For the first three months I was in Africa, Liberians told me, "Save Johnny!" everywhere I went, usually as I was saying good-bye to them. Sometimes it was a group of men sharing a cup of palm wine, other times it was families gathered around a small cooking fire. I never quite knew how to respond.
I thought to myself, if I can't figure this out, how can I ever become a good Peace Corps Volunteer? How will I survive in a village by myself when I'm telling people I'll be happy to save Johnny even though I don't have a clue who Johnny is?
I thought up elaborate scenarios about how, years ago, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Johnny must have died. Or maybe Johnny was a Liberian who was desperately ill. Or maybe, as an American, I was "Johnny."
A day before training was over, and I would take the oath to move from a trainee to a full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteer, I walked past a group of Liberians working on a rice farm. I waved and they all shouted, "Save Johnny!" Soon to be out on my own, I decided I had to know what the phrase meant. I approached them as they stared, puzzled. "What does this mean, save Johnny?" I asked. They laughed and said, "Save Johnny" again. I asked again and again. They simply said, "Take-time-o" and "To be a man is not easy." Finally it clicked: They were saying, "Safe Journey!" I was elated. The next day, when I took the oath, I thought that maybe I could make it as a Peace Corps Volunteer after all.
Now I knew what the term meant. But it would be a few months later, on my first real "journey," when I would truly come to understand this term.
It was a simple trip, about 200 miles. It was Christmas and my girlfriend, Jill, and our mutual friend, Mary, and I were going to take public transport to the Southern tip of Liberia to a town called Harper. The place held the promise of white, sandy beaches, a cool, clear ocean, and fresh seafood - a far cry from the 100 degree days in the Liberian jungle. The town also boasted a national museum and theaters with generator-driven televisions that showed movies like Die Hard and The Godfather. The only way to reach this paradise, however, was by public transport.
We met in a dusty parking lot filled with people and vans. It was Grand Central Station in the middle of the jungle. Drivers ran around, hustling people into their vans. Children cried and wailed as dust swirled in circles around the pungent smells of animals, oils, meats, and palm wine. And it was hot -- hot as only a tropical rainforest can be at the peak of the dry season. The air was so thick that when smokers exhaled, their smoke could not rise or fall in the damp air; it just hung, suspended in mid-air.
In the late morning, we bought our tickets and found the van that was to take us south. We knew that the van could not leave until all the seats were filled, and since we were the first three people to buy tickets, we prepared for a long wait. Drivers and carboys ran around the packed lot, begging people to choose their van. We sat with the sun burning our foreheads.
By early evening, the van was finally full. Four large barrels of cane juice were shoved in up front, and we were jammed four to a seat in the back. Children sat on adults' laps and our luggage, live animals, and bags of rice were strapped down with rubber cords on the roof.
It was dark when we finally rattled away on the dusty dirt road, stopping to fill up with gas and attend to minor repairs on the van as we all sat patiently, crammed in our seats. The driver informed us that we would make one last stop, then would be on our way. He stopped at a cement house on a hill and went inside. We heard intense arguing in Mandingo, a tribal language. Then a woman holding a baby came running out of the house, chasing the driver. "What's going on?" I asked the man jammed against me on the left. "She is telling him that it is his baby and that he has to help pay for it. He is saying he has no money." Without warning, she reached inside the van and pulled the keys out of the ignition, then disappeared inside the house.
The tired people in the van let out a collective groan. A baby started wailing. Now soaked with sweat, I tried to picture an air-conditioned home and a cool, icy drink. For about an hour we watched the man banging on the door and the woman looking out to yell at him. Finally, an official from a makeshift courthouse in town managed to calm things down. We were finally on our way.
Once on the journey, people started falling asleep. The man sitting next to me had huge open sores on his face. I tried not to stare at him and nodded off. I woke up and found his head on my shoulder. When he woke and tried to lift his head, he couldn't. The sores had stuck to my shirt.
The cane juice began leaking and the entire van was filled with its powerful alcoholic aroma. I felt drunk from the fumes and began to get nauseous. A tethered pig urinated from the roof and two of us ended up getting soaked. The dirt road got bumpier as we traveled farther from the big town, and the potholes were so huge that many times the driver had to come to a complete stop to study them before trying to go on.
At 2:00 A.M., the van died. We were surrounded by absolute darkness, with only the sounds of the bush to let us know we were not alone. Most of the passengers got out to stretch while the driver tried to figure out what was wrong. It took me a minute to realize that, since he had no tools or flashlight, his chances of fixing the van were slim.
Just as the trip began to feel unbearable, a few of the older women, called "Old Mas," stepped off the van. So did some of the kids. The air had a chill to it, so we lit a small fire in the road and gathered around it. Some of the teenage boys began a strange dance, keeping their feet still but shaking their hips and singing. The Old Mas joined in. Then we all started laughing. We were hungry, tired, and a little cold, but we couldn't stop laughing. These rugged people had taken an impossible situation and still managed to have a good time. And then Jill, Mary, and I looked at each other and realized that the laughter washed the dust off the day. We forgot all about our bumpy, troubled transport and stopped worrying about where we would end up next.
Later a pickup came along and our driver negotiated a deal that would take all of us to Harper. So we transferred our bags and animals to the truck and climbed in. As we were leaving, the driver shouted to all of us, "Save Johnny!"
For the first time, I understood the term. It was really about the difficulties and frustrations that people suffer in the developing world dealing with things that I took for granted. It was about coping with the absurd, such as a simple day trip that ended up being a two day endeavor that left you stranded in the bush, with no food or water, stinking of alcohol, open sores stuck to your shirt, and being so tired you could hardly stand. But most of all, it was a revelation of the indomitable spirit of people who live life with joy, no matter what the situation. I smiled, and knowing that I had earned the right to use the term, for the first time shouted back: "Save Johnny!"
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