The House at Sugar Beach

In Search of a Lost African Childhood

By Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. $25
August 31, 2008


Chapter One

This is a story about rogues.

Burglars are "rogues." The word burglar is not in the Liberian-English vernacular. I occasionally used "thief," though only for two reasons: (1) to impress whoever was listening that I knew proper English, and (2) to amplify "rogue," like when yelling out "Rogue! Rogue! Thiefy! Thiefy!" to stop a fleeing rogue. But rogues and thieves were very different animals. Rogues broke into your house while you were sleeping and made off with the fine china. Thieves worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.

Our house at Sugar Beach was plagued by rogues. From the time we moved into the twenty-two-room behemoth my father had had built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they installed themselves as part of daily life. It wasn't hard to figure out why: we were a continent away from civilization at eleven miles outside of Monrovia, my mother was hell-bent on filling up the house with ivory, easily portable if you're a rogue, and our watchman, Bolabo, believed that nights were meant for sleeping, not guarding the house.

Bolabo was an old man. His hair, which he kept cut very short, was almost white. He had nine teeth, at alternating places on the top rim and bottom rim of his mouth, so that when he talked you could see the holes, but when he smiled, which was a lot, it looked like a perfect set. He didn't have a gun, he had a nightstick. He walked with a bounce and always seemed cheerful, even when he was getting reamed out by my mother in the mornings after the discovery that rogues had once more gotten into Sugar Beach and made off with her ivory.

The first time it happened - within a week of our arrival at Sugar Beach - I woke up and stumbled out of my bedroom to the sound of my mother yelling at Bolabo outside. Jack was leaning against the wall, enjoying the proceedings. He winked at me. Jack was technically our houseboy, but none of us ever dared call him that because he grew up with Daddy.

"Rogues came here last night," Jack reported.

Mommee had hauled Bolabo to the kitchen porch for his dressing down. She was in the doorway, her arms punctuating the air with her grievances. She wore her usual early-morning attire: knit shorts that stopped just above her knees, a T-shirt, and slippers. Her hair, originally piled on top of her head, had come undone as she paced angrily back and forth on the kitchen porch, arms flailing. Before her stood Bolabo, his entire demeanor one of remorse.

Bolabo: "Aya Ma, na mind ya."

Translation: Gosh! How awful! Never you mind, Mrs. Cooper, please accept my apologies.

Mommee: "You hopeless seacrab! I should sack you!"

Translation: Bluster. "Seacrab" and "damn" were as close as Mommee ever came to cussing. History would show Mommee sacked Bolabo every month and always rehired him when he came back and "held her foot."

Bolabo: "I hold your foot, Ma."

Translation: An exclamation point that punctuates this heartfelt entreaty. When begging a Liberian's pardon, you can't get much lower than telling them you hold their foot.

This went on for about fifteen minutes, until Mommee slammed the door in disgust. Bolabo was extra vigilant for the next few days, making a big show of closing his bedroom door in the boys' house during the day so we would know that he was getting his rest for the night ahead. Then, at around six p.m., he came outside with his nightstick and strutted around the yard, inspecting the coconut trees that surrounded the estate, presumably for signs of imminent attack. He peered down the water well near the fence, as if rogues were treading water thirty feet down, waiting for the family to go to sleep before jet-propelling themselves out like Superman.

Bolabo settled into his chair by the laundry room, then jumped up self-importantly when a car drove into the yard, as if the rogues might just drive up at seven p.m. for supper. Invariably, he was asleep before my bedtime at eight p.m.

I, on the other hand, was not.

Who could fall asleep way out in the bush like that? I went to bed at night wishing we were back at our old house in Congo Town.

Liberia is nowhere near the Congo River, but the term Congo is endemic. We are called the Congo people - my family and the rest of the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1822. It is a somewhat derogatory term invented by the native Liberians back in the early nineteenth century, after Britain abolished slave trade on the high seas. British patrols seized slave ships leaving the West African coast for America and returned those captured to Liberia and Sierra Leone, whether they came from there or not. Since many of the slave ships entered the Atlantic from the mouth of the massive Congo River, the native Liberians, many of whom happily engaged in the slave trade and didn't like this new business of freeing the slaves and dumping them in Liberia, called the newcomers Congo People. Because the newly freed captives were released in Liberia at the same time that the freed blacks arrived in Liberia from America, all newcomers became known as Congo People. Monrovia is full of Congo this and Congo that. Congo Town, where our old house was, is a suburb of Monrovia. It was filled with Congo People like us.

We got the native Liberians back by calling them Country People, far more derogatory, in our eyes.

Daddy moved us to Sugar Beach because he thought the old house in Congo Town was too small. It only had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a TV lounge, a living room, a den, an office, a kitchen, a palaver hut outside, and a huge lawn, where I learned critical social skills from Tello, my favorite cousin and role-model supreme.

