Akiva Fishman’s summer in Liberia. Part 2

To pick up Akiva Fishman’s narrative from where we left off yesterday…

“The last point on Liberian laziness is the issue of the lingering effects of the war (even 9 years hence). Beyond the question of what it does to a person’s motivation to work when they have lived through fifteen years of utter brutality and feel that instability may still be lurking around the corner, I have little doubt that there is a staggering amount war-related trauma (though there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the effects of community structures in West Africa on people’s ability to cope with trauma). My understanding is that this isn’t really documented as there has been almost no work done on mental health in Liberia, but I have heard enough stories that I am amazed by the number of people who dreamily tell me to come back in ten years and see how wonderful the rebuilt Liberia will be.

When I first arrived I was very curious to hear people’s war stories, but I was certainly not about to ask anyone to share. From what I had gathered and can now confirm with decent confidence, almost every person in the country suffered direct personal loss, often as direct witness, and I did not want probe. But it turns out that I didn’t have to do anything. Many people simply launched into their story after only recently having met me. I’ll just give the example of a friend who works for the Forest Development Authority. He knows very little about me, but during our third time meeting for lunch he started to tell me his experiences from the war unprompted. The stories may be disturbing so read the rest of the paragraph cautiously. He never said that his stories are private, but for whatever reason it feels weird to give his name, so I’ll call him Jojo. Story 1: Jojo went to steal food with some friends because he was hungry. They were caught by a guy with a gun who said he would shoot three of them as punishment for looting. He said he would kill them slowly. He shot the first guy in the leg and then started shooting him up his body. Then something exploded and Jojo immediately climbed over a wall and ran. Story 2: Jojo was hanging out with some friends when they heard fighting moving in their direction. They all hid except for one who said he wanted a breath of fresh air. They left him sitting in a chair outside. While hiding they heard an explosion and when they later came out their friend was sitting where they left him, but his head wasn’t on his body. Story 3: Jojo was walking down a road and caught the eye of someone walking in the opposite direction. The other guy disappeared for a minute and then reappeared with an uzi and started chasing Jojo. Jojo hid in a washhouse where a woman was bathing. He said, “I’m not looking at you naked, please just let me hide.” The guy with the uzi came by and asked if she’d seen Jojo. She pointed in another direction and said, “he went that way.” The guy checked and came back and said, “are you sure?” She said yes. After the war, Jojo had a job working for UNHCR registering returnees. The guy who had chased him ended up on his line and kept moving to the back. Eventually Jojo went up to him and said, “why did you try to kill me?” The guy shrugged and said he was sorry. Jojo told him to forget about it and register. Jojo still sees the guy around from time to time.

The last unpleasant experience I’ll share (although as I read this over it seems inappropriate to speak of unpleasant things that happened to me after having related Jojo’s stories) took place on Liberian Independence Day. I went with a few friends to watch a children’s soccer game on the beach. We had been invited because my friend Leah had become morning running buddies with the coach. The soccer game was excellent. The kids, who ranged in age from around 8 to 13, were split up into Chelsea and Barcelona and adorably sported an odd assortment of dirty and torn up blue or red T shirts, sweatshirts, and jerseys. They loved having white strangers cheering them on and we got them candy after the game to celebrate. On the way to the game, though, we were stopped on the beach by a group of 6-8 young men who demanded payment to let us pass. Their excuse was that it was Independence Day. (As an aside, Independence Day – July 26th – seems to involve gift-giving, but “gift” is the wrong word because these gifts are expected and not only of family and friends. When someone first asked me for their “26th” I had no idea what was meant and probably created some false expectations by wishing many people a happy 26th.) Back to the beach, I was prepared to ignore the men and keep walking (there were six of us and there were other people on the beach), but my Liberian friend Tarnue quickly took the men aside and gave them some money. When he rejoined us I asked without hiding my annoyance if he really paid them. He said yes and explained that they were ex-combatants and that the situation had actually been a bit dangerous.

The issue of how to de-mobilize, disarm, and reintegrate ex-combatants into post-conflict society is challenging and something that many people have thought about. I don’t have any wisdom to share on how to do it well, but my impression is that the way it was done in Liberia is problematic. There don’t seem to be many guns around, but many ex-combatants are now involved in crime in some way. They have stuck together in part because they are not yet welcome back into society and people are still intimidated by them. Certainly the effects of the havoc they wreaked are apparent most places you look, whether in the form of men with missing limbs, crumbling abandoned buildings, or charred exteriors of structures that faired a bit better and can house tenants despite their appearance. Many of the ex-combatants drive the motorcycles in Monrovia that provide the most common means of transport along with shared taxis, and there are not infrequent accounts of people’s wallets being snatched while paying for their ride, or of bags being ripped off shoulders by a passing bike. I have to say, though, that bands of ex-combatants committing petty crime is not as jarring to me as the fact that ex-warlords responsible for wartime atrocities are not only still at large but are currently serving in the Senate! At lunch one day with a Liberian friend, my friend told me nonchalantly that the man sitting behind him, apparently a prominent guy, was XYZ notorious warlord. I know that a great deal of compromise is critical to achieving stability in the immediate aftermath of armed conflict, but it’s still difficult to stomach the notion of mass murderers drafting policy for the betterment of Liberia.

