Friday 22nd September 2017,

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The “We are one people” slogan vs. the reality of two Liberias; “Stop acting like dumb people.”

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James Kokulo Fasuekoi, Eden Prairie, Minn. – In 2007, Dr. Nat Gbessagee took me to task for using the popular Liberian phrase, “We are one people.”  Prof. Gbessagee’s point was that the country, Liberia, has sixteen distinct ethnic groups with each unique in its own way in terms of culture and traditions. He described my remark as “Mere rhetoric” and argued that under no condition Liberians can be “One People.”

Masks of identity in Liberia, photo taken by James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Masks of identity in Liberia, photo taken by James Kokulo Fasuekoi

As a journalist and cultural writer, I quickly grasped the logic of his argument. However, coming out of a brutal African war and amid persistent cries for national healing and reconciliation, one would think it’s an excellent idea to embrace the “We are one people” slogan in the name of peace and national unity. Notwithstanding, certain tribalist like Mr. Carter within the Congo tribe is very keen on making the distinction between the two Liberias, (Natives and Congos) just as the early settlers were keen on making such distinction between both groups from the time of the declaration of independence.

They must be praised for being proud of who they are and drawing a line. It is hoped that Indigenous too will learn to appreciate their values and similarly remain very keen on making a distinction between the two Liberias the same way. And Natives should open their eyes and not let it be “business as usual” when members of Americo-Liberian ethnicity go preaching “Kukatunu” (the Kpelleh version of “We are one people” created by Pres. Tolbert), come political elections season.

Indigenes should see this post-war era as a new beginning and start to choose their leaders wisely and shouldn’t let cunning politicians from settlers’ origin play on their minds that voting for a fellow Native amounts to a crime or act of tribalism. Good that there isn’t any elections rule so far in Liberia’s constitution to dictate which race or tribe an individual have to vote for.

This shouldn’t in anyway imply that all Congos carry the “Carter mindset.” Honestly, there are many good Americo-Liberians out there who never cared about drawing a distinction. However, the above suggestions are only intended to place the “Country People” on guard in order to stop acting like “dumb people.” They must stop blurring the line between Natives and Congos, by pretending to be the later all for the sake of “social and political” statues.           

While it is unfair to charge all Congo descendants for Mr. Carter’s condescending remarks against Native Liberians, let me hasten to say that Carter’s attitude isn’t something unique to him alone. It is typically the way most Americo-Liberians view their Native counterparts. To get deeper into the “Carter mindset,” and the “two Liberias,” one should read a few chapters from “The House at Sugar Beach,” authored by Helene Cooper, a settler descendant, and see how the writer became blunt by labeling  one group as the “Congo elite” and the other, “Country People.” She proudly portrayed her family as part of the “Liberian elites,” and “privileged class,” and persistently referred to Indigenous as “Country People,” or simply, “Doe’s People.”

And who are “Doe’s People” by the way? Of course that’s how narrow she views the rest of Native Liberians from her so-called “politically correct lens” with the exception of her tribe. This is how deep prejudice can weight down some that it spreads onto the individual’s career. Cooper’s primary intent for using these stereotypes about Natives is meant to make indigenes look like “bush people.”

For instance, in chapter 19, page 246, of her book she tries to impress western readers unfamiliar with Liberian history that the “Country People” (Native Liberians), can’t speak or understand proper English. This according to the writer caused the government of Pres. Samuel Doe to create a radio program called “Simple English” News as means to get the news to the “Country People.” 

She writes: “News in Simple English” was “mandated” by Doe, as a way to reach out to his [Country] people who couldn’t write, speak or understand Standard English.” According to her, “Toward the end of the broadcast, a news reader would announce,“And now for the news in simple English….Then a Country man came on and read the news in Liberian English…that sent Congo People into peals of laughter.” Throughout the book, Ms. Cooper’s disdain for Native Liberians and the then new leader, Pres. Samuel Doe is clear to the point she refuses to acknowledge Doe as “President.”

Why will a former US Journal’s reporter tries to trick her readers, mainly Americans into believing people from her “Privileged class” can read, write, and speak “Excellent English” which is inaccurate? From recollection, Liberian jargons like you pa, you own, etc., were invented by Americo-Liberians and even a western-educated “Liberian elite” like Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf still uses these idioms in private conversations. Can one then argue that she doesn’t speak proper English? Why will Ms. Helene Cooper take her tribal prejudice to an extreme level without second thought? Is she saying that all born Americans speak proper English, not to mention settler-Liberians residing in both Liberia and the U.S?

