Thursday, February 16, 2006


Forty Workers to the Rescue

Several days ago, a patrol in the south east extreme of our sector came back with news of a gold mine not too far from the town of Rock Crusher, where they had been. The problem is that the town of Sega is inaccessible to our vehicles, and is about a two hour walk from the furthest extent of the drive. The locals also bragged about a nearby waterfall, not too far from the mines, said to be the largest in Liberia. None of the towns are on any of the maps we have, and the area is completely untouched by the UN. Immediately, Shahab and I started making plans.

We decided to go with a four man patrol, with two people staying with the vehicle, and two of us on a foot patrol to the mines and then the waterfall. We gather plenty of food for a full day, and set out at 0630 on Monday morning. It is three hours down to Rock Crusher, and we arrive a little after 0930. Asking directions to the waterfall, the locals point down the lane of empty stalls that are used for the local market once a week. Curiously, we drive through the narrow lane, worried about knocking down the feeble structures with our big, white SUV. After making our way through there, and rounding a couple houses, a small path shows itself in the grass, and that quickly opens up into a full-fledged road. Its no wonder previous patrols ever discovered the road, without three locals insisting that there is a road there; you never would have noticed it. We blast out of Rock Crusher with the GPS recording the path of our new-found route. I wonder how many other hidden roads lay waiting to be discovered on the opposite sides of towns we fly by every day.

We pass through three little villages, tucked away into this little corner of Liberia, each time asking for the waterfall, and each town verifying that the end of the road is Kpallah. Through each village, the road continues to get sketchier. As evidence of how little this are is traveled, the road never continues through the towns. We just have to wind through the huts in the direction the townspeople point us toward, and the road eventually picks up again on the other side. Nearly four hours into the trek, we pull into Kpallah. The village of Sega is an hour and a half to two hours walk from here, with the waterfall another thirty minutes to an hour past that. We pull our bags out and ready ourselves for the hike. Berhanu lets us know that he is going with us, so we decide to leave Nestor with the truck.

According to the guidebooks, Liberia is covered by two types of terrain, broadleaf forest, and grassland. The term grassland is deceptive, however, as the grassland is covered with a thick tangle of bushes and vegetation which rise about ten feet high. The area is still fairly heavily forested, with dozens of trees, coconut, pineapple, banana and rubber, springing up every acre. The primary difference between the two types of cover is that in one the canopy is forty feet above your head, in the other, you walk through the thick of the jungle canopy. But Liberia is also a fundamentally humid place. There is no escaping the 80% humidity, and many mornings we awake and drive to breakfast through some of the thickest fog imaginable. Although the fog will burn off by early morning, the rest of the humidity hangs in the air, and leads to generally overcast days. If you take a look at some of the aerial photos from my helicopter patrol, the distance is quickly obscured by clouds, destroying the possibility of nice clear photography.

The reason this is important is shade. On our foot patrol last week, we were blessed by the overcast Liberian skies. Although the temperature was in the high eighties, and we were certainly soaked with sweat from our two hour walk, we were able to survive quite well. On Monday, however, the skies were mostly open, and unlike the western part of our AOR, this was grasslands, not proffering much in the way of shade. The temperature was in the low nineties, and I’m sure the heat index would have been well over a hundred.

We set off from Kpallah, with one man as our guide. We start our march south, making good time over the nice wide trail. We quickly cross a stream on two thick tree trunks, and make our way up a steady hill. The trail curves slowly to the east and then back south after passing through a small village of a dozen huts. Ten minutes into the journey, a stream of sweat, building up on my forehead, rolls down, and lands solidly my glasses. Another falls down before I can clear my distorted vision. I remove the glasses. We make our way across the endless litany of hills and descents, and wind our way south. Occasionally a felled tree lies across the path, requiring us to pause, and exert ourselves to climb over. We cross three more creeks, each time balancing on a thin tree trunk bending under each step. A little over five kilometers and one hour into the trek, we pause as a second village, this time of four homes. We are informed that Sega is only a half hours walk from here, and we press further.

