Retrospective: North to Nimba

[Back in the states now, but I’m posting notes from last week, while we were in “news embargo” in Liberia]

Monrovia – Ganta, Oct 08, 2011

Nominal dawn departure has a few hiccups. We’re up at five, stumbling down the the lobby in search of caffeine and a place to drop our bags. The Krystal staff has gotten up early for us, with fresh fruit and omelettes on demand. Doesn’t get any better than this. Well, maybe it does: there’s torrential downpour that’s been going since last night, and most of us have hours of dirt road to traverse to get to our posts.

It’s been pointed out to me that I haven’t been really clear what I’m doing here, so let me straighten that out quickly. I’m here with the Carter Center, as an election monitor. They’ve got a joint observation mission with EISA (the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa – don’t worry that the letters don’t match), fielding about 40 observers. I’m one of the Short Term Observers – an “STO” going into the field about three days before the election (now) to report on conditions leading up to the day of the vote and the election itself. My fellow observers are amazing folks.

So, about that dawn departure: some of the drivers never got their per-diems, and take their STO teams to rental car office to wait for opening hours so they can get paid before they’re willing to the road. Someone’s muffler apparently fell off. A couple of the cars were parked in somewhere. A couple of the drivers just didn’t show up. Davor is handling it with aplomb, augmented by a constant stream of coffee and cigarettes. “You expect things like this. Honestly, you don’t need to get on the road until 10, which is why I told everyone six. If I’d said 10, you’d be here until two in the afternoon.”

He works out an arrangement which shuttles us back over to TCC headquarters and manages in a little more vehicle juggling; by the time we’re rolling down the driveway at 9:40, I’ve caught up on email, recharged all my devices and slipped in a 30 minute nap on the couch at the back of the business center.

Our driver is Steve. Steve Zeon, from the outskirts of Monrovia. He has friends up in Nimba, and spends more time there than most Monrovians, which is why he’s been assigned to be our local minder on the road.

Steve’s mother named him after the brother of the Liberian president at the time, who died in a plane crash the day he was born. He’s twenty-something, and does some electrician jobs on the side; he likes working with electricity, likes working with his hands. Would love to study journalism, too. We spend some time talking about how important journalism is in this country, but no one needs convincing.

Susan asks Steve about the war as we wind our way up the backbone highway to Ganta. He was 10 years old when the men with guns came to his neighborhood, to take children away for the militia. His mother hid him and his 15-year-old sister for days, telling the soldiers all her children had already left home. Susan asks – already knowing the answer – how his life would have been different. Steve shakes his head sadly and does a sort of a whistle. So different, so different. The boys drugged up and send to kill, the girls pressed into sexual slavery; we know there’s no point in asking for details here.

Further up the road, we pass Gbanga – Steve points to the place on the hill where Charles Taylor’s “training camp” was. Taylor was the last of the warlords to seize power, and the most brutal. His new recruits – the boys he took from the villages he raided – were brought to the camp to be dehumanized, and turned into killing machines. There, they either “graduated” or died; nobody seemed to care which – there were always more boys in the next village.

We pass UN water tankers, up to their wheel wells in the river. Smooth highway leaving Monrovia slowly decays to red dirt potholes. We’re driving with one wheel on either side of the ditch at road’s edge, pushing the edge of the pavement at 40 mph. Tall grass at roadside whips at my shoulder as we pass; the air conditioner hasn’t much been working, so we’ve rolled the windows down and have been leaning into the breeze.

We pass rubber plantations – Steve tells us how, now that the Chinese are here, Firestone’s been forced to pay better for raw sap. The Liberians would rather work for the Americans than the Chinese, but they’ll sell their rubber to the highest bidder.

