Johnson Street is one of the many which is the hub, hustle and bustle of Monrovia. Here you find characters of various types, questionable as well as honest people, who are trying to eke out a meager income and are not even sure when they will get food for the next meal.
The upper part of the street is used as a parking area for vehicles taking commuters to and from the city and its environs. And although it is barely wide enough to accommodate a dozen vehicles at a time and especially often crowded with street sellers, most of whom sell their wares practically in the way of pedestrians and vehicles alike, each successive mayor ever since the civil war has done little to change the order of things. As a result, city ordinance laws have nearly all gone unheeded. The city’s law enforcement officers, along with the country’s own national police, have been seen in few instances seizing commodities from petty traders, goods believed to be used by the officers themselves; contributing to a deep level of mistrust among the people, especially when it was known not long ago that city police officers found parading the streets and seizing substantial amount of merchandise were in fact thugs dressed in full Monrovia City Police uniforms; a symbol of the country’s post-war recovery which has been anything but comforting.
But nothing is as troubling as when those passenger buses arrived, because then you would think the people trying to get on board would kill each other. I have seen a man of forty trying to board one of these buses by entering through the window, while grappling with others inside and those who were trying to pull him out. I have seen a woman lost her child in one of the many stampedes, though fortunately the child wasn’t trampled to death. I have seen an old woman get run over, after one of the drivers, having lost control of a brake that was malfunctioning, crashed his vehicle into a crowd of bystanders, pedestrians, street sellers and others who were waging a war to get on board. Always I have wanted to shove my way through the crowd and to shout: “Why are you striking your companion?” But I doubt anyone would listen. Besides, that is only a part of the setting of the story which follows.
On a particularly hot day in March, a passenger bus arrived and after a fierce tussle the commuters found seats on the bus, which was en route to Bardnersville Estate, and the bus drove out of the Johnson Street tarred road and on to the upper part of Benson Street, past the Warren-Benson street intersection and beyond. The vehicle was practically falling to pieces and, as it drove away, leaving behind a trail of blue smoke, the exhaust pipe dangled so low it clattered on the asphalt.
Inhaling exhaust fumes and the odor of sweaty and unwashed bodies, the passengers, most of whom were virtually sitting one on top the other, fell into conversation immediately the bus reached the intersection of Benson and Warren Streets. Of the commuters most were elderly laborers and petty traders, as could be seen from the nearly forbidding expressions of their faces, evidence of people hardened by years of war, hardship and misery and grown accustomed to a Sisyphean mode of survival. Among them was a well-dressed man who seemed totally out of place with his surroundings, as if by a nightmare he had been brought here to sit among all these poor and miserable people.
“Someone would have killed me just to board this bus,” one of the elderly women, adjusting a small bundle on her lap, remarked. “They had their hands round my neck and for a moment I thought I was being strangled to death.”
As the laughter subsided, an old man with a shaven head said, “The transport problem in this country is terrible.”
“Eveeeeeery thing is terrible,” put in another woman. “The market, food, clothing, rental and hospital fees, our children’s’ school fees. Everything. And despite the fact that most of us are eating dry rice at home.”
“I agree with you,” said the man with the shaven head, nodding vigorously. “But what’s the meaning of having city roads on which the cars are virtually rubbing against each other and must avoid hundreds of potholes which every Minister of Public Works has been paving since he took office?”
Just then the bus fell into a particularly large pothole a few moments’ drive from the Clara Town-Bushrod Island intersection, jostling all the passengers, who in an effort to steady themselves quickly held on to the seats, the windows, the doors and roof of the vehicle. A few days ago, two men had been seen here filling with rocks the potholes in the road. For their effort, they took tips from owners of commercial and private vehicles, most of whom were either reluctant or refused to pay anything at all. Then people found out that the potholes which the men would fill with rocks the previous day were to be seen empty the day following, and stopped paying anything to them. The men are rarely ever to be seen again. One of them is said to be a trained road engineer who has fallen on hard times. The other man is believed to be a former Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel turned drug addict and hustler.
As the bus drove past the intersection of Clara Town, a young woman dressed in a tight-fitting dark suit and who looked like many young women who are being employed by banks in Monrovia, said to the others, “Look at the Clara Town road which the government called a 2.6 million dollars project. This year the rains left the road nothing other than sand and gravel, and only after a few months of the government having said to have paved the road with asphalt.”
“They called the Jamaica Road project 3 million,” said someone else. “But then they had to pave it again after the road got spoiled only after a few months. It seems government officials who are sent to pave our roads are no better than the hustlers who today would throw a few rocks into a pothole and on the next day remove the same rocks to a different place, getting paid for a job they had been paid for before.”
“Our govment official dem da mercenary,” cried a fat man wedged between a corner of the bus and three other people. “Dey only care about money business.”
Immediately the word “mercenary” was spoken, the others, perhaps seeing it as the right word to describe corrupt officials, took it up. Cries of “So-so mercenaries in the government,” “We’re being led by a bunch of mercenaries,” “Down with the mercenaries,” “All our officials are mercenaries,” resounded through the crammed space of the passenger vehicle, followed soon after by the outburst of laughter. Some of the passengers were nearly tearing their sides as it was!
The cries and laughter died. And then the elderly man who seemed out of place in the midst of all these people, said, “Yet those are the very government officials we all vote for at the slightest notice. And so why must we complain?” Evidently he had been listening intently to the conversation but until now had had nothing to say.
From the way in which he spoke it was obvious he was well-educated. It was also probably on account of his appearance that at once a hush descended. He looked to be about fifty years old or so but with a youthfully dyed hair as to make him look like a young man. His complexion was one of better health than the rest of the people combined.
“Besides, most of you who complain about corruption,” the man continued, “as soon as you obtain a government post would behave no better than the people of whom you’re complaining. The fact is that Liberians have no love for their country.”
“You speak as if you’re not a Liberian yourself,” said the woman with the bundle.
“Yes, of course,” said the young woman, “and it would be interesting if he were to tell us where he’s working. The way he’s dressed makes him look like a government minister, though why he should be riding a rickety bus like this bea\ts my imagination.”
Everybody burst out laughing.
The laughter having subsided, the man, smiling, turned to the girl who had spoken to him and said, “I’m a Liberian and university professor. “But don’t imagine for a moment that I’m better off than any of you. I’m earning a salary that’s never enough to feed myself and my children. I’ve got seven, five daughters and two boys, and of these only three are in school; one is a university dropout. Two of my daughters have turned to prostitution, and one of my sons to sodomy. Worst still, the hundreds, if not thousands of night clubs, we’ve here in Monrovia are only further ruining our children, my own included. But who is to blame? No one other the people, you and I included, who vote into offices people who don’t live up to our expectations. But is voting a curse? No. It’s only a way of saying that we want a better person to lead us and our country. Besides, whether or not I vote for a John Doe who turns out to be corrupt wouldn’t make any difference because for their own personal reasons others will vote for him. So why worry? Why complain? Why don’t you cheer up like me?”
A lull had again followed while the professor was speaking; his voice could be heard so loud and clear that even the drone of the bus and the clattering of the exhaust pipe on the tarred road, as well as the sound of passing vehicles, seemed muted. Indeed the whole bus had fallen silent, as if the people were painfully trying to piece together what the professor’s speech meant for each and every one of them.