By Samuel G. Dweh |Freelance Development Journalist & President—Liberia Association of Writers (LAW)|
The day was Sunday, August 16, 2020.
The point for the gifts—rice, bread, canned soft drinks, and water (in sachet and bottle)—was in front of a beige, red, white and blue building marked SHREE GEETA ASHRAM and SUNRISE BUSINESS CENTER INC. The building (was) located at the intersection of UN Drive and LEC (Liberia Electricity Corporation) Junction, Monrovia, Liberia, inside the Township of West Point (one of combustive crime areas in Liberia’s Capital, where criminal rob with knives and broken bottles, and State’s security persons stationed in the Township hardly come to the rescue of the person being dispossessed of his/her money or valued item)
About two yards from the entrance of the building was a banner with this information: “First History Making & Appreciation Program…Shree Geeta Ashram….The Hindu Religious Society of Liberia (Est. 1975)…Truth, Love, Compassion (motto)…16th August, 2020…Monrovia, Liberia”
On the left side of the entrance was a layer (stack) of sixty (60) bags of 25kg rice—“Bella” Brand—various stacks of canned soft drinks, dozens of sachet pure water, and various white Supermarket polythene bags, each with several pieces of supermarket bread.
From 9am, the main guests—visually impaired (blind), those on crutches, those in wheel chairs, and those crawling like ‘babies’ (no crutches or wheelchair)—started gathering at the ‘sharing point’ (in front of the building) Most of those in wheelchair were being escorted by a boy or a girl as “escort”—to push the machine forward against physical “hindrance” (pot hole, speed bump, etc. on the road) where the physical strength of the person in the wheel couldn’t move the ‘disability vehicle’.
Their Guest (is) an integral part of the “World’s Oldest Religion”—Hinduism—dating back more than four thousand years ago (started between 2300BC and 1500 BC—according to scholars on Religions), has a global followership of more nine hundred million (900,000,000), and is the World’s third largest Religion. According to many scholars on Religion behind Christianity and Islam. (Source: Google.com)
Human rights organizations collectively describes these people as “most vulnerable group”—especially due to each member’s deformation of the physical structure (hands or legs) or loss of both eyes (visual impairment) that make movement or finding basic needs of life “impossible” or “extremely difficult”, compared to the ‘challenge’ facing their fellow human beings with (all) parts of the body “intact” (complete)
One was Exodus Wilson, wheelchair-mobile, an electric power generator mechanic whose temporary workshop was stationed across the road from where the disabled people assembled. “I have ninety US Dollars generator repair contract waiting for me right now, but I can’t leave this place now because I want to get the free things the Indian people have for us—disabled people,” Mr. Wilson said to his male colleague, also in wheelchair.
“I’m a journalist, like you,” Alex said to this writer, after viewing my “Press Union of Liberia” membership identification card. “I’m the CEO of a young media group named Concern FM. I wish to be your friend, so that we can collaborate on some media-related projects, after this food-sharing program,” the wheelchair-mobile media practitioner added.
A hired drum-based musical group, named “Music Madrid”, owned by the Small Town Social Club, Inc., was present to entertain the guests with songs. The group, based in the Township of West Point, and led by Toe Wolo, started with a song that praises its benefactor: “Welcome You, Indian People to Liberia”, and went to a patriotism song of Liberia: “Liberians, let’s stop fighting…let’s build our country…”
A long multi-colors rubber floor rug had been laid across both sides of the building’s entrance for any of the guests who would prefer to sit on the floor.
In twenty minutes, the ‘floor mat’ was occupied with mostly those with crutches. But the rug was not long enough to accommodate the new ‘wave’ of disabled people thronging in from various parts of Central Monrovia and beyond.
Obedience to the Hindu (religious) Tradition: Another (Indian) arrival removes his footwear before entering the building.
Assembled Foot wears of officials and Liberian guests in the “Shrine” (Headquarter) on food distribution day (Sunday, August 16, 2020) Armed LNP officer providing protection.
