A starving man gives thanks for even a banana leaf.
The Pastor’s proverb
The Pastor’s wife peered thought the plate glass windows of the storage facility office into the swirling snow outside. She was waiting for the help to arrive. The Pastor was away, and she was in charge. When the Pastor was away, the helpers from the church members were not reliable. She was anxious because the ship date for the overseas container that they were filling from their storage unit was a few days away.
She was anxious also because of many other factors. She was separated from the Pastor who was back in Liberia, a country ripped asunder by a horrible war twenty years long with no end in sight. Back in her home starvation reigned in the areas where their church worked. Though the container would be laden with vitally needed supplies, she would have liked to have more food to send.
Liberia a dusty equatorial country created as a colony for freed American slaves and ruled for many generations by their descendants had fallen into a degenerative state during a very long civil war.
The curious manager of the property engaged the Pastor’s wife in conversation about Liberia. This helped her to pass the time. She related her tale of fearful resourcefulness in a world almost beyond belief to him. She was matter of fact with no need to impress and with nothing to sell to the manager who had only a vague interest in the place and nothing better to do as the snow fell.
The Pastor, a nondescript churchman, had rented a couple of storage units for collected donations. He was a mild, soft-spoken person who had an unusual feature: when he smiled, because of gaps in his top and bottom front teeth, a cross was revealed. The work of charity can be awkward; payments for the space were not always made on time and the manager had many occasions to talk with the Pastor.
A country whose infrastructure before the war was rudimentary at best had lost all of it during the conflict. The rebels, basically, packs of wilding teenagers drunk on bloodlust and liquor, were recruited in this manner: “Would you like some work?” “Yes”. “You are now a rebel.”
The most extreme examples of this type of soldier were the troops of one, General Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked. Butt Naked’s troops would liquor up, strip down to nothing and boots, don women’s hats and purses and then raid a village. Hacking deaths and multiple rapes ensued. They were reputed to have played soccer with severed heads. Their pay – whatever they could rob from the villagers.
Consequently, anything for this ravaged country was a godsend. The space and the containers were filled with clothing, house wares and bicycles. The bicycles, a motley selection of discards, were the most prized. To the manager the spaces appeared like garages filled with old stuff that needed a good burning.
The Liberians were assisted in this effort by a local suburban church that had sponsored many of the refugees. The elderly white-haired sedate volunteers of the church stood in stark contrast to the colorfully dressed and demonstrative exiles that came from the Pastor’s church. Together they would fill the units and pack the containers. These kindly old men would go about their charity business with an air of bemused forbearance.
The Pastor’s wife related her story as she waited for her workers whose numbers varied now that their leader was not around. On other days the manager had observed her with only a single helper and help from the suburbs was an infrequent occurrence. She looked often into the snowy driveway as she talked.
To get to America she had to make it to the seaport of Buchanan from her base in the interior. No small feat as this journey was on foot through hazardous and hostile territory. Many ethnic areas had to be traversed. The slave descendants who are clustered around the capital constitute only 5% of the population; fifteen other competing ethnicities make up the rest.
She found herself trapped in a town as rebel troops rampaged through. She hid in a room with some others and one corpse. By sheer luck her group was not discovered by the drunken troops who sacked the house. As she made her way, she encountered what could loosely be called checkpoints. They were roadblocks that were bypassed with one bribe or another. In one area she learned that by placing limes in her baggage she would be given a pass because that tribe considered limes to be a sign of evil and were afraid of them.
A couple of helpers arrived at the property and she sent them to the container. Beyond the windows as she looked for more of them the sky dimmed and the snow falling heavily in the shafts of bright streetlamps created an ethereal fog-like effect. She had stopped talking and the manager glanced up from his desk. Tears were streaming down her face. In the spectral light were 3 pickup trucks pulling flat trailers. The beds of the trucks and trailers were heaped high with twenty-five-pound bags of rice.
Rice. In America an oft-scorned side dish. But as welcome to a starving man as a banana leaf. Thousands of meals rolled in with those trucks that Christmas Eve 2004. The old dudes, with a fair showing of Liberians who straggled in, loaded the container. They shook hands around and got back on the road in the snow to their church and warm holiday gatherings in the suburbs.
In the next year or so things would lift in that war torn country. The first elected woman president in Africa, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson took office. She has a large task ahead. Currently there are 15,000 UN troops in the country maintaining a tenuous order. Today in the capital, Monrovia, there is still no reliable electricity and running water.
President Sirleaf-Johnson forges forward and stresses that improvement will require many small steps. Small things such as: a banana leaf, a banged-up bike, a cup of rice, an evening of straining and snow driving, the organizing of a motley crew and the word of the Pastor that all of this matters.
(from Open Salon. 12/30/2009)