[Again, a reminder: these posts are all one week old, and I’m putting them up in sequence, roughly corresponding to when they were written, to give a feel for my time in Liberia as it happened.]
Nimba County, 09 Oct 2011
In one of my dreams last night, Africa was trying to kill me. It wasn’t like the continent had some anthropomorphized intent, it was more like I was a foreign object that its enormous and well-developed immune system was autonomously trying to eliminate from its body. The heat, the insects were just part of that. Food, water. Bad roads and random acts of violence if you got past the first line of defense. People from “the ice” are fond of saying Antarctica is a harsh continent. It’s true – Antarctica doesn’t care whether you live or die. But Africa? Sometimes you could swear it’s trying to kill you.
Thoughts like that can be terrifying, paralyzing. And then? Then you have a day like today.
There’s a polling place in the village of Mongbain, deep in the forest east of Ganta. To get there, you head north to Zuluyee and stop to ask directions to the side road. You have to ask directions, and Susan and I are deeply grateful for Steve’s natural inclination to pull over and ask at regular intervals.
“Heymifren – pleeshome wedeygot dawayta Mongbain?” I swear – it’s not pigdin, Liberian is a full-blown dialect, branched off from American English 170 years ago. It’s beautiful once you get the rhythm of it, and once you know what you’re listening for, it makes perfect sense. What Steve was asking the young man at roadside was, literally “Hey, my friend – please show me where they’ve got the way to Mongbain?”
And the young man – like all others we met, is glad to oblige. In this case, the road is an almost invisible path between two market stalls at the side of the highway.
The track gets wider once we clear the town, but not much better. We’re shimmying through gullies, precariously inching across bridges made of no more than a car’s-width of logs lined up lengthwise across small rivers. At one point, we pile out to clear fallen branches from the path – Steve hacks away at them with his machete while Susan and I pull the pieces clear of the track.
As we roll along, we pass children, eager to wave, deliberately indifferent women and young men with unflinching steel-eyed gazes. But the smiles seem to work with just about everyone. I remind myself that when these men grew up, an approaching stranger was just as likely to try and kill or abduct them as anything else; you survived by being prepared to fight or flee. When something like that is bred into you, I don’t see it ever going away.
The morning sun hurts my eyes, but I’ve decided it’s important to take off my precious, protective glacier goggles and make eye contact. I want them to see my smile, a real smile. I’m on their turf, and it’s inexplicably important to me that they realize that I’m not a threat.
I try to smile in a way that makes it clear I’m asking for a sign of welcome, it seems to be working. I realize that I can actually count the beats: eye contact into a steely gaze, smile, two… three… four, and bang: eyebrows go up in recognition, and I get a smile back. Usually. There’s sometimes a wave back, and often a few words of English thrown in. I do my best to respond in kind.
It’s 9:30 when we break out into the clearing of Mongbain. Steve pulls up short and explains to someone on foot why we’re here; he tells us to follow him and runs ahead. We’re here today to visit the polling place. Susan wants to see how it’s set up, to talk with the villagers and gauge their awareness of the election. By the time we pull up to the round, open-walled thatch hut that will serve as their polling station, we’ve got a good fraction of the village in tow.
The chief greets us, and Susan shifts into gear. As I said, she’s done this a bunch, and it’s a polished process. She explains why we’re here: we’ve been invited by the government to watch how the election goes. One of the older men declares “Free and Fair!” and the kids take it up in a chant. They, like everyone in Liberia, seem to be caught up in the enthusiasm.
|Principal shows us the new school|
Susan asks if the candidates have visited – no, but their representatives have. And what did they do while they were there? They had rallies, they talked. Anything else? She’s looking for something. Oh, they gave money to the village. She latches on – to the people who attended the rallies? She asks it innocently, as though that would be the natural way to do it (though that, of course, would be vote buying – a big no-no.) The chief shakes his head – no, no, they gave it to the village, to him, the chief. He says this without hesitation – it’s clear that he’s not hidden that from the others. And what did you use it for? The new school – they’re buiding a new schoolhouse for the younger kids.
