Nearly 20 years ago, my graduate advisor at Ohio University said of Sudan, a nation he loved and visited frequently, “It’s hard to watch a nation commit suicide.” I think often of his words, more so now that an African nation I love is once again in the news.
Liberia’s past, present, and future is one that pains me personally and makes me think about what it means to be an American. When I lived in Liberia in the ’80s, I would travel to small villages where white people were seldom seen. The children would come running from under the tree shade grinning, pointing, and shouting, “Why pee-poe! Why pee-poe!”
I’d never loved children until I lived in Liberia and saw how easy it could be to raise truly humanistic people. The solution was simple–unconditional love, modeling the behavior we want our children to emulate, disciplining them firmly with love, and remaining focused in our daily lives on what really matters in the long run for all of society.
At least it would be simple if the culture I lived in wasn’t so obsessed with activities and values that conflict with raising humanist people. It took leaving America to love America for what it might have been and still could be, and to understand how it is slowly committing suicide in its own way. It took leaving America to see what being an American means to people in other nations less blessed with natural resources and more ravaged by natural disasters. In Africa, I found that Americans were generally considered favorably. In Korea, where I lived years later, Americans were often reviled. In Liberia, we were saints, and that is an impossible dream to live up to, a pressure too great to bear.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I thought of myself as pretty poor, but to the locals I was enormously rich. I could buy food whenever I wanted it, did not need to suffer from the diseases that killed 50 percent of their babies by the age of 5, and could fly home to the U.S. whenever I got tired of being a visitor in an African nation.
But they also thought I was sick–not physically, but spiritually, because I’d rather sit by myself and read a book than go bar hopping until 3 a.m. with a lot of strangers buying everyone beer and snacks. Of course it made sense for me to buy because I was the rich American and that was their concept of equality. When someone had more resources than one personally needed, it was shared with others who had little or none. The day would come that others would have excess and they would likewise share. That was the African way, and I simply didn’t get it. There was something terribly wrong with me that I expected each person to pay their own share when certainly I knew not everyone could afford it.
But I didn’t shed the training of my culture fast enough. In retrospect, I was too aloof, too isolated, too selfish, too guarded, too suspicious, too independent–too American. I missed a golden opportunity that will never be mine again, to be 30 years old, single, and sponsored by a powerful and loved American institution to experience the culture of a radically different way of seeing and being in the world. I learned halfway through my tour what a gift I’d been given, but it was really too late to go back and remake my life among my people. Our story had been written and yet there was still time for me to become a whole person. I tried to extend my time but was told it was too dangerous, so I took what was left and immersed myself in Liberian life.
Looking back, it seems that my brain was sucked out of my head, rearranged, and put back in when I wasn’t noticing, because I came back a very different person than the one who left. Or perhaps it was a blessed side-effect of malaria. I had it five times before the medics discovered I had a chloraquine-resistant strain supposedly not found in Liberia. When I first became ill, it went cerebral and I almost died. The good news is that I had the most wonderfully psychedelic dreams. Malaria dreams are the best! And what a weight-loss plan. Too bad it can’t be marketed: “The malaria diet…it really, really works!”
I miss palm butter with boney and bitterleaf, Mami’s tall breadfruit tree, and the way Joseph would slow-roast the breadfruit over the coals. I miss little Alethea, the inquisitive and intelligent 10-year-old granddaughter of Mami, and her older sister, Inez, who was simple minded and the sweetest bundle of love god ever made. I miss kola nuts, the other staple of my weight-loss plan. One half of a kola nut every morning and I could go until dinner without food. I don’t miss drunken and high–and untrained–soldiers who thought it was funny to wave a loaded gun around in the face of a young American woman. I don’t miss being sick almost every day. I don’t miss watching the bodies float up on the beach outside my house, a mile from Sam Doe’s mansion, where the tortured remains would be tossed over the wall. I would look out the window and see a mass of undulating crabs in the shape of a human form, doing their scavenging work in what others might call my front lawn.
Delightful, shocking, painful, and frightening, the experiences of living as a stranger in a foreign land were intense and are etched deeply in my mind. They are as vivid to me today as they were in 1984 when I wrote:
4-1, Monday. Another one of those strangely Monrovian experiences … there I was, minding my own business, reading a book at home when I noticed an odd sound … a little like rain on a tin roof, but slower. And even though it had been raining today I don’t have a tin roof. I went to the door to see about the noise and found a crab–of all things–climbing up my screen door. The metal twangs were his claws going into and out of the screen holes. Afred, one of the houseboys, killed it for me and fed it to Jason, the dog.
And then there was the first time I drank ginger beer, something I came to love above all other beverages, save Club Beer.