One side of the floor mat hosted foot wears of each Indian man who had obeyed a laid-down rule—like a Hindu Worship order: Pull out your foot wears (slippers, sandals, or shoes) before you enter into the building (a symbolic “Hindu Temple”)
Since 2013, I have been writing about individual persons or sets of persons in Liberia’s Disabled Community, focusing much on their successes (defeat of poverty through artistic productions—sculpture, paintings, etc.), and little on their plight (begging around town as the only means of survival)
My first contact with Liberia’s Disability Community was through a set of the Group of 77 (on the direct support line of the Liberian Government through the Office of the Vice President) in 2014. These members of the G-77 (the abbreviation of Group of 77) were touring the Street (Randall Street in Monrovia), many of them beating empty rubber water containers, with a photo of a dead female (named Hawa) colleague on the “drum” being beaten. They were “begging” for money from “complete body” people to free the body of their dead colleague (Hawa) being held at the mortuary of the Liberian Government’s national premier Hospital (John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center) for burial. I captured the scenes on camera and did a news story about the scene—after I followed the G-77 Family to the burial site in Bernard’s Farm, outside of Liberia’s capital. The headline of the story was “Disabled Persons Bid Dead Colleague Farewell”. The story with photo occupied the front page of the Activist Newspaper, where I was Editor-in-Chief.
This news story spread my name wide in Liberia’s Disability Community—beginning from a set residing in the “South Beach Community” (Monrovia)—and I was later “selected” as their “special journalist”—even though they couldn’t pay for most of my “professional services”, because of “financial handicap” with them. But I continued “telling” their stories, especially via writing—news stories or articles.
I had not been informed about the event on Sunday—August 16. I was on my way to my house, from my mother’s house in the Township of West Point (my childhood community), when I literally ran into this set of my “Vulnerability Family” I couldn’t leave. I stopped to witness—and record—all to happen here today.
“I’m a Christian, but I didn’t go to Church today, because I want to get some of the free foods the Indian people called us here to give us,” one of the guests, Weedor Ndorleh, responded to this writer’s inquiry.
When the number of guests began swelling, an Indian man came from inside the building and made cautionary comments to the guests.
“My brothers and sisters, please do not beg for money from any of the big people who will be here. Your begging any of them will bring shame to you, the institution you are a member of, and to the Hindu Religious Society in Liberia that invited you here. We want to help you stop begging on the streets.”
The speaker was Mr. Manoj Kumar Vatwani, Leader of the Host—Hindu Religious Society in Liberia.
About ten minutes after Mr. Vatwani’s statement, the number of guests increased by more than 20 more disabled persons.
The ‘speedy arrival’ of a black Pickup, marked “Liberia National Police”, in front of the building, injected fear into many persons gathered at the area—especially those with ‘evil intension’. Four men were at the back—each with A47, each person’s face partially covered with anti-Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission nose-mouth cloth mask marked “LNP”. Each person’s index finger was curved around the gun’s trigger, as if he was in an ‘enemy’s zone’. Each person flew down. Three other officers alighted from the driver’s and passenger’s side. Two were armed with AK47, in ‘combat-readiness’ colleagues.
Somebody would defend these police officers for appearing ‘frightening’. They were less than ten meters from the boundary of the Township of West Point, one of Liberia’s historical ‘den of hard-core drug addicts’, who survive mostly on snatching of anything valuable from any “outsider”, using knives or edge of a broken bottle as a ‘submission weapon’.
Fear showed on the facial expressions of most of the civilians looking at this set of the State’s national Metro Security Guard. This team was of the Police Support Unit (PSU) of the LNP (Liberia National Police), led by Elias Blidi, Superintendent, Montserrado County’s Branch of the LNP.
“Don’t call them ‘crippled people’, called them ‘disabled people’,” Police officer Blidi later corrected an able-bodied man who had shouted, “Da only crippled people the Indian people giving food to!”
