There’s a huge box of books leaning against a corner of the living room wall. Outside, the day is bright and humid. It is the Dry Season in Liberia. Everything here in Congo Town feels like hot plastic. The coconut and mango trees cast shades here and there, across our yard, the afternoon shadows of a dying day. Breadnut trees lean as if to fall. Next to the box of books, the sunlight draws lines against overcast shadows on the floor. I’m sitting on a futon couch that Mlen-Too II, my son, who we call MT, has tossed in the middle of what used to be our living room.
He’s still sorting out where everything belongs, having just moved into the Congo Town home from an overpriced apartment. Two years ago, MT moved back to our homeland as if to sort out himself or the past or something we forgot to take along when we immigrated to America. He’s restoring our war-ravaged home to make it habitable again. As if erecting stones or uncovering old stones, buried over the decades, MT who was only five when we fled, is digging up the past we could not dig up for ourselves, the past we almost forgot to return to or were too afraid to confront. This was our home where my mother took refuge until she died. And then other family members took over the nearly demolished property, hiding here from the bombings and gunfire in Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, as if hiding was something anyone could do.
When I arrived yesterday I was afraid of moving into a place with so many painful memories. I feared walking firmly upon this rugged ground would crack some egg beneath my feet. I felt like some unmarked grave would tumble. This was my first real visit here, my first time here for more than thirty minutes since 1991. All around is debris from what we lost to the war. My mother lived here until she died thirteen years earlier, in 2000, as the war was waged, while my family and I lived in America. This was my first night sleeping in my master bedroom after nearly twenty-two years of running. When I decided to move in with MT, I did not calculate that Mama’s ghost would be waiting to welcome me back home.
I lay in bed, cold, as the heat, penetrating makeshift curtains MT had put up filled the room. This was where I used to wake up every morning to bombings, where I stayed up many nights, listening to the sounds of missile attacks banging and to the news of government executions of whole families in the city.
Last night, I thought I saw my dead mother standing at the doorway, smiling, as I tried to sleep. “So you came back after all these years, my daughter?” She said, in the dark, leaning against the shut door, her six foot stoutness looming. I rose quickly, my heart pounding hard. How did she know I had returned? I rushed to the door, the room pitch dark, and my feet shaky. I wanted to greet Mama like a true Grebo daughter, to feel that image of my tall, funny mother, but there was only emptiness at the door.
I turned on the light, but she was not there. I returned to bed, wetting the pillows with the tears I’d held back over the last five years of my short trips back home. This was Mama’s room for years as the war rocked the house and the country. During the long war, I used to be terrified of a bomb landing on the house and killing her. But a bomb was not big enough to kill my mother who was bigger than any bomb. She died nine years after my family left her here, after her six month visit with us in Byron Center, Michigan, where she shockingly convinced us that she belonged in Liberia amidst the war and bombings. America was not for her, she said.
So, we packed her up and sent her back home where her three other children and dozens of family still lived, clinging on to life. But years of war wore out her aging body, sapped her health away, and one day, she fell and died suddenly at 63. Not in this house, but in her small little shack home. As if to make a point, Mama died in her own home, away from the house I’d left in her care. Despite her death, she was everywhere still.
Now, the box of books is daring me to come close. So I rise to the challenge. I begin sorting, sitting flat on the terrazzo tiled floor. I am saddened to discover that they are books from our home library collection from twenty-two years prior. Dark and faded from dust and exploding concrete, after splinters from the bombings pierced through our home that first year of the war, the books smelled old. Several have been partly chewed up by mice and termites over the years. I draw a chair closer and begin tossing the books out all over the floor. My treasures, I sigh, old textbooks from college days, books from teaching English and Literature as a young college instructor, my husband’s books about Business Education and Theology. I pick up textbooks from my graduate school days at Indiana University-Bloomington. I hold on to the hardback, now without its photo leaf wrapping, Reynolds Price’s The Source of Light and Mustian: Two Novels and A Story, novels I read for my “Writing About Literature” class in 1984. Sitting very still, reading a few pages, teary, and recalling Price’s visit with our class and how, the sassy woman that I was, questioned his writing style, my Liberian accent distinguishable against a roomful of all white creative writing graduate students. The hardback books are still priceless today, I swallow hard. I spend the day on the floor, sorting, amazed at how everything else we owned had been looted, how our past here has been reduced to this partially shredded box of books, brown from smoke and the years.
