Sitting between a makeshift brick factory and a pair of fat ladies that run an open-air cook shop, Joseph Nah laments what he sees as the downfall of West Point, the seaside community in Liberia’s capital where he has lived for 40 years. There has been an influx of “gronnah people”—the street thugs, the drug users—and they are now outnumbering the “decent people.”
Around the corner, men and women sit on sandbags behind a tarpaulin smoking grass, low-grade heroin, and crack, their limbs and necks limp. “The original people who grew up in West Point during the 1970s don’t do drugs,” he tells me, adding that most of the users are foreigners.
Men like Nah, who migrated in their youth to the low-lying sandy peninsula of West Point, Monrovia’s largest slum, have always rallied against the city’s negative perception of the community. Founded in the 1950s when the capital’s first port was created, West Point has since acquired a reputation as a lawless place inhabited by “gangstas” and drug users, a place where a cacophony of tribes and cultures live side-by-side, but in conflict. The stereotype truly came to the fore when the community of more than 75,000 was placed under quarantine in August 2014, during the peak of the Ebola crisis.
I had spent a lot of time on the corners of West Point before the world’s worst outbreak of the disease took hold. Living in an apartment overlooking its sprawl of rusty zinc roofs, I often wandered through its sandy alleyways, exploring its complex neighborhoods, drug ghettoes, fishing communities, football fields, and nightspots. When Ebola struck, I reported on the first cases, and on the establishment of a makeshift holding center in a school.
Among Liberians unfamiliar with the area, West Point is an anarchic land of gronnahs, a term derived from the concept of “growing up child” or “grown up child.” In Liberian English, also known as colloqui, gronnah people were raised without parental or adult care, sometimes on the street. But like many words in Liberia—a deeply classist society ruled by a small elite of freed American slaves—the term is subject to interpretation.
Though the term gronnah has its share of negative connotations, Liberians like Takun J are reappropriating it as a badge of honor, a form of resistance, and a rejection of Liberia’s classist order. I met Takun J while writing a story on Monrovia’s music scene. Muscular, with broad shoulders, a thin waist, dreadlocks, and a tattoo with the word HipCo on a crucifix, he’s the closest thing Liberia has to a superstar musician. He creates a form of Liberian hip-hop called HipCo that employs colloqui or patois as its base, and is popular with young people. For Takun J, a gronnah person is a survivor who forges their own path and values, and generates their own sense of self-worth in a corrupt society that sees them as worthless. Many of his fans, particularly West Pointers, wear the label with pride.
During the Ebola crisis of 2014, though, many Liberians, including those at the highest level of government, saw the community’s response as evidence of its antagonistic nature—its gronnah essence. Fearing that the government was casting a plague on their township, West Pointers ransacked the school holding center. Distrust and suspicion toward the government, fueled by a culture of impunity and violence fermented during the Civil War, is acute in places like this one, which the administration has largely neglected.
The police guarding the holding center fled. Mattresses infected with Ebola and remnants of medical equipment floated around West Point. A few days after the police left, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf placed West Point under armed quarantine. The Commissioner of West Point, Miatta Flowers, attempted to remove her family members from the area and was held hostage. She was rescued by security forces who walked her out. Many attempted to run through a makeshift barrier made of wood and barbed wire and were shot at by the military.
Shakie Kamara, a 15-year-old boy, suffered a leg injury and later bled to death in a hospital where the medical staff refused to touch him. Images of his pained, fragile face as he held up his bloody leg, split wide open, became a symbol of the fear and madness of the quarantine. For West Pointers, the incident also represented the government’s violence and oppression.
On the surface, the ransacking of the holding center seemed like an unruly community acting out. But it was a response to years of neglect and the perception that West Point was a dumping ground for all the problems the government wanted to ignore: ex-combatants and child soldiers that never reintegrated into society, housing shortages in mainland Monrovia, child laborers and rural migrants struggling to get out of the cycle of poverty, a crush of migrants from neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the fishermen who have few rights, and often die on the high sea.
