A long drive through Liberia
Scavenging spare parts, River Cess County, Liberia. Photo Tim Lewis.
River Cess County back to Monrovia is usually a one day journey over terrible roads. It became portentously longer when the jeep started to play up on our last day of filming. Water was gushing from the engine. In an opportunistic fashion we went scavenging at every opportunity for spare parts. In West Africa lorries, cars and motorcycles are usually driven until they fall apart. They subsequently go through a period of repair, falling apart, repair. This continues until the vehicle literally stops and refuses, like some sad exhausted donkey, to move again. However this seldom dissuades the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the African mechanic who see’s not a wrecked hulk of machinery but instead a ready supply of spare parts, be it a carburetter or some simple nuts and bolts. In Ghana I once saw the front of a rusted Renault and the back of a crumpled Citroen literally stapled together.
With Michael, our friendly and laid back driver and Silas, our leader and guide, both filled with easy laughter and stories we spent the best part of two days driving slowly – very slowly – back to Monrovia. Despite several attempts at bodging a repair the engine was still losing water at an astonishing rate. Our progress was close to walking speed. We would drive for a mile and a half, then pull over to let the steaming engine cool, fetching water from rivers and streams as we went. Far from inconveniencing us, after all most of the filming had been done, it was a wonderful two days.
A brief stop whilst the engine cools. Silas feeds the greedy monster. River Cess County, Liberia. Photo Tim Lewis.
Every time you stopped you were greeted by a small community, be it a little huddled hamlet of huts or a single farmer and his family. You’d wander down the dirt road with a couple of empty jerry cans banging against your legs, find a bridge made of fallen logs, scramble awkwardly down the bank, accidentally astonish a group of boys all lathered in soap and having their evening wash in the stream, fill the jerry cans and return to the guys and our poor broken jeep. As well as the friendly banter between traveller and the local roadside communities our trip to Monrovia was punctuated by the jovial rivalry of our fellow road users.
Every vehicle on the road, and I mean every vehicle, be it an ancient American school bus, its yellow paint streaked with mud and scrapes; or crammed private taxis and pick-ups; or lorries swamped with produce and people; every vehicle seemed to be in a universal state of disrepair and imminent collapse. Meaning that every time we stopped to refill the engine with murky river water and observe the depressing amount dripping from the cracked metal work, we would be harassed in a cheery way by our other travellers. There would be a beep of a horn and then all smiles and waves as they pass us, some shouting “We’ll be in Monrovia before you brother!” A few minutes later we would pass them at our own wobbly snails pace, laughing and teasing them as they leaned over steaming engines or tried to fix a snapped drive shaft, “We’ll see you in Monrovia!” we’d chortle with delight. This would be repeated endlessly throughout the day.
We spent that night in Buchanon, a wild west sort of town, much of it devastated during the wars. The hotel we stayed in was rundown and seemed to serve both as a disco and a brothel. But there were cold bottles of beer available – a welcoming sight to the dusty, slightly frazzled traveller. The disco, and what seemed like several raucous wedding parties, went on most of the night and unfortunately made the floor vibrate in my room. Somehow I managed to sleep.
A brief pause by a crumbling old roadside church, River Cess County, Liberia. Photo Tim Lewis.
On the second day in bright sunlight we stopped for a while by a church in the final stages of decomposition. Walking around we found an old bible in the wooden pulpit. The pulpit sagged and leaned from where ants and termites had been eating away at it. The bible, which seemed to come apart in your hands, was printed in 1974 in Georgia USA. For a while we were the only people there, milling around, exchanging amused looks between us as Michael cautiously unscrewed the radiator cap. Then, as with so many occasions out in the bush, we were soon joined inexplicably by a variety of people who appeared as if from no where. The local pastor and two of his friends, formal but friendly, they sat with us and we talked in the way strangers do, picking at the peeling plaster and kicking idly at stones, sometimes a wistful silence would pass between us and we would in turn grimace into the bright light, looking down along the shimmering empty road. Soon enough the engine had cooled and we refilled the water.
Another repair job, this time with a bar of soap and we moved off, through the vast Firestone Rubber Plantation and finally back to Monrovia, where we have a triumphant photograph taken that evening.
Triumphant return. Paul Redman, Silas Siakor and Tim Lewis outside SDI’s offices Monrovia, Liberia. Photo Michael.
Written by Tim Lewis.