helene cooper tells of liberia, rogues, and why not to sleep around

Whenever I travel alone, I bring a book. That sheepishly geeky, book-worm identity I wore as a child, when I’d sneak stories into the bathroom and stay for hours and plead with friends at sleepovers to keep the lights on as they slept so I could get “to the good part” resurfaces unapologetically. For a moment, I might feel like Saturday night should be spent out exploring new territory, getting into (moderate amounts of) trouble, but then again, being often in post-conflict countries in Africa, Saturday night is also prime time for pick pocketers, shadier forms of transportation, and overpriced clubs with sweaty men who don’t want to dance as much as take you to some grimy hotel while their children sleep and wives rationalize (or not) their absence. So I can’t say I feel remorse in spending such nights, if not at home with my fiancé, then with my books.

Now in the Congo (so-called Democratic one), I’ve been reading a memoir by Helene Cooper, White House Correspondant for the New York Times, to get a better view into the history of Liberia and the 1980 coup that led to two civil wars and over 20 years of armed conflict. Two passages thus far have struck me with their quirky descriptions of perceptions in Africa, of different levels of criminals, and of the social, rather than physical ills, that cause death.

Helene opens her book with:

“This is a story about rogues.

Burglars are “rogues.” The word burglar is not in the Liberian-English vernacular. I occasionally used “thief”, although only for two reasons: 1) to impress whoever was listening that I knew proper English, and 2) to amplify “rogue”, like when yelling out “Rogue! Rogue! Thiefy! Thiefy!” to stop a fleeing rogue. But rogues and thieves were very different animals. Rogues broke into your house while you were sleeping and made off with the fine china. Thieves worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.”

And later:

“In Liberia, you don’t die of natural causes. You die because somebody witched you. You die because your father slept around with a woman who then had a witch doctor get rid of all your father’s official, “legitimate” children so her children could get his money. You die because your husband’s brother was jealous of you. You die because your wife was tired of you. You die because, like my grandfather Radio Cooper, you didn’t give the farm to Old Sammy Cooper after he worked there all those years.”

Love it 🙂 Read the New York Times review of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” here.

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