Monday, January 20, 2014

BM Pulls Up


On my walk home tonight a mass of figures emerged from the dark. A motley crew of Monrovia’s destitute and poor milled about on the sidewalks of Randall Street in front of the metal doors barricaded with heavy metal bars that protected the tires, car parts, generators, gas tanks and kitchen stoves inside. 

Lebanese business people living in apartments above stood out on their balconies and watched with curiousity.  

The amputees, who tail expatriates and wealthy Liberians on crutches at unexpected speeds outside supermarkets and nighclubs, waited quietly among able-bodied, sinewy broad-shouldered men. A bunch of sweaty kids dressed in dusty clothes were jammed in the line, along with a lone, tired and withered mother carrying an exhausted baby on her back.  

Two made-up women, dressed in clothes so tight they looked like they had been painted on, and a baby-faced teenager wearing red hot pants, monitored the situation a few meters from the crowd. Their eyes traced across the bodies of the silver Mercedes Benz and the huge, black four-wheel drives. They knew there was a Big Man inside and wanted their cut.

Burly security men with walkie-talkies formed the line with force, pushing people back against the metal doors. The big man bought out a brown cardboard box filled with stacks of grubby Liberian bills.

The wheelchair crew and the amputees were the first to receive their wads, some of them sang out to the night sky and sped toward Trench Town, the ramshackle seaside home of most of the city’s disabled and war scarred.  

The security man moved from one side of the street to the other, where there was another line. The crowd rolled and crashed into the sidewalk as if they were on the deck of a ship in turbulent waters.

People twitched in panic – the money would soon run out. The Big Man used a thick stick that he placed behind each person that moved forward to receive money, and in front of each person who expected to receive money. Periodically he would chase someone with the stick and strike them, or just threaten the crowd back into place.

Either the money had run out or people had tried to receive a second helping (there were varying accounts amongst the ‘beneficiaries’). The Big Man was ready to leave. His security knocked back people while he chased them away with the stick. 

The cars drove off into the night. 

Two amputees sped off on the back of a motorcycle before they could be robbed. They laughed and raised their crutches to the sky.

I left and walked to the end of the end of the street with a friendly chubby police officer.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“A BM.”

“What?”

“A Big Man -- someone who went abroad, made some money and has something and can give something.”  

“Ok. I get it.”

Pause.

“People don’t know or care who it is or where the money came from, just as long as the person shares it.”

I thought about the Mercedes Benz, the BM who beat people off with a stick (many of whom kept coming back), the unruly crowd that could at any moment swirl into a mob, and the money he distributed wordlessly. Was the Big Man’s version of charity and those in the line-up’s understanding of help or care? 



Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Reading: Behind The Beautiful Forevers


I finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers as the sky in Sinkor, Monrovia grayed and heavy flush of rain fell this morning. The church service downstairs is about to start: mics are being tested, the drummer is beginning to tap and the tinnie skin of the drum and the keyboardist is tracing the chords of a song. We will soon leave so we can hear our own thoughts.

But a brief not on the book before my apartment becomes awash with noise: Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an ambitious work that explores the complex lives of slum dwellers and rag pickers living in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport. Set in the era of globalization and India’s economic boom, Boo’s book, published last year, is a brilliant blend of novelistic style and reportage. An excellent review of the book appears in The New York Times.

A friend sent it to me a few months ago, after a discussion we had about writing in Monrovia and my growing distaste for “news” and dominant forms of journalism. I have always had problem with conventional news or journalism and think is more often stifles rather than enriches our understanding of the complex world that abounds us. Know-all-ism is privileged over complexity and a good news story is too often conceived of as an assemblage of certain components – power, money, death, danger, oppression, a touch of scandal and sensation – elements that will appeal to the imagined audience or “consumer,” who probably doesn’t even exist. We as writers play into this and put together stories as though we are making products to be bought and sold, that will help us make a bit of money and perhaps even a name for ourselves.

