A Review by Robert Vamunyah Sesay
There is no one out there in the entire Liberian community who has intellectually taken the cause of the Liberian Mandingo as personal as my friend, Nvasekie Konneh. Ever since he walked up to me nearly twenty years ago at the Monrovia Daily News and asked that we be friends, I have watched him used the might of his pen at every available channel to address, discuss and sometimes litigate for the plight of Mandingos on the Liberian shore.
The author of “Going to War for America” (2004) has just released his new memoir, (”The Land of my Father’s Birth: The Memoir of the Liberian Civil War”: 257 pages, Royal House Communications Consortium, Inc.). By all accounts this memoir is not only a towering achievement, but it’s a good read to say the least. The book begins with the reconstruction of the author’s family tree in Nimba County. Then he dragged us back into history to one of Liberia’s foremost explorers, Benjamin J. K. Anderson’s 1868 journey to couple of Mandingo tribal chiefs in Liberia northern borderless territories to what eventually became as Republic of Guinea. The purpose of Mr. Anderson’s journey was for land acquisition to the new nation – Liberia. Had Mr. Anderson failed journey succeeded, well known towns and cities like Mercenta, Nzerekore and Mesiadou would have form part of the territorial map of today’s Liberia.
Nvesekie writes with nostalgia of several villages and towns growing up with both Gio and Mano playmates in Nimba County. Nevertheless, it doesn’t escape his youthful eyes the treatment his people face at immigration check points for simply having a Mandingo name or code of dress. That’s long before the start of the Liberian civil war, (1990-2004) in which the Mandingos were one of the main targets of the main rebel group, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
He adds that rejection and mal-treatment of the Liberian Mandingos have long been at work in the form of sarcasm, none accepting of Mandingo names as Liberian, their dress code as foreign, most likely to be manhandled at border points for being foreigners despite the fact that the Mandingos have long been on the Liberian shore long before the founding of what is today known as Liberia.
Nvasekie succeeds with his vivid description of a joyous childhood in Nimba County where Mandingo, Mano and Gio lived side-by-side in peace, harmony and tranquility. In pre war Nimba County the Mandingos were considered not only as part of the community, but also as an integrate part of the Nimba culture. A culture in which everyone respected their neighbor’s mores; the Mandingo went in door when the Gio or Mano’s devil was engaged in their cultural dance and the Mano and Gio respected the Mandingo prayer ritual and other ceremonies.
The author admits that there existed a simmering resentment toward the Mandingos (though not at the level that was experienced in 1990). The author describes an anecdote of this resentment on the day of Gen. Thomas G. Quinwonkpa failed coup attempt in 1985; when a neighbor in Saclepea is caught off guard threatening the elimination of all Mandingos from Nimba County. This is five years before the first shot is fired in the civil war which attempted the total annihilation of the Mandingos from Liberia, Nimba in Particular.
Nvasekie also shared the continued inhuman treatment of his people to what he called “their profit driven life style”. They would rather make a quick profit now by bribing their way out of a situation instead of standing up for what is right.
Nvasekie, a feisty intellectual who can sometime be combative is a nine years veteran of the US Navy. A period he writes about vividly in the memoir. One of the poignant moments of the book is when he recounts various interactions with his black shipmates on the issue of colors – light skin vs. dark skin. As anyone who knows the black culture would attest to, light skin African American is preferred to their dark skin counterparts. But one wouldn’t think that such a stereotype extends to men within the US Navy.
The “Land of My Father’s Birth” is filled with facts, references and historical footnotes both leading up to and the prosecution of the civil war as he lay out the subjugation of the Mandingo nation in a country they were born and raised.
Corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and incompetence exhibited by various African leaders which leave their citizenry to literarily risk it all in search for better lives in Europe and America, doesn’t escape his critique. As more and more Africans engage in desperate effort to escape their homeland for greener pasture this wouldn’t be more poignant. Other institutions that received lashing in this memoir were the Liberian media for their selective reporting; the United States government for its hypocrisy toward its geo-political interests especially on issue that concerns African interest, nevertheless his warm enthusiasm toward the Obama campaign and presidency are noted.
But getting back to the memoir main topic, the prejudice against the Liberian Mandingo by the Mano and Gio in Nimba and the larger Liberian populace many of whom mocked their departure in 1990 as “1990 citizen”, I was disappointed with my friend.
There is no doubt he laid out an unequivocal case against the slur, indictment and slaughter the Mandingo went through. But I expected Nvasekie to have gone beyond the news and seek some sociological and or anthropological context as to why the Mandingo were so hated during their most hours of needs especially, since the hatred still simmers on in the heart and mind of so many Liberians.
