We landed in Liberia in complete darkness, the first warning about its nature. It was a thick darkness; the kind you could almost push up against, arms extended in front of you, moving darkness aside the way one does with water to make space for the body to enter. Besides darkness there was heat, a humidity that pulsated in rhythm to the hum of evening insects. This combination of darkness and pulsating heat is one I have never experienced in any place outside of the continent. It is how I know I’m in Africa.
It was almost Christmas and the five of us were going to be together – my older siblings and my parents and I; my sister and I flying in from JFK and my brother from Washington D.C. Being American and yet having spent years in East Africa with my missionary parents, I found it ironic and yet appropriate to be going “home” for the holidays to a country I had never been to and knew little about. Before the trip I glibly told people that home is wherever your parents are. Afterwards, if someone asked, I’d say I didn’t have a home.
When we landed on that dark airstrip I instinctively understood that this trip was a marker: it would divide time into before and after, both shedding light to interpret my past and setting the stage for the future.
The second warning was that my father did not meet us at the airport. He had come down with malaria the day before our arrival and was burning with fever, too weak to manage the stairs leading down from my parents’ fourth floor apartment. So only my mother and the driver, a dark, beaming, and courteous man named Samson, came to pick us up and drove us 45 minutes into the heart of Monrovia where my parents’ tall gated apartment building stood directly across from Monrovia’s newest and most expensive hotel, the Royal. Facing each other across Tubman Boulevard, the two buildings looked like funny-mirror interpretations of each other; both with shiny interiors and impossibly high prices, both standing tall above the shorter and shabbier apartments, groceries, and convenience shops surrounding them.
On the drive into the city, I looked out my window at the darkness, broken here and there by dim lights in roadside bars showing people huddled together in the darkness, dancing or arguing or laughing, gesticulating wildly. As we drove past them, their faces and movements were captured like photographs in my mind, as real and as momentary. Between the lights in the thick darkness I thought of Liberia’s brutal history and imagined death everywhere.
But when we reached the apartment it was bright and clean and my dad was there, and I kissed him, and didn’t feel death.
We went to sleep that night in an oversize bed with a wonderfully hard mattress and the cool of the air-conditioning coming in from the living room. I woke up with the bright orange light of the sun to the hustle and bustle and ceaseless honking on the street and felt well and alive.
My brother arrived the next afternoon and we celebrated being reunited with a dinner of pork chops, fresh vegetables, orange-mango juice, coffee, and meringue tea. When we were together it was good; we were a unit, we five belonged to each other, and none of us was alone. It happened more rarely, now that we were adults, but when we were all together like this the identity of family member pushed all other identities into the background and took prominence. And so I forgot myself again, as I always did at these times, and was lost among my siblings and my parents and the burning African sun.
On Christmas day we decided to go to the beach at the missionary compound called E.L.W.A (Everlasting Love Winning Africa), figuring that its restricted public access would make it less crowded and cleaner than the beach across from the apartment, which we referred to as poo-poo beach for the human excrement that scarred it. Both this beach and its inhabitants were casualties of Liberia’s twenty years of brutal conflict. Drugged-up and hollow-eyed boys lived there, spending their days medicating under makeshift cabana style party spots. Displaced after the war, they were now completely detached from society. One evening my family walked down this beach, and my father’s face clouded with fear as the sun began to sink. It was no place to be after dark. The boys showed others exactly the same amount of care that had been given to them, making the place lawless and frightening. There was nothing peaceful about this beach. Even the ocean waves struck me as restless and angry as they foamed up onto the rocky shore.
Ready for a better beach experience, on Christmas day my family loaded up the patrol with everything necessary for a day at the beach and drove to the missionary compound. It was Christmas and it was sunny; I tried to relax but was troubled. We had gone Christmas caroling with E.L.W.A missionaries at Liberian houses on the compound the evening before, and the memory of it disturbed me. The Liberians who appeared in their doorways to watch us sing looked at us with blank, scornful eyes. It made me conscious of how White we were, with our neatly packaged family units and carols and the adolescents holding their adopted African brothers and sisters as they sang Joy to the World. The whole thing felt like an incongruent overlay onto the black African night. Standing there in the darkness and humidity, singing Christmas carols, I could not orient myself, and became as rootless as a note sounding into the night, existing neither here nor there, appearing and disappearing without a trace, the memory of it the realest thing about it.
At E.L.W.A. beach, the day was unremarkable, warm but not hot and bright without being blinding. We set up our umbrellas and a large gold tablecloth we were using as a substitute beach spread, big enough for the five of us. After a time, a crowd of about one hundred began to gather on the beach in front of us, and the word was that a boy had gone missing, a fairly regular circumstance along the beach. It is a Western conception that beaches are places of luxury and entertainment. In Africa, a beach is a resource for fishing and other income. Beaches offer utility but also danger; Liberians have a real fear for the ocean that is absent among tourists. Nevertheless, it was a holiday and many locals had come to the beach to socialize on their day off.
