Driving lessons from the heart of the Ebola crisis.
At lunch several weeks ago an American woman named Deb was telling me that she didn’t drive here because she found the Liberians to be aggressive and angry. Her voice had the unique whinge particular to internationals. I kept my mouth shut.
The thing is, she has it all wrong. Driving is difficult here, but there’s nothing aggressive about it. Everyone is very friendly. In two months I had just one person give me a bit of a look. Back home, I get the finger three times before I even back out of my driveway. Liberian drivers are better described as being totally, unabashedly, stark-raving, batshit crazy. But not aggressive. The most intimidating driver in Monrovia, in fact, is not even a Liberian: he’s a Filipino, and he works for the UN.
Cass is a large, wild-eyed, wild-haired, yet deeply unflappable mechanic from the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. He speaks with a flat staccato accent—f’s become p’s, “he” is exchanged with “she”. And there is something about his big, blank, friendly face that reminds me of my grandmother. Just about everyone in the mission knows Cass because he works for transport. And if you want to get a license to drive one of the big white SUVs with UN painted on the side, you need to do two tests with Cass. The first is a basic skills test. You have to answer some questions about the rules of the road and then do a few parallel parks. If you pass that you get a license that expires in 30 days. To make it permanent, you have to take the 4×4 training course.
My first real experience with the Monrovian traffic was on the trip from the UN HQ at the Pan African Plaza to the logistics centre at Starbase to do the written test. Cass was driving, offering advice on how not to ride the clutch and how to rev the RPMs before you change gears. He was a slow and stoic but constant patter of car-related information and detail.
It is maybe a 7 kilometer drive. In most cities you could expect it would take 20 minutes at the most. Not here. No, here, a trip to Starbase can eat up an entire afternoon. And by the time you have climbed the few hundred meters up the hill and past the university, you have already encountered more challenges to your sanity than you might after a whole year in my hometown.
Small bright, yellow taxis dart in and out of their lanes like drunken hummingbirds. Many have names or slogans painted in big friendly letters on the back. (The Lord is One; My First Love (#2); It Will Get Better; God Come First; No Peace for Wicked; God’s Times is Best). Young kids cling perilously to aged motorcycles, casually passing in the opposing lane, cutting across the road in whatever slim space they can find, or suddenly appearing in your turning path. There are also covered motorcycle cabs that weave carelessly back and forth like a kid biking up a steep hill. Cargo trucks move slowly and often have metal bits dangling from them or parts of their cargo flopping over the side. Pickups as battered and beaten as backstreet bare-knuckle boxers drift down the middle of the road, straddling two lanes, jammed with men and boys going to work. And there are scores of white SUVs too big for the roads, marked by the logos of international organizations. And the whole show can come to a sudden halt when one of the armed escorts for national and international VIPs comes whipping by, or a small group of intrepid pedestrians makes a crossing, or a group of young men hawking everything—water; bread; candy bars; live chickens hanging upside down in their hands; and massive, silver, bloody, fish. And for good measure, you just never know when a lone car will appear, barreling down the wrong way in your lane and showing no signs of stopping.
The roads are torn up, potholed, gutted and cracked. In the short time I have been here I have—while driving in the heart of the city—pushed through waist high water, driven around an actual boulder that rolled in from an empty lot and navigated large expanses of mud and sand. There are parts of Monrovia that look as if they were built two hundred years ago and left to crumble, decay and be swallowed by the earth. Sometimes you turn a corner and come to a sudden dead end on a road that seems to collapse into the sea. Your breath gets taken away, not just from the sudden stop, but because the shoreline here is one of the most beautiful there is: A stretch of rocky beaches with massive ten-footers breaking constantly, African pied crows gliding against the wind for fun, square-rigged canoes bobbing in the distance.