Brown N. Momolu (in a lemon green vest), Chairman of the Motorcycle Union, Waterside/Ecobank Branch, served as the official information conduit between the Host and the Guests. He whispered into the ear of Mr. Jeremiah Cooper, an official at the Headquarter of G-77, serving as official spokesperson of the Group of 77 Family here for the Hindu Religious Society of Liberia’s food items.
“Listen, everybody!” Mr. Cooper called the attention of his disabled colleagues. “The registration book will be closed when the number reached fifty. That’s the order I received from our host, through their information person standing here.”
About twenty minutes later, Jeremiah Cooper announced a registration book closure.
Few minutes after the information had been passed, six more disabled people—men—arrived on their wheelchairs.
A man relayed the message to one of the ‘late arrivals’, after asking for his name.
“I will just wait just wait around here, maybe they will say, ‘this guy has been around here for a long time, so let give him some of the things’,” Lassana, Kia Tamba, the guy, replied to my informer. “I’m a member of the Group of seventy-seven,” he added.
The number kept increasing—gradually stretching into the Street.
At 12pm, the sun was in its full radiant garment, and many of the guests began complaining about its effect against their bare skins. There was no shade!
A pickup arrived with canopies. The ‘casual workforce’, made up of members of the motorcycle Union (commercial), erected the erected the canopies.
The hunger complaints were relayed into the building—serving as the Central Command Point for any action outside her.
Mr. Vatwani came out of the building and gave order for sharing of the Host-Organization’s “refreshments”—supermarket bread and canned soft drink—to the now-hungry and thirsty guests.
However, the ‘refreshments sharing’ engendered another complaint—“Nowhere to pepe” (urinate)—from many of the guests who had added ‘chemically diluted water’—soft drink—to the one already in their systems.
My attention went a female guest—elderly woman—eating only the bread, her eyes popped out as if she was being choked with the bread.
Nobody like President George Manneh Weah came—against the assertion by one of the main guests (disabled people), but many prominent Government officials—in the Presidential Circle—came present. The Office of the Vice President, Jewel Howard-Taylor, was represented by Mr. Titus Charley.
The “indoor meeting”—between officials of the Hindu Religious Society in Liberia and officials of the Government of Liberia—stretched over one hour and thirty minutes. This engendered grumbling by most of the guests (disabled)
“They told us to come early, in the morning’s hours, to receive the food gift, most of us started coming by nine o’clock, but the time is going to two o’clock and yet no sharing hasn’t started,” a male guest, wheelchair, complained to a female colleague, also in wheelchair, at his left side.
“They are talking plenty other things in the meeting, inside the house, that is what is causing delay,” the female colleague responded.
At 2:36, House Speaker Bhofal Chambers and his host—Mr. Manoj Kumar Vatwani— appeared at the entrance. The host led the special ‘governmental guest’ to the stack of rice to perform a ‘symbolic sharing’ to the disabled guests. Mr. Chambers pushed some bags down to the floor.
“Mama, please drink water to force the bread in your throat down your stomach,” I said to the woman.
“No bathroom outside here to pepe (urinate), so I don’t want to put anything like water into my throat,” replied the elderly woman, who later introduced herself as Martha Smith, a member of G-77.
I relayed Madam Smith’s urinal plight to one of the Supervisors, Sam T. Sayee, who relayed my message to his colleague, Momolu.
“For now, the guests can’t go inside the building to pepe. And our boss, the Indian man, didn’t give money to us to rent a public bathroom for the guests,” Momolu explained.
Momolu announced the ‘urination problem’ to the general assembly, and pointed to an open place—between a parked car and a wall of a Car Parking Lot—for “anybody who is jam with pepe,” he added.
“Do you expect the female guests, especially those in wheelchairs, to urinate at that public area?” I expressed my concern.
“My brother, the guests’ peeping at that open place isn’t good for the public image of the image of the Indian religious group on whose invitation these people are here,” Sam T. Sayee warned.
“I can’t do anything without money. You know, none of our own people can allow you to use their bathroom, without you giving money,” Momolu insisted.
