- Then you're not a stranger
- Peggy and Philip Brownrigg
"Then you're not a stranger." Wonderful words
we heard many times when we introduced ourselves. Friends Of Liberia
was so right in recognizing the special opportunity for a mission
of election monitors who cared not just about free, fair, and transparent
in a global sense, but ached so personally for free and fair and hope
and better for Liberians. We "came back." We cared and wanted
to make a difference.
Impressions: Bullet holes: random, scattered, ubiquitous. Thousands
of refugees spilling out of every inch of the once majestic Ducor
Hotel. Aggressive beggars. Two fire engines "serving" all
of Monrovia, one completely broken down, both right wheels missing
from the other. Phone and electric wires cut, dangling. Mud and stick
huts replacing destroyed concrete homes. Military checkpoints with
weary soldiers, some brandishing guns, bullying, hassling, demanding
dash from the locals. Club Beer bottles costing more than the beer.
Notwithstanding.. ELWA radio almost rebuilt and ready to broadcast.
ELWA Hospital, now just a clinic with only one microscope, seeing
patients. Coal heated irons, baba ghanouj, Pringles, and beef tenderloin
sharing shelves at the UN Supermarket. Professional soldiers from
Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso keeping peace and welcoming election
observers as partners. Pockets of generator-produced lights in the
dark city. "Organized" wheelbarrow boys available for rent
to transport belongings. Little girls in neat uniforms raising the
flag and singing the LIberian National Anthem every morning at St.
Theresa's Convent School.
We went back to Harbel and Kakata and Robertsfield and Smell-no-Taste
(now Unification Town) and Snafu Dock and Marshall and much of what
is now called Lower Margibi. Even in Margibi, only 45 miles from Monrovia,
again and again we relived moments of 30 years ago when we, a white
couple, walked into a village where many children had no memory of
ever seeing a white person. We road tested our 1985 Daihatsu Charmont
sedan in conditions not even imagined at the factory. Discounting
near misses, we were only seriously stuck once, and then the water
was ankle deep on the back seat floor when folks lifted the car out.
Ah, adventures off the coal tar. Kudos to Sahr Philip Finoh, our driver!
over the county, we visited voting centers set up in whatever was
left of stores or gas stations or churches or schools or cook shops.
It was heartening to see the spirit and the accomplishments of the
Liberian election workers, generally from Monrovia, put out in these
remote centers. It was awe inspiring to see the lines of voters at
7:00 AM waiting for the poles to open on election day.
Our findings. At some level, Firestone is still there . Coca Cola
Bottling is there. Robertsfield tarmac remains. But the war years
have left NO ONE and NO THING untouched. A combination of jungle,
fighting, fire and looting claimed our Division 24 house and every
other bungalow. The hospital was destroyed. Nonetheless, Firestone
is still the largest rubber plantation in the world and that in itself
is impressive. It was also noteworthy that we were on completely unmarked
plantation roads and now and then lost in zillions of rubber trees.
We saw tapping men working. But, the "brain drain!" Most
of the superintendents and the management staff have gone. Camps are
spoiled. A few are being rebuilt. The repair of a few houses is underway.
There is a large local market and one Lebanese store in Harbel and
many people. But... no electricity, no running water, burned churches,
roofless buildings, ravaged schools (though we saw a huge graduation
ceremony at the heavily damaged Multilateral High School). Everything
is on hold to see what happens after the election.
Generator power was restored to Robertsfield while we were there,
probably due to the combined efforts of UN and IECOM and many others.
People cried and hugged the workers. "It's all been dark for
seven years." The new Robertsfield terminal, portions having
been destroyed, restored, again destroyed, and the hotel are shells
but IECOM was able to bring in election materials on the runway and
to make do in the old terminal to count final ballots. Ironically
as we "observed" the ballot count inside, 100 yards away,
Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers loaded bombs on two vintage airplanes to
drop on Freetown.
Our film was confiscated by a grumpy ECOMOG soldier during a misunderstanding
at a checkpoint. Our attempt to photograph a moneybus groaning under
a load of charcoal and probably all the inhabitants of a small village
had inadvertently included the soldier's image accepting a dash. At
least he didn't take the cameras and you may be certain we were more
careful photographers after those anxious moments.
Hope, despair... it's all there. Will the Liberian professionals come
back? Certainly the Japanese company that now owns Firestone or some
other company will want to invest again. There was rumor that perhaps
South African mining companies are just labor intensive enough in
their approach to prosper in Liberia where more mechanical methods
might not be feasible. Club Beer now operates 12 days a month. Coke
is considering ways to provide refrigeration for their product. Timber
is being harvested at a rapid rate. Perhaps for a long time we won't
stop crying. But FOL is not "strangers" and we will never
stop watching and advocating and caring.
Peggy and Philip Brownrigg