disbelief gave way to joy, and a slight feeling of invincibility and righteousness. We were there for a noble purpose, and the travel gods had deemed us worthy.

Ours was to be a 5 day workshop with some 40 activists from across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and presenters from other parts of Africa. A local NGO was our partner, and they were in charge of the larger, more ceremonial first day of our weeklong workshop, including speeches, speeches, and speeches by dignitaries followed by a half-day workshop for 120 select participants from Liberian Civil Society.

We arrived an hour early (just in case) at the massive City Hall Building on the main road. This building, despite its state of disrepair after years of abandonment and ravages of war, has retained some of its majesty, with its spacious halls and generous hallways and windows. For our daylong visit, enough fuel was pre-purchased for the generators for electricity and air conditioning, podiums and dignitaries tables were brought in, and about 150 plastic chairs were placed cinema style on the old hardwood floors.

Upon arrival we noticed no organized process in place for sign-up, set-up, preparation of the hall, or attending to the guests-of-honor. As a matter of fact, our local partners weren’t there, and did not arrive until 15 minutes before the official start time, by which time throngs of local and non-local participants were amassed at the front hallway, slowly warming in the impressively climbing heat of the mid-morning.

After our partners arrived, and for the rest of the morning, we flew by the seat of our pants in all directions; we alphabetized applications, stuffed welcome folders, set up queues for the quickly heating up guests, improvised protocol for receiving this minister or that commissioner, jerry-rigged sound systems and projector screens, hand-crafted nametags, consoled indignant participants and late-coming divas, and countless other frantic activities.

All of this was the prelude to the day we were to be having, which was an eye-opening exercise in improvisation. By mid-day, most of the planned activities had gone differently than expected. We had rolled with all the challenges, and had maintained a somewhat successful flow to the program, in the face of what seemed to be the inevitable forces of chaos, as well as a prevailing process-defying sentiment among the participants.

By late afternoon, despite some challenges in food distribution that left some participants without chicken and others without spoons, most were happily engaged in small-group activities, and busily, colorfully identifying and prioritizing the issues facing their society.

So the meeting ended and as the last of the lingering participants left the cool spaciousness of the main hall, we were left with some sense of success that they actually found this to their benefit. I for one, was subconsciously attributing some of the success of the day (if not most of it) to our being there, and being the important, savvy, knowledgeable and skillful conferenceers who saved the conference, despite some participants’ dissatisfactions, others’ disorientation, and a few who found it wanting.

I was one of the last to leave, watching the guests melt into the late afternoon crowd beyond the City Hall Driveway. I almost felt as though I did more of the work for this day than the participants. Then I tried to tell myself that I came from the comfort of abundance and convenience back home to spend one day of minimally extraneous action, whereas they came from fledgling communities just reconstituting after all the trauma and inhumanity of the previous years.

I needn’t have bothered with the contrived self admonishment, as my mental exercise was obviated by the ensuing 15 minute drive and our driver’s impromptu detour.

I had met Sibley on my previous trip to Liberia. He is a unique person by all accounts. He is a bald medium sized man with a permanent frown and pout, until he bellows out with his laughter, putting his hand to his head and showing all his front teeth. He alternated between formal conversation and somber looks, and bouts of laughter and easygoing banter.

Like any other person you meet here, Sibley has many harrowing stories to tell, and the wounds of the war on his soul are still fresh. His mind is overflowing with the memories, and he recounts them. On the my last journey, we occasioned to travel inland to Gbarnga, a 3+ hour drive in our SUV, where he described the time he had to flee Monrovia with his family on foot along the same road, sometimes in the bush, sometime on the road. What death and dismemberment he saw, the fright of checkpoints, the unknown random evil lurking behind the next lush greenery, or at the next checkpoint. He would recall gruesome tales with a numbness of emotions, letting the words and images bring their own horrid emotions. His drooped eyebrows would belie his stoic delivery. Maybe it was telling the stories to another person who hasn’t heard it before, one more witness whose comprehension might dilute the intensity of the pain.

