For my sister, Geneva
MODERN WAR STORIES often resemble each other, not because the circumstances are alike but because they're told in the same way. Commanders are quoted offering confident predictions of victory. Male diplomats make serious pronouncements. And the fighters—always men, whether they are government soldiers or rebels, whether they are portrayed as heroes or thugs—brag, threaten, brandish grisly trophies and shoot off their mouths and their weapons.
It was that way in my country, Liberia. During the years that civil war tore us apart, foreign reporters often came to document the nightmare. Read the accounts. Watch the video clips. They are all about the power of destruction. Bare-chested boys on foot or in pickup trucks fire enormous machine guns, dance crazily in wrecked city streets or crowd around a corpse, holding up a victim's bleeding heart. A young man in sunglasses and red beret regards the camera coolly. "We kill you, we will eat you."
Now watch the reports again, but look more carefully, at the background, for that is where you will find the women. You'll see us fleeing, weeping, kneeling before our children's graves. In the traditional telling of war stories, women are always in the background. Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale; when we're included, it's for "human interest." If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as pathetic—hopeless expressions, torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and the image that sells.
Once, a foreign journalist asked me, "Were you raped during the Liberian war?"
When I said no, I was no longer of any interest.
During the war in Liberia, almost no one reported the other reality of women's lives. How we hid our husbands and sons from soldiers looking to recruit or kill them. How, in the midst of chaos, we walked miles to find food and water for our families—how we kept life going so that there would be something left to build on when peace returned. And how we created strength in sisterhood, and spoke out for peace on behalf of all Liberians.
This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land.
You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman's story, and our stories rarely are told.
I want you to hear mine.
THE WORLD WAS MINE
On New Year's Eve, 1989, all of us who belonged to St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia gathered in the churchyard for the Watch Night Service, when we'd see the old year pass and welcome the new one. Everyone got a piece of white paper. On it, you wrote down whatever you hoped for the coming year, then cast it into a big steel drum in the center of the yard. The pastor said a prayer and touched a lit match to the pile. The smoke would go straight up to God, who would make your wishes come true.
As a child I had often wished for health. I was sick a lot—measles, malaria, cholera. I'd also wished for good grades, and for things to go well for my family. This year, I was seventeen, finishing high school and about to start at the university. I made a teenage good girl's wish: for good grades, interesting professors and the right classes. And I asked that those I loved be kept safe from evil.
When it was my turn, I dropped my paper in with the others. The smoke curled and rose as the congregation broke into songs of praise and thanksgiving, and I tilted my head back to watch it vanish into the warm starry sky. A feeling of safety enveloped me. God was good. I knew He heard all my prayers.
IT'S VERY HARD, NOW, to remember being that girl. So happy. So ignorant of what was coming.
A month later, my family gathered for a celebration. My sister Josephine, two cousins and I had all graduated from high school, and my parents threw the biggest party our neighborhood had ever seen. More than a hundred people came to our small house, so many that the festivities spilled over to my grandmother's next door, and then out into the neighborhood. No one minded. Though we were in the nation's capital, in some ways the cluster of houses on Old Road, near Spriggs Payne airfield, was like a village. The half-dozen homes, modest but of sturdy cement with corrugated metal roofs, were so close together that you could stand on your porch and sniff and know what your neighbor planned for dinner. Kids were always roaming the dirt paths and playing games in the sandy open spaces between them. A feast was set up at our home—American fare, like salad and sandwiches, along with traditional Liberian fish soup and goat meat soup—and my whole family was having a good time, even my shy oldest sister, Geneva. The youngest, Fata, only twelve, danced around and pretended to be singing traditional songs from our ethnic tribal group, the Kpelle. She got the words all wrong, but the tune sounded good.
Dozens of friends from church and school had come: Margaret, Kayatu, Flomo, Satta, Kulah and Emmanuel—we called him "Ayo"—tall and dark, with fierce eyes. Koffa, the joker, danced with a silly smile on his face but as always he was perfectly dressed, his shoes polished, a folded white handkerchief in his pocket. His dad was in the military and in that family, staying neat was a rule. Koffa dreamed of emigrating to the United States and joining the marines.
