On my first day in the office, our country director told me, “Liberian people are not like other african people. They look at you straight in the eye when they talk to you. This is not like in Kenya where they don’t meet your gaze. Liberian people have never been colonized.” In my 4 weeks here in Monrovia, I have come to appreciate the wisdom in that comment, though in a slightly different sense.
Some days ago, I was coming back after doing some grocery shopping from the street vendors when 2 Liberians approached me and started walking with me. The conversation went something like this –
Guy 1: ‘Bossman, Bossman, how are you doing , Bossman?’
Myself (I turn, look at them and smile): ‘ Hello’
Guy 1: ‘I need your help, Bossman.’
Myself: ‘Ok, How can I help you?’
Guy 1: ‘Bossman, I need to call my Mama in US. I need 2 dollars to make the call, Bossman’
Myself: ‘Sorry, I don’t really have 2 dollars on me right now.’
Guy 1: ‘ How about 1 dollar, Bossman.”
Myself: ‘ I actually don’t have even 1 dollar on me right now. Sorry, next time.’ (and that’s true. I didn’t have even 1 dollar in my pocket at that time.)
We keep walking together in the same direction. A couple of moments later –
Guy 1: ‘Where are you from, Bossman?’
Myself: ‘I am from India.’
Guy 1: ‘Oh, India. Indian people, Liberian people friends, Bossman.’
Myself: ‘ Yes, they are indeed.’
Guy 1: ‘What is your name, Bossman?’
Myself: ‘I am Kapil. What is your name?’
Guy 1: ‘ My name is Dennis.’
Guy 2: ‘My name is Michael.’
Dennis: ‘I am your friend, Bossman’.
Myself: ‘I am your friend too.’
I extend my hand and shake hands with them.
Myself: ‘Nice to meet you Dennis, Michael.’
Both: ‘Nice to meet you too’
And, I walked back to my home.
What I found striking about that exchange was not that someone asked me for money but that the person on the street who asked me for money actually carried on a conversation with me. Even though he was asking me for money, he retained all his humanity, dignity and self-respect. He behaved as if he was my equal, just somewhat monetarily poor but nothing else. And, I have seen this time and again. Majority of the people don’t look at you as if you are god. They are poor, they have their problems but they come across as confident, self-respecting people. I don’t see any self-pity in their eyes.
And, they are not shy, at least the ones I have met. Few days ago, I was coming back from a run when another couple of Liberians started talking to me. As we talked, this young girl (young women?) approached me, extended her hand and said, “Hello, I want to know you. What is your name?” Imagine my surprise. You can bet this hasn’t happened that many times in my life. She was Emily and she ended our conversation by saying that she is my friend. ‘I am your friend’ is a phrase that I have heard time and time again from all sorts of people.
People talking to me when I am running or commenting on my run is a common occurrence. I had bought a map of Liberia from a street vendor. When he saw me running, he immediately wanted to run with me. He is Emmanuel and is now my first running buddy in Liberia and calls me his best friend. Then there is Elizabeth, a fruit and vegetable vendor who gives me a discount whenever she sees me running. Couple of days ago, She gave me an extra grapefruit and when I started to give her extra money, you should have looked at the sense of hurt in her eyes. She said,’ I give it to you and you give me money right now. Later, later’. Some things can not be paid back in money. This is one of them
There are many other characteristics which I could talk about and of course, there are a lot of non-Liberians here. I will talk about them in subsequent posts.