As we get to Bong County, we start to see goats. This is one of the contrasts I remember from Ghana: there, in even the poorest villages, there were farm animals. But in all my time in Liberia back in 2010, the only warm-blooded creatures I saw other than the people were stray dogs. Further up country, we pass ducks and pigs. Passing through one village, the car ahead of us hits a piglet – just a few steps too slow behind its mother and siblings running across the road. Susan gasps in dismay as it hits the ground, then picks itself up and limps after its family. Steve starts laughing, and Susan admonishes him: “That’s not funny – the poor little pig!” But Steve keeps laughing, laughing for an uncomfortably long time – it’s almost as if he can’t stop himself. I feel like I have to file this away somewhere in my mind, a ripple noticed on the surface hinting at something deep beneath. I think about the civil war, what he’s lived through, and what he’s seen. I realize: he’s not laughing at the pig; he’s laughing at us: is this what we think qualifies as a calamity?

Six hours in, we make it to the edge of town. I have the name of the place we’re supposed to stay, the somewhat wishfully-named “Hotel Alvino”, and three phone numbers. At our LTO’s suggestion, I tried calling the night before, to ensure they knew we were coming, but none of the numbers worked, so we figured we’d play it by ear.

View from “Hotel” Alvino

We roll slowly through the dusty wild west town main street, looking for our digs. There’s a faded sign nailed to an ancient tree that punctuates the road branching north and west to the Guinean border just across the river. It announces Alvino’s existence in Ganta, but doesn’t give an address or any directions. Steve rolls down the window to ask someone for directions (we’re oh-so-grateful for his willingnes, eagerness even, to ask for directions). We get steered wrong a couple of times and almost make it out to the river before homing in on the correct building behind a tall wall of whitewashed concrete with an ornamented steel gate.

The bored-looking woman in the darkened, dusty front office has no idea who we are, and seems uninterested in the question of whether there’s any room. Eventually, once Steve weighs in on the conversation, it emerges that there are a couple of rooms above the office, but we’ll have to come back later, when they’re ready. She’s clearly annoyed with us: “Liberians, we can sleep anywhere. But you, you need somewhere special.” I don’t know whether that’s an observation, a complaint, or an insult. It doesn’t matter – I smile appreciatively and thank her for her attention.

Lunch – or whatever. It’s late afternoon and we’ve all been subsisting on the goodie bag of crackers and cookies that Ops issued us back in Monrovia, supplemented by a massive ziplock bag of homebrew trail mix Susan’s husband sent her off with. There’s a “Beer Garden” back on the main drag, a block from our hotel, and We slide between a space in the row of tables out front, grateful for the shade and a chance to sit somewhere that isn’t bouncing down a potholed dirt highway. Two couples at the next table are gesturing in animated conversation; one of the men tries to lift himself up in his seat, but the plastic chair folds beneath him and he crashes to the floor with the sound of breaking beer bottles. There’s brief laughter from the table and then he’s up, dusting himself off and walking away as though nothing happened. The angry-looking girl at the table on our left doesn’t even glance up.

Steve identifies Angry Girl as our waitress. There’s a brief conversation – we haven’t picked up the rhythm of the language yet – and Steve asks us if rice and soup is okay. “It’s African food.” Yeah, rice and soup are okay – sounds great. She sulks off to fetch our plates, glaring after us like she’s been sent to clean up after the cat. But the food is great. Hot spicy soup with large cubes of beef, and a plate of brown rice steamed with – I don’t know what. The three of us eat quickly.

Rooms are ready by the time we’ve paid and grabbed a few groceries from the shop across the street. We lug our bags in and Susan gets to work on logistics. She’s in charge of assigning observation teams to polling places, and wants to have another look now that we know (approximately) where in the hell we actually are.

We stare back and forth between the numbers and the map. We can’t quite make them match up. The heat makes you stupid – it’s worse than alcohol, or oxygen deprivation. It dawns on us that we’re supposed to check in with the operations center at some point, but can’t remember how. And there’s the update we’re supposed to look for, using the GPRS modem. We stare blankly at the table between two Ph.D.s, three laptops, six different mobile phones and close to our weight in documentation, we’re reduced to near blithering.

But we work it out. Susan exchanges SMS messages with Alex at Ops, and we get the modem working. Dark clouds move in, and the air plummets to survivable temperatures. The sun drops behind the horizon like a rock, and on cue, lightning fills the sky.

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