West Point was where the forgotten people survived, and a select few made it out. It was the island where the gronnah people lived, where all endured without the help of the outside world, of the powers that be. The challenges West Point faced in many ways were like the virus itself: deadly, contagious, overrunning the whole body and attacking its ability to resist and fight back. But like the initial response to the outbreak, the government had ignored the signs and symptoms of the community’s deeper maladies.
“I’m a gronnah woman, struggling for myself and I’m doing everything for myself,” says a local marijuana dealer in West Point who goes by the name Nicki Minaj. With a shock of black curls spiraling above her head, eyes lined with fake eyelashes, and a freehand tattoo of a naked woman with her legs spread on her arm, Nicki sits on a sandbag by the thinning shoreline and watches over her adopted daughter, a bright-faced toddler, as she waddles around. “When you leave your people’s house and come to the street they say you are gronnah.”
Drawing on the influences of American hip-hop culture, gronnahs often have sexually explicit rough-cut tattoos. Men wear low-slung skinny jeans, boatman’s neck “muscle arm” shirts, and baggy shorts. The women sport fake lashes, loud wigs, and weaves, and “sexy wear”—skin-tight leggings, mini-skirts, body-hugging tank tops that underscore breasts propped up by padded Chinese bras, or blown up condoms. They have nicknames and aliases, such as Nicki Minaj, Scar Face, Queen Latifah, Long John, Sexy D, and Ricky Ross, and they speak colloqui in a gravelly baritone. They smoke Capitol or Bond cigarettes, some smoke weed, heroin or crack, and others drink gana gana, a local whiskey, or Club Beer. They don’t shy away from a fight. For the gronnah, being gronnah is to be fearless, independent, a bit “gangsta”, and anti-establishment.
“A gronnah person is someone who sustains themselves; who live by themselves; that just want to be free,” says Nicki’s friend Winna, adding that the “rogues” and thieves give them a bad reputation. But surviving without handouts is a point of pride in a country where people live on less than a dollar a day and rely on cash and goods from family members and patronage networks.
West Point resident Joseph Nah believes there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gronnahs. The former are simply “country” folk who grew up far away and were sent to the capital in search of opportunity. “They left their parents from the hinterland like Lofa, Grand Kru, and other places, came to Monrovia decided to go on their own, sell their market, send themselves to school, and they grow up and have a better future—that’s the good side,” he tells me.
Sampson J. Nyan, West Point’s young commissioner, agrees that sometimes “decent West Pointers” will refer to themselves as gronnah to show they are adaptable, flexible, strong, and courageous. “People use it as a jargon to say that you can meet a challenge, you don’t fear anything or care what people think about you,” he says.
Founded by Kru and Bassa fishermen, market people, and “gangstas” looking for easy access to a downtown Monrovia dominated by the Americo-Liberian elite, West Point has always suffered from a sense of alienation. But after the quarantine ended on August 30th, 2014, West Pointers challenged the dominant perceptions of division and lawlessness and pulled together to end the Ebola outbreak there, months before cases had disappeared in other communities. They organized groups in zones and blocks, and monitored the sick and ensured they were taken out. They distributed buckets filled with chlorine and water, a concoction that kills the virus. They taught West Pointers how to detect Ebola, how to avoid it, and what to do if a family member, neighbor, or loved one fell ill. They ensured bodies weren’t buried secretly, and helped burial teams negotiate with families to remove the dead. They quarantined homes, monitored and counseled family members, and distributed food.
I have been documenting the lives of a group of ex-combatants and gronnah people and their survival through Civil War, disarmament, and desperate poverty, through the Ebola outbreak and beyond. During the peak of the epidemic, the most desperate and drug-addled of the men wrapped bodies in rice bags and paddled them out at midnight to bury them on an island called Daka. While the quarantine was in force, they defiantly heckled the police and authorities who cut them off from the mainland. They climbed, crawled, and hustled their way out of the army and police-manned exits to bring in supplies of food and drugs; they camped out, cooked for one another, and smoked together when rations were scarce. Taking pride in the gronnah identity is a form of resistance against a society that would rather see them disappear. But in true gronnah spirit, they made their presence felt on the streets of Monrovia, and still refuse to be silenced and ignored.
This week, Clair MacDougall will be posting photos from West Point on the Roads & Kingdoms instagram account.