We arrived as the sun was setting — sinking quickly below the line where the sky meets the sea. Flying parallel to the coast, we approached Roberts International Airport, about an hour’s drive from Monrovia, Liberia where we would be living.
“See that point down there on the right of the opening at the mouth of the river?” Andrew’s hand moved in front of my face to direct my gaze out the small, oval airplane window. “That’s where our house is.”
I turned my head to look into his eyes, and my smile beamed at him. We had made it. I had made it. Africa!
Curiously, I’ve left the US at a time when racial and political tensions are extremely high and have come to a country that is still in recovery from two civil wars that occurred back-to-back, ripped the nation to pieces, and only just ended in 2003. This is what happens when a government doesn’t take care of its people. This is what happens when a nation turns on itself.
To illustrate this point, take a look at this photo of the Dukor Hotel in Monrovia, completed in 1960 as an international, luxury hotel. At the time, it was one of the few 5-star hotels in all of Africa. This was a place to which diplomats, ambassadors, and politicians flocked. It was a place to see and be seen.
In 1989, amid an ominous political climate (just before the first civil war), the hotel closed its doors. Since then, the property has been burned, looted, smashed, and squatted upon, and has fallen into ruin.
That is not to say, however, that beauty can’t be found there.
In fact, when Andrew suggested our visit to the Dukor, it was mostly to see the views from the roof — the highest point in Monrovia. However, what I found during our climb through the abandoned hotel was a color pallet that mirrored the vibrancy of the city itself. The cerulean blues on the interior walls of the hotel also adorn homes in the slums of West Point as well as the buildings for UNICEF and World Food Programme. The India green that pops against the color of cement as plant-life overtakes abandoned rooms can be found in the bananas balanced on a woman’s head as she strolls down the sidewalk and the algae growing on everyone’s windows as a result of the constant humidity in the air. And the light, terracotta pink in the hotel’s former foyer can be found on the walls of small businesses and storefronts as well as not-so-welcoming gated and barb-wired compounds.
The Dukor, in fact, could be considered a symbol of the resilience of the Liberian people. In 2011, Reuters published an article that provided a timeline of the two Liberian civil wars. The article began thus: “From 1989-2003, Liberia became for many a byword for savagery as up to a quarter of a million people were killed in a civil war, while thousands more were mutilated and raped, often by armies of drugged child soldiers led by ruthless warlords.”
Yet, even after suffering and surviving these atrocities as well as the Ebola crisis of 2014, Liberians are hopeful, welcoming, helpful, and friendly. There is an energy here that you feel as soon as you step onto the street and see the tuk-tuks whizzing by, hear the art vendors inviting potential customers to view the items in their stalls, and see every other individual carrying a tray of fruit or nuts on her head or pushing his wheelbarrow full of clothes or sandals to sell. The preference is to find something to do, to find some way to be productive, it seems. And when I say good morning or hello to someone, I am greeted with a smile and a warm “How are you?” from a stranger.
There are images of struggle, though. Andrew and I live about a 10-minute walk from the slums of West Point (shown in a couple of my photos above) and expats are advised to avoid walking through this area because of the risk of assault or theft — risks that simply exist because of extreme poverty. Additionally, one often sees amputees who are missing all or part of an arm or a leg — a visual reminder of cruel acts inflicted on individuals during the wars.
And everyone is thrown into the mix together here. Just across the street from our home, there are a couple of the most popular hotels in Monrovia. A few parcels over, there is a mound of earth piled here and there with white stones and the remnants of what was probably a house but is now just foundational ruins that have been overtaken by tropical elephant-ear plants and shrubs sporting bursts of little bright red flowers. Then, two more parcels over, there are patch-work shanties built of sheets of tin in various colors, cinder blocks, and pieces of wood that have been brightly painted. The vibrant colors seem a stark contrast to the destitution they contain, but they are true to the personalities of the people who inhabit those homes.
Two examples of the friendliness and warmth I’ve experienced from Liberians so far are from two of my favorite vendors. The first is my banana lady. I don’t know her name, but she is an older woman who sets up her fruit and vegetable stand outside of the supermarket we frequent. On a walk a few days ago, I passed by her for the first time and noticed the adorable little bananas she was selling. “How much?” I motioned at the bananas.
“Fifty,” she replied. Fifty Liberian dollars (LRD). That’s less than fifty cents in USD.
