There are fifteen or twenty men at the first checkpoint, mostly in their teens or early twenties, many of whom appear to be drunk or stoned and most of whom are armed with old automatic weapons. One of the soldiers, dressed in a T-shirt and dark khaki pants with a gun slung across his shoulder, approaches the driver’s window and peers into the car. The interior light is on out of necessity, because cars with unknown occupants are sometimes fired upon. John, the driver, exchanges a few words with the soldier, delivered rapid-fire in a strange patois that sounds like southern American English with African inflections and is hard for the untrained ear to understand. Most Liberians speak English, the national language, but the influence of numerous ethnic language complicates things. The word “flashlight,” for example, becomes “flah-lah.”
I gather that there is a demand for money or beer, and that John will have none of it. The exchange becomes more heated until finally the man with the gun gives up, the makeshift gate swings open, and we zoom away.
A few miles down the road we reach a second checkpoint. The scene is repeated. This time the demand by the man at the window for money or beer is echoed by men lurking beyond the light of the car. Again the exchange becomes heated. Finally the man with the gun says, very distinctly, “I’m speaking to the white man.”
Until this point I have tried to stare straight ahead, at the gate illuminated by the dim headlights of the taxi, where a group of men are waiting for directions. Now I turn toward the rheumy eyes of the man with the gun.
He stares at me for a long moment before saying, simply, “Hello.”
“Hello,” I say, with all the enthusiasm I can muster.
We stare at one another. Finally he says, “Welcome.”
It sounds like an ultimatum but the word is welcome.
“Thank you,” I say.
He stares a moment longer, then signals toward the gate, which swings open. We speed through.
Soon we are passing the Land Rovers that earlier passed us, careening around blind curves, scattering dark figures on foot, bounding toward Monrovia.
“Could someone explain what just happened?” I ask. Everyone in the car bursts out laughing.
“They want money or beer,” Peter explains. “Next time, maybe you don’t say anything.”