I was laying on the outside of our spread, enjoying the sun’s warmth but feeling agitated and wondering about my place in things. When my siblings got up to go in the water, I went with them. My sister and I were in the shallower water near the shore, a little above waist height, and my brother swam further out. I was playing a game, planting myself in a particular place in the sand and trying to see how long I could go before losing contact with it as the waves pushed and pulled. Suddenly I heard my brother yell, “Hey guys, I found the boy.” He took a deep breath and dove purposefully down into the water. When he came up he was holding a dark, thin African child. I heard my voice weakly yell “help”. “Hold his head,” my brother said as he struggled to swim the boy in. I did. Water was pouring out of the boy’s mouth so that it looked like he was foaming. His tiny body felt smooth, almost slimy. More than an hour had passed since the crowd had gathered on the beach, and we knew the child was already dead. We swam him to shore. In the shallow, standing part of the water, people rushed to help us. They grabbed the boy as soon as we reached them and carried him to higher ground. A crowd of bystanders instantly surrounded them, and I never saw another glimpse of the boy’s tiny body.
We walked calmly over to our umbrella and sat down on the gold tablecloth turned beach spread. The sun was still shining, not too brightly, there was a slight breeze rustling the trees, and the day was fine. Our American friend remarked on the high incidence of this kind of thing in African society and gave his recommendations to the young African girl with him. We sat there, then, the five of us and this neighbor and his girl, and watched people surround the place where the boy’s body lay. We watched police and taxis come and go. We watched people in the crowd taking pictures with their cellphones. We watched the crowd watch as foreigners performed CPR. We watched the water hitting the shore and felt the sun warm on our faces, and other conversation continued and other concerns returned. Soon we stood to go. I’d lost track of the conversation, thinking about the boy’s thin body and smooth black skin, and wishing to wash my hands. “Are you okay?” my family wanted to know as we walked away.
With that question, the emotion of the trip, the darkness when we landed, the confusion of caroling, my sense of identitylessness, and now this fact of the dead body in the water and the utter insignificance of that fact welled up in me like a gathering tsunami and finally crashed into an angry and confused statement, which I spat out like a poisoned root. “I hate Africa.”
That night the darkness came and in the morning it went, but in me it was still dark. I took the meaninglessness of the boy’s life and death as personally as if it had been my own, and felt crushed by insignificance and futility.
The next day, my family was back in the patrol, driving the dirt road to the beach at Robertsport, which had been recommended by the American neighbor. The vibrant red of the dirt and the jarring jolts of potholes comforted me. They were proofs of reality when I felt as insubstantial and ephemeral as a Christmas carol in Africa, sung and forgotten as soon as it ends, leaving no proof it had even existed at all.
Now and then the dry bush along the road cleared and gave way to small village communities where I saw women carrying colorful buckets and loads on their heads, or sitting on short three legged stools holding babies and talking or working on small projects. At once I felt envious of them and ashamed of my envy. As restricted and impoverished as their lives may be, I was drawn to their simplicity and cohesion. And if their lives were no more significant and enduring than the smooth-skinned boy’s, at least the song of their lives was in harmony with the natural rhythms of their environment; life and death, sickness, suffering, were all contextualized and no-one asked for or expected more. A boy could die without shaking up the order of things, because death was everywhere and was as natural as life. But my world demanded meaning and explanation, and the boy’s obscure death projected into my world without fitting into it, jutting out like a broken limb that I could not set straight.
We eventually got to Robertsport Beach and it was as flawless as an advertisement in a travel magazine – crystal clear water all the way to the sand, gently rocking waves, no rocks, no weeds. We set up our beach umbrella, laid out the tablecloth turned beach spread, kicked off our shoes, and applied sunscreen. There were only a few tourists on the beach and some African men sweating as they pulled in their fishing nets. I tried to be normal and cheerful and keep things light, but my mood didn’t match the scene before me, and I couldn’t stop my eyes from continually welling up in the confusion and dissonance of it all. Everyone in my family spoke to me very gently the whole afternoon, and I knew they were being careful with me, they way you are careful with a child who is hurt or frightened. I closed my eyes and lay there and thought about the smooth-skinned boy and the Christmas carols and the red dirt road and I felt hurt like the boy’s death was a wound that had been ripped open. I lay there beside my family and let the sun seep into my skin, felt the salty spray of the ocean, and held the darkness at bay.