Voices: The Stories That Come Out After Darkby Sterling Carter '07
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After two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, Sterling Carter took time to travel the land he'd been working in, to learn about Africa beyond the tragic history we think we know, and to hear the stories that come out after dark.
I met her late at night on the beach in Robertsport, Liberia. Lovetta Conto was her name. I had first seen her by the soft light of LED lamps and candles, the glow carving her youthful features like black wood. But now, with the lamps extinguished, separated from the ocean by a lagoon of “peeping” frogs and a slight breeze through the raspy palms, I couldn’t make out even the slightest curve of her face. It was a dark night, black, with only the stars’ dim twinkle.
“How old are you, anyway?”
“I am 17 years old,” she said in voice with gravity beyond her years. It was the African English, elegant in its deliberate, paced enunciation.
To hear a story surrounded by utter darkness—unable even to make out the face of the storyteller—is a spiritual act. Straining against the night, you hear so much more. You release your other senses and allow the voice to envelop your consciousness. You truly listen to every word spoken, every pause in cadence and rhythm. A story comes alive:
“My father took me, when I was just a baby, from the village. This was during the civil war. I do not remember it, but three years passed before we found shelter in the refugee camp in Ghana.”
They had crossed through Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana with rebels on the move and destruction everywhere.
“I grew up in the refugee camp. I was 12 when I met Cori and became a Strongheart Fellow. I could barely read, and she took me from the camp and helped me to get an education.”
She continues: “I want to be a fashion designer. People think that it’s an unimportant thing, that with so many people hungry and in poverty, why would they ever need fashion?”
She explained, but I already understood. I had spent two months living out of a backpack in West Africa. I had two pairs of pants, three shirts, none of them clean, all falling apart. I knew what it was like to feel dirty and self-conscious. If it weren’t for my white skin, I probably couldn’t find service at the most meager of coffee shacks.
“But more than that, I want to start a fashion magazine for African girls. The girls here don’t have anything like that, but think how much different it is to feel like an individual, to feel unique and empowered.”
Unique, empowered, human. It was a lesson I’d been taught everywhere I went in these former conflict countries in Africa. A voice—something more than a war. People, not statistics.
This is more than Lovetta’s story. More than pieces of memory, newspaper clippings, video broadcasts of jungle soldiers with rockets and rifles, children with guns and glazed opium eyes, the story of Liberia or any number of other failed states in Africa. It’s the story we think we know, the one with the tragic ending and the cover closed.
Lovetta has her own story, one that she will continue to tell for many years, her activism changing lives and making an impact like I don’t know how.
But this is a piece of my own, a story crafted in a country cursed by its past.
I’d been in Monrovia several days, trying in vain to navigate the visa process at the Sierra Leonean embassy. I had no money. All the ATMs in town were down for three days, and I was forced to rely on loans and charity from the few people I’d met along the way. One of those people was John, a microfinance officer for KIVA who had been living for several months at St. Theresa’s Convent off Randall Street. It was the cheapest place in town. The United Nations and dozens of major international humanitarian organizations had rented out everything else in the city for their own needs. Sharing a room with John cut the price to $10 a night, an absurd rate for West Africa, but hey, demand was high and supply was low. Luckily for us, the sisters believed it un-Christian to gouge the white folk for too much at a convent.
There were others, too. Karen, John’s partner at KIVA, was in her first week on the job. And there was Nora, a German post-doctoral student. I was the youngest by at least five years, but I’d gotten used to this in my travels. Outside of the Peace Corps, there aren’t too many 20-something kids traveling around West Africa. In fact, my mere presence in Liberia had raised a lot of questions among both locals and development officials. I even got a stern word about “crazy people like you” from the American consul: “Do the right people know where you are? Here’s my card; I hope you don’t need it.”
He was right to worry. Within a few days, John and I had broken about every rule imaginable in the consul’s “You Idiots Must Have a Death Wish” guide to safety.
But I wasn’t too concerned. John knew everyone. He’d been living in the convent several months, and if there was a market woman or a street kid who didn’t know his name, I never met them. John was always on the lookout for interesting people, but he hadn’t ever felt comfortable wandering Monrovia’s streets after dark.
That’s where I came in. John needed a partner in crime, and I was the perfect candidate.
Westerners in Liberia are a very rare breed. They’re usually spotted behind tinted windows in white Toyota Landcruisers on their way to or from any number of high-profile meetings. They certainly don’t wander aimlessly around the streets or explore the ruins of urban decay. They’re a species that thrives in the daytime but lock themselves away after dark, retreating behind armed guards and 10-foot-high walls crowned with concertina wire. Most development workers and embassy officials aren’t actually allowed outside their massive compounds after dark. It’s part of their contract.
John and I, however, weren’t bound by anything like that.
Neither were Karen and Nora. Nora had grown up in East Berlin. She might have been the toughest one of us, having researched on the ground in post-conflict Serbia. She knew how a city changes after dark, and she wanted a piece of the action. Nora made three, and there was no way Karen was going to stay behind with the nuns for the evening. The four of us put on our cheapest, most tattered clothing, grabbed about $10 each, and went out into the night.