“I will rent a bathroom with my personal money,” Sam said, and marched toward the fenced Car Park across the Street. When he returned, he announced to the assembly of dozens of Persons of Disabilities, “A rest room is over there for anybody here who wants to pepe.”
This announcement reduced the body of disabled persons by ten percent, as if they had been anxiously waiting for it. A large group of persons in wheelchair and on crutches scurried toward the ‘Rest Room’ ten meters away from the general body’s assemblage point across the road
Another complaint came out: Delay in commencing sharing the gifts.
“My butt burning now!” complained Roseline Karyor, amputee (right leg cut from the calve)
“They told us the program will be over by one o’ clock, but the time is near one o’ clock, and no sign of starting sharing the food,” complained Madam Doris Banazeah, age 63, member of the United Blind Association (founded in 1986), who had been escorted by her daughter, Justina Freeman, age 31; and grandson, Michael Wisseh, age 10.
“They said President Weah will be here. But, I learnt he’s still in Church service, so the Indian people are waiting for him. That could be the only cause of delay in sharing the food,” another woman presumed, responding to Madam Banazeah’s worry.
The time flew to 12:00pm, and passed. No sign of ‘sharing’. Ripple of complaints of ‘time-wasting’ spread among the guests.
At 12:10, Mr. Vatwani came out. He was in his white suit (long-sleeve shirt falling down below the knee—like Hindu Religious wear), replaced with a T-shirt and short trouser he had been in from the early hours. No footwear—same way it was when he was in the ‘non-official wear’. His facial expression showed ‘embarrassment’. He occasionally glimpsed to the assembly of ‘now tired and impatient disabled guests’, most of whom were expressing their ‘dissatisfaction’ with gaze. He made a couple of glimpses to them, but jerked his eyes off. He seemed restless: continually moving forward, backward, sideways; speaking (enforced with unfriendly facial expressions and bodily gestures); and looking much toward the start of the road from where anybody coming from Central Monrovia passes. An intuitively smart person could tell that he was ‘unhappy’ over the ‘prolonged’ absence of a top Liberian Government official booked by the Hindu Religious Society in Liberia to ‘grace’ the Group’s ‘humanitarian gesture’ toward this set of Liberia’s “most vulnerable community”
Many of the guests had dozed off—fallen into sleep. Tired from the ‘long wait’—and hungry. They had been here over three hours.
At 12: 15, a convoy of the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, Honorable Bhofal Chambers, arrived in a convoy. The presence of the car sparked sycophantic noises (songs and chants) from various groups of ‘street boys’ who had gathered around, to see what will be done to the disabled people. One group sang, “My People-o, da Bhofal Chambers We Want… My People-o, da Bhofal Chambers We Want…” continuously. He wasn’t subjected to pulling off his shoes as the hosts had done to other government officials—before or after him.
“Thank you, Honorable Chambers…thank you, honorable Chambers,” host Manoj Kumar Vatwani said chantingly.
After the symbolic ‘distribution’, Mr. Chambers was escorted to his official car.
Seconds after House Speaker entered his car, riot broke out from most members the assembly of “street boys” who had been waiting across the road, opposite the building he had come from. One of them resumed the ‘praise song’—“Yor leave us-o, da Speaker Bhofal Chambers we want”—they had welcomed him with when his convoy arrived for the occasion.
Many ‘besieged’ his car, begging for money from him. Some were in contact with his vehicle’s dark wind shield, rubbing their hands, and speaking words they House Speaker wasn’t hearing.
At this juncture, the Police guard team lost ‘security control’ over the restive crowd of “street boys”.
Minutes later, the House Speaker opened his side of the car and dropped some several notes of United States Dollars into the hand of a member of LNP’s ‘Advance Team’ (that had come in a different car before the Speaker’s convoy arrived)
“Please give all the money to one of those boys to share it among the group,” this writer, at the scene, heard House Speaker said to the Police officer he delivered the money through.
The House Speaker’s convoy sped out of the ‘hostile terrain’, after he delivered the money.
