STRANGERS AND BEDFELLOWS
Tropical birds waltzed in the immense blue dome bereft of distracting clouds, exuberantly flapping their wings like Kru kids running the length of the beach.
Before me, four feet from my toes, the ocean cuddled salted sand, wailing and murmuring in tumbling waves. Its steady wail mixed with the call and laughter of fishermen at shore, constituting a rare melody that significantly added to the worth of the morning.
Seven yards to my right, someone was telling a story. A girl was giggling and calling him a liar. I heard them in fragments, as the breeze shuffled and wafted their voices. I turned to see who it was. I knew him well, and could tell what story or what variant of the original story he was sharing with the teenager.
"You don't believe me?" he asked, and untangled his fishing net. She giggled again, and walked to the other side of his canoe. The shriek of a child, the equivalent of ten doorbells, rang in several times. We all turned to see a woman chasing the child down the beach. It was not a strange sight, so we returned to how we were.
"I was there when it happened," Jala was saying, trying to convince his listener the way he tried to convince everyone. I tried not to laugh, for that would hurt him dearly.
We had become friends since I moved here. He would often visit in the evenings. We would walk up and down the Cape Mount, smoking cigarettes, drinking from the same bottle of Gordon's Dry Gin, enjoying the sprawling greenery, the incessant whisper of undisturbed tropical critters, and the intrepid moss-encrusted buildings with bullet tattoos.
Swaggering under the weight of gin, he would pause to share his stories. "See that house over there?" I would turn to see a windowless, roofless skeletal structure stripped of all finishing. "That used to be one of the top boarding schools in West Africa. Now it is a den of shrubs and lizards waiting for Father Robertson. He and the Episcopalian ran the school before and after the war. He was buried over there, on the other side of the Mount."
Jala's stories were grisly in many ways: the metallic rattle of Kalashnikovs, and the blood baths he had seen. I would shutdown after a few episodes, but pretended to listen. They were not different from everyone else's story around here. But his were more flamboyant, with sumptuous metaphors and parallels. He compared his stories with the movies he had seen, and would force his listeners to do the same.
So and so warlord was like so and so actor in that action movie, he would say. At his suggestion, his audience would do the rough comparison, but the colorful powers of Jala's narrative would swallow whatever they thought. They did not take him seriously, though; but for some eerie reason, they thought he was entertaining, and obligingly listened to him.
"See," he started again, hauling his massive net into the canoe. "I was at the checkpoint when the rebel leader came. I was nine. I had a pistol." The girl chortled satisfactorily and clapped her hands in intense delight.
Chagrinned at her response, Jala shook his head and cast me a quick glance. I hastily returned my eyes to the waltzing birds. He said something; she patted his shoulders, picked up her white basin, and ambled away. Her steps delayed by beach sand.
What had he said to her? Perhaps he had pursued his classic "rebel leader" story. How he had shot the leader several times, and was rewarded with a lavish lunch by another faction. It had happened somewhere near Monrovia. I smiled and listened to the whizzing ocean.
A pack of egrets swept and scattered in the distance, gliding close to the unsteady waves. They reminded me of Walcott's White Egrets. I sat upright, hugged my knees, collected a fistful of sand, and recited a few lines: "The egrets are the colours of waterfalls, / and of clouds. Some friends, the few I have left, are dying, but the egret stalk through the rain/ as if nothing mortal can affect them."
Jala's stories were too vivid and intricate to be true, at least so we all believed. I thought he would make a good writer. Writers are liars, my father once told me. He was a failed writer who toiled on several stories at the same time, but finished none.
"Writers, they scoop memories from non-existent pasts and weave them into believable narratives," he would say, typing pages and pages of stories he never published.
I once asked why he decided to be a writer. He looked up from his typewriter, meditatively gulped his half glass of seaman's aromatic schnapps, and said in a sigh:
"Son, I am trying not to remember my past. To do that effectively, I give myself to creating the past I wish I had."
"What was your childhood like?" I asked. He poured himself another glass, sipped it vigorously, asked me to go fetch him a copy of the Nigerian Guardian, and went back to smacking his Remington with his long fingers.
In Liberia, I was the outsider and was therefore expected to listen to whatever was shared with me. So I suspended my goal to read 20 books during my stay. Achebe's Home and Exile that I had planned to finish in my first two months was still resting atop my suitcase, with a business card snuggling in-between the first and second chapters.
The girl was no longer in sight. Jala sat on the edge of his canoe and stared hard at the ambivalent ocean. On the other side was Sierra Leone with foggy shadows of dense greenery and nothing more. At the far right a tourist was surfing the waves. I had met him a couple of times, a reasonably young man from San Diego. He was here to research the waves, and to set up a sustainable surf business that he said would benefit the locals.
