Amy Davidson talks to Jon Lee Anderson at the New Yorker website about his profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in this week's issue of the magazine. I have always had a sort of fascination with Liberia, partly because of the whole alternate-history thing: the circumstances of the country's founding must have preserved some aspects of antebellum American culture in ways that would illuminate own country's history as well (though I cannot imagine much of this has survived the turmoil and violence of the last twenty years).
Here the conversation takes a surprising turn:
Now, you have a history in Liberia, too. You lived there for a year when you were a boy. How did you end up there?
To make a long story short, I had been raised abroad, and my family had returned to the United States briefly for a year when I was twelve. I had not enjoyed it very much, and I dreamed about being an explorer and leading an adventurous life, and I kept running away. The solution was to send me for a year to live with my uncle Warren Coonrad, who lived in Liberia and was a geologist there, in 1970. So I went there and spent a year with him when I was thirteen, and I have to say I was very happy. For me, it was a wonderful country. I would go up into the bush with my uncle's cook, into his tribal village. I danced for the first time with the people of his tribe. I learned quite a bit of the dialect. They gave me a tribal name. For me, it was just a wonderful time. It was clearly a country with problems lurking under the surface which, as a boy, I wasn't that cognizant of. The thing about Liberia that has been lost to the outside world, which associates it with mass murder and tribal frenzy, is that Liberians, quite apart from anything else, are irrepressibly joyful people. They have a great sense of humor--even in their misery today. Sometimes, now, there's a slightly more cynical edge to the humor: I saw a little shop there with the name 'Neutral Ground' and a calling center named 'Who Knows Tomorrow?'
I remember, though, you didn't quite stay put in Liberia, either. You travelled a lot through Africa.
I did. Apart from going into the bush as often as I could, I crossed over into Sierra Leone and into Guinea, where I was actually arrested and accused of being a spy. I was thirteen. I was constantly getting into trouble, but nothing terrible happened to me. I also travelled to East Africa, where my father and my uncle knew people in the various capitals. The idea was that I was going to have an East African adventure, take a month off from school and do reports for my various teachers in order to justify this, and people would somehow look after me while I was in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. What I actually did was check in with them and then take off on my own. I looked a bit older than my years, and so a lot of these people didn’t quite know what to do with me, and they let me go. Then, to the Africans, when I was travelling on my own, I would lie—I would tell them I was a twenty-eight-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, and I would find that most Africans couldn’t really tell my age. If they were incredulous, they didn’t say so. And so I was able to do a lot of things. I camped out alone in the Serengeti, and I travelled out to the Ogaden desert in Ethiopia. I went elephant hunting with a Canadian gospel minister in western Uganda the week after Idi Amin seized power. I had a ball and I didn’t want to come back. I ended up staying two months and getting in all sorts of trouble with my family because I basically didn’t write, didn’t call.
Does that sort of thing seem remotely possible for a young person today, do you think?
No! And I haven’t told my children how old I was when I did these things, and they don’t really know about it, because it sets up a bit of a challenge, and Africa has changed. Of course, it was changing while I was there, and I was only vaguely cognizant of it.