The closest Nvasekie went digging for reason for the hatred toward Mandingos was sharing some of the blames to his countrymen for their lack of drive to defend their God given rights in place of quick profit. I’m aware this is a memoir, and not a policy book, but for one to be able to intellectualize the issue he addressed so unequivocally, he needed to address or attempt to conceptualize what drive the hatred for the Mandingos.
The human mind or action is always driven by motive, interest or the lack of (insanity). We are a creature that strives and survives on reason, disregard how shallow and sometimes myopic such a reason might be in a given situation. The hatred toward the Jews by the Nazi was motivated in large part by prejudice in the form of race perfection driven by a mad man. The Mandingo situation is quite different in the sense that it isn’t driven by any single leader, but rather a group of neighbors that have lived together for centuries. So I have always asked myself why they hate us so much.
Because if even the Mandingos were not territorially part of the Liberian homeland (which we are) it doesn’t amount to the hatred perpetrated toward the tribe during the execution of the civil war and sadly the hatred lingers on even today. So I expected Nvasekie to have gone beyond the reportage of the crime to why they did it and what motivate their action. Logically, it’s not just enough to report the crime without seeking some clarity or solution. And we can’t arrive at the solution unless we identify the problem. We can’t identify the problem without knowing what motivate their actions. It’s only then we can be able to either collectively or individually address it as a society, community and or nation.
As a Mandingo myself, I experienced some persecution in my beloved home town of Boawolohun in northern Lofa, in 1990. My father came to this town in the early 1920’s as a teenager. He helped built the town, gave it its first mosque, store, its first brick and zinc houses in the 1930’s when it was rare to see such development in rural Liberia. He had seven wives, five of them Gbandis, fathered twenty-seven children in all. But weeks before the rebel captured our town, he passed away. Because he had refused to leave, telling everyone, Boawolohun was the only town he knew. In the town square, I watched from behind the multitude as a Gio man named Gonganu who had just desecrated my father compound, and his most treasured belonging (Koran), shouting at the top of his lungs “any Mandingo man . . . any Mandingo woman. . ., any Mandingo baby here? Come out now I will kill you quickly, it will not be painful.” Luckily, our uncles and other relatives shielded us all as Gbandis. Nevertheless, ever since that day, I have been on the quest to know or just to understand it from their point of view why they hate us so much?
Forget the usual political reason, that the Mandingo allied themselves with Doe. Because as already stated, the Mandingos were on the receiving end before the first shot was fired in the civil war. But if you dig deeper, whatever you get from an honest neighbor, not only Gio and Mano, but even the Gbandi and or Lorma it wouldn’t be far from any of these reasons: lack of cultural assimilation and perception of arrogance of the Mandingo.
The Mandingos by nature are hustlers and preferred their independent means of providing for their family compared to most other Liberians. In other words, they work very very hard and play hard. This has always been an area of simmering contention for some of our neighbors. The bulk of the hatred toward the Nimba Mandingo is rooted in this perception.
Next is the ubiquitous accusation of lack of cultural assimilation by Mandingos. Of all the charges against the Mandingos I have encountered this is the one that carried an ounce of weight. My father’s five Gbandi wives were all acculturated in Islamic and Mandingo cultures. But of more than dozen sisters and nieces I had, none of them married someone that was hundred percent Gbandi. That’s despite the fact that more than 95% of the town residents were Moslems.
The above listed reasons are in no way justification for the slaughter the Mandingos suffered. These are issue that I expected Nvasekie to delve into and discuss it adequately. Because in my view the issue of citizenship for Mandingo is a settled one; but what I can’t fathom to this day is why do they hate us?
The last and final issue that wasn’t discussed in “The Land of My Father’s Birth” is the lack of higher education within our community. Until 1990 very few Mandingo were at the table where the future of Liberia was being discussed and the in-balance in every aspect of life against Mandingos couldn’t have been clearer. Fewer Mandingo send their kids to school beyond high school. The few Mandingos that were in government or who carried Mandingo bloods barely associated or considered themselves Mandingo in the eyes of the average Mandingo.
Despite all of these short falls, “The Land of My Father’s Birth” is a huge intellectual achievement. In some places the suspense keeps you on your toes like a novel. It’s honest, witty and at time overbearingly emotional.
I gave it a B+ RATING.
About the Author: Robert V. Sesay is a former Liberian writer and journalist who now live in Bristol, Pa as a Businessman, movie producer among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org