I feel like an imposter. Out of place and exposed.
Monsoon-like rains have subsided and the dry season air is thick and balmy in Monrovia, Liberia. It is circa October 2007. I am 25 and ‘home’ for the first extended period of time since international headlines stopped calling our country’s 14-year armed conflict ‘brutal’ and ‘grotesque’. Since our former head-of-state-turned-regional-warmonger was exiled.
During an earlier Christmas-season visit in 2002, I embrace this land of my birth, its people and their idiosyncrasies with a fierceness that throbs. It is the first of first returns since leaving, aged six, to join Mom and Dad in Washington, DC. There is a lull in the heavy fighting but I can count on fingers and toes war-era checkpoints that partition the bumpy Roberts International Airport road, a two-lane winding expanse surrounded by lush forest.
I marvel at daylight tours of our shell-shocked capital city and its suburbs, of bullet-ridden concrete fences, sprawling estates, open-air markets, beaches that beckon. Some of the sites unlock blissful memories of my tree-climbing and Knockfoot-playing girlhood. Others reveal visible and psychic wounds, like the crumbling edifice of a maternal uncle’s home, or the gaping hole left by a paternal grandfather whose disappearance at sea in the 1960s we attribute to the occult.
Under a star-lit sky, I greedily gulp down family tragedies and triumphs narrated late into the night. These are fevered attempts to fill in the gaps of lives separated by time, space and place. By war and peace.
Violence, of both the physical and structural kind, has numbed our senses. This leaves me circumspect. Macro-level talk is too dicey, so I try to speak solely about the familiar and familial. While Mom has given her blessing for me to be here on the condition that I keep all political views to myself, Dad is more supportive of my need to wrestle with our complicated country. He does not begrudge me for squandering all my savings on a roundtrip flight from Accra to Monrovia, purchased before notifying both parents because I know they will disapprove. A four-month stint studying at the University of Ghana becomes the perfect decoy for plotting my prodigal return home, and Dad admits that he considers my actions plucky.
Yet, despite a steely facade, I am far from brave five years later. My wishbone-shaped legs wobble in black mini-pumps—a parting gift from my mother—as they emit a shiny glow of newness. Though quick to shrug off others’ opinions of me, more out of insecurity than confidence, I know that we Liberians have mastered the art of judging a book by its cover. The content of one’s character is of less significance, so my mother spends much of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood playing ‘respectability police’. She tries to exorcise my wilfulness, inherited from a lineage of Kru warriors who once battled black migrant settlers attempting to carve out a ‘land of liberty’, now Liberia, that did not belong to them.
Back then, I resist Mom’s impulse to shield me from razor-sharp scrutiny that is gendered, aged and classed. Her armour of protection now gone, I feel naked. In an effort to smooth out any seemingly rough edges, lest I be harangued for them, I twist my shoulder-length dreadlocks with dark-brown tips tighter than usual at the roots.
Years later, intense pressure on the scalp leaves a bald spot at my right temple, the hair follicles irreparably damaged, yet it now has the effect of stretching out the skin of my face like a mask frozen in surprise. I enlist my father’s slender, no-nonsense younger sister, Auntie Arinah, as a seamstress, because she has a knack for matching colours and patterns that flatter my dark complexion and yogi’s physique. Make-up makes me feel like a clown, so I overcompensate for not wearing any by applying more Shea Butter than necessary to ashy knees and elbows. Rumpled clothes, down to my underwear, get pressed to perfection by my Uncle Louis’ sister-in-law. These machinations are as close to a quarter-life make-over as I am willing to muster. Something akin to a rite of passage for Liberian womanhood.
But I remain uncomfortable in pumps that scratch the surface of my heels and pinch the tips of my toes. Platforms are preferable, as are flats, flip flops, or just sinking bear feet into earth.
