Photo: Ted Ernst Sarvata
A Liberian Life
“Reeeed Oil!” If we were up early enough I caught a glimpse of the oil man swinging past our front door, with translucent reddish chilli oil piled high in plastic bottles balanced perfectly on his shapely head. He never once stopped at our door in the five months I lived in the Buduburam Refugee camp, but his distinctive nasal call conjured the taste of the fiery mix every time he sang his trade. In 2006 the camp, situated 40km West of Ghana’s capital Accra, was home to 42,000 West African refugees and a myriad of extraordinary personal narratives.
Grabbing my belongings for the day, and arming myself with mosquito repellent, I’d make my way to the ‘Brotherhood Cafe’ for breakfast; if I was out the door in time it guaranteed me a prime spot in front of Aljazeera news, and out of the glare of the morning sun. The two Muslim brothers in their early twenties from Sierra Leone, who arrived on the camp with just a fridge freezer filled with their essential belongings, had quickly learned my routine and had the eggs, soft bread rolls, and Magi cubes ready for my arrival. I would watch them, mesmerised by their deftness at preparing multiple breakfasts whilst they joked with one another, and scolded opportunistic toddlers loitering for sugar cubes.
A day that didn’t see the start with a Brotherhood breakfast was rare. Aatif and Muhammed had established the thriving business with just a handful of ingredients, and had made enough capital to purchase a generator to keep the fridge going when the daily electricity blackout occurred, guaranteeing them a daily income. Had they been in the West, I know that the savvy business sense they possessed would have made them millionaires, and they would own their VIP box at Old Trafford; a request they often kidded me with if they had time between serving customers.
Fed and ready for the morning’s chaos at the Carolyn A. Miller Elementary school (CAMES), my colleagues and I would make our way across the camp over open drains and past dusty abandoned sofas, usually occupied by a young man languishing in the morning sun after a hard night on ‘The 18’. I’d walk to school with a motley crew of CAMES students dressed in their clashingly vibrant orange and black uniforms. If I was running late I would hear the tuneful malaise of the Liberian National anthem being blasted out by students in the court yard.
If I arrived after the last verse the gates would be locked and my lateness made public by the harsh sound of the heavy iron gates being scraped across rock and dust. This was much to the relief of fellow latecomers who were locked out for the day if they didn’t have a teacher to sneak in behind. During my lessons, I often had a student camped devotedly outside my classroom window with a text book, who’d rather be on the dusty ground than at home being scolded by an auntie for missing school again. The register took up a large chunk of the lesson, and had extra names crammed onto the bottom of the page on a daily basis, making me gulp at the implausibility of packing more little bodies onto the narrow benches already buckling beneath the strain.
In a classroom either unbearably hot because the fan had cut out, or far too noisy because the fan deafened all other sound, my students fell over themselves with the excitement of spelling tests given by the volunteer teacher. At a loss as to why every one of my super keen students failed to hand in any homework week after week, I asked my principal what I was doing wrong. “They don’t understand your accent” he consoled me. “Try speaking like a Liberian.” The next day I tentatively exchanged “assignment” for “Assanmen!” in that irresistible West African drawl, and dozens of books with the stories and pictures I’d asked of them came flooding back to me.
Joy had been one of our first visitors at the house on Buduburam refugee camp, and my journey back to #178 from school was often with this self possessed and unknowable woman. She’d appear at my side from nowhere, silent and graceful. At first I was taken aback by this lean, willowy creature; arrestingly beautiful had she not the look of someone who was constantly hungry and malnourished. In a low and silky voice she’d ask after me. “How is your body today Hannah?” and I’d answer truthfully, knowing that I’d get an indifferent response.
“Melting, as always.”
“Ah that’s too bad,” and in her next breath she’d ask for a small sum of money to tide her over. She pronounced ‘money’ making a perfect ‘o’ with her mouth, and she’d look away out of my gaze. Her rheumy bloodshot eyes gave away problems not just relating to hunger, and I later learned that Joy had been a heroin addict in California. Somehow, Joy had returned to Buduburam because she was, in all truth, better off here on the camp rather than at the mercy of a city where temptation was ubiquitous.
I always squirmed at her requests for cash and admit to giving in from time to time, wanting to believe her half-truths. I still wonder what had happened to Joy and her sons during the Liberian Civil War, and whether Charles Taylor’s hateful actions had left an unscrupulous void inside of her. But I knew it was not my place to assign personal histories, or to determine if she was lying or not.
Joy glided across the camp effortlessly knowing every pothole and loose stone. She also moved fast and sometimes I would see her from a distance, at 6’1” a clear head above the rest of the crowd, sweeping her way amongst the corrugated iron roofs towards wherever she was going.
Elijah, our neighbour, trotted in from school about the same time I did and sometimes we’d spend the afternoon together avoiding the sun, planning lessons and doing homework. At nineteen he still looked like a boy, with teeth that needed braces but never got them, and an oversized school shirt which had years of growth still in it. When my co-volunteer told him he had a degree in Chemistry, Elijah’s face lit up and he couldn’t believe his luck at landing such well read neighbours who could help him with his studies. “That’s my area!” he chirruped, and did a small victory dance.
He tended his pet rabbits daily and when they multiplied to an unmanageable number, he found homes for every single one of them with delighted bare footed children across the camp. In the evenings I’d hear Elijah shuffling further into the light given out by our outside lamp so he could study his books, and when the electricity cut out the groans and sighs of missed TV programmes and precious study light followed like a crucial missed goal at a football match. Elijah however, kept a secret supply of candles, an expensive must-have on Buduburam, and he would be outside until the small hours.
At dusk I’d walk ‘The 18’ with friends in search of street food cooked over searing hot burners, which made the road look like the belly of a savage dragon. It didn’t matter if the electric cut on ‘The 18’ because the light from the fires kept it alive long into the night. I could spend an entire evening walking the main street watching youths bump and grind to ‘High Life’, occasionally joining in after a bottle of ‘Star’ or two. Bars were often so close together that it was impossible to distinguish one song from another, and ‘The 18’ became an almighty din of pelting bass sounds, cheering, and the hissing of fires.
The routine of camp life instilled a temporary sense of safety, meeting the immediate needs of the most hungry and poor amongst its inhabitants, and many refused to board the repatriation buses that left daily for Monrovia, which is why the camp’s capacity for housing began to buckle. For what could the shell of Monrovia offer that Buduburam could not? Now, in 2013, the camp is on the brink of closure and the UNHCR are stepping further and further away; Liberia continues to rebuild slowly.
Those who stepped aboard those buses for Liberia did so under a blanket of terrifying uncertainty, and the promised auspices of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had yet to prove her worth. Allowed to bring with them just a few bars of soap and a UNHCR bag of grain, expatriated refugees braved a new uncertain world where the only certainty lay in guaranteed unemployment, electricity blackouts, and wounds of the past still bleeding. Those standing at the entrance to ‘The 18’ would wave them off, then return to the warmth of the burners promising slabs of grilled plantain covered in a sweet, sweet syrup.
*For the protection of individuals, all names have been changed