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 Big Man -- someone who went abroad, made some money and has something and can give something.”
“Ok. I get it.”
“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?