The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

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9780743266246: The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
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A New York Times special correspondent presents a full-length memoir based on her acclaimed "African Odyssey" cover story for The Wall Street Journal, in a personal account that traces her childhood in war-torn Liberia and her reunion with a foster sister who had been left behind when her family fled the region. 75,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Helene Cooper is the White House correspondent for the New York Times, having previously served as the diplomatic correspondent and the assistant editorial page editor. Prior to moving to the Times, Helene spent twelve years as a reporter and foreign correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

This is a story about rogues.

Burglars are "rogues." The word burglar is not in the Liberian-English vernacular. I occasionally used "thief," though only for two reasons: (1) to impress whoever was listening that I knew proper English, and (2) to amplify "rogue," like when yelling out "Rogue! Rogue! Thiefy! Thiefy!" to stop a fleeing rogue. But rogues and thieves were very different animals. Rogues broke into your house while you were sleeping and made off with the fine china. Thieves worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.

Our house at Sugar Beach was plagued by rogues. From the time we moved into the twenty-two-room behemoth my father had had built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they installed themselves as part of daily life. It wasn't hard to figure out why: we were a continent away from civilization at eleven miles outside of Monrovia, my mother was hell-bent on filling up the house with ivory, easily portable if you're a rogue, and our watchman, Bolabo, believed that nights were meant for sleeping, not guarding the house.

Bolabo was an old man. His hair, which he kept cut very short, was almost white. He had nine teeth, at alternating places on the top rim and bottom rim of his mouth, so that when he talked you could see the holes, but when he smiled, which was a lot, it looked like a perfect set. He didn't have a gun, he had a nightstick. He walked with a bounce and always seemed cheerful, even when he was getting reamed out by my mother in the mornings after the discovery that rogues had once more gotten into Sugar Beach and made off with her ivory.

The first time it happened -- within a week of our arrival at Sugar Beach -- I woke up and stumbled out of my bedroom to the sound of my mother yelling at Bolabo outside. Jack was leaning against the wall, enjoying the proceedings. He winked at me. Jack was technically our houseboy, but none of us ever dared call him that because he grew up with Daddy.

"Rogues came here last night," Jack reported.

Mommee had hauled Bolabo to the kitchen porch for his dressing down. She was in the doorway, her arms punctuating the air with her grievances. She wore her usual early-morning attire: knit shorts that stopped just above her knees, a T-shirt, and slippers. Her hair, originally piled on top of her head, had come undone as she paced angrily back and forth on the kitchen porch, arms flailing. Before her stood Bolabo, his entire demeanor one of remorse.

Bolabo: "Aya Ma, na mind ya."

Translation: Gosh! How awful! Never you mind, Mrs. Cooper, please accept my apologies.

Mommee: "You hopeless seacrab! I should sack you!"

Translation: Bluster. "Seacrab" and "damn" were as close as Mommee ever came to cussing. History would show Mommee sacked Bolabo every month and always rehired him when he came back and "held her foot."

Bolabo: "I hold your foot, Ma."

Translation: An exclamation point that punctuates this heartfelt entreaty. When begging a Liberian's pardon, you can't get much lower than telling them you hold their foot.

This went on for about fifteen minutes, until Mommee slammed the door in disgust. Bolabo was extra vigilant for the next few days, making a big show of closing his bedroom door in the boys' house during the day so we would know that he was getting his rest for the night ahead. Then, at around six p.m., he came outside with his nightstick and strutted around the yard, inspecting the coconut trees that surrounded the estate, presumably for signs of imminent attack. He peered down the water well near the fence, as if rogues were treading water thirty feet down, waiting for the family to go to sleep before jet-propelling themselves out like Superman.

Bolabo settled into his chair by the laundry room, then jumped up self-importantly when a car drove into the yard, as if the rogues might just drive up at seven p.m. for supper. Invariably, he was asleep before my bedtime at eight p.m.

I, on the other hand, was not.

Who could fall asleep way out in the bush like that? I went to bed at night wishing we were back at our old house in Congo Town.

Liberia is nowhere near the Congo River, but the term Congo is endemic. We are called the Congo people -- my family and the rest of the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1822. It is a somewhat derogatory term invented by the native Liberians back in the early nineteenth century, after Britain abolished slave trade on the high seas. British patrols seized slave ships leaving the West African coast for America and returned those captured to Liberia and Sierra Leone, whether they came from there or not. Since many of the slave ships entered the Atlantic from the mouth of the massive Congo River, the native Liberians, many of whom happily engaged in the slave trade and didn't like this new business of freeing the slaves and dumping them in Liberia, called the newcomers Congo People. Because the newly freed captives were released in Liberia at the same time that the freed blacks arrived in Liberia from America, all newcomers became known as Congo People. Monrovia is full of Congo this and Congo that. Congo Town, where our old house was, is a suburb of Monrovia. It was filled with Congo People like us.