Enough negative stuff. I have a new best friend named Roxy. She is a monkey that lives in the compound across the street from my office where I keep my suits so that I don’t sweat in them on my walks to work in the morning. Now, you have to understand that it has been a fantasy of mine for years to play with a friendly monkey. Playing with a coati while working in a petting zoo in Israel was great, but I wanted a MONKEY. So I was thrilled to learn that I finally had my chance, though I was nervous that the monkey wouldn’t want to play. The first time we met I brought half an orange as a peace offering. I was planning to hide it initially and see if the monkey would want to play for play’s own sake before resorting to bribery. But I got nervous and advanced slowly with the enticement clearly presented in front of me. The money looked at me, then at the orange. She stepped forward, took the orange out of my hand and set it on the ground, and then jumped into my arms. I almost cheered.

Detracting significantly from our relationship is the fact that Roxy is chained to a booth since she is the pet of one of the guards at the compound. There is significant pressure on populations of endangered species, especially monkeys and apes, which are both hunted for food and captured as pets. I felt guilty being involved in exacerbating this pressure even in a minor way, and only took slight solace in the knowledge that my playing with Roxy didn’t add much to the harm that had already been done because once a monkey is taken from the wild it won’t live if it goes back. I had the opportunity to add some points to the positive side of my moral tally on a trip with a few EPA colleagues to Sinoe County to inspect a large Malaysian oil palm plantation. The inspection merits a whole other email (and actually resulted in a number of recommendations for reforming EPA procedures) but relevant here is that during the first night we stayed in Greenville I heard what sounded like monkey cries. Screaming chickens and goats I expected in the County capital, but not monkeys. When I asked about it someone mentioned that a couple of chimps were being kept nearby. I asked to be taken to see them and was led to one of the more depressing sites I’ve ever seen – three baby chimps hunched against a house nibbling on some chunks of bread. I met the guy who lives in the house, an expat. He explained that he bought the chimps from a guy in the street who had presumably killed the mother for food and was trying to make a few extra dollars by selling the babies (which go for around $10-$30 each). When I probably let on too obviously that I was horrified and the expat walked away I called my friend at the Forest Development Authority who got in touch with the local branch and sent somebody over. The expat was arrested (no doubt let free shortly thereafter) and the babies were confiscated and taken to the nearby national park. Obviously my getting the authorities involved was somewhat hypocritical but my feelings for Roxy aside, I wanted to at least contribute a little toward discouraging expats from supporting the illegal trade in protected species. The truth is though that there is so much pressure on chimps, among other animals in Liberia, that it is going to take much more than an awareness campaign among expats to have an impact. For one thing, the national park to which the chimps were taken is protected on paper, but there is basically no actual protection going on on the ground. But at least there is a law that can be enforced at some point when the capacity and political will is there. There are a series of other areas that have had the status of “proposed protected areas” for years and are languishing in the legislature.

Speaking of chimps, one of my more memorable experiences involved chimps marooned on some islands. The New York Blood Center began an experiment on chimpanzees in the 70s and when the experiment ended (with a new vaccine for one of the varieties of hepatitis) the Blood Center was contractually bound to feed the chimps until their death by natural causes. During the war the chimps were moved to six small islands in one of the rivers that feed into the Atlantic. So now, three of the locals who worked on the experiment are paid to go out every day to feed them. This is not a tourist attraction, but some expats learned about the operation and have been passing around the phone numbers of the feeders, who are happy to take visitors. You meet them at a specified time at a particular place where the road comes to an abrupt stop at a dock, and after they load up the boat with baskets of papaya, bananas, sugarcane, coconuts, bread, and milk, you hop in and motor off into the mangroves. The chimps put on quite a show, hooting at us each time we approached an island and then going nuts when food was thrown over. The feeders, who the chimps are used to, got out of the boat and walked up to the islands, but we spectators were advised not to get out. Sage advice given that one chimp hurled a papaya that smashed on the boat, a second started swinging a coconut threateningly until a feeder pegged it with something hard, and a third climbed a branch hanging above the boat and broke off a stick which it threw at us (fortunately doing damage only to the water near the boat). A downpour was the only reason I was limited to about 100 pictures and video clips.

I’m tempted to write a thousand other things but instead I’ll just list a couple of interesting tidbits:

·         The cars here that are not used by expats are fairly uniformly piles of crap. I can’t say whether they are simply driven until way past when they would be junked in a developed country or they are imported that way from countries that find no use for them. This made for an ironic experience when on my way to work I watched as the wheel of a pickup truck loaded down with tires it was transporting somewhere pop off and start rolling away.

