The last time we spoke, he was about to leave for Liberia again and run for a seat in the House of Representatives after giving up on his bid for the presidency. His son had been in trouble with the justice system for driving issues and he was trying to get him out to Liberia. As the line moved slowly, I pondered if I should call him or just let him go. I could always give him a call later, I thought. But as he walked towards the door, I couldn’t resist the urge to find out what has become of his political ambitions in Liberia. So, in my deepest voice, I whispered his country name and he jerked, as if shocked by electricity and looked at the long line.
As always, oblivious the presence of everyone else in the quiet bank, he yelled back and rushed towards me. We hugged, shook hands and snapped fingers and started to yell at each other. If it weren’t for our loud laughter and hugs, others in the bank might have thought that we were about to get at each other. “Man, where you been?” “I though you were home” “Man, how’s the family?” “How’re the kids?” “How’s the Madam?” “Where you going after here?” “Let’s go for a drink!” “Man, so happy to see you!” “I called you at least three times!”
And so it happened. I had a check my cousin Momolu gave me on Saturday when he came to Washington, DC for one of those millions of meetings Liberians hold every weekend for one reason or another. His car broke down and I had to charge the tow and the repair to my credit card. He left me with a check and I was depositing as quickly as possible. Momolu has lot of money, but always refused to carry a credit card or even an ATM card. He either pay cash or by check and he has signature that no other human being can copy. And as most people who have money, paying debts is not one of his forte. And knowing him, by the time he gets back to New York he could call and say the “Old Ma” needed surgery and therefore I should hold on to the check for a few weeks. Half of Liberian old masks passed through his hands to find their way into museums and private collections in America. For years, I tried to make him feel guilty for exporting our national treasures and selling them. His response was always that: “Well, at least we know there are somewhere here in America, and I keep a list of all my clients… You know what happened to all the precious documents they were keeping at the National Archives?” So I gave up. After the transaction, I met my friend The Candidate outside and again we embraced, shook hands and snapped fingers as if we were just meeting again. I got in my car and followed him to Tuesdays, a restaurant just around the corner.
As I drove behind him, I tried to think of all the questions I wanted to ask him. I felt somehow guilty for not calling his house to find out what had become of him and his political ambitions and most importantly, how he resolved the issue of his son who was in trouble with justice. Then, I shook off the guilt feeling and convinced myself that the preoccupations of working to find the best possible president for the new Liberia was more important than any of our particular personal lives. And I decided that I would pay for the lunch.
“So, how are things?” I asked him.
“Very good, I am relocating back home and things could not have been better.”
“I didn’t see your name among the winners for the House of Representatives. What happened? I was so focused on the presidential race!” I inquired.
“No, I won big time… but not for the House. Could you imagine me in that jungle? No, thank God. You remember our last conversation? You asked me why I thought anyone would vote for me for any position because I had been gone for so long?”
I felt uneasy about that. Most of the people who ran for elective position had been in exile for many years just like my friend. At the time we had that conversation, I thought he was just one of those people who had amassed fortunes in the US and thought they could go home and buy themselves a few votes and run the country.
“Well, I didn’t mean that you could not run for a position, I just thought you had been away for so long that you may not be aware of the realities on the ground… I didn’t want you to go in there and spend your hard money foolishly…”
“And you were right. After I spoke to you that day, I went home and asked my wife and she repeated what she always said: that I was crazy to think that I could go back home after 20 years and get people to vote for me. But I told her that I would go home and see. The judge allowed me to take our son after he spent two weeks in detention.”
“Yes. And I must tell you, the Lord works in mysterious ways! That boy I had almost given up on will be the one to save me from ridicule, save my money and pave a future for me at home. “
I could hardly contain my urge to make him jump to the conclusion but then again, I remember what our old people say, “When you ask too many questions when someone is telling a story, you miss the details.” So, I took a sip of my Merlot, cut a piece of steak, dipped it in mustard, and before bringing it to my mouth, I said:
“Your son saved you? How? People wanted to kill you?”
I had images of his son in his washed-out jeans confronting former combatants who wanted to attack his father, a man who loved his coat suit and his flashy ties, no matter how hot it gets.
“No, man. Nobody wanted to kill me. When we got to Monrovia, just after two weeks, the boy changed overnight and took over my campaign and that is when everything turned around.”
“How?” I asked.
“Whenever people came to the house, he would just sit there quietly and sometimes he would be walking around in the neighborhood. I took him to the village to meet the elders and all. But most of the time, he was playing soccer with kids in the neighborhood and they put up a hoop against the wall where they shot basketball. So, one day, he asked me for some money. It was the first time and I gave it to him.”
“What did he do with the money?” I asked.
“Wait, I am coming, let me land. My first reaction was to say no, but then I thought, why not. He took the money and went out and came back an hour later with four of his friends. He said they wanted to conduct a poll. I said, “Go ahead”! Where did he get such an idea! Polls in Liberia? He said they needed to use the Pick-up for two days and wanted another US $100. Compared to what I was spending everyday on rice, gasoline and T-shirts, $100 was nothing. I gave them the money and the Pick-up with the condition that they would go with a driver.”
“They came back three days later. I thought something had happened to them and I was a worried sick. With all the armed bandits and ritualistic killings that were going on during the campaign! But you know what? From that little poll they did, I decided to fold my campaign!”
“Why? His findings should have helped to adopt a new strategy!” I said.
