First, let me start by telling you a short story. Long before my parents relocated the family to the Liberian political subdivision of Gibi Territory (now Margibi County ), we blended well with the rich cultural traditions of the people of Kokoya, Bong County in central Liberia . Kokoya had a strong appreciation for the traditional Liberian Poro and Sande universities, and these universities were used basically to prepare Kokoya youth for leadership and character excellence. And thanks to its diverse makeup, every child who grew up in Kokoya had to learn and speak Bassa, Dan, Kpelle and Ma-mia, "mia" meaning "people" (or Mano in Kpelle "no"or "nu" meaning "people"), the four languages that made up the tapestry of the local culture. Kokoya, to me, represented both a microcosm of the greater Liberian society and the mosaic of a traditional culture that taught me and other youths the true meanings of leadership, work ethics, collaboration and ethnic pride.
I can still remember that each time I joined my father and other men of Kokoya in the felling of trees or in the brushing of the forest grove, I could see that I was slowing the rest of the crew down. But it always seemed that my father and the others didn't care that I was deadweight on them because they knew I was young and that only so much I could contribute. Besides, the cultural rules of Kokoya dictated that the youth should watch the hands of the elders (watch the elders at work) and learn, and what other way could one learn but by doing? But you surely wouldn't have loved to take the place of my father in the field. For I ran to my father with every little problem I encountered in the field so much so that at some points he refused to heed my calls for help. And when I finally mustered the courage to ask him as to why he didn't respond to some of my calls for help, my father looked me in the eyes and simply said to me in Bassa, "Ni Dyu, Duu suah ni whon Mahn-wudu" (meaning in English, "My son, old ears do not hear Mano "). At first I laughed, though I wasn't sure what he meant. Afterwards, he told me that the expression meant, "don't use excuses as a way of avoiding responsibility for an assigned task(s)." My father, in essence, was letting me know that I had to take responsibility for my share of the tree felling and stop giving excuses.
Now, if you asked me how does this short story relate to the continuing search for leadership in Liberia today, I would say "in many respects." For somehow, many Liberians seemed to believe that "manna" would fall from heaven to feed the Liberian people just as in the biblical epics. As a result, we generally take pleasure in electing as our leaders, persons with no proven records of leadership and insight to develop country and improve the lot of average Liberians, but persons who are inclined to lead the Liberian nation and people into one abyss of darkness after another. And I need not remind you that in our nation's history, the foundations of national consciousness, leadership, good governance and rule of law were built on a soil that can best be described as "grade C," such that our nation is easily prone to "political erosion" and instability.
To sustain itself as a sovereign nation, Liberia must begin to seriously educate its leaders and people to tell the Liberian story or no one else will. For anyone with a sense of imagination can easily see that our ancestral system of governance holds the past, the present, and the future of Liberia together because their ontology places more emphasis on the collective prosperity and survival of the Liberian nation and people. But sadly, the people of the western world have never truly sought to understand the African traditions, and the traditions of the Liberian people in particular. As a result, when the westerners made a mess of their cesspool, they created artificial standards, laws and regulations that all nations had to obey as "international laws." And somewhere in that process, Liberians and other African nations lost appreciation for the cultural values dearest to Liberians and Africans at large-those spiritual and social practices that sustain us through the centuries. Liberians and other Africans need to return to those traditional values and leadership styles that promoted less violence if we must ever free ourselves from the stranglehold of cultural dominance.
For example, the Jews have managed to keep what is dearest to them by thoroughly integrating themselves into one society through Zionism. As a result, the Jews can tell their own stories with fanfare, as in the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, as narrated in the Holy Bible book of Daniel. Here, the Jews (or Hebrews) can celebrate two young men who were thrust into a fiery furnace in defiance of a religious decree of the king of ancient Babylon and emerged from fiery furnace unharmed. These kinds of stories do encourage young Jews in their struggle for national liberation, and Liberians must learn to tell similar stories to their youths. For the truth is that all people tell their own stories to encourage the next generation, and Liberians should be no exception. Liberia have stories in the thousands such as: The Dan "Celebration of the Death of a Leopard"; The Loma "Sheepman (Bala) or Warrior"; The Mano "Kula"; The Bassa "Djuankadyu" or "The Embarkation of Earth"; The Gbandi "Buga Game"; The Sapo "Beo or Warrior"; or even "The History of Kinja and Basketry Making, etc.
