Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Patrick Alix is thirty years old. He is distinctly aristocratic looking, half French, and so unrelievedly serious the urge is to say stupid things in his presence. Before working in West Point, Patrick worked in Zambia doing emergency work, qualified as a chartered accountant, worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia (“I used to be an ecology militant”), performed a management evaluation of the French nuclear fusion reactor program, produced a Reggae album in Haiti and played violin in the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The above is not an exhaustive list. He has seen the situation in Liberia progress from the direst emergency to the beginnings of “development.” “Basically, we’ve followed the returnees from the camps—many settled in this community. Sixty-five thousand people live here, thirty thousand of them children. Now, there are nineteen schools in the slum, yes? So—” Wait. There are schools in a slum? Patrick frowns, stops walking. He pinches his temples. “Sure,” he says. “But we’re going to the only government one. The rest are private, sharing space with churches, or mosques, with volunteer teachers. There’s also a teacher’s council here, a commissioner, the township council—you understand the slum is a township? It’s organized into blocks and zones. The area representatives call meetings. Otherwise nothing would get done.”

  He sets off quickly through the chaotic little alleys, sure of his way. When we arrive, Patrick says: “You should have seen it before. This is the ‘after’ picture!” Aubrey takes a photograph of the long, low concrete building, its four large, bare rooms. Patrick says: “So Liberia has this unique freed-slave history. . . . What this means is the government structures were simply borrowed, lots of titles—minister for this, minister for that—but that was cosmetic. . . . Now, things have changed; they’ve pledged ten percent of their budget to education, which is enormous percentage-wise, but still only twelve million dollars for the whole country. There’s too much to be done right now. NGOs fill the gap. What you saw back there was part of our livelihood project: fathers are taught how to make school furniture, which we, the school, buy from them at a fair price. They also sell this furniture to all the schools in West Point. And mothers make the uniforms—if that doesn’t sound too traditionally gendered. . . . ”

  Standing in front of the school are John Brownell, who manages the livelihood project, and Ella Coleman, who until recently was West Point’s commissioner. Mr. Brownell is a celebrity in West Point: he played football for Liberia. This took him to the United States and Brazil. “Rio de Janeiro!” he says, and smiles fondly, as if speaking of heaven. He is crisp-shirted despite the heat, broad as a rugby player. Ms. Coleman is a kind of celebrity, too, well known throughout West Point. Hers is a hands-on approach to pastoral care. She will enter homes to check on suspected abuse. She keeps children at her own house if she fears for their safety. She is impassioned: “We have seven-year-old girls being raped by big men! I talk to parents—I educate people. People are so poor and desperate. They don’t know. For example, if a mother is keeping her child home to earn fifty Liberian dollars at the market, I say to her: “That will keep you for a day! What about the future?” Another example: one of our very young boys here, he was always touching one of our girls—so I made him a friend. He was suspended—but sitting out there will not help. I went to his house. The whole family sleeps in one room. I said to his parents: you have exposed these children to these things too early. Anything that happens to this little girl, I will hold you responsible!”

  And are some of your students ex-combatants? “Oh, my girl,” says Ms. Coleman sadly, “there are ex-combatants everywhere. People live next to boys who killed their own families. We, as a people, we have so much healing to do.”

  Patrick explains logistics. The principal of the school is on thirty American dollars a month. To rent a shack in the slum for a month is four American dollars a week. Liberian teachers are easily bribed. You pay a little, you pass your exam. At the university level, the problem is endemic. Teaching qualifications are usually dubious. “It’s dull to repeat, but this all stems from extreme poverty. If you’re a teacher living in a shack on a pile of rubbish, you’d probably do the same.” Mr. Brownell begins to speak hopefully of the Fast Track Initiative, to which Liberia has applied for money. He puffs out his wide chest proudly. One of the aims is to reduce class size from 344:1 to 130:1. Patrick nods quickly: “Yes, big man . . . but that will take three years—while strategies are being made, these children need something now. Look at them. They’re waiting.”

  “This is the sad truth,” says Brownell.

