Occupation: Candidate For the Presidency of Liberia
It was one of those big social events where Liberians from all walks of life meet and reminiscent about the lost country, drink beer, stout, and eat pounds of potato greens, cassava leaves, palm butter and other great culinary inventions of our foremothers. I was at the second serving of potato greens – I once ate potato greens for an entire week, from breakfast cold bowl to late night snacks without desire for any other food! - When he walked to me and slightly touched me on the shoulder. I was so focused on this hot plate that I almost ignored him. I never let anything get between me and my potato-green but the surprise was a great pleasure so I put my plate down and gave him a hug, shook his hand with the nosiest finger snap. I kept a close eye on my plate and did not leave the line. He tried to pull me aside but I signaled to him that I had to load my plate and he walked to the side, his eyes on me, waiting for me to join him. He was still smiling when I walked to him. He tried to hug me again but I took a step back, slightly pushing my plate to the side to avoid any accident. I took a seat on a bench, secured my plate filled with potato greens, sweet potatoes and rice, a combination made in heaven on my lap!
He looked at me and I gazed back at him.
“Man, it is so good to see you! How long has it been/” he asked?
“Fourteen years,” I said, thinking to myself, “would he let me eat my potato greens in peace or would I have to walk away from him. We had been good colleagues, friends even if one considers sharing a Club being friends. The last time I saw him was on the campus of the University of Liberia. We were all in the parking lot in front of Tubman Hall, with Vanjah Richards, Abalo and others. We were waiting for a Faculty Bus to go to Fendell Campus. Back then and as now, I think that spreading the campus to Fendell was a mistake. Fendell should have been used for the military and BTC given to UL as an extension, with its housing units, its great field for sport and the beach right there for romantic late night strolls for students. But some people were to make lots of money from developing Fendell so it became a reality and a major pain for those students working and teachers with other teaching jobs in town. I remember that day because rather than get on the faculty bus and go teach at Fendell, I stopped a taxi, went to Ethiopian airlines, booked a flight the same day and left the country. One of my students, Dexter Tahyor had told me that he had heard my name “somewhere” and advised that I be careful.
“Yeah, man, 14 years, how have you been?” I said, hoping that I would get him talking as much as possible so that I could enjoy my potato-greens and my bonies.
“Thank God, everything is alright,’ he said, and then as I hoped, he went on: “And I thank the Lord for it because we went through hell. I was in Monrovia during most of the war, we stayed there throughout, until ECOMOG came in and we were able to leave through Sierra Leone. We were in Paynesville and the first group of rebels that came told us they would protect us. They ate all our food, then looted our houses and threatened to kill us. In the end, we were all sleeping on the cold cement floor. My old mom got ill, we had to push her in a wheelbarrow but one day, just as we were to get on the ship to leave for Freetown, she passed away…”
“Oh man, I am sorry, man… “ I said between two mouthful of succulent potato greens.
“Yeah, that is OK, the rest of the family survived. We got to Freetown just when the Sawyer government was ready to go to Monrovia. We left and got here and ever since we have been in Maryland. My wife went for her graduate degree and the children are all grown up. Andrea is almost done with Medical school and John Jr. is now in the Army. I hope they don’t send him to Iraq. How about you?”
“I am OK. So what are you up to now…?”
“I am glad you asked that question and this is something that might interest you. When I first came here I started to work in the mall as a security guard, then I became a substitute teacher in Montgomery County and then I found a job in an insurance company. And I stayed there until five months ago and decided to go home and see how things are going. I wanted to see what had happened to the country to decide if I wanted to remain in America for good or go back and help to rebuild the country, now that we got rid of Taylor. So I went home. I spent two days in Monrovia and went to the village. You know we are not far from Monrovia…”
Oh, God, I thought. “So you went home? It might have been a shock to you?” I said, while getting to the bottom of my food and thinking of the next course, some banana bread with a cold Stout…
“No man, no shock, because I remember the day I left in 1990, in August. You could see dead bodies all over town. Prince Johnson, Taylor and Nimley were all saying they were presidents while ECOMOG was trying to sort things out. No, I remembered the day I left Monrovia, pushing my mother in a wheelbarrow, wearing the same shirt and pants I had on for two months, with a pair of old Mandingo slippers all pieced-up together and my pants hanging by a rope! My wife so dried she had no mo tears left in her body! So when I saw Monrovia gain with all these people around, the UN keeping peace and people just going by their business, I had hope. And I said, “yes, this country will be great someday.’ But for that to happen, we all have to contribute our parts. We all have to believe in it…”
“Definitely. So you enjoyed your stay in Monrovia?” I said. I was now about to eat the last piece of my sweet potatoes.
