The meeting will begin at eight o’clock in the morning. That’s what the green paper on my desk says and that’s what I tell Roland, who has driven me here in the Toyota Prado. It’s my first ever meeting in a public building in Liberia, at the premises of the Liberian Government, in Africa.
We arrive in Congo Town. As I get out of the car I find myself facing a three or four-storey neglected building with the paint fading away, revealing the bottom layer of cement. There is no electricity and the few buildings that you find around here must be quite old. The tiles are of a yellowish colour that will never shine. It’s all rather dark. A cave.
It’s so hot that it makes you shiver. As I walk in, in my suit and tie, I ask where the meeting is but nobody seems to know anything about it. Several people are frugally sitting down outside, by the stairs at the entrance.
I go up and ask again whether they know about the meeting, and they answer that it will soon get going, that I shouldn’t worry. The people attending the meeting slowly trickle in. It’s almost nine o’clock according to my watch.
People start greeting each other with loud laughter, exuding the warmth that comes with that Liberian greeting which involves shaking hands with a click of the fingers. From the day labourer to the minister, they all greet each other with a final click of the fingers. Clac.
At last, the guests start walking up to the second floor, without a hurry in the world.
I decide to follow the group and we take our seats around an oval table. Many of them suddenly become immersed in a never-ending debate that leads to knowing smiles on a few mocking faces. After a while, the door opens and the boss looks in. Everyone turns silent.
It is a big man with a harsh face. The boss says that the meeting is about to start as he barks a series of swift and decisive orders that are fulfilled immediately. Everyone sits up straight and within a few minutes we start talking.
According to my watch it has gone nine thirty. I have learned the hard way. Next time a meeting is convened at a certain time in Liberia, I’ll know that the event in question will actually start one and half hours behind schedule.
During one of the breaks, I leave the building and go for a walk. Right next to this crumbling building, I discover several dirt tracks that disappear into the horizon. The earth is red and the paths are flanked by mangos, the odd banana stand and even more fruit.
Several women walk by carrying buckets of food on their heads. The odd child also runs by. I keep walking and ask someone where I can buy a newspaper. A woman shrugs her shoulders and points towards some kind of recently painted building with a sign that says Front Page.
I’ve heard about this brave newspaper and I suddenly feel the urge to walk into its headquarters, not really to get a newspaper but to meet the Director. Here I go.
Two young people at the entrance eye me up suspiciously. I let them know that I’d like to meet “the Director”, Rodney D. Sieh.
They turn and look at each other and then reply that they have to enquire whether it’s possible. So I insist that I am very keen to meet him: that I’d like to pay him a courtesy visit. They then ask me for my name and to show some form of ID. Then they ask me to wait.
I wait around for quite a while and as I am about to leave, one of the guards from the entrance appears and says I can go in, still with a look of utter suspicion on his face. I take a couple of steps forward, but I am not sure where to go, so the two young guards from the entrance push me into some kind of a waiting room.
I suddenly find myself sitting opposite an office fenced in by cardboard walls from which a heavy built woman pops out, looks at me with a wary face and says that Rodney D. Sieh, the Director of Front Page, is expecting me.
At last I walk into Sieh’s office. I am surprised at how young he is. He is a rather chubby young man and he is apprehensively standing up, looking at me as if I were a spy, a mercenary or a traitor. I introduce myself and explain that all I wanted was to get to find out a bit more about the newspaper…
Sieh frowns and says nothing. I am opposite him, waiting for him to say something. It seems as though a century has gone by, so I am the one to babble some nonsense and my smile is soon wiped off my face as if I were bipolar I say to him that nothing’s up, man…Oh my goodness.
He then relaxes his face in relief and finally asks me to take a seat, and we sit down together on a sofa. The room is small; there is a computer and a big pile of newspapers. Everything is a bit of a mess. Sieh can’t seem to fully relax so I repeat that there is no need to be suspicious of me, that I had simply walked in because I was curious about the newspaper and the man behind it and that I would be on my way. At last he unwinds, leans back and starts explaining.
Sieh explains that I find myself at the headquarters of a newspaper that is considered a “transgressor;” a newspaper that is more or less pursued by the abstract entity known as ‘power’. Glups. The ice is broken. Rodney Sieh opens up more and more and tells me that he eyed me up suspiciously because he is used to attempts at bribes, extortion, and threats.
He discloses how, not so long ago, he was offered a huge amount of money to not publish a series of news items reporting a blatant corruption case. “I went ahead and published it.” He also tells me that last week they tried to burn the headquarters down…“Fortunately,” he adds, “we are protected by UNMIL, but…”
He then stands up and invites me to see the premises. We walk out and immediately bump into the heavy built woman who had left the office beforehand and she now relaxes her face and shakes my hand as she smiles. Clac.
We move on and Sieh opens a door onto a large room full of old computers and several young people intently typing away. They exude an energy that can only be interpreted as determination. We also bump into the same guy who had questioned me earlier on at the entrance and this time he greets me with a nod. Clac.
We close the door and we keep on walking until we get to a room where a wretched, worn out printing machine sadly looks on. Sieh’s lower lip pushes out as he tells me that the machine was irreparably damaged in a recent fire. “Do you know who it was?” I ask him.
“Yes, my own cousin. The one who used to work with me,” he answers.
After looking into several other rooms, we make our way back to his office. He tells me that he studied abroad for many years, in England, in the USA…“Until I decided that it was time to come back to Liberia and fight for my country.” I ask him whether anyone has been an influence on his life, and he tells me that he has always been inspired by the examples set by Che Guevara, Tomas Sankara…
Suddenly, I look at my watch and stand up. Looking out of the window I get the urge to ask him, “Are you ready to die for this?” He also stands up and answers, in an almost pleasant tone, “Yes”. And then he adds, “take a newspaper.” He reaches out for a copy of Front Page which lands into my hands. In between my ten fingers. It smells of freedom.