The training course was about the size of a football field. It was loose sand with a small trickle of a creek cutting it in half. After a few false starts Cass got in the passenger seat and four Chinese police officers piled in. The car did one turn around the track and then stopped to let the driver leave so that one of the passengers shifted to the driver’s seat, and the next person in the queue outside got in as a passenger. The car had made three or four passes before I got in. Cass was eating a sandwich. He was jamming a piece of bread into his mouth as he explained to the driver what to do. He seemed calm. His voice had the same flatness it always had. The driver pulled the car out and was slow to get it into gear. The body began to shudder. Cass leaned over towards the driver and shouted:
“CONTROL YOUR ACCELERATION!”
The car stalled. The driver restarted it. Again he had some trouble and the car started to shimmy.
“CONTROL YOUR ACCELERATION. CLUTCH! RELEASE THE CLUTCH! CONTROL YOUR ACCELERATION!”
Another stall. The driver got it into first gear this time but fluttered out going into second. Cass ordered him to stop and sent him to sit in the back. Another one of the Chinese police officers took the wheel and started a circuit of the course. It was rough in the back. We were slamming into one another. Our heads were banging on the ceiling. It was like being on a roller coaster. The driver got it into first but was obviously terrified to try second. This seemed to enrage Cass.
“GO TO SECOND. SECOND! CONTROL YOUR ACCELERATION. CLUTCH! CONTROL YOUR ACCELERATION!”
Then it was my turn. The car was quiet. Cass’s yelling had many everyone very uncomfortable. Was he angry? He sounded angry. Like we weren’t listening to him. But what did it mean to control your acceleration. Go faster? Go Slower? Stay the same? Brake? Clutch? Turn the wipers on? It was such a specific choice of words, yet it was so vague.
I put the belt on. I fiddled with my mirrors and started the car. I have had harsher tests than Cass. My little sister taught me how to drive stick on the mean streets back home. She yelled far more specific things. I stalled out my 1989 Jetta Diesel in the middle of a busy road on a hot summer’s day and a police officer ordered me to give the wheel to her. And the gears on the old beasts that the UN gives us to drive our so sloppy you barely need the clutch. I felt good and, sure enough, I got it into second and was whipping around the course. Except for my hand position he was pretty happy. He even let me go around a second time. I had to stand around for another hour as the rest of the class had their turn. Cass never stopped shouting. I could see him through the window. After he finished his sandwich, he opened up a bottle of water.
Ebola has devastated the place
That was two months ago. So much has happened here since then. The pressure that the country is under is unbelievable. You can feel the already rickety structures that underpin society creaking and splintering and swaying with the weight. Ebola has devastated the place. It has changed everything. The health care system is in ruins. People who are sick with Ebola can’t get a bed. If they are lucky they can get into a containment tent on the hospital grounds and wait for treatment. So people stay home. Or are pushed into the streets. Bodies can take days to be removed. Businesses are closing their doors, there are food shortages in some parts of the country, security forces are being deployed and there are reports of beatings and violence and corruption throughout the country. We are teetering on the brink of a serious, sustained humanitarian crisis and we don’t have the resources here to deal with it. And people don’t want to come here to help. Not in the numbers we need at any rate. If this was an earthquake that killed more than a 1000 people and injured another 1000, the ground would be flooded with international workers. The best-case scenario here is that five times that number will die.
In the midst of all this, of course, are the Liberians. The things they have had to endure have been almost unspeakable. And now this horror. They are smart, hard-working, bright-eyed, a little cautious, talkative, quick-witted. And they are beautiful. You see supermodels walking down the street selling peanuts or bananas. And Hollywood leading men with chiseled chins and impossibly broad shoulders driving taxis. And they are proud as all hell. I heard an international explaining to a national staff member that he wanted her to try to do it the way he was suggesting. She gave him a look that pushed him back a step or two.“Don’t you say I don’t try. I try.”