We got the native Liberians back by calling them Country People, far more derogatory, in our eyes.

Daddy moved us to Sugar Beach because he thought the old house in Congo Town was too small. It only had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a TV lounge, a living room, a den, an office, a kitchen, a palaver hut outside, and a huge lawn, where I learned critical social skills from Tello, my favorite cousin and role-model supreme.

"Jus' kick your foot de same time you jumping!" Tello, short for Ethello, yelled at me one Sunday afternoon on the Congo Town lawn. It was a typically heavy, soupy day, and my ponytail, drenched in sweat, glued itself to the back of my neck. Next door, the Baptist church people, who spent hours in that church singing their holy ghost songs, had quieted down -- it was time for their midafternoon snack of check-rice with crawfish gravy. The sharp, intense smell of the fish gravy wafted to our yard from the back of the church, making my stomach rumble with hunger.

Tello was teaching me how to play knock-foot, a girls' game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponents with the other foot. Knock-foot involved intricate maneuvers that need rhythm and balance. The Country People had thought it up. Knock-foot is sort of like rock, paper, scissors with feet. A good knock-foot session between two girls who know what they're doing looks like dancing, with each girl bobbing, kicking, and clapping to a precise beat.

There were many variations of knock-foot; one, called Kor, required such precision I knew I'd never be able to do it. All I wanted was to be able to do basic knock-foot. Hop, hop, kick. Clap, hop, kick. Except the clap was on a half beat and the kick was on a half beat.

Beads of sweat collected on my forehead as I tried again. Hop, hop, kick. "Not like that!" instructed Tello. She was four months older than me and very sure of matters of correctness. "You kicking before you jumping!"

"Aye, I tryin," I whined.

Hop, hop, kick. I raised my foot slightly higher, and when I kicked, got her full in the knee, good and hard. She stomped the grass, then turned around, and, with a sucking of her teeth -- that social skill I had mastered at last -- walked back to the house. I chased after her.

My escort into high society was mad at me. "Tello!" I said, trailing her into the house. "Na mind."

She forgave me when we entered the living room and we automatically headed for the black leather couch to pretend to be our mothers.

"I say, it's too hard to find good help these days," Tello said, crossing her legs as she sat on the couch with her doll propped in her lap. "I told Gladys to make up the bed, and you know wha' she did? Cleaned the cupboard instead!"

I sighed, in what I hoped was a long-suffering way. "Ma people, I got' de same problem m'self, I tell you," I replied, flicking some imaginary dust off my pants. "I asked Old Man Charlie to cook palm butter and he cooked cassava leaf!"

I loved the Congo Town house. It was close to town and Tello visited all the time. There was always stuff to do and people to see, even if it was just picking fights with the Baptist people next door.

But Daddy said we were crowded there. I shared a bedroom with my little sister, Marlene, and Marlene's nurse, Martha, a tall Kru woman. There were way too many people in my bedroom at night. "Don't worry," Daddy said. "When we build the house at Sugar Beach, you're going to have your own room."

My own room! Wouldn't that show the world how grown I was!

"What color do you want it?" Mommee asked me before we left Congo Town.

I thought for days and days before finally deciding. "I wan ma room be pink."

And so, bought off with the false notion that I actually wanted my own room, I followed my family to Sugar Beach and our grand new home.

This was our house at Sugar Beach: a futuristic, three-level verandahed 1970s-era behemoth with a mammoth glass dome on top, visible as soon as you turned onto the dirt road junction a mile away. The house revealed itself slowly, like a coquettish Parisian dancer from the 1920s. Emerging from the road's first major pothole -- big enough to swallow a small European car -- your reward was a glimpse of the house's sloping roof and glass dome, shining in the equatorial sun. Rounding the bend between the dense bush of plum trees and vines, you next got a glimpse of the house's eastern wraparound second-floor porches, painted creamy butter, with a roasted red pepper trim hand-selected for tropical contrast. Driving by the two huts that formed the outermost edge of the nearby Bassa village of Bubba Town, you then caught another tease: the sliding glass doors that formed the perimeter of the second-floor living room.

But nothing could prepare you for the final disrobing as you crested the hill that opened up to the panoramic view of the house, back-lit by the thunde...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780743266253: The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

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ISBN 10:  0743266250 ISBN 13:  9780743266253
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2009
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9781410410382: The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (Thorndike Biography)

Thornd..., 2008
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