by Pamela Cohelan Benson
It is 1980. The almost four decades of rule by Liberia’s president, William R. Tolbert, is about to end in violence and revolution. Read on for the impressions of one Foreign Service spouse caught up in the turmoil. Her story can be repeated for many, many such families over the years that American diplomats — and those of other countries — have been assigned abroad. —Ed.
“In Monrovia, Liberia, I fell in love with a girl in my sixth-grade class. I learned the subtleties of firing an American-made M-16 fully automatic machine gun from a friendly, slightly drunk Liberian soldier. There I also saw a picture of our star Little League batter’s father on the front page of the country’s only newspaper. The ex-cabinet minister was tied to a post with bullet holes marking his torso. . .”
The words are our son’s, taken from an autobiographical statement he wrote as a college entrance requirement. Though he never shared the final draft with us, an early version of his law school essay also included a reference to his childhood in Africa — specifically, the extent to which he had idealized the power of the American judicial system after having lived through a revolution.
As a family, we have rarely spoken about those helpless April 1980 days in Liberia, when a coup d’etat toppled the government of President Tolbert. But we lived through them and, along with other less dramatic memories of our years abroad, they are a vital part of who each of us is today.
My husband David and I had been out late the night before, dining and dancing at a party several miles up the beach. Our children had each spent the night with a special friend and we were to have picked them up at 8:00 a.m. so they could play a softball game with their Little League team. As I showered and dressed, David went to the kitchen to make the coffee. He returned a few minutes later to tell me that our neighbor had come to the back door to say that President Tolbert was dead; there had been a military coup. Our aged security guard had told him not to drive our car out of our compound as soldiers would surely commandeer it. He had seen it happen on his way to work.
Both of us felt the excitement that comes with the unexpected, the unexperienced — not yet fear, only a wordless quickening of the pulse and the beginnings of questions. We turned on the radio. African dance music. Lively, always danceable. No announcements yet. Music, reggae music with uniquely African words of protest. “Who Owns the Land? Papa’s Land. Revolution!”
Are You Afraid?
The beginning of fear: where would the anger be directed? The music stopped and a recorded announcement told us in a deadly serious voice that the government had fallen, that the airport was closed (“No one will enter or leave the borders until further notice. . .”), that the new head of state was Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe and, finally, that “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues.” Then, more music.
We lived with a constant background of noise — the relentless pounding of treacherous surf and the maddening clatter of rusty air conditioners struggling to keep us cool against the humidity and salt spray. But at some point following the radio announcement, I became aware of the gunfire. I recognized the sound of the weapons — some distant, some close, some automatic. My mind refused to picture the men with the weapons or the weapons themselves. The sound, however, would not be shut out. Fear crept toward terror.
We had remarkably little to say to one another, yet our silence communicated everything. The unspoken questions had no answers. Without a two-way radio or a telephone, we were utterly cut off. We had to believe our children were safe. We agreed that our 12-year-old son was taking events calmly, and was probably more interested in the political and military aspects of the episode. We allowed ourselves a moment of anxiety to acknowledge that our 10-year-old daughter was most certainly frightened and in need of family. Rifle fire was now very close by. Our dog was barking wildly.
Despite the fact that he came from neighboring Guinea and spoke only French, Mohammed, the man who worked for us, communicated no fear. His every movement in the kitchen was confident, deliberate.
“Avez-vous peur? [Are you afraid?]” I asked.
“Moi? Non, madame. [I? No, Madame.]”
From very close by there was a loud explosion of automatic rifle fire. I felt the vibrations in the pit of my stomach and suppressed the urge to vomit. Mohammed closed the louvered window above the kitchen sink.
“What happens next?” I asked David. “Will they come into our house? What shall we do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe pack a suitcase. . .”
I welcomed the need to concentrate on packing. I began making choices of what to take and realized how little I cared for any of the things in the house, how unimportant they were. I stuffed the family photo albums in the suitcase and wondered how I would carry the small handmade chest of drawers that held my trinkets. My eyes filled with tears as I remembered my grandfather’s death only a few weeks before, far away in Washington, D. C. He had made one of these boxes for each of his daughters and all of his grandchildren using wood from a walnut tree in my parents’ garden.