The trails back into the bush are covered in a large variety of butterflies, constantly swarming around. They are predominantly quite small, most less than one inch in length. The most common have black wings will two yellow stripes down them. There are dozens of others, green and red and blue and orange. At one point along this path, I step on a small branch, half the length of my foot, and two dozen, tiny little black and orange butterflies scatter every which way. They are minute, all around a quarter inch in length, and they fly in a tight little flock, pouncing together on random parts of the track in large groups.

The sun has been dominating us, as we move under small blocks of shade and heat, and it is taking its toll. The path pushed relentlessly upward, somewhat steep for the first distance after the second village. The ground levels off a bit, gives me some temporary relief, and continues to push upwards. Another large felled tree, this time several feet in diameter requires us to take a detour off the main path and around it. We pause for a little food about twenty minutes into this leg just before a final small stream. I eat a cookie, but I am sweating so hard that I can’t salivate. I try to drink some water, but the crumbs absorb all the moisture and I can’t wash it all down. I take a second cookie, and decide that’s enough. We get back up, and finish the five minute walk to Sega. We enter a small clearing of three houses, but our guide directs us to the left, and we soon enter the main village, with more than twenty building.

The townspeople soon gather around to gawk at the three drenched, soaking visitors. Suffering from severe heat exhaustion, I lie down on the first shaded bench I can find, and ask Shahab to take the villagers over somewhere else to interview them. I stay there and try to cool down and recover slightly. Too quickly, Shahab, Berhanu and several of the town’s men return. I am not in good enough condition to continue the additional half hour to the waterfall, but the gold mine is only about five minutes away. I’m feeling good enough to make it there, so I ask our guide if he will carry my pack.

We head out on a tiny path, with about four men having just joined us. Two of them were just walking out of the jungle with shovels and a flat metal pan, but turn back to lead us to their workplace. After a few hundred meters, the jungle opens enough to allow room for three or four small holes in the ground, each five to ten feet square, and filled with water. They direct us past, and crawling over a few more, we reach a slightly larger clearing, with a dozen more similar holes. Four more guys are at the back of this one, shovels in hand, watching as we arrive. Some of our guides shout something in Kpelle, and the workers set aside their shovels, and make their way over to us.

The holes are three or four feet deep, and all about the same size. There is one trough laying next to one, with several pieces of carpet in it, similar to the one we had seen in Dean’s Town, but smaller, to be used for separating the gold and the mud. In the town, when we had asked what they do for work, the answer had been, ‘farming.’ Shahab had directly asked how many people worked at the mine, and the reluctant answer betrayed their feelings about us knowing about the mine. If we had not known about it before hand, we probably never would have found it. The workers here are similarly reluctant. They are not hostile, but unlike Dean’s Town, where the workers had proudly showed us the process, here the answers are more tentative. They don’t volunteer anything until directly asked. Answers are as short and direct as possible.

They claim that the boss man is in Monrovia, where he sells the gold. Of course they have a government permit for the mine, despite the fact that the county mining agents we had interviewed had never volunteered this location to us. The workers claim that they will pull out maybe one or two grams of gold per week, but we have the feeling that the mine is a little more productive than that. The workers are paid L$500 for each gram, and are supported by the local village for food. According to what they volunteered, this accounts for a weekly income of $8-15 US that is split between the eight workers.