Outside, the neighborhood is alive with noisy children, the new children of the new Liberia. They will not go to school tomorrow. They will not eat tomorrow. They will never know what life used to be before the war. Why did we go to war, I keep asking myself as I walk around Pagos Island, a hilly place that has been taken over by abandoned, unfinished homes, abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. My old neighborhood is now filled with a new group of residents too weary of caring for the abandoned properties of us runaways to care. The big houses are now either crumbling or have been taken over by termites, wild bush and termite hills. The new Liberia, despite efforts to restore the country, still resembles a lost country.
I am here on my sabbatical, to work on and edit my memoir whose title keeps changing. But one day soon, it will be published. There will be one title that finally sticks, I tell myself. The stories in the memoir seek to tell my side of the Liberian civil war story, the story of my suffering and my losses, the deaths of my family and the stories of hundreds of thousands of us scarred people. So, every morning, I pack up my laptop and sit next to my son who takes me to town for my writing day. Sometimes, my brother, Norris Tweah drives down the rugged road from the main highway on his way to work to give me a ride to town where I can write in a cool restaurant. There’s no electricity or water throughout much of the country. So, my son and I spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline and diesel each month to power up his generator for a few hours of electricity every night. A few hours after we turn off the generator, my laptop dies. We also spend hundreds on drinking water every month, like everyone else. This is a country where you are almost your own government.
On days when I cannot get a ride, I walk up a mile or more of the huge hill from Pagos Island to the Palm Springs hotel across Tubman Boulevard to write. I utilize their cool air conditioning and electricity. Funny, how difficult it is to accomplish what I came here for, I tell myself every now and then. In America, in the comfort of my home, I’d have to walk across from my bedroom upstairs to what used to be MT’s bedroom now turned into my office, to write. And even that was difficult. Now, I had to walk more than a mile up a steep hill, breathing hard, passing by poor swamp people who have dried up the half-river, half-swampland to build their mud shacks, greeting them as they smile up at me, this new Liberian who looks American. “Hello, Book woman,” an aging woman says.
“Hello, Ma,” I’d stand and make small conversation for two minutes and be on my way. Up, puffing and breathing, I climb, running across the busy highway, my laptop in hand, sweating, the world already over 98 degrees. Then I walk past the hotel security guards with their respectful greetings, bowing and shaking my hand and smiling, recognizing me as one of the elites, a woman who seemed so educated, you knew it by just meeting her. They step aside to let me into the gates that keep the poor and lowly outside. In the hotel, everyone notices me, so I find a small corner where I can ignore diners coming and going. I write for hours, almost unnoticed, purchasing small unwanted food, sometimes a $5 plate of fried plantain and a Coke. Writing and talking to the young attendants who work for pennies on the dollar, cautioning them to go to school, knowing how much easier that was to say than to do. The ocean waves at the back of the hotel, my solace. I cannot really ignore the expatriates coming and going, smoking, talking in low tones. I write, lifting my head every few minutes to stare in awe at these expats who have taken over my country like termites, plotting our fate for tomorrow’s wars.
This evening, March 31, three months into my stay, my brother, Norris, and I are at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, not to visit a sick relative, but to arrange medical care for our sister in-law who is dying. I’m scared that she will die if we don’t help. She’s been ill so long that no one could say when she actually took ill. As we’re making arrangements with a nurse, my phone rings. It’s MT. He has had a minor accident. But it is more than that. The accident was a fender bender with a taxi driver. But it is more than that. I begin to shake all over. First, it was my sister-in-law, Wortor, lying on the bare floor of a shack church where a spiritualist preacher told her to wait for healing from God, to wait forever as her body was sapped by disease, to wait on God, who would not want anyone waiting on a cold, damp and dirty floor with no medication. She lay there, waiting, the sound of pounding ocean waves around her, the powerful Atlantic, against the zinc shack of a make-shift church along the shores of Corner West, Point Four, an area of Monrovia, almost forgotten by God.“She will die, I tell you, if we do not take her from here,” I said to my brother as the ailing woman wailed my name that afternoon, begging me, her “Sister,” to rescue her from the church. Now we are at JFK in an attempt to save her life in a country with almost no adequate hospitals or doctors.
