Succeeding, Part 1 of 10

Two years ago I decided I wanted to tell the story of one of my closest friends, Jonathan Saah. At the time Jonathan was my driver. He now rents out his car to others, and has a rewarding job at a bank in Monrovia. With Jonathan’s permission, we did a series of interviews over a month, and I interviewed some of his friends and family. Then I wrote up his story. I’m embarrassed to admit I never did anything with the profile, so with Jonathan’s permission I’ve decided to post it on my blog. I have broken the profile down into ten sections. I will post one section a day, starting today.

I call the article “Succeeding” because it is about an attempt to do more than survive, in an environment when just surviving is an accomplishment in its own right. As always, I welcome feedback.


A recent intense and long bout of rain made it difficult for me to reach the internet café behind the Ministry of Youth and Sport. The trash-strewn dirt path had flooded with a foot of water. I had to locate angled rocks protruding from the water, and step strategically, leapfrogging until I was safely on higher and drier ground. Behind the Ministry there were women selling cucumbers and sweet peppers on woven mats. Artistically inclined children used sticks to draw in the mud. And there was a small shack with protruding wires that led to a large generator a few feet away. This was Jonathan Saah’s internet café—the culmination of a young Liberian man’s dream.

I met Jonathan soon after I moved to Liberia for a job with an international human rights organization. My new boss had sent me an email with Jonathan’s phone number, suggesting I contact him if I needed a driver. And I needed a driver. I was coming straight from Nigeria, where I had taken street taxis for my commute to work. I had awaited those daily adventures with a combined sense of amusement and dread; there were marriage proposals from taxi drivers and near-death experiences as taxis flew through the wide, empty roads of Abuja. My commute gave me regular blogging material, but when I got to Liberia I decided I was willing to forego the shock factor of telling friends back home about the risky life I was leading in the name of convenience, comfort, and safety. So I called Jonathan.

Jonathan and I immediately got along. He was friendly, articulate, and reliable. In a country where time is a loose concept framed by phrases like “I’m on my way” (meaning: I will be on my way in a little bit) and “I will be at your office at 10:00” (meaning: I will be at your office when I get there, if I can find transport, and if nothing more pressing comes up), Jonathan would show up a few minutes early.

Jonathan related to me in a way that other Liberians did not. Many Liberians treat white people with an unjustified reverence. This undeserved respect feels colonial, and, as one friend put it, makes you want to crawl out of your skin. Jonathan didn’t put me on a pedestal and this was refreshing. He was expressive and forthcoming, unafraid to put me in my place. He spoke his mind and asked questions. We were comfortable around each other.

But in Liberia, being reliable and affable and hard-working is not enough to succeed. Culture mandates an uncompromisable obligation to support extended family, and this makes saving money, and thus entrepreneurship, tricky. And meritocracy is shafted in favor of cronyism and nepotism. So how did a Liberian who grew up in poverty, unconnected to the political elite, manage to become an internet café owner and the darling of Liberia’s expatriate community?


2 thoughts on “Succeeding, Part 1 of 10

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