  In the shade, four girls are instructed to speak with us. The conversation is brief. They all want to be doctors. They kick the dust, refuse to make eye contact. We have only inanities to offer them anyway. It’s good that you all want to be doctors. The doctors will teach new doctors. There’ll be so many doctors in Liberia soon!

  Lysbeth sighs, murmuring: “Except there’s something like twenty-three Liberian doctors. And fourteen nurses. In the whole country.”

  The visitors wilt slightly; sit on a wall. The schoolgirls look on with pity—an unbearable reversal. They run off to help their mothers in the market. Meanwhile, Ms. Coleman is still talking; she is explaining that at some point the government will clear this slum, this school, everything and everyone in it. She does not think the situation impossible. She does not yet suffer from “charity fatigue.” She is saying, “I trust it will be for the best. We made this community from the dirt, but we can’t stay here.”


  Bong country is beautiful. Lush green forest, a sweet breeze. There are pygmy hippopotamuses here and monkeys; a sense of Liberia’s possibilities. Rich in natural resources, cool in the hills, hot on the beach. Nyan P. Zikeh is the Oxfam program manager for this region. He is compactly built, handsome, boyish. He was educated during the last days of Tolbert’s regime (“He was killed in my final year of high school”). Nyan helps rebuild the small village communities of Bong, a strategic area fought over by all the warring factions. People live in tiny traditional thatched huts arranged around a central ground. It is quiet and clean. The communities are close-knit and gather around the visitors to join the conversation. In one village a woman explains the food situation. She is “1-0-0,” her children are (usually) “1-0-1”; there are many others who are “0-0-1.” It is a binary system that describes meals per day. Still, things are improving: there are schools here now; there are latrines. Nyan’s projects encourage the creation of rice paddies; the men work in them, and women take the rice to market. It is more than the subsistence farming that existed before the war. His dream is to connect all these villages in a trading ring that utilizes Bong’s strategic centrality and sells produce on to Monrovia. Nyan: “You have to understand, in this area, everything was destroyed. The largest displaced camps were here. We helped people go back to where their villages formerly were; we helped them rebuild. All that you see here was done with DFID money—the Department for International Development. They are British. They funded us with £271,000 sterling—they gave us this twice. And I am happy to say we met a hundred percent of our targets. Creating infrastructure and training individuals. The money went a very long way. It helped to train Liberian staff. It helped provide assistance at the county level for the Ministry of Health. It was quite an enormous help.”

  “This is the good aid story,” says Lysbeth. “People find that very boring.”

  As we leave the village, the gardener in Lysbeth looks around for signs of soil cultivation. Heavy, wet palms cascade over one another, but there are no fields. Nyan prides himself on his frankness: “We can’t blame anyone else. The truth is we don’t have the knowledge and skill about farming. It has always been slash, burn and plant. The only industrial farming our people have known here is the rubber plantations. That is the only major industry our people know. Everything else was not developed.”

  There are such things as third-world products. In the market where the women sell their rice, a boy’s T-shirt reads DAVID BE
CKHAM, but the picture beneath is of Thierry Henry. The plastic buckets the women carry have bad ink jobs—the colors run like tie-dye. The products no one else wants come to Liberia. “And our meat is the same,” explains Nyan, “chicken feet, pig feet. That’s what people are sold. More tendon than flesh. No nutritional value.”

  Half a mile down the road, Mrs. Shaw, an eighty-year-old Liberian teacher, sits in front of her small home. She has taught three generations of Liberian children on a wage she describes as “less then the rubber tappers: twenty-five U.S. dollars a month.” She says the children she teaches have changed over the years. Now they are “hot headed.” They are angry about their situation? She frowns: “No, angry at each other.” As we leave, Lysbeth spots three graves in the yard. “My sons—they were poisoned.” Lysbeth assumes this is metaphorical, but Abraham shakes his head. He doesn’t know what the poison is, exactly: maybe some kind of leaf extract. In the vehicle he explains: “Her sons, they were working in government, quite good jobs. It happens that when you’re doing well, sometimes you are poisoned. They put something in your drink. I always watch my glass when I am out.”