Instead, I slouch, fixated on the receiving line of a VIP’s 69th birthday bash in C Cecil Dennis Auditorium. The room commemorates our most esteemed foreign minister, who orients Liberia away from the US and towards Africa, Asia, and the Middle East during Cold War rivalries. Assassinated alongside 12 other government officials of similar rank, he is stripped to his white briefs on a beach facing the Atlantic Ocean, tied to a light pole and then shot to death at close range. This follows the execution of our embattled president, William R Tolbert, Jr, deposed while sleeping in his bedroom by a 20-something lanky soldier named Samuel Kanyon Doe.
It is April 12, 1980, exactly two years before I catapult into the world. Symbolic of our country’s rupture for some and regeneration for others, my birthdate elicits either horror or happiness from Liberians across the socio-politico-economic spectrum. Coup babies like me and my younger sister Ella—born precisely five years after a foiled takeover by one of Doe’s trusted allies—rarely please everyone, so I resolve early on to satisfy no one in particular.
I scan C Cecil Dennis like a voyeur. Now the second-rate site for formal government receptions, official programmes and high-level meetings, the room is tucked away in the rear of the ground floor of a six-storey Ministry of Foreign Affairs building perched at the top of Capitol Hill. The fifth and sixth floors of the ministry become a temporary home for the presidency after a short circuit burns the fourth floor of the Israeli-built Executive Mansion during our previous July 26th Independence Day festivities. Hanging from the ceiling of C Cecil Dennis are four-sided, rectangular-shaped mirrors that line its edges in single file. Mahogany-panelled wall pillars give the auditorium an air of importance, of pomp and pageantry. But I sense a pretence about this place, in the same way that people who inhabit it, including me, seem to be performing prominence.
Yearning to disappear into the crimson carpet, I stack shoulders above hips, spine curled, and shift from one foot to another. The who’s who of Monrovia’s ‘big people’, the privileged class, have converged here for schmoosing and deal-making as much as they have come to celebrate the soon-to-be septuagenarian. Liberian Supreme Court justices, senators, representatives and ministers hobnob with foreign ambassadors, multi-national executives, heads of United Nations (UN) agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Women wear eye-popping primary colours, tailor-made Ankara- and Kente-print designs with various shapes and sizes blended in harmony. While some men don traditional Liberian country cloth with blue-black vertical stripes against a white canvas, others are more straight-laced in their dark business suits with crisp collared shirts.
The object of our adoration is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s (and Africa’s) first female democratically elected president. She appears more regal than stately in green—or is it purple—with a layered head wrap piled on top of her crown, resembling Buddha in levitation. Now a signature accessory, the stole across the president’s left shoulder completes the ensemble. This matronly grandmother is better known in a previous life as the ‘Iron Lady’. Infamous for apparently stamping ‘BULLSHIT’ on dubious invoices that cross her desk as minister of finance in the 1970s, she exudes fiscal discipline. Today, she seems relaxed. Almost congenial.
Yet, when our eyes lock, she looks irate.
Tentatively at first, I inch ahead as the well-wishers greet the president one by one. She addresses me with accusation punctuating each syllable. “I hear you’re going around telling people, "This is our country and you can’t tell us what to do!’?”
Embarrassment forces me to run through my mental rolodex for a nanosecond trying to parse the conversations I’ve had in the 90 days since arriving in Monrovia. My shoulders sag and I fumble. “I don’t remember saying that to anyone in particular, President Sirleaf,” I sputter out in a voice that does not resemble mine.
Perhaps not in those exact words, I muse. With a mind of its own, my countenance has this inconvenient way of showing people exactly how I feel about their bullshit banter. It begins with a sneer, followed by an unconscious eye-roll. The three faint frown marks across my forehead appear and then disappear. I challenge the person in an eye-war, defying them to break contact. My brother-in-law cautions that, because of my chronic insubordination, President Sirleaf and her inner circle will eventually conk my head—a Liberian idiom for knocking sense into someone. Or is it relegating the person to senseless conformity? I can’t decide.
