By Nvasekie N. Konneh (December 05 2005)
|"...We got to the center of Saclepea where I grew up as a child. We used to play hide and seek, sometime with the girls, other time with our crowd of boys... "
Until my recent visit, my last time of visiting Saclepea, my birthplace, was November 1989. Barely a month later, there was a rumor of war. As the rumor became a reality, my folks fled the town, with some coming to Monrovia and other going to Guinea and Ivory Coast. Most of them left, thinking that things would be over soon and they would return home. Since then, many have not made it back. Some like my father, Ngoamilleh Konneh, died longing for the home they couldn’t go back to. Some went back to settle when Taylor became president, hoping that the war was over and that peace and reconciliation would be the order of the day. At the end of the day, they were chased out. This made headline news in Liberia but no action was taken to address the problem.
August 2005 made it ten years since I left Liberia. In those ten years, I visited Liberia once and for only two days in 1998. Since then, I had always hoped to visit Liberia. I couldn’t think of doing so when Taylor was in power. Since I was serving in the U.S Navy at the time, I could not get a leave approved to visit Liberia because of the unfavorable security condition and going there would have been a personal risk. This, plus the fact that I had written articles that were critical of the Taylor regime and had participated in demonstrations against the regime convinced me that I would be arrested if I had visited. Given the current political climate, I visited Liberia in October 2005. Even though my visit coincided with the campaign season, my visit to Liberia was primarily to visit families and friends I had not seen for all these years. And may be to experience the place and to feel at home once again. As it’s obvious, my visit to Liberia wouldn’t be complete without visiting Saclepea. As I have mentioned earlier, reason being that it’s the place of my nativity, a place more than any other place in the world, that holds my childhood memories. Enough reason to visit there to see how different it is now from what it was 15 years ago when I last visited.
Another important reason to visit was to see with my own eyes as to what extent the issue of illegal occupation of homes and properties belonging to the Mandingoes was true. As a writer and editor in chief of Limany website, we have written many editorial pieces about that illegal occupation, condemning it in the strongest term possible. Now that I was in Liberia, I deemed it necessary to go there so as to be able to tell my readers if what we have written about in the past is still the same. Some people had accused us of exaggerating this confusion over land in Nimba County. For these people as well, it was extremely necessary for me to visit my hometown.
Still, there was other important reason for my trip to Nimba, a visit to Tengbenye, a village about 45 minute drive from Saclepea. Tengbenye is the birthplace of my grandmother, Tolor, the mother of my father. I have been curious to know how grandma’s people were doing? It was to be a kind of family reunion between the Mandingo and Mano sides of my families. My father had enjoyed a very good relationship with his uncles. Since he’s no longer alive, I wanted to rekindle that relationship as a tribute to his memory. I was curious as to how my father’s uncles would receive us after this many years of animosity between the Mano and Gios on one side and the Mandingoes on the other.
Given my multi-ethnic heritage, I had in mind that my visit to Nimba County, particularly in Saclepea and Tengbenye, and my interaction with the Mano side of my family could one way or the other help in some small way in bringing about greater understanding among our people. With all these on my mind, I, and seven members of my family left Monrovia on the evening of October 7, 2005, three days before the historic election of October 11. My four aunts also share the same multi-ethnic heritage of Mandingo and Mano backgrounds.
We were caught up in a long traffic at the Red Light. By the time we were clearing out of the traffic jam, we met the convoy of candidate George Weah, triumphantly entering Monrovia for the “Million Man March” the next day. He was waving to his supporters from the open top of his hammer jeep. The crowd was going wild for him and he was just smiling and waving. We waited for the candidate to leave before we could pull on. As we went, our first stop was Kakata. It was so lively with so many people. Since all of us were fasting, we went to a restaurant to break our fast. While we were walking on the street looking for a place to eat, we heard a group of people speaking Mandingo and we went and greeted them. We sat and ate with them in a local restaurant. We continued our journey after forty-five minutes. Between 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. we were in Ganta. Whereas before the war one would see many Mandingoes on the road, this time you came across them as passengers passing through town. The shops that used to belong to Mandingoes are either occupied or demolished and new shops built in their places. I visited the home of one of my deceased aunts and could not see any familiar face. I could see the vivid signs of the war on a mosque that was badly desecrated. Efforts are being made to renovate the mosque but those efforts have not produced any dramatic improvement. Nevertheless, I saw few people praying in there. I didn’t ask if they were passengers passing through or if they were residing in Ganta.