However, the House Speaker’s gesture intensified the violence. A gang of the “street boys” descended on a colleague who had collected money from a police officer whose face was covered with COVID-19 mask. Many were punching all parts of his body and demanding him to show all the money the police officer had released to him.
“He gave me only ten US Dollars!” the man being flogged cried.
“You f…king lie!” one of the others replied. “He gave all to you!”
“Brabee, I’m not lying!” the colleague said, and pulled out all seats of his pockets. “I swear, I’m not lying. This is the only money I have on me, the police officer gave me!”
“Brabee” is a Liberian “street-life” word for “friend”, “buddy”, etc.
This revelation waved some members of the flogging group toward a Police officer, face covered with COVID-19 mask, finger curled around the trigger of his gun.
“Office, how much you gave to our friend, from Speaker Chambers?” the leader of the group, called Prince, said to the armed State’s Security officer.
“I’m I accountable to you?” the officer responded, and raised his weapon. “Move away from me now!”
The confronting body of “street boys” moved few steps backward from the armed fearsome-looking PSU officer. His finger was still curled around the gun’s trigger. The attention of some of the “street boys” was glued to the finger on the trigger.
The police officer marched to the Advanced Team’s vehicle with his colleagues, climbed in, and the car sped off.
Most members of the assembly of “street boys” expressed their frustration in the police officer’s action with use of profane language on his mother’s private part.
The restiveness by “street boys” delayed the food sharing time for Hindu Religious Society in Liberia’s disabled guests by extra two hours. During the wait for ‘calmness’, the foods were taken back into the building.
Later an “ambush” plan by the “street boys” on the disabled people’s food leaked out to officials of the Host- Organization. The information further delayed the sharing by forty five minutes.
Later, some Indians “dismantled” the ambush plan by giving money to the leadership of the community of the “street boys” as their “share” of what will be given to the disabled people, according to unofficial report this writer got from a member of the Program “Support Staff” (commercial motorcyclist)
At 6pm, distribution started when the place was clear of “violent street boys”
One person was given one bag, except ‘escort’ of the guest.
But over thirty of the guests didn’t receive any food.
Sixteen extra bags (25kgs) were provided to cover the number of guests who had not been covered by the 50 bags. This was the Host-Organization’s way of preventing the birth of any feeling of ‘partiality’ in any of those who had not received food, in spite of being members of the Group of 77, besides his/her name being written down (registered) as beneficiary.
“The sixteen bags were the workers’ food set aside by the Indian Group,” Sam T. Sayee, Supervisor (private commercial motorcyclist) responded to this writer’s inquiry about the source of the ‘extra food’.
But the extra 16 bags couldn’t cover many of the other guests whose names were on the official list. (During the refreshment time, the Host-Organization’s lead announcer, Brown N. Momolu had given order to another worker to add more names to the “50”, the benchmark number sanctioned by the Host-Organization, saying Mr. Vatwani had given order for the additional number)
Five extra bags were provided—bought—for guests not covered by the extra 16 bags.
Final complaints from: No money to convey “free food” to beneficiaries’ respective places.
“I’m not working, I didn’t come with money here, I thought the Indian people will add some money to the food, for disabled people to put their bags of rice on Keke,” a wheelchair-bound male recipient complained behind his food ration.
“You want the Indian people to do everything for you?” a woman on crutches said to her nagging male colleague. “Come for four hundred Liberty to transport your food.” She pulled out four notes of ‘100’ Liberian currency from her trouser’s pocket, and stretched her hand with it to the man.
“Thank you,” he said and rolled his mobility aid toward his colleague. “How much I will put on top as interest,” he added, after collecting the money.
“I don’t need interest. And I don’t need that money back.”
“Thank you, my sister,” he rolled his machine back to his food gift.
Twenty-two minutes later, in front of the building marked SHREE GEETA ASHRAM and SUNRISE BUSINESS CENTER INC. was occupied with wastes from processed foods and drinks they had eaten.