When I was at the West African Pigout, I picked up the following account of Mike Waite’s recent return to Liberia as an election monitor. It moved me immensely and I asked his permission to reproduce it in our newsletter–Charlotte Utting.
I carried a photograph with me when I returned to Liberia. An image Mary Lynn had taken when I was 25 years old in Liberia. My long hair was auburn. I had a red beard, wore glasses and just plain looked young. I was sitting by an older man with a pipe. Joe Kepue, a man I loved for his missing tooth smile, knowledge of trees, and determination to live a native, nonwestern life. I provided the transport, a Suzuki 125 motorcycle, as Joe showed me the rainforest, small villages and village life.
The first person I showed the photograph to was my Peace Corps forestry counterpart, Alexander Peal, Director of the Sapo National Park, Liberia’s only national park. How I found Alex in Monrovia is a story in itself. Let’s just say there is no National Park Headquarters in Liberia, as well as many other government services. I was happy to see Alex and the photo showed the contrast between how I looked then and now. I hoped the photo would help jog people’s memory as well as provide a bit of proof that I had been to Liberia.
I took some time to look for the house I had lived in when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village of Tapeta. I was talking to a man in front of my old house when an amazing twist of fate occurred. I took out the picture and showed it to the man. He didn’t recognize me but recognized Joe Kepue, and told me that Joe lived in a village about 15 miles away. I had hoped with all my heart that somehow I could meet up again with Joe. But after 22 years I knew the odds were slim. He could have died, or more likely been displaced during the war. It was too good to be true. Two days later I found Joe. We shook hands, embraced, and examined each other. He was 62, still in good shape and had some grey hair. My hair was grey and the beard was long gone. We traveled to his house. There we reminisced and recounted the events we had participated in together 22 years ago. I gave Joe clothing, money, and paid for a few school tuitions. Joe treated me to palm wine, pepper soup and gave me several chickens.
Twenty-two years gave us if not wisdom at least perspective. I’ve seen friendships blossom and wither and know how important it is to keep and sustain a good friend. Joe’s seen what it means to lose all possessions, and have friends and neighbors killed for nothing. We knew our time together was short and precious. Our differences made long lively discussions difficult, but it wasn’t important. We just like each other and know when the pauses are too long it’s time for a walk. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Joe’s words when I asked him what it was like to lose all his property. Joe replied simply and directly “We have our lives, that is what is important.”
Of course I had to leave. Someday I’ll return to Liberia and I hope Joe will be there. Right now any correspondence is very roundabout. There’s no mail to Liberia, much less Tapeta, so it’s hard to say how much communication there will be. Emotionally this has been a very powerful experience. If I had only just met the remarkable people in the Friends of Liberia delegation, or only just seen Alex Peal, or Joe Kepue, or just witnessed the elections, or traveled upcountry, or ridden in trucks with Friends of Liberia on them, or found my old house, my journey to Liberia would have been successful. Put them all together and they are overwhelming. I’m a lucky man. I thought I could walk back to a normal life. But the experience is too strong. I often find myself returning to Liberia.