All of our investments over the ten years of marriage, including our home, was either lost to the war or mostly destroyed when we fled to the US. And yet, we were the lucky ones to be alive in that first devastation of the entire country. We fled with the scars of all the near-death experiences, the memory of watching countless executions, rebels and soldiers running amok, and that fear of leaving our aging parents and siblings behind. With fires still burning, we departed our homeland, grateful to be alive.
I returned only briefly to bury my mother in 2000, but the war was still raging at the time. Th e ground was still rocking with bombing as it received my mother’s body. But today’s return was quite different. I was coming home to what we used to call ‘Sweet Liberia,’ and I couldn’t be happier. The war was now over so my imagination of the good things happening was running wild. I boarded my connecting flight in Accra, Ghana, where I had stopped for two weeks to teach Poetry Writing for the Pan African Literary Forum’s Study Abroad program. So I was coming into my country by way of the beautiful city of Accra. It felt good to return to your once-devastated homeland by way of another country.
Everyday of those two weeks in Ghana, my soul ached to be home in Liberia. The ocean behind my room at the Afia Beach Hotel in Accra teased me with its flapping and rolling all day and night. But, this was not yet home, I told myself. I wanted to see Liberia, again, where not only the ocean waves had survived a bloody civil war, where the sunshine also reigned, a home of lost ghosts and falling rockets, of runaways like us who had already been forgotten by the stay-at-home survivors, a home of lost youths, wandering the streets after their survival of one of the world’s bloodiest wars, a home of tears and unimaginable stories of cruelty.
I wanted to hug my father again, to see him in his old age, his gray hair that had defied death and time, to see my brothers again after the lost years of their youth, the war, having sapped opportunities away from them. They were the younger ones, the ones that had not yet died in all of the after-war diseases and calamities. I wanted to cry and laugh with them, survivors who still needed answers.
Today, I was on a Kenyan airliner. The plane was filled with others who had been away so long, they’d also been forgotten. Sitting next to me was a young woman looking younger than a teenager. Her light brown skin sparkled with beauty. She seemed a “been to,” with a soft face made up to the letter, her smile, prepared. She was dressed like a Muslim woman from West Africa. Tall and slender, she looked more like a Fulani woman at first sight. On her fingers were gold and diamond rings. Bracelets and fine linens draped around her arms as if she were some queen from a past world. She had ordered a huge perfume case from the airline’s Duty Free catalogue, so the stewardess came looking for her. I watched her push her hands from under the hajib to receive the package from the beautiful Kenyan stewardess. She quickly opened the package to show it off to me. Pride took over her features as she examined the perfume with her perfect fingers, smiling at me. We were not yet introduced.
She was only twenty-two, I would learn; and her English, simple and rough, very much in contrast to her appearance. She had not gone to school all these years, I thought to myself, yet, she looked schooled and well-kept. She quickly excused her attire: she was flying in from a far away country in the Middle East. She was a Grebo-Kru girl, and she wanted me to know right away, “I’m a real Liberian girl,” she smiled. She was coming in from Saudi Arabia where she had stationed herself comfortably with an Italian man. Her conversation was not brief. She pulled her hands out of her chiffon-laced hajib and other wraps every few minutes to speak with her hands even though I could understand Liberian English perfectly. She lived an arrangement, she said softly. The man was old, much older, but he took good care of her and her family. She said he was old enough to be her grandfather, then she smiled. But that was okay. There was room, she said, for him to do what he wanted and room for her too, to move around in their arrangement.
Here she was, she told me, flying back and forth whenever she wanted. I’ve been everywhere, she said, everywhere in the Middle East and Africa. She was on her way to see her mother in Monrovia, to give them gifts, to take care of those who had survived the years. With his money lavished on her, she could come twice a month if she wanted. She smiled, looking into my eyes as if for approval. “Ma, this is the way it is you know, Ma, don’t blame me,” she placed her hand on my shoulder.
I turned away to the window. I was in the window seat. I loved window seats. Because of invitations to read and present my poetry, I am a frequent flyer around the US, and now, though less frequently, outside the US. I had taken to window seats over the last few years. They are my solace when I end up next to an annoying passenger — or a sweet little Liberian girl who had chosen the soft road through the rocky desert the war had set her on. I wanted to jump through that window today.
