By Nvasekie N. Konneh (May 29th 2004)
|Note: I met a brother recently who told me how he was inspired by some of my articles that were published in local newspapers in Liberia. He asked whether those articles are still available. I told him that I still have old newspaper copies of most of my published articles. Among those articles, he asked me about is “Their Liberia, My Liberia.” This article was first published in the Monrovia Daily News newspaper on November 7, 1994. That was more than ten years ago. The same issue of intolerable tribal prejudice that existed back then is still around. It’s like a concrete barrier that will take a lot of effort to break down. However, little by little we shall continue our efforts until we see a Liberia that will accept all Liberians, irrespective of tribe or religion
If I must write my autobiography in time to come, the 3 rd of August 1994 will not be left out. This day is indeed significant to me. This day is the birthday of the legendary Dr. Wilmot Blyden (Blyden was also known as Abdul Karim when he converted to Islam). It was on this day I responded to my first major intellectual challenge. Perhaps many other challenges greater than this will come, but for the moment it stands as the greatest.
At about 4:00 PM on Monday, I received a verbal invitation to serve as a guest lecturer at Zion Community College (ZCC) in the Social Science class of Professor Williamson. At first I was dumbfounded. I trembled with surprise. Why me? From 4:00 PM that evening to 9:00 AM the next morning, I could count only fifteen hours. Not enough time to prepare for a lecture of any kind. At best, a week or two will give you enough time to adequately prepare yourself.
Professor Williamson is a Social Science instructor at ZCC and he had assigned one of his classes to do a research on the “Mandingoes.” The students’ findings should have everything about the Mandingoes, their culture, religion and their relationship with other Liberians, as well as their principal occupation. Isn’t that a very controversial topic for anyone in Liberia when the speaker is a Mandingo and his audience does not believe that “he too built Liberia.”? For the audience too, it is a controversial issue. It was they who were told to find their guest lecturer to speak on the topic. That search for a guest lecturer spotted me somehow.
The students’ assignment coincided with the publication of my article on the Mandingoes, a scholarly research that was a response to derogatory remarks made by Rev. Samuel Hill against the Mandingoes in Liberia. Many of those on this assignment might have read that article and thought I was the best person to handle the task at hand.
I won’t have gone there due to the lateness of the invitation. However, for several reasons, I decided to go. Among these reasons were, 1. My article has shown me, somehow, as an “authority” on the subject; 2. Should I fail to appear, it may raise some doubt as to whether I was the original author of the published article for which I am taking credit. The most elaborate recompense for having done something good is the coming of others to you to say they like something you have done. And many, except a few critics, have expressed an overwhelming sentiment of endorsement for what I am doing. Because of this, I found it compelling enough to go serve as the guest lecturer at this particular occasion, and 3. Isn’t it so prestigious and intellectually rewarding for me to appear as a guest lecturer at an institution in which I am still one of the students? After all, my more than 100 poems published, and dozens of other published articles should at least qualify me to serve as a guest lecturer to share my limited knowledge on some important issues, for no one is omniscient but God.
With this in mind, I arrived at ZCC’ AC Building some twenty minutes late. This was due to the difficulty of getting car during the morning rush hour. I met the class being warmed up by the professor himself, Mr. Williamson. I lightly greeted the class and the fellow who had contacted me the previous day acknowledged my presence. This was followed by an introduction of the program and myself by one of the students. Then everyone got ready for the “showdown.” I could feel an immediate tension from some quarters of the class. Consumed by prejudice, a section of the group greeted me with discourtesy, while the other section greeted me respectfully and seemed to be pleased with my presence. But I think guest lecturers/speakers should be received with open minds by those that invite them. Rare is the case that those inviting the guest lecturer/speaker already have their own version of the matter, however perverted that may be, and are only interested in putting their invitee on “trial.” In that sense I was like a lonely soldier in enemy territory. Nevertheless, I couldn’t be that scare for I was armed with enough facts to firebomb the hall. I had the published article, as well as the masterpiece, Christianity, Islam, and the African Race by the renowned scholar, Br. Abdul Karim (Dr. Wilmot Blyden). This book is composed of so much information about my Liberia whose existence is ignored by many people because of tribal prejudice.
After someone had read the class work, which I listened to very keenly and took some note, I began my lecture, preceded with some comments on the assignment. I was told to be brief because of time factor (I would be allowed to speak for only fifteen minutes). That would be an inconvenience for someone who has much to say, however, I decided to make the best of the allotted time. In this brief lecture, I touched on three issues: 1. the inseparableness of the terms Mandingo, Moslem, and Islam in the minds of most Liberians; Mandingoes’ presence in what is now called Liberia hundreds of years before the coming of the settlers who claim for themselves the title of “the founding fathers;” and 3. King Sao Bosso Kamara (Chief Boatswain) and his Mandingo Kingdom, etc. etc. All these are enough to the fact that Liberia belongs to the Mandingoes as much it belongs to any other ethnic group. This fact cannot be replaced by any invented fiction bordered on sheer prejudice.