But there has been an accident. We rush through our meeting with the nurse in charge and drive fast to one of Paynesville City’s Police Depots. There, we discover MT’s damaged car, he and his friends talking to the police who come in and out of the small depot, claiming to know nothing about the whereabouts of the driver that incited the mob to smash up MT’s car. The mob would have stoned MT, but they could not open the door to get at him. I stare in awe at the car, glass splinters falling off the back and the side windows, the door handle on the driver side, twisted off as the mob attempted to yank the doors open to pull MT out. And this was only for a fender bender near a UN post that was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Paynesville? And this is the new Liberia? I stand in awe, questioning my mind.
MT, the son of Liberian immigrants to America, returning home like many of the children we fled with to America, seeking to rediscover or discover their parents’ lost homeland, is attempting to tell us his side of the story. He is shocked that a mass of more than a hundred were called just because he’d brushed against a taxi driver’s beat-up car, despite his decision to repair the damage. But the policeman from the scene of the accident claims that it was the taxi driver who incited the mob to attack MT. From their investigation they learned that the taxi driver told a group of bystanders that an American man had killed a little girl with his car, a lie usually told to get mob anger on an innocent person. And, as the crowd rushed toward MT to execute mob justice, the kind common in Monrovia these days, the taxi driver fled the scene. The policeman also fled, afraid for his own safety. Now, the same policeman wants us to trust him, to trust that he fled only after he’d warned MT to get back into his car and to lock the doors because “that crowd moving toward them was coming for him.”
We stand before the small police depot, damaged vehicles everywhere, the sandy Paynesville soil still hot from the day’s heat. We’re trying to figure out how to get justice, how to have the taxi driver arrested, how to get the police officer investigated. But justice is a complicated word in Monrovia. The police had already proven in a few minutes of their investigation only from behind their drab wooden desk that they are going to be useless in this case just as in all of the hundreds of other cases that come to them. Glass falling off, I rub my palm along the sides of my son’s beautiful SUV he’d paid so much money to bring into the country. My heart sinks for him. After all, this is the country I gave him at birth. After an hour of confusion at the depot, someone writes up a permit to allow us take the car away.
There is no hope for justice. There will be no investigation despite the deceptive words from the police depot chief that they would search for and capture that driver and all those who committed this crime. Laughable matter, I say to myself about the police capturing anyone. The sound of falling glass follows us down to Pagos Island, and into our garage as MT parks the car. We are comforted that the mob did not pull him out, did not break any of the windows on the front of the car, where he and his friend were seated, did not break the doors through to him and his friend, did not hit their rocks on my son’s head, did not pull him out or drag him away. This is our consolation, my consolation, as I fall asleep in the dark, the sounds of crickets in the backyard. The air is so humid, you can almost cut through it with a knife.
In the morning, Norris rushes to J. F. K. Memorial Hospital to meet up with my ailing sister-in-in-law, who is too paralyzed with Diabetes to stand. She’s carried on the arms of her two older children from a taxi. She will be seen through the outpatient wards. Inside and around the hospital, a more important emergency is at hand. The former Vice President or warrior-turned-Vice President with Charles Taylor, Mr. Moses Zeh Blah, has just died. Blah was one of Taylor’s generals who trained with him in Libya in order to launch their bloody civil war more than twenty years earlier. It is April fool’s Day, so I’m wondering. But my sister-in-law is more important to me than any Vice President. I will visit her this afternoon when she is admitted, I tell myself. On the radio, there is news that the hospital compound is filled with pressmen and controversy, a chaotic atmosphere.
This now dead man, served as president of Liberia for only two months during the interim before the installation of Gyude Bryant’s transitional government in 2003, the first interim president after the fourteen-year-war. The vacuum between Taylor’s departure and the institution of the first civilian rule at the end of the war brought the former warrior, Mr. Blah, a brief presidential stardom. So, as Wortor, the unknown Liberian woman was sitting on a crowded bench with hundreds of other unknown people that would not be seen today, the confusion of the death of Mr. Blah took over the country. Many still thought of him as the former president while others thought of him as one of the most brutal of Taylor’s warriors during their invasion of and long struggle for Liberia. Many thought of him as the one that killed their father, mother or relative during NPFL’s capture of the first suburb in Monrovia.