As we left Ganta, my memory took me back to the days before the war. I was talking and my traveling companions were confirming where so and so person’s house or shop used to be. Someone else is occupying them while the owners are either in Monrovia or Guinea, afraid to come claim ownership of their properties. Some of the occupiers, I was told, have entered into a lease agreement with the legitimate owners to keep some of the properties.
We passed Yasonoh, the home of the famous Nimba County senator, Johnny Voker, in whose honor my Alma Mata, Johnny Voker High School in Sacleapea is named after. As we passed through there, my mind went to Vamunya, a friend who died during the war in Monrovia. Yasonoh was his birthplace. I looked to where their houses used to be. Since it was in the night, we did not stop to inquire as to who lives there now. May his soul rest in peace.
Another town along the way that brought me some memory of the past was Karnwee, the home of the late Gen. Robert G. Saye, one time Superintendent of Nimba County, and one time Director of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Gen. Saye was one of those that became early casualty of the instability that finally swept the whole nation. I remember Karnwee for two other persons, one of my teachers during my elementary school years, Mehwonkeh. I also remember Karnwee for being the home of Gen. Mohammed Dumbuya, the late ULIMO Field Commander who was one time Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Gen. Dumbuya died during the April 6 crisis. May his soul rest in peace.
When we got to Mehnpa, I started breathing the air of Saclepea. This was because Mehnpa is just a stone-throw from Saclepea. As we passed through Mehnpa, I was reminded of some controversy I stirred up at Johnny Voker High School about Mehnpa. Our class, 11th grade, had a program of which I served as the keynote speaker. I delivered a very controversial speech that upset some fellow students at the school. Among things I said was that a Mandingo man started Mehnpa and that’s why it’s called "Menhpa." The Mano people call us “Meyemeh or Mehn.” In that sense the literal meaning of Mehnpa is Mandingo town. I used that as my reason for saying that Mehnpa was originally a Mandingo town. This really upset some guys at my school. As I passed through the town this night, my mind went back to that experience.
After Mehnpa, we passed the Moslem cemetery. I know so many people who are laid to rest in that cemetery. I was kind of wondering if those dead people could be aware that their living folks made an involuntary journey out of town and have not returned since then. I was also wondering who was the last person buried there before the mass exodus of the Mandingoes from the town. That will probably be Aleo Foday, who was the only Mandingo casualty of Saclepea. It wasn’t the rebels’ bullets that killed the man who used to call prayer for our mosque. An AFL soldier, who was supposed to be protecting the civilian population of the town, killed him. While the AFL soldiers were in town "providing security," some of them went to grab a goat that belonged to Aleo. He protested against that. Some scuffles developed and he was shot dead. That was months before the Mano folks of the town advised their Mandingo folks to leave town to avoid calamity. Most Saclepea Mandingoes consider this as a kind gesture by their Mano neighbors. Because of this kind gesture, Saclepea was spared of the massive Mandingo hunting and killing that took place elsewhere in Nimba County and other parts of Liberia. If my father had had any choice as where he would like to be buried, his choice would have been this graveyard. He couldn't have imagined that he would die in Monrovia in 1994 and buried there instead of Saclepea.