"Jus' kick your foot de same time you jumping!" Tello, short for Ethello, yelled at me one Sunday afternoon on the Congo Town lawn. It was a typically heavy, soupy day, and my ponytail, drenched in sweat, glued itself to the back of my neck. Next door, the Baptist church people, who spent hours in that church singing their holy ghost songs, had quieted down - it was time for their midafternoon snack of check-rice with crawfish gravy. The sharp, intense smell of the fish gravy wafted to our yard from the back of the church, making my stomach rumble with hunger.

Tello was teaching me how to play knock-foot, a girls' game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponents with the other foot. Knock-foot involved intricate maneuvers that need rhythm and balance. The Country People had thought it up. Knock-foot is sort of like rock, paper, scissors with feet. A good knock-foot session between two girls who know what they're doing looks like dancing, with each girl bobbing, kicking, and clapping to a precise beat.

There were many variations of knock-foot; one, called Kor, required such precision I knew I'd never be able to do it. All I wanted was to be able to do basic knock-foot. Hop, hop, kick. Clap, hop, kick. Except the clap was on a half beat and the kick was on a half beat.

Beads of sweat collected on my forehead as I tried again. Hop, hop, kick. "Not like that!" instructed Tello. She was four months older than me and very sure of matters of correctness. "You kicking before you jumping!"

"Aye, I tryin," I whined.

Hop, hop, kick. I raised my foot slightly higher, and when I kicked, got her full in the knee, good and hard. She stomped the grass, then turned around, and, with a sucking of her teeth - that social skill I had mastered at last - walked back to the house. I chased after her.

My escort into high society was mad at me. "Tello!" I said, trailing her into the house. "Na mind."

She forgave me when we entered the living room and we automatically headed for the black leather couch to pretend to be our mothers.

"I say, it's too hard to find good help these days," Tello said, crossing her legs as she sat on the couch with her doll propped in her lap. "I told Gladys to make up the bed, and you know wha' she did? Cleaned the cupboard instead!"

I sighed, in what I hoped was a long-suffering way. "Ma people, I got' de same problem m'self, I tell you," I replied, flicking some imaginary dust off my pants. "I asked Old Man Charlie to cook palm butter and he cooked cassava leaf!"

I loved the Congo Town house. It was close to town and Tello visited all the time. There was always stuff to do and people to see, even if it was just picking fights with the Baptist people next door.

But Daddy said we were crowded there. I shared a bedroom with my little sister, Marlene, and Marlene's nurse, Martha, a tall Kru woman. There were way too many people in my bedroom at night. "Don't worry," Daddy said. "When we build the house at Sugar Beach, you're going to have your own room."

My own room! Wouldn't that show the world how grown I was!

"What color do you want it?" Mommee asked me before we left Congo Town.

I thought for days and days before finally deciding. "I wan ma room be pink."

And so, bought off with the false notion that I actually wanted my own room, I followed my family to Sugar Beach and our grand new home.

This was our house at Sugar Beach: a futuristic, three-level verandahed 1970s-era behemoth with a mammoth glass dome on top, visible as soon as you turned onto the dirt road junction a mile away. The house revealed itself slowly, like a coquettish Parisian dancer from the 1920s. Emerging from the road's first major pothole - big enough to swallow a small European car - your reward was a glimpse of the house's sloping roof and glass dome, shining in the equatorial sun. Rounding the bend between the dense bush of plum trees and vines, you next got a glimpse of the house's eastern wraparound second-floor porches, painted creamy butter, with a roasted red pepper trim hand-selected for tropical contrast. Driving by the two huts that formed the outermost edge of the nearby Bassa village of Bubba Town, you then caught another tease: the sliding glass doors that formed the perimeter of the second-floor living room.

But nothing could prepare you for the final disrobing as you crested the hill that opened up to the panoramic view of the house, back-lit by the thunderous waves and pounding surf from the Atlantic as far as the eye could see. Shangri-la, Camelot, the Garden of Eden - the Cooper family's perfect and perfectly grand paradise, where John and Calista Cooper could raise their perfect family, cosseted by well-paid servants, and protected from the ravages of West African squalor and poverty by central air-conditioning, strategically placed coconut trees, and a private water well.

The upper level had five bedrooms and three bathrooms and a TV lounge and an indoor balcony that looked down onto the children's toy room on the first floor. The middle level had an enormous kitchen with adjoining dining room, the two separated by double swing doors. There was a music room with a rock wall on one side, housing a baby grand piano that overlooked the ocean. There was the sunken living room with its rich velvet couches the color of cognac and its wraparound glass doors, from which you could view the ocean to the south and the bush to the north.

The lower level had two bedrooms and three bathrooms and a huge recreation room with a full bar. There was a playroom and a toy room and my father's office. And there was a nook under the stairs for storing our plastic Christmas tree.

