It was a long drive. Ten hours from the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to Foya City in the north-western corner, wedged between Guinea and Sierra Leone.
After thirteen years of almost continuous civil war, and after all the stories of devastation, I was very surprised at the beauty of the country. Beyond the monotonous rubber plantations in the south, for the rest of the way we were driving through majestic forest, with its undergrowth thickly spread and well-greened after the rains. At least the forest has survived the wars.
But not the towns and villages. All along the road, especially the further north we travelled, there were houses that had been blasted and walls that were riddled with bullet holes. The scars of war were even more visible in Foya, where we were staying, because it had twice borne the brunt of attacks when rebels against the regime of Charles Taylor moved back into the country from both Guinea and Sierra Leone.
By the way Liberia, founded by former African-American slaves, has inherited and even embellished the Americans’ inclination to exaggerate. So a cluster of houses that we would call a village, in Liberia they call it a town; a town like Thika, if it is a district HQ, they call it a city. Foya City is smaller than Thika, and it has very few two-story buildings…. I asked if there were any nice or even interesting restaurants, and I was told that the housekeeper at the guest house where we were staying makes the best food in town – sorry, city.
For most of six days we bumped over dirt and deeply rutted roads. Our Liberian counterparts kept apologising, and I kept assuring them that, coming from Kenya, I am used to such conditions.
We were evaluating a resettlement project for the many thousands of refugees that have been glad to come back across the borders since the downfall of Charles Taylor and the eventual election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in November 2005. We visited communities in two northern districts that had fought each other; we talked with families who have settled into new homesteads; we watched peace educators at their work of reconciliation.
The villages seem now peaceful enough; the rice fields are being re-worked; roads are opening up again; water supplies are being restored. But there are plenty of reminders of the grim times. At one of the road junctions, for example, there was a small building that had become a military checkpoint during the conflicts. There was graffiti on its walls and the letters SBU.
One of our Liberian colleagues pointed it out. ‘SBU – that stands for Small Boys Unit,’ he said. ‘They must have been at this checkpoint. And boys like that, they were sent out as spies, and sometimes they got involved in the worst of the atrocities – on whichever side. There were so many of them. And now we are trying to de-traumatise them and bring them back into their communities.’
After the fieldwork, I had two days back in Monrovia to get to know the capital a little better. But, really, there is not so much to get to know. My hotel, the Royal, was costing 150 dollars a night, but it offered only a cramped room, a flickering satellite TV with a mean selection of channels, an erratic power supply and a mediocre breakfast.
On our last evening we had dinner at the Golden Beach restaurant, where the main attraction was that you could have your table set out on the sand. There were no beach boys to hassle us, presumably because there are no tourists to hassle. After the heat of the day, it was pleasant to have the cooling breeze from the sea. And the grilled barracuda was excellent.
But I had those images in my head from Mazrui’s The Africans, where along this same beach when Sergeant Doe had led his bloody coup back in 1980, thirteen cabinet ministers were tied to posts and shot.
I asked my Liberian colleague what he thought the long fighting had all been about.
‘Greed,’ he said. ‘A few power-hungry people whipped up ethnic feelings to serve their own ends.’
Well, that must seem to you a familiar story.