Sunday, November 27, 2011

FREE Chapter of Sweet Liberia


Beginning At The End

August 8, 1990, Liberia West Africa


Massive Embassy gates clanged shut behind us. My heart filled with joy. In several weary steps, my family and others with the good fortune of surviving the trip to the American Embassy in Liberia, had instantly been transported from the barbaric civil war in West Africa, to the United States of America. Throngs of starving, ragged, and terrified Liberians, along with Africans from various tribes, clamored outside the gates. I could only say a prayer for them.

I am not sure what made me—maybe the adrenaline from fear and anxiety—but I looked up, and out of a dozen faces, I focused keenly on one particular marine perched on the perimeter wall of the Embassy. I was struck that he looked more like a red-faced teenager than a soldier. In the next instant, I saw him transform from a relaxed young man into a man preparing for battle. A shrill alert blared from the siren, his eyes widened and jaw hardened. The sound of speeding jeeps and machine gun fire permeated the air. The rebels were boldly attacking the Embassy of the United States of America!

Instinctively we hit the ground. Crawling along the concrete walkway toward the U.S. Consulate’s office was no easy task. The sound of machine gunfire assailed our eardrums. When all was quiet, only the coppery smell of spent ammo prevailed, we received the “all clear” and rose cautiously.
“Ms. Rahm!”
I spun around coming face to face with Ray, a Peace Corps worker once assigned to the Liberian National Red Cross. Today, he was dressed in civilian clothes, but wore a sidearm and the hardened gaze of a man accustomed to killing. Secretly, I had always believed he was CIA. Grinning, he revealed the familiar cracked front tooth as he waved a quick hello. Dazed at seeing him out of context, but relieved at the renewed feeling of safety, I feigned a smile.

Once inside the U.S. Embassy Consulate’s office, he lingered, personally expediting our group’s paperwork. His rank spared us the bureaucratic cruelty of repatriation, ordering that my children and I were not to be separated under any circumstances. Good never loss. I reflected upon the Liberian adage which, simply put, means the good you do comes back to you.

Ray had been a complete asshole as a Peace Corps worker. Supposedly, he had been stationed at the Red Cross Headquarters in Liberia to help develop additional revenue flow to confront our ever- growing financial problems. He came in like a whirlwind and was quickly promoted to Senior Staff where his brashness and lack of tact wreaked havoc on everyone’s nerves. Yet, whenever he visited the Red Cross Day Care Center, he seemed to transform into a softie, displaying a gentle, patient attitude. I was the Director of the Center, and during the children’s naptime, he would often stop by my office to sit and express his frustration with Liberia and its people. We would chat about the things we missed about good ole America, a place I had secretly vowed to leave behind forever.

Today, Ray’s face and squinting brown eyes brought a feeling of relief and gratitude for his influence.
Ray, with my youngest daughter in his arms, led my bedraggled family to the ocean side of the Embassy.
“Well, now I know the answer to why you aren’t married, dude,” I quipped.
“Yep, war is what I do.”
“So what now?”
“I’m on my way to Somalia,” he said, instinctively feeling for his holster. Our final words were clipped short as two C-130 military helicopters landed, making the palm trees bow low and our clothing blow against our bodies. As we boarded, I looked back one last time and thanked him from the bottom of my heart.

The copter crew was swift, outfitting us with helmets to protect our ears from the deafening sound of the propeller blades slicing through the humid air. Relieved and unafraid, I peered through the portals as we took off, looking down on the ground and then the ocean below. It was unlike any experience my children ever had, but then the last few months had been full of uncertainty, most of it terrifying. My youngest son, Zefron, dressed in a yellow and black Haywood Academy uniform that complimented his honey hued skin, sat wide-eyed, scanning the inside of the copter. The gunner, positioned to squelch enemy ground fire, added to the surreal effect.

In moments, we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean. A crewmember mentioned that two rescue copters would be making multiple trips to airlift delinquent refugees out of Liberia that day. I was grateful that Ray had used his influence to enable my family to leave together since that was not always the case. A woman and her son were huddled across from me, he seemed like just a baby compared my children. The child gagged, then vomited, perhaps from motion sickness, but more than likely from fear; while my girls, EliTikvah and Zevah, sat poised. I could only wonder what they were thinking.

This morning they had risen, like any other day, with the sun shining through their window of our cozy home on Chubor Road. Would that be the last time they slept in their beds in the place they had called home for so long? Where would we go from here? What was in store for our futures? War had changed us. War had changed everything.

