A Cultural Paradigm for Liberia's Reconstruction
2007-02-14, Issue 291
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As Liberia emerges as a new nation with competing resource priorities it needs to look back to it’s past cultural traditions particularly in the area of education, in order to move forward. Children should be taught “traditional arts, music, literature, religions, languages” and most importantly the ancient and modern history of Liberia, argues Doeba Bropleh.
There are many competing resource allocation priorities for Liberia as the country emerges from years of corruption, political instability, and civil conflict: education, shelter, food, economic revitalization, reintegration of former refugees and combatants, security, rebuilding infrastructure… the list is long. While each of the listed elements is important, for Liberia to develop, it has to use a foundation that includes an “expanded cultural perspective”. My premise is that economic growth, without a unifying cultural base, will lead to a bland society, one suffering from a lack of character and susceptible to further degradation.
As Liberia rebounds from the socio-economic and political carnage wrought by corruption, instability, and war, the country needs to reverse the dilution of its heritage. The Liberian identity should be reshaped to include more aboriginal cultural markers: there was learning before western-styled education; religion before the missionaries; and an economy before capitalism. Cultural truth is where salvation resides – Liberia needs to reach back in order to leap forward. This process may be uncomfortable at the onset, but, like birth, first there is pain, then joy.
Liberian identity, forged primarily from two disparate groups – freed American slaves (settlers) and indigenous people – developed in a lopsided manner because of the dominance of the settlers, even though they were the minority. Wrapped in western culture, which is all they knew, the settlers collided with and distorted the prism of the country’s “pre-settler” value systems. Various degrees of “westernization” were demanded from the natives before they were granted access – albeit limited – to the corridors of society, which were all controlled by the settlers. In the process, textured indigenous tradition and mores were shunned for foreign/imported ones.
Though Liberia was never directly colonized, the weakening of its native tradition was accelerated by the intrusion of western nations. The neo-colonialists’ “dark continent” outlook had insidious ramifications. In his book “Decolonizing the Mind”, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the esteemed Kenyan writer, discussed the “cultural bomb” of imperialism. He stated that: “The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.” In her essay “Africa”, Maya Angelou, the renowned American writer outlined that: “The slaves too soon began to believe what their masters believed: Africa was a continent of savages.” It was some of these same slaves – armed with their altered worldview – that eventually resettled in what we now know as Liberia. Conflict was inevitable. Culture, however, provides a homogenizing glue that helps bind a multi-ethnic society, such as Liberia’s, creating a collective conscience buttressed by self-love and pride. Shared experiences and commonality work to humanize members of a community; thereby, moderating tensions which may arise. An “expanded cultural perspective” could aid in neutralizing the settler-versus-native rift that has plagued the country since its inception.
The sewing of cultural fabric does not require the suppression of intra-group differences however. On the contrary, the quilt should be expansive and inclusive enough to showcase the best from its various sub-groups, while respecting their idiosyncrasies. Such an approach acknowledges the contributions of all and signals equanimity between members of a society. This, in turn, fosters “buy-in” from each sector and gives people a product they can, and want to identify with. Many sub-groups (Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba, to name a few) influence Nigerian culture, yet each maintains a distinctive heritage of its own. While Liberian culture does have facets of this phenomenon, it could use more. This fabric though, only becomes durable if customs, traditions, history are truly shared, and if there is an awareness of these mutual elements. Hence, my proposed cultural paradigm for Liberia’s reconstruction calls for a holistic approach, plus aggressive, focused teaching and subscription to Liberian culture and history. This orientation will help Liberia develop the nationalistic audacity to question foreign socio-economic, political, legal, and religious systems, instead of accepting them carte blanche. Respect, especially from outsiders, is reserved for a people imbued with self-knowledge and pride.
