Sunday, 29 April 2012

Two different Liberia's in one week

A few days ago, Haresh and I went to Gbarnga for a day trip to accompany our staff for a routine maintenance visit to one of our client sites. Incidentally, it was the same day that Charles Taylor was handed a guilty verdict in the Hague and we happened to be in former "Taylor City." Taylor made Gbarnga his capital city of what he called Greater Liberia in the 1990s and apparently made millions of dollars controlling the export of Liberia's timber, diamonds, gold, and other riches. 

I have not been really tuned into international or local news these days and just vaguely realised that I was in Taylor's former capital city the very day he was found guilty for supporting and abetting the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

What was really annoying me more was how much of a village Gbarnga was with its shabby small structures, the merest semblance of a town (not even a city), chickens and ducks running around, dirty dusty dirt roads, garbage littered everywhere and not a single beautiful sight to soothe the eyes. It annoyed the hell out of me. I have seen quite a bit of Liberia courtesy of monitoring trips I used to make when I was employed with the UNDP and also since I joined the private sector. Some towns such as Zwedru and Harper are more interesting but I think Gbarnga is really a dump. 

Perhaps, it was the fact that we were traveling in an un-airconditioned taxi that kept getting stopped at so-called immigration check points and had been slowly baking in the scorching heat and dry dusty winds which made me so grouchy! Perhaps, it was my moral righteousness for being harassed by these officials who dare not stop UN/NGO or private 4x4's. Perhaps, it was my explosion of anger when one of the uniformed officials asked my staff - a young girl in her 20s - for money for a soft drink and she gave him 20 LD and, the subsequent speech which I do not know why I even bother giving whenever I do. "Cecelia, Cecelia, how could you do this, you know our company doesn't believe in corruption!" I implored to her sincerely. I do realise I was probably looking quite comical, huffing and puffing like a chicken over 25 Cents, but what I can do? I always feel like I have to lord over my opinions over everyone, especially poor corrupt officials of poor countries*, not because I either believe corruption can be wiped out or do not have enough intellectual sense to place it in a real context or have a fun approach to finding a more humorous and gentler way to deal with such a situation, but because I am bossy and take things and myself too seriously.  And I have to admit it, I luuurve it. 

By the time we were driving back to Monrovia, I had descended into the "What the heck am I doing in such a dump!" rant. I lamented over having spent almost 10 years of my life in a soul-less, culturally-bankrupt hell hole. I wish I had devoted as much energy in creating a life for myself in any other poor but culturally vibrant and hospitable atmosphere. I went on and on and even Haresh got into the spirit of things and started trashing Liberia. We had a glorious Liberia-dissing fest in our little taxi and got even further delayed due to the traffic madness in Hades (commonly known as Red Light). 

Hardly two days later, Haresh and I were driving out to Kakata in an air-conditioned car we had hired for the day to attend the marriage celebration of two our Liberian friends. The AC and the super-duper farm house where the party was being hosted changed everything. We enjoyed the smooth ride, the thandi thandi hawa of the AC, and got there in style, non-sweaty, non-bothered and in a great mood. I was bowled over by the grand jacaranda-lined entrance of the farm house, the soothing vast scenery of grass and neatly trimmed hedges, and the party scene laid out in the front lawn. Yes, I was in the lap of luxury and this completely changed the way I looked at Liberia.  

I spent a glorious afternoon soaking up the polite society of Liberia. We made our rounds and greeted everyone. The owners of the farmhouse were friends of the groom's family and, really very gracious and welcoming. We also got to meet the couples' parents who were equally wonderful. We made ourselves comfortable on one of the tables in the tents and, engaged with the other guests. 

Mind you, it was a scorcher of a day and I felt I was being baked along with the other guests. There was only a bit of respite from an occasional breeze but overall, it was quite hot but I had a pleasant time  drinking in the party scene while sipping chilled white wine.

There was a table of ladies in purple-lappa dresses with elaborate headdresses. They spent most of the afternoon gently swaying to the music either sitting in their chairs or standing up. When the bride finally arrived, they welcomed her with a song "African women can do it best...socially, politically." It was really endearing. 

