This article was graciously loaned to virginiawallace.com by my friend and fellow author Gerry Souter. Gerry is a renowned photojournalist, with over fifty non-fiction books under his belt. He is also an author of fiction, having penned the pulse-pounding novel ‘A Thread of Sand’. If you would like to follow Gerry’s work (or order his books), click on the links at the end of this post. As always, THANK y’all for reading!!!
Freelance photojournalism opens doors to many opportunities. I’d been at it for five years after spending two years documenting President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” attempt at relieving poverty called the “Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity.” My photo essays for that organization won me assignments for the Chicago Sun Time’s Midwest Magazine—stories that I photographed and wrote. My relationship with the magazine’s editor, Dick Takeuchi was cemented by his generous reveal of my blue-pencil-edited copy before it went to press—a crash course in feature writing. That friendship also bought me a trip to Africa.
SAS Airlines offered a free press junket to the Times for their inaugural Chicago-Copenhagen-Madrid-Tunis-Monrovia flight. Journalistic ethics forbade the Sun Times staff from accepting, but I, as a camera-typewriter-for-hire could accept the deal. Not having a passport was remedied by a frantic rush propelled by the Times though passport photos—my sweaty dash left my photo image looking like a captured Cuban gun runner—speedy form filling and a rush to the airport to have my camera equipment list sealed so what I took out of the U.S.A. I also brought back. Then came the injections for everything from dengue fever and malaria to a general-purpose cocktail, which would require booster shots in Copenhagen. In a week, I dropped into a comfy SAS business-class transcontinental airliner seat encapsulated in Swedish hospitality.
During those preceding days while I was converted from corn-fed local to international jet-setter, I had managed to piggy-back some paying assignments. For my client, Motorola, I would document their Liberian two-way-radio service center. For the Sun Times, my job was the story of a Chicago ex-patriot who owned a Copenhagen coffee shop. So far, the jet-setter life for this greenhorn was just swell.
I had also grabbed a handful of Dutch cigars from the airport hospitality suite. Later when I could light up in the aircraft’s smoking section, I reached into my inside jacket packet and withdrew a handful of… loose tobacco. Dutch cigars are incredibly dry. I smelled like a humidor for the rest of the flight.
Madrid slid past in a blur of airport gates. Two hours were spent in Tunis, sitting cross-legged outside an airport building in the blazing sun, noshing on mystery meat squashed between halves of challah bread. My lunch partners were three camels. One of them spit at me. Inshalla –Arabic for “In God’s hands”
Our plane finally touched down at Liberia’s Roberts Field late at night. Descending the steps to the tarmac was like being wrapped in a hot, wet towel. By the time I passed down a familial row of passport and entry form stampers, I was drenched in sweat and now smelled like I had slept with one those camels. The mayor of Monrovia—Liberia’s capitol city—was waiting for me. This large lady beneath a wide-brimmed sun hat barged me past the baggage examiners who were gleefully vandalizing the possessions of my equally tragic fellow travelers. I spent the next half-hour wedged into the back seat of a smallish French Peugeot taxi as my host extolled the virtues of her city. As I didn’t have the expense account for the only America-style hotel, I was dropped off at a “First Class Liberian Hotel.”
The rest of my first night in Monrovia was spent in a dark saloon knocking back bottles of Monrovia Club beer while two patrons—a Pakistani and a Jew—tried to beat the crap out of each other. I finished my third beer, paid the tab and left as two Monrovian policemen entered, holding what looked like cattle prods. After a stroll down a street where I was most likely the only white face for miles and the few acid-blue fluorescent lights made for deep, dark shadows, I cut short my curiosity and returned to my room. A half-hour was spent crushing cockroaches in the shower with my dog-eared Playboy Magazine. Another twenty minutes passed waiting for the shower water to turn from rusty brown to relatively clear. By then, I could have slept on a plank of nails so the mattress was no surprise.
Morning found me in telephone booth calling up my ace in the Monrovian hole. While studying at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, I made the acquaintance of Vanja Richards, a sculptor in my class. He had gone back to his native Monrovia and was now regarded as the National Sculptor of Liberia. This exalted title was aided by his wife being connected to the government of the newly elected president, William Tolbert. I’d sprung for a long-distance call to Vanja before I left Chicago, so he was ready for me.
Vanja lived in a charming bungalow in the outskirts of Monrovia and had delegated a leather couch on his screened porch as my crash pad. I mean pad in every sense of the word. His and his wife’s hospitality made me feel at home and meals of mashed cassava root (“fu-fu”) and rice mixed with meat or fish and chopped peppers washed down with cool-ish Club beer were excellent if a tiny bit churlish with my internal organs.
