Home World Travel Duweh, the Mighty Elephant: Getting Out of Liberia Was Harder Than Getting In

Duweh, the Mighty Elephant: Getting Out of Liberia Was Harder Than Getting In

Duweh, the mighty elephant

Note: If you have not read Hairy Legs you may want to do that first.  This story is the second part of that trip.

If I asked you what was the most memorable trip or the most difficult journey you have taken, what would you say?  Maybe you had a lengthy delay, canceled flights or some other challenging issue.  Sometimes a dream vacation can become a nightmare. We can’t control every factor.  In the dozens of countries I have traveled in I would list my “escape” from Liberia during the civil war as among the most stressful.  The word “escape” may be a bit dramatic but it felt that way at the time.

downtown Monrovia in 2009
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Erik (HASH) Hershman

On my first trip to Africa, I worked in Nigeria and Ghana and it was there that I got my official African name. After a long pastor’s seminar, I was given a traditional African robe and christened “Duweh” which means “mighty elephant.”  Don’t ask what it means because they would not tell me why.  Let’s all pretend that it means I am seen as great and mighty and invincible. Their smiles indicated that it may mean something else but let’s stay with great and mighty and invincible. So, when it came time for a second trip to the dark continent, Duweh was ready.  Duweh is great and mighty and invincible.

Back to Africa

a "technical", a Pickup truck with a mounted machine gun, in Liberia
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was quite a difficult trip to get to Liberia. You need to read the previous story, “Hairy Legs,” to understand what happened.  You learned how the great and mighty and invincible one dealt with a large spider (the size of a bush hog).  After a week of teaching by day and hand-to-hand combat at night with creepy crawlers, it was time to leave Liberia.  The Liberian civil war had reached Monrovia.  Bodies were being brought in from the countryside. Stories were making the rounds that the main airport, the one I arrived at, had been bombed. UN peacekeeping forces were inspecting all vehicles leaving Monrovia. With this cheerful news, I made it VERY CLEAR to the seminar coordinator that I needed to get to the airport really early in the morning. I still did not have a return ticket even though, every day, I asked if someone could check on that. I also did not know what our two conference hosts had done with my passport.  One flight per week came in and out of the country and it was beginning to look like this one could be the last flight out for a while if it got out.  The evidence of war was everywhere.  People were nervous.

The Window to Get Out of the Country Was Closing

My hosts thought the weekly flight was around 10 AM.  I had no idea where the domestic airport was and I was concerned about backed-up traffic and roadblocks.  So, I told them I wanted to be underway for the airport no later than 6 AM.  I was packed and on the curb at 4 AM to be safe.  UN vehicles were literally racing around the streets even at that hour. I stood outside on the street and waited. Monrovia, at that time, was a city that had been without electricity for five years, buildings pock-marked with bullet holes and sirens echoing in every corridor.  Back home I would be in a warm bed in a calm city in a land of peace.  Oh, where is that ride to the airport? Am I going to get out of this place?  This is the most dangerous situation I had personally experienced.

shrapnel-riddled vehicle and building in Liberia
Photo courtesy of Nic Bothma

6 AM. Nobody.  6:30 AM. Nobody.  7 AM.  Nobody.  7:30 AM Nobody. Pace, pace, pace in front of my spider-infested hotel.  More UN security vehicles racing around the city streets –  emergency lights flashing.  8 AM. Nobody.  Getting really nervous.  REALLY NERVOUS.  No phones, no electricity.  I don’t know anyone.  8:30 AM – finally, a taxi pulls up and two familiar faces get out.  The first taxi broke down they say.  But it is 8:30!  Never mind, let’s get to the airport. VERY, VERY NERVOUS.

But wait, there is a problem.  They tell me they need to make a copy of the report they are sending back to the Christian agency who sponsored this pastor’s seminar.  I told them never mind since I know the folks at that organization and I will make the copy when I get to America.  No, they insisted on making the copy now.  War has come to the city and they are concerned about a report.  I remind them there is no electricity in the city. No problem. One of them has a friend who has a generator and he has another friend who has a copy machine. I have been in third world countries enough to know this was a bad idea. But, we spent an hour going from place to place and by the time we transported the generator and finally got it to the place where the copy machine was, the guy was not there. So, we returned the generator and they decided that the paperwork was not all that important anyway.  Well, at least I am not holding a generator in my lap.