After the graveyard, we passed the place where grandma Matian used to farm. Many times I came there to help her plan or harvest bitter balls, tomatoes, potatoes, and other garden products. Grandma Matian is a Mano from Karnwee. With me on the trip was her daughter, aunty Mamadia, the oldest living daughter of my grand father. After passing the farm or where grandma’s farm used to be, we passed a creek that we used to swim in when we were little. Many times we accompanied our brothers or uncles to wash their cars. We kept on going, passing the big building where old man Donzo used to have commercial rice machines. Before reaching the city center of Saclepea, I saw the police station where on many occasions we went to settle cases or witnessed thieves being flogged. I remember one occasion. That happened right after November 12th failed coup. I was in my mother’s shop when this army guy came in and started taking things without paying for them. When I protested, he got mad. He hauled me from behind the counter and dragged me to the police station. There was no policeman on duty when we arrived at the station. He locked me up without any investigation. After an hour, one policeman came in and I made some noise with the hope that he will know I was in there. He opened the door and told me to come out. He asked what I was doing in there. I told him that the army man had brought me in here because I won’t agreed for him to take things from my mother’s shop without paying for them. He told me to go home and come the next morning. I did not come back and no one bother me thereafter.
We got to the center of Saclepea where I grew up as a child. We used to play hide and seek, sometime with the girls, other time with our crowd of boys. I could see familiar places but since it was passed 12 mid night, the town was quiet and that wasn’t the time to be looking for any familiar faces. As such time of the night, our main concern was to find a place to sleep. So we headed straight to grandma Mawa Voker’s place on Tappita road. Grandma Mawa was the daughter of legendary Johnny Voker and through her marital relationship with my grandfather, she gave birth to a son, Vafuomo, named after the father of Sheik Kafumba Konneh. Grandma Mawa was very resourceful and this is evidenced by the quantity of land and houses she owned in Saclepea. It was in one of the houses we spent the night. By the time we got to the house, it was some minutes passed 1:00 am. The other house next to the one we slept in holds some more childhood memories for me. It was rented and used as a Madrassa, which later on became a bilingual school of Arabic and English learning. The Madrassa was mainly an institution of Arabic and Islamic studies. It was decided by the administrator to teach English alongside Arabic and Islamic studies. The Moslem Union School, headquartered in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, administered the Madrassa or the school. Our first English teacher was Mr. Lincoln G. Nyah. Throughout the time Mr. Nyah taught us, many of us admired him. He was a strict disciplinarian. The last time I saw him was 1998 during my two-day brief visit to Liberia.
Having gone to bed from around 1:30 to 2:00 am, we woke up unto a bright Saturday Morning. The first time in fifteen years I had waken up from sleep in Saclepea. We all took bath and prayed. Two things we wanted to accomplish on this day. One was to walk around Saclepea visiting our neighbors and other people we knew in town. The other thing we wanted to accomplish was to visit Tengbenye. We agreed that the first order of business was to visit Tengbenye. But we were told that the road was in disrepair and not good for the bus we had carried. Fortunately for us, a brother-in-law of mine had a pick-up truck and he decided to take us there. My sister Mawa is married to him. Mawa is the daughter of Uncle Vafuomo but she has spent most of her adult life with her Gio mother and her people from Kpaytuo. While we call her Mawa, her mom and other people from Kpaytuo call her Martha. Interestingly indeed, sister Mawa or Martha’s current husband is a Guinean Mano. He proved to be very hospitable as he drove us to Tengbenye. He talked about the deep-rooted ties between the Manos from Guinea and those from Liberia. He named many towns in Guinea and Liberia that have identical names, suggesting that Manos from the original towns in the place that became Guinea migrated to the land that became Liberia and they named the new towns after the old ones. That is just another effect of the European balkanization of Africa, drawing lines to divide families into separate countries. In this case, a family member on one side of the imaginary line became a Guinean, and the one on the other side became a Liberian. This effect of colonial division is evidenced everywhere in Africa today and it’s the source of most of our conflicts. Immigration authorities in Africa don’t take into consideration the family ties that existed before the colonial division, and have only enforced that division, thereby making mockery of all our talks of African unity.
When we got to Tengbenye, we were warmly welcomed. Since it was the campaign time, some of the family members had gone to Gawompa to attend campaign functions of some candidates. Among the family members we met, there was only one surviving brother of grandma Tolor. It was him I turned to to tell me something about my grandmother. I told him and the crowd that had gathered in the living room that I had come from the United States all the way to Tengbenye to reconnect with this side of my past. The past that connects me to Tengbenye, the birthplace of grandma Tolor. I told them about my experience in the US Navy and as a writer who have written a book of poetry. I presented two copies of the book to the public school of the town. I told them whenever they read the book they should remember that it’s written by someone who has a connection with them and the town.
