They say there’s a time for everything, a time to be born and a time to die. But why did death hit me so early? When I say ‘death,’ I don’t mean death in the literal sense; I mean the continued rotation of sadness, anxiety, and depression that haunts my morning and nights. As a child, my dad told me I could be anything I wanted to be. His refrain was, “just set goals, work hard and stay positive.” But in a world like ours, I would come to realize life does not work like that. In fact, working hard does not always get you where you want to be.
Growing up, my little family and I lived on a rubber plantation. It’s a place where living conditions were harsh for the uneducated minority. Everything was highly polarized; from the neighborhoods we lived in, the churches we went to and even the food we ate. Life for the rich was similar to what you see in a typical Nollywood movie; the kids of the rich parents’ maids grow up to be maids to the rich parents’ kids.
My father was a Rubber Tapper. The Tappers are workers who extract latex from the rubber trees. My father told me that latex was the core of the company’s wealth. He explained that without tappers, the company would not have the resources it needs to make their finished product, tires. At the time, the company was the leading producer of tires in the world. Papa resented the fact that the company profited off the backs of Liberians but deliberately paid them indecently low wages. The rate at which they were paid was so infuriating that Papa dreaded going to work. Occasionally, he and his friends protested the inhumane labor conditions they endured as Tappers. The workers complained that toting heavy buckets filled with latex or carrying those buckets on their shoulders would eventually kill or badly injure someone.
When I was much younger, I remembered mama occasionally scolding Papa for participating in the strikes. Mama was just so frustrated because all of the tappers’ efforts to have management reduce their job quotas were to no avail. Rather than staying home and risking his work, Mama encouraged Papa to keep quiet and go to work. Occasionally, I would hear papa crying as he explained the horrors of his job. It was shocking to hear my hero sob. It broke everything within me. He lamented that it’s almost unrealistic to meet his assigned quota. “The trees are planted on several miles of land that require us to travel by foot. All we ask is basic transportation around the plantation and at least some Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for us to wear while tapping. How hard is that to ask?” Papa wailed.
I thought he was just being the melodramatic person he was until I turned 12 years old and he took me to work with him. I saw it for myself; the appalling conditions that they worked in. Papa and his friends worked like machines so their aversion was warranted. I began to ponder why their cries and strikes went unnoticed. It was until mama explained the history behind the company’s existence that I could fully grasp why papa loathed his job. Unlike Papa, mama always blamed the Liberian government and labor unions. To her, it felt as though they were not citizens of Liberia but instead, the company’s properties. Puzzled by her claim, I nudged her to tell me more. Mama was in her ‘I don’t give a fuck mood,’ so this was my opportunity to understand why workers were always striking. At school, nobody dared to mention any scandalous information about Firestone, so I was very intrigued.
Mama was bold enough to say, “the relationship between Firestone and Liberia is one of an old African tale where African countries are economically exploited of rich opportunities which contribute to the continent’s underdevelopment. It all began in the 1920s due to the decline in Liberia’s exportation of coffee”, she explained. “Liberia was on the brink of bankruptcy and Firestone, an American owned rubber company, offered to pull Liberia out of its debt. Liberia gave Firestone a ninety-nine-year lease on a million acres of land suitable for the production of rubber and today, the rubber plantation sits on most of Margibi County.”. Mama then said, “It’s almost easy to forget that Margibi is still a part of Liberia- considering not only the disparity between the Company’s and Liberia’s income, but also the living conditions.
As a kid, I did not bother much with the peculiar nature of the Liberia-Firestone relationship. I was mostly concerned with helping my dad meet his quota because I knew failure to do so would mean starving for days and potential loss of his job. Out of everything, what I feared most was not having a place to lay my head, but this took a toll on my dad who was forced to drag his 12-year-old daughter to work although she had school. I couldn’t let Papa see how bad I hated having to skip school to carry heavy buckets filled with latex on my head and then my shoulders. I was only 12 years old, for crying out loud. Somedays, we barely had anything to eat before rushing to the fields as early as 6 AM, only to spend all day tapping and tapping and tapping. We even worked more than 12 hours per day, at times. On paper, it is against Firestone’s work policy, but how does one person meet his or her quotas in a span of 8 hours remains obscure.
Despite my disdain for the whole situation, I would have rather died toting those heavy buckets than allowed my dad see the despair in my eyes. So every time he fell sick, I nimbly followed him. He usually made sure I knew how sorry he was for putting me in such a condition, but I smiled and reassured him that it was okay. Although I treasured my education, my lies were brighter than my truths. My truth was, I would proceed to school to sit among the rich kids who had everything I thought I could never have. Those kids’ parents were the supervisors, managers, superintendents. Suffice to say, the elites who hired maids to care for their kids and chauffeurs to drop their kids off at school and I was the daughter of a Tapper who walked over 5 miles every day on an empty stomach, to get an education I thought would not take me anywhere.
Part two of this story continues on 1/27
Authored by Suma Massaley
Featured picture by Micro Di Lauro