Liberia is in turmoil today because Liberians do not know their own stories. Liberians have instead helped to advance the European agenda by teaching our children to read books like Don and Peggy, Snow White, at the elementary, to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (most famous was Tom Sawyer); Romeo and Juliet and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; Rip Van Winkle, King Arthur's Round Table and Jonathan Swift on the national level. We barely read about any tribal hero, folktales and legends of our culture. Beowulf and Hercules were our heroes and stories about the Trojan War saturated our thinking. Children learned more about the Presidents of United States, capital cities, social studies and languages of Western countries than their own country.
The Liberian curriculum is totally devoid of indigenous culture for these western stories though compelling but are irrelevant to the Liberian culture and society. And it seems to me that our present predicament lies in the fact that we have proven to be totally unprepared to accept and implement a leadership system based on our own design. We have failed in so many respects to reclaim our status as a nation and people, to worship the God of our forefathers, to revere our ancestors, and to educate our nation's leaders so as to assure their greatness. We have miserably failed our people and ourselves because we are still confusing "grape vines with thorn bushes, or figs with thistles."
I must, however, hasten to say that the world in Liberia before the emergence of the western form of government and culture was different. But we have failed to adequately study our past to gain some insights into our traditional systems of governance to relate it to the present by removing any elements that might be at variance with modernity. We have failed to devise a leadership system in accordance with our ancestral thought and essence. We have failed to appreciate that our traditional systems of governance and leadership could play vital roles in the development process of Liberia , as well as in aspects of successful national governance, which could replace or improve the present constitutional-legal framework in Liberia that has asphyxiated us. We have not fully recovered from the 150-year locked box of dependency on other people to do our thinking, to baby-sit us, to be our mouthpiece, to preach to us, to find our God for us, to give us culture and form of government. We have been misled that "love of self" does not come first. We have adopted the colonial interpretation of "love and brotherhood" to mean the trashing of our traditional culture, mores, and norms. We have extended open arms to strangers and we have been taught to "love the colonists," without any consideration that "neighbor", "educator" or "peace-maker" can be an enemy in disguise. For in my traditional upbringing, one of the first lessons we learned was that "not all angels with wings are from God," nor do all renowned institutions teach the right education. Education, the jewel of life, to be valuable to a group of people, it must comprise the promotion of nationalism and the honorable use of power.
Therefore, as a people all Liberians have the moral and ethical responsibility to educate Liberian leaders and all Liberians in the act of leadership and networking, in order to unlock the creative talents of the Liberian people to become better citizens. Liberians need to do away with selecting people who are not trained to be leaders. We should combine resources to develop a curriculum at our universities to produce the character of leaders the Liberian people deserve. Liberian scholars need to develop curriculum and write textbooks specifically for Liberia and not just about North America and Europe . And we could begin today by encouraging or empowering our people to begin to think and act toward establishing a University of Grand Bassa, a University of Grand Gedeh, a University of Nimba, a University of Grand Cape Mount, a University of Grand Kru, a University of Margibi, a University of River Cess, a University of Montsorrado, a University of Bong, a University of Lofa and the like to train Liberians across the board, without relying solely on the University of Liberia in Monrovia. In a sense, each county university would be able to study and preserve the belief systems, customs, values, and bodies of knowledge for the people in each county and future generations of Liberians. For, even if we started with one-room universities at the county level, we would have begun a million miles with a single footstep.
Today, in Liberia , a lot of Liberians want a college education but the University of Liberia is just too small to accommodate everyone. But with various county universities, we could educate our clan chiefs, paramount chiefs, soldiers, civil servants, social workers, ethnic specialists and others who may not want to become engineers, pilots, medical doctors, and so forth, in leadership and Liberian Studies. Furthermore, we could be fitting "traditional" and "modern" together in our own unique cultural mix-not as living fossils, but as living links to our long-term human past and active participants in today's global village and geo-political dynamics. Can you imagine the reciprocal effects and net benefits of having our people know about their next-door neighbors? The degree in leadership or Liberian studies could benefit the political re-mapping of Liberia , to the extent of lifting the nation from its present political dungeons and alienation of the Liberian people. Another incentive for such institutions could be a boost in student exchange between Liberian counties, especially since people in Liberian counties know very little about each other. Notwithstanding, the primary focus of a degree in leadership and Liberian Studies must be on culture heritage, national bonding, good governance and public service.