“No way. My son, man, that boy saved me oh! He said they went from village to village in the district and they told people they were working for an American newspaper and they gave each person they interviewed five Liberian dollars. They asked people whom they would vote for. They had the names of the four people running for a seat in our area. My son spoke his American English and his friends translated. Almost nobody was voting for me! Every time they mentioned my name, people said, “Who’s that one again?” “That man who came from America? He thin’ we sleepin’ here?” “Who that? If he got money we will eat!” “Who? Let me rest ya!” And they even interviewed the old man who made me drink chicken blood and told me I was going to be president! And you know what he told them? He said I was a fool but I had money to spend!”
It was all told in a jovial mood. My friend did not seem angry. He was over the whole issue and had moved to another stage. I could feel it. It was sad but eye opening. I could have probably told him that much and I think I did, the first time he told me he was running for president. I didn’t want to ask him any question; I just waited while he chewed on his tender chicken breast.
“Well, that did it for me,” he said. “I made up my mind: I wanted to be home but I didn’t have to be in politics, things had changed considerably since I left some twenty years ago and people had changed also. The war, the starvation, the brutality of the war and all this corruption, man, it was a different country. One day, I decided to leave everybody home and just walk around in the neighborhood, get a haircut in a barbershop with a former combatant shaving me with a razor blade! I listened to his conversation with his friends and asked a few questions about the elections…”
“And, what did you learn?” I said.
“If I had been one the people on the ground, I would not have voted for me… It was just a crazy idea. If I had gone through what they went through, I would have taken money, T-shirt or rice from anyone! And then it downed on me that what I really wanted was to be home, have that feeling on being in a place that I can relate to, that is not just an apartment or a house in a block. Not necessarily to be president or whatever… You see what exile can do to you?”
I didn’t interrupt him, for fear of breaking his flow. I could just imagine him, in that barbershop, with a kid in jeans and T-shirt, slowly cleaning his scalp with a razor blade.
“So I called my campaign team and told them that I was not running anymore! They tried to convince that I was ahead and that I could win by a landslide. I said no. They wanted to go see a businessman who had a logging concession in our district in case it was because of funding. I held my grounds. Guess what! My campaign manager and a few others came to see me after the meeting and said that they had quit their jobs to work for my campaign and therefore they expected me to find something for them. I almost cried.”
My friend said he distributed the few hundred dollars he had earmarked for the campaign amongst his team and decided to go work on the Sirleaf campaign. He drove his Pick-up throughout the country, distributing campaign paraphernalia. His son followed him on the trail every day and night.
“Man, for the first time, I really discovered how broken down that country was. You know, now, people never keep their livestock in the village? Every morning they take all the animals into the bush to hide them, because over the years, that was the first thing rebel groups took when they entered a town. I saw lot of misery and despair. But most importantly, I discovered who my son was, a real man. As we drove through villages, slept in huts, ate bush meat and drank palm wine, I came to know the true meaning of being close to a child. We talked and talked and joked! And he told me things that I never imagined he understood. And I thanked the Lord for making him run into problems here in America so I could take him home!”
“So, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won, why aren’t you home and in the government?” I asked him.
“Yes, we won and I am glad she did. This is the best thing that could have ever happened to our country. Just imagine the alternatives! I have never been so happy in my life. But I didn’t want a job in government. What? Go work for $30 a month and beg some crooked businessman for a handout or steal government money, or even worse, spend my retirement money? At least, my twenty some years in America thought me something different. My son is planning to stay at least a year before coming back for college. I am busy like you could never imagine. I have a small printing press that I had brought in for the campaign. We make T-shirts, banners and other things and there is always some event going on in Monrovia or around the country, from UN propaganda to wedding or neighborhood football clubs. My Pick-up travels twice a day to Kakata to bring cassava and potato greens to the market. We are restoring the house. So I am here to close everything, take care of lose ends, my 401 K and ship my car home. The Madam is staying until our youngest daughter gets into college… She said she might move back home but I think she is happy to get rid of my political friends and me! I have my Green Card. My son is a US citizen so we can come back any time…this is the best thing that could have happened to me. I can’t wait to get back home for the 26.”
I asked him about his impression of the first months of the new government. “Taylor is gone now and we can all take a breather and thank God for peace,” he, “but this does not mean the problems are over. I feel sorry for President Sirleaf that her success in the first six months, will be judged by the fact that she brought some light to Monrovia, rather than the overall picture of peace and the sense of renewal and dignity she brings to the nation. There is so much to do! She might have brought lot of good people at the top but the mid-management people who ran down the country are still there and that is going to be a big problem down the line… But she said she can do it and I trust her. Light or no light, I am going home and it is not the international community that is going to do it for us. They have done enough and the rest is up to us!”
We finished our mid-morning brunch with a promise to get together soon. He said he was on his way to Monrovia before the 26. “I can’t wait to get back home… I had that epiphany moment… yes, being home, no longer in exile, no longer scared of going home… Do you understand what I feel?”
Yes, indeed, I understood. There is no place like home. Liberia! Whatever they might call it, it still is the sweetest land on the face of earth.
So, the saga of one man ends as he discovers a new dimension to his life. He thought he wanted to be president or representative but all he craved for was to be back home. His face was serene, his laughter was sincere, and his skin looked smoother and he looked twenty years younger. And most importantly, he beamed happiness. He re-discovered his son and fell in love with his country again, without being President or Senator or some Government Bigshot.
Indeed, there is something special about this 26.
Happy 159th Birthday, Liberia, the Lone Star!