In response, they said they were surprised but truly happy that we made it to Tengbenye. They said we were welcome and they will always remember this day. They said that the fact that I could come from America and consider coming to Tengbenye, with the road condition being so terrible was beyond word. They said that Tengbenye is our home since it was the home of our grandmother. They said we were protected in Tengbenye as any native born person of the town. They even showed us some Mandingo nephews and nieces who live with them. These are the children of the late Muesiamana Koisia who lived there and had children by a Mano woman. When the war came and the Mandingoes flee, the Mano woman and her Mandingo children remained. And they survived the war and have no intention of leaving Tengbenye to go anywhere. One of their father's sons, Small Man, wasn't so lucky as he was one of the early casualties of the war. He had left Saclepea to another village at the time the war was still in its infancy. He and another passenger on a motorbike did not make it back to Saclepea.
My father’s uncles urged us strongly to sleep so we could meet other town folks who had gone to Gowonpa. Earlier when we came, they said they had just left. Someone was sent to let them know about our surprise visit. They were already at that program; they sent a town chief, who happened to be much younger than what town chiefs used to be, to meet us. He came and spoke on behalf of the town people, saying that we should spend the night so that other people will meet us in the morning. We said that we had other engagement in Saclepea and we had to leave. We told them to extend our greeting to everyone in town.
As tradition required, we were given two chickens. They said they would have given us a goat if we had agreed to sleep. It’s a tradition among the Manos for their visiting nephews to grab a chicken or goat. This is a sign of hospitality.
After all that formality, we said good-bye and headed for Saclepea. Upon reaching to Saclepea, we stopped in Tonween to speak to Old man Sammy Dahn, former Nimba County representative in the house and a brother of one of Liberia’s many political figures, Marcus Dahn. I saw something remarkably different with the old man and his house. Back in the day, Sammy Dahn’s house was the most beautiful house of Saclepea. This time, I could not see that beauty. The last time I saw the house was fifteen years ago. I had been to Abidjan, Monrovia, America, Europe and other places and seen so many beautiful buildings. Is that why the most beautiful building in Saclepea doesn’t look so beautiful in my eyes now? The old man’s health condition is not the best either. My aunts and brothers told him we were the children and grandchildren of Bolekayfa, my father’s father. From the way he looked, he had much to say but the condition would not allow him to say. The last time I saw Sammy Dahn, he was much healthy and energetic. This time, old age and bad health are taking their tolls on him. We left Tonween and headed for town.
Upon climbing down the hill from Tonween, we reached to the place we Mandingo people used to call “Macanisunboula,” meaning a mechanic place. We had named it that way because most of our tribal people that lived there were mechanics. I can’t remember now how the Mano people call it. As we passed there, my mind went to two friends that died in the war. One was Junior Mamie, a Mano and the other was Losene Bamba, a Mandingo. Both of them lived right in this neighborhood and their houses were opposite each other. While Junior Mamie was one of the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre in Monrovia, Losene Bamba was killed behind the rebel line outside of Monrovia. While Junior Mamie was killed because he was Mano, Losene Bamba was killed because he was a Mandingo. May their souls rest in peace.
Another person that lived not too far from where Junior Mamie and Losene Bamba lived was Mohammed Kamara. His mother is Mano. When the war came, Mohammed fled to Sierra Leone. When Taylor’s loyalists crossed the border to Sierra Leone, one of them who knew Mohammed is said to have killed him simply because he was a Mandingo. I wonder if his killer knew he was the son of a Mano woman.
Not too far from Mohammed Kamara’s parent house, my aunts took me to another house. Some family members live there. I was introduced to them. They are the children of one of my grandmother’s younger sisters. After the usual welcome greeting, they told me that two of their brothers live in the US and I should establish contact with them when I came back to the states. They told me these are my father’s direct cousins. Their names are Magnus Saye and Raphael Saye. They gave me their numbers. Since my arrival back in the states, I have contacted uncle Magnus and Raphael. They were surprised to hear from me. I told them we should be happy that we have discovered each other. They asked about my father and his sister Bendu Kenneh and I told them both are dead.
