I can’t tell you how happy I am.
For the last 6 months, I have had an ache in my heart every time I thought of the Big Green Truck sat lonely in the corner of Sean’s apartment block compound here in Liberia. (Cue wistful Meryl-Streep-does-Danish voice:) “I had a truck in Aaaaaafricaaaaa”.
It was more than homesickness; it was like a part of myself was missing. When Ruby went back to my folks in South Africa in January to start high school the feeling was the same. I felt our family had been torn apart, that we were missing two key members: Ruby in Cape Town, Big Reg in Monrovia.
(Hmmm, does that make me a bad mother?)
When we first caught sight of Big Reg, on arrival from the airport, my heart leapt. There he was, looking a bit the worse for wear in the pre-dawn gloom, with streaks of black mould running down from the roof where the rainy season had taken its toll. Bloody but unbowed.
After sleeping solidly the whole day, we ventured down in the cool of 5pm to find out exactly how bad the damage was. Security guards Theo and Jerry stood by with an air of trepidation. Sampson entered through the driver’s door, wrestled with the Trellidor security gate beyond the cab and came to let us in the side door. He was choking by the time he got there.
He left the truck in August, so six months of being shut up with zero ventilation during the rainy season = mouldarama plus definite whiff of rat. There were droppings everywhere.
The musty smell was overpowering for me – mould has very deleterious effects on people with M.E. – but it could have been a lot worse. There were no major leaks so thankfully no puddles or rotten mattresses, which is what I was fearing. We were thrilled. Now it was just a matter of cleaning up…
It took us a full week.
Now that sounds like a lot, but how long would it take you to empty everything out of your house, wash it and pack it all away again? Every single item from every single cupboard had to be carried up three flights of stairs between the flat, where we stayed for the duration, and the truck (59 steps, Zola counted) and sorted into piles for ‘chucking’ or ‘washing’.
Everything that wasn’t wrapped airtight was stinking. Most of our clothes were in plastic bags. The zipped in ones just smelled musty; the open ended ones were damper and smellier. Some stuff was beyond saving: pillows that were left out on the beds were black with spores. The bloom was more easily handwashed off the raincoats that had been left hanging in the storage nets. Everything else – mattress covers, sheets, towels, curtains – had to be carted back down to the washing machine on the ground floor, then back up to be hung out to dry. Those three flights of stairs were perfect for starting my project of working off the one-kilo-per-month weight I put on in the UK…
There were so many rat droppings raining out of Sampson’s clothes as I shook them out, we moved the whole operation outside onto the balcony. The saddest victim was the dear dolly gifted to Ruby by Snazzi Shazzi before we left that Mr Rat had obviously taken a fancy to.
This one wasn’t looking too happy either:
Zola was in charge of scrubbing mould off cups, saucepans, vegetable baskets, pencil cases, wetsuits, the shower curtain etc. Luckily he had plenty of time to do this because the suitcase carrying all his schoolbooks arrived 10 days later than we did… Thanks to Anneli and Evelyn at Royal Air Maroc for pursuing this to a happy conclusion – I couldn’t have continued making up maths problems for much longer!
Meanwhile Sampson was down in the unrelenting heat of the courtyard scouring the truck from top to bottom, twice (seriously). He was fortunate to be able to employ the assistance of the lovely Jomah Drougbo who after 5 days of toil had to admit that even he was exhausted. It’s amazing it only took a week really.
On the second day, Sampson was going round the outside lockers checking for leaks: surf locker OK, batteries locker OK, then he opened the rear water locker that sits under our bed. Hungry Mr Rat jumped out onto his chest, crawled up over his shoulder and leapt away to freedom.
But Sampson was not disheartened: “I have always loved this truck, but today I fell in love all over again”. When he pressed the ignition, it started first time, as did our super reliable Treetops solar electrical system. Alleluja! Seems Big Reg was as eager to get going again as we were. This was a cheering beginning, until Sampson found that Mr Rat had gnawed through the air pipe that operates the exhaust brake, which, since the idling cable broke, is the last remaining way to turn the engine off. He had to stick it in gear and stall it.