We pack up and thank them for their time. What hopes I had that I might make it to the waterfall have been dashed by the twenty minutes of standing, so we split up. Shahab and Berhanu heading off with two guides to check that out, and I head back to Sega to rest. Reaching town, I sit in an open, covered structure with a bunch of children and a couple of the towns women. I negotiate for a small bunch of bananas, and pay them about fifty cents after they refuse to take any money for it. I eat one, and spend my time taking photos of the kids playing. One baby is deathly afraid of the white man, and starts crying every time I look his way or wave at him. Each time, his mother laughs and then starts feeding him to shut him up. She keeps trying to encourage him, and this process repeats every twenty minutes. Two of the boys pull out two baby opossums to play with. One mother, probably a couple years younger than I, informs me that they are having some ‘bush meat’ for dinner. I try to tell her that you should not let the children play with the animals like that, because they carry disease. She dismisses me. A little later, a little girl, of about five comes back over, this time playing with a large beetle as if it is a doll. At one point she even puts it in her mouth. Every time I take a picture, I turn on the preview on the back of the camera, and show them the photo. People will come running from across the village to crowd around and take a look at the little, three inch photo.

The townspeople ask me about help. They need clean drinking water, a school, a clinic, a lot of the same complaints that we hear in most villages. We try to tell them that if they fix the road, then NGOs will come. But they don’t go places unless they can drive there. We insist that the trail could be easily fixed, and the locals tell us that it had been a road before the war.

After an hour and a half the others return. They are desperate for a rest, and we hit the trail back home after twenty minutes. It is after two, and we want to make it back to the car by four so we can be home by dark. Once again, our local guide takes my bag, and for the first bit, we are going strong. I completely don’t recognize the trail for the first half hour. It is still quite wide, big enough to drive a car down if the bridges were repaired and the trees cleaned up. It is quickly apparent that the road was not only allowed to fall into disrepair, but had been broken on purpose. Because of the gold mines, and in order to protect the town, the village cut itself off from the outside. It is apparent from looking at several of the felled trees that they were cut down, with the nice straight cut mark that tells of a power saw. At the mine, several of the workers had said that there was no mining there during the war. But, later, one other had pointed to the first few holes, and tells me they are from the war. Maybe he meant before the war, it is hard to tell. But, whether or not it worked, Sega had tried to insulate itself from the rest of the country. But now, it is struggling with the consequences of that decision, and I’m sure, trying to decide what the likelihood of more war in the future if they do repair the road.

We get to the second village, one third of the way back, and moving quite a bit slower than before. We collapse there and rest for ten minutes, before pushing onward. The hills are not significant, and according to our GPS track we never climb or fall much more than 200 feet, but the road is killing us. We wind through the bush, for forty five minutes more. Along the entire path, there are lots of little trails branching off every several hundred meters, each time diverting into the real bush. Here, where we are walking, it is cleared, nice and wide, but the small footpaths dodge off to the right and left. Most of them go to small farms. Not too big, though, not much more than what we would consider a small garden. Like the rest of Liberia, much of them are wild cassava, cocoa nut, banana trees and the rest. The agriculture remains little more than hunter-gatherer in nature. Some of the more sophisticated farms are small fields of rice, which require careful irrigation. But I see little evidence of these along this route, nothing is directly on it. Just small paths to the scattered farms.

We make it to the first village, now two thirds way back to the vehicle, but just about unable to go on. The GPS informs us that it is only 2.1km, straight line, but there is a long slow curve, adding significantly to the hike. We press on, only to have me call another halt halfway. Now we have 1.4km straight. Berhanu surprises us by pulling out a box of pineapple juice, having hid it from all of us this entire time. We down the box, and summon the courage to finish. When we finally make it back to Kpallah, and the vehicle, it took us three hours to retrace a path we covered in little more than ninety minutes that morning. With the tree of us in bad shape, we decide to let the new guy drive us back. It is a little after four, and we should be able to make it most of the way back to the teamsite by dark. We pull out of the village, and three minutes later, come to a narrow bridge, about fifteen feet long, and composed of seven or eight logs. It is just wide enough for our car, but we send someone out to guide him. They get their signals crossed, and we wind up with our front right tire hanging precariously off the bridge.

