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
We did eventually make it to
Ours was to be a 5 day workshop with some 40 activists from across
We arrived an hour early (just in case) at the massive City
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.