She shakes. Her wheel bearings are fading, but this old Dodge served in World War II before she ended up with us. We worked long into the night to fill the truck with cabbages. The radio says all is well, but Tahiru’s cousin is in Monroeville, and he says people are going hungry. It’s risky, but if we can get there, we might make a little money. Perhaps enough for another mule.
Tahiru turns and grins at me from the driver's seat. “This road is clear,” he says, “Just like Maneru promised. We’ve gone twenty clicks and the road is still clear. And I smile back at my husband, for the wolves might really be off to the north, as we have heard.
The road are bad, but we bounce along, skipping from rut to rut. The Americans must have built their trucks for bad roads. Old Johnson says he can remember when the road was smooth, but that must have been long ago. Longer than anyone else can remember. But now and then I see a bit of asphalt and I begin to believe him.
The road forks east and up a wide hill. Tahiru downshifts, grinding the gears for a moment before the gear catches and we skip along. It winds up along the hillside, moving west toward Monrovia. Which is why we did not see the check point.
A check point! All it takes is a few boys with Kalashnikovs leaning up against a burnt out Chevy, I could see the camp fire and playing cards spread around. They must have been playing when they heard us grinding up the hill. I counted four five of them, each barely old enough for the hair to have grown between their legs.
“Go through! I whisper. Go through! The Dodge has a stout engine, and the road is narrow. If Tahiru accelerates them he will scatter them like tsetse flies. But he shakes his head, whispering “RPG”. I see the launcher pointing at us through the dry grass. Tahiru is right. We cannot run from. them. Even without the rocket, we cannot run. They have guns.
The leader is a small boy, his skin smooth except for a long scar on the right side of his neck. He stinks of heroin and has a string of gold rings hanging from his neck. Barely fifteen, his face is not that of a boy. I wonder if this one has ever laughed. He snarls as he approaches. “Do you have money? Winstons?”
Tahiru tries to speak, explaining that we have cabbages, that we are farmers. But the boy will not believe him “This is a big truck,” he continues. “You have money! Give it to me!.”
Maneru protests again when the boy to the left strikes him in the belly with his gun. Tahiru bellows like hippopatomus “Give me the money,” the leader repeats, his voice quiet, assured.
I feel fingers on my thighs and there are two boys beside me. I feel cold steel beneath my jaw as fingers creep up my skirt. I scream aloud.
“We have cabbages,” my husband screams aloud. Another voice cries out, and one of the boys feeling me moves to the back to the truck. The other stays where he is, hand forcing upon my clamp closed legs. Another cry and his hand withdraws. I see another man approach, with some kind of pistol, eyes hard.
“She has sex,’ the boy protests.
“She is a hag! There will be better for you.” I feel insulted, though thankful that we will not be violated.
One boy returns with a handful of fresh cabbage. The boys pass them around and everyone takes a bite. More boys run to the back and soon there are many cabbages piled up next to their abandoned cards.
“Leave the rest,” cries the man. “In town they will make money. They will be able to give us money when they return.”
“Why don’t we take the truck and sell it ourselves?” It is the smooth-faced boy. That we could keep everything?”
“Snoop Dog, do you want people to think you a cabbage farmer?”
For some reason they all laughed at this, and for a moment I relaxed. And then I felt the older man next to me. His sunglasses were close to my face. His fingers moved up my skirt, faster than I could clamp. Inside me, hurting. I will bleed tonight. “You make sure you get a good price,” he sneers before withdrawing. I lean forward on the dashboard, body shaking.
Tahiru understands and puts the old truck in gear, moving west, toward Monrovia. We hear them behind us and shake, wondering when they will start firing. But the bullets do not come, and soon they disappear from the mirrors.
“We must go home another way,” I whisper, still shaking.
“Yes, we must.” But I see in his eyes what we both know, that if the fighters are here, they will be everywhere.
I pray we get a good price for our cabbages.
Check points are a staple in countries where political violence is normal. If police or professional soldiers conduct the checkpoint they will at least be efficient, if demeaning. But in less well governed places, all you need to set a check point is a gun. Extortion can be very profitable.