Reading books like this restores my faith in reportage and its possibilities. Our biggest struggle as writers is to depict others as human, and present the people, places and issues as faithfully as possible so that other people across the world can imagine what it could be like to live somewhere else, to be someone else. 

Boo delicately weaves the intimate stories of a group of people who live in Annawadi, with the workings of the India’s bureaucracy and political system and broader themes such as corruption, the impact of globalization and India’s rapid economic growth.

Here are some of her thoughts on writing: 

“To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for its least powerful citizens. The better one knows these people, the greater the compulsion to press.”

“When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.” 

These are words and thoughts that I hope will inform my own writing in Liberia and beyond.  


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Islands


I spent Sunday afternoon in a space between the squat zinc-roofed concrete buildings of West Point listening to a Hipco performance by Takun J, who I just finished writing a piece on. 

The stage was a slab of concrete covered with a silver tarpaulin and cordoned off by a barrier made of a thin piece of rope strung between two sticks and the amplifier was heavy and scratchy. Children, mums and dads and gronna boys gathered, danced and threw their hands into the air. 

Monrovia lacks public places in which to play, create and perform, and often feels strangely claustrophobic. The mighty Atlantic stretches beyond its contours -- crashing, rolling, rippling, sparkling -- but is walled away. The city is turned inward, away from the horizon, the ocean and the sky. 

There is very little live music in Monrovia and only a handful of nightclubs that are sleazy and plain boring. 

A friend of mine recently said of a bar many of us foreigners frequent -- “The place epitomizes structural violence.” The UN mission and NGO workers dance between prostitutes and tired waitresses dressed in strange costumes waiting on them. The security workers, the amputees and gronna boys direct white SUVs and pick ups in and out of parking spaces and single women, who can't afford to stay inside, wait for the sweaty drunken men heading out and back to their compounds. 

The show in West Point reminded me of how disconnected the lives of most expatriate workers, and those of elite Liberians, are from those of ordinary Liberians, the struggling masses. 

We are living on an island within this strange island. I was happy to swim elsewhere that afternoon. 




Music for the Masses









Takun J performs in West Point. 




Butterfly performs. 





Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gronna


The Liberian colloqui word Gronna is a fascinating one and has different connotations depending on where you sit in Liberia’s complex class system(s). Grona, is a word that can be used to describe someone who raised themselves and grew up on the streets. It can also mean thug, a gangster, someone hustles, steals or uses drugs. For some, it just means a struggler, someone who hustles to survive -- and perhaps describes the lives of many Liberians. For most, the word is pejorative.

A woman who identifies as ‘grona’ and lives in West Point, one of Monrovia’s largest slum communities puts it this way:

“You sleeping outside, you ain’t got place to stay, you only steal to smoke drugs. Life is difficult for we, the grona people, because your ma not behind you, your pa not behind you. If you die today or tomorrow, no one is going to answer question for you. They can bury you anywhere.”


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mission Mali


Fourty-six men, a platoon from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), were set to depart for Roberts International Airport today to join the African-led International Support Mission to Mali. The C-17 US military transport aircraft that was to carry them could not fly due to a technical problem with the aircraft, according to soldiers. This will be the first ‘peacekeeping’ mission Liberian soldiers have participated in the past 52 years. The last was in 1961, when Liberia provided troops for the United Nations operation in the Congo. The troops will be embedded with the Nigerian Battalion and be there for anywhere between. Liberia's military will be fully autonomous and operational next year, after restructuring and retraining was undertaken after the end of the civil war. 


U.S. marines responsible for mentoring and training troops in the Armed Forces of Liberia.

A female soldier stands outside a United Nations storage container.

Troops conduct a drill. 


A soldier waits to shake President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's hand. 

The Liberian President is the Commander-in-Chief for the armed forces. 

A US marine embraces a troop. 

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf bows her head in prayer with Major General
Suraj Abdurrahman, a Nigerian, who is currently the commander of the AFL.  

A soldier with his family. 

Journalists interview a family member of one of the troops.  

A mother waits with her son in the rain. 




Monday, May 13, 2013