We spent our days like this, Ernest and I. His job was to shuttle around a group of grad students from Harvard-in the morning, to the government ministries where they interned, and at night, back to a gated, barb-wired compound where they slept. When one of the interns urged her little sister to come join-just pitch an article and come research it-Ernest was saddled with a 25-year-old white American who had places to be only if she could arrange interviews, and zero grasp of what "post-conflict" means for travel.
Mostly, we drove, Ernest and I. I want to say that I can count the number of steps I took in Liberia. What's true is that I could have. On my first, muggy day in the country, when I made it through the dilapidated hangar that was Monrovia's airport and walked toward the blessed outline of my big sister and the white jeep behind her, had I realized that this was about as much walking as a post-conflict zone allowed, I might've begun to count my steps right then. By summer's end, I would have had some number in the hundreds to show how seldom my feet had touched the ground in Liberia.
Ernest was lanky and said very little. On our first day alone together, I spotted a woman on the sidewalk balancing a tray of pale cucumbers on her head-hands free-and marveled aloud, thinking my awe for a Liberian woman might flatter the Liberian man who drove me. Ernest leaned out the window and shouted at her, thinking I wanted a cucumber. The rest of the day, we kept quiet.
Radio voices filled the van. The same radio voice-a woman's-assured us, as Independence Day approached, that fireworks were not the sound of war coming back. Four years out of conflict-a conflict that had claimed more than 200,000 lives, dragged on 14 years, and left the majority of Liberian women victimized by rape-nobody was very used to peace.
Peace was the topic of my article-I owed a magazine 600 words-and Ernest helped me hunt down interviewees, making do with the most bare-bones of directions. No one I called had a complete address; instead, they gave me coordinates. Look for the Gender Ministry. ...Go past Truth and Reconciliation. ...Have you seen the UN building? There was no way to miss the UN Mission in Liberia, then the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. Wrapped in a giant slinky of barbed wire, it looked like a dystopian Hilton.
I didn't ask for Ernest's permission to move to the front of the van; I just climbed into shotgun position one day. He never asked why I kept my notebook open on my lap, copying down every billboard slogan-NEVER AGAIN LIBERIA and REAL MEN DON'T RAPE and EVEN WAR ENDS. I copied them down because I started and then couldn't stop, because signs -- cries for peace -- were all over this city, and because it was a way to map the coalescing city, to get my bearings in a place I would never wander alone.
We had one route: Tubman Boulevard. Ernest looped Tubman endlessly, and so did every Liberian in possession of a vehicle. Traffic was crushing late in the day, and the bands of former boy soldiers selling Fruit Loops and newspapers on the roadsides made the prospect of crossing Tubman on foot even more daunting. When Ernest offered to carry me across in the van, pulling U-turns that made the old car groan and shake, I did not object.