  The visitors sit on the porch eating dinner at CooCoo’s Nest, the best hotel in rural Liberia. Named after President Tubman’s mistress, it is owned by his daughter; she lives in America now. In her absence it is run by Kamal E. Ghanam, a louche, chain-smoking Lebanese in a safari pantsuit, who asks you kindly not to switch on the light in your room until after 7 P.M. Kamal also manages the rubber plantation behind. He brings out the sangria as Abraham and Nyan bond. These two are members of a very small group in Liberia: the makeshift Liberian middle class, created in large part by the presence of the NGOs. “It’s difficult,” explains Abraham. “Even if I paint my house, people begin talking. He is Congo now. As soon as you have anything at all, you are isolated from the people.” They show off their battle scars, knife wounds from street robberies. Aubrey, who has been photographing the plantations, arrives. He has news: he met a rubber worker in the field.

  “His name is David. He doesn’t know his age—but we worked out with various references to events during war that he’s about thirty-five years old. He has three living children and three who died. He was born on the plantation and has worked there since he was ten or twelve, he thinks. He wants to be able to keep his own children in school, but at the current rate of pay he won’t be able to afford to. He works seven days a week. He says workers on the plantation live in camps that were built in 1952. There are no schools or medical facilities nearby—anyway, he couldn’t afford them. He taps about fifty pounds of raw latex per day. He said it’s a long day, from sunrise until late. . . . ”

  Aubrey is breathless and excited: we have the feeling that we are intrepid journalists, uncovering an unknown iniquity. In fact, the conditions on Liberian rubber plantations are well documented. In a CNN report of 2005, Firestone president Dan Adomitis explained that each worker “only” taps 650-750 trees a day and that each tree takes two to three minutes. Taking the lower of these two estimates equals twenty-one hours a day of rubber tapping. In the past, parents have brought their children with them in order to help them meet the quota; when this was reported, Firestone banned the practice. Now people bring their children before dawn.

  Kamal smokes, listens, sighs. He says, “Listen, this is how it is,” as if talking of some unstoppable natural weather phenomenon. He pauses. Then, more strongly: “Now, be careful about this tapper. He is not from Firestone, I think. He is from a different place.” Nyan smiles. “Kamal, we both know that plantation—it sells to a middleman who sells to Firestone. Everybody sells to Firestone.” Kamal shrugs. Nyan turns back to the visitors: “Firestone is a taboo subject here. Everyone knows the conditions are terrible—their accommodation has no water, no electricity—but it is better paid than most work here. You would have to have a very strong lobby in the U.S. government to stop them. The whole reason Firestone came to Liberia in the first place was as a means of creating a permanent supply of rubber for the American military. The British had increased the taxes on Malaysian rubber—the Americans didn’t want to pay that. They needed a permanent solution. So they planted the rubber—it’s not native to Liberia. Really, they created a whole industry. It sounds strange, but these are some of the best jobs in Liberia.”

  Kamal goes inside to collect dessert. Abraham leans over the table.

  “Do you know what people say? In 2003, when the war was at its worst, the only places in Liberia that were safe were the U.S. embassy and Firestone. Everywhere else there was looting and killing. The American Marines were offshore—we kept hoping they would come ashore. What were they waiting for? But we waited and then they sailed away. They did nothing. And that is when people got disappointed.”

  Everyone at the table is asked why they think the war happened. Nyan says: “Let me tell you first my candid feeling: every Liberian in one way or another took part in the war. Either spiritually, financially, psychologically or physically. And to answer your question: in a sense there was no reason. Brothers killed brothers, friends killed friends, only to come back the next day and regret they ever did it in the first place. For me the only real reason was greed. And poverty. All that the warlords wanted was property. When they stormed Monrovia, they did not even pretend to fight one another. They killed people in their homes and then painted their own names on the walls. When Ms. Sirleaf took over Gut tridge’s rubber plantation—2.8 million a month—it was still occupied by rebel forces, and they refused to leave for a year and a half. They wanted to be in the rubber business. But they destroyed the trees—didn’t tap them properly. It will take another ten years to replant.”