Occasionally one of my children would look around; anxiety in their dark brown eyes, and in the tense set of their young shoulders. “Are you all right, baby?” I would ask. They would nod and all would be fine until their next anxious moment.

Sitting in the copter, I bore the full burden of my decision to remain in Liberia when all other American citizens, including my eldest son, daughter, and granddaughter, had been evacuated two months prior. How had it come to this? Amidst the relief I felt for my family, I also harbored deep feelings of remorse and shame for leaving friends behind, including “Ma Seeton” who had been like a mother to me; my granddaughter’s father; my business partner; and Chris, who was so much like a son to me.

Several months earlier, Liberians listened by candlelight to a man describing the fate of their beloved country. Rumors abounded that a U.S. submarine was harbored off the coast of Liberia. The people hoped and prayed that America would intervene in the war and spare their country, colonized by free Blacks from America in 1821, from a Civil War that would catapult it backwards fifty years. However, trouble had erupted in the Middle East and America rushed to protect its oil interest in the Persian Gulf, turning its back on its friend, Liberia. Now months later, I closed my eyes and thought of the ancient Ghanaian symbol, ‘Gname,’ that means, “No one knows the beginning or ending of anything except God.” For the remainder of the helicopter ride, I repeated the mantra over and over, trying to find a sense of peace, which would take years to come.
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Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot is for sale at online bookstores in paperback and electronically formatted for the Kindle, Nook and Ipad. You can also purchase autographed copies of my book and get additional information about the author from my website at www.sweetliberia.com. Follow sweetliberia11834 on twitter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Liberia- Freedom or Bondage, Which?

Talking about politics is a slippery slope upon which that I rarely slide. However, every now and then for the sake of my own soul, I need to exhale If only for the sake of having my opinion heard. I will not be stifled; after all, even when I sneeze up my sleeve to prevent spreading germs, I have still sneezed.
Before I go global, first let me stamp my feet in my own playground. Politics is a dirty game that, from my na├»ve vantage point, no one ever seems to win, particularly the common person. We are handed the historical hype that America was founded on freedom but from my vantage point the roots of America are rebellion, classism and…I’m going to say it, RACISM.

Here in America, our current president, Barak Obama is hounded by racism, which the media and polite liars attempt to shroud under a dozen other names, but which in the end, is still racism; racism so deeply rooted in the tradition that has become the American way, that it threatens to strangle this country.
What I see in Washington is a bunch of rebellious and employed people, on both sides of the aisle, who don’t seem to be able to come together to create policies that are equitable and fair and untarnished by corruption. We are a country where corporations and corrupt mega interests deemed ‘too big to fail’ call the shots, conspire and profit upon the misery and hard work of the ordinary working Joes and Jills.

However, for all that is a mess in America, it looks damn good compared to Liberia. What I know about Liberian politics, I learned from living in Liberia for 11 years, from talking with Liberian friends, the news, foreign and domestic, books and the Internet.

I am nervous about the election in Liberia. On October 11, President Sirleaf did not win handily and has to face a runoff on November 8. I’m not alone when I say that I want to see Liberia, my adopted homeland, whole. I believe President Sirleaf; given time and resources can accomplish that. I love Liberia and plan to spend time there in the next couple of years. I want find it peaceful, stable country.
When we escaped Liberia during the 1989 Civil War, I could not believe that anger could fester to the point that a country that had a burgeoning infrastructure, pockets of progress and an increasing literacy rate could catapult itself backwards 100 years. In my wildest imagination, I never believed that a country could go from 1990 to 1890 in 15 short years. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected president of an African nation shares much in common with President Barak Obama. Both are victims of situations beyond their control, inheriting countries on the precipice of disaster. President Obama began his presidency amidst economic crisis months before taking the official oath of office. President Sir leaf has battled to rebuild Liberia from the devastation of 15 years of war.

As Liberia prepares for a run- off election in November, I hope Liberia is ready to be free, personally I am rooting for President Sirleaf but I don't get to vote, that is a right reserved for Liberian citizens. However, it is hard for me to imagine that there could be a doubt that reelecting a president who has proved her love of and loyalty to Liberia, who has won the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, a president that understands the principles of government and of a sound fiscal management, with established international connections and respect would have trouble being reelected.

