When I was 24 years old, my mother died. She was the strongest and toughest woman I knew and fear of her had kept me on the straight and narrow path – afraid to really live. In the past, I had rebelled against her by refusing to get an office job and becoming a bartender but her influence still controlled me. I was terrified to try the joints passed to me at parties because I was convinced that the moment I placed one to my lips, the police would burst through the door and arrest me. I could vividly picture my mother’s disappointment and anger as she bailed me out of “Drugs Prison.” It was clear that this would lead to my bright future unraveling and a destiny as an “unwed mother” working in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. However strong my fear, she was also the one who always fixed things. Without her, I didn’t know how to navigate my life and I had lost my magnetic North. So in my haze of grief and untethered from her disapproval, I found myself adrift – and looking for an escape from responsibility and from suburban America.
So I followed a timeworn path followed by other mad white people from around Europe, North America, and Australia – I went to Africa to save the people. Classic White Savior trope. I was going to use my heartbreak and grief and powerful American passport to save Africa – even if I didn’t yet realize that Africa was not a country, white girls like me were a dime a dozen, and that all humanitarian aid workers fell into one of three “M”s: Mercenaries, missionaries, or misfits.
That’s how I found myself on a plane from Lagos to Monrovia in 2003 with a more experienced 27 year old aid worker named Michelle. She was showing me the ropes and was an old hand. She casually tossed out facts to me that in retrospect were designed to terrorize me – “ there are about 5000 Nigerian and Ghanaian peacekeepers in Monrovia right now,” she told me as she casually sorted through her purse. “They are there to keep the rebels and the government forces from tearing each other’s throats out. But god knows what will happen if they are tested. They are completely outnumbered and can’t even control the airport.” I nodded and tried to pretend like I knew was happening and desperately tried to look cool.
The tiny plane bounced along over the rain clouds- rainy season in West Africa. The outline of the West African coast was our map. This was the “milk run” – we stopped and expelled passengers and picked up new ones in Conakry, Abidjan, and Freetown. The people getting on and off the plane could have been in a John Le Carre novel. Skinny bald French gangsters in plaid suits with fat gold chains, sweaty fat Nigerian business men, bored Lebanese men who smoked incessantly and tried to catch my eye. Aside from two flashy women in outrageous weaves with skin tight clothes – better suited for the disco than the dinky airport in Freetown – Michelle and I were the only two women on the plane. I wore my aid worker uniform – khaki pants, a black tank top with a white no-iron shirt opened over it, and tevas. But my tevas were new and my white shirt was unblemished. Michelle’s tank top was grey and stretched out and baggy- which proved she was a real aid worker who had “field clothes,” unlike me – who had purchased everything on a shopping trip to Old Navy with my sister two weeks before.
My father frets about me doing this work – do you have health insurance? Do you have a pension plan? I know he worries about the men I’ll meet – freaking out that I might show up with a Liberian child soldier turned business man and some illegitimate child. My father is proud of my daring, though. But he also worries. Mostly that I’m going to be killed in some sort of Hollywood shootout. I don’t know how to reassure him that I feel safer going into this war zone than I did in my cheap apartment in Washington DC where I heard gunshots on a daily basis and was once chased down O Street by a hooker for daring to poach her territory. I don’t know how she thought I was going to poach customers from her unless there is a group of DC men who have a secret yen to get it on with hippie girls in grateful dead skirts, ankle bells, and Birkenstocks. I wish there were – I never seemed to get dates in that uptight city of student body presidents and “the man behind the scene” types that populate that place.
Finally the plane begins its descent to Monrovia – I lean towards the window to get a glimpse of where I will be living for the next 8 months. To my disappointment, it looks just like where I left – South Carolina. Red clay, rambling green trees, and grey squat buildings. Except these buildings are mostly missing roofs, and the runway is not paved – just a slushy strip of that deep red mud. We land and the door opens up and the smell of Liberia washes in - wood smoke, dark pungent earth, and something faintly sweet – something I can’t place. We start to climb out down the stairs and onto the runway – not mud as I had assumed – gravely but covered in puddles of muddy red water.
My first impressions: A derelict old plane has been pushed over to the side in a field – rotting and covered with mildew. Giant white cargo planes with the black block letters of the UN are parked in front of the airport. Tanks line the runway and bored African men in uniform lean on top. Men in uniform are everywhere - and a contingent of Nigerian soldiers snap to attention and salute as the man behind us emerges. He’s in a magnificent peacock blue robe and wears extremely dark sunglasses even though it is overcast. A truck full of soldiers pulls up and the African soldiers jump out leisurely- laughing and joking and slapping each other the back, oversized helmets hanging over open handsome faces. They shout to each other and start throwing bags into the back of the truck.
Michelle and I are insignificant specks of dust in this world of important men –swept away and overlooked as the Nigerian dignitary is greeted and fawned over. I hike my backpack over my shoulder as the thick humid Liberian air clogs my lungs and start trudging to the airport building. Just like in the movies, there are drums in the distance.
I accompanied the senior protection officer, John, to the stadium in Monrovia where thousands of displaced people live. I entered the warren of training rooms, locker rooms, and other hallways meant once for football teams and athletic demigods, and the smell was a mockery of the smell of good honest sweat and hero worship that should be there. It stunk of unwashed bodies pressed in together, of fires to cook unappetizing meals of bulgur wheat usually without even a bit of salt to enliven the taste. The building reeked of body odor, urine and shit. This is what it smells like when you press thousands of people together in one compound to help them live and protect each other just by the sheer mass of their bodies.