“Well, you need to stop! You can’t tell people these kinds of things,” the president’s voice is tempered but sharp. She scolds slightly above a whisper. Feeling whipped by her words, I nod like a puppet, willing my brain to send signals to my mouth for a response that never materialises. Moments later, the Iron Lady vanishes. She has marked me with an invisible scarlet R, for Robtel the rebel.
Weeks before this encounter, one of President Sirleaf’s white American advisors—a fully bearded, towering figure of a man—admits to me that he’s read my book chapter, “Slavery Ain’t Dead, It’s Manufactured in Liberia’s Rubber”, about how our cash-strapped government in 1926 entered into a 99-year concession deal with its first major foreign investor, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. In exchange for a $5 million soft loan at an interest rate of 7 percent, we allowed the US multi-national to muscle-arm us into leasing one million acres of land at six cents per acre. We’d agreed to terms that an American financial advisor had to approve our annual budget, and that we could not borrow further without Firestone’s written consent.
My chapter is a critique of how we turned a blind eye as Firestone forced plantation workers to carry on their shoulders long wooden sticks with small buckets of raw latex suspended on either end. We’d allowed the company to set unattainable daily quotas for tapping trees, pay workers a pittance and dump waste into the Farmington River, a major water source for communities living on the plantation and bordering it.
“I urge you to refrain from publishing similar pieces while working for President Sirleaf,” the advisor warns in a matter of fact tone. I know that publicly criticising government now would be like blaring family secrets on a bullhorn, but my inner firebrand still responds to the veiled threat with spasms.
* * *
Two years after my confrontation with the Iron Lady, a white UN jeep rams into my car as I make a right turn into a favourite Liberian-owned resort, A La Lagune. Congo Town Backroad is the site of our collision. It references the so-called ‘Congau’, an amalgam of free and formerly enslaved black settlers from the US, Caribbean and Congo River basin who escaped 19th century bondage under the premise of diasporic solidarity.
The resort overlooks a small lagoon separated by the Atlantic with an expansive beach line. To get to A La Lagune, one has to veer off Tubman Boulevard—a major thoroughfare linking the suburbs of Monrovia with the city centre—to pass by the headquarters of international NGO ActionAid on the right, a succession of finished and unfinished concrete homes, hovels and empty patches of land filled with green shrubs on both sides, and the imposing rear of Palm Springs Casino and Hotel painted a conspicuous pink hue on the left.
When the vehicle charges into me, I hear aluminium meeting aluminium, the sound slightly more sinister than the crushing of a soft drink can. I honk loudly, repeatedly, flailing my arms and cursing in what feels like slow motion.
“You stupid idiot!” I scream at the other driver, my windows rolled down. “Can’t you see me turning in?” The cadence of sing-song, jaunty music blares. My right eye starts twitching with agitation.
I huddle in a small four-door sedan assigned by the president’s office. My boyfriend-turned-fiancé-turned-neither Ro’ and I have christened her Big Red after the cinnamon flavoured American chewing gum. With caramel-coloured eyes and a sprinter’s build that make me fall in lust at first sight, Ro’, a brooder by nature and nurture, also possesses this uncanny ability to read people in a way that I cannot. We both agree that Big Red is really a poor substitute for the sleek, gas-guzzling SUVs in which government ministers ride down Monrovia streets with potholes the size of miniature bomb craters that serve as makeshift speed bumps.
Big Red breaks down at least thrice a month, sputtering white smoke fumes from periodic overheating. In one hair-raising episode, one of her tires dislodges while Ro’ is driving and he lurches off the side of the road to avoid in-coming traffic. When we bring this to the attention of the Executive Mansion mechanic he shrugs off the mishap as an innocent oversight, though Ro’ suspects that something more sinister is afoot. After countless pleas to the administrative gatekeepers for another car, I resign myself to the fact that Big Red and I—both institutional outcasts—are somehow kindred. So, when the South Asian UN employee crashes into her, it is a personal affront.
