Friday, April 28, 2006


Traffic Advisor

Whenever I’m depressed and frustrated with the ineptitude of the UN, I am always brought back by some of the locals-- there is a strong and flourishing spirit here. They have a wonderful flair, mixing humor, religion and pride into their local color. You can see it in some of the town names; small groupings of mud houses with dirt floors go by the name of Money Sweet-ta, Poor Boy Town, Say Where, Bigboy Town, Smell No Taste, Underwear, Monkey Tail, the list goes on. Some of the more unimaginative simply name their town for themselves, the town chief. And here, there is no shortage of examples: Francis-ta, Thompson town, Sarah-ta, and on. Others are just a little overly descriptive of their sole notable feature, such as Waterfall, Youth Mission, Public Work Garage, the slightly optimistic White House, not to mention Tobacco Farm, New Building, Tomato Camp, or One House Town. Surprisingly enough, there are six houses in One House Town. The creatively named A_99 stands in a league of its own. There’s also a town called Camp II. I’m not sure where Camp I is, but I can point you to Camp II. And people will get fiercely defensive of their names. At one point on our map, there are two closely adjacent towns, Pelepolu I and Pelepolu II. Now, all the locals know the surrounding area pretty intimately. But when you stop in Pelepolu and ask the town name they’ll tell you Pelepolu. They’ll give you directions to a town fifty kilometers away, through the bush, and over three broken bridges; but can’t tell you the name of the town two hundred meters down the road. When you ask the name of the other village, they just shrug their shoulders and look away.

A friend of mine clued me to start asking people’s middle names. A Liberian will tell you that their middle name is Little Boy or Smooth, or something even further out there. A kid who is not yet eighteen years old will look you in the eye and insist that “Old Man” is written on his birth certificate. As for first names, it is quite common to find someone named Prince. But the first names around here are more commonly reflective of their deep seated religious beliefs. Seemingly half of the male population will have Old Testament biblical names, Abraham, Issac, Joseph (never Joe, mind you), David or Josiah. We have two guys named Moses who work as security guards at our accommodation. And when I ask a Liberian how they are doing (“How the body?”), it is not uncommon to get an “Ohh, God is good,” or a “Thank the Lord.”

For Liberians, most own nothing, and so to be able to buy anything of substance is a tremendous achievement. Nowhere is this more evident than on their cars. Many of the taxi drivers that I've talked to worked for NGOs for several years to afford the vehicle they are driving. It represents tremendous achievement and an ability to save and work hard for a reward. As a result, you'll pass vehicles with "Successful Prayers" written on the rear bumper of a car or taxi. Although, the one labeled "My Year of Divine Speed" is perhaps the most appropriate. So Liberia follows the common developing world custom of writing slogans or encouragement on their cars: “No food for lazy man”, is the African classic, but I’ve also seen "Don’t envy, pray for me", "Jesus Loves You Mr. Brown", "Tired Man" or "What God Bless is Blessed." Oddly enough, the bad grammar is frequently repeated with infallible consistency.

But the result is that their cars offer an interesting insight into the local's thoughts. Well, taxi and truck driver demographic, at least. Although "Things Will Never Be the Same Again", is seen on multiple vehicles, it is quite rare to find something that acknowledges the war directly. "No Peace, No Love" is much less common than "Jesus Never Fail", or some similar formation. In general, the spirit is not quite optimism, not quite resignation: "To be a man is not easy", "God Judgment, No Appeal" and "Why Dream?" are only occasionally peppered with a taxi proclaiming "Better Day Ahead". The social stature of owning a car is often directly confronted with a reflection of the recent national trauma, best epitomized by one truck's cab asking "Why Envy Me? WHY?" The sayings tend to reflect a feeling of lack of control, and a willingness to put their lives and their future in the hands of the Lord.

