After a surprisingly comfortable encounter with Liberian customs, Onyx made his way to what he figured was the arrival terminal. He couldn’t really remember anything about the airport from the time he was 14. He passed through the exit and walked straight to the nearest ‘money-changer.’ His Facebook friends had given him a heads-up about the exchange rate between the U.S. and Liberian dollars. He was fully prepared for the young man’s deception. The money changer told him the rate was LD$60 for every US$1.
What he didn’t expect was for someone to come to his aid; especially not the character that showed up. A man as tall as himself, but nowhere near as big, walked to the money changer and said in a voice as blunt and heavy as a sledgehammer “My man! Stop dat ting! You tink you helping Liberia like dat? You can’t see dis man na real white man?”
The money changer blinked rapidly in apparent disbelief. Onyx couldn’t tell whether it was from being caught trying to con him, or because he was taking in the man’s bizarre appearance.
The tall, lithe, chocolate-complexioned man wore a leopard print Persian turban on his head with green horn-rimmed shades. As if that was not strange enough, he added a bright orange velvet dinner jacket with matching shorts to the mix. His choice in footwear helped complete the eccentric package, as silver penny-loafers adorned his feet.
“Why you people can’t do deh right ting? Eh?” he asked the absolutely dumbstruck money changer. The money changer looked away from Onyx, apparently defeated by the words of the stranger, and said, “Sorry popay, deh rate da 86 LD for U.S.”
The odd man turned to Onyx and removed his shades, revealing eyes that would weaken the bladders of most tourists. They had a feral quality that screamed “basket-case.” Against all of his better judgment, Onyx felt he could trust this man. He held out his hand to the man and said, “I’m Onyx; Onyx Togbah.”
The man grabbed Onyx’s hand, smiled and shook it vigorously, responding, “My name Kerkula; Kerkula Mulbah, and I’m a taxi driver and fellow Kpelleh man.” Onyx now understood the reason for this stranger’s—Kerkula’s—intervention. He did not mind though. After the way he him saw handle the money changer, Kerkula Mulbah’s obvious street smarts might be just what he needed.
“Kerkula,” Onyx said, “If we can come to a compromise on the matter of payment, you may have just gotten yourself hired as my personal guide.”
Kerkula took Onyx’s bag and they walked side by side across the airport’s parking lot until they stood next to a canary yellow Toyota. Opening the door, he looked at Onyx and said, “From Montseraddo to Nimba, you will na find nobody who know LIB like me!”
“Good,” Onyx said, “I am going to Gbartala in 3 days to find my father. I need someone who knows the terrain.” Kerkula sat down and pressed the button releasing his taxi’s automatic locks, looked at Onyx from the driver’s seat, adjusted his turban and said, “T-rain; Q-rain; and Z-rain. My brother I know all the rains dem! Sit down and get ready to find you pa!”
The next morning, at a clean and cheap hotel Kerkula carried him to in the Monrovia neighborhood of Sinkor, Onyx was ready to “hit the ground running.” He felt like everything was falling into place thanks to his new ally.
Kerkula Mulbah was quite possibly the most interesting person Onyx had ever met. For one thing, the man’s fashion taste only got more eccentric. He picked Onyx up from the hotel with a maroon fez on his head while wearing the Bayern Munich football club’s full kit. Just as before, his strange choice of shoes completed the image. This time it was a pair of fire-truck red hiking boots.
Kerkula walked up to him, practically shouting at the top of his voice, “Oh-nees! My man, we need to get you some basic material.” Onyx knew Kerkula was right, it was important to be prepared for any eventuality. He needed to find a supermarket to buy water, toiletries, and a few healthy snacks.
They got into his taxi and started the first day’s tour of Monrovia. Kerkula’s taxi was so clean you could eat off of the dashboard. Onyx became slightly ashamed when he thought of his dusty document-filled old Alfa-Romeo back in Ohio.
“So?” Kerkula asked while driving, “What kinda work you do in America?” Onyx felt his face flush with embarrassment. His last stable job had been over a year ago, helping restore old paintings at an art gallery. Now he worked out of his car as a house painter. He knew he could lie to Kerkula, but he didn’t want to. He was aware of how some second generation Africans lied about their level of success to relatives back home; he did not want to be like them. “I’m a painter,” he said, adding “I paint everything from houses to pictures.”
Kerkula looked at Onyx and turned the tassel on his fez to the right. He said, “My man, da good honest work. Anyting da can feed your family,” he said.
“I will you carry to my house and let my woman prepare some dumboy for you later,” said Kerkula with such authority that it felt more like an order than an invitation. Not that Onyx minded. He realized that he had just made a friend.
Eight hours later they were on their way to Kerkula’s house in Jacob Town. They had spent the day driving all over Monrovia so Onyx could become reacquainted with the capital city. Onyx was stunned how things had barely changed since he was a kid. Of course there were cosmetic changes here and there—new stores and few new buildings—but almost everything was just as he remembered it. Unlike his muddled memories of the airport, looking at the city was like being in a time warp.
In Onyx’s opinion, this was not a bad thing. Liberia was still a country of breathtaking beauty. That beauty juxtaposed with the obvious scars of the decade-plus civil war just reinforced the image he had of the country’s mystical quality.
He had gone with Kerkula from Broad Street to the city’s many beaches. While they were doing this, he learned that Kerkula was an ex-combatant. He did not say it to impress or boast. He explained it as matter-of-factly as Onyx had when he talked about his job. Onyx reciprocated by telling Kerkula more about his father, his two failed marriages and the best thing he had done with his life; his 12 year old daughter Yamma.
They wrapped up their long conversation as they pulled up the driveway of Kerkula’s house. His home was a cozy little white building surrounded by bushes, with a coconut tree in the yard. The second Kerkula parked his car and turned off its engine, he was crushed by the embraces of four startlingly attractive kids. The group consisted of one surly looking (was there any other kind?) teenage girl, 2-year-old twin boys, and their older adolescent brother who was the spitting image of Kerkula.
Kerkula introduced his children in order of age, starting from the oldest. His daughter, Precious was tall for 14, but still shorter than her brother Enoch; who towered over her at the age of 12. The adorable identical twins were named—hilariously— Napoleon and Alexander.
Onyx followed Kerkula and his kids into their home. When he got inside he went into the airy living room and sat down on it’s wonderfully cushioned bamboo furniture. A minute later, a short voluptuous dark-skinned woman in a flowing white gown entered the room with her hand extended in greeting, saying “How you do papa? My name Victoria, but my friends can call me Vic. Welcome to your home yeh?”
Onyx shook Vic’s hand and praised the cleanliness of her home. This sudden immersion in Kerkula’s domestic life made Onyx long for his daughter. He would have to call Yamma tomorrow. Family was the reason he was here.
He needed his father. Yamma needed to meet her grandfather for the first time. He was shaken out of his reverie by Napoleon and Alexander who had decided he was a mountain that needed climbing. “Come let’s eat!” they said in unison. Looking down at their cherubic little faces, he replied, “Lead the way.”
He sat down to the wonderfully spread table and looked at the smiling faces of the Mulbah family. He wanted what they had. He would find his father. He would make everything right. He made this promise to himself and before God as Kerkula told everyone to bow and say grace.
…To be continued.