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

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?"

The driver shrugged. "Nothing," he said.

"Exactly! And that's our endowment. They didn't take out the gold, the diamonds and the timber. Instead, they left it right where it is, for us."

Samuel Jefferson cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said, gesturing out the window as one of the world's poorest nations raced by, "Liberia is rich."

* * *

One week earlier, I'd landed at Robertsfield International Airport, built by the United States in 1942 as a military base. But this was very much a postwar Liberia, former president Charles Taylor's dreaded Anti-Terrorist Unit troopers long gone.

"Welcome to Liberia!" the immigration officer exclaimed.

"How da'body?" I replied.

"Body fine!" he answered, reaching out to shake my hand. I was ready. I knew the ubiquitous Liberian snap-shake: After a regular handclasp, each person uses the other's middle finger to snap his own. The result is a satisfying double-pop. But I'd been out of Liberia too long. My snap-shake wouldn't snap. The officer shrugged. "Keep tryin,' " he said.

In Africa, the world is constructed on a larger scale. On the hour-long drive from the airport to Monrovia's center, I gazed at the ultramarine vault of sky that stretched over rolling grasslands and forests. Far out over the Atlantic Ocean, an electrical storm flashed, but the landscape around us was dotted with reassuring baby blue: the helmets of U.N. peacekeepers, reminding me that I was safe and on vacation.

Well, I wasn't just on vacation. I was here to help prepare an ecological trade agreement between Liberia and the European Union. But my contract stipulated a week of vacation, and I would spend it in Liberia.

"Are you nuts?" colleagues had said, unable to put the words "vacation" and "Liberia" in the same sentence. "Hop a flight to fabulous Dakar."

Alas, they were thinking of the old Liberia. The new Liberia is now open for adventure travel. Taylor, the infamous gun-running strongman who ruled the country from 1997 to 2003, is far, far away -- on trial for war crimes in The Hague -- and Africa's first female head of state, the Americo Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, leads a democratic nation that has been at peace for five years. Economic growth has soared, and the U.S. Peace Corps is coming back after a two-decade hiatus.

I checked into an ocean-view room at the Mamba Point Hotel and plopped down on my comfy bed. It's not a bad time, I figured, to explore what is squarely African here -- like Liberia's tribal cultures and its virgin rain forests, full of forest elephants and pygmy hippos -- as well as what's American, from a plate of ribs at Sam's Barbeque in Monrovia to the country's red, white and blue flag, with its stripes and single star.

I drove to the sleepy town of Clay-Ashland, on the banks of the St. Paul River 10 miles outside Monrovia. It's named after Kentucky slave owner Henry Clay who -- quite conveniently -- favored a gradual approach to abolishing slavery, and his Lexington estate, Ashland. In the early 19th century, the Kentucky affiliate of the American Colonization Society raised the cash to resettle slaves who had been freed on the condition that they leave the United States. In 1846, Clay-Ashland was founded as part of a colony called Kentucky-in-Africa.

I spoke to an older woman sitting on her wraparound porch. She pointed out plaques in town that celebrate such famous former residents as William Coleman, Liberia's 13th president, whose family immigrated to Clay-Ashland from Kentucky. The woman's accent was laced through with the lilting cadence of the antebellum South. She was clearly Americo, a term that is now applied to the descendants of the original freed slaves who settled here.

Though they've never comprised more than 1 percent of the country's population, the lighter-skinned black Americos have dominated Liberia. Zealous Christian missionaries in the early days, they built plantation houses in the style of their masters, with gabled roofs and dormer windows -- sometimes even with grand fireplaces, unusable, of course, in the humid tropics -- and affected top hats, white gloves and parasols.

The Americo True Whig Party, founded in 1869 in Clay-Ashland, ran the country for more than a century, and Liberia's black-on-black apartheid rivaled the white-black apartheid of South Africa. It got so bad that in 1930, the League of Nations condemned the Americos for using native Liberians for forced labor, a scandal so fraught with irony that it forced the resignation of the country's then-president, Charles King.

