She had the silent solemnity of those who are either insistently spoiled or have suffered greatly. I felt badly for having taken her seat – I was sure, but wrong, that the Accra to Monrovia leg of the flight would be less crowded. But she waved me back down with more annoyance than graciousness and took my own assigned middle seat.
A gold cross with a pink bead dangled just above a pinch of dark cleavage; somehow supporting evidence for spoiled rather than having suffered.
After 20 hours of the ripe fragrance of African airports and airplanes I felt uncharacteristically talkative as the plane rolled forward on the tarmac. A stranger would assume I was nervous about flying. Her manicured nails – pink, just like the bead – expertly disassembled her cell phone to remove one SIM card and replace it with another.
I was genuinely curious: “Is it easy to pick up a Liberian SIM card in Monrovia?”
“Five dollars,” she said, which I took to mean, yes.
But to double-check: “Are they available at the airport?”
The new SIM card slid perfectly into place, and for a slight pause she rested her finger on it. I was sure she was thinking, trying to remember which shop at the airport sells SIM cards. But she never answered and my expectation turned to awkwardness. I turned toward the window, raised my eyebrows – a gesture for the passing clouds – and contemplated another nap.
A few seconds later and she tapped my shoulder, a white SIM card resting in her beige palm like the last drop of thick cream in coffee.
“For you. I have another. But it is locked. You must unlock it. The code is zero, zero, four times.”
The pauses after each period were long and indifferent as if each sentence were its own paragraph. I was still unsure about the unlock code.
“Zero, zero, zero, zero?”
“Zero. Four times. Zero, zero, four times.”
We didn’t speak again for the rest of the flight. Nor at the airport after we landed, our red Kenyan Airways plane a bloodstain in a whitecapped sea of United Nations airplanes and helicopters.
For the rest of the week I received strange text messages and phone calls from what I imagine were her friends and colleagues.
NGOville is comprised of two side-by-side Lebanese-owned hotels, the Mamba Point and the Cape Hotel. They both charge exactly $150 per night. The so-called efficiency of the market comes down to whether you value the speed of your internet connection or the taste of your food more. My first three nights were spent at the Cape, the last four at the Mamba Point.
But the conversations overheard at both came from the same script. “I don’t think you understand just how much all infrastructure was obliterated during the war.” “Justice is a joke until property rights are settled.” “Charles Taylor had many supporters, has many supporters.” “Another war could break out any month, any day, you never know.”
And the steady humming of acronyms and defeatism: “The TRC is useless.” “The UNHRC is just to fill the wallets of bureaucrats.” “The LNP is full of crooks.”
Sometimes Liberians were invited to the tables and offered greasy hamburgers and collard greens that cost $15. The Liberians spoke to their funders of ‘sensitization’, ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘capacity-building’, and ‘strategic planning’ – keywords for continued funding. Across the table the smiling white faces felt good, felt useful, felt like they were doing what the country needed, unlike all the other white faces sitting around them.
“We are in a country with 85% unemployment,” the most-oft repeated statistic, though no one knows where it comes from.
At night a few female members of the other 15% sit on the hoods of polished Toyotas and Nissans. Their perfect lips are accentuated with lip gloss. Puppy eyes and fleshy thighs call out to passerby. I never see them walk through the hallways with the distinguished residents of NGOville, but I assume that they do.
The week passed by so quickly – in a blink, as I knew it would. Waiting in line on the staircase to the airplane a short man with a British accent – his chest puffed out and his head pulled back into a constant double-chin – asked me if I was happy or sad to be leaving Liberia.
“I’m not sure I could say either. I guess I just feel like I’m leaving. How about yourself?”
“I must admit I’m quite relieved to be leaving.” A pause as we climbed two more steps. “What was it that you were doing here?”
This time I wasn’t in the mood to talk. Not with him. Not this conversation. He was eager, too eager, to learn about why a fellow white person was in this country. Too eager to prove that his development project – making cocoa farms more efficient – is more important than my development project. That if there were just more of him and less of me, this country would be on the right path. I just wanted to read my novel. And stay at least 20 feet from all development workers.
In the seat in front of me a two-year-old African girl has stolen my heart. It is only the latest chapter in a long legacy of white people thinking that small smiling black children are ‘just the most adorable things in the whole world.’ Part of Obama’s success must have to do with White America’s fawning over his two daughters.
And here I am, playing peek-a-boo with this small Liberian girl and thinking that she really is the most adorable thing in the whole world. I can’t help it. She sticks out her miniature forefinger and I touch it with my own. E.T. phone home.
Seated by her side is a white early-30-something with hipster hair and a hipster t-shirt who looks like he is ready for a cafe latté and a wi-fi connection. In other words, he looks a lot like me. He also looks anxious about his newly adopted daughter climbing on his seat and playing peek-a-boo with whatever stranger is in the row behind him. I am reminded of the first paragraph of the book I am currently reading, Cosmopolitanism, by Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Our ancestors have been human for a very long time. If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years. She would learn English (along with – who knows? – Spanish or Chinese), understand trigonometry, follow baseball and pop music; she would probably want a pierced tongue and a couple of tattoos. And she would be unrecognizably different from the brothers and sisters she left behind.
No, I am not saying that Africans are living 40,000 years in the past; but I am saying that the same baby girl could grow up in the African bush today, covered ceremoniously in white chalk and instilled with a reverence for shamanism, or could grow up in Brooklyn, New York with a reverence for irreverence and irony. In the row across the aisle I catch, in my periphery vision, the pursed lips of a disapproving young black woman. She is looking at the child who very well might implode from hyper-cuteness. Her pursed lips say ‘you are taking this child from me, from my tribe, from my people. You will raise her differently. She will lose her values, our values. You will corrupt her like you are corrupting us.’ I feel suddenly ridiculous playing peek-a-boo. I give my new two-year-old friend a conspiratorial and compassionate wink and pull out my book to pretend that I am reading.
The plane starts to take off, leaving the sea of white United Nations planes, red dirt roads, and green African bush behind. When and if the young girl seated in front of me will return, I have no idea.