Not even everyone who was born and raised in Britain (owner of English) is a good writer or speaker of the English Language. The English star Elton John, i.e., “Couldn’t speak English until he arrived to America,” according to “The Land of My Father Birth” authored by Mr. Nvasekie Konneh. So why will Ms. Cooper, a former Washington Post reporter engage in such unfounded gossips and lies just to elevate her own tribal group on the Liberian social ladder?

The Liberia Broadcasting System (ELBC), Paynesville, Liberia. Photo taken by Lassana Bamba

The Liberia Broadcasting System (ELBC), Paynesville, Liberia. Photo taken by Lassana Bamba

Contrary to Ms. Cooper’s claim, the idea for the creation of the “Simple English News” was to add a Liberian flavor to the news while making sure to reach rural residents who play an essential role in the development of the country and forms the larger part of the population.

Also, the ELBC-TV prior and after the civil wars did broadcast nationwide through the various vernaculars of the country such as Kpelleh, Daan, Mah, Lorma, Gbandi, Mandingo, Bassa, Krahn, Grebo, Vai, Gola, etc., which further refutes the writer’s claim that the radio program was introduced by “Doe” in order to reach out to his “Country People.”

Helene Cooper got it wrong for the radio program was meant for all Liberians including “Congos.” Ms. Cooper’s remarks should take readers back to the earlier argument as to how clueless the “New comers” remain in terms of the cultural values and certain basic facts pertaining to the land they called home even after nearly 200 years of their arrival. The dissemination of news via local languages isn’t limited only to Liberia. This is also done in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, where 98% of the populations consist of Native speaking people.

Another example of a divided Liberia is the sad story of a young Bassa teenage girl that author Cooper inadvertently cited in her book by the name “Eunice.” Perhaps, her experience may help pessimists to accept the true reality of a “Divide” Liberia. During a trip to Liberia some years ago, Helene Cooper said, she met with Eunice who was now a grown woman with kids.

But at the time of the 1980 coup that dethroned the settler’s hegemony, Eunice, then a teenager, served as a housemaid to the Cooper’s family at Sugar Beach, running all the chores at home while Helene and her siblings played. Eunice became loved by the Cooper’s family for the many years she stayed with them due to good behavior and hard work, as the writer alluded elsewhere in the book.

However, the haunting question becomes why did the “Coopers” leave Eunice in Liberia as they fled to America in the wake of the 1980 coup? The answer is obvious and lies in the issue of the “Two Liberias” as cited earlier; Eunice wasn’t a descendent of “Americo-Liberian” although the writer deliberately refused to admit same. Related Story

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1 Comment

  • It is very disappointing to see a phrase that should express our unique diversity being misconstrued and used to spread messages of hate and division amongst our people by someone who professes to be a journalist and cultural commentator. The phrase, “We are One People,” coined by one of the most farsighted and progressive leaders Liberia has every had, was intended to promote national unity and oneness, as well as, celebrate the unique Liberian diversity. Like the Latin Phrase, “E Pluribus Unun (“Out of Many One”) embedded on the Seal of the United States, the “We are One People,” phrase is can be interpreted to mean that though there are sixteen distinct ethnic groups in Liberia…with each unique in its own ways in the context of culture and tradition-howbeit the diversity, we are one people, one nation, one destiny. Hence, we should be celebrating our diversity and using it in a creative way, rather than using it to sow seeds of discord and disunity amongst our people. There is something call “perception.” The way we look at things, has a lot to do with how me respond to them and interact with each other. Except we change or perception of each other, the road to national healing, compromise, unity and renewal will continue to elude us. While acknowledging that there exist a level of “implicit bias,” in all of us, no matter which ethnic group we belong, however, we should avoid taking our biases to the extreme, as evident by this writer. For example, while celebrating the work of one of our prolific writers and celebrated authors, Mr.Nvasekie Konneh, the writer decide to ridicule the work of Ms. Helene Cooper, another celebrated literary icon of international repute, simply because she used the designation “Congo,” when referring to her heritage… regardless of the fact that the memoirs of both of these authors seek to showcase their individual experiences growing up in Liberia from the perspective of their unique cultural and ethnic experiences…during the civil war and the Coup of 1980 respectively. The writer’s reason for referring to Ms. Cooper as having the “mindset” of a tribalist, is that her usage of the word “concau” to refer to her ethnic origin, has a divisive connotation and evocative of an ethnic- driven mindset” What the writer failed to realize is that historically the word “Congo” was invented by our indigenous forebears to designate those who migrated to Liberia in the 9th century, and were considered “newcomers.”

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