We’re Not in Washington Anymore — Culture Shock in Liberia
Adjusting to a new job position or a new town has its challenges, but moving to another country —on another continent — is a whole other adventure. George Jaeger experienced this adjustment shock when he was assigned his first foreign tour as Third Secretary for Commercial Affairs in Monrovia, Liberia from 1958 to 1960. Jaeger recounts his first few weeks in Liberia and the surprises, such as being offered a wife of a local chieftain, disasters, such as the sinking of a new boat during christening, and lessons he experienced during that time. He eventually left Liberia with a heavy heart, as he had come to love the country a great deal. He was interviewed by Robert Daniel in 2000.
You can also read Jaeger’s fascinating accounts of his time as a youth in Vienna when the Nazis took over, his discovery of a camp used for experimentation on the mentally ill, and how a German Panzer division surrendered to him at the end of WWII. You can also read other Moments on Africa.
“You’ve been assigned to Liberia.” “Where on earth is that?”
JAEGER: In July of 1958 my phone rang one day and someone from Personnel said, “Well, Mr. Jaeger, you seem to have done okay in your first assignment, but we have the feeling you’ve so far been looking at the Foreign Service from one end of the telescope. We thought that your next assignment should give you a chance to see it through the other.”
“Well, what do you have in mind?,” I said, thinking we were now starting an urbane negotiation.
“Actually I am calling to tell you “, he said, “that you have been assigned as Third Secretary of Embassy for Commercial Affairs in Monrovia, Liberia!”
I blurted out, “Where on earth is that?”
The guy said, “Well, you need to find out, that’s one of the reasons you’re going there. You’re to report there in three weeks.”
Needless to say that was a bit more of a shock than a surprise, since my Washington career had so far been in relatively high- level jobs and I had somehow developed the idea that things would simply continue that way. The notion of being a third secretary in a country I could only place vaguely as being somewhere on the West African coast, did not fit these expectations.
I was to learn within a matter weeks that the Personnel people in fact had it absolutely right: First, because up to that point I had no idea what the bread-and-butter work in the Foreign Service was all about and had much to learn; and secondly, because, as it turned out, Liberia was to be one of the most important experience of my life and a place which, to my great surprise, I came to love.
On our flight I had my first encounter with a cross-section of Africa’s colorful traveling public: weary-looking Lebanese traders, some returning European business people, marked by years of living in the tropics, and all sorts of African men and women in a variety of striking robes and headgear speaking a multiplicity of languages.
It was also an impressive introduction to West Africa’s very different climate, since we passed through immense thunderclouds over the Sahara which shook our plane like a butterfly in the wind and left us all very glad when we finally landed safely at Roberts Field! And that, in spite of the unkempt air of its wet, desolate-looking landing strip carved out of the bush, the pathetic little hut which was the only airport building and the several snakes I noticed then and later under the benches in the small, stiflingly hot waiting room. Whether or not they were deadly mambas has remained unclear.
It was the transition from one world to another. Waiting for me in the grey rainy season drizzle, was Bill Rush — my rumpled-looking new boss, the head of the Embassy’s two-man economic section of which I was to be the junior member — who bundled me into a black Embassy car for the 20-mile drive on unpaved laterite roads into Monrovia.
I don’t remember much of our conversation because I was so astonished by the succession of native Liberian villages we passed, which, with their thatched huts set in palm groves, bare-breasted women and naked children, looked just like New Yorker cartoons. The experience was rounded out by village men, suffering from schistosomiasis and therefore urinating frequently, simply turning in our direction, so as not to miss the passing show, and spraying away.
Needless to say, by the time we arrived at the Embassy compound and Bill got me settled down in the quite comfortable house I was to share with Bob Allen, the Political Officer, I had a first-rate case of culture shock! It was during a little reception which had been arranged to welcome me that Bill Rush memorably recognized the symptoms and said: “Actually George, you look like a rabbit. We’ll have to see what we can do with you.”
Not, I thought, a very good beginning!
“They totaled each other in front of me, sirens still going!”
Over my first weekend I ventured out to explore downtown Monrovia, at the time a depressing scene of badly maintained buildings, rusting corrugated roofs and potholed streets.