I have noticed that the frustration of many Liberians who have studied in western countries and returned home to a visible national positions and still have not changed is very obvious in what is going on in our nation. We have this everlasting frame of reference to look toward the West to make the decision, to educate our citizens and to set paradigms for us. Aren't Liberians behaving like beggars who are sitting on bags of gold and begging for financial help? What should we do now? How can we honor our history, respond to the present, and build a viable, vibrant future for our people? It is not too late? Can we still return to the spiritual and cultural transformations awaiting us in the upcoming 2005 general elections by working together to build a new future? Must we give our brothers and sisters a reason to turn away from the traps that surround them? These are pertinent questions that deserve urgent answers if Liberians must unify and develop our homeland. But our real identity lives in our words and actions.
I believe the beginning point of anything is also the spoiling point. But Liberians have another chance in 2005 to produce its first Nelson Mandela-like leader who will create a new republic in which we could utilize our talents and full potentials as a nation and people. The new republic of 2005 approaches as a beacon of hope for Liberians to protect our sacred sites, our stories, our songs, and our poems that capture our passion---these are the true account of us as a people. The politics of survival and "blood debt" are not our culture. They are a measure of the days we live in. Our true culture is our lifeline and where we stand---on our land ( Liberia ). The reality of cultural immersion is important as no human being's life falls outside culture. If we attempt to live without our culture, then it would mean a refusal to live on planet Earth. We cannot live as an African or Liberian without placing prominence on the family, form of government, communalism, fellow-feeling, respect for elders, and awareness of the supernatural or belief in God who looks like us. All these facets of African or Liberian culture are in line with biblical teachings. We can either do it right the first time, all of the times, or we could end up as the traditional council of elders would say, "If we do not change our route, we might arrive where we are moving towards." For establishing an agenda or a curriculum specifically for Liberian studies is one of the possible solutions for a nation such as ours without any system in place to educate its future leaders. It is no secret that our political leaders and westernized Liberians have disappointed us so often, while looking down so long and so pervasively on our traditional ways of life, that sometimes we began to wonder if these negative stereotypes were really true. So as a result, we have become a vulnerable nation susceptible to the persuasiveness of eloquent orators or anyone else who will tell us that our culture, tradition and governance structures are inferior to the western system of governance, when in truth these traditional systems have helped our best and brightest in the past to contribute wholesomely to world peace and prosperity.
After all, when Liberia is stable and the citizens are educated to love their own nation, there will be no threat to developing it to resemble any other nation. Consider the benefits of an education that succeeds in neutralizing military coups in Liberia , and in instilling in all Liberians the true meaning of a sweet " Land of Liberty " for all. In other words, we need to begin training (from elementary school to university) all Liberians in conflict resolution and peaceful electoral process as opposed to chronic violence and the canker warms effect that had plagued us for the past 150 years. Too many Liberians have been killed by trying to abolish corruption or solve our national problems, only to see those who killed them repeat the same crimes and go free.
The renewal of a Liberian system of thought would definitely promote brotherhood and tolerance among Liberians. Its promotion of equality, humanity, selfless service and quality leadership is bound to have a statutory influence on Liberian social, economic and political culture. If Liberia can unite its resources and reclaim its productive past, it will make a tremendous impact in the meetinghouse of the world. The new generation of Liberians should now accept the challenge and be willing to sacrifice for the regeneration of the nation by harvesting what is best in Liberian traditions. It is obvious that there is a bias against Liberian leadership ability and who we are as a people. These biases about traditional Liberian culture abound in the Liberian society today, and have prevented us from taking an in-depth look into Liberian sociology, science, history, philosophy, economics, non-partyism, and anthropology, which when studied together, could give us a true and actual picture of good leaders and a system of good governance in Liberia.
Unfortunately, the principles around which Westerners have come to organize their thinking about Liberian leadership blocks one from a real understanding of humanistic qualities like those before the advent of Jeffersonian democracy (which is cut from American perspective). Using Western prism only scrutinizes our government and governance is a disservice. In the West, only certain sources are given credence, such as literary proof but in the East, more credence to oral traditions or visions, because it comes from authoritative sources. It supersedes all other sources because, in a way, it not comes only from our parentage's understanding but God Almighty. A keen look at our traditional society reveals a communally treasured principle of give-and-take between the parents and children in whose hands rest the fate of the future. Traditional proverbs counsel children to obey rather than claim that they can "throw cutlass". In African or Liberian tradition, a child and his father cannot contest cutlass. Children are to respect, obey and look after their parents. Existence of such understanding regarding mutual rights and obligations between parents and children negated the need for prisons construction in African society. The "conscious makes the man" so the teaching from our ancestry over the centuries have woven together tradition and consciousness to protect one's homeland. This concept was pontificated at every "character excellence class" before the waiting feet of the Council of Elders of Poro University. "Do not set your homeland ablaze because it is the best place to seek sanctuary in a time of trouble" still reverberates to this day.
