Monday, April 30, 2007

Those Dark Eyes

So after two weeks of “toughing it” in Gbarnga I returned once again to Monrovia. I do not intend nor do I wish to capture my experience here solely based on the happenings of Monrovia (as it would not be fair or just) but I have a story to tell.

Monrovia seems to be a strange and ironic city; an anomaly that clearly has very little in common with the rest of Liberia. It seems important to keep emphasizing this reality because if not, this reporter is relaying a microscopic version of a much bigger picture. Stated another way, it would be like describing New York State solely through a lens focused on New York City. If you completely ignore the daily grind of Albany, Rochester and Ithaca you are, at the end of the day, describing an entirely different state. However, one significant thing Monrovia has in common with the big apple is its cost of living. The cheapest rental price I have heard of thus far for a one bedroom apartment is 850 dollars a month and more commonly tenants are renting very small stuffy apartments for no less than one thousand US dollars of month. Now, those of you who have traveled to Africa may be thinking of urban hot spots like Cape Town or Marrakech or even Accra but please do not forget – Liberia is considered a hardship post by most organizations (i.e., the American Embassy and the UN) and it has the lowest retention rate of volunteers by most international NGOs. In other words, there are very few residences here worth anything close to one thousand dollars a month. You can call it extortion or you can call it the principle of supply and demand, but for now, I am going to call the whole thing shocking.

But I digress. What I really wanted to share with you was the ‘two cent tour’ I received today from my new Liberian friends, Chris and Mohamed. Chirs and Mohamed are two Liberian men who have survived everything from nearly being conscripted into Charles Taylor’s child armies to living as a refugee and IDP respectively, for 5 and 7 year stints.

Currently, Chris and Mohamed are in a band. I randomly met them during intermission, 2 weeks ago, while they were playing at an ICRC event. They were nice enough guys, they liked my hat, and by the end of the night we were getting along swimmingly. Their band was phenomenal (for those of you who know me and my tendency to behave like a groupie towards just about any musician and his guitar, this is likely not very surprising). Although they were probably impressed with their ability to impress me, what they didn’t know was that they had me an hour earlier with their velvety voices, downy drumming abilities and silky dance moves. After an hour or two of yucking it up with these new acquaintances, we were fast friends. They each had there own fantastic story and I learned they had recently traveled to Portugal and Greece to compete musically. Their contemporary Liberian jams have a slight Rasta flare with a West African base. They were good everywhere and had a 2nd place prize trophy from an international music festival to prove it. In two short months they will be departing for Germany and will stay there for 1 year playing and performing all over the country.

This morning Chris and Mohamed called and wanted to hang out. I agreed but we couldn’t figure out what to do (especially given some of my security restrictions). But, I needed to practice driving my manual land cruiser and they needed to run a few errands - so we compromised. They would give me a tour and I would put on the air-conditioner, make a few stops along the way and come to their next gig. “Fair enough” I quickly replied, “fair enough.” We even managed to get in a few games of billiards along the way.

We met up in Sinkor at the LoneStar cell tower and headed straight for the local YMCA. I had mentioned I loved to play basketball and they told me where I needed to go if I wanted to find a decent pick-up game. If anyone is curious they play at 8 am on Sundays. Upon entering I quickly witnessed some true talent. Messy and lacking in fundamentals granted, but undeniable talent can not be ignored - even in it is in its most raw and unrefined form.

Next we went past Providence Island, a small island off the west coast of Liberia. This island is famous because it is where a large ship (sent by a number of Mississippi plantation owners) dropped off approximately one hundred and fifty thousand freed slaves in veiled effort to “send them home.” After that we went to this massive abandoned hotel called Duko Palace. In reality it is an unsafe skeleton of a building that is run down and rat infested and houses approximately 1200 IDPs (mankind and animals alike). We slowly climbed 11 flights of stairs in the pitch dark. There were no railings and gapping holes in what used to be eloquent marble floors. For a minute I felt like I was stuck in a third world version of Hotel California. A peak down the hallways illustrated room after room of makeshift housing quarters filled with families cooking over charcoal pits, cleaning and going about their daily business. They just so happened to be 9 stories up in dark, humid and musty hallways. The scarcity was invasive and it seemed like prayers were not answered here at all. The unanswered prayers got caught in the dust and grime, making it hard to breathe. If any of you have seen Children of Men the last few scenes are excellent visual comparisons. Upon reaching the penthouse, we stepped out onto a massive desk that offered breathtaking views of every major landmark in Monrovia. It was remarkable.
Directly ahead was only the ocean, to the left was Broad Street and to the left West Point (the most dangerous slum in Liberia). Completely ruled by gangs, even Police officers do not enter West Point without permission from the slum lords. Chris and Mohamed were visually anxious just talking about it. Please note that its namesake is the slightly more familiar but not necessarily less cryptic or enigmatic West Point in the infamous U S of A. When asked if they have ever been attacked or robbed in West Point or anywhere else in Monrovia they quickly disclosed they have never set foot in West Point and “of course” they had many experiences of being robbed at knife point in Monrovia. On more than one occasion they had been forced to give up every material possession they had on their body. Mohamed indicated that just last year he was forced to give up his shirt and jeans and Chris quickly added that he had been robbed of all his money and cell phone only to encounter someone else a few minutes later who was willing to sell him back his very own cell phone. Even though it was evident Chris didn’t have any more money to give, he was given one hour to get some. If he didn’t find the cash he would be jumped again or marked for life as a troublemaker on the streets. The “repurchasing” of your own cell phone quickly became an inside joke we referenced often and I would highly encourage every one of you to avoid misplacing your cell phone around me or you may find yourself charged for it’s safe return.

At the end of the day this place is a mess. Things are beyond worn out. My adolescent pal Liberia seems indifferent and apathetic but every once in a while he looks at me with those dark eyes and I am left with a sense of something. I’m not sure what it is yet but I think it is a feeling of hope tied to how it could feel to look into those eyes one day, after he has been given the chance to heal. This feeling suggests that maybe only he is real and that everything else, the violence, the unemployment, the whole damn mess, is imagined. He has to be real. Just a few short hours after my adventure I look back at my photographs and see him there as true as anything ever was. I can even see glimpses of what he was during his youth, before the war, before the desolation. He was almost smiling in some of the pictures but in others, not at all. Something had made him smile though, but it seems the smile was not for joy. Perhaps it was for me, because he knew I might need it now, afterwards. And perhaps there are days when I will look or feel sad for the same reason, because he seems to have guessed that there would be an afterwards. A snapshot of his youth would have him standing below a mango swinging his stick, not gently, but with that fierce disposition and intelligence shining in his eyes. Even today his posturing suggests he embodies the meeting point of hostility and relentless hope and I am left with conflicting feelings of curiosity, hesitancy, hopefulness and skepticism all in the same instant.

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