Wortor would only live a few hours in that hospital, where she was admitted into the emergency room quarters instead of the ICU ward. Late into the night of April 1, Wortor would die, an irony in itself, a simple, poor, unknown woman who had almost no means to medical care, dying the same day as the once two-month President, warrior, rebel, whatever you wish. Irony of ironies, I thought, waking up on April 2 to the radio blaring with politicians shouting at one another about what the government did or did not do to help an ailing former president. I wept loud and hard, not for their lost “hero,” but for Wortor, who arrived at the hospital too ill to survive, for Wortor, who died after diagnosis from lack of care and medical supplies amidst the discordance in a country still at war with itself. I had already buried three relatives when Wortor died, and as sad as that was, the rate at which people were dying convinced me that I would be burying many more family members in my short stay in Monrovia.
Her funeral day is hot and rainy, her young daughters fainting all over the crowded church floor and at the gravesite as we scrambled in the rain to awake them. But before Wortor, we had buried my brother, Jacob Tugba Jabbeh, my Aunty Julia Nyemade Jabbeh, my cousin, Rose, Mama’s first cousin and many others. By the end of April, I am convinced that this is a country of lost ghosts, trying to return to life.
Sadly fascinating however, is the powerless presence of the poor that quickly overwhelms the visitor. They still roamed the streets despite years since the institution of peace and the election of Africa’s first female president and her reelection to a second term. The massive poverty against and the rampant corruption could kill the newcomer.
Outside my window this Saturday morning, the neighbors are rising from sleep. The national radio station plays on and off, African music, Liberian indigenous music and talk show arguments about nothing significant. Here, everyone plays their radio without consideration for their neighbors, so who cares? I rise, and go outside to chat with the neighbors on one side of my house. This is now my adoptive family, Jestina and her small children, who call me Grandma. Many days, I feed them. I give them money for food, to go to the doctor, for clothing. But this is not your family to complain about their poverty. Instead, Jestina had been saving up her pennies to put together a small business. Today, we’re talking about my contribution so she would begin. “How much money do you have now?” I ask her.
“Mommie, I have two hundred dollars and fifty. I need only fifty more to start. I already pay for my market table, Mommie,” the thirty-two-year-old woman tells me. Sweat pours down her face, her lappa strapped tightly against her chest, Gift, her one-year-old son, on her lap. She’s smiling, happy to know that she may get my help.
“I’ll give you one hundred,” I say, and she jumps up, dancing, the ground hard, rugged, and uneven. You could compare this soil to the country.
“Thank you—oh, Mommie, I love you so much.”
A week later, I’m sitting at the wedding of a young couple in Paynesville. There is hope. The young are still getting married. Flowers everywhere, the bride is late as always in Liberia. Before arriving at the church, some of us closest to the family gather at the home where the bride is being readied for the wedding. When I arrive, I am given the best chair to sit on. The bride, dressed in a lovely laced dress, is sitting on a bed, her iPad in hand, going over emails and photos of her life awaiting her in England. Then in come a group of dancing women. They are dressed in the fashion of Bassa women dancers in celebration, according to their Bassa Ethnic tradition, in black western coats and Liberian lappas, chalked faces painted in black, red and white, loud red lipstick, large false teeth, palm leaves strung around their heads. Three women are dancing around the small room while another two beat on tin cans, iron rods and a drum. Their songs are in Bassa.
Right there, at my feet, one woman, in a large maternity dress, her fake pregnancy, falls to the floor to perform a ritual dance of the Bassa expectation for this young bride. I grab my camera phone and turn it on quickly, videotaping the traditional dance unknown to my Grebo culture. The songs are beautiful and the dancing women are good. They are joined by friends of the bride and groom, the mother of the bride and her relatives. The room is hot. The bride’s mother is my newest friend, a woman who lived some of the war years in England, raised her daughter partly in England, and now was visiting our homeland to support her daughter’s wedding. The daughter will take her new husband back to England someday, we are told.
We make way for the performance.
