Sporting a blue UN stripe on the arm of his uniform, our pilot opened the helicopter door, lowered the steps and spoke sternly in a thick Ukrainian accent. “Welcome to Zwedru,” he said. It was a brief stop on our way from Monrovia to Harper, the capitol of Maryland County at the southeast tip of Liberia. Flying in the old, Russian-looking UN chopper gave us a view of the country we hadn’t seen before. We flew over miles of untouched beaches along the coast, then turned inland to pass over vast rubber plantations and dense forests.
Our mission was to create a series of videos about four people for Accountability Lab’s first Integrity Idol contest in Liberia. We had two weeks and a shoestring budget to accomplish the task, with the help of our Liberian production assistant Dorcas Pewee and our fixer, a Maryland County native named Harrison Toe. It would be a challenging and ultimately rewarding adventure.
Harper, a coastal fishing communing much smaller than Monrovia, features once magnificent churches and large houses with an architectural style that echoes the old American south. Many of them are crumbling, lasting reminders of the country’s brutal civil war. The UN dropped us off there and we used it as our jumping-off point to meet and film the three Integrity Idol nominees who lived in Maryland County. We would began with Daniel Nyenkan and Seorweh Jaycheneh, a court clerk and prosecutor who were based in the town of Pleebo.
We rode there in a jalopy bush taxi that had once been a Toyota Land Cruiser. Its side view mirrors were missing and the rear window had been replaced with opaque sheet metal. All superfluous interior equipment, including the seat belts, had been removed. Our driver stopped for gas on the way out of Harper, popping the hood to remove a two-gallon plastic jug which was apparently being used as a fuel tank. He filled the jug and came back, securing it next to the engine and priming the fuel hose with his mouth, spitting gasoline into the carburetor. He used a screwdriver to turn the engine over and simultaneously pushed the vehicle until it started and ran satisfactorily. Then he drove like a maniac all the way to Pleebo and delivered us, alive and uninjured.
Pleebo is a dusty little town without a lot of luxuries like reliable electricity, internet access and toilet seats. We found huge spiders in our rooms at the guesthouse and drank Club beer (Liberia’s national brand) outside at night while giant stag beetles buzzed though the air above our heads. The magisterial court staff members who we had come to film were very welcoming and introduced us to what became our favorite Liberian dish, palm butter, a thick and rich sauce made from palm tree nut oil, cooked with chunks of meat and ladled over rice.
While working in Pleebo we were also trying to coordinate our plans to meet up with the next nominee on our list, Oliver Kuson, in a remote village several hours away called Rocktown Barrabo. We had difficulty reaching Oliver by phone, so we contacted Emmanuel Avorgah, the young man who nominated him, and explained that we needed to speak with Oliver. We were expecting a phone call, but then Oliver showed up in Pleebo and met us at our guesthouse in person. As it turned out, he had no idea why we were there.
Wanting to keep the nomination a surprise, Emmanuel had sent for Oliver and told him that two white people were waiting to meet with him in Pleebo and that he should come quickly. He rode on the back of a motorcycle taxi for several hours, all the while thinking that we were there to deliver grim news of someone’s death or some other tragedy. When we explained that he was one of five people nominated for an award out of more than 1,400 applicants, Oliver was visibly happy and relieved. We spoke with him for a while and made plans to visit his village in a few days.
The road to Rocktown Barrabo was long, muddy and frequently treacherous. We were warned that we would need an experienced driver and a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle. Several people told us that a bridge over water on the way there had been gone for several months, and that we would probably have to get out at that point to cross the stream on foot and walk with all of our equipment for more than an hour. As it turned out, the bridge was intact and we drove over the stream and on to the village with ease.
We later learned that Oliver and his neighbors were responsible for making our trip so much more convenient. He purchased a load of lumber and enlisted help from the other men of the village to build a new bridge the day before we came. They don’t get many visitors in Rocktown, so it seemed like everyone turned out to welcome us. As we entered the town we could hear a drum being beaten just for the occasion, announcing to the neighboring communities that Rocktown was celebrating the arrival of special guests. Goats, cows, and chickens roamed freely. A mob of curious children followed us everywhere we went. We found Oliver and he said the village elders wanted to see us in the town hall for a welcoming ceremony.
They seated us in the front of everyone and asked us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there. In accordance with tradition, we were given bitter kola nut and spicy dried pepper to taste and everyone seemed to get a kick out of the Americans trying these very African items. We smiled despite the bitter spiciness and thanked them for their generosity. Everyone applauded.
We spent the day filming with Oliver in his home and at some of the schools where he works as a district education officer. Afterwards we were given a walking tour of the whole village, which ended at the town hall. We were told to sit in front of everyone once again and one of the elders asked us to give an appraisal of what we had seen. After we assured them that it was a very nice village indeed, everyone cheered and we were presented with a live chicken. It became our lunch the next day. We all agreed that chicken tastes a little better when it’s ceremonially gifted to you by an entire African village.
With filming complete for three of the four nominees on our to-do list, we set our sights on our next destination, Barclayville in neighboring Grand Kru County, where Comfort Nimely lived. The trip was about four hours from Pleebo, and we decided to go by bush taxi. Harrison tracked down a driver and negotiated four seats at the standard Liberian rate. When we showed up, there were some ruffled feathers about two white guys trying to travel on the cheap. The driver eventually got over it (to some extent), so we paid him the amount he had previously agreed to and then piled into his beaten up car, settling in for the long ride.
There were two people in the front passenger seat, four in the back, a few hundred pounds of rice and other dry goods stacked to the ceiling behind all of us and a gas powered generator strapped to the roof. When we got to Barclayville, it was dark outside and a glimmering network of solar-powered streetlights lit up the town, making it look like a bustling metropolis. It would become apparent in daylight that it was not that at all.
We stayed at the only guesthouse in town, a surprisingly luxurious place that even had hot water and toilet seats. The only downsides were the disgruntled staff and their racist pricing policy. When we arrived, the young woman who was in charge told us that the rooms were $20 per night for black people and $40 per night for white people. She seemed confused and frustrated by us, since she apparently hadn’t encountered a group of black and white people traveling together before. Dorcas handled the situation beautifully, speaking with the employee in private and convincing her to charge us the lower rate for all our rooms.
We had called Comfort about a week earlier to let her know that we were coming to film, and she said that she would be around and to show up any time. When we called her on her cell phone to let her know that we had made it to Barclayville, we found out that we had a bit of a problem. Due to some sort of misunderstanding, Comfort had decided to attend to a 10-day training conference and was currently several hundred miles away in a city called Buchanan.
After talking with Comfort and her husband about the situation, explaining that we had a narrow production window and that she would be disqualified from the Integrity Idol program if we couldn’t film her, she agreed to come back to Barclayville. She rode eighteen hours on the back of a motorcycle and showed up at the guesthouse late that Friday night. She explained that she wanted to return to the training on Sunday morning, so we would have to fit all our filming into the next day. It was not an ideal situation, but we made it work.
Encountering problems, figuring out solutions and working together to make things happen was the major theme of the trip. Our small team bonded through those challenges and by accomplishing our mission, we grew as visual storytellers. After traveling and filming for two weeks in the southeast of Liberia we felt exhausted, but we came back to Monrovia with all the footage we needed, some new friends and plenty of stories to tell about the experience.
All we had left to do was to take those hours of raw footage and edit all the nominees’ stories into finished pieces for television, radio and the web in less than a week. Piece of cake.