My brief lecture was followed by questions from the inquisitive, unruly students who did everything they could to put me on the defensive, for I had offended their sense of value by accusing the “Christian conquerors” for the “wrong education” they imparted to other Liberians that question the citizenship of the Mandingoes/Moslems. One of the questions was “which county in Liberia do the Mandingoes originate from?” Though other questions were asked and answers accepted, this one was the most controversial and it consumed most of the question and answer period. Another important question was what were the sources of my information about “Chief Boatswain being a Mandingo.” To the first question I pointed out three counties, Bong, Nimba and Lofa. I said that though the Mandingoes could be found in most part of Liberia, their presence in the three counties named above and their involvement in local politic to some extent, their relationship with other ethnic groups, and the properties they own are enough prove they are integral parts of those counties. In other words, Mandingoes and other natives in these counties are inseparable, except in religion, which the Mandingoes have all along kept to themselves with no serious efforts to convert other tribes. The way the Mandingoes skillfully promote their trading towards and among others, if similar efforts were made with respect to their religion, many native Liberians would have been Moslems today and Christianity would not have had many followers and sympathizers among the natives as is the case today. The reason for this is that the Mandingoes have more in common with the natives than the strangers coming from across the ocean. Mandingoes’ unwillingness to carry on serious evangelism among other natives could be interpreted as having respect for the others’ religion of animism.
As clear cut as these answers to these questions were or seem to be, the questioners were not satisfied. They still pressed me for the Mandingoes’ original county (ties). I told them there was no county in Liberia exclusively populated by any single tribe. There may be one or two predominant tribes as is the case with the Kpellehs in Bong and Manos and Gios in Nimba and the Bassas in Grand Bassa Counties. In Lofa there are Lormas, Gissis, Golas, Mandingoes and others. Even Grand Bassa, which bears the name of the Bassa tribe, is not exclusively populated by the Bassas. Even Professor Williamson tried to enlighten his students on this but to no avail. He said the division of the country into counties is political in nature, and has nothing to do with ethnic factor. He cited Grand Kru, Rivercess, and Margibi Counties as typical examples. None of the facts would convince the diehard fools so consumed by ignorance and prejudice.
As for the sources of my information, I told them about Dr. Abayomi Casselle’s “Liberia, The First African Republic,” Dr. Blyden’s “Christianity, Islam and The African Race” and Nathaniel Richardson’s “Liberia’s Past and Present.” I told them that the history of Liberia is clear about the Mandingoes in Liberia and there are many books to prove but Liberians, especially the students, are so lazy to read them. Or may be they read but prejudice does not allow them to believe what they read.
After all this, I was pelted by the bigots so blinded by prejudice. Nothing would convince them that, “I too built Liberia,” and that “I too, I am a Liberian” just like them. I told them that my forebears suffered too to make Liberia what it is today. They screamed out loudly, “We don’t care what y’all do, you’re not citizens!” They went on screaming some more, “And you see what Krahn people doing to y’all, we going to flush y’all out of our country, y’all them foreigners; you want to take our country, our good Christian country from us.”
It sounds unimaginable that these ignorant hateful words would come out of the mouths of young college social science students. What kind of social scientists they are going to be when in fact it’s the social scientists that must help to answer the basic sociological questions of the society?
Their teacher urged them to free their minds of prejudice, but they won’t listen, accusing him of being on my side. One may not blame the students, for society teaches them to think so. Schools that should serve as bank of knowledge have given them very little or no chance at all to borrow. They graduate after twelve to fifteen years of schooling without any knowledge of their own history, while they will tell you how the white man met the Indians in America. They will tell you about Hollywood movie stars, Columbia musical stars, but will be dumb, blind and deaf about the existence of their native cousins, the Mandingoes. What a shame! The whole thing was to me a rude awakening to reality.
After the experience two young ladies followed me, raining insults on me, similar to the ones during the lecture. I talked to them and tried to get them to reason, but they won’t listen to anything from me, be it factual, reasonable, or otherwise. Not getting their understanding, I too got mad and started throwing back at them. “Some of you with these diabolical plans will not live to see the results of your wicked plans,” I said and meant it. I owe no one any apology for the remark, for I had been pushed enough and I couldn’t take any more of it.
These are the realities of my Liberia, a Liberia that exists outside the consciousness of my fellow Liberians. These brought to my mind many scenes of the recent past. Scenes of terrible experience for people simply because they are of this group or that group and belong to this or that religion. The immigration checkpoints, false cases of police and criminal connivance, the negative media propaganda, all of which amount to national conspiracy backed by international forces to eliminate my kind? All amount to fifteen tribes versus one tribe. No matter how much contribution I have made to the creation and development of this nation, they ignore it, making it look like I am a “Johnny Just Come (JJC).”
The war executed for my elimination has so far failed to eliminate me. Now the troubling question for my brothers is how come I am not dead, but still living, competing with them for the positions of director, minister, and even the presidency. They are surprised or amazed to see a trader-turned director, minister, or president. To them that is unimaginable. But to the nature of human beings, it is imaginable but they know not. Or do they feel I am not human enough to be able to do what any other person can do?
The main message of the whole experience of August 3 rd is that Liberia has got its Mandingo problem just like Germany with its Jewish problem, America with its Black problem, or Israel with its Palestinian problem. It will take the good in every one of us to solve this problem. Together as one people, we will be able to build a wholesome society. This is my appeal to my generation, some of whom were with me in the hall treating me with discourtesy. May Allah guide all of us as we strive to rebuild our country from the ravages of this brutal, ethnic-religious war. For no matter what we do, this is their Liberia, this is my Liberia, and this is all of us Liberia. By living together and loving each other like brothers and sisters, we will be able to reach to the top, just as America has done.
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 .