We arrive in Liberia Monday, leave for Voinjama Tuesday. As usual we decide to go to the old man for a blessing before we set out. I don’t like to travel without seeing him first. We meet in the parking lot of the hotel at 5:30 am. The night guard has barely had time to unlock the gates and gives us a sleepy nod as we depart. We haven’t told the others where we’re going. We drive through town. Even at this hour the streets are filling with rickety cars and gleaming white UN Toyota trucks. We head down the steep hill of Ashmun street and pull over to meet Bill’s uncle, Mr. Bundor. Everyone calls him Mr. Bundor, even Bill. I never did learn his first name. With Mr. Bundor to direct us, we head into the rough slums below Water Street known as Westpoint. I think to myself, If this were Los Angeles or Miami or Panama City, it would be a forest of multi-million dollar condominium high rises. As it is, it’s a hodgepodge of muddy streets, open sewers, wood working shops, tea shacks, market stalls, hovels and the occasional evangelist mission outpost.
We arrive at the old man’s place. He is sitting on his front porch, a narrow breezeway inches from the hubbub of the muddy street. The Old Man is a tiny elf of a man, with close-cropped white hair, barefoot and wearing a sleeveless white undershirt and gray shorts. He is all smiles. His wife is radiant, wrapped in a dazzling bright cotton print, her hair neatly braided close to her head; the littlest children, who are the only ones awake at this hour, are all scrubbed clean. Even the stained cement, plank benches and sooty walls look fresh and well kept. He greets us with hugs and vigorous handshakes.
We visit the Old Man each time we arrive before traveling up country to Voinjama. Each visit is different, but with a familiar edge: His exuberant greeting. The sensation of an electrical current of energy in his touch. The seriousness and sincerity of his prayers as they tumble out. Once we get to know him, he leads us into his bedroom. It is always the same: the spotlessly arrayed belongings in stacks at the foot of the bed, a shirt or two hanging on a nail in the wall; the muffled sounds of the chaotic street just outside, shrieks of children playing in the hallway; the fading cool of the morning air and the stillness of the heat gathering in the mosquito-filled air.
Once I arrived with several friends from the U.S., some of them healers in their own right. After the usual jubilant greeting, he lead us as always through the front room, across the pitch dark hallway and into his bedroom. After we squeezed next to him on the bed and along the sagging bench by the wall, he told us he had seen us coming in a dream a few days before, and showed us the two offering bowls he had already prepared. Two half calabashes the size of a small cereal bowl, filled with some kind of rising, fermenting dough, with coins embedded in it. Fragrant, warm, yeasty, a welcoming soft wheat-colored yellow, smooth and round and soft like pale flesh rising around the edges of the coins. This certainty of his that came through the dreams, the fact that he had already prepared the offerings and was simply waiting for us, takes me by surprise and I can’t hold back the tears. I am weeping as he prays for us and gives his blessing. We ask about two disturbing dreams and are told not to worry, we are safe. He reminds us also that he prays for us even when we’re not there, and he is in touch with other zos who are also constantly working on our behalf. It takes a village to raise a child and a circle of shamans to protect the peacemakers.
This time, I have an inkling that he won’t be there. I ignore it. We arrive and of course he is gone. He is at the hospital with one of his sons who is suddenly ill. He is to contact us when he returns and we plan to go later that day, but later his cell phone battery gives out in the middle of the call to Bill and we never do see him before heading up country. We depart for Voinjama in two cars. I am in one, Bill in the other. As Bill’s car heads out of town, two birds fly into their windshield and fall to the road. About an hour later a rooster crosses in front of our vehicle, close but seemingly safe, then inexplicably doubles back the way he came. No time to brake or swerve. We hit it squarely and learn later that it rides on our right front bumper for hours. This explains the astonished stares from people along the way. Why did the rooster cross the road? Bill and I sense that these seem to be offerings in lieu of a visit to the Old Man. We are grateful and amazed.
When we return to Monrovia two weeks later, we visit the Old Man again, on our last day before leaving for home. We arrive to find him lying on a bench across his front porch, feet up, dozing in the early morning bustle of the slum. He jumps up to greet us beaming with gleeful surprise. He asks us to wait for a moment while he slips inside. A few minutes later he beckons and we follow him into his bedroom. It reeks of mothballs and kerosene. I sit on the newly made bed next to him. The others are on the plank bench. Bill and he speak briefly, then the Old Man gets up and fishes out a battered little pot from under the stack of boxes and clothes at the foot of the bed under a teensy, barred, north-facing window. He scoops everything out of the little pot and pulls a string of cowry shells from the bottom, then walks over and puts his hands on my head. The prayers tumble out fervently as he strokes and smoothes my hair, holding my neck with one hand, rubbing the spirit shells quadrant by quadrant over and around every part of my head with the other hand, over and over as he speaks until, several minutes later, the prayers are complete. He spits lightly onto the crown of my head and smoothes the saliva over my hair and down my face. As he works I feel a powerful, quaking energy emanating from his hands. It flows down my shoulders and surrounds me like a body cloak, like a coat for my aura, and vibrates from inside my torso out to meet the energy flowing around me. My mind goes blank as I feel the shimmering buzz of blessing and protection.
I think of the morning two weeks ago when we had gone looking for the Old Man and he wasn’t there. We had invited our friend, Jim to come with us. Jim often works in Liberia and was visiting from the States at miraculously the same time as we were there. I so much wanted to share some of this magic with him, and he had enthusiastically agreed to join us, pulling himself out of bed before 6 in order to do so. I was embarrassed and disappointed that we hadn’t been able to produce the marvelous Old Man, that they would not meet him this trip, or perhaps ever. I was ashamed of tinge of self-aggrandizement that has probably jinxed the arrangement in the first place. Serves me right. I thank Jim for his patience and I apologize. He graciously shrugs it off, says he’s glad to have had the opportunity to drive around Monrovia early in the morning without traffic or noise. As we dropped him off at his hotel, I had said I was concerned about traveling without seeing the Old Man. Jim smiled and said in his soft Carolina drawl, “I’m not aware of any expiration date on blessings, are you?”