* * *
I’d found it hard not to feel a fraud being pushed around in a wheelchair at Gatwick. But if I hadn’t elected to have assistance, I would never have met Mary. Mary Morton may have been in a wheelchair but this did nothing to cramp her sense of style, flamboyantly apparent in her blue leather gloves, fluffy wrap and sparkling eyes. She heard me saying that I had M.E. and chipped in she too had had it for 16 years and we were commiserating about how exhausting airports can be when we found out she too was from South Africa!
Born in Durban, she left 27 years ago when, although the suspension of the Immorality Act allowed her to marry her husband, the perpetuation of the Group Areas Act meant there was nowhere they could live together. She showed me a photo of her with a grinning grandchild strapped to her back “SA style”. She says she wouldn’t go back now, as she has such a supportive network of friends in UK. Hamba kahle Mary!
Of course by the time we got to Casablanca, my energy had evaporated to such an extent I was looking far more convincingly frail. However, when I woke up in Liberia the next day, I was delighted to discover that although my arms felt like I’d been lifting weights (from lugging hand luggage) my legs were fine and I felt only exhausted, not ill – a blessing which made the precaution worth the embarrassment.
When we stepped off the plane at Roberts International Airport, there was a queue of people on the forecourt waiting to wash their hands with chlorinated water in front of two large vats emblazoned ‘Ebola Is Real’. Two smiling young ladies took our temperature by means of a gauge pressed against the temple, and handed us information leaflets.
Zola and I sat outside waiting for Sampson, with bags piled around us. I was enjoying the balmy evening and the mêlée but I noticed my son, sat next to me on the curb, had his head down and wasn’t saying a word. I wondered if it was just the exhaustion of travelling through the night or whether he was regretting leaving his new mates in the UK and feeling resentful. A tall gentlemen came up, greeted us and said “The boy’s hair has grown!” He must have remembered us from when we were parked at the airport last July and were giving people tours of the truck. Zola lifted his head and said chirpily “People are friendly here”. I was so glad he also felt it. It was great to be back in Africa.
On 5th March, Liberia’s last Ebola case was released from the Chinese clinic in Monrovia, a year after the country reported its first case. Beatrice Yardolo, who lost three children to the haemorragic fever was greeted by cheers from family and friends. No new cases reported in the 13 days since she’d been admitted meant that Liberia now had 29 days left of the 42 day period demanded by the WHO to be issued with an all clear…
* * *
My extreme happiness is mostly due to three very generous South African men. The first has been keeping an eye on the truck for the last 6 months; the second was our host in Monrovia the first week; the third has been looking after us ever since.
Counsellor Sean Pike from the SA Embassy is possibly the most thoughtful man I’ve ever met. He’s obviously very good at his job, and has served in New York, Mali and Congo during his distinguished career. He’s studying for a PhD but gets bored easily so is currently researching his fourth topic. Although I found his investigation into the evolution of the term ‘terrorism’ fascinating – he’d collected 4500 different definitions – he’s currently reviewing West African governments’ implementation of counter insurgency strategies. He’s a softly spoken, gentle man and suffers from diabetes since being knocked off his bike in Pretoria by a taxi, rupturing his spleen. The most surprising thing about him is the fact that he seems slightly more excited to meet his new kitten than his new grandson. But then Sean is as besotted a cat-lover as his friend Adam is a dog-lover.
Your first impression of Mr Adam Edge is that of a typical testosterone-wielding ex-SANDF Major. He proudly describes himself as a man who ‘gets things done’ and you bet he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Currently Head of the JOC of the UN in Liberia, he leaves for work at 6am to make his report to New York and rarely gets home before 7pm. Our first night there, he and Sampson had a drinking competition, which they both lost to the toilet… Sean quietly lasted longer than both of them.