As I stood at the main intersection, wondering which way to head next, I suddenly heard what I thought were two fire engines. When I saw them, coming up the left and right sides of the same block on whose corner I was standing, I realized that they couldn’t see each other, but were heading straight toward my corner where they were going to meet.
I thought: “No, they’re not going to do this! They are not going to do this!” But, they did! They totaled each other in front of me, sirens still going!
Next day, Monday, I attended my first staff meeting…Everyone around the table made some report. When my turn came, having just arrived, it was assumed that I would just briefly say how pleased I was to be there. Instead I spoke up and said, “Well, I do have something to report, that is that I took a walk downtown yesterday and saw two fire engines, both pretty new, which totaled each other coming at speed from two sides of the same block.”
The Ambassador just said, “Oh my God!”
I then learned that these fire engines had only a few weeks earlier arrived from the States and been ceremoniously turned over as a present to President Tubman. I had witnessed their virgin call to duty – with its disastrous results!
“The ship slid and slid and kept on sliding – until it hit the water and began to sink!”
The next event was even more unnerving. Only a few days or so later was to be the great ceremonial launch of the first Liberian-built and owned cargo ship at a dry dock on the Mesurado River, a project especially dear to President Tubman [President of Liberia, 1944-1971].
Although Liberia’s flag vessels were crisscrossing the oceans, and so brought in a certain amount of income, up to that point not even one ship was actually owned by Liberia, much less constructed there. This launch was intended to remedy that and show the world that Liberia had the potential to become a real, albeit small part, part of the maritime scene.
Be that as it may, everybody who was anybody in the country was in the reviewing stand that sweltering day; the band struck up the national anthem, “The Love of Liberty brought us here”; Liberian flags did their best to flutter slightly in the stifling heat; and the huge wooden ship began to slip sideways toward the river after Mrs. Antoinette Tubman had vigorously swung the bottle and christened it.
Then everyone sucked in their breaths. For the ship slid and slid and kept on sliding – until it hit the water and began to sink!
At first no one could believe their eyes. But there it was, the few sailors on board had jumped off into the dirty river, pretty soon the deck began to disappear, then the bridge went under, until, with a final shudder and a huge belch, the smokestack vanished under the lazy brown-green flow!
There was a deathly silence, only punctured by the oinking of some frogs, until, after what seemed like an eternity, Tubman rose slowly and walked out.
What had happened was that the inexperienced shipwrights had indeed built a lovely ship, but had used heavy hard woods, abundant in Liberia, and then compounded the problem by fitting the vessel with a set of heavy engines. The ‘Antoinette Tubman’ never had a chance.
The Westerners that week made mostly snide comments and chattered about “WAWA” (“West Africa wins again!”), although, as I came to understand, there was poignancy in these often failed and even ludicrous attempts to bring Liberia up to Western standards: The result either of inadequate preparation and training, or, more often, a consequence of the deep cultural differences between our societies which frequently produced wholly unexpected reactions or results. It was on this instructive note that my assignment in Liberia began.
“This God-forsaken wilderness!”
I was to learn over the coming months that Bill Rush was a very bright guy and a pretty good economist, but that, most importantly, he had come to understand that you didn’t learn much of any importance in West Africa by hanging around the Embassy social circuit — then, as probably now, a hyper-active cultural defense mechanism against the real and imagined risks of actually getting involved in Africa.
Instead he believed in going out into the bush as often as we could, meeting chiefs, missionaries, district commissioners, traders and our own economic development people at work in the upcountry areas, as well as ordinary Africans.
As a result we came to understand the country and its problems, were better able to advise on what might or might not work, and often scooped the folks who stayed in town following the rumor mill. Bill’s tough love, hands-on training was a tremendous lesson on how, in principle, good reporting and analysis should be done.
At the outset I understood none of that, and was therefore intensely surprised when, on the second weekend after my arrival, Bill stopped by my desk and announced that, “We are leaving at eight tomorrow to go up-country. Try to be on time and have your gear ready for an overnight.”
I felt too intimidated to ask where we were going or why, but was ready with a little pack at the appointed time, piled into our jeep and set off. Bill drove about hundred miles north towards Gbarnga on a terribly potholed and rutted laterite road, passing village after village — with their palaver huts, topless women pounding cassava, naked children and more and more forlorn-looking Lebanese traders the farther north one went….