I jump out of the car with jerky movements. “Didn’t you hear me screaming, shouting and honking? You ran right into me, you idiot!” The driver apologises profusely in broken English. Baffled by my rage, his companion looks on in silence. I whip out my black, old-school Nokia phone, punching the keys hard to dial GW because she would know what to do. The closest friend I have in Liberia, she is a practical foil whose emotional intelligence far surpasses my own.
“GW, this UNMIL guy just ran into me as I was turning into A La Lagune. Oh, you’re here? Can you come outside, please? We’re right at the entrance.”
GW belongs to an exclusive squad of sistah-friends I have collected like prized figurines across many oceans. Though quick to defend each other fiercely in public—regardless of who is wrong—we tell each other privately what the other person needs to hear. GW indulges my rants about how upside-down our dear country is, with internationals running amok simply because they have been sent by the donor and investment gods. Yet, when I least expect it, she counters my excesses with deep insight.
In one such exchange, GW blurts out that I probably would have been a rebel had I stayed in Liberia during the war. She believes I have a split personality, that true to my Aries astrology, Robtel #1 the lamb is affable and selfless, while her alter ego, Robtel #2 the ram, is aggressive and self-centred. Parts of my friend’s admission sting, transporting me back to a college therapy session when a diminutive Eastern European woman with spiky, beet-red dyed hair discloses that I have unresolved anger management issues. Rather than repel the charge then and now, I allow myself to sit with unease. It slithers up my spine as I wonder what kind of rebel I would have been. The kind who slices open a pregnant woman’s belly to determine her foetus’ gender? Or the kind who distributes looted food to starving internally displaced persons? One who commands a retaliatory rape of under-age girls? Or one who releases refugees facing execution?
I like to think that, were my fate different, I would have been more martyr than murderer. But there is something about war that makes a mockery of morals.
Gingerly walking to the entrance of A La Lagune—a collection of tan and dark brown bamboo sticks haphazardly strewn together in vertical lines that dig into the earth— GW interrupts my reverie. She looks amused by my scowl, an expression I have honed because it makes me look edgy. “Let’s call the police,” she says, ever the level-headed one, while dialling the emergency number on her more sophisticated Blackberry.
The UN workers are caucusing in hushed tones, speaking and gesticulating in a language that we do not understand. With my eye twitching uncontrollably one hour later, the Liberia National Police arrives. “What happen’ here fine geh?,” one officer queries me in Liberian English. The backhanded compliment about my appearance does little to quell my fury.
“This guy ran into me,” I shriek, pointing my index finger for dramatic emphasis at the driver whose soft brown eyes I have only just noticed. “I honked loudly and screamed for him to stop, but his music was too loud for him to even hear me.”
The officer scans the scene while taking a few photos of the impact. He scribbles copious notes in a small black book but does not ask the accused for confirmation or denial of my story. “Well, I can see he wronged you,” says the officer. “You can file a report but we can’t do anything until UN Police come.”
“Why do we have to wait for them?” I squeal like a bullied child desperate for vindication.
This is our country!
“Because they are the only ones who can report violations by their personnel, so you can get your car fixed,” he reasons.
“But, that’s insane!” I exclaim.
“Da deh people rules, oh,” the officer code-switches.
According to an agreement signed by our government in 2003, UN employees have diplomatic immunity and are therefore exempt from Liberian laws.
“Fine, then ring them. This is taking way too much time,” I state with resignation.
We look up and realise the two UN guys have already called UN Pol. Minutes crawl by and we wait, fending off stares from drivers who slow down momentarily before whizzing off. When the UN officers show up 30 minutes later, they repeat what the Liberian police have already done. The performance of being procedural aggravates my twitching eye.
“We will file this with headquarters and send your office a copy,” says one UN Pol guy.
“What about my car?” I ask pointing to Big Red, now marked with a large white scrape across the left front and rear doors. Motioning to the culprit, I say, “He put a huge dent in it. Who is going to fix that?”
“We can only report that he hit you. You will have to wait for a notice about how we will proceed,” the officer announces like a gavel coming down with incomplete finality.