Over dinner, he asked me if I could shoot some photos of an artist friend’s fashion designs so she could build a portfolio. I thought they might make another story for the Sun Times and agreed. Vanja had found some beautiful locations including inside the Executive Mansion (equivalent to our White House).
Roberta Gray was beautiful and modeled her own striking designs: dashikis and elaborately embroidered gowns and pants-suits. The shoot and interview went well and Vanja finished the day with a visit to his open-air studio and atelier where he carved and assembled his sculpture. Many of the pieces were displayed in the Executive Mansion.
A family get-together was scheduled for the Easter week-end deep in the heavily forested wetlands far from the city. I was invited and accepted. After a long drive and at the end of a dirt road, the forest opened out into a cleared area down to a wide river bank and dotted with white, cement block houses and dominated by a white Methodist church. Everyone met our car, all dressed in western go-to-meeting suits and dresses. They made a fuss and hustled us off to the church for Easter services. The day was hot, the church was sweltering as the hymns rose to the rafters in English and Mandé.
After an hour of singing, chanting, praying and general Christian merriment, everyone hustled out and headed for one house where a dinner had been laid on. For another hour, we ate copious quantities of fu-fu, pork, duck, vegetables, hot peppers and rice all washed down with home-made ginger beer. By the end of the meal, I was almost faint from sweating away my salt and the Jesus-fueled energy around that table.
At the end of dinner, everyone made for the exits as if someone had hollered “Fire!”
In a half-hour, the suits, dresses and big sun hats had been shed for dashikis and shorts. The kids stripped to bathing suits and stampeded toward the river bank. I collapsed into one of a circle of lawn chairs around a growing bonfire as the sun disappeared into the tangle of trees. Vanja sat beside me stripped to the waist in khaki shorts.
His handsome dark face set off with a short beard grinned and he asked, “So, how do you like my Africa?”
I was afraid to speak for fear of burping and farting at the same time and setting fire to my clothes. I nodded with a contented smile. He nudged my elbow holding a glass of clear liquid.
“We call it ‘roots.’ It’s made from vodka with roots and herbs added to the bottle and buried in the ground for at least a month.”
I took the glass and he clinked his glass with mine and downed the shot in a gulp. I followed suit. All worries about inflammable farts disappeared, replaced by fear of ignition and blast-off as that lava made its way toward my abused organs. The heat that traveled up my white neck and suffused my white face must have alarmed him. A boy was passing around a basket and Vanja grabbed a handful of brown Cheetos and pushed a few into my unresisting cupped palms. They tasted salty and crunchy like Wheat Thins and I could almost feel the roiled turbidity of my digestive system… calming.
“Want to see where we get them?” he asked, tugging at my sleeve.
Down by the river, the boys were plucking cattails from the tall grass and hurling them like spears as the girls dodged and giggled. The bonfire crackled and the circle of brown faces basked in its glow, radiating community contentment. I followed Vanja to the deeply shadowed hedges behind the circle of gossip, chuckles and weighty conversations. He used a stick to dig into the black earth beneath a hedge. Three-inch long white grubs tumbled out. Another boy standing behind us reached down and scooped up the wiggling pupae into a basket. Satisfied, he ran over to the fire and dumped his bugs into the flames. Each one puffed up. He dug them out of the heat and before they could burn plucked them into his basket.
“Com’on,” Vanja said, “let’s get ‘em while they’re hot!”
As I said at the beginning of this story, “Freelance photojournalism opens doors to many opportunities.” That night, in a West African forest, I had the opportunity to drink lava and eat bugs at the side of an old school friend and be a part of a community who had taken me in. Sip. Crunch.
On April 13, 1980, President William Richard Tolbert Jr. was attacked and captured by a military coup d’état led by Sargent Samuel Doe. Tolbert was tortured and murdered. Following the coup, Doe ordered Tolbert’s political allies and Liberians sympathetic to his regime arrested, stripped nude and marched through the city. My friend, Vanja Richards was among those seized. He was tied to one of many wooden posts driven into the beach sand just behind the Executive Mansion and executed by rifle fire from drunken soldiers in front of a jeering, cheering crowd for “political reasons.” I don’t know what became of his sculpture.
To follow Gerry’s impressive career in non-fiction literature, click here: http://www.avril1.com/?fbclid=IwAR2YgQpJZakTWnb58HyIPlQ6wOxlXXYPCIw0oy3ODHbxKkLeeWD5PNFmsJ8
To order Gerry’s breath-taking fiction novel, click here: https://www.amazon.com/Thread-Sand-Embracing-Love-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B07TTN5QYD/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=a+thread+of+sand&qid=1598204226&sr=8-4