One medium that can be used to jump-start this cultural awakening is the formal education system. Traditional arts, music, literature, religions, languages… should be taught in schools. The teaching of Liberian History – an integral part of cultural development – needs to be broad and rigorous, not the truncated version I was fed in junior and high school. The historical time line should be stretched to include the Liberian moment prior to the American Colonization Society’s resettlement plan for a select group of freed American slaves, which began in the 1820’s. Every person who attends school in Liberia should be aware of how the various tribes got to the area now known as Liberia, and what occurred in the territory before the arrival of Portuguese explorers in 1461. Instead of the romanticized, revisionist stories of settlers-repelling-natives”, former combatants – my young brothers and sisters, exploited as pawns in Liberia’s recently ended 14-year civil war – need to learn about the tribal internecine conflicts of yesteryear. The adage continues to hold true: a people unaware of the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them.
Language is a cultural agent that needs to be strengthened in Liberia. S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko II, an instructor at the University of Liberia, addressed this issue well in his essay, “Literary Education and Canon Formation: The Liberian Experience.” In that piece he wrote that: “There is a need to create schools of Liberian languages and performing arts at the University of Liberia as a means of promoting Liberian culture.” Duworko went on to argue that students from elementary to high school should also be exposed to Liberian languages and literary works. He stated: “This exposure will give them a broad view of their own culture and will help them to have a sense of pride in their heritage.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o, (who now primarily writes in his native Gikuyu instead of English), asserts that the loss of language is a loss of culture. He declared that: “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” The politics of language and its role in the preservation of culture reminds me of the late Liberian President William Tolbert’s much-ridiculed “Kpelle” effort, which was implemented in the late 70’s. This was when it was made policy for Kpelle – an indigenous Liberian language – to be taught in schools. For most of us in school at that time, learning Kpelle was our first and only exposure to a written aboriginal language. History will judge President Tolbert as a visionary for mandating the teaching of a traditional language. Now is a good time to reconstitute native language programs in schools.
In addition to the formal education component, the country’s heritage can also be brought to the fore through the promotion of traditional dress (current Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s simple, but highly visible act of wearing African attire sends positive self-esteem messages), food, visual arts, music, dance, literature and orature. The heritage needs to be accessible to people in their everyday lives. The South American country of Venezuela recently implemented a program that calls for the inclusion of traditional content in various outlets (television, radio, theaters, museums). Liberia could use that idea to create its own cultural content programming. While strong cultural cognizance alone will not prevent conflict, it is a practical way to reduce the chances of recidivism into lawlessness. And, if knowledge of the total “Liberian Self” cannot stop the outbreak of future hostilities, it can at least help lessen the resulting devastation. Greed will always be a threat, but it makes sense that a people connected by an “expanded” knowledge of self is less likely to destroy that which it loves. A people, bound by common purpose and drenched in homegrown pride – requirements for cohesive nationalism, collective conscience – would think before ruining their collaborative creation.
This new paradigm assumes more relevance given the exponential growth of the Liberian Diaspora since 1980, when many Liberians began relocating out of the country due to its civil and political conflict. The cultural renaissance suggested in this article could work to lure some citizens back, who could help with the country’s reconstruction. The shift to include a wider, more representative swath of Liberian tradition benefits the country three-fold: a) reduces the potential for a return to conflict; b) gives citizens the confidence to discriminate as to what is placed in the country’s “cultural canon”; and c) provides the foundation to move the country forward.
Many people have and continue to be dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Liberian culture. A few of the voices that have agitated in this realm are: Miatta Fahnbulleh; Fatu Gayflor (singers); Joseph Gbaba; Peter Ballah; Womi Neal; Konah Khasu (dramatists); Bai T. Moore; Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley; Wilton Sankawulo; and K-Moses Nagbe (writers and teachers). Let the teachers teach it, writers chronicle, singers harmonize about it, medicine men, and yes, the preachers preach about Liberia’s cultural vitality. I am beginning to feel better about myself just by thinking about it.
* Doeba Bropleh is a Liberian currently based in California, USA
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