"The idea is to give back," he had gushed with intense passion, his long hair flowing and caressing his bare shoulders.
"Not a bad idea," I said carelessly.
"What a gorgeous place," he said between deep breaths and several words in Sanskrit. His gnarly beard bopped as he swayed, bursting with ideas. "Imagine if there was a sustainable getaway for all those aid workers in Monrovia, a place where they would be free from the stench and chaos of city life."
"Won't be a bad idea," I said.
He always had ideas to discuss, and each idea was carefully salted with several smatterings of sustainability, and often ended with his grand intention: to give back, to make a difference.
"In the end," he declared, "this small town could be a model for the rest of Africa." I grunted something and finished my bottle of cold Liberian beer.
The last time we talked he was planning to set up a school for artisans. Their products, ethnic bracelets and whatnot, would be shipped abroad, and the returns would go back to help the community. "What do you say, my Nigerian pal?"
"Not a bad idea," I said conspiratorially.
Now, in the distance, he surfed and perhaps contemplated how to implement his ideas. The waves rose and slapped him hard in the face, knocking him over. His board somersaulted. He followed it. In three years he would return to Kru town with an investor, and would turn an old rebel hideout into a sustainable surf lodge where tourists drank cold beer and forgot the buzz of their cosmopolises. I would work for him briefly, and would realize he was probably making more money here than he would have made elsewhere.
Jala took of his shirt, a Manchester United jersey. He pulled out a cigarette pack from the side pocket of his baggy shorts, and called out, "Nigerian man!" He shook the pack and asked if I wanted a stick. "No, thanks," I said. He dipped into his pocket the second time, and out came his matchbox. He scratched the first; it died at once. He tried again to no avail.
I fished out my lighter, and it was my time to call out. "Jala." He turned; I tossed it over. He dived but missed.
His first few puffs were directed at the convulsing ocean, with his lower lips drawn as in a sneer. He rocked his legs, closed his eyes, and dandily held out the cigarette.
The sun waxed stronger and left trails of glitter atop the waters. Several crabs emerged from their holes, scurrying sideways down the slope. The baby crabs looked transparent and seemed wary of the waves that washed against their territory. I tried to capture them once; they fled and disappeared into their holes. I plunged my fist into their underground chambers; the sharp pain that followed was a lesson. I was glad I left with my fingers intact.
Jala was now humming a song that sounded familiar but I couldn't say what it was. I began to wonder what Jala was thinking. He looked still and lost in thought. I saw him as a philosopher of sorts, more of a creative philosopher, which could easily be the reason why his tales were ostensibly arched with angles that straddled the curbs of fact and fiction.
But there was something more about him: he was the only one who readily spilled the horrors of the war, and did so with a measure of authority. Those he entertained had their sides of the story, but held it close to their breasts. Perhaps it felt better to see the war through the eyes of another, to knowing that what one endured was all-inclusive.
Jala was in a sphere of his own. He drew his own comparisons, and his friends were glad he was that way, for they were not as creatively vocal as he was. I once asked Jebbeh, the lady that ran the rice shop, if she had been here during the war. She shook her head, sighed, and said, "My brother, war no good o." I quickly asked for my bill, and hastened along.
In a strange sense, the possibility that they preferred another to tell their collective story reminded me of the fellow from San Diego. He had once mentioned how Liberia showed him how lucky he was. So I reasoned, maybe he needed to see these broken houses and impoverished bodies to feel better, to discover himself like they say. Well, he did discover himself and there was a thriving business to show for it.
"When it's too painful, forget or pretend it's happening to someone else," my father would say.
"What if you can't?" I asked.
"Then pretend you were dead, and what was happening or had happened to you was in another life."
"What if you can't?"
"Run as a fast as you can."
Jala dealt with it differently. He had lived through the war and had internalized every scene that passed through his eyes. He shared it generously, but with a slant that was extremely fabricated. At least he was dealing with it. I had left my own memory in Port Harcourt, somewhere across the ocean. When, that morning, I walked into my father's study and saw him slumped on his chair, lifeless, with a note written in his own hand, I knew my life in Nigeria had ended. I left, to roam, to write, to forget.
I knew nothing about Liberia. But here I was, not in its big city, but forty miles away, where my life was nothing but another fluttering leaf in the tropical rain forest.
"What are you here to do?" the immigration official had asked me.
I had a suitcase full of books, my father's unfinished manuscripts in a box, and several notebooks with my own stories. Why was I in Liberia? I had no idea.
"My father was born here," I said, which was the truth, and that was the only thing he ever told me about his past, beside the little story of how he met my mother at the Polo Club, which was not a verifiable story. For my mother did not live to hold me between her breasts.
