Joe Brown doesn't know much about Charles Taylor, blood diamonds, or the International Criminal Court at The Hague where Taylor faces charges of crimes against humanity. But he does know where to find some of the best surfing breaks in Liberia. "The waves are just coming down. But they are very good in Robertsport," says Brown, 13, as he peels his lunch of raw cassava in water from the Atlantic. "Sometimes it gets as big as a tree. People surf here every weekend. White people. And we have our own surfboards. I surf myself."
Brown sits in the sand in a green Adidas soccer jersey, tan swimming trunks and blue flip-flops, staring out at the tepid surf off a beach where 10-foot barrels regularly break. Like many Liberian children, his gaze suggests he has seen more horrors than most of the world's 13-year-olds. Early in 2003, his family made their escape from Robertsport along this immaculate stretch of coast, walking the beaches all the way to the capital, Monrovia. They were escaping the rebel group LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development, which had overrun the town and set up a regional headquarters. Rebel fighters moved into local homes, took local women as their "wives" and made children carry equipment and weapons. The Brown family decided they'd be safer in the capital, even though it was held by Charles Taylor's forces.
After the war, they returned to Robertsport, fishing mackerel and farming cassava to survive. For young Joe, the end of the fighting meant going back to school and, when visiting American surfers left him and other locals several boards in 2005, a new pastime.
When he's not in class, Joe a Congo, or direct descendant of freed American slaves can be found here, with his friends, on Cassava Beach. There's not much else to do in Robertsport, some 50 miles west of Monrovia, where hillside villas and 19th century churches decay in the tropical heat.
On this weekend day, Joe and Morris Gross, 11, also a Congo Liberian, ask several off-duty development workers whether they could borrow their spare boards to surf. The surfers decline, perhaps observing the boundaries that many Westerners set between themselves and the local population or maybe they were disturbed by the fact that Brown had appeared on the scene clutching a shattered light bulb.
Recently, he snapped the fins on his board on the black rocks that poke out of the water near some of the best breaks. With no surf shop in this tiny nation where the unemployment rate is 85% and where 39% of the population is lacking a safe water supply, Brown could only watch longingly as the NGO workers dropped in on the day's waves.
"When these guys ding their boards up, they put 'em back together with tree sap and packing tape," says surfer Luke Deese, 31, a teacher from Eugene, Oregon, who runs a bachelor's degree program in Monrovia. "You work with you've got."
But surfing isn't the only reason Brown and his friends are on the beach. When the ocean calms, he joins other men and boys as they haul massive nets onto the beaches. One head of mackerel will bring in 1000 Liberian dollars, or about $1.30. On a good week he can net 35 fish. On a bad week when the waves kick up and fishing becomes impossible he goes surfing (if he can find a board).
At day's end, a boat with sails stitched together from rice bags passes over the horizon. The sun would set soon, leaving Robertsport like much of this nation pitch dark, save for the few buildings equipped with generators.
Brown follows the Western surfers back to their SUVs, hoping to make some change carrying their boards. In a few weeks, the rainy season will begin and the waves will peak. Brown pins his hopes on the reappearance of his American benefactors.
For now, with a broken board and some of the best waves in Africa, Brown could only watch and wait. "Life," he says, "is hard." In a nation so broken by brutality, where the victims and perpetrators of the crimes for which Taylor is being tried continue to mingle on the streets and in the corridors of power in Monrovia, it is Joe Brown and his generation that carry its best hopes.