As part of our homework for AgriCorps, we are required to read a few different books so that we can become familiar with the history and culture of Liberia. One of the books on the required reading list was “The House at Sugar Beach” by Helene Cooper. In this memoir, the author details what life was like for her growing up as an Americo-Liberian in the mid to late-20th century, a critical time in the country’s history as they underwent two civil wars and much political unrest (see my post on Liberia’s history to fully understand the setting in which this story takes place).
Helene Cooper was born in 1966 in Monrovia, Liberia. She was the descendant of two historically and politically prominent families- the Johnsons and the Coopers (both of which were members of the original group of settlers of freed slaves that were repatriated back to Africa in the early 1800s). Because of this heritage, Helene Cooper was a member of the elite group often refereed to as “Congo people” who spoke American (or “proper”) English, were members of the government, owned large plantations, typically had lighter colored skin, held Protestant beliefs, lived in wealthy areas and could afford to send their kids to private schools, etc. In other words, Helene Cooper was living the Liberian dream.
Her family moved to their custom built mansion, aka the House at Sugar Beach, when she was young. The mansion was so big though and so far away from the city, little Helene often had nightmares. In order to solve this problem, her parents “hired” for her a new live-in sister. Her new sister, Eunice Bull, was a child of a poor indigenous woman in a nearby town. Eunice’s mother, who already had 6 children, readily gave her up to live in the House at Sugar Beach because she knew that with the Cooper family, her daughter would never have to worry about where her next meal was coming from and would have access to an education and a lifestyle that she could never afford.
Eunice and Helene lived mainly carefree, attending private schools, taking lavish vacations, flirting with boys and then breaking their hearts, going to the movies on the weekends and buying all the latest clothes, that is until the military coup led by an indigenous in 1980 disrupted the peace. Pretty soon, Helene and her family were the targets of attack. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. Her uncle was executed on live television for his association with the previous government, her father was chased after and fined, and her mother…her mother was gang-raped in attempts to protect Helene and Eunice from such vulgarity. Luckily though, shortly after the political unrest began,some members of the Cooper family (Helene and her mother included) were able to flee to the United States for safety. Helene’ sister Eunice was returned to her birth mother and left to fend for herself in a country undergoing one of Africa’s most bloody civil wars in history.
Life in the US was difficult at first but Eunice eventually adjusted. While she was in the US, her mother would periodically return to Liberia in order to collect money from all the tenants staying at their various rental homes. Sometimes her mother would be gone for months at a time and the stories that she came back with we horrific. Internally, Helene began to separate herself from the chaos that was her home country, she was embarrassed by what it had become and also guilty for having left Eunice behind. When she got to college, she preferred to be referred to as the journalist from Greensboro rather than a journalist from Liberia. Eventually, when Helene was in her late-twenties, she renounced her citizenship to Liberia, forfeiting her troublesome Liberian passport and opting for an American one instead.
She traveled all over the world to many countries and even covered a few different wars (including the Iraq war in 2003) but always staying away from Africa. Meanwhile, Liberia descended further into a “war-torn third-world hell.” It wasn’t until she found herself in a near-death situation in the middle of the night in a desert in Iraq that she realized it was finally time for her to return home to Liberia (and Eunice), over 20 years after she had left. When she finally did return to Liberia, she was able to come face-to-face with some of the inequality and injustice to which she had grown numb to over the years. “At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor’s gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.”
I (Anna) personally really enjoyed the book. It was a great mixture of historical accounts of the founding of Liberia mixed in with stories about what life was like growing up in the midst of such a tragic and devastating war. I laughed with Helene as she talked about her failed attempts at flirting with boys (been there, sister!) and I cried with her as she got on a plane and left her sister behind in a war-torn country. All of it, whether funny or serious, helped to put the current situation of Liberia into perspective and I hope that it has made me more sensitive to the cultural, social, and political issues that I am sure to encounter during my time living in this country.