This is what happens when the United Nations enters your country under the guise of peacekeeping, I conclude, reminded of a UN employee friend from Southern Africa who admits to me in confidence how ‘superficial’ their work is in Liberia.
This is not our country, I backtrack.
* * *
Rattled by the bureaucracy of it all, I follow GW into A La Lagune after parking my injured car in the grassy front yard of the compound.
In those days, my loyalty to Liberian establishments like this resort remains legendary. It is also the butt of many jokes by acquaintances who taunt me for being too much of an impractical nationalist. One suitor—a frisky fast-talker whose advances I entertain following the first of several painful break-ups with Ro’—calls me ‘Ms Liberianisation’ after a policy we adopt in the early 1970s to reserve 26 business activities exclusively for Liberian entrepreneurs.
Walking into the restaurant of the resort—a succession of wooden floorboards nailed together which jut out of the lagoon like flying saucers—my eyes make a beeline to the dark chocolate, baby-faced Liberian girl at a nearby table. She is talking to a balding white man whose protruding belly resembles a slothful mammal’s. The girl and I make eye contact for a split-second, and then she averts her gaze. The twitch in my right eye returns with a vengeance. I grimace at the white man.
GW sees what I am seeing, grabs my hand hastily and escorts me to a table where Tarnue, a Liberian football buff I had befriended years earlier while living in Egypt, hugs me firmly in welcome.
“So, what happened out there?” he asks, bracing for an animated play-by-play. I explain the gory details all the while adjusting my head to gawk at the girl and her companion. I notice other Liberians squirming in their seats, staring uncomfortably at the table like it is marked with its own invisible scarlet letter.
And then it hits me.
Liberian filmmaker and jazz musician Kona Khasu, Jr, describes a similar scene in his essay “Monsters in Our Midst”, published in the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. Kona fumes about how a UN employee establishes a harem in the heart of Monrovia filled with young Liberian girls he rapes for months before his teenage ‘wife’ eventually exposes him. While waiting to be discharged and probably reassigned to another country, the paedophile is found floating in a pool of blood after apparently stabbing himself repeatedly in his bathtub.
The incident makes headline news. I shudder now, realising that I have seen him the previous year in the passenger lounge of Spriggs Payne Airport while en route to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. He cups the hand of what appears to be a six-year-old Liberian girl. This UN paedophile mocks me from the grave, his body transplanted in another white male body sitting casually across the table from a baby-faced teenager who resembles my younger sister Ella.
I can picture Baldy’s large frame on top of Babyface in a four-poster bed, her contorted face morphing into all my under-age female relatives in Liberia and beyond. In the vision, Babyface’s eyes appear hollow and lifeless similar to that of a young Liberian woman I happen upon mistakenly while grabbing something from the backseat of an older male colleague’s car.
I stand up, swaying from the haunting images. Noticing what I am noticing again, GW and Tarnue try to distract me.
“What you doing, Robtel?” GW demands.
“I’m going over there to speak with our young sister and her ‘friend’,” I answer back, the twitch returning.
“Let it be so,” Tarnue pleads.
“She’s probably already given it up anyway,” GW attempts to dissuade me further.
Her comment has the opposite effect. I rush to the table like a bull aggravated by the sight of red and plop myself in a white plastic chair next to Babyface.
“Can we help you?” Baldy challenges me.
Detecting a European drawl, I launch daggers at him. He looks down self-consciously.
“What your name?” I ask Babyface.
She responds coyly at first, her pearly white teeth opening to reveal dimpled cheeks. Just like my sister.
“What you doing here? Your parents know you here?” Tinged with urgency, the questions hurtle out of my mouth in Liberian colloquial.
The man interrupts again, this time raising his voice a fraction louder. “Can we help you? Her parents know she is here with me.”
“I’m not speaking to you, so I suggest you stay out of this,” I defy him.
“Your ma and pa know you here?” I return to Babyface.
“How old are you?”