"Hey, Red!" someone called—my nickname because I was so fair skinned. "We need more drinks!" I ran to fetch them. Our living room had been emptied of furniture but was still overcrowded, with more than fifty people jammed inside. This was our dance floor, and "Just Got Paid" was blasting. I squeezed toward the back of the house, smoothing the front of my new pantsuit; it was aqua blue and gold fanti cloth, made just for me by Kayatu's brother, who was a tailor. The 18k gold earrings, bracelet, chain and ring my parents had given me a few days before glittered. Everywhere I went, guests passed me envelopes with bills in them. Other presents piled up: clothes, shoes, and best of all, a beautiful pair of Dexter brand boots, made of patterned leather that looked like snakeskin.
"We need the graduates to come forward!" my father called out. The music stopped. Josephine was nowhere to be found, so I stepped up, along with my cousins Fernon and Napah. My father, dressed in his usual weekend wear of jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap, a broad smile on his handsome face, told me how proud he was of me.
"And I thank you for all the love and support you have shown me," I told him and my mother. She looked lovely in a traditional African lappa suit and gold jewelry, her dark hair up in a French twist. "And thank you all"—I gestured to the crowd—"for coming tonight to celebrate our joy!" Everyone applauded, and my parents looked pleased and happy, their own marriage troubles put away for the moment.
They'd both grown up poor and tonight everyone could see how well they'd done—two of their daughters graduating from one of Monrovia's best private schools and heading off to college; a party with such abundant food and drink that it would be the subject of conversation for a long while. For me, the night was the perfect end to one of the happiest times of my life.
I loved my childhood home. The settlement on Old Road wasn't luxurious; there were no paved sidewalks or air conditioners to break the constant, muggy heat. But our homes had televisions, bathrooms, modern kitchens; this wasn't a slum like Logan Town or West Point, whose ragged children I had seen begging or pressed against the gates at friends' parties, watching us eat. No one was homeless or hungry here, and our community was built on togetherness and sharing. The five of us girls went back and forth constantly between our house and our grandmother's; she was actually our great-aunt, but she had raised our mother, and we called her "Ma." Along with other traditional midwives in the neighborhood, Ma delivered babies for women who couldn't afford a doctor.
When the Muslim family I knew broke their fast at Ramadan, I ate with them. When a friend had potato greens for lunch, I traded her some of my cassava leaves. We were surrounded by space and freedom. An empty plot of land lay across the street that led to the airfield, where daily flights left for Sierra Leone and Guinea. We played there endlessly, and Mama planted a garden of greens, okra and peppers.
The rest of Monrovia was beautiful, too, a long narrow city of a few hundred thousand, framed by the Atlantic on one side, the Mesurado River and its mangrove swamps and creeks on the other. It was clean and modern; almost nothing but the enormous Masonic temple, with its ornate white columns, was more than a few decades old. John F. Kennedy Medical Center, where Geneva worked in the records department, was the most sophisticated medical facility in all West Africa.
In the center of town, where we went to buy clothes and shoes, white and pastel two-story apartments lined the narrow streets, their balconies decorated with wrought-iron railings. Roads ended at brilliantly white sand beaches with tall palm trees. The long sweep of Tubman Boulevard curved through Capitol Hill, past City Hall, the Executive Mansion, where President Samuel Doe lived, and the University of Liberia, which sat behind a canopy of tall trees.
On the night of the party, I was happy with myself, too. I'd been a little shy and insecure in my early teen years, always in the shadow of Josephine, who was just a year older and who I thought was prettier than I, with a better shape. But in high school, I came into my own. My shyness disappeared when I got up to speak, and I was elected a senator in student government. I spoke at other local schools and made the honor roll. Boys let me know they liked me, too, and I realized that I looked good, tall and slim, my long hair in a braid down my back.
At fifteen, I had my first serious boyfriend, though the relationship didn't last. One night I went to a school dance and afterward was sitting on the sidewalk with a friend. This boyfriend came up to me and said, "You didn't tell me you were coming tonight! You have to go home right now!" We went back and forth and he slapped me. That was the end of him. I wasn't going to put up with that.
By graduation, I was confident in who I was, a pretty girl who was smart; a smart girl who was also pretty. It gave me a kick to say I would be going to the university to study biology and chemistry, and I knew that when I was in college, life would get even better. My parents' strict control over me would loosen, I'd have an intellectual adventure, and I'd go on to become what I'd dreamed of for years, a doctor.
