Arts, Culture & Media

A childhood in Africa

(HC's family not only helped found Liberia, it was also part of its ruling elite in Liberia's early years of existence. Things changed drastically in 1980 when a group of soldiers overthrew the Liberian government. Your book starts with an idyllic story of your childhood in Liberia building up to this tragic civil war that caused you to flee. What kind of childhood did you have?) It was very sheltered to the outside world. My parents went to the native Liberians and got me a sister, and this was very common. (Your foster sister was a country person. Explain the difference between country people and congo people and how that distinction affected you.) it's so engrained in the culture. The free slaves who returned to Africa became known as the congo people, it's a somewhat derogatory term, but country person is far more derogatory. Congo person means elite, and our skin was usually a bit lighter. It was very much a class based system, and I grew up as a little princess. (After Samuel Doe overthrew the government, his soldiers rounded up government loyalists and came to your home looking for your father. But they lined you and the other women at the house up against the wall and pulled your sister off the line because she clearly wasn't a congo person. What were your feelings about that?) it's weird to think back to that. There was a feeling of betrayal but I was also frightened and didn't know what to think. This all happened so quickly. I never thought they were going to kill us. (That same day, the soldiers raped your mother because she bargained to have them not rape you and your two sisters. What was the long term trauma of that episode?) My family shortly afterwards ran to the U.S. we didn't hide it, but we also never talked about it. my mother was of the brush yourself off and move on attitude, and my father tried to do the same. I think some of that rubbed off on me. I was very traumatized and when I was first in the new U.S. I tried to focus on being the new girl instead of focusing on that episode. (Your sister stayed in Liberia after you fled and you didn't return for another 23 years after covering the invasion of Iraq. Why did it take so long?) I think I was in denial. When Charles Taylor invaded and the civil war started, I was so devastated that I couldn't deal with it. and then when I was in Iraq, there was a moment of clarity that I had turned my back on my country and on my sister. I knew I needed to be home. (You back to Liberia and you reunite with your sister and go to your childhood home to see what remains and you find a house that was allegedly used for executions during the civil war and is now used by squatters. How did that feel?) I felt I was gaining back my childhood, but it was so different than when I grew up there that I felt like I was completely violated�to see this house where we were so happy and to see it completely stripped. A lot of conflicting emotions, but the basement where my mother was attacked hit me the most. Walking through that room was traumatic, but also important, because I was ok and could go back there.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

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