While the painted sayings are limited only by the driver's creativity and wry humor, the country is severely lacking in a diversity of stickers to put on their cars. This is surprising considering the universal habit of covering the entire rear window with faded pieces of bizarre social expression. Giant “City Boy” and “Challenger” stickers adorn the back windshields of most taxis. There are about three different Jesus stickers, one of just his bust, one full length in white robes. There’s also the classic with a cute baby in diapers looking up and straight at you with the note “Jesus, please forgive me.” But at first glance, Liberia seems to have a fascination with the early eighties, as nine taxis and minibuses out of ten will be decorated either with two stickers of a young Madonna (the Pop Princess, not the real one), or is a large decal of Sylvester Stallone in the Cobra movie logo.

But the Cobra stickers aren’t just an out of date pop culture reference. The recent war means that almost all these cars were purchased in the past three years, and what stickers to display a recent decision. As the preponderance of 50 Cent T-shirts display, the locals can be moderately up on western culture. These decals and logos mostly have meanings, even if non-obvious. A “City Boy” is a taxi that won’t take you into the bush, but only within and in between large towns. “Challenger” is a means of putting those who read it on notice, that if you work hard and save your money, you too can own a car. In all fairness, I have yet to figure out a deep meaning to Madonna, but others can be more ominous. During the latest phase of the civil war, the rebel group LURD was initially divided into three battalions, the University of Bullet, the Voltage Movement, and from Bopolu County, the Cobra Movement. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the LURD, Seeya Sheriff, was popularly known as General Cobra. Considering that the LURD was heavily known for its widespread atrocities, a taxi driver doesn’t just go and put a picture of Sly Stallone in front of a Cobra logo on the back of his cab lightly. It is there to send a message.

Fourteen years of war, and barely two years on, the entire country is still trying to catch its breath. Forget picking itself up and moving on, it is still at the dazed stage of trying to figure out where everyone is and what to do next. People are just returning home, and picking through the mess that lies around them. None of the farmers are working the large fields they used to, but trying to eek out some a subsistence crop. A patch of a dozen rice paddies, each a half acre square, is mostly overrun with weeds, and one sole paddy hosts a small cluster of corn and rice. Houses were destroyed, or neglected, and public facilities like roads have been torn apart and have disappeared into the bush. There are largely no seeds to be had, not to mention money to buy them, so people wait on a handful of NGOs to pass some out. There is no economy, no regular source of gasoline or rice or batteries.

So over this lies an unspoken tension. Despite the Taylor business, it wasn’t one man alone who tore this place apart. Bong County, along with Lofa just north of us, was Taylor central. There is a lot of sympathy for the man here. Those that speak out say that they feel sorry for the man. Or, refusing to believe what happened on the other side of the country, they look at the buildings that were only burned by the LURD and ask why Taylor is the only one on trial. But mostly, the old men in the village will lament, “it doesn’t change my troubles” to have him put in jail.

Ex-combatants get favorable status from NGOs and the government in employment. So, of the 5% of the population that does have a job, 90% go out to ex-combatants. The war was one that we in the west aren’t used to. There was no politics involved, just control. So, warlords (from all sides) get elected in the new government. I’ve had a couple people remark that, in retrospect, they wish they had become combatants. Then they’d get training and food and work.

This leaves the interesting current to the Christian faith that I see here. It does not reflect what I’d label optimism, or even hope. Tired old men have seen the worst in life; don't trust their neighbors, but beam with pride at the sight of an American officer. It’s easy to get cynical when people tell you that ex-combatants from both sides have just forgiven each other, and now work and play side by side. Over what petty jealousies have I held a grudge back home? But mostly, they never hated each other to begin with, but just got caught up in this desperate grab for anything more than what they had. We’ve forgiven each other. But does forgiveness necessitate forgetting?

So the colorful names have changed, but the color remains. Black Diamond, Nasty Duke and Dragon Master have receded. General Cobra and General Peanut Butter have been elected to congress. Ex-combatants linger, and people’s faith changes. So you see a man on the side of the road, without a shirt on his back, and covered in sweat, hauling a hundred pound sack of grain for fifty cents profit. Ask him how he is, and he’ll reply, “Thank the Lord.”

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