Sunday, February 19, 2006


Across the River

After taking a day to dry out from my last patrol, I set out this Wednesday to the town of Gboata, lying on the border of Liberia and Guinea. It is a small town, of maybe one or two hundred people. Its market day, so the town chief is out. We sit down and meet with the school principal, instead. By the looks of the town, all the adults are at the market, as we are quickly surrounded by dozens of kids, and two adults. After a while, two teenagers show up as well. The principal teaches in a school on the edge of town, with about one hundred fifty students. Both he and the five teachers who work for him are all 'volunteers'. Although obstinately working for the government, they just laugh when asked if they’ve been paid.

This is all too common a problem. In Monrovia, there are a number of slightly odd signs about, which warn "stop bribery in our schools." According to our security guards here in Gbarnga, this is the only way that the teachers make a living, by letting their pupils purchase better grades from them. The children of our guards, however, are all lucky enough to be able to send their kids to schools run by various missionary organizations. There, the teachers are paid, and the quality of their education is much better. But in the smaller towns, the residents aren't so lucky. You would hope that in the bush, all the residents of a town would gang to support the teacher, and in theory, this is what does happen. But the reality is that when the teachers are put in the position of depending on others for survival, they tend to show more leniency to the families that help them a little bit more.

Surprisingly, the town does have some promising government presence of a different kind. The far edge of town is manned by two officals, one who works for the Liberian customs agency, and the other who works for immigration. They even have a little gate crossing the road, and a Liberian flag on a crooked, twenty foot long bamboo pole to make it all look official.

The closest operable market for the town is across the river, in Guinea, so today, on market day, a large number of people will head over there to sell coffee and coconuts and cola nuts. The market is also better stocked than most in Liberia, allowing them to buy second hand clothing and batteries and little cubes of chicken soup. The customs agent reports that he dutifully writes down the names of everyone crossing the border in his book, and that nobody who doesn't live nearby crosses the border there. Only locals, he says, about ten or fifteen on market day. The rest of the week, it's quiet.

We have them join us in the truck, and we drive the one kilometer past the town, and to the river. The river however is currently just a large creek. A huge tree lies across the water, just to the side of the road. We get out of the truck and run across. Too easy. We look back at the river and comment that I'll bet people can drive across. Of course, they reply, no problem. The water is less than two feet at its deepest, so Liu and I try to gauge how firm the sand is. "I'll try it," proclaims Liu and he demands the keys from me. He runs back across, starts up the car, and promptly drives into Guinea.

We had noticed a couple people up the road a little further, and while we were messing around at the border, a minivan full of about twenty people with five feet of cargo on the roof stops up there, and they begin to unload. We jump into the car and try to drive on by. An old man, who had been there from the start, keeps waiving us over and yelling something at us, so I park and we get out, next to the van. Nestor, another team member starts rattling off in French with the man, and promptly informs us he is Guinean customs.

We try and negotiate our way past him, wanting to drive up a mile to check out the market. He refuses so we throw a load of questions at him, through our interpreter. He claims much the same; that no one comes by except on market day, and even then only ten or so. Another vanload of people arrives, and they start unloading, waiting patiently to have their stuff checked. It appears the standard procedure involves the customs agents at check through the baggage, which is quite promising. The agent tells us he checks for weapons and drugs. When I ask about people smuggling gold or diamonds, would he notice those, he waves me off, "they use the main road."

We bid farewell, and return back across the border. The two Liberian agents have taken their places on a couple previously unseen wooden chairs, waiting for the people to cross, sitting upright, and trying their best to look official. At least they're trying.

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