The House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
I spent the summer of 1965 in Monrovia, Liberia. My daughter was born there in August. The Peace Corps had sent me in June because the maternity hospital in Sierra Leone had had problems with childbed fever. I worked in the Peace Corps office as office assistant to the doctor and nurse. In the Sinkor section of Monrovia, I went to Cooper’s Clinic. The doctor was a short, middle aged man who came to check on my daughter and me one morning in the wee hours dressed, in a cutaway coat, striped pants and top hat. He was a member of Liberia’s upper class, the Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves who originally settled what was, before the 1950ies, the only independent republic in West Africa. Sierra Leone had a similar class, called Krios, who descended from freed slaves brought from British America, but because Sierra Leone had been a British colony, the Krios hadn’t run the country, only worked in administrative positions under the British. They’d found themselves in the minority, though, with independence in 1961, and the largest tribe, the Mende, held the presidency and other important offices.
I was intrigued when I first heard of Cooper's book. She's an Americo-Liberian, driven from her home by the civil war in Liberia, who's now a reporter for the New York Times. It's easy to find email addresses of Times' reporters so I wrote to her and discovered that she is from "that Cooper family", that she too was delivered by Dr. Cooper in his Sinkor clinic, some months after my daughter.
I read her book almost in one sitting, fascinated. I had this picture in my mind of Monrovia in 1965, sort of like a run down Southern town. With stop lights! (Freetown at the time had only one stoplight). In the back of my mind was a garden party I'd seen once where the guests were all dressed like they stepped off the set of Gone with the Wind--Scarlett O'Hara gowns and cutaway coats. Then there was the scandal that summer, a ritual murder with the latest investigation news every morning in the newspaper until one day President Taubman walked in the closed it all down. Rumor had it that the VP was involved. Sierra Leone seemed to me much safer and more civilized in those days, newly embarked on representative democracy as it was.
Cooper's book took me back to the place, but from an entirely different point of view, that of an upper class girl, from the "Congo people" (In Freetown there's a "Congo River" so named because some of the freed slaves came from the Congo; it was generally assumed, evidently, in both places that all the freed slaves from the western hemisphere had originally come from Congo.) All the rest of the people--those I'd heard Americo-Liberians in a restaurant once refer to as aboriginals--were "country people". Cooper characterizes life in the big house on Sugar Beach as privileged. Like the majority of aristocrats everywhere they had servants and treated them well. The children depended on him and loved them. They recognized that "country people" didn't have their advantages. They didn't have forebearers who'd come over on the equivalent of the Mayflower; they didn't have relatives in the top echelon of the government. A unique advantage Cooper recognized was that she grew up black and privileged, with no taint of either slavery or colonial domination in her past. Not only did she escape the discrimination experienced by blacks in the US, but there wasn't any colonial past which had burnt into the people that white people were superior.
Cooper's idyllic childhood was interrupted when Samuel Doe, a renegade army officer, raided the Presidential Palace, killed the president (he who had been the VP remembered as being silently accused of involvement in ritual murder) and took over the government. Within days, Cooper saw her cousin, the foreign minister, executed on television along with other high government officials. Soldiers came to Sugar Beach where she was living with her mother and siblings, and threatened them (earlier she'd explained that "rogues" often came to steal from the house, but they weren't called "thieves" because that word was reserved for government officials who stole). Now the soldiers were on a drunken rampage and Congo people no longer had the upper hand. Cooper's mother went to the basement with them if they agreed not to rape her daughters. In no time at all, they were all on a plane to America. Where life was not nearly as easy and where everyone asked her where she was from and then "Where's that?" Money was short. The daughters lived alternately with mother and father (now divorced) while one or the other went back to Liberia to see family or salvage what they could from land and houses that had not been confiscated.
Finally after a frightening accident during the invasion of Iraq, where she was embedded with American soldiers on their way from Kuwait to Baghdad, Cooper decided it was time to go back to Liberia. "If I'm gong to die in a war," she thought trapped in a Humvee, "it should be in my own country."
I really connected with this book, partly because I had had some experience in Liberia and partly because Cooper tells her story very well. I was even interested in her childhood fears (of heartmen who'd chase you down and cut your heart out) and her adolescent crushes in a Liberian public school and her attempts to fade into the woodwork in successive American schools.