This all sounds good, fine, and Susan switches to a new tack: so, do you know who you’re going to vote for?The chief looks worried and shakes his head vigorously: “No, no – vote is secret. No one can know!” The Greek chorus of kids gleefully chants “Secret vote! Secret vote!” She backs off and explains that she wasn’t asking who they were voting for, she just wanted to know if they’d made up their mind. He’s relieved, and smiles at the clarification: “Oh yes, yes. But no one can tell anyone else.” Good, good. But what if the person you voted for doesn’t win? His gesture is a universal one, recognizable from Brooklyn to Monrovia: palms out, shoulders hunched, head tilted to the side. The meaning is clear: “Eh, what can you do?”
(Much later, Susan explains to me that, in some places, the village chief tells everyone who to vote for. The fact that even the kids knew that each person’s vote was their own secret meant that these guys had their civics nailed.)
We ask directions to the next village, and the chief offers to ride along and show us the way; we’ll be coming back by the same route, so we can drop him off on our way out. He and Steve talk while Susan and I gawk at the dense jungle encroaching on our narrow track. We’re as far out into the bush as you can get in a car, and even then it’s dodgy when the rain comes. The County election supervisor has told us that on election day, they’re using porters on foot to deliver the ballots, rather than trusting mechanized transportation.
Our car pops out into the next clearing after a few minutes and we pull up in front of a line of mud and thatch houses. A line of young women – girls really – with babies on their backs approach from the left, while a line of steel-gazed young men eye us from the shade of the houses.
I take a deep breath and climb out, giving my best “permission to come aboard?” smile to the tall, well-muscled man who seems to be riding point for the group. He’s wearing a low-cut tank top revealing the extensive tribal scar tattoo on his chest. I find myself counting beats as I keep the smile, trying to hold eye contact. I get to “four” and almost run out of nerve before I think to extend my arm for a handshake. He throws his head back a notch, breaks into a broad grin of recognition and takes my hand. I get the full Liberian shake: low grip, high grip, back to low, then finger snap as you pull back. We’re cool in his book, and in a heartbeat I’ve literally got my hands full greeting everyone else.
Over on the other side of the car, Susan’s been talking with the young women and teaching the kids how to high five. She asks one kid “Are you going to vote?” No, but they know about the election. An older man, probably the chief of this village, has introduced himself and is now fielding questions – I was too busy with the young Turks by the houses and missed the beginning. I kick myself – why didn’t I ask them about the election?
He explains that of course the entire village knows about the election. That on Tuesday morning, they’re going to walk to Mongbain to vote. The whole village. Together. And they’re excited as all hell about it. An elderly, almost toothless man in beautiful white cotton kurta makes his way through the crowd and greets us in impeccable American English. He introduces himself and his wife, who follows in a greenblueyellowred swirl of gorgeous African Sunday best, and thanks us, thanks the Carter Center, for coming out to their village. For coming to Liberia. They must be very old, perhaps even by American standards, but the energy and sincerity they radiate – yes, radiate – is palpable.
Hours later, on the road back to Ganta, I was still playing the moment over, again and again. I’d been focusing on the enthusiasm of kids, but there was something much deeper going on with the grown ups. When we dropped the chief back in Mongbain, the school principal insisted on making a benediction over our visit. Everyone dropped their heads and he thanked the lord for sending us. He asked that we be blessed in our travels and in our mission, and that God would send us whenever Liberia needed help from above. It was beautiful, heavy stuff to have on our shoulders, and it stuck with me.
I realized that, for the kids, the excitement was just that there were white people in their village. But for the principal, for the elderly couple, for all the adults who had lived through the horrors of the war, our presence there had a deeper meaning. We were international election observers, our significance to peace in Liberia every bit as important them as the dove was to Noah. I thought about their faces, thought about their smiles, and let the thoughts wash over me. And I realized that my smile had turned to a goofy grin – it really did feel good to be here.