I capture the whole story on camera. The woman on the floor is rolling around now, faking labor pains, and then, the drums get louder with singing, and the mother-of-the-bride dances on. But the bride is too shy of this strange culture to care. She continues to stare at her iPad. I take her photos on and off. I’m interested in where the story is going, so I keep my focus on the woman who is now wriggling on the floor as if in a trance. A couple women stand over her like they do when a woman is in labor. They’re pretending to be helping the woman, “struggling” with the birth. They hold out their hands as if for the baby’s head. Then suddenly, the baby is delivered as the laboring woman rises. Someone next to me hands her a small child, and the dancing is once more lively with jubilation and shouts, a story that this child in her bridal gown, all beautifully attired in western traditional dress, one of the finest brides you’ll ever meet, must take in. It is clear from this drama that she is expected to begin planning on a baby as soon as possible, even in her cold new homeland of England. I smile, pitying her.
Even then she continues to ignore the dancing women.
At the church, which is filled to capacity, the bride marches down the aisles to meet her husband. We are at least two hours behind schedule, but this is not a country where time matters. There is hope, I smile. There will be children born abroad, children who might someday come home to their parents’ homeland, second generation Diaspora Liberians, to fix this still broken country, to erect their own stones or the stones their grandparents broke down.
Outside my once destroyed home, my son continues to carve away the trees I planted in my younger days when he was only a toddler. He’s clearing some to make room for light. He’s attempting to smooth the rugged ground, to build a fence, to renovate our war-damaged home. Maybe he will succeed, I think as I climb onto his Nissan Xterra to depart Liberia and return to my comfortable America. Jestina, my adoptive daughter, is already in the car. She’s all dressed to send me off. I turn to look in the back, and a small boy, about nine years old is sitting in the corner. He’s attempting to hide from me, but it’s me he’s taking to the airport. “Where are you going, Papeh?” I ask.
“I taking you to the airfield,” the child stammers.
“Why? Where is your mother? How can she let you go so far with us?”
“She say I can go with you, Grandma,” the child says, and tears rush to my eyes.
“With me to America?” I ask, confused.
“To the airfield.”
“But why, Papeh?”
“Because I will miss you, Grandma,” the child interrupts me. He’s sitting tightly in the corner, afraid I may throw him out, begging with his eyes. The child that I only got to know during my brief stay next door is escorting me to the airport? I sigh to myself. Of course, I’d taken time every so often to visit his family in their yard, to sit and talk to his parents about sending him and his siblings to school. I even took time to help discipline them over some mischief they’d gotten themselves into, begging his parents to take good care of them despite their extreme poverty. His mother rose early and went to work, cleaning house and cooking for Lebanese people for sixty dollars a month, leaving home at 10 am and returning home at midnight. Her children aimlessly roamed the neighborhood after school. Many days, they did not go to school from lack of tuition money; many days, they had almost nothing to eat; many days, I gave them food when I learned they had not eaten all day; many days, Jestina fed them. Some days, Papeh and his friends would stop by and ask if they could bring me water from the well, and I’d cook them a meal just seeing how hungry they looked. Many days they lived on mangoes shaken down from the trees in my yard.
So when the neighborhood children around my yard learned I was not here to stay, they came to my door, in small groups and one by one, “Grandma, we will miss you—oh,”
“Grandma, why you have to go back to America?”
“Grandma, when you coming back ’gain?”
I stare now at Papeh, his skin glowing from too much grease, his shirt and shorts, clean, and his usual unkempt hair, combed out. He wants me to know that he is clean enough to go with his American Grandma to the airport. Tears fill my eyes. “It’s okay if your Ma says it’s okay, Papeh,” I say, hugging him. Around the car, the neighborhood children line up, watching, waving. Jestina, sitting next to Papeh, is also smiling. Yes, his mother told her this morning that Papeh could go with us to the airport, she confirms. I jump down to hug each child goodbye. I get back into the car, next to MT. The children step away, waving as the car climbs up the rugged terrain.
There is hope, I tell myself over and over, completely turned as I stare back at what used to be my home. Facing backward, I’m looking afar at what was once lost and the efforts to rebuild. I’m also reminded that if we don’t take care, we might raise up the angry ghosts of all the people we lost in the war, ghosts of some of the most beautiful people our country ever knew. Hours later as the plane takes off, I clutch my seat because somehow, I’m trying to convince myself that there is still hope for Liberia. There is hope because some of us are still hopeful.