With the exception of the bedrooms, all of which had wall-to-wall carpet, all floors were marble. A nine-foot-tall grandfather clock stood in an atrium halfway down the marble staircase separating the middle level from the lower level.

The five-acre grounds had a lush green carpet grass ringed by hibiscus and bougainvillea plants, and coconut trees. The two-car garage housed the favorites of the moment; the older cars and Daddy's pickup truck were relegated to a parking area by the boys' house.

In moving to Sugar Beach, eleven miles out of Monrovia, we were supposed to be suburban pioneers. If the world had worked out the way it was supposed to, Monrovia would have followed us out there, as housing developments, businesses, cafes, and restaurants overran the city and pushed its boundaries farther east from Providence Island, where the first Congo People - the freed black Americans - built their houses and established their capital city. My parents, especially Mommee, had both grown up in houses in what was now the heart of inner-city Monrovia. Mama Grand, Mommee's mother, still lived "across the bridge" on Bushrod Island, an area near the port that was now completely overtaken by shops and business.

By contrast, Sugar Beach was in the bush on the edge of the sea. Our closest neighbors who weren't Country People were the people at the mental hospital Catherine Mills, about five miles away. There were plenty of Country People living in Bubba Town and other Country villages nearby. Uncle Julius, Daddy's brother, built his house right next to ours at Sugar Beach, so we at least had our cousins - Ericka, Jeanine, and Juju - next door. Together, the two houses made up the Cooper Compound.

Our house at Sugar Beach was a source of pride and of pain. It was a testament to the stature of my family in a country where stature mattered, sometimes above all else. Liberian society rivaled Victorian England when it came to matters of social correctness. In Liberia, we cared far more about how we looked outside than about who we were inside. It was crucial to be an Honorable. Being an "Honorable" - mostly Congo People, though a smattering of Country People were sometimes pronounced educated enough to get the title - meant you were deemed eligible to hold important government posts. You could have a Ph.D. from Harvard but if you were a Country man with a tribal affiliation you were still outranked in Liberian society by an Honorable with a two-bit degree from some community college in Memphis, Tennessee. Daddy was an Honorable with a proper college bachelor of science, but being Hon. John L. Cooper Jr. was a hell of a lot more important than whatever degree he got in America.

But the Cooper Compound was far from Monrovia. It didn't take more than two days out there for me to realize that I'd been had. Eleven miles is a continent when you are seven years old and all of your friends live in town and rogues and heartmen rule the nighttime. Radio Cooper, my grandfather, wired Liberia, but his telephone lines didn't reach Sugar Beach, where his two sons had decided to build their houses.

"How much longer until we get a phone?" I whined to Daddy on the first day we moved there.

"You're seven years old. Who you plannin to call?"

"Tello 'them."

In Liberian English, saying "'them" after someone's name is a shortcut for including a whole group. "Tello 'them" meant "Tello and her sisters." "Ain't nothing you and Tello got to talk 'bout every day. You can talk to her when your Mommee carry you to church Sunday."

I knew not to argue too much with Daddy. He sat at the top of the Sugar Beach hierarchy, with Mommee. Together, John Lewis Cooper Jr. and Calista Esmeralda Dennis Cooper, represented three Liberian dynasties: the Coopers, the Dennises, and the Johnsons.

Hon. John L. Cooper's ancestors dated back to one of the first ships of freed blacks that immigrated to Liberia from America in the early 1800s.

Mommee's ancestor, on the other hand, was on the first ship. If Elijah Johnson hadn't existed, Liberia might not exist. He and sixty-five others survived the trip to Africa back in 1820. The three white men sent along with the group, along with twenty other blacks, all died within weeks of landing in West Africa. Elijah Johnson lived, and ostensibly founded Monrovia after disease ravaged the group of freemen settlers.

When native Liberians attacked the newcomers, Elijah Johnson led the fight back. A British gunboat came ashore and its commander offered to send help if Elijah Johnson would cede to the British flag. "We want no flagstaff put up here that will cost more to get it down again than it will to whip the natives," Elijah Johnson said, in a phrase we memorized in school.

Elijah Johnson's son, Hillary Johnson, became Liberia's sixth president. His great-great-grandson, my great-uncle Gabriel Dennis, was secretary of state and secretary of treasury. Cecil Dennis, the minister of foreign affairs, was my cousin, although we called him Uncle Cecil.

Mommee took great pride in the fact that, as one of the heirs to Elijah Johnson, she received a $25 check from the government every once in a while. It was his pension, divided up among his descendants. Sometimes jealous people - Country and Congo - complained about why a poor third-world country was still doling out money to Elijah Johnson's heirs more than a century after he died. To which Mommee replied, "Excuse me, there wouldn't be a country if it weren't for Elijah Johnson."

(Continues...)


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