My life stretched out ahead: I would study, work, marry, have children, maybe someday live in one of the sprawling brick air-conditioned mansions that lined Payne Avenue. I was seventeen, and I could do anything. The world was mine for the taking.
Community. Connections. Confidence. Big plans. Within six months, all of it would be gone.
THE COMFORTABLE LIFE my parents gave my sisters and me was hard earned, a slow crawl upward from almost nothing. The story is impossible to tell without also explaining their history, and Liberia's.
My country was settled as a colony in 1822 by freed and freeborn American blacks and African men and women liberated from slave boats that had been en route to the New World. The connection between us and the United States remained vital, like a blood tie, long after we became a nation in 1842. Our constitution was modeled on America's; our capital was named after President James Monroe. Until the 1980s, our official currency was the US dollar, and even after we had a Liberian dollar, US money was both accepted everywhere and desirable. My friends and I grew up on shows like Sanford and Son, Good Times, Dynasty and Dallas. We cheered the LA Lakers. Going to the US for education or to live was many Liberians' dream, and those who emigrated sent back glamorous pictures of themselves standing next to big cars.
Your ancestors' origins determined your place in the social order. Settlers who came from the slave boats—called "Congo People"—and those from America, many of them of mixed blood and light skinned—called "Americo-Liberians"—formed a political and economic elite. They saw themselves as more "civilized" and worthy than the tribes of Africans who already occupied the land: the Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mandingo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandio, Loma, Kissi, Vai and Bella.
For generations, the elite clustered in and around Monrovia or in suburbs like Virginia and Careysburg, where they built expansive plantations that recalled those of the American South. And they held on to power with a tight grip. The awful irony was that they did to the indigenous people exactly what had been done to them in the US. They set up separate schools. Separate churches. The indigenous became their servants. It's like you go into someone's house, accept food and drink, then box your host into a corner, saying, "This is my room now."
The social inequality, the unequal distribution of wealth, the exploitation—and the desire of the indigenous to take back what was theirs—are some of the reasons we had so many problems.
My father was a Kpelle, a poor rural boy from Sanoyea, Bong County, in Central Liberia. For a time, his father worked as a virtual slave in the Spanish colony on Fernando Po Island, just off the coast of Cameroon. Villagers accused his mother, whose babies always died at birth, of being a witch, and took my dad away from her. He stayed with nurses at the Lutheran mission house, then went to the Booker T. Washington Institute, where ambitious indigenous boys could learn a trade. He became a radio technician.
Mama, also Kpelle, was born in Margibi County, on the north-central coast. When she was five, her mother left her father for another man, and abandoned Mama. Her dad became so depressed that he couldn't really care for her, and he died when she was just nine. His sister, our Ma, took her in.
Ma had her own story. In the recent past, Americo-Liberians often went into rural villages looking for fair-skinned children to foster and "modernize." Because Ma's skin was light, she had been chosen and brought up in an elite house. She then married (and divorced) three times, coming away with a rubber farm in the country and a house on Old Road. She expected my mother to marry "up" to a boy with money or education. When instead she fell in love with my dad, a sweet talker who was ten years older, from a poor family and unemployed, Ma was furious.
My mother gave birth to my sister Geneva when she was only seventeen. At first Ma took the baby away from her to raise, but she soon relented and let my parents move in with her. Mama went to pharmacy school, and one of Ma's influential friends found her a job at a drugstore; later, she was a dispensing pharmacist at several hospitals.
Mala was born next, then Josephine, then me. My mother had wanted a boy. "Leymah" means "What is it about me?"—as in "Why can't I conceive a male?" But my father called me his "luck child," because right after I was born, he was hired by Liberia's National Security Agency, equivalent to America's FBI. Eventually, he rose to become chief radio technician and liaison with the US, and worked at the big US embassy complex on a hilltop in the Mamba Point neighborhood, overlooking the ocean. His work was secret, and we never knew much about it.
One of Ma's friends owned the plot of land next door to her and agreed to sell it to my parents. They built our house, and when I was five, Fata came along.