I pictured his workshop in the basement of the house where I had grown up, his tools hanging above the workbench. I remembered his telling me as we drove past late-August goldenrod on our way to Dulles Airport for our departure that when one of his cousins had married, she had decorated her house with the yellow flowers. The trinket box was a symbol of everything important to me. I would leave everything else behind, but not this box. I would endure any invasion or abuse to keep this box. My children are safe, I told myself.
More gunfire, loud shouting, a dog’s crazy barking. A soldier, drunk and armed, had entered our gate. A shot silenced the dog. I pictured him dead and felt nothing.
The soldier wanted food. I knew he wanted pepper soup and rice, but we only had absurd offerings: pumpernickel bread, ham, and chocolate cake. Mohammed carried the food down the back stairs. The soldier ate it and politely returned the empty plate. I told myself that the heavy food would sober him up. As I peered out the back door, the disheveled man lurched to his feet, hoisted an oak swivel chair that he must have taken from an office onto his head, retrieved his heavy rifle, and ambled off down the beach.
Was this the beginning? What would the next drunken soldier want? I walked down the back stairs and across the sand into the neighbor’s house — one of four in the compound where we lived. My neighbor and I were not good friends. She was busy with young children and I was a high school teacher; we had little to say to each other. Yet the brief visit was a welcome distraction for us both. Her small son played quietly with blocks on the carpet. She and I huddled at opposite ends of the sofa. I curled up, my head pulled into my shoulders, closed my eyes, and saw myself in a tiny canoe, somehow paddling out through the heavy surf into the safety of the sea, away from where I was.
A Return to Normal?
Two days later our children were delivered to our home under police escort. I unpacked the suitcase, and we cautiously resumed a limited version of our daily routine, within the confines of a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
In the weeks that followed, the ministers of the Tolbert government were tied to posts planted on the beach and publicly executed. Believing that it was important to let our children express their feelings about the chaos and brutality we were living through, we raised the subject of the executions. “I know,” said our son. “They shot Kanwi’s father. Kanwi is our best pitcher. I wonder if he’ll still be able to play on our team.”
School ended several weeks early that year and dependents were flown to the United States. For the rest of’ the summer, in a neighborhood of’ tree-lined streets in Washington, D.C., we winced at the sound of firecrackers and marveled at the predictability and peace of our lives.
For the rest of our years overseas, I left our family albums in storage, but my grandfather’s box always sat on my dresser, as it does now, holding my treasures: silver bracelets, a tiny rock from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a plastic flower from my sister’s wedding cake.
Our children long ago left their childhood in Africa, as well as our nest. Like parents everywhere, my husband and I have watched with interest as their lives unfolded. Following her college graduation, our daughter joined the Peace Corps, as she had said she would since the fourth grade. She was assigned to Nepal and spent two years teaching in a Himalayan village. She married a man who had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania.
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for her master’s degree at George Mason University, she wrote about her life as a “global nomad” and of her sometimes crippling unresolved grief in a thesis tellingly entitled “A Childhood In-Between.” ”Global nomads will forever be different from monocultural people,” she wrote. “For those of us who are global nomads, learning to understand these differences and to under-stand what pattern of behavior stem from the benefits and challenges of our lives is critical in learning to relate to others with depth and authenticity.” She and her husband departed in June 2001 to live and work in Ukraine.
Our son Colin, husband, parent, and cancer survivor, works as a public defender in one of Oregon’s poorest counties. If you ask him why he went to law school, he will tell you that after having worked for two years on a landscaping crew, he wanted an indoor job. But when you go back and read his early introspective writing, you’ll perhaps agree that he’s given you the short answer.
Reprinted by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, May 2002, Volume 79, No. 5.
Pamela Cohelan Benson and her husband David, a former FSO, were Peace Corps Volunteers in the Philippines and India, respectively. Following their marriage in 1965 they lived in Turkey, India, Zambia, Liberia, Kenya and Cote d’lvoire. Today Ms. Benson teaches at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.