By Nvasekie N. Konneh (April 12th 2005)
The name Wilton Sankawulo, along with that of Bai T. Moore, is a well-known name in Liberia . Most of us growing up and going to school in Liberia got our introduction to African literature reading Sankawulo’s “Why Nobody Knows When He Will Die” and Bai T. Moore’s “Murdered In the Cassava Patch.” Between 7 th and 9 th grades, both books were required reading for me.
While “Why Nobody Knows When He Will Die” and “The Rain and The Night” are folklores, Mr. Sankawulo’s latest work, “Sundown At Dawn, Liberian Odyssey,” is something remarkably different. This time he comes across as a protest writer. It showcases a clash of cultures, African versus European.
The lead character, known variously as Zurong, Joseph Crusoe, Joseph Denise, and finally as Dougba Senfenui Jr., is the narrator who narrates the dramas and events that unfold in the novel. The various names are meaningful because they define the different developmental stages in the narrator’s life. His parents call him Zurong. When he goes to school, Joseph Crusoe becomes his Kwi name. When he is adopted by an Americo-Liberian family and taken to Monrovia , his last name changes to Denis. And finally as a tribute to his father and appreciation of his culture, he drops the Kwi name in favor his father’s country name.
Oldman Dougba Sanfenui wants his son to go to school to learn the way of the Kwi world, a world that exists beyond their traditional Kpelleh world. He hopes that with education his son would be a member of the Kwi society thereby escaping the unfortunate fates of most of his peers whose parents “want them to be farmers, hunters, fishermen, or member of the poro society.” In order to inform his son about his plan for him, he uses a fictional character, Ngalakemeni, as a motivational story. He tells his son that Ngalakemeni “finished school in Kwi people’s big town called Ducor” and as a result, the president made him a DC (District Commissioner) in Salala District. In such a prominent position, Ngalakemeni became the main support to his family. With Nglakameni’s success in mind, the oldman motivates his son to learn so he too can be a “big man in the Kwi world” some days to come.
Oldman Dougba is demanded by the village to sacrifice his son but the Ancestral Shrine does not accept him because he is an “only son.” In place of his son he is required to bring “full grown bull, and ten pounds to redeem” him. The father worrying about where to find those requested items coincides with the government backed white missionary efforts to spread “civilization” among the native population through schools. Each town is to provide certain number of their children for this. So in the opinion of those that decide his fate, “sending him to school was like killing him,” thereby saving the father the “impossible redemption fees” for his son.
With the motivation from his father and the promise he makes to him to go to school, Zurong goes through many years of challenges and hardship to “finish school.” When he finally “finished school,” he turns down the opportunity to go to the Kwi world or America . Rather, he chooses to remain with his people to help them. His efforts to spread the Kwi way among his people is where he meets with stiff resistance from those who don’t want anything to do with the “alien culture.” His intention for his people may be right, but they misunderstand him. His case is even made worst by a senator who sees his efforts to bring enlightenment and development to his people as a challenge to his political leadership. This Senator manipulates the fear and suspicion of the local population that leads to the destruction of the school Dougba had built to educate the children of the area.
The educated son from Haindi, who has the audacity to question the government’s neglect of its responsibility, finally ends up in Belle Yallah where he meets other political prisoners who have been arrested and condemned. During their time of incarceration, most of those prisoners mysteriously disappear, leaving Dougba to tell their stories while still incarcerated.
In the book, no direct reference is made to the Radical 70s or the 1980 coup in which the 127 year rule of the apartheid-like Americo-Liberian regime is overthrown, but it speaks of an imminent native rebellion against the “system” as far back as the 50s. In their prison cell in Belle Yallah, Dougba and his fellow cellmates often talk about this rebellion as the only way to end the Americos’ dominance of the natives. Taking that into consideration, it’s fair to say that the 1980 coup was a long time coming. It was something that was bound to happen given the ways things were. Even though it may be argued that beginning with President Tubman through President Tolbert, the Americo-native divide were being bridged, it could also be argued that however good President Tolbert tried to right the wrongs, it wasn’t enough to neutralize the anger and resentment that had been built over the years as a result of more than hundred years of an oppressive minority rule. We may then say that President Tolbert was killed more for the sins of the past.
“Sundown At Dawn, A Liberian Odyssey,” is by far Professor Sankawulo’s most important work, in terms of the issues it touches, namely, the clash of African and western cultures, and political protest against the system of injustice.
The question one may ask the renown professor is “why now and not then?” If the novel had been published in the 60s or early 70s, he would have emerged as one of the champions of the native Liberians’ resistance against the minority Americo-Liberian backward oppressive regime. It would have placed him in the rank of such renowned African writers as Chinua Achebe of Nigeria or Nguggi wa Thiong’o of Kenya. The passionate resistant spirit demonstrated by Mr. Sankawulo in this novel does not match with the Sankawulo we know. The Sankawulo we know is someone who wrote folklores, worked within the system, and finally became an appointed leader of the rebel dominated government in which he was just a nominal head while the real powers lied with the rebel leaders. By writing this novel, Professor Sankawulo has proven that one can be a compliant servant in the “system” and still harbor that feeling of resentment and rebellion and the time may not matter when to show it.
About the author:
Nvasekie N. Konneh is a Liberian writer, and active duty personnel in the United States Navy. He’s currently assigned on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier based in Norfolk , Virginia . Nvasekie Konneh is the author of the book of poetry, “Going To War For America .” He’s working on his second book, “So Far Away On The Distant Sea .” He is also the Future Editor of the Limany Web Publication, www.limany.org . He can be reached at KonnLove@aol.com ; Konnehnn@eisenhower.navy.mil , or Nvaskonn@netscape.net .