The next day, my fun-loving Liberian friend Doegbazee announced that he was taking me out on the town in Monrovia. After fried chicken at Sam's Barbeque, we headed downtown for some Liberian Star beer at a packed outdoor dance joint. We sipped to a hip-hop beat, soaking up the humid, globalized funk of it all. Many of those dancing would don Speedos and bikinis the next day on one of the city's half-dozen beaches; some would perhaps ride the waves up the coast at Robertsport, the world-class surfing spot featured in the recent documentary film "Slidin' Liberia."

Then Paul Simon came on. And man, do Liberians love Paul Simon. A pair of girls grabbed Doegbazee and me, and we boogied it all the way to Graceland. The moon above us blushed in antique pink, telling me it was Christmas season, harmattan season. As the harmattan winds carry the Saharan sands over West Africa, they mute the edge of things. The next day I'd leave the comfortable coast and head into the relatively little-known interior.

* * *

Cuttington University, 120 miles north of Monrovia, has a touch of small American black college to it. Campus fashions are similar to those in the United States. The college is made up of quaint, single-story white buildings interspersed between rice paddies and electrified by a USAID-donated generator.

"Brother!" exclaimed the slightly plump, 38-year-old Barzai Moore as he wrapped me in a hug. "Your mother is my mother, too," he said, "so we're brothers."

It shocked me to see Barzai in a tie. He'd been a janitor at my aid organization. My mother had visited Liberia in 2000 and, impressed to see Barzai diligently teaching himself computers after all the toilets were scrubbed, had offered to pay for his education. She used her Social Security checks to put him through Cuttington. Barzai graduated at the top of his class and now works as a well-paid accountant at the university.

But there was a downside to Barzai's prosperity. "Everybody uncle-ing me," he lamented as we strolled the campus, referring to the practice of addressing someone as "uncle" as an indirect way of asking for money. A sense of dependency, which may have roots in plantation culture, still exists in Liberia.

Later that day, a young man approached me and declared: "Compliments of the season!" We shook hands, but still no snap.

"Compliments . . . of the season," I replied, managing to force that 19th-century Southern artifact out of my 21st-century mouth.

"Where's my Christmas?" he asked, in another form of widespread begging.

I grinned and said, "I don't see it-o."

He laughed, slapping me on the back and added: "My New Year?"

"Uncle," I said, feigning exasperation, "you didn't come soon." Translation: Someone else beat you to it. My Liberian, or Simple, English was kicking in now. Instead of "both of them" I heard myself saying "all two of them." Once I even referred to the nation's finance minister as "the bossman of Liberia's money business," as they do on Monrovia's Simple English newscasts.

I spent the next night at the Methodist mission guesthouse in the trading town of Ganta. George Way Harley, an American missionary and physician, established the mission and hospital after arriving in 1926. I toured the chapel and then relaxed in a wide, silent clearing near the school. But the tranquillity was soon broken as a team of cellphone salesmen from Monrovia tore up in a 4x4. Their company, as one of them told me, was throwing "mobile phone parties" in the villages to "connect them to the civilized world." Their missionary zeal for the Flat World rivaled that of Harley for Christendom.

But their tune changed that evening when the mission generator sputtered out and the place went pitch dark. "We paid for electricity!" one of the salesmen yelled at the mission staff.

By candlelight, I talked with the mission cook, who told me about Harley's interest in indigenous culture, his Liberian mask collection (now housed at Duke University) and his fascination with the "bush school" initiation ceremonies that are still common today.

Little did I suspect that I'd stumble into an initiation myself.

Two days later, while walking a stretch of high jungle north of Ganta, I stopped to observe a phosphorescent tree orchid. The flower had me in such meditative thrall that I hardly registered the pounding of drums in the forest beyond -- until a shrill cry rang out.

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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