There are children here. Because of the difficulties in language, it’s hard to establish exactly what their parents did before the epidemic, but the group I spend time with tell me their father works “in town” (this is what people say when they mean Monrovia), and their mother works at the ETU. I have seen her come home and greet the children at the door; she holds her hands up by her shoulders, and says, “No touching!” in a cheerful, sing-song voice, and I realized today that what she is actually saying is that she loves them, is glad to see them, and cannot hug them because it is no longer safe in this country to touch another human.
They are unusual children in that they are very quiet. They will answer questions, usually in one or two word answers, and so to some of the other staff, they seem shy, or even standoffish. But they watch you. They have their eyes on you when you are not looking.
I learned their names and said hello to them every day. Then a few days ago I heard a helicopter, and it was so unusual to hear an aircraft out here that I left the common room and stood out in the sun to watch. The US Army bird circled once overhead and then landed away from the dorms on the football field. Even at distance, I could see the huge cloud of the omnipresent red dust kicked up by the rotor wash.
Then one of the girls popped up next to me, pointed at the helicopter, started to walk towards it, and said, “Are you coming?”
So I went.
Afterwards, when we’d watched the helicopter unload supplies and lift off again, we started walking back, chatting idly. As we arrived back at the dorm, one of the boys, who seems to be in charge most of the time, said, “Tomorrow you will walk?”
So I said yes.
We met up after I finished training for the day. Four of them came with me: The Ringleader, a boy of 13, who led the way. The Lady, a girl of 12, clearly very shy but stunningly beautiful who sings when no one is looking at her. The Translator, a girl of 11, nicknamed for obvious reasons – she tells me what the others are saying. And Trouble, a girl of 9, with an impish grin who always has a football at hand.
We walked all over the campus. They showed me different buildings, what they used to be used for, and who now lives in the houses. (“That was for accounting, but now the people from Bangladesh are there.”) They pointed out statues and bell towers and the Chinese Water Tower, named so because it was built by a Chinese missionary group a long time ago. There are burnt out and overgrown frames of houses, where nothing is left but crumbling concrete and new tendrils of vines. The children don’t mention those, but when I asked about one, the Ringleader simply said, “That is from the war.”
We walked to the local hospital, along footpaths up off and away from the road; cars are often “running too much” on the pavement, and to walk directly on the road is “risky.” The Translator watched the road closely, and would urge me to cross quickly when the footpath forced us to.
Past the hospital, we walked near an enormous Episcopalian church, but shortly past it the children, all four of them, stopped in their tracks. They’d clearly seen something or someone. The Translator said quietly, “We go back now.” And after a second, the Ringleader said, “We go back.” And we turned around, and re-traced our steps home.
On the way home I realized that the children were circling me, in varying order, like little electrons around a nucleus. There was always someone in front, usually the Ringleader. There was always someone in back, usually the Lady. And the other two bounced back and forth, front to back, or arranged at my sides if there was enough space along the path. I was being protected, and very gently and safely herded.
They pointed out different plants. They were shocked to hear that I had never in my life eaten cassava. They showed me cassava, potatoes, peppers (tiny bright hot peppers), bananas, coconuts, cabbage, calabash, pineapples, guava, palm. They showed me a paw-paw tree, but I heard them say “poh-poh,” and this led to a very funny discussion wherein they tried to describe to me what a poh-poh was, what color the flesh is, what color the seeds are, and how you cut and eat it. I finally realized that it was a papaya tree, the debate was resolved, and we carried on our way.
The Ringleader speaks a very strong Simple Liberian English, and to me he is nearly unintelligible. We would frequently stop in our tracks and face each other and I would ask him to repeat the key word in the sentence, again and again. On the third repeat all the children would be saying it, and by the fourth repeat they were practically shouting it at me, with the Ringleader obviously reconsidering whether or not I’m more than just a little dense. At this point the Translator would come to my aid, and about 50% of the time when she repeated it, I would understand what they were saying. The other 50% of the time it ended up like the poh-poh discussion.
When they say “boys” I hear “boss.” Football is “fooba,” braid is “plat,” when you say hello to a group you say, “You all, hello!” which gets shortened to “y’all hello” which then to me sounds like “yahalloooo.” All these words are common english words, but in Liberian English all the consonants are dropped, and the remaining vowels flow like a rushing river. There are only a minority of words here that are truly foreign, but casual conversations when the children talk amongst themselves are as alien to me as Norwegian.
The Translator is clearly extremely bright. She remembers names of the permanent staff, and she knows where they come from in the world and which NGO they work for. She knows all the plants, how to grow them, when to pick them. The Lady knows how to cook them, and although she is quiet most of the time she will pipe up when discussing recipes. Trouble keeps her thoughts to herself but smiles frequently and tries to explain stuff to me on the third and fourth repeat. And the Ringleader talks the most, and just as frequently stops at a roadside stand to exchange five Liberian dollars for yet another snack.
We actually talk very little on these walks; there are long periods where we are content to keep each other’s company and say nothing. But then the questions about America will come out of nowhere, and they are charming.
“Do you have villages in America?”
“Do you grow corn in America?”
“Do you know any actors?”
“Do you know Michael Jackson?”
Because all the schools in the country are still closed, the children are left to their own devices most days. They are terribly bored. They miss school, so much, and they miss their favorite classes — English, science, math, Bible studies, football at recess. A walk with them was a gift for me, but for them it was an opportunity to learn a little and teach a lot, a way to access education again, if only obliquely.
After nearly two and a half hours, we arrived back at the dorm. I thanked them, again and again.
Then the Ringleader said, “Tomorrow you will walk?”
So I did.