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My Personal Experience with Oppong

By Lorraine Mason

After much thought and consideration, I’ve decided to give an account of my run-in/encounter with President elect, George Manneh Weah.  An endorsement? I don’t possess the prowess to do that.  But I do know that he made an impression on me about 25 years ago.

            It was December 1993, and I was on my way to Liberia to fulfill a death-bed promise to my mother about her children caught up in the agony of war. A promise to make certain they were safe and to follow through on her dream of bringing them safely to the United States. She passed away late February and by late December, I was embarking on that journey. 

            I traveled seamlessly into Abidjan from New York. But if you’ve ever traveled within Africa, you’ll come to understand that air travel is much more complexed than experienced in most other places. This was further complicated by the war in Liberia.  I knew, prior to my arrival, that there would be no connecting flights between Abidjan and Monrovia for a day or two.  Well, a day or two became almost a week; chomping away at my planned 2-week stay. Repeated trips to Houphouet  Boigny Airport resulted in being turned away to return another day. Reasons given for not flying out included, not enough passengers to fill the plane on some days and it was deemed unsafe to travel to Liberia on others.

            On one of my many treks to the airport, in the off chance that Air Afrique would finally be in a state of readiness, I found myself thrust in a throng of people excitedly chanting, “Oppong!” “Oppong!”  As I made my way through the crowd, I noticed there in their midst, stood a sable-faced young man smiling sheepishly, interacting, shaking hands, and chatting. Until then, I had never heard the name “Oppong.” So it was unfamiliar and meant nothing to me.  But my curiosity was peaked. I inquired, and was told he was a football (soccer) player from Europe on his way to Liberia.

            As had been the case throughout the week, we were told again that there were no flights into Monrovia but that a Russian cargo plane was flying in to make delivery. There were only 3 seats on the plane and anyone wanting to, could trade one travel option for the other.  I jumped at the chance since I had already spent Christmas in the Ivory Coast and risked missing out on the new year or not entering Liberia at all. Ticket in hand, I hurried up the stairs of the propellered engine plane. There in the landing was the sable-faced “rock star” waiting to help me on.  The plane was drab, dark, and chockful of whatever cargo was on board. Other than the pilot, we were three on the flight: Oppong, another gentleman and me.  While we all sat in close proximity to each other, I was seated next to Oppong. I eagerly accepted the seat since I wanted to know more about this guy who had drawn quite a crowd. I wanted to know who he was and his claim to fame.

            Always the conversation starter, I learned a lot about him that day over the humming sounds of the propellers. For example, that he had chartered the plane and that the cargo on the plane was his for the people of Liberia. That he was a world-renowned Liberian soccer player in Europe (volunteered by the third passenger). That he was from across the bridge (can’t quite say I remember where exactly). I shared with him my familiarity of Logan Town, Slipway, and a trip to West Point and New Kru Town (a must-see) before leaving for the States. Without saying so, he seemed somewhat surprised, perhaps even disappointed that I might not have heard of him. I explained that I’d left Liberia shortly after the coup and that this was my first trip home. It was then that he disclosed that he had overheard the urgency of my needing to get to Liberia.; providing the opportunity to travel home with just a few days to spare. He spoke of it then, and never mentioned it again. Instead, we discussed the travesty of war especially on the children. He explained in depth the works of his charity. With my prompting, he shared with me that he was married and that his wife (a Jamaican) often visited Liberia doing charitable duties in the interest of children. I playfully made reference to the fact that his wife was not a Liberian. That, he said, was not for a lack of trying.  Social constraints get in the way sometimes. Our conversation was good-natured in tone and I found him to be equally gregarious and humble-not volunteering much about himself, but willing to give in to my curiosities and inquiries. We both marveled at the beautiful lush land beneath us as we descended into Spriggs Payne and made small talk as we parted ways. We exchanged information and promised to stay in touch. But as life goes, it didn’t happen.

            Over the past 25 years, I have recounted this experience to friends and family as allowed. That the man on that Russian cargo plane headed for Liberia who spared a seat for a stranger, was purpose-driven, well-meaning, and crisp in articulating his mission to stay connected while sustaining the hope of those caught up in the throes of war.

            So recently I’ve asked myself more than ever before, what if during his endeavors, Liberia’s leaders had embraced his efforts, recognized him for his humanitarian good will, acknowledged his accomplishments in the way the rest of the word did instead of pigeon-holing him? Because when in the midst of war, when all we ever heard about Liberia were killings and devastations, he gave us a reason to be proud. Proud, because he illuminated and shone glowingly for all the world to see. And offered us a much-needed distraction-something else to talk about.  Yet, we chewed and spat him out-lauding him one moment for his athletic accomplishments but shamelessly circulating unflattering moments of his life.

            What if we had done the right thing for the child who, with raw talent, pulled himself up by his boot straps and made a man of himself? What if instead of maligning him and his inabilities/shortcomings, we had recognized that he too desired more for himself and for the people whose hope he sustained?   So as these desires take form, let us not fail to recognize them as yet another opportunity to do the right thing.

In union strong success is sure. We cannot fail!