Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kanye, West Africa

While looking for lunch in our new neighborhood, Elie and I stopped by Cici's bar and restaurant, where an "opening soon" sign looked too permanent to trust. A scruffy but clear spoken, middle aged man with an American accent told us that we could call ahead for food any evening that we liked, stressing the quality of their grilled meat. Later that day, in a brief interlude between downpours, we placed an order for some meat plates and then walked four hundred meters to our new local. An attentive and well trained staff served us their inaugural meal as an intensifying downpour pushed us from a nice outdoor table to progressively more sheltered seats.

We ended up at a table next to the proprietress and her friends and though the roof was leaking in a few places, everyone was drinking beer with growing patience for the deluge. The man who had convinced us to come to the restaurant in the first place proved to be an excellent conversationalist. After discussing various business ventures along with his aspiration to have an actual paid position on the staff of Cici's bar, he drew attention to his right leg, on which he had been limping. I hadn't noticed that it had been amputated above the knee; he was moving around on a quality prosthesis.

Kanye fled Liberia in 1979 to be with family in Rhode Island and eventually started a two-child family of his own with an American woman who he did not marry. When he had "family trouble," the mother of his children apparently drew him to the attention of American Immigration law enforcement, the result of which was his precipitous and permanent return to Liberia, where he lives with a cousin who does not appreciate his appearance or the fact that he is vying for the same financial resources of their extended family. Somehow, shortly after returning to Liberia, Kanye got a bump on his foot that became more and more problematic. Misdiagnosis and perhaps negligent personal care enabled a fungal infection to become gangrenous and so Kanye, in his mid thirties, lost his leg after losing his family and his job, which gave him, suddenly, lots in common with many of his countrymen, mostly ex-combatants.

A few years ago, an influential Monrovia politician suggested that Kanye consider advocating for Liberians with disabilities. Kanye declined the opportunity, in a move that he now thinks was "stupid." But his thought-process was revealing and valid. He told me that many of the disabled young men around downtown Monrovia (the wheelchair-bound, crutch-using beggars who offer themselves as parking assistants and vehicle security officers) are former rebels. He says that you can distinguish them by their aggressive way of offering their services and their more aggressive way of asking for payments. For Kanye, it was unthinkable to make "common cause" with people who had "held a gun to their neighbors' heads." He made it clear that he doesn't think disabilities are ever the "fault" of people who have them; but he isn't comfortable laboring to make life easier for people who he still thinks of as killers.

Anyone advocating for the disabled in Liberia will have to make peace with the fact that their constituency contains as many murderers as it does Polio victims. Kanye would rather do odd jobs around a bar. Disabled people are such a common site across Africa wherever wealthy people park their cars, that I hadn't stopped to think of the, perhaps obvious, backstory of the ones around Liberia.


  1. i think his thought process was actually revealing but *not* valid...

  2. Yeah. I was hesitating around that word. Maybe "understandable" would be better. It makes sense that you don't want your hard work to benefit people you haven't forgiven yet; even if it isn't a saintly position to take.

  3. For what it's worth, buddy's accent and self-presentation slip, big style, when he's wasted. This post should now host a warning: contains elements of probable fiction.