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

For explanation, I looked to my guide, and he gave it to me in the form of two terrifying words: "Country devil!" Then he bolted back toward the village through which we'd just passed. I didn't stick around to ponder anthropological theory. I took off after him.

We finally reached the village. Just 20 minutes earlier it had been full of people; now it was empty, everyone gone into the surrounding bush. We didn't stop running until we'd cleared that ghost town. I collapsed at my guide's feet, and he exclaimed between heaving breaths that "the devil's coming to town" and that we were lucky to have been able to cross back before he entered.

Staring down at my sweaty body on the forest floor, he asked: "Y'all right?"

Shooing away mosquitoes, I could only mutter: "Tryin' small."

* * *

I reached the extreme edge of Liberia -- the hilly mining town of Yekepa -- on New Year's Eve.

The town immediately seduced me. Yellow birds darted around about 100 nests hanging on the mango tree across the square; beyond a row of market stalls rose forested hills. I checked into Noble House, a basic hotel on the square.

Prince, the bossman of Noble House, joined me for a lukewarm Guinness on the hotel porch. "There's chimpanzees on the French side," he said, referring to Guinea, the former French colony a few miles away. He explained that these wild chimpanzees walk on "funky baboon paths" paralleling the roads, climb palms for their tender cabbage, spontaneously join soccer games and even sneak into the Guinean town of Bossou to snatch market-stall bananas.

Prince's girlfriend served us bushmeat-in-sauce with fufu, a dish of pounded cassava. When she left, he explained that his wife had died suddenly a year back and left him to raise three children. "We're watching each other," he said of the girlfriend, "to see if we fit."

I spent most of the day listening to reggae with Prince and his waitress, Patience. That evening, two Catholic priests, one Liberian and the other Nigerian, rolled into Noble House to say New Year's Mass in the town church. Accompanying them was the first white person I'd seen in days, an American lay missionary running an antiabortion campaign in Liberia.

"The fetus screams when it's vacuumed out of a womb," she said. "It's in the videos we're showing the villagers."

The Liberian priest sipped his beer and then said, ambiguously, "God is in the small things." He smiled, staring into the foam in his beer glass. "Not the big things."

* * *

The next day I rode a rented motorbike along the dirt road to France, as some Liberians in that area refer to Guinea. There were no other travelers at the border. The immigration officer on the Liberian side asked whether I had a visa for Guinea, which is required for Americans. "It's another country, you know," he said.

I told him I didn't have one. Then we both forgot about it as we talked about the Bossou chimpanzees I was going to see, and the news from Monrovia. Behind him, the Liberian flag flew on a tree-pole; it brought to mind James Monroe's enigmatic prediction that Liberia would become "a little America, destined to shine gem-like in the heart of darkest Africa."

I finally rose to leave and shook hands with the official. The thump of our mutual snap was so forceful that it echoed off the border post walls. "You know our Liberian shake!" he said.

I motored up a dusty road to the Guinean crossing and handed my passport to an official. He wore knockoff Dior sunglasses and a beret. A couple of other stylish officials lazed on a king-size mattress on the ground. Without asking for a visa, they waved me through. Strangely, as I crossed into Guinea, it felt a bit like leaving home.

William Powers is the author of the Liberia memoir "Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge." His Web site is http://www.williampowersbooks.com.


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