However, like a quality chocolate, Adam may be all hard and smooth on the outside, but he’s a delicious softy underneath. He has the laugh of Falstaff as well as his bonhomie, and would do anything for a mate. He loves relaxing in front of DSTV and talked us through his favourite programmes about American car-restorers, pawn-brokers, storage-pickers and treehouse-builders. ‘The Edge’ has three ex-wives and a grown-up daughter, but lavishes his most extravagant terms of endearment on his dog, Shelby the Alaskan Malamute (admittedly irresistibly cute) whom he rescued from maltreatment. Back in Jo’burg, he’s just bought a new bakkie especially to transport the dog around in! He is also the only person ever to beat Zola at Dobble.
After a week of cleaning, Big Reg finally pulled out of the compound onto busy Tubman Boulevard and by the time we had driven half an hour down the road, Truckulence had descended. ‘Truckulence’ is how Sampson and I label the feeling of living with sweet simplicity in the Big Green Truck. Truckulence is tangible, like succulence, but more anchored. It’s been like that since our first school holidays away in the truck in 2011. As soon as we fall within the loving aura of Big Reg, we all exhale, the daily rhythm becomes gentle, the kids calm as we relax into living trucklife. We all sleep better together inside Big Reg. (Of course, the beach walks and all-day surfing sessions help.)
We parked outside RLJ Kendeja Resort and Villas, which is owned by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and the first African-American billionaire. RLJ now owns a slew of companies, including a string of hotels, in the USA and operates Kendeja partly as a community upliftment project. In 2007 he called for “African Americans to support Liberia like Jewish Americans support Israel”.
Sampson had already visited Kendeja last August to ask them to collect their used cooking oil for Big Reg, and made our third wonderful South African contact: facility manager Theo Vermaak. A KwaZulu-Natal boitjie currently building his own dream resort in Kosi Bay, Theo operates a tight ship overseeing a staff of more than 100. Theo kindly arranged for us to park just outside the gates next to the security guardhouse and enjoy the facilities – without Kendeja’s wifi, you wouldn’t be getting this update.
Four star Kendeja is about as far from the image of ‘Ebola-stricken Liberia’ as you could imagine. After washing your hands and getting your temperature checked by the smiling doorman, you walk through the languidly comfortable and spacious bar area with plasma screens of BBC and CNN playing at a discreet level. Outside there is a shady restaurant on a wooden deck around the stylishly black slate-lined infinity pool, flanked by lines of leather-cushioned mahogany recliners. There is a gym and the ‘Oasis Spa’ with smiling attendants ready to spoil you with a massage or a pedicure. Waving palms are dotted around bungalows housing 78 rooms (including presidential suites – there are signed pics of David Cameron and the Blairs in the foyer) and impressively green lawns fringed by scarlet canna lilies stretch down to the beach. Kendeja’s fish braai is justifiably famous, and on Sundays they turn more than 300 covers.
Our first Sunday in Liberia, Sean treated us to lunch at Kendeja and the place was pumping. An all-African soundtrack played in the background, adding to the wonderfully welcoming atmosphere, so much more laid back and integrated compared with similarly posh places we have visited on beach fronts in Congo and Cameroon. There were a fascinating mix of happy people gathered round the swimming pool as Kou, the sophisticated hostess with the mostess, greeted diners.
Loudest were the well-fed indigenous Lebanese youth having riotous fun playing volleyball or having arm-wrestling contests. There were a bevy of US and European NGO workers; Zola had a great time racing Yuri the Ukranian helicopter pilot up and down the pool. (This gave rise to the joke “How do you know when you’re talking to a helicopter pilot? He’ll tell you…” which is adapted from the parallel “How do you know you’re talking to a comedian?”…)
There was also a Sikh family having lunch, and two women wearing hijab-bikinis in the pool. They swam amongst a skinny boy and myriad little girls with cornrows and beads, all grinning, all delighted to be splashing around having such fun.
The latter were the offspring of the local Liberian elite, many sporting chi-chi fashions, very expensive sunglasses and designer handbags just so you’re in no doubt about how minted they are. A few months ago, I read a book by Helene Cooper about her Liberian childhood called The House at Sugar Beach where she described the lavish 1970s lifestyle of the so-called “Congo people”: Americo-Liberian descendants of the first freed slaves who came from New York in 1820 and proceeded to appropriate the land, dominate government and oppress the local population a.k.a. “country people” for the next 160 years, precipitating the violence of the last few decades. These 5% of Liberians are still usually sent to the US for their higher education and speak an English recognisable to Westerners.