From where I sit, it perplexes me that she didn’t win by a landslide. Then I remember that Liberia destroyed 95 % of its infrastructure during the war. Liberia is a country where, 3.6 million people, 80% of the country lives on less than $1 a day. In Liberia 90 % of women and 75% of men are illiterate. People are uneducated, desperate, and perhaps unable to think long term. Like many of us, they may be waiting for a savior of charisma and guile. I hope this is not the case in Liberia. No, I pray that is not the case in Liberia.

As an avid fan of Star Trek, I recall that as the Starship Enterprise visited new worlds, one of the rules of engagement was never to give a less developed planet a weapon or a concept that outstripped their evolution. Primitive planets, using primitive weapons did not get phaser technology to defeat their enemies; there was a delicate evolutionary balance to be maintained. I hope Liberia is evolved to the point of being able to embrace democracy.

The investment community is waiting for the outcome of this election. Robert Johnson, owner of RLJ Companies (founder and former owner of BET), has invested 30 million in a five star hotel, the RLJ Kendeja Resort in Liberia. The Chinese government is a major investor in Liberia. America, Liberia's god pa, is watching. Liberia is rich in natural resources that, if properly administered, might bring prosperity to Liberia, but companies are cautious, wondering what will happen if the country is once again subject to regime change or worse yet, violence.

Who will suffer if President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf does not win the runoff election on November 8? It won’t be the Liberians living in the Diaspora, who are involved in Liberian politics from afar, but the common everyday Liberians, the ones that live on less than $1 a day.

As much as I love Liberia, with its industrious people, gritty red dusty roads, gracefully bowing palm trees, glistening ocean,saucy rhythms and Club beer, I wonder if Liberian citizens are ready for real freedom. I wonder if Liberians are ready for a stable democratic government. I wonder if Liberians are ready to leave tribalism in the rear view mirror and harness the collective energy of all Liberians.

For information on one way that you can help Liberia visit: http://www.liberianliteracyfoundation.org/liberianliteracyfoundationhome.html

Monday, July 25, 2011

Liberian Independence Day 2011- Tale of Two Celebrations




Last year, shortly after releasing my memoir, “Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot,” the Organization of Liberians in Illinois (OCLI) invited me to speak at the 163rd Liberian Independence Day Celebration. My theme was, “How Can Liberia Rebuild After Years of Civil War?” Indeed, how does a country recover from a war that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Liberians? How can Liberia heal the physical and psychological scars that could take 100 years to repair? I know that the righteous things are simple and with that in mind, I reflected, prayed and shared seven simple ideas. I revisit them today, in commemoration of the 164th anniversary of the Independence of Liberia.

They are:
1) Forgive thine enemy. Release the bitterness and embrace the possibility of reconciliation and progress.
2) No More War! Keep Liberia stable and secure for at least the next 50-75 years.
3) Visit Liberia if you can and look into your peoples’ faces
4) Organize charities to support the people of Liberia
5) Educate everybody, no exceptions
6) Consider how to use the diversity of Liberia and all its tribes (ethnic groups) in Liberia’s favor
7) Be an advocate for Liberia within the United States
Those seven ideas applied simply and consistently could help Liberia move from a people affected by pain and bitterness to a people focused on progress.

This year, as preparations were underway to celebrate the 164th Liberian Independence Day, I was a little dismayed to realize that for one reason or another, I would need to divide my attention between two Chicago Independence Day celebrations, a couple of miles apart, both on the south side.

The celebration for the Organization of Liberians in Illinois (OLCI) celebrated, in addition to Liberian Independence, the inauguration of the Hon. Richard Tamba as its new president. An evening highlight was popular Liberian songbird Ms. Nimba Burr. Just a few miles away, the Liberian Community Association of Illinois (LCAI) held a separate celebration at Corpus Christi Church.

I chose to attend both celebrations and to overlook whatever underlying reason caused the dual events. Instead, I focused on the positive energy and goodwill present at both celebrations. I immersed myself in the spirit and good humor of a people who, although divorced from their ravaged homeland, nevertheless treasure their national identity and the coming together with compatriots, friends and family to celebrate freedom! I focused on the fact that there were elders, youngsters, and all ages in between in common union!

I noticed small details such as the fact that at one celebration, more of the attendees wore cultural attire and drove larger and more expensive automobiles; at another, I witnessed the Grand March, which brought back fond memories of Liberia. I have not witnessed the Grand March for more than twenty years and seeing elders in traditional dress and young men in flat-bibbed baseball caps marching with young women in shorts and stilettos was uplifting. I reveled in eating several fluffy pieces of rice bread and callah (a deep fried sweet bread reminiscent of donut holes), while my eldest daughter, who became women in Liberia, critiqued the flavors of authentically prepared Liberian foods that she has not eaten in a long, long time.

