KMS 1702- 1900.
A grey morning checking my gear and watching rain traverse Monrovia. I then mounted the heavily laden Bajaj motorcyle and wobbled off out of town, taking the noisy road through Red Light market that slowly turns north towards the interior. I remember thinking about the old saying that the hardest step in any journey is the first. Oh what dreadful bullshit that would turn out to be. Months would pass before I’d be back in Liberia, and many friends would be leaving before then. This last journey out of town, alone and fearful on an over-laden moped, marked the end of an era.
It continued to rain on and off during the afternoon as I headed for Gbarnga, licking the bugs from my teeth. The usual heavy Liberian cloud-furniture passed in waves over head and I rode in and out of banks of rain, sometimes feeling I was accelerating ahead of them. I stopped at roadside shops when the downpours made me worry about my cameras and ate bread and mayonnaise while bleary-eyed kids came in and bought little bottles of whisky.
During the last of the 200 kms to Gbarnga my buttocks were numbed to point that I couldn’t feel anything below my stomach, but I consoled myself that there was something of the grand and horrifyingly iniquitous pre-1970s Liberia to be seen up there. The road itself had been so well built as to still be in almost perfect condition, though it hadn’t been maintained for decades. I also passed the ‘Coocoo’s Nest’, a creepy guesthouse that was a former dacha of President Tubman.
All reports suggested that security along the roads in Guinea was deteriorating wildly. Armed thieves were putting in a lot of work during the election instability, using spotters to phone the details of juicy targets ahead to other colleagues up the road. I’m fairly exposed given that I’m alone with cameras, a wad of cash (in my boots) and a small but noble motorbike. I’ve packed a can of ‘Heatwave’ mace that a friend gave me, but given the West African zeal for highly spiced food, I fear assailants may not consider this a deterrent.
I arrived in Gbarnga at about 6 pm and was promptly arrested by the local police. Flagged down at the side of the road, I was told I must come to the station to answer to the charge of ‘failing to stop and pay respects to the Liberian flag as it was being lowered’. As many of us know, the first rule of Liberia is never ever allow yourself to be taken to a police station.
Barely deadpan, I replied I was unaware this was an offence. I was told that acquiring a knowledge of the laws of a land through which one passes is the obligation of any honest traveller. I showed the arresting officer my UN press pass, (which had previously been known to deflate the pouting of Liberia’s finest) but he was unperturbed – and then refused to give it back. We proceeded to wrestle awkwardly over it at the roadside, like two siblings struggling noiselessly so as not to alert their parents.
When I finally got it back off him I put the bike in gear and drove back to immigration, somehow thinking they’d decide to make enemies with the local police in order to stick up for this tiresome white man, whose origins and motives were beyond the comprehension of sensible folk. My pursuer gave chase on the back of a mototaxi and when we arrived he chirped loudly that I was resisting arrest. ‘But arrest for what?’ I again enquired. The immigration guards, with whom I’d shared some strained joviality only minutes earlier, washed their hands of me with a casual shrug.
It was getting dark, and, growing bolder, the policeman lunged to snatch my bike keys from the ignition. Again, a silent bout of grappling ensued and when at length I clawed them for his sinewy fingers, he produced a pair of handcuffs. I knew I had to run for it. Sensing my impending flight through an alcoholic haze, he stooped awkwardly and tried to lock the cuffs onto my front wheel. Farcically I began walking the bike backwards, turning the spokes so he couldn’t block my escape.
Now a few yards away, I managed to choke the engine onto life and fled into the darkness to a UN base outside town. After some honking they lifted the gate and I scrambled to park the bike out of sight of the road. I sat in the guard tower until a young Pakistani officer fetched me indoors and a robed youth with pale eyes and dark red hair offered me a glass of juice on a tray.
Shortly the Major turned up and with the wide eyes of a Dickensian street urchin, I outlined my Kafkaesque experience with the police. (That’s right dear readers, it was Dickensian and Kafkaesque; to say nothing of Conradian)
The cops were after me, I continued. Who could say why. I couldn’t go back into town – could I stay the night?
They bent the rules for me and soon I found myself sitting at the dining table in the officer’s mess, eating curry and naan bread and chatting with a young captain about Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.
Later when I was in bed, with the sounds of evening prayer wafting through the plastic walls, I felt an urge to prostrate myself on the prayer matt in my room and thank God for delivering me from Liberia for a while. I’d been working there alone as a cameraman for a year and any long-term visitor will tell you that sometimes these dark thoughts triumph. That said, who can imagine a more singular, layered and unfathomable country – one that often doesn’t feel like Africa at all.
The next morning I awoke full of nerves, knowing I’d have to drive past the police station again to continue on my way. I left at about 9 and thrashed the bike through town; but this time they let me be and I began the final 75 kilometre stretch to the border.