* * *
Last year, as the winter progressed, I began to worry that the longer we delayed, the harder it was going to be for me to adjust back to West African heat, in such stark contrast to the UK November temperatures. But, just after Xmas, I had an experience that completely put my mind at rest. My ‘baby auntie’ Zahra, her husband Frank and their brood had trekked down from Cambridgeshire to grace us with their presence, and we decided to celebrate this once in a lifetime get together of cousins by taking a day trip to Eden.
Eden is the jewel in Cornwall’s eco-tourism crown and is famous for its huge domes that recreate the biodiversities of various global climates. The day we went was the first frost of the year. Ruby was entranced with the crystals garnishing everything, taking photos of frozen puddles while I was trying to hurry us into the toasty ticket office. The effort of just breathing was hurting me, and I wasn’t anywhere near as enamoured as she was about the prospect of ice-skating.
No, my favourite bit of the day was when we stepped into the Rainforest Biome. All the children gasped, the adults all swore, and everyone immediately began stripping off layers. Ruby’s face was turning strawberry, Sampson was sweating profusely but I felt I had just stepped into heaven. As the humid warmth enveloped me everything eased – my breathing, my chest, my aching joints just melted into bliss and I smiled beatifically. At that moment I knew I was going to have no bother acclimatising back to West Africa, no matter how dramatic the temperature change.
And so it has proved to be. I am back to living at my optimum temperature: about 28˚C by day, 25˚C by night with only 60 % humidity and a caressing sea breeze. While Sampson drips all day and all night, I barely break into a sweat. And all the energy I am saving from having to keep warm, my body is putting into recovering. Slowly but surely my strength is coming back.
When I tried to explain my joy at being back in Liberia to Theo the senior security guard outside the truck, I found myself saying, “This heat… it’s like being hugged by God”.
* * *
In the first week here, when I was still in disturbed M.E. sleep mode – wide awake in the middle of the night for a couple of hours – I started writing a play, or rather it started writing itself. The measure of how much better I am is that I finished the first draft two weeks later!
By the third week, my sleep had regulated back to normal patterns, and I was back to waking at dawn. The unmitigated joy I feel being up and raring to go by 6.30 will not pall for a long while. By 7am I’m walking along the beach looking for a flat spot to do T’ai Chi while Zola frolics in the tumbling breakers; you have to be done by 8am because by then it’s too hot to exercise.
After school – in the truck if there’s a breeze, or in the airconditioned reception area of the resort if not – I have a late afternoon dip in the pool, doing my version of aqua-callenetics, while the boys surf. Kendeja’s pool is the only one in my whole life I’ve ever walked into without wincing even a little bit; it’s warm as milk and smooth as silk… I couldn’t have planned a more gentle return to active life than this.
Relearning how to live in the truck has been entertaining. Remembering how to have a shower without bumping your elbows, which switch by the sink is for drinking water, how to trip down the ladder with ease. Sampson has taken over market duty while I’m getting my strength back. He rides down the road on his Merida bike in his beat-up straw hat, and despite his strange straggly ‘proper explorer’ beard, the neighbourhood Liberians are remarkably friendly! Their version of American-accented English is fascinating. It’s like they’re so laid back, they don’t even need to use consonants.
So I’m back to eating juicy ripe pineapple and bananas for breakfast, fried plantains or eggs and tomatoes for lunch and lentils, local nettle-like spinach and rice for supper. No queen at a banquet could be happier. What with plantain chip snacks and a sweet green coconut drink to lift me in the middle of the sultry afternoon, it feels like I’m being treated to a health spa holiday customised just for me. Truckulence 🙂
I’m not the only one working out at the beach. Far from it. I had been reading signs stuck on the wall by the beach about “Mister T’s Physical Fitness Club” and wondering what it was before the first Saturday, when our normally quiet sidestreet suddenly filled up with big cars with tinted windows at 7am. It seems this is where the elite sons and daughters of the area come to train. Every weekend and public holiday, more than 50 people gather under the watchful eye of Mister T to work out.