She started bagging the fruit for me, but I didn’t have money right then because I was just out for a walk and didn’t carry anything with me. “No, I can’t right now. I’ll come back to see you tomorrow, though.” “OK, Mama, see you tomorrow,” she replied with a beautiful, grandmotherly smile.
When I visited her the next day, as promised, she saw me walking toward her down the sidewalk and smiled. “Oh, you came!” she said. “I told you I would!” I replied and hugged her as she rose to greet me. She introduced me to her friend at the next stand and we shook hands. I bought my bananas and some limes and told her I would see her again soon. She was all smiles and warmth, and I enjoyed our interaction so much that I neglected to ask her if I could take her picture.
I happened to pass by a few days later, though, and she called out to me, “You want pineapple?” No, I did not need pineapple. “You want banana?” No, I — actually….
I told my fruit ladies my sad story of how I went to the kitchen to get a banana the night before only to discover they had all been eaten by my husband. Together, we chuckled over how much food it takes to fill up our men. When I asked if I could take their photo, they obliged and said to show it to Andrew so try could see who helps keep him fed!
Then there is Joseph, an art vendor at the stalls just outside of our apartment building. My first day in Monrovia was spent introducing myself to my new house and exploring my new street. I met Joseph that day as I spent time going from art stall to art stall, examining the tribal masks, beaded jewelry, carved statues, and traditional musical instruments of which everyone seemed to have some variations. In Joseph’s stall, however, my eye was immediately drawn to something vaguely familiar. It was different than I was used to seeing it, but I recognized the mancala game immediately.
Eyes wide with excitement, I pointed at the baguette-shaped, hinged, wooden box that lay open with its two rows of shallow cups filled with acorn-shaped, olive-colored nuts.
“Mancala!” I exclaimed!
“Yes, you know it?” He was surprised.
“Yes, I do!” I replied, and he smiled in amusement.
We chatted for a moment about the game: when I learned to play it, how it originated in Africa, that I knew my husband would enjoy it, …and that the price he was asking was $25 USD. I told him that I’d think about it and would come back soon to see him. In truth, because it was my first full day in Liberia, I wasn’t ready to purchase anything. What if there was more to see? Better versions of the game? Something else in another stall that I wanted more than this? So, I abided by my rule: if I’m not sure about a purchase, I’ll leave it at the store. Then, if I’m still thinking about it a few days later, I’ll return to make my claim.
A couple of days later, while touring another row of art stalls, I noticed another mancala set. This one was boxy, clunky, heavy, and — in short — not nearly as elegant as Joseph’s creation. As I held this version of the game in my hands, I felt a sentimental pull to the other box. I knew that I would always remember my initial excitement of seeing it whenever I brought it out for a round (or two, or three) of fun. So, I thanked the vendor kindly, made my exit, and headed for Joseph’s stall.
I couldn’t remember exactly which stall was his when I got to the art row, but when I asked around for him, the other men seemed surprised that I knew one of them by name and cheerfully pointed me in the right direction. “Yes, Joseph! That way.” They gestured and smiled.
When I arrived at the correct stall, Joseph seemed to recognize me immediately. A smile spread across his face, he nodded his head “yes!” and he exclaimed, “You come back!”
“I told you I would!” I returned his warmth.
He eagerly told me that he had another version of mancala that he wanted to show me, but that the guys down the sidewalk were playing with it. So, he sent someone to fetch it to bring and show me. This other version had a geometric design on it. The original version I saw had an image of a bird on it that reminded me of the sankofa bird — a symbol that represents the quest for knowledge, the importance of patience, and a respect for the past — that I had seen referenced in a story I once read. That was the box for me.
Joseph was very happy to remind me of the rules of the game as he filled my set with the “marbles” he called them — the acorn-shaped seeds which I could buy more of in the market, he said, if I ever needed more. He gave me some extras beyond what the game required, though, “Just in case.”
As we exchanged the game for money, I asked him if I could take his picture so I wouldn’t forget him and could find him again if I wanted to buy more crafts. He smiled proudly and said, “Of course, of course! Yes!”
I came here with very few expectations of what it would be like. Beyond being happy to finally be in the same place with my husband, I did not want to limit my experience here to my own ideas of what it should be. I decided I’d stay open to the possibilities. And so far, Liberia is already feeling a little like home.