By this time we decided to just walk in town as a matter of exploration. From around Saclepea Inland Church, we walked as a group, passing familiar places but seeing unfamiliar faces. People we know to own certain places no longer live there, and people we don’t know now live there. When we got to the center of Saclepea, where we once had a big store with a gas station, in its place stands another store. Uncle Amara Donzo was the richest man in Saclepea before the war, and his store, once the biggest store in town is now occupied by someone else. There are three other houses built on our family land. The house in which I was born and raised is occupied by some people. The mosque my grandfather had built is being demolished and his grave that used to be in front of the mosque desecrated. The mosque remaining structure is being used as a carpenter shop. The last time there was a problem between the Manos and Mandingoes during Taylor regime, I understand that it was caused by someone who was desecrating grandpa’s grave and someone from the Mandingo side protested. It resulted into a conflict in which several Mandingoes were killed and others fled the town. Since that incidence, most Mandingoes have been afraid to come back.
Opposite our yard I saw a nightclub built in the Bility family yard. This is the birthplace of Musa Bility, Mandingo Caucus’ president and is also the birthplace of Hassan Bility’s father, Alhaji Lassana Bility. In that yard someone has built a nightclub. It was other people’s houses that were destroyed to build this nightclub.
We then went further down on the street that divides our yard from the Bility’s yard. While walking on the street, I saw some of the old people we were planning to meet. Among them were Cooper Toh, a former Town Chief, and Sekou Cooper, a former Paramount Chief of Saclepea Mah County District. With them was another elder of the town, John Gborley. They were keeping conversation at Evan Koah’s mother’s shop. Evan was one of the senatorial candidates of Nimba County in the 2005 election. His sister’s father is a Mandingo. I had forgotten about her until one of my brothers told me “this is Gboyo’s (Aleo Bility) daughter.”
Aunty Madeaba spoke in fluent Mano, telling the gathering the purpose of our trip to Saclepea. She introduced me as “our son has come from America and was interested in coming to see his home.” By this time now small crowd had gathered to witness what was unfolding. Among this crowd, I met many friends I had not seen all these fifteen years. There was Betty Mehn, a classmate from 10th grade through 12th. She and other friends told me how proud they were when they heard me on Voice Of America reading a poem about growing up in Saclepea. Hearing them telling me that made me proud too that despite everything, these Mano friends could express some pride in me. Their simple expression of joy of seeing me convinced me that despite everything, there is a way out for Saclepea and the rest of Nimba County.
Having been introduced, I told the gathering that as a child of Saclepea, I have always lived with the burning desire for this place of my birth. That the fifteen years absence from the town feels like living in forced exile. That in all those fifteen years, I have remembered and celebrated Saclepea in my writings. I told them that I have romanticized my childhood experiences of Saclepea in poetry that have won me many admirers. I told them that Saclepea is a home that nurtured me and those childhood memories will remain with me wherever I go. This has been the case even when I had been stationed in the US Navy ships cruising the high seas of the Atlantic, Adriatic, Mediterranean, or the Persian Gulf. Because of this strong feeling, it felt like I was on a pilgrimage to the past I feel so strongly about. This is my heritage as much as it is theirs and the same way they are proud of it, so am I. The place was very quiet and everyone was very attentive to what I was saying as it was being interpreted in Mano. At the end of my short speech, I presented two copies of my book to Johnny Voker High School. I would have been glad to have made the presentation on the campus while school was in section but it was Saturday. That being the case, I gave them the books to be given to the school on my behalf. Coincidentally, the chairman of the Parent Teacher Association of the school arrived. The books were presented to him.
I could see that the old people felt the emotion in my speech. I could tell from their faces that my speech had taken them on memory lane. For them, Sekou Cooper did most of the talking. He talked warmly about my grandfather and his historic contribution to the making of Saclepea. He enumerated some of his personal encounters with the old man. He said grandpa was like his own father and he treated him like his own child. He said the reason he is called “Sekou” is because his birth coincided with the arrival of a respected Mandingo man who requested that since his coming has coincided with the birth of a child, the child should be named after him. It was because of that he was named "Sekou" and he still carries that name. He went on to say that to see “Old man Bolekayfa’s children coming to town is a happy occasion which deserves celebration.” While he was talking, everyone could tell that he was on a long memory lane, trying to connect the past with the present.