Mister T has been running this club for over 15 years, and they usually train at the stadium but it is being renovated so they are outdoors for now. It looks like a social club as much as a health club, where buff young men and eligible young ladies come to gossip and do jumping jacks. Trainers include US Embassy employee Mitchell “Mitch” Grant who’s possibly the fittest man of mature years I’ve ever seen, and young Gardiehbey Bobzeo, a former professional football player who has played for teams in SA, Mozambique and Gabon.
My beach training buddies include “mixed martial artist” Jusufue “Zion” Browne and Ernest H2 Wesley I. They use the ruins of former leisure bomas as gym equipment, doing pull-ups hanging off the frames.
The second Wednesday in March is a Liberian public holiday called Decoration Day, where traditionally relatives tend the graves of the dead. It is very sad that the need to cremate Ebola victims to stop the spread of the disease has left families nowhere to pay homage to the memory of the 4283 Liberians who have lost their lives to the pandemic in the last year.
I had a fascinating chat one day with American NGO worker Nancy Marshall, who met Sampson’s best friend Aaron on a skiing holiday in France in February and came looking for us in Monrovia! She thinks that Liberians have done an awesome job containing Ebola as they have had to dramatically modify their very tactile cultural norms. She told me that she had heard several locals express the surprising opinion that Ebola “has been the making of Liberia” because the crisis has galvanised the country to save itself. Nancy said her general impression was that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had made impressive progress during her first post-war term in office, but her second term had been marred by corruption. The Ebola emergency has brought jaded people together across party boundaries, energised them with something like the Blitz spirit and made them believe again in their power to progress.
As schools have reopened and people are allowed to gather again for celebrations, last Saturday afternoon, a huge party of gaily-dressed wedding guests made a grand entrance into the resort foyer. It turned out to be two parties, celebrating the marriages of Darlington and Oretha Nuah and Prince and Olive David. I had never seen such fabulously bold colour-coordinated outfits. As they spilled out over the lawns and the official photographer got busy (why did he pose them in the shade?), I was getting my camera out hoping to sneak a group shot when guests started asking me to ‘flash’ them. Happy to oblige, I’ve sent a huge batch through to the happy couples, but let me just share with you a few of my favourites.
I had forgotten how impossible it is to live life privately in the truck, how everyone wants to ask questions and chat. Within half an hour of Big Reg arriving at Kendeja, we’d had three sets of visitors and arranged a radio interview. But everyone is so friendly you can’t complain. Compared to the cynical intrusion of cold callers in UK, I much prefer the warm callers of West Africa.
* * *
I’d been walking on the beach past Kendeja for a couple of days before I saw the sign warning guests not to venture beyond this point.
I was immediately struck by fear – but why? Yesterday Zola and I had wandered happily down another half a kilometre, parallel to small settlement of modest concrete and tin houses, and greeted smiling passers-by. But now my confidence had been rattled – was there something I should know? I hate getting out of the swing of travelling where I can trust myself to read human nature better than signs.
Ten minutes later, there were three young men coming towards me. Sampson and Zola were back at the truck waxing their boards preparing for an early surf and I was alone. The young men seemed to be dawdling somewhat. Should I be concerned? Irritated, I brushed this nonsense out of my head and concentrated on doing T’ai Chi. When they got nearer I realised what they were doing: picking up litter.
(How do you write that sound where you suck your teeth in a self-chastising way?)
When I thanked them, they told me that teams of litter-pickers are employed by the Liberian Maritime Beaches and Waterways Department to patrol the whole of the coast. And what a fabulous job they’re doing. I congratulated them, saying this Monrovian beach was cleaner than anywhere else I have seen in West Africa. They haven’t been paid in 8 months, but they are still faithfully doing their duty.
So this is my appeal. Firstly: Mrs Johnson Sirleaf, please pay your litter pickers! Ebola is no excuse. And secondly: TOURISTS – BORED OF BENIN? DONE GHANA? COME TO LIBERIA! It’s beautiful, relaxed and super-friendly. And they need your support now more than ever.
Written 15th March