By Sherman C. Seequeh
The lining up along the route—the gathering of kids, youth and adults in an outburst of cheers and celebration—was spontaneous. No, the event wasn’t planned. But before the President and entourage ever trekked a few yards of their way inside the Plank Field flank of Battery Factory Community, swarms of locals living in the slum pockets of the community converged on them. Volleys of cheery tidings filled the air. Kids walking along, endeavoring to edge on the President, to touch him or simply embrace him were in running fracas with presidential guards.
The ‘running battle’, so to speak, between the two ‘factions’ was understandable. Because, at that point, deep into that slum jungle, the presidential guards’ care for the safety of the President was to be maximized. They would not compromise it. That’s why they are paid by taxpayers. The President is a state property. Far from office, far in the slum, the President was their property. But that was not how the stampeding kids and young girls and boys of Battery Factory thought. They attempted rushing on the President to touch him. In a sense, they were saying, He is our property too. He once lived here or passed through here or somewhere that looks like here. He’s one of us. He once walked these long make-do, stopgap plank-paths that we call bridges built on huge “jackehs” or mangrove swamps.
Thus, as the President took steps—and he did so expertly proving he walked those paths repeatedly before—and despite frantic attempts by Executive Protection Service (EPS) personnel to keep them away, the swarms of slum kids, young girls and boys and elderly residents could not go away. While they were singing and chanting “George Weah! George Weah! George Weah!” they also either wanted to touch President Weah or wanted President Weah to touch them. They would take onto the side of the shoulder-level elevated bridges, lifting their arms up in the sky, hoping that the President of Liberia on the unstable bridges would touch even the tips of their fingers dangling in the air. And EPS personnel were there, and on time, to prevent the stampede.
While the physical and psychological altercation was ongoing between the EPS and the slum kids, many of them half-naked and looking wretched, the 24th President of Liberia and entourage kept on the journey largely on long makeshift plank bridges. Clearly, the President appeared feeling at home, showing that indeed he is truly a slum-reared President and that he still cares about life in slum then, perhaps having an hallucination of it as he moved about, but more specifically about those who still live that life and how to pull them out.
Firstly, his gait, the way he walked on what others would call winding and dangerous paths. Anyone unfamiliar or not used to those tricky paths—those dilapidated pieces of planks loosely weaved together in the name of building bridges over large swamps—would shiver, timid and even crawl while crossing. But President George Manneh Weah was totally at ease. At least so he appeared. He stretched his legs and swung his arms very freely as he moved about. It was like a village youth who had returned home for vacation from the city expertly walking narrow paths to a distant farm. The President was composed as he trekked, often taking his attention from the awful planks below and directing others where on the bridge was good to step or not to walk.
Secondly, he proved his familiarity of and passion for the topography and ecosystem. While moving on, the President kept talking mostly about things and creatures of the environment they threaded, including the mangrove swamp, which is locally called Jackeh. And he knew that the dominant fish in Jackehs is called “Gbukar”. As he used these familiar jargons of the slum sub-culture, the more he inflamed the passion of the locals swarming him and his entourage during the trip. Even some members of the entourage, who lived in slum communities, incurred a complete invocation of nostalgia for their days in the slum. Many of the visitors, including the President, could see themselves clearly in the kids who lined the route, assembled in community squares or simply moved along as they trekked. The host kids looked and acted in the very ways that their visitors did five or more decades ago: dusty feet, innocent faces, big navels, shirtless bodies drenched in sweats, and darting here and there with energy.
Thirdly, he also showed that he was there for a purpose, and not just for an ordinary visit. While he appeared enjoying the visit, encountering Jackehs and walking makeshift long-rotten bridges on huge swamps again, generally re-living his past even in such a short time, President George Manneh Weah had a message for his slum Battery Factory-Plank Field people—a message of redemption, redemption from squalor. There he was, the very first Liberian Head of State ever, mingling with children of his slum forebears who from this flank of Monrovia only continue to see and helplessly watch the skylines of Monrovia glittering with pipe-born water and electricity nearby.
In other words, those who were edging on President George Manneh Weah in the swamps of Batter Factory away from the Plank Field have for more than ten decades watched Greater Monrovia and its elites from the holes and perforations in the roofs of their homes. They have remained jetsam and floatsams of Monrovia, without any hope that the semblances of Mamba Point, Coconut Plantation, Sinkor, Congo Town and other elitist communities would ever reach them.
But the 24th President of Liberia was there to give the paupers the hope that soon and very soon, these residents of Jackehs and their abandonment by the elites in the last several decades would be no more. Soon and very soon, the slum-bred President told his kin and kith—those throngs of half-naked and barefooted kids and their parents struggling to embrace him in the swamps—that a megacity will soon crop up on their eastern borders and that the economic and social values coming with this Mahamdi Ghandi State of the Art Conference Center will filter down and will to a large extent jerk them out of their impoverishment.
And because he was in these swamps, threading dangerous paths for them, the President would not let the EPS draw a wedge. As the locals, mainly children and youth fought their way through the EPS to touch and hold the hands of their kind, the President was also struggling to break protocols and reach out as closely and intently as possible not just to touch the many hands stretch out to him but to also to hear what the stampeding throngs of locals were saying to him.
“God will bless you, my son,” an older lady kept saying walking along with a baby on strapped on back. “The God who took you from the slum and put you over kings and queens will keep you in power as long as He desires.”
The simmering celebratory noises on the sideline were deafening. Certainly, the President could not pick up some of the locals’ messages, including one from a lady exhibiting a fine young boy whom she named as “George Opong Weah” after the President. However, it was amply clear that the President had a moment to cursorily experience a slum life, trekking through swamps on dilapidated bridges, spotting “gbukars” in streams, shaking hands with the slum dwellers, including kids and adults praising him for the plan to build a road and water and electricity grids linking their slum community to Central Monrovia through the Bali Island and its soon-to-be megacity.