I was angry — not at the girl, her mother, or her man. I was angry at the world, at the war, and at those who had brought this sort of calamity upon us. I was angry that such a beautiful, soft-skinned girl looking like my own daughter had given herself away to an old man because of the times, had sold herself into slavery. Now, she was stationed so far away from her culture, she had to dress like a Muslim woman. “I have to wear this every day,’ she said. “I pick-up this plane in Sudan, so I didn’t get time to change clothes.”
I kept looking through the window. I could not look at her now, I told myself. “I have to live with him. So my people can live,” she said as if begging for me to understand.
I turned away from the window and took her in my arms. She could have been my daughter. She held on tightly to me, tears rolling down her cheeks as I too, wept. It did not matter that we were surrounded by many who were also on their way to our country. The plane swayed and moved in the vast sky, over the troubled West African swamps and cities, our beloved homelands. The tv screen helped us see where we were flying — over Sierra Leone, over Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast. Here we were, two strangers, grieving for a long-fought war that was now being fought in many ways all over the world.
Eight years prior, I was in Monrovia, my only other visit in my seventeen years away. My mother had suddenly succumbed to the unending war in September of 2000, and I was thrown in the middle of the saddest experience of my life, losing my mother. I arrived at the home where they’d laid the traditional Grebo Mat to mourn my mother, and like the eldest daughter, I sat, my legs outstretched wailing in the comfort of the renowned women of Mama’s Clan. Then came the kola nut ceremony and welcome. I laid Mama to rest like the eldest child should in the African sense. There were the elders and their long meetings, proverbs, lots of black clothes and mourners, lots of food and drinks. The Mat was as grand as could be, with three of Mama’s four children standing around her casket, all capable of surviving on their own.
At the home of The Mat were a host of the extended family, renowned elders, the mourning women and hundreds of mourners from far and near. It was all perfectly done in the Grebo tradition. Kola nuts were served around the clock as mourners came and went, and the church, after two long weeks of the Mat, was packed for the wake-keeping with all its coffee and biscuits, drumming and Grebo church music — both inside and outside the church building.
Of course, we had the usual feud without which it seemed one cannot have a grand burial in Grebo country. There was a big palaver this time, and it was between Mama’s church of forty years and her family. I settled the matter the way an Americanized daughter would. I found another church to bury Mama, and left the former church and pastor grumbling among themselves. Nine years of living abroad had left their mark on me, people said, smashing their lips. Everyone was stunned that I had no patience for that sort of grumbling. They joined me however, and laid Mama to rest.
After we laid her to rest, the usual overnight vigil by the Nehwordeh (Women of the Family) took place. I hired paid musicians and dancers, a videographer to tape the ceremony, and the women of the Clan were entertained in that traditional after burial family vigil. In the morning, the elders performed the hair-shaving of the Nehwordeh to ward off evil spirits and send my mother home to the ancestors. The interesting mix of African and Christian traditions, though ironic, continued even with the death of a woman who was a devout Christian.
But Mama’s story was only one of the hundreds of thousands of stories of the lost years, the years buried under the soil, the years of how the old waited for us to end our war, and left before we could resolve our differences. This story is not about my mother. It is about those who have been waiting, and continue to wait: the young who were born into bombing and gunfire, those who have never seen the real Liberia, and are now weary of waiting on the ugliness of the new Liberia. Where have their years gone?
You know you are in Monrovia when, along the streets, the youth as well as the old are standing around in shabby pants and clothing. Everyone is everywhere, looking for something. As if they know that they have lost something, and are searching for it. Believe me, these people on the streets did not skip school or work. They just don’t have these any more. And those who have, struggle to make it happen for them. All of these children were born or came of age during the fourteen-year civil war. Many are not just strangers; they are my relatives’ children, some of them orphaned by the war. They meet me in my American clothes on the streets of Monrovia,
my research purpose in mind. They rush to my brother, Norris’ car, where I am often seated in the back seat, staring from the corner of my eye at what the war has done to us. Norris is my brother on my mother’s side, the youngest of Mama’s four children. He was now a Scott’s Family Scholar, residing in Monrovia where he served as special assistant to the Minister of Information in the rebuilding of our country. I had the privilege of using his private car for the two weeks I was in Monrovia.
Near an intersection, the street youth and venders come with bread, candies, biscuits and drinks for sale as we wait for our chance to go through traffic. Most often, the vendors stand at the intersection of Paynesville Highway or another major road somewhere in Sinkor or downtown Monrovia. They are dark from the sun, sweat rolling down their faces, their eyes blood-shot. They’re trying to survive the new Liberia, the post-war Liberia, United Nations’ Liberia. I sit back in the car and breathe in hard. Life never was this bad I try to convince myself. I am trying not to accept this unfortunate turn of events, but this is not just an unfortunate turn of events.
