The Man of Steel

AlphaMan – talk about road buzz. 14 hours at speed on the crappiest excuse for a national highway I’ve ever seen. Fourteen hours in an airplane can get you to almost any point on the surface of the planet; by car in the rainy season, it’s hard driving just to make it the from Monrovia to Zwedru, the county capital of Grand Gedeh.

You’ve got a favorite wooden roller coaster? Imagine riding it for 14 hours straight. My brain and butt are numb, and I wasn’t even the one driving. Those honors go to Alpha, the Liberian Man of Steel who spent those hours and miles dodging dirt-road crevasses that could swallow a small car, and negotiating the continual Space Invaders array of oncoming trucks, bottomed out taxis and suicidal motor bikes. Even on those rare straight stretches, the wheel (and car) swayed in time to the reggae of Alpha’s five-song Bob Marley tape.

Raj, the founder of Last Mile Health kept me company in the back, while Alphonso, one of LMH’s leading field workers up in Zwedru, rode shotgun.

truckBad roads. Bad, bad roads. No road cookie for you. Man, talk about road buzz. I was talking about road buzz, wasn’t I?

We did take a break in Ganta for lunch and a little shopping spree in the street market to get me a hat (faded yellow baseball cap) and some shoes I could wear into the field (surprisingly nice Columbia knock-offs). Ganta is where I was deployed for the 2011 election, so it was fun to see it again, however briefly.

Then another 3527.15 hours of crazy rutted red dirt road up along the crest of Nimba, into Grand Gedeh and the sleepy hamlet of Zwedru. Countless village scenes flashed by, indescribably complex and captured only out of the corner of my eye. Somewhere along the drive the sun went down, and the sky filled with impossibly many stars. Headlights bobbed and weaved in the night to avoid half-seen ruts and the impenetrable clouds of red dust raised in their wake. Alpha is a man of steel – I can’t say that enough.

the roadBut hey, some perspective is always in order when talking about Liberia: It was about 8:30 p.m. when we pulled up at Last Mile’s Zwedru quarters (the Man of Steel seemed unfazed); about 10 minutes later an overburdened, mud-covered minivan pulled up, flanked by a handful of similarly splattered motorbikes. Out spilled a raucous clown-car load of dusty, dirty and exuberant Last Mile field staff returning from a successful (and not uneventful) deployment. Alice, Boom, Max, Patrick, Jason, Josh and… oh crap, you know how I am with names – had been on the road since about 7:00 that morning, about the same time we left Monrovia, even though they were just coming from Zeagbay, only about 20 km from here as the crow flies. But not all roads in Liberia are created equal, and they had been driving ever since.

Part of their day’s excitement had involved guiding a helicopter of lost visiting dignitaries, low on fuel, into a remote field site using a combination of GPS, satellite phones and smoke signals – I kid you not. Team Not For Fun clearly didn’t mess around. Once they’d gotten some of the mud off from their adventure, we sat around the two long tables that had been pushed together and shared a fabulous communal meal while everyone introduced themselves. Rice, stewed potato greens, fried plantains, pumpkin soup, chicken, fresh cucumbers and avocados (“butter pears” here) – have I mentioned that I love Liberian food? As we went around the table, everyone had amazing, humbling stories of how they found Last Mile/Tiyatien and what they’ve been doing to help out. I felt like such a freakin’ poser and dilettante. But it was late, and after a few more stories and a last glass of palm wine, everyone made their excuses. It had been a long day for everyone. Even the Man of Steel.

Alpha

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