Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Emmanuel’s House

We leave the Ministry for the last time on this trip. It is early afternoon and a light rain is falling. Instead of following our usual route, we turn left and head across a very long bridge over the Montserrado River. We are now heading north through the suburbs of Monrovia. The road is very busy, and lined with shops and stores of all descriptions. We pass the huge complex of the state-owned oil company, the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. Next, we pass the free port of Monrovia. It is a beehive of activity, with cranes, trucks and shipping containers all over the place. If we were to continue on this road, we would end up in Sierra Leone. We don’t, however, and soon make a sharp right and head east.

This road is also extremely busy. Gridlock, in fact. At several points, we come to a complete stop and wait. Emmanuel explains that this road is always busy, jammed going west in the morning and jammed going east in the afternoon and evening. There are simply too many cars, trucks and motorbikes for this two-lane strip of tarmac to handle. That is why Emmanuel gets up so early in the morning. He typically starts the drive into downtown Monrovia at 5:30 a.m. to “beat the traffic”. Those who don’t drive have to take public transit. I can’t even imagine how long that would take. After a while, we head off the road and start driving on the dirt “shoulder” beside the road, dodging pedestrians and other obstacles as we go. I can quickly see that, even though the alleged shoulder is a moonscape of craters and potholes, we are making much better progress than those who stick to the road itself. I wonder how long I can stand all the bouncing around before I throw up. Emmanuel says people do this all the time in the mornings to save time. Unfortunately, the police are on to this trick and are out regularly to catch the cheaters and give them a ticket. Clearly, a larger road is urgently needed.

We continue for a long time. We go through suburb after suburb, all bustling with activity, human and vehicular. There are markets and stores everywhere where vendors sell produce and wares of all kinds. Eventually, we reach a dirt cross-road. Emmanuel says his house is just down that road, but it is in such bad condition, it is virtually impassible by car. So, we have to do a great circle route to come at his neighbourhood from another direction. Finally, we head down an asphalt road which he says was built in the Samuel Doe era (early to mid-1980s). It looks it. It is in horrendous shape, with potholes large enough to swallow a VW Beetle. Finally, we turn off and freelance our way through fields and dirt goat-paths. We wend our way along this route, literally driving through peoples’ back and front yards, for what seems an eternity. Finally, we come to a halt. We have arrived.

Emmanuel lives in a typical Liberian home. It is a concrete structure with a veranda and a zinc roof. It appears to be in very good shape and nicely looked after. Many other houses are nearby but not too close. There is long grass, shrubs and trees everywhere. It is like living in the country. We approach the home, where I meet his wife. Then his four daughters appear, as cute (and shy) as can be. I am clearly a novelty. They stare at me as if I had just landed from Neptune. After some preliminaries, we walk about three houses away, where Emmanuel’s parents live. They are lovely and absolutely charming. We talk for a while. This is not their original house. It was burned to the ground during the civil war. Surprisingly, it was burned not by the rebels, who did march through here on their way to capture Monrovia from Charles Taylor, but by the Liberian army. I learn that the army just went on a rampage and destroyed anything and everything they came across, for no apparent or useful reason. It is clear his parents don’t want to talk much about those days. His father simply says that once you live through something like that, you can never forget it. He then turns away. I take their picture and we head back to Emmanuel’s house.

We sit on the veranda and chat. The conversation is a bit difficult because they are very shy with me. So, I just start chattering away about whatever I can think of and eventually, the ice breaks a bit. In addition to their own four children, Emmanuel and his wife also look after his sister’s two kids. (I learn later in the car on the way to the airport, that she died suddenly and mysteriously last year at 32 while attending a medical clinic in the neighbourhood for a routine test. She was apparently in very good health. I will leave that story for another day. Emmanuel is really too upset to talk about it, so I change the topic.) After a while, it is time to leave. I take a picture of the whole family and show it to them. We say our goodbyes and head off. Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited inside the house, but it seems quite big, certainly large enough to house its eight inhabitants.

It is a great side trip for me. I have never been in this part of the city before and have never really been in a true Liberian neighbourhood. On the way out, Emmanuel points out his church (he is very religious, as are a large number of Liberians) and the Catholic school that his kids attend. He shows me where the community well is, and how close the local market is. On the way back to the main road, we stop briefly at a local bar/restaurant where Emmanuel introduces me to his former business partner. Before he started working for the Ministry of Commerce, they ran the bar together as well as another store. Emmanuel wants to get back to business eventually. To that end, he is currently building an addition to his house which will serve as a new store he wants to open. He hasn’t decided exactly what products he will sell but he is leaning toward either clothing or cosmetics. I ask if he can make enough money doing that to support his family and he assures me he can. However, that is a way off yet because he still has to get his kids through school (in a previous blog I noted that education in Liberia is not free—even at the elementary/secondary levels, the parents must pay).

We are now on the way to Roberts Airfield. We make a sharp right turn and he proudly points out that this is a brand new road, just finished two weeks ago. It is quite something. It’s a very wide four lane road, complete with curbs, drainage, shoulders and proper ditching. It was built by the Chinese. That’s how they work in Africa. They agree to build infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools) in exchange for concessions of some kind—for example, a mining license or the right to export oil or other raw materials back to China. It is a smart tactic on their part.

Finally, it is time to part. I give him my e-mail and home address, and we agree to stay in touch. I assure him I will be back very soon. We have definitely developed a bond. He is a neat guy. I am going to miss him, until next time.

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