Saturday, December 11, 2010

Living Their Life: Entering 2 Weeks of Immersion and Uncertainty

I was probably scared, early on in my trip. Since I set off I’d wanted to live in a village, but I've balked. I’ve lived in South African slums for several days, had a few nights’ stay in Bangladeshi villages, and trampled around countless times for hours on end through ghettos and rural communities in the world’s poorest countries. But I wasn’t living their life. I was observing, interviewing, walking around, going to social events – and my Western preoccupations were never really checked at the door. I was always planning, producing, multi-tasking.

Finally in Liberia everything came together: a harvesting season (where labor is needed and I could be used), an English speaking country, and a connection to a villager. So, a friend of a friend of a friend said sure, his father would put me to work. Not knowing any of these people, as usual, I just took their word and snagged a free ride one Saturday morning, heading several hours over crumbling roads into the war-ravaged interior of the country.

Arriving in the small town of Gbarnga, I met my friend of a friend, Johnny, at his Carter Center office. An impressive individual, Johnny served as my contact in case anything went wrong. He introduced me to Cooper, the son of the old man I’d be working for. I hopped in the back of truck with Cooper and his friend, and we drove through a light rain shower off to the village. I was nervous. Two weeks, alone in the bush, as an outsider to a bunch of people with whom I have nothing in common. What would we talk about? How awkward would it be living with the old man? What if I got sick? (I brought no medicines, no water purification, nothing) And perhaps my biggest concern: what if I was just bored all the time?

When we arrived, some half hour later (not far, but far enough to see no trace of modern civilization), we were in solid bush. The village was Boi Town. I hopped out of the back, and met Togbah, a short, scruffy old man with graying hair, a strained face, and condemning eyes that were initially hidden behind a big grin and welcoming attitude (pictured in orange shirt). He insisted I call him his Papa (pronounced “Pap – A”), as he was known in the village as the Papa. My things were dropped off at his house, which was quite impressive, and then we walked to his farmhouse, five minutes away. His daughters were pounding rice and his wife was busy at the fire. From his farmhouse we made stops at every home and person, introducing me. Finally we came to the village “restaurant” that serves breakfast and lunch, run by the wife, Framadah, of Togbah’s younger brother Amos.

“Do you want to bath?”, asked Amos. “What?” I asked, bewildered. In hindsight, it was really dumb for me to assume I’d bath at the house, since the village has no running water. Next thing I knew, I found myself stripping down by a murky puddle next to an old guy I’d met 30 minutes prior so that we could cup water from the puddle and splash ourselves clean. So much for small talk.

That night dinner was delivered to me and Togbah at his house. Everyone else claimed they had eaten, so his wife Gamay (pronounced “Ga – may”), his 18-year-old daughter Esther, Ma-Mary the 2-year-old toddler, and others including James (in red hat) and Goma (pronounced “Go – ma”, pictured in orange shirt helping to find a creative way to hang my mosquito net) who were somehow related to Togbah, sat around watching Togbah and I eat this large portion of rice, greens, and fish. It was very awkward – almost like the white man and alpha male got all the food and everyone got what was left over. Had they really eaten?, I wondered. After dinner we sat around, in the dark, passing a bottle of hard liquor between Togbah, James and me while everyone watched. Two sips later I was already feeling the buzz. Looking back, that first bottle was a warning sign of things to come from Togbah.


  1. This is better than a Taiwanese soap opera. More!

  2. So I lived in a village out here for a weekend - a weekend - and I will never forget it. Can definitely identify with bathing with naked people (you are correct about small talk), not knowing if others had eaten or not, and not knowing anyone. I'm looking forward to reading more. That's great that you had connections and things came together for you to make this possible. Better buckle up for the typhoid to hit soon...