At this point in his writing career, Jonny Steinberg must be the confirmed envy of his peers. His latest book, Little Liberia – An African Odyssey in New York, published by Jonathan Ball came out recently to critical acclaim. This is a serious piece of writing – taking him all of two years – yet he manages to deliver it to the reader like it was a light work of fiction. It is an easy read, highly enjoyable.
He brings us into this community of Liberians in New York City, people bearing scars – both emotional and physical – from a civil war that raged like it was never intended to stop. His incisive pen allows the reader access into the very soul of this little nation-in-exile; their hopes, fears and dreams.
Through the individual stories of Jacob Massaquoi and Rufus Arkoi that he follows back and forth between Monrovia and New York with meticulous attention to detail, Steinberg brings the ghosts of a hurt people to life. Some on Park Hill Avenue – the Little Liberia in the US, would rather die across the waters than risk life and limb to go back home. Others, like Rufus, harbour big dreams – to return to Liberia and run for President!
Rufus’ story reads, in part, like the life story of Liberia’s greatest football player ever, George Weah.
But while Rufus excelled on the administrative side of the game, Weah, who went on to turn out for such prestigious European sides as AC Milan and was World Footballer of The Year at one time, played in the Liberian leagues. Rufus ran his teams with an iron fist.
Even in this book, all he knows how to unite his countrymen and make them human again is to organize them into football teams; boys and girls and whoever else isn’t limping from the civil war, like Jacob.
This is a book about rebuilding shattered lives and lifting up those who think they have nothing to live for anymore. Between them, Jacob and Rufus contest the turf for leadership, each marking off his territory like an animal pissing around its own. They study, acquire college degrees, encourage the children in Little Liberia to follow suit, run charity organizations and pray for the best.
It is a people in the Diaspora who heckle a little-known Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as she tries to address them. The jury is still out on whether, as President now, she’s managed to build a Liberia safe enough to empty Park Hill Avenue.
Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City. by Jonny Steinberg is a tale of the ravages of war; the gore and the gunfire merely piggyback on the prose.