We’re stuck. We switch drivers, but the weight of the vehicle is now sitting on the front differential, and we won’t move anywhere. We scavenge a few decent sized logs and attempt to place them under the front tire, but we can’t find anything long enough. We get something in front of the tire, and try and go forward and get it back onto the bridge, but quickly break the half-rotted log.

One half hour into this, it starts raining. Hard. I pull out my light raincoat, but I guess I’m the only one with the foresight to always carry one with me. One hour ago, the cool rain would have felt good. But now, we’re already drenched with sweat, and we have a little more than an hour before dark. We continue to work on the car, and move it backwards, almost off the bridge, but then another temporary log breaks. The embankment to the creek is vertical, about five feet, and we can’t prop anything under it to get the tire on something solid for traction. With all the weight hanging forward and right, the other tires just spin when we try and move the thing. We repair back into the vehicle for a five minute break, and to share a hot MRE four ways. We continue to try to wrestle logs that weigh more than we can lift in our condition, to make some sort of progress.

Shortly after we got stuck, two women carrying baskets on their heads had passed by us, and they apparently had spread word that we needed help. Over an hour after getting stuck, a hoard of thirty to forty Liberian men shows up, all at once. They throw themselves at the problem, and within thirty seconds, four of them are carrying one really nice log from well into the forest that we had desperately needed. A little while another one arrives. We quickly back off, with Shahab behind the wheel to try and back whenever the locals want us to give another try. I spend much of my time, sitting on the bridge, just watching the chaos. There are men everywhere, shouting and gesturing and pointing. They try having twenty people just push the car, with many of them lifting up on one corner. The put logs in various places. Rocks several times the size of my head are found and heaved into place. They try rebuilding part of the foundation. They try placing the jack in several different places. But every time we try and back the vehicle, it doesn’t move. Instead, the spinning of the three tires instead causes some torque spin, with the rear of vehicle slowly inching right, with every try. Shahab and I are worried that when we get the thing off the bridge, it will be at an angle pointed off the road, where we can'’t straighten it out again to get across the bridge.

We have no radio comms to inform our team where we are, and that we are stuck. We are running dangerously low on fuel, and are tired. It is now well after dark, and even if we get it on the road, we have a three hour drive ahead of us. The most bizarre part of the night came when I was sitting on the edge of the bridge, watching the work. I see a figure on the opposite side of the road climb up the embankment from the creek, not using their hands. I realize it’s a woman, with two cats under her arms. She crosses the road, steps by me, crosses the bridge, and disappears into the darkness. What she was doing down in the creek with the workers, and why she had two cats, I don’t know.

The Liberians have been slaving away for several hours, and are still working tirelessly, shouting back and forth in Kpelle. Even if we had the energy to help, we wouldn’t understand what they were saying and would be more of a nuisance than a benefit, so we just stand back and appreciate the help. They dig out a significant amount of dirt, and add foundation for a log under the bridge. Working with just two flashlights, the rain continues to pour. At one point a couple other Liberians come walking down the road, carrying some produce in bags. The others start shouting, “help a brother out! Help a brother out!” and the new workers throw themselves into the operation. More than four and a half hours into it, with nearly a dozen people pushing, the vehicle finally grips, and begins to pull itself out. A cheer goes up. We get off the bridge, and back up.

At this point, we still need to get over it. It is pitch dark, so with Shahab driving, I slowly marshal it across. I have two Liberians, one on each side of me holding a flashlight on each front tire. Shahab has the parking lights on, trying to make out my directions without blinding me. The bridge is just barely wide enough for the car, and we have both tires perched on the crown of the two outside logs. We inch the car across, making adjustments more than once every foot. We finally get across.

We gather everyone around, and thank them for their help. Its nine o’clock, and we can make it home by just after midnight, but nobody is too happy with driving after dark. Their leader informs me that he is hurt, so I give him some first aid, and thankfully it’s just a shallow cut. The four of us, thank them again, and give them some “small, small”. I gave them $20 US, and the rest a little less than that. Still, that’s two weeks worth of labor at the gold mine.

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