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"Survivor"

This is Stephen Cooper. He was my house boy in Liberia.


Now before you get all bunched up about the term “house boy,” it’s not my term. House boy is a Liberian term referring to an adult male, chosen by the village chief council, to assist a Peace Corps volunteer with all things bush. In my village, the position was highly regarded among the villagers and a paid position of honor and respect. At this time in 1984, they did not have house girls.


Stephen Cooper did it all. He was the grand master with the bush cutlass. The cutlass was the all-around tool/weapon that bush villagers carried and swung with pride, especially when clearing the ever-encroaching jungle from invading the house. During dry season, he hauled my drinking water in a tub on his head from a stream about a half-mile down the road. He did my laundry and served as my guardian from all the jungle nasties that can happen when you’re the only non-Liberian for fifty miles around.


Without “Coop,” I didn’t stand a chance. Without Coop, I would lose. Without Coop, there is no surviving the remote Liberian jungle.


I departed Liberia intact in late 1985. I gave Coop my boots and whatever cash I had and bade him a tearful goodbye. Before I jumped on the money bus for Monrovia, he confessed that he lied to me. He was not 19 years old. He was actually 24, maybe 28.


I forgave him.


About five years later, Liberia folded like a cheap tent.


Civil war broke out and sloshed on until 1997. Estimates claim that more than 200,000 Liberians were murdered as the warring factions swept back and forth throughout the country. The U.S. Navy and Marines conducted Operation Sharp Edge in 1990 to evacuate U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals. That operation ended in 1991.


And that was that.


Since that 1985 departure, I had no news about Coop or my little jungle village and the people I once revered. In addition to the 200,000 dead, more than 750,000 were displaced. Almost half the country’s population. A good chance Coop was dead or disappeared.


After a 1997 peace settlement, Liberia held an election. I returned then to help lead a group of returned volunteers to observe the election with the Carter Center (See my earlier post “The Right to Vote”). I also felt highly compelled to find out what happened to my friend.


Monrovia was unrecognizable. Pretty much destroyed. The displaced were still the displaced and nothing worked.


So, I just started talking to people. Asking questions.


Do you know any displaced Grebo people in Monrovia? Eventually, yes.


Do you know any displaced people from Webbo district? Eventually, yes.


Do you know anyone from my village, Krohnowodoke? Eventually, I was taken to a small hut outside Monrovia. There I met my village cook, Ada Scott.


She fled Krohnowodoke along with everyone else and vanished into the jungle. There she lived and scrounged under the cover of the bush for two years until she arrived in Monrovia. Murderous, warring factions captured her and she was tortured and raped. Horrific. But here she was, smiling and happy to see me.


I asked her about all the people I knew and loved. Most of the names resulted in a sad answer; dead. I asked about Stephen Cooper. She didn’t know. Maybe he got away and fled the country. Maybe killed. Anyway, he was gone.


I gave Ada all the money in my pocket and said goodbye. I left Liberia a second time with a heavy heart.


A second Liberian civil war broke out in 1999 and ended in 2003. Another 50,000 killed and the displaced grew to more than one million. Even a long shot for information about my lost friend and house boy Stephen Cooper was slipping away. Not good times.


Fast forward 14 years to 2017. Liberia was not on my mind. The World Wide Web was a thing. From absolutely nowhere comes a text message from someone named Matt.


“Sorry to bother you. I got your information from the internet. Are you the Mr. John who was a Peace Corps Man in Liberia in the early ‘80s and is from a town called Winnemucca?”


Okay. I bit.


“Yes, I suppose that would be me.”


“My name is Matt and I am a Peace Corps Man in Liberia. One of the teachers here asked if I could track you down. His name is Karta Cooper. He said he used to be called Stephen Cooper and he was your house boy.”


I don’t remember what I texted next. I do remember it took some time to find my senses. The dead returned to the living? Coop was alive? Matt and I arranged a time and place and he made the call.


Stephen Cooper and I spoke for the first time since 1985. We laughed. I cried. He still didn’t know how old he was, and he changed his name to Karta Cooper.


He told me he was married and has two children. I told him I was married and have one child. He said he escaped Liberia and survived in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast until the war ended.


I had nothing. No matching story. I let it go. No need to know anything more.


He was alive and I knew where he was. That’s all I needed.


This was a new reality for me; the reanimation of a ghost. Everything we experienced for two years in the jungle were once again joyful memories, not depressing ones. It is a rare thing to rid the sadness of loss with the joy of rebirth. It just doesn’t happen.


I present to you Stephen, sorry, Karta Cooper. My friend and guardian. Now a teacher, a husband, a father. And though we both suffered much loss from the Liberian civil wars, we were now in touch and he was good. That’s all that mattered.


Karta Cooper. Survivor.

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