(This is the tenth in a series about overseas policing).
I did my first tour of duty in Liberia from August 2005-06. I had never served in Africa prior to this (I would serve in South Sudan in 2012 and go back to Liberia in 2013 for a second tour). I fell in love with the people. Everything you've ever heard about the sub-Saharan part of the continent is true: poverty, corruption, disease, and crime, but the people are genuine and the children such innocently wonderful human beings.
To understand Liberia is to reflect upon its history. I won't go into too much detail because anyone reading this can easily go to a website to gain information about origins of the country, and how it was started by freed slaves. I studied the history of the nation before coming and that was beneficial to me during my tour. I read books on the civil war and the horrendous violence that propagated the use of child soldiers (in fact, I would work the elections in October 2005 that saw Ellen Sirleaf Johnson elected as the first female president of any African country. I would also see a former warlord who used child soldiers elected to the Liberian Senate).
A lasting impression of Liberia was formulated on that first evening in Monrovia when I walked outside of the hotel we were staying in. I was with a group of American police officers and our intention was to walk until we found a restaurant. The hotel, which was Italian owned, had a restaurant, bar, and wood pizza oven, and served pretty good food. But we wanted to explore the city and see what it had to offer. The hotel was on Randall Street just off of Benson. Benson is one of the busier avenues in Monrovia.
As we came out the front door of the hotel and turned right on the sidewalk, we had to literally step over the body of a dying man. He used his arms to crawl from the pavement up on to the sidewalk. His trousers and underwear were down around his knees and he had obviously defecated himself. He was moaning and begging for help. I was guessing at the time he had either cholera or typhoid (we are vaccinated for both diseases prior to leaving the states, along with a plethora of other shots).
In a developed country, an ambulance would have been called and the man taken to a hospital for care. But it's not that simple in Africa.
There is no 911 in Liberia, or any place in sub-Saharan Africa that I'm aware of. If you have money, you can pay to get treated for illness; if you do not have money, you die. It was in Monrovia that I heard for the first time the expression that unfortunately rang true too often: in Liberia, a hospital is not where a person goes to get better, it is where they go to die. That was a moot point, since the guy on the sidewalk would never see a hospital.
There were eight of us, and we did what one would expect of a citizen from a first-world country: we stared and wondered out loud what we could do for him.
There were perhaps a couple of hundred people in a marketplace next to the hotel that occupied a vacant lot. The wares they sold ranged from bars of soap to music CD's. There were hundreds more people moving about on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. They were all African, presumably Liberian, and none of them any more concerned with a man dying in the street than I would be if I were back home and someone dropped their soft drink on to the cement.
It became immediately apparent that we were the only persons there who cared one way or the other about the dying man's welfare. As we pondered what we could possibly do to help the man, a man's voice boomed out from the marketplace crowd.
"Why don't you help him?"
I surveyed the crowd, with every head turned in our direction to see how we would respond. I could not tell who had shouted the question, but it angered me. We were strangers to Monrovia, been there less than twenty-four hours, and yet a burden of responsibility was being put upon us to help this man who had obviously been there for some time before we exited the hotel.
"Why don't you help him?" I shouted back. "He's your countryman."
That shut up Mr. Anonymous, but it didn't change circumstances for the poor man dying. It also was my first experience with a phenomenon that would hold true throughout my time in Africa: Africans expect the white man to lead the way. I would see it time and again. Whether European, American, Canadian, Aussie or Kiwi, the white man was looked to for solutions to African problems, both large and small.
As we discussed what to do about the dying man, a Red Cross ambulance drove by within feet, the two occupants both African males. They were apparently in a jovial mood, laughing about something, and drove right past despite our best efforts to get them to stop. Finally, one of the Americans I was with spotted a Liberian police officer on the corner of Randall and Benson. He trotted over to him, explained who we were, and the officer came to the scene.
There was nothing he could do, of course, because he knew the situation better than we did. This man would die, eventually someone would pick up the body, and he would be buried somewhere. Whatever the case he wouldn't be touched without proper gear (gloves, face mask, etc) because to do so invited death itself into one's own body.
It was a good introduction into third-world living conditions and the lesson stayed with me. Even though I'd been to Afghanistan, where it was even more primitive, it still did not sit well that a man could be dying on a sidewalk in the middle of a city and nothing could be done for him. As Americans we thought, 'There's got to be a better way than this.'
More on Liberia in the next article.