Tuesday, March 28, 2006

 

Border Guard

Last week, on a patrol up to the Guinea border, we walked an hour past town to one of the four river crossings to talk with the customs agent who mans the outpost. The place was in the middle of the wilderness, literally miles from anywhere. The St Paul’s river flowed through, separating Liberia from Guinea, and there on the border, in the midst of the bush was an old man, quietly checking all who passed. Josiah was a wonderful man, proud of his post, and taking his job seriously. He quickly took to his foreign visitors, quick to tell us everything that passes, how much he charged and how often people walked through. For this job, he received no formal salary, and I pressed him on what he does with the customs fees. He tells me that he takes them up to the regional office every few weeks, but confided that the office will usually let him keep seventy-five percent or more as a per diem. Here is a man, who lives in a small mud house, and walks an hour to work every morning. He tells me that his one request is for the customs department to come and build him a small shelter in his post, because when it rains, he is left out standing in the shower. The remittances that the customs office lets him keep amounts to maybe four dollars a week, but even in the bush, that is not enough to survive. Although his family does not live in the area, he relies on his brother and sisters, he tells me, to farm and to help him live.

Not convinced that they had customs agents at all four postings, I asked the names of the other three, which he promptly rattled off. The fourth name on the list, though made me blink. In the middle of the bush, working on the edge of the river, in the far reaches of northern Liberia, stands one John the Baptist. I look around at the wilderness, and can’t think of a more appropriate place. I didn'’t ask Josiah if he eats locusts, but we laugh together at the shared thoughts. Josiah tells me he isn’t sure how John got that name, but that is the only name he is known by. I ask if it is his legal name, and Josiah shrugs. Disappointed by the lateness of the hour, I tell Josiah of my resolution to return soon, and to meet John the Baptist.

When we’re done getting the information that we wanted, I finish with a little pep talk. Informing everyone of the importance of the border, them this is how the weapons and fighters first flowed into the country seventeen years ago, I remind them that they stand on the frontlines of peace in their country. As I give this little speech, I see Josiah stand taller and swell with pride. He stands a little taller and gets that shine in his eye. One man, with no defenses, insufficient salary, food and shelter may not be the best way to safeguard the region, but it sure helps. These small, independent officials have only returned to work out here in the past month or two, and their presence is a sign of progress, however meager.






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