She is 16, just two years shy of the age of consent in Liberia.
“Who is this man to you?”
“Da my pa bossman,” she says sheepishly.
“Your pa bossman, hmph! Can you give me your ma number?” I rummage through my bag for pen and paper. She scribbles down a name and number.
“I will call your ma tomorrow, you hear? Try get home soon, now, tomorrow is school.”
Babyface nods, seemingly eager for me to leave the table. I beam my most radiant glare at Baldy, push my chair away from the table with a loud screech and head for GW and Tarnue.
A couple nearby interjects, “You were right to go to that table and speak to that girl. That man is up to no good.”
I am far from mollified. “If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you go there yourself?” The question is meant to shame them but it leaves me feeling more sad than smug.
What spineless cowards we Liberians are, I seethe silently. Not only do we treat foreigners better than we treat each other but we also allow them to come into our country through cracks and crevices.
Set the rules.
Play judge and jury.
Rape our children.
And sit comfortably in beach-front, air-conditioned offices while inserting into our post-war recovery process, plans and procedures plagiarised from previous duty stations in the so-called ‘developing world’.
My internal tirade complete, I concede that what disturbs me most is the legion of Liberian men who prey on girls like Babyface. High-level policy makers. Ministers of the gospel and of government. Teachers and university professors. Married, engaged and single men. They all give Baldy tacit permission to pounce.
Assaults on the female body are commonplace in Liberia, a microcosm of how we derive pleasure from wounding each other. Especially those we deem weak and disposable.
I am ashamed that paedophilia, incest, female genital mutilation, child marriage, sassywood (trial by ordeal) and Gboyo (ritualistic killings) dot the pages of our written and unwritten history.
Foreigners simply parrot and perfect the deviant deeds we defend in the name of ‘norms’, ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’, as if all are static and unmoving. Fixed rather than fluid.
Gulping down a mouthful of musty hot air, I run to a nearby bathroom and empty my breakfast into the toilet bowl.
* * *
The first time I walk into the Iron Lady’s office, in July 2007, I feel woozy from intimidation. I wear an oversized navy blue skirt suit that rustles from lack of use. Like the pounding of fufu with a pestle in a wooden mortar, my two-inch clunky heels meeting the marble tiles sound loud and methodical. The protocol alone of announcing my name at the door makes me want to bolt.
Sparsely decorated and pristine, the room is spacious with a large Liberian flag, hoisted at the entrance, which announces itself as somehow distinct from its nearly American carbon copy. Our white Lonestar swells in a sea of blue, enveloped by red and white stripes. I notice President Sirleaf sitting at her desk in the rear of the room eyeing me with mild curiosity. She does not speak.
Time stands still and I follow its lead.
Mounted on the wall, a massive gold-plated Liberian seal hovers over the president’s head like a halo declaring that the ‘love of liberty brought us here’. A controversial symbol of Africa meeting its diasporas, this motto negates the 16 ethno-linguistic groups who were already ‘here’ when those ‘brought’ over arrived during encounters at once collaborative and contentious.
President Sirleaf glides from the leather chair that has swallowed her small frame. Walking to an oak conference table in the centre of the room, she motions for me to take a seat facing her. I have been forewarned that she is cautious with strangers. But I convince myself that she can grow to trust me, someone equally guarded. People say physical salutations are a faux pas, so I refrain from holding my hand out to shake hers.
The president reminds me of Mom, whose tough exterior can make my back stiffen and the hairs on my arms stand up whenever I am suspected of doing something unworthy of divine favour. I search President Sirleaf’s impenetrable shell for any indication that this living legend is capable of my mother’s softness and vulnerability, hidden from public view, but still very present and real. Noticing a tiny smirk at the inner lines of her mouth, I relax and exhale. She waits for me to proceed.
“Hello, my name is Robtel Neajai Pailey. I am a Liberian and the Scott Fellow assigned to your office,” I manage without pause.