It was a few weeks after I passed the test that I did the 4×4 training. I arrived at the transport center at 8:30 in the morning and mingled with 15 Chinese police officers. I had spent some time with them a week before during my induction training. There are a lot of Chinese nationals in the UN here. That is a big change from the last time I worked in a peacekeeping mission. The world has changed. China is a big presence in the country in general. Their ambassador is vocal and active in the international community.
When Cass saw me he threw me the keys to his car.
“You drive my car. Okay. I have to drive the bus.”
Now this might speak more to the desolate wasteland of the life I’ve led up to this point, but I’ve rarely been as proud of anything. Or as nervous. If I lost him on the road or got into an accident I would have never lived it down. We hit the street and I stuck to his tail. But Cass’ philosophy is simple: the best defense is a good offense. He slipped the bus gracefully through traffic at high speed, cutting in and out of whatever lane gave him more space. The car I was in would rattle loudly at 45 km an hour. It was so bad I thought there was a flat until Cass, knowing this was coming, called my cell to explain the problem to me. When we got to our final destination, a truck came and towed the car I had been driving. Cass gave me a familiar shrug:
“It’s not safe to drive on the road.”
The 4×4 training center is a roofless hangar, home to moths, mosquitos, massive cockroaches, a few motley sparrows and the rusted-out wreck of a Nissan Patrol. In front of the hulk of metal, Patrick, a transport support worker from Kenya, explained the workings of the engine and 4 wheel drive system. Every fifteen minutes or so, Cass would appear and interrupt. He would then take twice the time Patrick had taken to go over precisely the same information. I now know more about cars then I ever thought possible. Want to know the difference between real wheel differential shut off and the front wheel lock? Just ask me.
At one point in the middle of explaining the use of the reserve gas tank Cass got a phone call. He looked at it, thought about it and took the call. Then he hung up and the phone rang again. He took this call too and talked for ten minutes as we all stood there. It had started raining. Not hard by Liberian standards but enough that we were all getting wet. But nothing would rush Cass. We had already been at it 2 hours. He gave us another 30 minutes on the icons on the driver-side display of the dashboard. In case you’re wondering, when the little oilcan lights up, you are low on oil.
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.”
That pride is powerful. It is strong. It is commendable. At the community level it is helping keep families safe. Neighbors are taking care of neighbors, tracking who is coming and going, making sure the sick and vulnerable are taken care of. But that same pride may be screwing up the fight against Ebola. The government is at its wit’s end, running out of ideas, critically short of resources. It needs help. But it won’t let go of control. It won’t call in the cavalry. And if the cavalry doesn’t come soon, the consequences could be nothing short of cataclysmic.
You know that old trope about a frog in boiling water? That it does not notice the temperature until it is too late? This is totally not the case. You feel it. You feel every shade of every degree. The paranoia and nervousness and restlessness is already extreme and rises every day.
The internationals are not immune to the pressure. It is less rational for us. No UN international has been infected or been in a situation of real risk. But it gets closer and closer. Rumors take on an almost uncontrollable velocity. Speculation that some countries will pull out their nationals runs rampant. People are taking leave and not coming back. Many airlines have cancelled their flights in and out of the country. We work under bizarre circumstances. Offices have split shifts to minimize the people working in one space. Some staff have been designated as non-essential and are either sent home or re-assigned. We can’t come into the building unless our body temperature is below 37.5 degrees. People are beyond nervous. Many don’t want to go out of the building and interact with local partners. I was at a dinner party the other night and the servers were wearing masks and latex gloves.
I see Cass a few times a week, in the building or on the street. I saw him last week in the coffee shop at the foot of the Pan African Plaza. He looked tired. He said he was going on leave in a few days but he was worried that the flight wouldn’t happen. He was worried about someone infectious being on the plane. What if he wasn’t allowed back in his home country? What if one of the countries along the way stopped him. Should he come back or stay longer? He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat.
I looked at him. I wanted to make him feel better. He seemed so distraught. The only thing I could think to say was “Control your acceleration”. But I kept my mouth shut.
[Some of the names in this story have been changed]