Recipe for Romance

I didn’t come to Monrovia to learn about romance.


There’s nothing romantic about roadside stacks of pungent fish and mountains of trash and feces, perpetual sweat and lethargy and inhaling exhaust, incessant car horns and the chaos of motorbikes zipping in between cars and into oncoming traffic.


Sure, there’s the mango trees’ ripening yellow fruit. There are the women selling Liberian peppers, roasted corn, and fresh okra in the palm tree shade. There are the cozy mornings when the power goes out, silencing the world, except for the consistent rhythm of pouring rain and crashing waves.


But it’s not a pleasant city.


I’ve come to realize that I’ve romanticized every city I’ve ever visited. Glorified memories I have of these places. In an effort to honor reality, though, I find there is nothing romantic about Monrovia.


The city’s history of war is evident in grimy concrete buildings wounded with bullet holes, and in the occasional twenty-something year-old soldier-turned-beggar-amputee pounding what’s left of his arms against the passenger window of another UN vehicle. It’s understood in the overwhelming international effort to address the mass rape that happened here.


Monrovia’s an unlikely place for a twenty-five year-old woman to learn a thing or two about romance.




I have never been in love. It’s because I’m terrified of romance. Molestation does that to a person—takes the romance out of intimacy, I mean.


There’s shame, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s realizing after a decade that what happened happened. It’s spending four years forgiving oneself and learning for the first time that one’s sexuality isn’t dirty or for someone else. It’s learning that sexuality is natural and feminine and beautiful. And for me, too.




People don’t come to Monrovia to find love, but some happen upon romance.


They are impermanent, these people. NGO expats have earned their pats on the back after a few years in Monrovia. They coldly—and curiously—eye researchers who pass through in the summers with their bug spray and bright ideas. The consultants stay for a week or so, engrossed in their iPhone agendas and weather reports. And the UN personnel stay for months or years at a time, showcasing an array of sexy foreign accents and intercultural understanding.


Impermanence fosters an alternative reality here. It’s marked by unattached flirting, uncommitted sex, uncharacteristic courage, and, somehow, deep honesty. People are human here.




Lyra didn’t come to Monrovia to find romance. Her stint overlaps with the one-year anniversary of her fiancé’s death. He was a manly man; he could chop wood and fix cars. And he also loved biking and baking. He made the world’s best cornbread and always set an extra place at the dinner table for an unexpected guest. He fought for indigenous people’s rights and could talk about Nietzsche and Kant all night. “He always heard everything I didn’t say,” Lyra remembered.


 “From the core of my being,” he once told her.  They promised themselves to each other in the Wyoming woods six days before the car accident.


She’s spent most nights here with an American police officer.  He’s a gun-loving Christian with a high school diploma. She’s an Oxford-educated trilingual liberal.


Packing an overnight bag, she explained to me, “I know there will never be another man like James, which is how I can justify emotionless sex. It’s a distraction from knowing what I would’ve shared with him about this city.”


But he’s falling in love with her.




Sriti didn’t find romance in Monrovia, but she’s thought about him everyday here. She is an Indian UN peacekeeper living with her comrades in one of Charles Taylor’s old guest mansions. We sat in the marble lounge, sipping chai tea as my friend and I taught her some English phrases.


“I’m learning English on the internet,” she said, grinning. Then, looking around and lowering her voice, “I want you to teach me words for flirting.”


Two years ago, she met her boyfriend on an airplane. She had changed her seat to be near him. Though drawn to her, he was taken aback by her bold profession of what she thought of him. “He has all the qualities. He is handsome, good singer, good speaker. And he talks humorously.”


They chat on Yahoo! while she’s here, where she practices new phrases like, “I miss you,” and, “You’re cute.” Later, she showed us a photograph of her unsmiling husband and two children.




Ana didn’t come to Monrovia to find romance. She is happily married to her sweetheart of ten years who she met when they were teenagers, picking summer blackberries with friends on a Czech mountain.


She didn’t plan to be attracted to the German she met on a car ride to Liberia’s interior. She never told me his name or the extent of their relationship, but I gathered it was a mutual attraction and nothing more.


“I’m a good girl,” she explained, even though I already knew this about her. “I love my husband very much.” She paused.  “The thing is, it’s not my husband I’m worried about. What bothers me is being unfair to the German.”




I was beginning to understand this sentiment. Life in Monrovia is separate from life back home. It is temporary and distant.


Ana’s indication of this separateness isn’t the first I’ve learned of here. I have befriended an American military observer who has been in and out of war and post-war zones with the U.S. Army for years. His wife and three daughters in Montana don’t have patience when the Skype connection is bad.


“Tell me this. Did your dad ever leave you when you were a little girl?” He succeeded in shutting me up. He had become increasingly agitated with each question I asked about his family. They weren’t part of his life here, so it was better not to talk about it.


He goes through the motions of fatherhood and marriage in his short time at home, but “they don’t understand,” he said. He is alive here, cussing with his buddies and sharing stories of Afghani friends. They joked about the Liberian prostitutes we passed on Tubman Road after a night of dancing. It had taken a few Heinekens, but when I finally got him on the dance floor, he moved and laughed and refused to leave. He was alive, and his wife and daughters wouldn’t understand.




I found romance in Monrovia, but that’s not what I came here for. It was liberating but short-lived; he’s a permanent resident, and I’m passing through.


Another long-term expat explained to me that in Monrovia, one person enters the relationship searching for a partner, while the other is looking for a summer fling. It doesn’t work.


“When you come to Monrovia, you’re prepared for the poverty you’ll see, but you’re not prepared for the loneliness that comes with heartbreak,” she said. “And when you get your heart broken, you feel selfish grieving over it because there are more important things here that deserve your grief.”


So, people don’t come to Monrovia to find love. Though some do happen upon romance. Life here is unnatural, but I’m understanding romance in its natural rawness.


There is no make-up, no cologne, and no small talk over lattes. No awkward first dates or wondering who’ll make the first move. No rules or expectations.


For those passing through, there’s an acceptance of brevity. One-night stands and summer-long affairs. There’s mutual understanding but no commitment. There’s no guilt, really, and that’s okay.


In simplest terms, there is instinct. There is intimacy. There is complicity. There is sexuality. There are people.


And there’s a little bit of sweat.


Monrovia’s an unlikely place for a twenty-five year-old woman to learn a thing or two about romance.