My return to my homeland took place in the heat of what was supposed to be the rainy season, but the sun was so hot it felt like the sun season, between July 13 and August 4, 2008. The Liberian civil war which lasted from 1989 to 2003, had ended, and there was a sitting President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and her fully-charged government, still protected by the United Nations. It seemed thateveryone’s hopes had been high for the previous two years. Yet, the poverty that hits the visitor upon arrival at the airport, and haunts one throughout their stay, does not give the new-comer much reason to hope. The situation is often made more unbearable by the sharp difference between those who now have both power and wealth and those who have nothing.
On the morning of July 14, I woke up in my brother’s two-bedroom apartment, readying myself to develop a thicker skin against hurting. One needed to rebuild her skin and heart to survive the trauma of war, or the trauma of watching the poverty and hopelessness after war, I told myself. The trauma of war was not simply about destroyed infrastructure as some would think. The trauma is often more about the destruction of human beings, of the destruction of a sense of living. The war had destroyed so much, it seemed, even the government did not know where to start clearing up the mess. If what I now saw was what war does to a nation, then why does anyone start a war, I wondered.
Norris Tweah and his wife, Sia, put me up in a guest room at their Paynesville area apartment. They knew I could not afford two weeks in one of the expensive hotels around Monrovia. The un workers had settled into Monrovia with their money and their big suvs, raising the cost of surviving in Monrovia beyond imagination. It seemed only they could afford living in the fancy hotels springing up around Monrovia.
I sprang out of bed that morning to the noise of my brother’s neighborhood, an area near the elwa intersection. The neighbors had just caught a thief or someone they believed had stolen something. They were beating him up and arguing among themselves whether to take him to the police station or not, even as the young man begged to be left alone. It was raining softly as the crowd gathered around the supposed thief. On the other side of the two-floor apartment complex, a small boy was sitting on a rock, ready to wash his shirt. There was no running water, so he would wait for the rain to fall and then you’d hear his flapping shirt or trousers against the rock.
He must have been seven or eight years old; I stared at him from behind the living room window. This was his rainy morning ritual, flapping that piece of garment against the rock and pouring the small amount of water he’d caught overnight from the rain over the piece of fabric until he thought it was clean enough. It drove me crazy to think that a child that small had to get up at dawn to do such a thing, day after day. He stood there for hours, flapping, as people emerged from their homes, their passing feet rushing by. Sometimes these people returned after the boy had disappeared, after I too, had left with my bag under my arm in my brother’s car to do what I called “research.” We also returned to our dark neighborhoods, flickering candlelight, tired surviving houses, and to a youth who would rise tomorrow, once more, to nothing.
But I would survive this one, I told myself again. After all, there were no more bombings and killing of innocent people in the streets, and the government seemed to be doing something to bring some relief to the people. I was here to collect the stories of Liberian women who had been traumatized by war, I kept reminding myself, so I needed to focus on my mission, visit with family whenever I could, mourn the past, but hope for the future. That first week, I concluded that if I had to go on living here, collecting the stories I came to collect, I needed to fortify my heart and my mind with steel. I needed to see and not feel, hear and not cry when I saw what survivors living in the heat of the aftermath of civil war had to put up with daily.
On the second day of my stay, my father held a family party and the main welcoming ceremony for me. Of course, he’d served me the traditional kola nuts the day I arrived. But this was the party, man! All of my surviving brothers and sisters, included foster siblings were in attendance with their children and spouses. Not many of the younger ones had settled down to family or had finished college or owned a home. They had been stalled by the war. Only three of my father’s eight children had children of their own.
My eldest brother, Patrice, now lived in my father’s fenced in yard. The war had driven him from the family property in Tugbakeh where he used to live. Now he was back in Monrovia. My younger brothers were now in their thirties and forties, their children, like strangers to me. Two of my siblings lived in my father’s Sinkor property. Others lived in another of my father’s houses in town. All that used to be rental property had been given away to siblings who were now too poor to survive on their own. Why had my father’s sons not completed college yet? I wanted to ask. Why had they not got married the way we used to, with flowers, a long line of family, a wedding with eloquent speeches and ceremony? No one could have a baby out of wedlock in our family back in those days. Did the war change things this much? I stood there, me with my newly mixed culture of the old, the borrowed and the forgotten, wondering about the years. The war had stolen not only their youth, but also their values and the culture as it used to be. They now could do anything they wanted to do, and these siblings had little of any college, even if they wanted to complete their education. “I’m in college,” one of my brothers, now over thirty, said to me that afternoon.