“Yes, I did. But as I said, I went to the village. The people were there, man. My grand uncle, my brothers and everybody. For ten days, we cooked for the entire village. I had bought ten bags of rice in Monrovia, twenty cases of Club but the people wanted their can-juice, and so I bought plenty of it. And then just two days before I returned to Monrovia, I had this dream. I saw myself walking in a forest and all of a sudden, some guy appears from no where and tells me: ‘You have to show them.” Show them what and show to whom? But he disappeared. I went back to sleep and had the same dream and exactly the same words. So in the morning, I went to my grand uncle and told him about it. Guess what he did.’
“You tell me,” I said, looking at the long line passing by and the mountainous banana-bread shrinking as the line moved.
“Yeah, so… you saw that one over there… man. Nothing like a Liberian woman in a lappa suit, God Bless Lofa... Anyway, listen to this. My grand uncle took me to his friend, the medicine man. He asked me to take off my clothes… I am telling you all this because we are very close and you can never repeat it to anyone – Then the man brought a rooster. He cut the throat of the rooster and asked me to drink the blood. I did and then he asked me to stand up. He put kola nuts in my mouth and asked me to chew it. Then he slapped my face. For some reason my mouth never open. And then he asked me to put on my clothes. We sat and drank some palm wine. Then he told my grand uncle that I was destined to lead my people, that my people need my guidance Here I am!”
There was a moment of silence. I tried to rush and break into the line and get some of the banana bread. Just as I was about to stand up, he put his hand over my knees and looking deep in my eyes, he says:
“This is how I have decided to join the race. And I looked at the whole thing, here I am, well educated, young and from a good country family background. Why can’t I be the one to lead our nation out of the misery Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor put it through? Tell me? I taught for years. When I was in the insurance business I could sell a policy to anyone, so why couldn’t I sell my dreams to my fellow Liberians? I can move this country forward and all I need is the help of a few good people, like you. You can trust me and whatever I get is for you.”
“So, you are going to run for president in 2005?”
“Man, you hit the nail on the head! My people are behind me, three political parties have come to me so far, my county people, every tribe, the women groups and everyone wants me to run! Who am I to say no to the people? This is our time. And I want you to be part of the greatest historical development in the history of our nation. The people asked me and I said I will go around and talk to people and everywhere I have been, the response is the same. I went to Minnesota, California, Dallas, and Rhode Island and we have raised some good money! We are on the roll and we need you, we need people like you. And if you can organize something around here and bring your people, man, that would be great… and of course, there will be something in there for you, not only now but also and especially after we take over the mansion! Who is going to stop us?”
“Win of course, we will… I want to get some of that banana bread…” I tried to stand up and he pulled me back and I resisted and he stood up, still holding me by the arm… “So how is the insurance business going?” I said to create a distraction.
“What insurance business? I told you I am running for President! I am going to be President of Liberia and you are talking about me selling insurance! I quit that job longtime ago…who got time to sell insurance? Let the American people sell their own insurance, I have to lead my people…”
I tried to move towards the table. He was still holding me by the arm. The mountain of banana bread was now reduced to a tiny island on the vast white aluminum sheet.
“Forget the banana bread… Someday you will have all the banana bread you can eat! Imagine how much money we pulled out in three months! You know how many Liberians are in this country? Close to 300,000! And you know how much they send home every year? More than $30 million! So they got money. We just need to be organized and we can raise enough money, buy t-shirts, rice and watches and books and the elections are ours! Don’t mind all those people who spent half their lives running for president! Are you with me? We can put you on the payroll. So far only my secretary and I get salaries… Don’t go yet, here is my wife coming, you remember her?”
His wife walked to us. He introduced us and asked if she remembered me. We had never met but we hugged. My arm was free and I walked to the table. The banana bread was gone. I looked at him. He seemed to be talking to his wife about me. She had a huge peace of banana bread in her plate. She started to feed him. I threw my empty plate in the trashcan. The music was blaring out of the window. A Liberian group was singing the latest hit in Monrovia titled “Rebel da rebel.” I walked to my car, started it and headed home.