Grandpa Kalifala Konneh is also known as Bolekayfa. While the Mandingoes call him Kalifala, the Manos call him Bolekayfa. He was an Islamic scholar who built mosque to propagate the religion of Islam. He is said to have performed “mole” work for some people that became very powerful and prominent. Among them were Dahn Gbonwee and Johnny Voker. He also became a government official, a marketing coordinator for Saclepea and the surrounding towns and villages. It is said that in that capacity, grandpa used to go around the market, which was held in his yard, to inspect the goods brought in by various towns and villages within the district. He would levy fines on any town or village that failed to bring its shares of goods to the market. Accordingly, that was one way the government was trying to bring the native people under its control. As a prominent religious leader among his people and being very active in local tribal politic, grandpa is well respected by everyone. Our Madrassa was later named after him.
Thinking about grandpa Kalifala reminds me of an incidence on November 12, 1985, the day Quiwonkpa announced to have removed Samuel Doe from power. On that day, which was Saclepea’s market day, I was pushing wheelbarrow as a mean to earn some money. In the process, I overheard a Mano gentleman saying, “We are just waiting for the night to get rid of all the ‘dingoes’ from this town.” At that moment it was a sure case that Samuel Doe was history and the new president was Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa. As this fellow turned around and saw me, he said, “When we talk about the Mandingoes, we don’t mean people like you, the Bolekayfa’s children are prominent citizens of this town.”
As a sign of hospitality, Sekou Cooper and the other people offered to buy us some soft drinks to cool our thirst. But too bad it was Ramadan and we were all fasting. So we said goodbye and left. Our last stop in Saclepea was to old lady Mary Yongah. We went to her place. We met her and her son Joseph Marshall whose biological father, Alhaji Sekou Koisiah, was one of the prominent Mandingoes of the town. Back in the day Mah Yongah was what we used to call a “civilized or quee woman.” She was beautiful, very energetic and powerful. One could tell that by the way she dressed and the house she lived in. I remember one time one of her sons died in America in a car accident. As a young boy growing up in Saclepea, it was one of the most colorful funeral services I had witnessed. That was the first time I entered her house to view the body. I was amazed with the big “quee” house. Now looking at Mah Yongah today testifies to only one thing, that no matter how energetic we are at one point in life, there will come a time when we have to slow down. Sickness and old age would take over. There had been fifteen years since the last time I saw her and now seeing her again was indeed a happy occasion. We all expressed how we have missed each other over the years.
After that encounter with Mah Yongah and her son Joseph Marshall, we headed for Monrovia. In another time, instead of visiting Saclepea just for a day, I would have spent at least a week or two with my family. But now my families are dislocated as a result of the war and are still afraid to come back home because their homes are being occupied by other people who don’t want to leave. Call that an illegal occupation. During Taylor time, some Mandingoes came back to town, hoping that the war was over. Their dream of living peacefully in their homes was shattered in a brutal attack. As I understand, there have been some peace and reconciliation talks and most of my families and others are only waiting for the seating of the new government. By that time the expectation is that things will be better and everyone will get their homes and other properties.
Inspite of the illegal occupation of properties, I felt a high degree of hospitality during the entire trip. I could see hope of finding lasting solution to all the problems in the eyes of the people. I feel really satisfied that despite everything we could still be nice to each other, recognizing and celebrating our multi-ethnic heritage. It's my hope that my experience in both Tengbenye and Saclepea could be replicated in other parts of Nimba County, indeed all of Liberia.
With all these going through my head, I am left wondering if Saclepea could speak. More than likely it will encourage all of us to come together and rebuild our lives and relationship as they were before.
Nvasekie N. Konneh is a Liberian writer, and nine year veteran of the United States Navy with his last years in the navy 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 ; or Nvaskonn@netscape.net .