On the Kenyan airline as I retraced my way to the US through Accra, where I would board my American airliner, I stared out the window again. I was wondering about the beautiful Liberian girl, dressed in Muslim attire even though she’d never been Muslim in her life. Throughout my stay in Monrovia, I never ran into her. We existed on different planets just from what we knew of each other. I had been affected by her, however, by her story and by the stories of my own family. I thought about this beautiful, queenly child who was taken away by an old, rich man before she was fourteen, long before she knew how to make up her own mind. I wondered deeply about her attempt at explaining why she lived “like this.”
“You need to go to school, my daughter, you need to find a school somewhere in your new country and get into school,” I had said, looking right into her eyes that day.
“He say he will send me to school,” she had smiled back.
“No, you need to stop buying jewelry, stop going up and down on airplanes, and go to school, go to college so you can be independent,” I had said, almost impatiently.
“Yes, Ma,” she’d said, her hands in her lap, her face still tear-stained.
“The life you’re living is temporary, just temporary, my child,” I told her with resigned anger.
She was listening, her eyes, filled with tears again in those final minutes before we landed. She wanted someone to help her make that decision, probably, her mother or her sisters and brothers, but they needed her more than anything. They needed the money her elderly “husband” lavished on her. They needed the gifts she brought home to them. She was building her mother a new home finally. Their home had been burnt down in the war, she told me. The war had killed her father who used to provide, she’d said. They needed her. They could not tell her to take time out for herself or to think about books. Besides, she was afraid that if she got so educated, the man would stop loving her.
“You see me,” I sat upright, looking squarely at her.
I was trying hard to be gentle with her. She was only a stranger even though our African tradition allowed me, the older woman, the power to be her “surrogate mother,” a right I had no problems with claiming. I am not usually soft-spoken at all, so I was doing my best to talk in the gentlest tone I could find in my heart. I also knew that there were thousands of other young girls like her around Monrovia looking for the chance to find their elderly man to care for them. I was angry that in fighting the war, everything we used to cherish had been lost. This was a girl from what we would call a good family. From all she’d told me, hers was not the kind of family that would have given their daughter up to an old man for money. Maybe they too, blamed the war, but they loved the spoils of the war at the same time.
“I don’t need a man to give me money,” I had continued, on that flight to Monrovia. “I went to school, and became very educated, and because I did, I can buy my own clothes and my own jewelry and I can get myself on a plane when I want to. If you can go to school and get a good education now while you have the man to pay for your education, maybe you can walk away with something someday. But you’ll also be walking away with the pain of your wasted years,” I had said firmly, trying to get in as much as I could before we parted, “and yet, that will be better than walking away with only your clothes and jewelry”
“Thank-you-oh, Ma, I love you so much, oh Ma. I only meet you on the plane, and you help me so much,” she said as we walked into Liberia’s Roberts International Airport. She held on to the business card I’d quickly given her. “I will change my life,” she promised, “the next time you see me, I will be a different girl.”
Today, I sat on the plane on my return flight as it flew over West Africa once more. I could not help thinking of the girl, her lost voice, and life. She had left a scar in my heart. I had come home to be healed, but the old wounds from years of that bloody civil war had been reopened by a stranger before I would even arrive home. She was going home to her Mama. Mama was cooking palm butter and rice for her arrival, she’d said with excitement. Mama was Grebo, and Papa used to be Kru. After the greetings, they would have a party and laugh and cry for missing her so much. She would tell Mama that she wanted to go to school. Maybe her other siblings would also want to go to school. Maybe they would all go to school. Maybe they would not. But I,the one who came with my laptop and recorders to research women’s stories was leaving, more scarred than when I arrived in my devastated homeland. Seventeen years earlier, I had fled from the fire just to return to old wounds and scars. It seemed that all our years had been gathered like a dirt pile and burnt by the warlords who still roamed the streets in Monrovia. Now they have cars and money and power. As in the days of the war, they still have their share of the young girls and boys; now they have everything our people died for even though the war is now over.