Documenting Our Liberian Experience
( The Launching of Prof. Dudu’s book, Harrowing December)
By Nvasekie N. Konneh
Our elders, fellow intellectuals, fellow Liberians, and members of our community, we are gathered here tonight to celebrate new day in our experience as Liberians, particularly from the community of Liberians who have either self-segregated or being marginalized for so long in their own country. For a group of people who helped to lay the foundation of a nation that came to be known as Liberia but for so long have been wrongly labeled as “foreigners.”
For a group of people whose Liberian stories have not been told sufficiently correctly; for a group of people who will rather talk about buying and selling cars, gas, kola nuts, and other commodities they can trade for profits, it is certainly a new experience when we gather to celebrate the launching of a book written by fellow Liberian who happens to come from our community. The book we are here tonight to launch is titled, “Harrowing December.”
This launching, coming two years after the launching of “The Land of My Father’s Birth” is indeed a great moment to celebrate. On that note, I congratulate our friend and brother, Prof. Momo Dudu for a job well done. His is adding to a growing list of Liberian war narratives written by various Liberian writers. The good thing is that from all these narratives we will have different perspectives of the Liberian civil war and how it affected us individually and collectively.
During the launching of my book, “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” both here in Philadelphia and in Minnesota, I said that if my effort as a writer is not replicated by another persons from our community, it will mean my efforts have failed to inspire others to write. I made it clear that our stories must be told and one person does not have the capacity to tell all our stories.
While in Minnesota, I said that I will expect people like Professor Dudu to “step up to the plate” because I have seen some of his writings. To that call, our brother and friend, Prof. Momo Dudu has responded with two books, “Harrowing December,” and “Thoughts of a Patriot.” What a great accomplishment! So I am exceedingly happy to be here serving as the launching committee chairman and I am overjoyed to see all of you present here. So in essence, our gathering here today is a celebration of intellectual progress in the Liberian society in general and the Mandingo-Muslim community in particular.
My challenge is still out there for many people to step up to the plate in narrating our stories. We have Mr. Sekou Kanneh, a folklorist who has gained the admiration of many of his fellow country men and women on the various Liberian listserves and social media forum with his folktales and parables. I have always encouraged him to gather together all his stories so we can publish them as books. I hope one day all of his stories scattered all over the place can be gathered, edited and published as books.
When a country goes through a long period of war which results into the dispersion of its citizens in many parts of the world, the result of these years of wandering in the wilderness should fuel the creativity of its people, particularly its artists and writers whose works should symbolize the renaissance of the nation. Thousands of us died and those of us who survived are charged with the responsibility to tell our own stories as well as those who felt victims to our fratricidal wars.
In the midst of extreme difficulty, some of our brothers and sisters worked very hard to provide educational opportunity for our young refugee brothers and sisters in Guinea in the early 90s. The current minister of finance of the Republic of Liberia and our dear friend and brothers like Joseph Sackor, my nephew Fofin Konneh, my friend Dennis Jah and many others were in the vanguard of the struggle to make sure our brothers and sisters in refugee camps were not going to be deprived of educational opportunities. Can someone who were there write of those accounts as memoirs, short stories or novels?
I can think of no one to put those pieces together than our friends Mohammed Sherif, Jamel Kamara and Sekou Donzo because as I understand they published a newspaper called “The Refugee Highlights,” which featured the refugee experience in the 90s. When it comes to the creative side of writing, our friend and brother Vamba Sherif of Holland has written some great novels. Of course he may not be known to many of us because he writes in Dutch, but he has indeed made us proud as Liberian Mandingoes or Muslims from Liberia. I am sure many of his fellow Liberians are proud of his accomplishment as a novelist.
One of the ironies of Liberia is that despite being one of the oldest countries in Africa, it does not have a literary culture. That does not mean it does not have a literary legacy. While its literary legacy may include the like of Hilary Teage, who wrote our national anthem, “All Hail Liberia,” Wilmot Blyden, who the late Ali Mazrue called the “grandfather of Pan Africanism,” Bai T. Moore, Prof. Wilton Sankawulo, and contemporary writers like Prof. Moses Nagbe, or poet Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Gibson Jerue, James Fasuekoi, Elma Shaw, it does not have literary culture.
When I say literary culture, I mean a culture which celebrate works of arts and literature; where literature is truly valued and writers are celebrated for their works, be it novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs, or other works of non-fiction. A true literary culture is symbolized by literary awards on national and regional levels, book clubs, especially in schools, libraries where people can go and read books and other publications, book reviews in newspapers and magazines, book fairs etc. It is unfortunate that a country as old as Liberia there’s none of such activities as enumerated above.
Many of us have come to know only two Liberian writers, Bai T. Moore and Wilton Sankawulo. We only get to know them because their books are required readings in our schools. Though they wrote many books, both Bai T. More and Prof. Wilton Sankawulu are known respectively for their works, “Murder in the Cassava Patch,” and “Why Nobody Knows When He Will Die.”