None of this helped much with my culture shock and growing confusion as to what, less than two weeks out of Georgetown, I was doing in this God-forsaken wilderness! To make things worse, it was beginning to get dark.
Being the new junior, and trying to get an idea what the plan was, I said, “You know, Bill, I haven’t made any reservations (!). Where do you think we should stay tonight?”
He burst out laughing, and allowed as to how as yet he hadn’t figured that out either, but added cheerfully “Let’s see what we can do.”
So, a few miles on, he turned into a sketchy path which eventually led to a village where Bill asked for the chief. When we found him in the palaver hut, (an airy thatch-roofed structure found in most villages where the men discuss policy issues and hang out while the women pound cassava and do most of the other work), Bill told him that we needed a place to stay and wondered, pointing suggestively to some gin we had brought along, “if we could also have a little party”.
All this seemed very agreeable to the chief; some topless ladies were promptly dispatched to sweep out a hut… a tom-tom sounded just as in the movies to summon people to the celebration; and we were soon installed in our new mud-walled, utterly bare home, with people of all ages crowding the empty window frames to watch us unpack our kits.
Actually, we got off rather lightly that night, since on another occasion, still farther in the interior, a big menacing growl went up from the onlookers in the windows as we began eating the food we always brought along; which, it was explained by a youngster who knew some English, expressed their shock that we didn’t wash before eating, as “Africans always do!”.
We, of course, offered to do so, and soon saw an amply endowed woman set down a little wooden board outside our hut, followed by a steaming enamel basin of hot water, both clearly meant to be used for our wash. So we went out, stood on the board, washed hands and faces, smiled all round and went back to try to eat.
No way! There were more, and more menacing growls, growing quickly louder. What was required, we were told, and what all people from that village did when they came in from the bush, was that we strip and let the nice woman wash us properly!
Bill, shaking with laughter, suggested that I go first. So I shed my clothes, stood on the board and grimly determined to let myself be cleansed, as a circle of intensely interested young onlookers of both sexes pressed in closer and closer to get a good look at all aspects of this amazing white phenomenon. My turn to laugh came moments later when it was Bill’s turn to striptease!
“The chief sent around two of his wives, in a well-meant offer”
My experience on our first upcountry trip was less taxing. A big fire was started in the village center as we were eating our rations and, after a while, more and more women began chanting and dancing around it, to the stirring beat of the ‘big’ drums which sounded out over great distances, and the staccato cross rhythms of the smaller ones – some set on the ground, others held under the arms of the village musicians.
As the gin and palm wine made the rounds, the dancers’ movements became more hypnotic, and they began to glow and glisten in the fire light as they danced and danced till the wee hours of the morning!
Listening to the chanting and the pounding drums reach out across the vast dark night sky and the endless African bush all around us, was a deeply moving, humanizing experience, which on our many later trips I came to love. It is an amazing discovery when one comes to understand that these people, so much closer culturally to the stone age, are as essentially human as we are, and, like us, have constructed belief systems, reflected in ceremonies, music and art, to explain the mystery of what and where we are.
Exciting as all this was, my first night in the bush nevertheless became rather harrowing. We slept, or rather tried to sleep, in hammocks which we had hung up on the hut’s wooden rafters, although rats kept trying to make it down the ropes, mosquitoes and other insects buzzed around our nets, and the chief sent around two of his wives, in a well-meant offer, which we gratefully declined!
The next day, as we drank the coffee we had made, I realized that I had in fact survived — and overcome my fears! That, of course was Bill’s point, and from then on I began to enjoy and savor my new life of exploring and coming to understand this complex and fascinating African country.
By quickly getting me over my instinctive anxieties about Africa, Bill had done me a huge favor which made my assignment in Liberia one of the best in my career….
As my tour came to its end I had become so attached to Africa that I wanted to make an African career and had asked to be assigned to the African seminar at the Foreign Service Institute.
However, Personnel, like God, works in mysterious ways. Their decision arrived in April 1960, when I learned that I had been assigned instead to nine months of intensive Serbo-Croatian language training in Washington, for onward assignment to Yugoslavia…
As the plane lifted off Roberts Field and arced out over the ocean, I looked back on Monrovia and the endless miles of palm-fringed beach which extended west and east to the horizon, and choked up with sadness. I had, to my own intense surprise, come to love this country, for all its terrible problems and its many faults. In a very real way it had become home.