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Break Downs, JuJu, and DUST

December 18, 2011
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Friday afternoon I gave a quiz to my 12th graders then Krista and I walked straight to the taxi stand and left for Saclepea to visit Matt Mann.  I only need one word to describe the trip: DUST.  (Then perhaps “danger” and “break down” or “juju”)  It hasn’t rained in over a week and the harmattan is in full force.  I’m nursing my second fresh cold of the season and I swear there is orange mud in my lungs; it’s certainly coming out of my nose.

The car filled quickly and by 2:30 we were leaving Sanni.  K and I were in the back with two ol’ mas, her in the middle and me by the door, as usual.  The driver was nice enough, but the car was total shit.  The windshield was a spider web of cracks and my door was dubiously attached to the rest of the car.  Just as I was making a quick inspection, locking it, and trying to catch K’s eye, it popped open!

I grabbed the handle on the ceiling with one hand and slammed it forcibly with the other.  “Aaaaaaamaan, driver!” I yelled over the engine.  “Take time, my man!  I beg!  My door spoil-o!”  He pulled the car over and got out to look.  We weren’t even out of Sanni yet and the guards at the UN camp looked on with amusement.  He slammed it a few times and I relocked it.  TIA.

It seemed pretty secure so I was determined not to get out at the check point just two minutes later.  They waved us inside, but I just shouted out the window.  “We Peace Corps, ma friend, just let us go.”  Someone walked over and one of the mas spoke up.  “Dese ma sistas.  We takin’ da ol’ ma back home.”  The guard nodded and motioned for the rope to be dropped.

As we left the small strip of pavement that runs through town the orange powder rose and coated everything in sight.  I wrapped my bandana over my face and threw my big orange scarf over Krista and me to protect our laps and bags.  I really should have wrapped it over my hair!  The driver had all four windows down and the traffic was heavy, throwing dust in all directions.  It blasted my face and ground through my hair.  My door stayed closed and we made good time, reaching Ganta by 3:30.

I wanted to go to the new Total so we made a stop on the way to Nimba parking.  It’s everything everyone told me it would be.  They have at least four coolers of cold drinks, ice cream bars, shampoo, candy, cookies… it’s like a convenience store you’d find in America… just up-country in Liberia.  So many things I previously had to get in Monrovia are now one hour away, a savings of about six hours.  This really changes the game.

We loaded up on snacks and, after I asked for a fifth time if they’d be open Sunday, we headed to Nimba parking and got a car to Saclepea.  It was a mad house with men on motorbikes shouting and grabbing at us.  We were transporting a large box for Matt and it made us all the more conspicuous.  We found our car, bought our tickets, and made a few friends.  Someone tried to make us pay $50LD to transport Matt’s “car-tone” but we refused and our new friend piped up in Mano that we were his people and to stop ripping us off.  “You know what he said?” the other man replied.  “He says you must give me $100.”  “Gbao!” we replied in unison, “That is not what he said!”  We threw our backpacks in the trunk and sat down in the back seat.  Conversation over.

Twenty minutes later the car was full.  It was the first time I’d travelled with all men, but I had bigger things to worry about as the car tried to make its way through the crowd to the street.  “Where are you carrying the white women?” a group of men shouted as they reached their hands in, grabbing at my glasses and my dirty, orange face.  “My jewel! My jewel! You ma wife!  Le’go to my house!”  We smacked them away and the driver pushed through onto the road.  He bought gas and, as we headed out of town on pristine asphalt, I felt home free.

…then the car sputtered to a halt and we pulled over by the UN camp.  The driver popped the hood, made a few adjustments, and within five minutes we were back on the road.  The dust was even worse than on the road from Sanni.  The sun burned dark orange on the hazy horizon and it looked like we were driving directly into a forest fire.

Less than twenty minutes into the trip the car sputtered again and rolled to a stop.  The driver got out, tinkered again, and somehow the car started again.  He mumbled something about the dust and I looked nervously at my watch.  We had about an hour and a half of good day light left and this car seemed far from reliable.  Less than a mile later we were stopped again, somewhere between villages with monstrous plants flanking each side of the road.  The driver got out again and tinkered again, but this time the car just sputtered and refused to do more.

The six of us sat in tense, sweaty silence as he did lord knows what under the hood.  Honestly, I thought he was just pretending to fix the car and I was running through scenarios for when he came back to tell us it was spoiled.  We had no network so I couldn’t call anyone.  That limited options.  Just as I was rehearsing what I’d say to the ol’ma I’d find in the next village (wherever that was) to beg her to spend the night, the now shirtless driver got back in.  He turned the key and the car sputtered, lurched, and started.

K and I first pumped from the back and quietly chanted, “Go! Go! You can do it!”  I don’t know if it was quiepolo or Mano juju but it carried us through about five more near break downs and only two actual ones.  As soon as the car started stalling as we had to do was fist pump the air and the engine would roar back to life.  Thank you to whoever or whatever was watching over us that trip.

We rolled into Saclepea right around dusk and Matt met us at the parking stand.  He bought hot dogs for his dog and we walked across town to his house, where Max and Ken had already started partying.  Matt’s house is large and quite different from ours.  He lives behind a fence in an NGO compound and has power about half the day.  His house isn’t as bright as ours, though, and with no kids in the yard, it’s almost eerily quiet. We were both extremely ready for a bath and just glad to have arrived at all.

“I say Live, Live, because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.”

Anne Sexton

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