In the end, what was most important to me about the 164th celebration of Liberian Independence is not that I attended two celebrations, but that Liberia is the oldest independent nation on the continent of Africa, and that my family has a connection to that history and that future.

Saturday night, I laughed, a lot, and danced and sweated (a lot) to the upbeat rhythms of Liberian music. As I drove home in the early hours of Sunday, I realized that whatever problems lay ahead with respect to the governance of Liberian people living in the Diaspora, one thing I know for sure, is that as long as we can dance, eat, sweat and talk together, there is hope. All Hail Liberia, Hail!

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Branches of the tree: African Americans in Liberia, 1950-2010.”

If the title sounds like a scholarly work, so be it. I may be the one to write it, or perhaps I'll just be the person to suggest the title and work on it but I think it needs to be written.

I am not going to get too deep with this but I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago at Chicago State University for the Margaret Burroughs Oral History Series. I spoke to a gathering of faculty and students at the University, they threw me a wonderful reception, and afterwards I sat for a taped interview sharing intimate aspects of my life, primarily the portion of it that culminated in my decision to relocate with my family and work in Liberia, West Africa for eleven years. Our intention was to live in Liberia, but we were forced to flee during the Liberian Civil War. It was really rather challenging, to talk about ones motivations and choices on camera without the luxury of editing your mistakes away. However, I knew I would be vulnerable, when I wrote my memoir, Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot.

I have to acknowledge that whenever anyone comments positively on my book I am humbled, somewhat surprised and I have even come to enjoy the sometimes-veiled criticism of my former life, before I was whoever people think I am today. Recently I have been wishing that I had the time and money to research the stories of African Americans that left the shores of America, after the initial migration to Liberia in 1817. What about people who left in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70, 80’s? We need to preserve those stories. For several years, I awakened at 4am to create the space in my life to write Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot and then forced myself through the final months of focused labor and thousands of dollars of my personal funds happily spent to give birth to the story of our sojourn. My book is my legacy for my family. Presently I am a proud daughter, sister, and grandmother working to bring my “A+ game” to my full time employer while sharing my historical musings in my spare time.

But I realize that there is so much more to the history of African Americans in Liberia that is left on the table. There is the book by my dear friend Diane Jordan Grizzard, Free Soil, which brings the story as a stirring novel of historical fiction; there is Helene Cooper’s wonderful memoir, The House on Sugar Beach, which is written from the perspective of a woman of the lineage of the settlers that left American to settle Liberia. The group that was targeted during the April 12, 1980 coupe. Still there is much more on the table.

I reflect immediately on my good friend Ron Watkins who died several years ago. An African proverb says that so long as someone says your name you live, and so Ron is immortal in the memory of those who love him. He traveled to Liberia, in the 80's to mine diamonds for some very prominent Chicagoans. I was friends with a group of expatriates composed of retired postal clerks and members of the Baha’i faith in Liberia. I recall acquaintances, Ben Kahil and Miriam a couple that left the West Side of Chicago who moved to the West Coast of Africa years before me and owned one of the largest schools in Liberia. The wife remarried a Liberian and still lives in Liberia. I have a friend, a Reverend, who traveled first to Tanzania and stayed until political problems in Tanzania sent him to Liberia, where he opened an elementary school, then a college and he is still living in Liberia. Liberia, because of it's open door policy, was open to immigration by hundreds of African Nationalists and African Hebrew Israelites that settled in Liberia. Many between the early 1970’s in the early 1980’s.

One very poignant story that strikes me as high adventure, is of my friend’s children who were stranded in Liberia during the Civil War. Their father hitched a ride with Charles Taylor’s sister, I am told, and stole into Liberia via the Ivory Coast right into Charles Taylor’s camp to get his children. Now, that is a story waiting to be told!

I was blessed to have the time, talent, fortitude and dollars to publish a portion of my life in Liberia, at the same time it saddens me to know that so much the live of African Americans bold enough to travel and live in Africa that is untold.

My intention is to create at least one other book of the stories about "my tribe" in West Africa, Coal Pot Stories. I find people connect with my book because they see me as somebody like themselves, which is exactly right! My question is finding the means to facilitate the telling of the stories of people who are not and don't intend to become writers. It's an open question. I believe that the Universe rushes to fill a vacuum.