·         The omnipresence of NGOs has infected society with daily abuse of NGO-speak. People in government are constantly talking about capacity. Building capacity, lack of capacity, etc. And then one day I joked with my favorite security guard at EPA about how she is keeping me safe. She said she can’t actually protect anybody – her job is to “monitor.” Are you serious?

·         I had to use a password at one of the hotels I frequented to bum some internet time. Meanwhile my friend was able to freely tap the national security agency’s network.

·         My supervisor’s nickname for me is aKEE. It’s the way you’d say my name in Liberian English, which chops off the ends of most words. A few words are actually pronounced differently. My favorite example is “install,” which is pronounced “instroy.” A friend told a highly amusing story about getting anxious about what would become of her car when her mechanic announced that he was going to “instroy” her engine. I like the nickname because its more specific than “white man” (pronounced “why ma”) which is what every Liberian child will keep adorably calling out until I smile and wave at them. Also, it’s way better than some of the names I came across such as Handful (a 16-year-old who is the black sheep of her family – I wonder why), Surprise (seems almost Biblical, kind of like the origin of the name Issac), and Resurrection (apparently the mother died at childbirth). But I think aKEE loses out to Scholastica, one of my colleagues.

·         I told a colleague that I’m Jewish. First question: Oh so you’re from Israel? Ok that was expected. Except that it became less expected when I learned that in college he studied mystics (huh?), theology, and anthropology – that gave me the impression he should have been a bit more worldly/educated. But then the question made sense again when he started trying to convince me that Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. Ok, so I had a bit of a picture for the religious outlook I was dealing with. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn. He asked me if the Jews (actually he started saying “Judaisers” until I he heard me say “Jews” and adopted my terminology) still believe that they have a direct connection with god. I explained that our notion of a direct line of transmission ended with the last of the prophets or at latest with the destruction of the Temple. So what do Jews do in synagogue, then, he asked? I replied that they pray to god – god does not speak directly to them, but there is still a connection. He said that if it’s true that the Jews today don’t practice the same way they did in the time of the Old Testament he has a serious problem with Judaism. I asked him for his thoughts on the existence of Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc. His response was, well that’s different – Christianity is not a religion. Oh, I said not able to conceal a grin. What is Christianity? Well, he explained, god sought out the Jews. Abraham was an atheist before god spoke to him and the fact that god sought him out shows that Judaism is a religion. Christianity is the reverse – Jesus sought out god. Therefore Christianity isn’t a religion – it’s a relationship with god. Unfortunately I never got to the bottom of this because we were interrupted by the start of a meeting.  But I did learn that apparently Charles Taylor converted to Judaism in prison!

·         I tried to go with a few friends on Independence Day to the celebration that the President and other government officials were attending. We didn’t have invitations, though, so instead we waited outside the nearby Ministry of Justice to see if we could catch a glimpse of anything exciting. The head of security for the Ministry of Justice (!) offered to get us inside if we paid him off.

·         I met up with a group of Liberians and expats one Saturday to participate in the Hash. On its face the Hash is just a group of people that meet to go running every week and go out for drinks afterward. But it’s kind of a fraternity also – everyone has a Hash name, there is an initiation ceremony, and there are traditional songs that are sung (Swing Low) with special hand gestures (inappropriate, you can guess). I wouldn’t mention it except that it has an interesting back story. Apparently it started in colonial India. A British captain was frustrated with his men who were getting out of shape because they were spending too much time getting high in the hash shops. He made one of them strap on a backpack full of beers and had the others chase after him. It caught on among the colonies and there is now supposedly a Hash in most of the places England stuck its flag plus some.

·         Some Liberians think of their country as America’s close friend. Perhaps understandable given the history of Liberia’s founding, its use as an American staging ground in Africa during WWII, and the significance of American aid in the country. But the guy who sells wood carvings that I would chat with on my way to work started telling me about his financial problems and how he realized that even though Obama sincerely wanted to help him, his efforts were being blocked by the Republicans.

Lots more stories, but I think I’ll cut if off here. Major kudos if you made it this far J


Epilogue: I landed in the US yesterday and was surprised that the first thing I appreciated about being back in New York was not having to be conscious of keeping my mouth closed for fear of accidentally swallowing water and getting sick. One thing I did NOT appreciate about being back in NY was that I was reminded that some of the US currency I carried back from Liberia may be counterfeit (I have heard that about half of the dollars in Liberia are fake). The Russian guys at the barber shop where I went to get my hair cut questioned the authenticity of the $20 bill I handed them but eventually they took it. The flight itself was plain – unfortunately so given that David Blaine was onboard. I did see him do one of his signature card tricks for a kid in the waiting lounge though!


Thanks, Akiva, for sharing your brilliantly-told narrative on your Liberian experience…the good, the bad, and the ugly…with the rest of us.

We’ll keep an eye out for your name going forward. You’re on track to be a difference-maker. Continuing best wishes.

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