Freewheelin' Liberia: Feeling at Home in the Land of the Americos Is a Snap

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Did America colonize Liberia?" my bush-taxi driver asked me as we hurtled deep into Liberia at dangerous speeds.

I'd heard this question many times, both in the United States and in Liberia. The two countries' shared history is only vaguely understood. I told the driver that Liberia was the only sub-Saharan African country that had never been colonized. In the 1820s, though, Congress awarded a grant to the American Colonization Society, which promoted sending freed slaves back to Africa, to purchase the area that is now the capital, Monrovia (named after President James Monroe). Thousands of American ex-slaves, known as "Americos," resettled in Liberia (for "liberty"). In 1847, the country became the first independent republic in Africa, but it's still often dubbed America-in-Africa.

I delivered this history lesson between gasps. There were four passengers squeezed into the Nissan Sunny, and I sat in the worrisome shotgun seat, whose occupants are most frequently killed in traffic accidents. Worse still, the driver kept turning the key in the ignition every two minutes, causing the engine to roar wildly.

When I asked him why he was doing that, he smiled broadly and explained: "To shoot in fuel." I reached again for the seat belt that was no longer there and suddenly felt that I should have stayed in my air-conditioned hotel in Monrovia. As if vacationing in Liberia weren't adventurous enough, I had decided to traverse the entire country by the only means available: bush-taxi, motorbike and foot.

The driver shot in fuel, scowled hard and asked: "Why'd America never colonize us?"

"Bossman," I said, switching into the Liberian English I'd picked up while living here as an aid worker a decade earlier, "you vexed because America did not colonize you?"

"Ivory Coast got plenty factories and trains, from France-o," he said. "What we get?"

"Gentlemen!" a voice suddenly boomed from the back seat. "I am Samuel Jefferson."

I turned to see a distinguished man of about 60, with glasses and a graying Afro. He said, a little boastfully, that his ancestors had arrived from North Carolina in 1842.

With this, a hush of respect blanketed the bush-taxi. In Liberia, slave blood is blue blood; here, saying that your ancestors picked cotton is akin to letting it casually slip in the United States that your forebears had founded Princeton.

Jefferson boomed out: "I want to ask you a single question!"

He allowed a dramatic pause. The driver used his key to shoot in fuel. The speedometer hit 80, and I vise-gripped my seat. Screeching hornbills soared through the rain forest canopy above, and I imagined us hitting a ramp and flying, Evel Knievel-style, up with those prehistoric-looking birds, airborne to Guinea. Finally Jefferson said: "What did our forefathers -- the Afro-Americans -- do for this country?"

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