4-7, Saturday. Bought a bottle of juice in front of Abou Joudi’s this morning and I thought my throat was on fire when I drank it. I thought it was a sugared ginger drink and Lord was it hot/spicy. The Liberians watched me and thank goodness I didn’t gag or pop my eyes. I calmly drank most of it and gave the bottle back to the vendor. Last time I try that stunt.
The press was not very free at the time, but certainly freer than it has been since Christmas Eve 1989, when Charles Taylor began his war on the people of Liberia. Most of the “news” was tabletop gossip, but every once in awhile it went over the top.
6-14, Thursday. The Bong Crier ran a cover story this week about a man arrested for having sex with a sheep. The photo caption read, “Mr. Flomo and his lover.” I want to know if the sheep is going to be called on to testify. Baaaaaah! On the back page was an even better story: “Man cuts off penis for money,” complete with frontal photo. I didn’t have time to find out how much he got for it but I’m sure it wasn’t enough.
My role in Monrovia was to teach Liberians how to write and produce educational radio programs. This task was coupled with bringing up a rural radio network in 16 indigenous languages. My background and training as a radio and television news producer had prepared me for the technical role but the social role was one I bungled more often than I performed with grace. One exception was noted in July.
7-10, Thursday. Today Velemee, a trainee, came to me and gave me a sheet of paper. There were two (para)graphs, centered, with headings. But I did not understand the context. When I asked him to explain, he said that these were responses to editorials in the newspaper and he wanted me to correct them for grammar. I damn near cried. This man is proud, intelligent and concerned about his country. He came to me, an outsider, for help. He trusted me. This is my Peace Corps experience. And god help me, I love it.
Of course I didn’t love everything about being a Peace Corps volunteer. For years, people asked me how I liked it, did I have fun? Words like “fun” and “like” don’t really figure into a discussion about the Peace Corps and living in Liberia. Words like “intense” and “frightening” spring to mind. I was medically evacuated in my second year due to prolonged illness that could not be diagnosed, and while stateside I realized that I was breathing–really breathing–for the first time in 18 months.
Living in Liberia, I would say, was like being caught in the perpetual pounding of a typhoon’s surf. I would be slammed onto the beach long enough to catch my breath only to be grabbed again by the next wave and sucked out to sea, tossed and whirled to near death. Even in my sleep I did not rest and was unable to realize how much mental agony I had been in until the pain stopped.
2-7-85, Thursday. A snake crawled into the classroom yesterday while Diane was teaching. I heard her scream, “Oh god!,” and then all hell broke loose. Everyone ran out to kill the snake as it made a getaway into the yard–Mr. Kpadeh in the lead. It was the afternoon pick-me-up we all needed.
I traveled to Ivory Coast alone after a year in Liberia. The trip was probably ill advised as a young woman because it simply isn’t done. Many allowances are made for kwi (Western) women but I learned the hard way that when a population sees me as being vulnerable and easy to abuse because of my sex, it is difficult to avoid problems, regardless of my self-image. Most of the trip, however, was delightful. And as solo travelers will always tell me, it forces us to reach out to strangers in ways we would not if traveling with someone else.
2-15-85, Friday. The day was full of observations. At a roadside pop-shop and grill in Grand Bassam I ordered a 7-Up and asked them if they could change 5mf ($10). The man said he would run go change it. I trusted him with only small doubt. I was shamed by even that little concern when he returned to tell me that he couldn’t change it. The 7-Up was free. I said no, I would buy another batik and bring back change. Later I was at the Hotel Ivoire and was not impressed. I walked into the ice skate rink and was appalled at what I saw…so-so white people inside and so-so blacks watching from the window outside. I left in a hurry, ashamed at my race and our need to escape the environment we’ve come to explore.
My sense of shame about America and the way my country treated the people I called family has not left me all these years. I often dream about going back and doing something truly useful. The faces of the children haunt me. The songs of the palaver huts and the swish-swoosh of soles across sandy floors beat a rhythm in my heart that could not have been beating before 1983 when I stepped off the plane at Roberts Field because, surely, if it had been alive and well I would have known some of the beauty and love I came to understand by being with people so unlike myself in all the external ways and more like I always wanted to be on the inside.
Sunday, 7/17/86 (Wichita, Kansas). Last week I was rambling on to Skler about my sense of isolation and disorientation when I hit upon an apropos allegory. I feel as if I’m in a house of mirrors. I’m real and yet not real. The path is simple but obscured by changing realities. I face only myself as an obstacle and imaginary barriers. I meet myself coming and going simultaneously. Maybe, like a house of mirrors, I need to go slowly and enjoy the trip. Maybe I’ll laugh at my present confusion when once again I’m in the daylight.