As far back as I can remember, whenever I saw an ambulance whiz by with sirens blaring, I’d say a little prayer for whoever was in danger. And if I heard the screeching of tires and the crashing of metal, that prayer would be combined with a serious lump in my throat and a swell of emotion and grief in my heart.
Well, today, in Liberia, I witnessed my first auto accident. It was between a car and a motorcycle taxi. Now, I need to give you some background. Motorcycle taxis are extremely common here. For most people, the taxis were their first modes of transportation after the civil war, and they still seem to outnumber the cars on the road. You can see anywhere from one to four people on a cycle—yes, four! Typically, there will be the driver, an infant in front of him, and either another infant and an adult behind him or two adults, weaving in and out of heavily congested traffic. These taxis are the lifeblood of below-poverty-level people trying to make a living. I often cringe as I see a motorcycle pass by with so many people on it—especially children—knowing that motorcycle taxi accidents can occur daily. I also see their importance to the people of Liberia and love seeing the way the taxis organize themselves; the drivers seem to work together while they await fares at large events.
Now back to my story about today’s event. I was on the last block on my way home, walking Barnaby, my Cairn Terrier, when I heard the screeching of tires behind me, heard the skidding over wet pavement. I turned just in time to actually see a car crash into a cycle, then saw the taxi driver (thank God there were no passengers) expelled from the bike and make a hard flop on his back onto the cement! I’m near-sighted, and was without my glasses on, so all I could really make out was his glaring white shirt contrasting with his dark skin as he flew above the bike and landed hard. I heard myself say “SHIT!” out loud. A young Liberian man was walking beside me in the opposite direction; he had also seen the whole thing and we both stopped in our tracks the moment we heard the collision. We looked at each other then back to the scene as two dozen people ran from all directions toward the crash. I saw a young man in his twenties lift up the white-shirted victim lying on the wet ground, and I cringed—he doesn’t know, of course, that you’re not supposed to do that.
I immediately felt the emotion in my heart and the lump in my throat, felt the tears and the utter sense of helplessness, which was something I’d never felt when I’d witnessed an accident in the States. There, I always knew that I’d hear sirens within minutes, that those emerging to help would ask for a doctor and call 911, and most likely the victims would be whisked away to the hospital in a speeding ambulance. Here, all I could do was continue on my walk, and believe that the good people of Liberia, the people in my neighborhood, who have witnessed this type of tragedy and much more—horrific tragedy, daily tragedy, during the fifteen-year civil war—were well-equipped to deal with the situation. But what would they do? Thank God the hospital was literally just blocks away from the scene; if his injuries were very bad, perhaps someone would get the victim to the hospital in time to help. But you see, then there are more problems. I’ve not seen an ambulance—ever—in this city; I’m in the capital of Liberia, but the police are still ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle even a fender-bender, let alone an accident where someone may be seriously hurt. And once a motorcycle taxi driver does make it to the hospital, he is most likely so poor that the next tragedy comes when he can’t afford the care. In Liberia, when people are hospitalized and cared for, they must pay the bill before leaving the hospital. So there are people literally trapped, held hostage, or, some might say, held prisoner, by the hospital until they or their families can drum up the funds to have them released. Frankly, it’s a mess, like much of the country, though Liberia is now ten years out of war.
I walked away with tears on my cheeks at the senselessness of it all. In a world where we have every modern technology and tool and means, there is a young man tonight who may join the ranks of those who could have been helped, been saved, but were not. Who may join the tens of thousands of others on the street, begging, and missing an arm or a leg for various reasons. Who may suffer unnecessarily because there is no ambulance to rush to his aid or 911 service to call those who are equipped and trained to help him. Or maybe he was lucky tonight. I prayed that he was. And I focused on the many people who stopped and ran to help. And I pray for, and am grateful for, my own safety while I’m here.
It is not an easy life in Liberia. It is frustrating most of the time. Even doing what should be the simplest things—shopping, banking, buying an iPhone cord, having a repair done at home—seems to take forever; actually, it does. But to know that I have a choice to live here and deal with these daily nuisances, and others don’t, makes me love my neighbors and the everyday people of Liberia. And I learn from them each day. I learn patience and gratitude for the simple things we Americans take for granted. But today, seeing that accident, I learned to have an even deeper gratitude and a greater conviction to do what I can here, while I’m here, to help make life more loving, hopeful, and better in some way for those I come in contact with. Every day I learn a little more what that help is. Sometimes, it’s just smiling and waving hello and how are you, or giving a dollar to the young man with no legs at the grocery store. Other times, it’s building a school with the help of many loving donors, or providing clean water to a village of 200 people that has none. I have to make a difference with each opportunity; however, I am always reminded that, at some point, I will leave here. And when I do, I will get to go to a place of my choosing that will most likely be without the frustrations of living in Liberia; but those families and children I befriend here will not get to go—they will remain in Liberia. And as much as one can witness stories of tragedy and poverty each day here, I am also reminded of its gradual shifting into prosperity and empowerment when I open my “inbox” to see announcements weekly of yet another new service some creative entrepreneur is delivering. Today it’s what will be the first new “cinema” in town, and an express airport shuttle service. And I smile.