Similarly, a verse in the Christian Bible spoke about baby Jesus and his parents, Joseph and Mary, fleeing to Egypt from Bethlehem to escape the murderous King Herod, who spoke vividly to the validity of the teaching not to "burn the bridge you crossed on". And the moral here is that the very bridge you burnt could be the same bridge you may need to take you to your refuge. In the case of Jesus and his parents, they blended well among the Africans because as the "Lamb" of God, with kinky hair compared with lamb's wool, feet the color of burnt brass (Rev. 1:14,15) and a likeness resembling jasper and sardine stone (sard / sardonyx), which are commonly "brownish" stones (Rev. 4:3), Herod could not find them. Imagine if Jesus and his family had been troublemakers in Egypt -they would not have been hidden from the wrath of Herold, especially if Jesus was a white baby as others are indoctrinated to believe. Just imagine the rowdiness it could cause among the African population!
My point here is that myths have always been used to mischaracterize Liberian ancient or traditional development so much so that we have paid less attention to those good teachings of old. But the ability of our people to teach us key knowledge about our traditional culture, values, and mores has never been a myth. Our problem as a people has always been our inability or lack of foresight in unlatching political chaos and distress with endless and frivolous pursuit of foreign ideologies as opposed to unlocking our own great minds for national assertive behaviors. All the problems we face as individuals and as a people can be summarized in one word-mis-education.
Yes, we are mis-educated about our culture and traditions. Our culture is about our belief in and the power of our dreams, ancestors, deities, and Supreme God. It is about our wisdom, buried in our proverbs, in our legends or folklore, in our music, drums, and in our oral history. It has to do also with our system of marriage, our way of dressing, farming, feasting, speaking, and educating our children, and so forth. In this branch of culture, we do not need a religious conversion because is not the faith, but a binding cord of our common existence. For taking our culture away from us is like stealing our souls, and you may be the judge for what had happened to us as a nation and people without a value system rooted in our culture. We seem to think that the best way to good governance is to be all things most unlike us, and not all things most like ourselves. As the South African proverb pontificates, "Horns which are put on do not stick properly." As a result, the religion and form of government we adopted have become our jailers. For, whether the intruders built a physical jail or not, a devalued culture and a people lacking self-image are bound to create a more solid penitentiary than any arabesque of steel bars the world can erect. We cannot let the lies being told about our indigenous ways keep us from knowing the truth. We need to watch out for those who will play to our emotions by providing pseudo-intellectual arguments and bizarre notions that are akin to our traditional culture, leadership, and belief systems.
But we need to detach ourselves from this pseudo-intellectual dormancy and retrace our roots to our traditional leadership systems and social doctrines if we must unite and rebuild our nation. Liberians are Africans, and no level of pretenses is going to change that. So as true Africans, we need to borrow the good aspects of our traditional past, and blend it with our modern perspectives to create the highest level of spirituality, leadership, good governance, social mobility, and cultural cohesiveness in Liberia . The vehicle to implement these antecedents is an inclusive curriculum to provide the kind of education that would make Liberian life flow and sparkle with joy, success and service; a kind of education that would make Liberians cast vibration that cheers, that illuminates, that animates his or her fellow Liberian, and enable him or her to exhibit qualities that are compatible with the cooperation and not inconsistent with rational projects that tend to the advancement of his or her brother, and the well-being of his or her race, the prosperity of the nation and the confederation of the world. Education makes a citizen patriotic. Education multiplies the wants and needs of every citizen. Thereon, when the question is asked why have we settled on our forefathers' spirituality, education and government? We can say that the answer has to do with not only our need to be ourselves as God had created us but to train our leaders to be nationalistic. Liberians do not have to pass other people's test litmus in leadership and good governance in order to validate our self-determination for total survival. But if we say, "Old ears do not hear Ma mia," we will continue to mortgage our future and give power to those who should never have wielded power over us.
Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Occupational Safety and Health at NC A&T State University in Greensboro , North Carolina . He is author of several books, including, The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and It Environmental Impact, Christianity, Colonization and State of African Spirituality, and Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration & Government of the Bassa (a book about traditional Bassa leadership and cultural norms published in 2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Other articles by Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D.