I walked in there, scared but also feeling rather fearless. I would not be repulsed. I would not flinch. I didn’t know what I was going to see on this, my first trip to a displacement camp, but these were human beings and they needed their human dignity restored. And I was going to do it.
Liberian society is dominated by extremely pushy men that have negotiated some power as “block leaders” or “chiefs” who you have to meet with and have long convoluted conversations with before you can get to the business at hand of trying to talk to the women and assess their needs. I was impatient but I knew I had to put on my best face, try not to be irritated, anxious, and pushy right back at them. Although I had only been in the country for a few weeks, I already knew that Liberians liked to “palaver” and formalities could take forever. As a cultural anthropologist, I knew the importance of the formalities but I hated them!
I sat smiling and writing in my notebook, listening to their grievances – there’s not enough food, you should pay us to ask us these questions… John had told me that these are common complaints. Ask any refugee or IDP anywhere in the world how things are going and they will tell you immediately – “they don’t give us enough food”. And it would be pathetic and sad if it weren’t for the old Catskills joke that immediately popped into my head. “the food – its so bad. Yes, and not enough of it.” Of course, I’m sympathetic – I struggle with my own food issues. I am not that picky about WHAT I eat but I am about how its prepared. I like spices. I like tasty foods. I wish I was a gourmet chef. But I’m not. I’m a Southerner so I travel with Tabasco sauce and instant grits so that I can always have SOMETHING I can eat if things get bad.
I look at the sacks of donated bulgur wheat with the irritating USAID logo printed on it – two white hands stretched out shaking with the phrase “a gift from the American people” printed alongside and idly watch the Liberian women cooking it over open fires inside the hallways, adding some small dried fish from the nearby market to flavor it. They are already complaining – why can’t we have rice? Don’t the Americans know that Liberians like rice? I do wonder about the bulgur wheat. Why are American farmers growing bulgur? For export to Lebanon to make innumerable tabouli salads? Has the bottom dropped out of the tabouli market?
I am sitting on a little plastic stool – the best seat in the house. The Africans really know how to treat their guests. The best food, the nicest seat, formal, treating you with importance. John is talking, explaining our mission, getting their permission. I sit smiling and nodding and waiting. I’m finally going to talk to some refugees and my real life is about to begin. I fidget and try to pay attention as the old men talk and talk. I doodle – anxious to get out of this smelly hot room and try to ignore the sweat running down my back and soaking through my underwear. I’m from the South but I can’t handle living without air conditioning. There is no air here in the inner offices of these men and it is stifling.
These Liberians have almost nothing but they hold themselves with dignity. The old men reminding you to shake hands properly, bringing out old ledger books, and carefully preserved papers that have been handed out to them by humanitarian agencies in the past. Listing their grievances carefully and formally and looking at me as if there was something I could do about it.
I’m ashamed at my impatience with them but I’m also excited.
The little kids gather around me. I’ve got a digital camera and am snapping photos and showing them their photos and they are laughing and laughing. The boys strike crazy macho poses- holding up stringy arms and popping out their nonexistent biceps. “White womaaa, White womaa – over here over here” they sing to me. The girls with their braided hair giggle and giggle and smile shyly and reach up to hold my hands. The boys fight and roll around and push against each other trying to get closer to me and my magic camera. Half-naked little babies stagger up to me, their faces smeared with snot and eyes round. They gape in horror at my ghastly pale skin and freakish red hair and begin screaming and crying. Their mothers laugh and scoop them up to reassure them. Most of the children have only one item of clothing – undies or a shirt but not both. The bloated stomachs and skinny legs of the girls make them seem like heavily pregnant women – they already act mature and maternal – scolding the little babies, bouncing them on their hips, and even carrying some of them around wrapped on their backs.
John and I walk slowly through the corridors - he’s talking on his mobile to our driver and I’m entertaining the children. Our bright blue t-shirts sort us into our tribe – we wear a uniform so the Liberians can tell us apart. Today, we’re not the only aid workers in the stadium – ICRC is unloading some supplies off a truck out front. They are incredibly organized and their Liberian staff wear small white tunics with the iconic red cross over their polo shirts. The boxes are sorted, the Liberian elders are overseeing the delivery and the only other white person in the stadium is solemnly shaking hands in the complicated handshakes that Liberians prefer.
The white man turns to watch us walk by. He’s young - a thin European man – I can tell by his haircut and by the way he wears his jeans – much thinner and tighter than an American man would ever be comfortable with. French, I think – looking at the stubble. He’s unrumpled and fresh in his blue button up shirt opened just a bit too low to be formal. He looks like he just stepped out of an air –conditioned office somehow even though the truck standing next to him is covered in dust and mud. I feel sweaty and frizzy just looking at him. Self-consciously, I throw my chin up a bit and try to project confidence and authority. “He can tell I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, “ I think – “He thinks I’m a fraud.”
“Sebastian!” John waves towards him, tucking his phone between his shoulder and ear and pointing at me, “this is our newbie.” I smile. Sebastian nods and smiles politely. The smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. John keeps talking into his mobile and we keep walking with our retinue of Liberian children plucking at my shirt and begging for my attention. I am aware of Sebastian’s eyes following us and I feel silly and frivolous and young. What an arrogant Frenchman – typical cheese-eating surrender monkey. Oh great- now I’m channeling Donald Rumsfeld. What has Liberia done to me? I hear him laughing at something one of the Liberians said and my bravado crumbles - I have the sensation that I am a small child pretending to be an adult in high heels.