  Lunch in La Pointe, the “good restaurant” in Monrovia. The view is of sheer cliff dropping to marshland, and beyond this, blue green waters. During the war the beach was scattered with human skulls. Now it is simply empty. In Jamaica, tourists marry on beaches like these. They stand barefoot in wedding outfits in white sand owned by German hotel chains and hold up champagne flutes, recreating an image from a brochure. This outcome for Liberia—a normalized, if exploitative, “tourist economy”—seems almost too good to hope for. At present, La Pointe is patronized solely by NGO workers, government officials and foreign businessmen. A Liberian passes by in a reasonably nice suit. Abraham: “He’s a Supreme Court judge.” Another man in a tie: “Oh, he’s Nigerian. He owns an airline.” Everywhere in Liberia it is the same: there are only the very poor and the very powerful. In the missing middle, for now: the “international community.” The monitoring agency GEMAP is in place. No government check over five hundred dollars can be signed without GEMAP’s knowledge. It is very hard to be good in these conditions. President Johnson-Sirleaf has promised to review the 2005 Mittal Steel and Firestone concessions. We hope and pray.

  Behind our table an Englishman, a Lebanese and a Liberian are having a lunch meeting:Englishman: You see, I’m worried about management morale. The troops soon feel it if management is low. At the moment it’s like a bloody sauna in there. Maybe we could just give them a few things . . . a nice bed, bedsheets, something so they won’t be bitten to death at night. They’re so happy if you do that—you wouldn’t believe it!

  Liberian: My friend, someone’s going to get malaria. It’s inevitable.

  Lebanese: This is true.

  Liberian: I ask you please not to worry about malaria—we get it all the time in Liberia. I promise you we are used to it!

  The history of Liberia consists of elegant variations on this conversation.

  The Toyota rolls up in front of Paynesville School. Motto: Helping our selve [sic] through Development. Aubrey causes a riot in the playground: everyone wants their picture taken. Some are in uniform, others in NGO T-shirts. Fifty or so wear a shirt that says CHINA AND LIBERIA: FRIENDSHIP FOREVER. We are here only for one boy. We were given his name by Don Bosco Homes, a Catholic organization that specializes in the rehabilitation of child ex-combatants.

  He is very small for fifteen, with a close-shaved, perfectly round head and long, pretty eyelashes. He has the transcendental air of a child lama. Three big men bring him to us in a corner of the yard and go to fetch a chair. He stays the wrist of one of the men with a finger and shakes his head. “It’s too hot here to talk. We’ll go inside.”

  In a small office at the back of the school, four nervous adults supervise the interview. Lysbeth, who has teenage children herself, looks as if she might cry even before Richard speaks. It’s been a long week. Richard is determined to make it easy for us. He smiles gently at the Dictaphone: “It’s okay. Are you sure that it’s on?”

  “My name is Richard S. Jack. I was twelve in 2003. I was living with my mother when the second civil war began. I was playing on a football field when men came and grabbed me. It was done by force—I had no desire to join that war. They called themselves the Marine Force. They took both teams of boys away. They threw us in a truck. I thought I wasn’t going to see my parents anymore. They took me to Lofah Bridge. What happened there? We were taught to do certain things. We were taught to use AK-47s. I was with them for a year and a half. We were many different kinds of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans, many boys. The first one or two weeks I was so scared. After that it became a part of me. I went out of my proper and natural way. War makes people go out of their proper and natural way. It is a thing that destroys even your thoughts. People still don’t know what the war was about. I know. It was a terrible misunderstanding. But it is not a part of me anymore. I don’t want violence in me anymore. Whenever I sit and think about the past, I get this attitude: I am going to raise myself up. So I tell people about my past. They should know who I was. Sometimes it is hard. But it wasn’t difficult to explain to my mother. She understood how everything was. She knew I was not a bad person in my heart. Now I want to be most wise. My dream is to become somebody good in this nation. I have a feeling that Liberia could be a great nation. But I also want to see the world. I love the study of geography. I want to become a pilot. You want me to fly you somewhere? Sure. Come and find me in ten years. I promise we will fly places.”

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