Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Dusty Road

[It’s after 1am and as lay under my warm covers, attempting to go to sleep, my mind begins to wander. This is nothing new. However, tonight my mind wanders to the dirt road that I live on in Liberia. I begin to think about that road, and I can’t stop thinking about it, so I grab my computer and begin to type.]
I’ve never lived on a dirt road before, not until I moved to Africa. The exact color of the red dirt is vivid in my mind. I can feel the dirt caked on my feet--a reminder of where I’ve gone. When I’m in Liberia, no matter how many times I scrub and no matter how much soap and water I use, the dirt of Liberia does not come off. My feet are permanently caked with the red dirt of that beloved country. It is inescapable, intrusive and persistent. Strong, for a road that doesn’t even have a name.

I begin to think about what that road has seen. In dry season, the road is so dry that it’s almost a constant dust storm--blowing into my house and covering everything inside. And during rainy season, it eventually becomes a well-worn rushing river. As the water flows, it tries to erase the road, but the road never gives in. Somehow, some way, she survives. She is determined.

I also think about all of the feet that have traveled on that road. Tired and weary feet that have kicked up her dust. Feet that know the road well--like the man who calls, “empty bah-tle” almost every morning--or feet that are on the road for the first time. The things the road has seen. I begin to recount.

My neighbors. 

To my left is the Passawe family--an ever-growing family with ever-growing responsibilities and struggles. Parents who would do anything to provide for their children. But it’s difficult when you can’t read or write. Again, to my left...Menitama. A gas station, small convenience shop and cement depot by day, and a music blaring night club at night. Mr. Menitama was shot on that dusty road a few years ago. He died, leaving his wife to run the family business. Moving across the street. One neighbor who woke me up screaming in the middle of the night because their house was broken into and everything of value was now gone. 
Next to them, a house full of children. Children who make me laugh when they dance in the rain in only their flip-flops, or want to come closer but are terrified of my harmless dog. I’ve also heard their screams many times as their parents beat them for punishment. To the other side, neighbors who are dear friends, and have also had their struggles. Armed robbers, again. And then you move behind my house. 
I can’t see those neighbors because of my cement wall with barbed wire on top, but we are all somehow still connected. Every morning, I hear children laughing and singing. It’s an orphanage. Another neighbor, who came knocking on my gate late one night because something was wrong with their newborn baby. We walked as fast as we could in the dark and through the garbage, only to find the baby laying on the bed, not breathing and blood drops under his nose. The mother weeping in the front yard, while neighbors gathered to bury the tiny baby in the ground. And then there’s “the praying woman”. Her gut-wrenching cries and prayers frequently wake me up around 4am. I’m never sure if she’s angry or desperate because I can never understand her, but she is crying out to God for something.
I think about every person who has ever come to my home. They have walked on this dirt road. And myself, I have strolled down the road, leaving dust in my wake, hundreds of times. I walk to visit neighbors. I go to the road to meet friends. And my favorite route is straight towards the ocean. It is my escape. After a long day and a big bowl of rice, I put on my “beach shoes” and duck out of my red gate and start walking down the dirt road. The children across the street call out to me and wave. I pass the woman selling roasted corn and snacks.
The music of Menitama is my soundtrack. I wait to cross the highway, a constant parade of traffic heading into town from the airport. I run across the busy highway, and I breathe alittle easier because it means I’m almost to my happy place. The cool breeze has a calming effect, as I get closer. I pass more children--”the jumper” and the small girl who swears her name is Snow White. Willie and his friends are playing marbles, or have carefully drawn out a game of hop-scotch in the red dirt. I say hello and shake hands, and try to get to the beach without a following of children. I just want to be alone, to think, make up songs, or pray. I enjoy singing my favorite songs as loud as I want. Nobody can hear me above the roar of the waves.
I get the end of the road and walk across the football field made of sand, filled with pieces of glass and lined with garbage. I pass through the grassy area, watching where I step, and ignoring the people using the restroom behind the bushes. I can see the water now. I get to where the grass meets the sand, stop, take a deep breath, scan the horizon, kick off my flip-flops and jump down onto the sand. Some days I’m more tired, and just sit down in the grass, and close my eyes and breathe in deep. But most days, I walk south towards the hotel. After four years, I’ve got the sunset all figured out, so I know that I have enough time to turn my back and walk for awhile, and when I turn around to walk back, I can enjoy the best part of the sunset. I look for shells, sing worship songs and feel the breeze on my face. I manage to escape from my day and from this country, if only for a moment.

But back to the road.

My dusty road is like my own journey. Rainy season comes and tries to carve out it’s trail. Holes form and people try to repair them, but it’s never quite the same. In the driest of dry season, the dusty road is desperate for water...even if it’s just enough to make the dust go away for a moment. The red dirt welcomes people, and sends people on their way. It ushers in new life, and death. It makes a mark on every person who journeys on it. And for some, it leaves its mark and doesn’t want to come off. 

The red dust is caked on my feet. I carry that red dust with me, even now; even though my feet are clean. The thing is that every person who’s walked that road and gathered dust on their feet has walked across my heart. There are dusty, rust colored foot prints all over my heart. The road is just dirt. But so much has happened on that road. The road has changed over time. It has been the gateway to my heart, for all of the Liberians that have walked on that road and knocked on my red gate. As soon as the red steel gate opens, that person is part of my life. They are friends or family. They change my life, and maybe I change theirs. We laugh together, and sometimes cry together. They take me in, as if I’m their daughter, mother or sister.

The best part is that when I get back to Liberia, that will still be my dusty road. I won’t have to run across the highway anymore on my way to the beach, because I will live alittle closer to the salty breeze. The red gate will be gone, and my neighbors will change. But we’re all still on the dusty road. I will still say hello to the woman selling corn. I will still hear the sounds of Menitama, but from alittle father away! I hope to still be able to hear the children at the orphanage singing “All Hail, Liberia Hail” every morning before school, as they raise the Liberian flag over the school yard. So many of my friends will walk down the road to come to my new home. And so many new friends will step foot on that dust for, perhaps, the first time.

There will still be needs and hurting people. One of my new neighbors told me his stories from during the war. How rebel soldiers would walk up from the beach when the family would be cooking and order them to hand over all of their food. They feared for their lives, so every day, they handed over what little food they managed to scrounge together. They eventually walled in their small kitchen and added a steel door just to be able to feed their family.

My dusty road. If only that road could talk. To share the stories of the people of Cooper Beach. To celebrate the life, and mourn the death. To smile and look expectantly towards the future. Seeking change. Sensing hope.

And the soundtrack of Menitama continues, I’m sure.

[I don’t have any great ending in mind for this reflection. I just knew that I had to write about my dusty road and all of the memories that are there. Otherwise I’d be rolling around for hours, playing with all of the words in my head, hoping to remember in the morning. We all know how that goes...I wouldn’t remember a thing! Maybe this story is headed somewhere else entirely, but for now, I wanted to get it down on paper.]

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