"Show me your passport," he demanded. I showed him my ECOWAS passport with Nigeria written at the bottom. He squinted, confused. I too was confused.
The arrival hall was overcrowded and steaming. A giant fan bumbled and droned obnoxiously. The airport officials, dressed in button-down shirts with gold rings and wristwatches, scanned the crowd with their eyes.
In a room adjacent to where my passport was inspected, three Nigerians chatted with two custom officers. The portrait of Madame President hung above them, hovering and beaming with pride as the transaction proceeded undisturbed. The boss man, as the officials were called, plump and serious-faced, counted dirty ten-dollar bills. Alexander Hamilton grimaced and wept. Two large cargo sacks, blue and red, sat in front of the table, un-inspected. The Nigerians, with their green passports untouched, stood up and were saying something in a language I understood.
Those are the contraband peddlers, I thought. I had heard of them.
"So, what are you here to do?" he asked again.
"I am here to teach," I lied, and slipped something in-between my passport before handing it to him.
He glowed, said something nice about Nigerians, and wished me well!
Outside, it felt like I was in Lagos. The taxi drivers tugged my sleeves; the moneychangers wagged their pungent dollar bills in my face. "We use US here, too. Or you want Liberian dollars?"
I crossed the street, sat on a ledge between the DHL office and the Wings Restaurant, and stared at the faces that looked like mine.
It was right there, a little over 17 kilometers from the notorious Firestone Rubber Plantation, that I smoked my first cigarette in Liberia.
A month ago, here on this beach, Jala and I saw a big fishing boat far out, lazily roaming the Liberian waters. Jala pointed and said something about Chinese fishermen and how they destroyed his net with their propellers. Then he said something strange: he compared their big boats to that of the pioneers.
"The pioneers?" I asked, genuinely ignorant.
"Yes, the pioneers. The Americo-Liberians. They came in one of those big boats.
They started it, those black brothers of ours."
I tried to gather my wits for further questions but he was already halfway into the Tolbert regime, and was painting elaborate pictures of how that Christian descendant of South Carolina slaves ran the country the way he knew best. He talked about an assassination and how things fell apart. Then he was on to a different subject.
"Jimmy Carter was here in ‘78. My dad saw him riding in the streets of Monrovia with Tolbert, waving and smiling."
"Really? And what do you think?"
"I don't know much about him, only from what I got from my dad, my teacher. My father said Carter thought Tolbert was a great leader who transformed Liberia into a stable, exemplary economy for the region."
"And what was your teacher's opinion?"
"Nothing much. He thought Carter was a bit condescending. But Jackson hated everyone. On his deathbed a month ago, he was protesting the Nobel committee's decision to award the peace prize to two Liberians. He thought one of them did not deserve the prize."
"Jackson and my dad were close friends, and they knew Edward David who presented Carter with the keys to the city of Monrovia."
"Quite a history there."
"Yes. Interestingly, Carter wrote a poem for Liberia, and somehow the collection with the poem got to David, and ended up in my dad's hands. Anyway, he and his teacher friend force-fed me the poem."
"Do you still remember it?"
"Of course! ‘Why We Get Cheaper Tires from Liberia' was the title."
He recited the whole thing without missing a line, the first few lines were hard to forget: "The miles of rubber trees bend from the sea. / Each of the million acres cost a dime/ nearly two Liberian lives ago. / Sweat, too, /has poured like sap from trees, almost free, / from men coerced to work by poverty/and leaders who had sold the people's fields."
He sighed. The Atlantic Ocean whistled in many languages.
"It is their fault," he resumed his line of thought. "They divided us."
I wanted to say something, but Jala's mind was always several steps ahead. Now he was talking about the rebel commander at a certain checkpoint. After which, as if on a sudden memory jolt, he announced, "Carter was in Nigeria that year, in '78."
I looked away.
His phone rang, he ran off a few yards to answer it. On his way back he pointed at the bad mouth, which was what they called the rough spot where the ocean met the Lake Piso, and announced, "The Germans were over there."
"Yes, lots of them. But the Americo-Liberians drove them out when World War I broke. It was messy. I think the US was involved."
Jala stubbed the cigarette butt on his canoe and left it to gingerly land on the ground. "See you later, my Nigerian," he shouted. I waved. My pocket vibrated. I checked to see who it was. Clarisse, the English reporter I met at the Boulevard Café in Monrovia.
I guess it was the old copy of Granta that had caught her eyes. I'd been flipping it boringly and wondering where to send my stories. She was a table away from me, with an open laptop and a cup of coffee. But I could feel her eyes rending me from head to toe.
And then, as if on cue, she asked, "Is that a copy of Granta?"