Monrovia doesn’t have many streetlights. The city actually has no electricity outside of individual generators powering community co-ops or the houses of the elite. We weren’t sure what we’d find after nightfall in Monrovia, but as we wandered through darkened streets, we became drawn to the dull roar of what sounded like a massive party. A few streets off of the main downtown intersection, we found it: a row of bars and clubs run off generator power and seeming to serve beer and liquor to the entire city. Hundreds of people packed the street, drinking, dancing, talking, and partying. Men and women interacted freely, something I wasn’t used to from the overwhelmingly Muslim countries I’d visited in Africa. It was the bar scene of every country straddling the equator, people spilling into the streets to avoid the heat. They danced to hip-hop from African artists like Akon and a Nigerian group, P-Squared.
We grabbed a few beers, avoiding African Guinness (which is terrible) and opting for the green bottles, a lager. A surprise in every bottle. The bar overwhelmed with a thick humidity, too many people, music blaring through the room, and the stale stench of tobacco, beer, and bodies.
We took our booze to the streets, where we made friends immediately. How could we not? We stuck out about as much as you’d expect. We were the only white Westerners in an African city of one million.
These Monrovians never saw white people out on the streets after dark.
“What are you doing here?”
“You do not think it is dangerous?”
“You are not afraid? Good! Brave people, indeed! There is nothing to be afraid of anyway!”
Surrounded by people, questions, drinks, I found myself drawn from one group to another, losing track of my friends, losing track of myself, buried in conversations and eventually engaged with one young guy, maybe mid-30s, a red T-shirt, shaved head. He worked in an electronics shop, and he’d lived through the war.
“What did you do? How did you survive it?”
“I fled, after Monrovia was attacked, to Sierra Leone, but even that was not safe, especially after Charles Taylor started funding rebels for control of the diamond mines. So I had to leave again, to Guinea. I did not know any French. I did not know anything.”
“What about Charles Taylor? He was elected, wasn’t he?”
“Do you know how Charles Taylor campaigned for president? His slogan was, ‘He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.’ If he did not win, everyone knew the fighting would begin again. But then it began again anyway.”
In the orange light of a sodium vapor lamp, I could see the shock of memory in his face, his features twisted by Liberia’s painful history recounted to a stranger.
“And what about now? What about the country, the president, the future?”
“Well, you can see we still have many problems. But the president [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf], she is doing a good job. She has many corrupt enemies and this country has many, many difficulties, but she is trying, and so are we.”
We had talked a bit about what I was doing there. So many times in my two-week journey through Liberia I was asked, “What organization do you work for?” After denying involvement in any number of non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, or any embassy, I would finally answer, “I’m just traveling,” to which the inevitable question would be, “Why? Why Liberia? Why here?”
In the end, most concluded I probably worked for some foreign intelligence operation. It’s certainly more plausible than the answer
I usually gave: “I travel because I want to see all kinds of different places. I want to meet people. I like to hear stories. I like to see how people live, what they do. I want to experience everything I can in the short amount of time I have, before age, a family, all these responsibilities make it too difficult to go off on my own.”
To my surprise, my new friend understood.
“And you will go back, and you will write about our country. You will write a book! You will tell people that it is okay to come back here. That the war is over, that people are not dying any longer. You will tell them. You will tell your people. You know that Monrovia is not dangerous.”
“Not like the development people in their white cars think it is?”
“This is true. Tell them. Tell them that Liberians are not a dangerous people. That we are trying our best, but that we need people to believe in us. We need people to see that we are more than a war, more than amputees, more than the child soldiers.
“We need to be seen as human once again.”
I strained against the noise, the music, and the chatter of the people around us to hear this story. They all slipped away. His voice, this powerful entreaty, seemed a huge burden laid on my shoulders at the time, and those words echo in me still. There we stood, face-to-face and charged with an energy you only experience with the sublime—that feeling of standing atop a cliff, afraid to fall but longing to take flight.
It is in these moments when the miraculous seems most possible. Because what I learned—from this man, from Lovetta—is that Africa doesn’t always need horror stories.
There is plenty of hope and promise for the future, people who are willing to return and rebuild. The vast majority of people in these horrifying situations are merely caught in a cycle of violence. They’re just trying to avoid the bullets. When the fighting ends, the news reporters leave, and there aren’t many around who understand the much more difficult path toward forgiveness and reconstruction. There aren’t many around to hear the survivors’ stories. There aren’t many around after the sun sets on the streets of Monrovia or on
the beaches of Robertsport. By fortune or fate, I was there for these stories, the stories that come out after dark.
Sterling Carter served in the Peace Corps in Niger from 2007 to 2009. He recently returned to Wabash to audit two classes in preparation for his pursuit of a master’s degree in international affairs.
Read more about his time in the Peace Corps in his blog http://sterling-inafrica.blogspot.com
For more information about Lovetta Conto and the Strongheart Foundation, visit www.strongheartfellowship.org