Growing up, I had always been ashamed. There were no brilliant revolutions to brag about. There were no exotic pictures to show off to friends. In fact, I would likely never bring it up if it weren’t for the inevitable question that follows after someone butchers my name, “Where are you from?”
If the cards were in my favor, the inquirer’s eyes would glaze over with disinterest when I responded that my parents are from Liberia. I could then finally breathe when I received the quick reply, “How nice!” (aka my signal that the conversation had ended).
If the cards weren’t in my favor, the inquirer would have some knowledge about Liberia. “Wow,” they might say guardedly. “Do you still have family there? Are they safe?”
Liberian history is beautifully complex and tragic. Although summarizing it in a few lines is a great disservice, I’ll try my best to at least give some background. In 1847, a group of freed American slaves settled in Liberia. Despite constant battles with the peoples who were already living on the land, the Americo-Liberians created a social hierarchy which held stark similarities to American slavery. Long-held tensions from the social hierarchy and economic strife attributed to a coup in 1980 that plunged Liberia into a deadly civil war.
As a little girl growing up in a predominately white private school, I wished I could stand out by being from some wealthy African empire. I shuddered at the thought of standing out on Liberia’s tumultuous history. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to shun all ties to Liberia recognizing that I was a product of my immediate and extended family–my own Liberian community. However, I couldn’t bring myself to loudly proclaim an African heritage like some of my more Afrocentric friends who donned African tattoos and prints. I settled somewhere in between–never talking about my background and swiftly ending conversations about it.
With maturity, I have begun to release expectations of how I think an experience should unfold. By the time I made my first trip to Liberia, I had outgrown the childish desire to originate from some elaborate empire to impress friends. It didn’t much bother me that others hawked about my safety given Liberia’s recent past. Still, I was looking for something. I was looking to experience a Liberia that made my parents’ memories come alive. I was looking for an introduction to a country that would lead me on more trips to discover a continent that has remained an enigma throughout my Western dominated education.
I found many things. I found police men who would stop you and ask you for “small money” so you could be pardoned from a traffic violation. I found cities with inconsistent running water and electricity–if it had these amenities at all. I found roads that were well beyond repair, and left you with gnawing body aches after a day’s journey. I heard musicians vehemently urging the government to do more for the country’s slow recovery.
Most of all I found beauty. I found people rebuilding their once destroyed homes. I found students proudly showcasing their academic achievements after having to repeatedly halt their studies during the country’s war-filled past. I found market women radiating contentment while packing up their goods at the end of a long day. I found a beautiful people living their lives and enjoying it too. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gorgeous beaches as well.
I’m proud that I no longer obsess about what I wish Liberia would be or what I wish it was not. I love Liberia because of who she is right at this moment. I am in love with a country that despite all odds continues to recreate itself and survive. Now, I’m looking forward to discovering the entire continent.