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Going ‘home’

April 22, 2011
On a Frankfurt-Boston leg I sat next to a 27-year old Liberian-American nurse who lived in Rhode Island. Airplane socializing is overrated or underrated depending on who’s telling the story (normally I am content to drown the doleful hours in half-asleep attempts at productivity, only to end up tuning out to the wildly effective narcotic of Los Angeles movie productions) but this particular woman, in the flux of quotation-mark home, left a lasting impression on me. Her family had left Liberia when she was two, foregoing shelter in the only remaining safe church only to learn that armed men had committed a mass slaughter inside it some time later. She returned to Liberia to train nurses for three weeks at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, and was determined to go back in October.

Nothing, she said, could have prepared her for what she saw there, especially the number of amputees caused by reckless driving. ‘In Liberia, there are no traffic lights, speeding limits, or any enforced traffic laws whatsoever. So on average, someone will walk in to the hospital, on any given day, with a leg “amputated” by a car.’ She described, in minute detail (assuaging my lay understanding of emergency routine) what the lack of basic supplies and routinized practices meant for patients. Sometimes nurses forgot to set up blood drips with normal saline solution (if a patient had an allergic reaction to the blood, what would be used to flush it out?). More daunting was the use of blood transfusions themselves. A donor with the correct blood type match would be found in the patient’s family. However, the hospital would constantly run out of blood supply bags so the family would have to go to the pharmacy to purchase more. ‘When we’re talking about a drop in hemoglobin levels from 13 to five in two days, this gets really dangerous.’ The most distressing sight she witnessed was the amputation of body parts with little or no anesthesia, something I naively figured had been eradicated but for extremely slim cases. When anesthesia was used, nurses weren’t trained to wait the proper amount of time for it to take effect. ‘But I had volunteered for surgery. I have a five-year old son at home and I couldn’t do the pediatric unit. Anything but that.’ The young nurse said her friends were perplexed as to why she would use her own money to work in hospitals in Liberia ‘when I could be vacationing in Las Vegas.’ She said there was no better thing she wanted to do with her personal income than to help her country, ‘even though going home has its own complications. I dress differently.’ (I was too groggy to provide much in the way of reciprocal conversation about how ‘going home’ to Iran has its own complications, right down to dress, so I listened.) She had traditional clothes made for herself in Monrovia, but it did little to disguise her as an outsider of sorts. ‘People constantly tell me that I’m a “Westerner.” I might be American but I’ll always be Liberian.’

In the aftermath of photographer Tim Hetherington’s death in Libya I came across his final work, a  2010 short appropriately titled Diary. Ordinarily such a generic term would be grating, but the film is so extremely personal and performs in such a hyper-reflexive manner that the generality may be forgiven. Hetherington never attempts to hide behind an ‘objective’ newsy reportage stance or even an ethnographic long-take or two. His ‘political’ subjects (as far as I can tell, in Liberia, Chad and others) are viewed in the same close-up manner as the overtly personal sequences, the most recurrent image being that of a fan rippling over white bed sheets as answering machine messages from his lover provide an intimate aural overlay. This is a ‘Western’ man in Liberia thinking about home too, but like the Liberian-American nurse, Hetherington is unwilling to shed its peripatetic messiness or ‘complications.’

Then there are those, such as the Liberian women in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (fighting for an end to the factional violence progenerated by both Charles Taylor and the LURD opposition) for whom ‘home’ may mean a single solid ground, but no fewer muddles.

From director Gini Reticker’s production notes:

This remarkable chapter of world history was on its way to being lost forever. The Liberian war and peace movement were largely ignored as the international press focused on Iraq. Moreover, the women’s own modesty helped obscure this great accomplishment.

Not only were the women—’armed’ in white t-shirts, most of them the survivors of the brutal period of rape, displacement and killing that marked the reign of embezzler-turned-warlord-president Taylor— mostly ignored abroad, but their insistence on uniting Christian and Muslim women in a single cause has been severely unnoticed.

If no one is looking, fewer histories are written. If fewer histories are written, fewer lessons are drawn. And whether ‘home’ is here or elsewhere (if there is a theme to be found in the emergency nurse’s witnessing and Hetherington’s hypnotic video, it is this): who issues, who benefits and who loses from the erasure of these convergent personal-political histories?

(Art: ‘Losing Village, Finding City’ by Faith47 in Shenzen, China. Photo: Women’s peace rights activists protest in front of the UN envoy at Mamba Point, Monrovia, by Pewee Flomoku.)

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