Speaking like a bullet-pointed power point presentation, the president responds by listing projects I will be working on—speechwriting, website management, media engagement, developing government communications strategies. I have been hired to make this woman shine even brighter, I gather, and this fills me with pride. I puff out my chest like a peacock, chime in a few superficial reassurances, and thank her for meeting me. She says something non-committal. Then it is over.
I saunter to the entrance of the office after a half-bow in deference. More assured than a moment before, I sneak a glance at President Sirleaf who is already back at her desk reading something intently. This first one-on-one exchange leaves me feeling infinitesimal, like the stoic head-of-state finds me wanting. The same sensation rushes over me again after her natal day verbal smack down.
* * *
I scoop my bruised ego off the floor in the Iron Lady’s wake. Fresh off the plane from England with a post-graduate degree in African history and politics, I am brimming with militant idealism. It occurs to me that Liberia’s neo-colonial turn could be the source of my mythic outburst about this being ‘our country’.
But is it really? In the years following my reception run-in, I come to realise that we are not as autonomous as I’d like to think—even now, with an internationally respected, Harvard-educated, public administrator president at the helm. Liberia celebrates 160 years of independence on July 26, 2007, just a week after my arrival, but very little about us endures as unmarked by the outside world.
The seed of our existence as a nation is partially planted by the pseudo-humanitarian American Colonisation Society, a Washington, DC-based NGO of influential whites eager to rid the US of free blacks who pose a threat to chattel slavery in the 19th century. We primarily import our staple food, rice, though the Grain Coast is our moniker. Shipments of our iron ore, timber and raw latex are regularly exported, processed, manufactured and then sold back to us at a premium. We use a ‘mysterious’ jailbreak in the US, Gaddafi’s training in Libya, Sierra Leone’s diamonds, weapons from Dutch arms traders, Western Union transfers, and border crossings with neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire in the East and Guinea in the North as gateways to unleash—and sustain—an uncivil war against each other.
Liberian English, our lingua franca, is a cross-breed of American twang, Caribbean patois and West African pidgin. World Bank grants and Chinese construction firms refurbish our roads. And, as if in anticipation that Lebanese and Indian merchants would one day control our economy, Liberia’s founders insist on a constitutional ‘Negro clause’ banning non-blacks from obtaining citizenship.
The ‘scramble for Africa’ conference in Berlin in the late 1800s skips over Liberia and Ethiopia, so we remain haughty about our ‘first black African republic’ status. Long before Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia defeats the Italians in the Battle of Adwa, we Liberians resist French and British colonial encroachment. However, in this 21st century post-war moment, a new scramble is apparent and clear in the underbelly of international development.
Droves of mostly white economic migrants—otherwise known as ‘expats’—carve out their respective spheres of influence in Liberia. They careen through bush and debris like the colonialists and missionaries before them must have on their caravans to ‘save Africa’ while gobbling up large chunks of it. They inhabit most of the prime rental property in Sinkor and Mamba Point, sometimes living alone in palatial apartments overlooking the Atlantic. They gentrify neighbourhoods previously inhabited by poor Liberians who squat in Monrovia during intermittent conflict. Fortified encampments stand side by side with zinc shacks in deep contrasts of wealth and want, plenty and poverty.
Our streets become populated by four-wheel drive jeeps branded with labels like ‘Save the Children’. Often occupied by a single passenger, they meander through traffic as Liberian kids in neatly pressed school uniforms jostle their elders for public transport. In the pitch-black darkness of Monrovia, before all the electrical poles and solar panels are erected—and then expertly ripped out by the disillusioned—‘expats’ with diplomatic, UN and NGO licenses speed through checkpoints like race-car fiends, their vehicles exempt from invasive searching by night police.
Foreigners frequent all the posh restaurants and entertainment spots dotted across the city, ordering alcohol, shisha and cigars that total more than an average Liberian’s annual salary. Some of their tax-exempt salaries feed a machinery of capital flight, covering mortgages, student loans, stocks and bonds. During contractual R&R trips abroad, ‘expats’ brag to friends and relatives that they are ‘helping’ Liberia. By accepting and feeling entitled to above-average salaries and benefits funded by domestic and foreign budgets, even repatriates, or ‘repats’ like myself, are complicit in legitimising this dangerously lop-sided system.