For a county as old as Liberia to have only two “famous writers” who are only known in Liberia clearly shows that Liberia is either not a society where literature flourishes or if there are Liberian writers their works are not impacting the society or one can simply say their works are not valued to the point where they will command national attention.
As such, Liberian writers must step up with works that will educate, inform and entertain their fellow country men and women. That’s why gathering such as the one we are having tonight is very important. In this light, I must thank our community for this show of support for the creative efforts of one of their own. From the support you have shown me and we are showing today for Prof. Dudu, I am encouraged to continue writing. Activities such as this is definitely a sign of progress in our community and nation, Liberia.
A fellow Liberian writer told me last year that he likes the fact that people from our community appreciate my works and are very supportive. He said he thinks there is greater solidarity in our community when it comes to supporting one another. He said there is no such solidarity in his community for people to come out to support him the way “your people are supporting you.” Our community has demonstrated once again tonight that it takes pride in the creative efforts of one another and all of you who have come to grace this occasion deserve a pat on your backs for your support.
“In that dominant narrative, the native Liberian experience has not been fully told”
In an ideal society where literary efforts are valued and celebrated, we should support our writers and our writers should also engage our communities. When it comes to literature or work of arts, ethnicity should not matter. Buy books out of curiosity. Buy books because you want to be informed, educated, or entertained. That’s what we call literary culture. But when there is no promotional mechanism and writers are not encouraged, the society becomes literary desert land. That’s what Liberia is. Either we are not busy thinking of new idea of moving our country forward or we are simply dull. A society or community’s progress is not measured by skyscrapers or good roads alone, it’s also measured by its literature, its arts and culture of creativity.
In his eloquent review of “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” fellow Liberian writer Theodore Hodge talked about what he calls the “danger of single story.” That is to say the dominant or the only narrative of our country, Liberia is that it was founded by returning free African slaves from America and that it was founded on Christian Principle.
In that dominant narrative, the native Liberian experience have not been fully told beyond the return of the free slaves from the US. And since Liberia was founded, according to some on “Christian Principle,” the stories of other people who are not Christians have not been told sufficiently enough because if their stories of contributing to the nation’s growth and development have been told sufficiently, there will be no room for prejudice and discrimination we have experienced in Liberia. That’s why it’s certainly a new day that the Mamadee and the Sekous can also write about their own Liberian experience. This shows the diversity of our collective Liberian experience as a people and nation.
We are very hard working people with commerce and trade but we have to diversify our involvement in Liberia if we are to survive as a people and community. We have to redefine Liberia as a nation of diverse communities and cultures and one of the best ways we can do that is to document our experience. When others with whatever intention write you off history, you have to write yourself in. It’s because you are too busy looking for money that you did not take your civil responsibility seriously enough. Let us not just be complaining if we are not willing to do the heavy lifting that must be done on our own behalf.
We are here today celebrating and supporting the literary achievement of our fellow Liberian writer, Prof. Dudu just like we were here almost two years ago celebrating the launching of The Land of My Father’s Birth. But please, it must not stop with just Prof. Dudu, Vamba Sherif, Dr. Augustine Konneh. The challenge is yours as well.
Recently I read a posting by someone on Facebook. I will share with you a portion I lifted from that posting. It reads as follows: After WW II, Allied Forces embarked on the mission to save Europe’s stolen art; one of the soldiers said, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they will still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, if you destroy their achievements, then it is as if they never existed.”
This paragraph clearly speaks to the experience of Africans who have been the victims of negative portrayal by the Europeans writers over the centuries. They said that black people have not contributed to human civilizations. An illustrious descendants of Africa, Carter G. Woodson, dedicated his life to refuting that biased claim of European scientists and scholars against Africans. His efforts gave birth to what is now known as the Black History month in the US. Over the years large portion of African scholarship has been on the same course of correcting the misrepresentation of black people in the European literatures. Whether we are talking about the Harlem Renaissance or the Negritude Movement, large portion of their efforts were dedicated to presenting the African people in their own words.
The above paragraph also clearly speaks to Liberia as well, particularly so those of us who happen to be Muslims or Mandingoes. Because our country espouses a Judeo-Christian values, it is as if to say other cultures don’t exist in Liberia. But Liberia is a multicultural society and when books are written by the Mamadee, the Dudus, the Kromahs, or the Nvasekies, it means the awakening of the voices that have been silent for over hundreds of years. We are redefining the Liberian experience, that’s the beauty of our gathering here tonight. On that note, we say congratulation to the author, Prof. Momo Sekou Dudu for his contribution to Liberian literature.
About the author: Nvasekie N. Konneh is a Liberian poet and writer and veteran of the US Navy. He’s the author of “Going to War for America” and “The Land off My Father’s Birth,” a memoir of the Liberian civil war. He recently returned from Liberia where he was shooting a documentary on ethnic and cultural diversity. He can be reached at KonnLove@aol.com or (267) 206-8909.