Before I could respond she was already walking over to my table. Alarmed at this sudden intrusion, I nodded. Her eyes were fiery blue, and her brow visibly soft with furrowed flesh. She looked at the cover and said, "Granta 84: Over There: How America Sees the World. Nice."
"Nice," I said sheepishly, a bit disoriented.
"Kelman's ‘Man Walks Into A Bar' was my favorite in that issue," she said calculatedly.
"Oh," I beamed and loosened a bit, delighted to know she owned a copy; an evidence of shared interest.
We met formally. I got to know she was covering the 2011 elections. The next day we strolled down Broad Street in downtown Monrovia. Between the National Museum and Providence Baptist Church she asked, "What do you think about this country?" I temporally ignored the question and listened to the startlingly familiar purr of the city, jarring but strangely normal. If I were Camus, I would say, "the noise and the dust of the city engulfed me," but in a good way.
There were four shoe shiners by the wall of the museum screaming for attention, and raucously laughing when their services were declined. Several motorbikes and taxis jostled for space, trying hard to avoid the countless number of pedestrians that milled around, dazed by the kooky congestion that was upon them.
We walked further, towards the Executive Pavilion where important government events were held. The names of the pioneers, whites and blacks, were gallantly tattooed on its sculpted walls. If the elections went well, the winner would dance and banter with friends at the Pavilion. There were workers touching up the paints in preparation for the inaugural ball.
Speaking of balls, at the end of Broad Street stood the Ducor Hotel, comatose and morosely overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Saint Paul River. In its heydays the Ducor Hotel saw many balls, with Americo-Liberian and their cronies consuming cheese and wine from oversees, and leisurely passing laws in-between aristocratic puffs of H. Upmanns and Montecristos. Now it was dead, shrouded in bullet holes with gaping windows, a grotesque monument to a war that everyone knew was inevitable.
"I don't know what to think about Liberia," I finally said. We turned right onto Randall Street and had tea at the Randall-Ashmun intersection, near the Law Archives.
Two weeks later we were back at the Boulevard café for dinner, and she wanted to know what I was doing outside the city.
"Sounds strange to me, leaving Nigeria to teach in Liberia? What is the attraction?" She emphasized teach. I knew she had caught my lie.
The Boulevard Café was busy with expats of all colors representing UN appendages, development partners, and all shades of rescue and relief establishments.
They were the polished sehibs and memsahibs, important professionals waited on by Liberian girls with manicured nails. Outside, their Liberian chauffeurs waited, perhaps listening to music or following reports of the elections on his Chinese phone.
The table next to us conversed in French, the one next to that was wild with an accent that reminded me of a John Wayne movie.
The waitresses were taking orders. Wine bottles junketed from table to table. A blonde beauty was saying something about a child in Kakata. "He died of malaria," she lamented, and summarized her little account with a sip of red wine. "The Wi-Fi is superb here," she cooed and extracted her iPhone from her purse.
Behind us, someone, perhaps drunk on the Jack Daniel's that had leapt in that direction, was asking his tablemate what he thought Kant would say of a certain scenario. It had something to do with an irrational decision by a Liberian politician. His tablemate, equally befuddled by what they'd been drinking, wondered if they should rather consult Freud on said matter. They both roared and attacked the liquid from Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Having considered my odd place in this conclave of Monrovian aid workers, I thought she was right. What was I doing here? As an attempt at self-defense, I asked what she was doing in Liberia, as though she had not told me.
"I'm covering the elections. I'm a journalist. I told you that." She smiled and flagged the waitress to our table. I studied the menu, eying the day's special: a Middle Eastern dish that would render me bankrupt if fell for its appeal. "You, what are you doing here?" she asked, still smiling.
"I told you before, I am a teacher." She laughed and shook her head.
The waitress landed. We started the night with white wine.
On the way back to Robertsport, a 117-kilometer journey that zigzags along coastal towns and villages, I forced myself to forget the conversation with Clarisse. Instead I thought of Jala, and scribbled a note for a new story:
When war, like a weak flame, flickers out in the face of peace, the poor pick up their broken pieces, and begin the journey to a new start. The strong and ready, those who had stored up political and economic energies before or during the war—beneficiaries of the war perhaps—naturally jump in to run things. They become the voices of the nation, the ones who craft and share narratives of the war, chroniclers of history you may say.
But the impoverished and illiterate, far out on the fringes of society, in the fishing villages and rubber plantations, struggle with the burden of memory, with stories that might not make the press.
Timothy Ogene was born and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of a collection of poems, Subsurface Conditions (Ediciones Camelot, 2014), and has completed his first novel, with published excerpts in The Missing Slate and The Smoking Poet. He was shortlisted for the 2010 Arvon International Poetry Prize and has since been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his non-fiction.