Attending one too many meetings about ‘fragility’, ‘debt servicing’, ‘macro-economic stability’, ‘security sector reform’, ‘participatory poverty assessments’, I observe how development, a multi-billion-dollar industry, reproduces itself. The heavily laden jargon makes my head spin. Mimicking multi-syllabic phrases, my tongue swims laps in an alphabet soup of acronyms. The by-words of post-war reconstruction culminate in a foreign language invented in Geneva, Brussels and DC. Homegrown solutions seem much too parochial. Imported international ‘best practices’ are just right.
I vow to infiltrate this world so I can one day debunk it, watching in stupefied horror as Liberia transforms into a post-war mecca for enterprising ‘expats’ and ‘repats’. It is but a shadow of its mid-20th century self when our longest serving president, William VS Tubman, introduces the Open Door Policy to court foreign direct investment. Extraction and exploitation are twin imperatives then and now. Fearful that multi-nationals will abscond, we grant them tax havens. We allow Asian and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs to broker dubious deals with the collusion of politicians swayed by wads of cash delivered to them in brown envelopes. Nigerian, Ghanaian and Ivoirian businessmen swagger from a hustle that we demean as beneath us.
Yet, our miniscule cash-based budget, years of financial mismanagement and state implosion propel some of us to constantly be on our knees, hands outstretched with a begging bowl. But most of the money we manage to secure from the outside world does not even reach our shores. Pledges of donor largesse eventually end up in the pockets of aid workers, consultants and ‘technical’ assistants who flock here to grab a piece of the elephant meat. Or it lines the accounts of bureaucracies in Europe and North America as ‘overhead’. Aid is indeed a charade, more strategic than altruistic.
According to a Liberian male colleague who is chummy with foreigners in a way that I refuse to be, we are easily governed. The mantra in the international rumour mill has become, ‘If you want to run a country, go to Liberia’. We allow ‘expats’ to camouflage as ‘experts’ and this spirals me into a permanent state of rage.
* * *
African-American literary phenom Alice Walker, of The Colour Purple fame, writes a book of essays entitled We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. Once I adopt this as my mantra for Liberia, I start noticing important signs that make me less riled about my country and its people.
I watch President Sirleaf publicly skewering diplomats and donors urging them to ‘shorten the road between commitment and cash’, and feel exhilarated. In international fora, Liberian academics and activists expose the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to development as inherently flawed, dismissing foreign prescriptions in their writing and advocacy. I sit in on meetings with Liberian lawyers who revise drafts of our revenue code, inserting clauses that multi-nationals must pay taxes.
In my first year working with President Sirleaf, an Austrian development worker irks me with her diatribes about Liberia’s dysfunctionalities. Typical of her lot, she expects me to co-sign her condescension because, technically, I am not one of ‘them’. When I respond with a deadpan look, she tilts her head as if taken aback by my indifference. I ask her why she doesn’t just leave the country and quit complaining.
What I really want to do is conk her head and tell her to go back to wherever she’s parachuted in from. That Liberians could care less about her self-righteousness because we are too busy internalising almost two centuries of collectively-inflicted harm.
Months later, when a brash American evangelical I have never spoken to or heard of calls my phone insisting that he needs to see ‘Ellen’ urgently about a private matter, I tell him in jest that I can only schedule an appointment on demand if he will guarantee a one-on-one meeting between me and ‘Dubya’ in the Oval Office.
He hangs up in a huff.
I giggle in glee.
Back then, I am 25 and cheeky. With wishbone-shaped legs and wobbly knees.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is an academic, activist and author of the monograph Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press), as well as the anti-corruption children’s books Gbagba and Jaadeh! (One Moore Book). Visit www.robtelneajaipailey.com for more information.