That Gbarnga ride has a story all its own. This day, though, Sibley has just arrived from another trip inland, in time to give us a ride down the main road to Mamba point on the westernmost part of Monrovia. I see him leaning against the hood of the Toyota Pickup in his white polo and Khaki pants, socks and hiking boots. He is munching from a bag of cheese puffs. I know he likes Cheetos, and have brought him a bag of them, and some goldfish crackers to expand his horizon.

He greets me with a mouthful of orange teeth, and shakes my hand with his training/driving gloves. After pleasantries, we get in the truck for the 10 minute drive, a straight shot down the main road.

No more than a block down the street, beyond the UNMIL (UN mission in Liberia) building and he asks us without waiting for an answer as he swerves off to the left on a clay road.

“You mind if I show you something?”

Not at all, I say, while wondering what enterprising endeavor I am going to experience this time.

“I told you last time I had to leave Monrovia, you remember?”

“Yes, yes. You said your couldn’t stay in your house”

“That’s right. I am going to show you my house, the one I had to leave”

By now we are down that clay road, and past a largish building that is currently hosting the budget office. He turns right, down a downhill dirt road, honking in a non-linear rhythm to alert the many locals who are walking or riding, or carrying bundles and large bins down the middle of the road.

The road snakes through red-dirt like a creek. Strewn on the sides of the road are semi-habitable 2-story houses made of cement. They all show signs of destruction and disrepair. The house on our left has a large tree whose roots bulge out of the front yard, almost flush against the wall. Several children are running after a rolling bicycle rim. A few women sitting in the shade are tending to foodmaking on a stove in front of the glass-less window of what looks like the kitchen.

As this is not where any NGO offices are, our presence is obvious and the stares are ubiquitous. The pickup truck trundles as Sibley navigates the creek-bed that pretends to be the road.

We reach a curve in the creek/road, and can see the ocean in the near distance below. As we are about to take the bend, Sibley’s finger-pointing hand shoots past my face, out the passenger window, and points at this cement 2 story house with running cracks and large splotches of peeling pink-gray paint, plopped in the red dirt, set back behind a makeshift fence. Most prominently, a smoked out, bomb-carved upstairs window stares back at me like a giant, punched black-eye on an old wrinkly face.


Is this where you live, I ask. And he looks at me and says

“now? No no. This is where I lived before the fighting came up the road from the beach. I left this place with my family. We went running away…”

Have you gone back in again, I ask, not really knowing what to say.

“what for? I don’t need to. I have a house in the suburbs, and it is better. You will see….”

By now we have passed the house, and are about to get on a small bridge that is not really traversing a river, or a creek, but a shallow valley of garbage. This is where the waters wash the refuse of the city onto the ocean, and the result is this multicolored, delta of trash.

Smoke is smoldering out of a pile here, the stench of trash and burnt rubber burdens the balmy air, and I can pick out children and young men off in the piles rummaging for something.

We drive past in surreal non-chalance. I don’t know what to ask, and Sibley sees nothing worth of clarifying.

Until we clear the garbage delta and arrive at the edge of another paved road on the shoreline, next to a sandy beach where youthful boys are playing soccer with the flare and flamboyance of African Allstars in the haze of the smoke.

“See this beach?” Sibley says “This is where they shot the ministers”.

I manage a “HUH?” as my eyes shift to put him and the past in focus while the playful soccer scene of today vanishes behind his silhouette.

He tells me the story of when he watched from his pink house when the soldiers paraded the ministers from the barracks right across the street onto the beach, and executed them.


“Yeah, right there by where that goal is set up. It was after they killed Tolbert in the mansion. But that was Doe, that was before the worse things happened.” He shook his head. The smile had given to the frown.

“but you already know. Now you'll remember them every time you see a 5 or 10 Liberian Dollar note … anyways, I just wanted to show you the house”. We have come to a rolling stop by now, and he momentarily stares away from my face, onto the ocean. He breaths in, clucks, and looks back onto the road.

“now I will drive you to the hotel” pointing with his fingered hand emphatically forwards, as he switches into a higher gear, honks the horn and flips the windshield wipers, moving us down the road and putting the beach, the barracks and the stories behind.

I look through the back window of the pickup to see the kids in their unending energy pushing forward while the heavy haze slowly obscures them from view.