There were children everyone. The little girls in their perfectly ironed frocks and head full of pony tails tied with matching ribbons, were the cutest. 

There was a big mama who was jiggling her stuff sitting in her chair. Haresh and I kept signaling towards her with our eyes because it was so amusing to see her exhibit so much excitement and love of rhythm. Later, we saw that she could not resist any more and was out by the speakers and dancing her heart away. Other women joined her and pretty soon, there was a little dance floor out there. It was quite impressive to see that despite her size, our friend was moving and shaking very gracefully. 

I realise I am either attracted to really old people for their stories and ingrained habits and mannerisms or to kids for their innocence. The attraction usually consists of people-studying, striking up conversations and if I am lucky, getting to hear some interesting experiences. That is with the old people. With the kids, I tease them and make faces at them. 

So, I found myself admiring the old people, especially the ladies whose personalities almost leapt off from their jewellery-encrusted fingers, elegant wide-rimmed hats, slightly snobby side profiles, and general fabulousness. The younger lot kept coming and bowing and scraping in front of them. Even I felt like getting up and fetching their drinks for them, so enthralled I was with their majesties. The air was heavy with their expensive musky perfumes and their endearing snootiness. Haresh tried to make a few jokes and strike up conversations with them and, it was quite funny to see him fail with ze ladies. Much later after we had left the elegant-snobby-ladies table, and had finished eating our delicious dessert, Haresh intentionally put his empty plate on that table and I scolded him for being so inconsiderate loudly so that the Madame could watch me do it. She shook her head in disgust and started mumbling something. I was mortified but in retrospect it was funny. 

Who knows, maybe she was the one who told our driver that only "civilised" people were allowed in the guest area. 

There was a very distinguished couple we were seated next to who told us they had ten children. Haresh got quite impressed and the gentleman was bursting at his seams in pride. His wife, though, rolled her eyes, after all, it was she who had to give birth ten times. Whenever I would smooth Haresh's shirt or tell him to behave, she would approve towards my direction. 

So, we passed a fun afternoon mingling with some really interesting people, congratulating the happy couple, and really relishing being in such a beautiful farm house. The house was painted in a warm terra cotta colour and we also got a peak of how beautiful it was inside when we had to use the bathrooms. 

A marriage celebration really is a happy occasion and this was no exception. I guess I was in a good frame of mind to be able to enjoy the atmosphere, appreciate the company of almost everyone there, and feel good about being in someone's home and participate in such an event. The hosts were sincerely gracious and welcoming. 

Even though I have been in Liberia for almost a decade, I feel that I only get a glimpse of the Liberian society now and then. I have always opened up my home to my Liberian colleagues (whether at UNDP or in the private sector) and friends but invitations are very infrequently reciprocated. I have noticed this applies to all classes and find it very strange. I feel that Liberians are very reserved people. The funny thing though is that this couple whose marriage celebration we attended, do not even know us that long! In short, I find it hard to understand Liberian people when it comes to hospitality and generosity, something which most cultures are proud of. It is a bit unpredictable. 

As a final note, though, I am really glad we had such a wonderful end to our week. I'll always remember the scorching hot afternoon on that beautiful farmhouse, sipping chilled white wine, surrounded by elegant old ladies decked out in all their glory. 

* That is not entirely true. I also feel I must lord over officials of rich countries. My brother and I were taking a flight out of Dubai to Shiraz, Iran back in 2008 and I was shocked to see that a 'white guy' had cut the line and was allowed to proceed at the immigration check. I made a huge scene and was taken on the side. While my brother cringed at my ridiculous and disrespectful behaviour, I continued to insult the official and started verbally attacking his short stature in every sense. The guy threatened to arrest me. I became further infuriated and would have punched the guy but my brother managed to cool me down and bring me to my senses at the scary prospect of being thrown into a UAE prison. Thank God, he is a lawyer and had the frame of mind to think things through. 

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