If you had asked our neighbors on Old Road, many would have said we were the happiest family in the community. I know that from the outside we looked successful. Both my parents worked hard. A five-minute walk from Old Road there was a large dirt field that kids used for kickball and soccer games, and next to it was a market where women sold trout, snapper and salmon they bought from the local fishermen. We never shopped at the fish market because Mama said it was too expensive, but for years, she rose at 3 A.M. to make cornbread, shortbread and Kool-Aid to sell there at the end of the day, after she finished her pharmacy work.
All the effort paid off. My dad bought a car, a Peugeot. We kids went to some of Monrovia's best schools and were in the same after-school programs as the children of the elite—swimming classes, Girl Scouts, vacation Bible school.
But our life wasn't perfect. I don't think I ever saw my parents happy together. Papa went out to parties and clubs on weekend nights and was still sleeping when we left for church on Sunday. And he cheated on my mother—a lot. It wasn't at all unusual among Liberian men—some even brought home the kids they'd fathered for their wives to raise—but it hurt my mother badly. When I was growing up, she would say that she didn't know what love was. And that "man" was spelled "d-o-g." Every now and then, my sisters and I would be ordered to Ma's house or wake up to hear all the relatives and church elders gathered in the living room, and know there was a crisis.
"Who will you go with if they divorce?" Josephine and I asked each other gravely, because we could not bear the thought of being apart.
Mama stayed with our father because of us; later, she told us that she never forgot how she had suffered after her parents' marriage broke up. But she judged the boys we brought home with hard eyes, demanding, "Who is his family?" It drove me nuts that she, who came from a lowly background, would be so judgmental. And she was never physically affectionate with us; she didn't cuddle or say "I love you." By the time we were teenagers, she was always angry. Anything we did could set her off; if we didn't clean our rooms or get home on time—beatings! She would use a belt or a stick of rattan, and she left welts. She always told us, "If you talk back, I'll give you a slap, you'll lose a tooth." She was a hard woman. To this day, my sisters and I have a love-hate relationship with her; we can't stand her, but we can't do without her. There's a Liberian saying: "You're too greasy to throw away, but too bitter to swallow."
Now that I'm older, I understand her better. She had five girls to raise and a husband who often talked of us as "your children." (We were his only when we were successful.) She had to answer to Ma, who was quiet but very strong, and always the true boss. Ma was a member of the Sande, a traditional Liberian secret society, and almost a priestess, with the power to deal with snakes and snakebites. She was greatly respected, both in her village and on Old Road. She spoke with absolute authority; when she put her foot down, no one crossed the line. My mother also had her own private trauma. Only recently, she told me that when her mother left her father and she stayed in the village, something terrible happened to her. She wouldn't say what it was; she said she would keep the secret with her until she died.
Our house always felt full, with lots of relatives coming and going. Because my mother still longed for a son, we took in Eric, whose mother was one of the wives of my dad's stepbrother, a traditional village chief. And the children of my mother's cousins regularly came from their village to go to school in Monrovia. In return, they were our servants.
In Africa, that's the way it is. You might not have much, but there's always someone with less; when rural families send their children to city relatives for "opportunity," the relatives pay for school uniforms and copybooks, and in return the children work. When Papa grew up at the mission house, he had to sweep, fetch water and cut grass to earn his keep. (He rarely talked about his childhood, but sometimes when we complained about something, he told us, "I used to sit by the river and sew my pants with twine.") Ma took Mama in, but at ten, she was cooking for the whole household. Ma's biological son would come home from school and order her around, demanding, "Where's my food?"
Our village relatives resented that we had more than they did, and Papa could be really abusive, mocking their lack of education and shouting, "Dumb ass!" when someone displeased him. Sometimes, the girls who came to stay took it out on my sisters and me, spanking us when no one was looking or pulling our hair when they washed it. Few of them lasted more than a year or two; they got pregnant and my dad sent them back to the village because he didn't want them to be bad influences on us. Sometimes, I really wished I lived only with my nearest family.
My sisters all struggled in their own ways. Geneva, who was six years older than me, never played outdoors with the rest of us. She'd contracted polio when she was little and she was ashamed of her left leg, which was shorter than the other and a little twisted. Geneva loved Josephine, Fata and me, and we adored her so much we called her "Mammie," but with others, she was very withdrawn, so quiet that she was almost invisible.