There Was No Way We Would Get to the Airport on Time.

9:30 AM! We still haven’t left the city and the last flight that will ever leave the country is leaving in 30 minutes. I have no ticket, no passport.  I have gone beyond nervous. I am almost sick.  But, my two new Liberian friends are calm as can be.  That is because they are not leaving so they don’t have to be nervous.  Actually, they should have been more nervous than I was because they were staying in Liberia.

Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We left for the airport.  The driver was happy and in no hurry. Why couldn’t I have the angry driver I had in the Ivory Coast who drove so fast my knuckles didn’t get their color back until the next day. No, I have the world’s most joyful and slowest taxi driver.  Well what do you know, there’s a roadblock. Cars are pulled over and they are taking the seats out and examining everything. It felt like it took forever to reach the roadside inspection station.  It was time to play the “Duweh” card.  “I am a Christian worker named Duweh, the mighty elephant, and I need to get to the airport right now.” They tell me that they are happy to meet Duweh, the mighty elephant, but they still have to take the seats out of our taxi. I don’t think they respected elephants.

Finally, we got underway and when we pulled up at the domestic airport it was complete pandemonium. It was like everyone in Liberia wanted out, can’t imagine why. It must be because of the spiders. The large crowd outside the terminal was agitated, most looked scared.  I was quickly guided by my two calm friends through the crowds and into a room all by myself, and then they sat down next to me and nobody said a word. A glance at my watch didn’t help the tension. 11 AM.  Now, normally, that is not the best time to arrive for a once a week, 10 AM flight, but what do I know? This was Africa.  Then I saw what had to be the most disheartening sight in my life. The three of us watched, in total silence, as the only airplane at the airport slowly taxied out to the end of the runway.  In the calmest, cracking voice I could come up with I asked, “Is that my plane?  “Yes.”  We watched.  The plane went down the runway.  But halfway, it stopped and slowly came back to the terminal. “What is he doing?”  “The pilot wants to make sure it works.”  The plane was an old Russian cargo plane converted to a passenger liner. It would be like flying in a World War II bomber with folding chairs.  I knew this because I had arrived on it. Yep, it worked, so now they would load the plane. Will they do it like in Nigeria when I was there?  They had a plane that seated about 100 and they had issued 500 boarding passes.  Everyone ran onto the tarmac when the two-hour late plane arrived.  It resembled a soccer riot. So, will it be like that again?

elephant and pastors art work
Artwork by Raoul Pascual

Then the door opened to our room. It was then that I noticed the letters VIP on the door. I wondered why all the shouting people were outside in the parking lot and in the big lobby, and we were the only ones in this small private room. The man who walked in the door seemed familiar. He walked over to me and politely handed me a boarding pass and my passport and thanked me for coming to his country, and then he went back outside into the pandemonium.  I was dumbfounded. I asked who he was, and my new friends told me that he was one of the 180 pastors who had attended the Christian seminar. I then remembered him.  But what was he doing with my documents and why was he at the airport?  “Oh, sir, he is the airport controller. He is in charge of everything at the airport.”   “So, I guess I am not going to miss my plane.”  “Oh, sir, you are the guest of honor. They would hold the plane for you all day if needed.”

It is pretty much impossible to describe my feelings after that. Humbled to be sure. Who am I to get such treatment. Upset that they didn’t tell me sooner, so I could have enjoyed my morning instead of fretting. Even angrier at my attitude and my lack of faith. Once again, I had been reminded that God is the great controller of life, and he does not always make His plans as clear to us as we would like. Whether it is a flight, or something else out of our control, it is all the same. He is the controller and we need to rest in His will.  It has been many years since that experience but I still need to remember that lesson every day. Remember, elephants have good memories.

Thank you, Lord, for this important lesson. Thank you, Lord, for bringing me through it and for what I learned at that time.  I may not understand it all but you do and I will rest with you. And thank you, Lord, for even that spider.  On second thought please ignore the spider prayer,  I am not that strong yet in my faith.

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  1. Jane DuPlessis

    July 16, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    I think I lost my comment….about getting stuck in Mexico with my 93 year old father!!! But I KNOW it doesn’t top your
    story about Liberia…! and also some driving stories in Mexico by myself, etc. Love to exchange notes sometime when you come back to San Diego!


  2. Anna

    July 30, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    Great story!


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