Mala was darker than the rest of us, and always felt like an outsider in the family. She got poor grades and often was in trouble. While my friends and I spent time at places like King Burger after school, Mala favored the Monte Carlo Amusement zone, where she'd play pool and take a lot of pleasure in beating older boys and men. She ran away for the first time when she was only twelve. She would pick the poorest of the poor as her boyfriends, and by seventeen, she was married and pregnant. Her husband was an older Lebanese man. (Lebanese immigrants had arrived in Liberia in the late nineteenth century, and many were merchants and shop owners.) Eventually she had two children, and they both came to live with us while she stayed away, on her own. There was no shame in that for her; in Liberia, if someone is sick or having trouble raising her children for some reason, her family steps in. What's important is that a child is being cared for and loved, not by whom.
Josephine, almost my twin we were so close, was stubborn and strong willed. When we were young, she and I were partners in everything, including mischief, like ganging up on Mala. Later, when we were teenagers, my parents started taking the keys out of the back door when they went to bed, so anyone who sneaked out of the house would get caught out by daylight. Josephine learned how to open the lock with a knife. For a time, I liked to sneak out with friends and go to clubs downtown where we would drink and meet boys. I'd get home late and tap on the window, and Josephine would use that knife to let me in. If my parents got angry at her about anything, she'd stand up and never back down. Fata, born so long after the rest of us, grew up in our shadows, a loner who felt as if no one had time for her.
As for me, I was driven, ambitious, and most of all, eager to please. For the five years until Fata was born, I thrived on being the pampered baby, and to hold on to that attention, I tried to be perfect. I was active at church. Even in high school, when I was doing my sneaking out, I did all my schoolwork so well that my parents never knew. I always brought home good grades.
I struggle with my weight now, but back then I was skinny, never more than a hundred pounds, and would get so hyper and caught up in what I was doing, I'd forget to eat.
I also seemed to catch every illness. At thirteen, I developed an ulcer, as well as suffering bouts of cholera and malaria. I was in the hospital at least twice a year. That was why I decided to become a doctor; two young pediatricians cared for me during one of my illnesses, and they were so loving. I remember looking in their soft eyes and thinking, This is who I want to be.
Most of all, I wanted to please my father. I loved going with him on visits back to Bong County. We'd stay at his family's house, where he'd sit on the porch holding court and drinking palm wine with his stepbrothers. The stares Josephine and I got—city girls with shoes! Relatives would laugh. "Joseph has brought his civilized daughters to see us!"
I feared his thunderous voice when I was a kid, but I never doubted that my father loved me. I remember being quarantined in the hospital when I was eight and had cholera. They gave me something for the pain and I drifted in and out of sleep, but it seemed like every time I opened my eyes, he was standing at the window outside my room waving at me. By high school, I would drop in at his office to talk. I knew he expected a lot from me.
"I don't want you to be like other girls, who don't pay attention to their lessons," he said. "I know one day you'll be great."
Life at home could be hard, but when I think back to the years before the war, more than anything else, I remember being happy. If we had two weeks of icy-cold atmosphere because my parents were fighting, the next week we'd all go to the beach together. When the village girls working in the house yanked my hair as they washed and braided it, Mammie Geneva sent them away. "Let me do it," she'd say, and she had the most gentle fingers. If my mother threw me off her lap after five minutes, there was always Ma next door, whom I could talk to about anything and who was always glad to cuddle. My sisters and I created our own world in the bedroom we shared, and outside was the warmth of Old Road.
During vacation time, sometimes there were power outages in the evenings, and all the children would come outside. The nights were warm, the moon up. My cousins would play drums and other girls would shake the saa-saa and everyone would try their hand at traditional ethnic dances, while the parents sat on their porches, looking on. It was my home.
"WE'LL SOON PUT AN END TO THE PROBLEM"
RIGHT AROUND THE TIME of my high school graduation party, a group of armed rebels crossed the border from Côte d'Ivoire into Nimba County, in northern Liberia. Their leader, Charles Taylor, claimed they would overthrow President Doe.
My parents weren't concerned. Nimba County was three hours away, and the group of rebels was small. Surely, the government would handle the problem.