Healing the Historical Divide for Self-Empowerment and Self-Preservation
A speech delivered by Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D at the LNHP 2010 Project Rally in St. Paul, Minnesota
By Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Executive Director, Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), Greensboro, NC
Associate Professor, Environmental and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC
Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Pastor Alphonso Johnson, Sr. Pastor, PCM; Rev. John Baker, Lead Pastor, Oakdale Wesleyan Church; Hon. John Tarley, Chairman, Directors of the Board, OLM; Hon. Christian Harris, Executive Director, OLM; Hon. Momodu Kiamokai, President Liberian Community, St. Paul; Hon. Hamilton Kayee, President Sinoe County Association in the Americans, MN Chapter; Father James Wilson, Rector; St. James Episcopal Church; Members of the Liberian Association of MN; Distinguished Platform; Fellow Liberians; Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is so good to be with you this afternoon in this great City of St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, as we gather in this Church, for the launching of Liberian National History Project (LNHP) 2010, I extend to you hearty welcome. According to Liberia's present history, modern Liberia was born during the raining season - in a church such as this church -- on July 26, 1847 by the founding fathers (settlers) who dreamed of living in an independent nation called their own. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the framers of LNH2010, the sons and daughters of Liberia and Friends of Liberia, considered once again the church, this trend setting place, on this Holy ground on this 9th of May 2010 between these walls of Pilgrims of Christ Ministry, as the foundation, from which we must once again rally for the journey in knowing our true selves. In this regard, I thank the God of our forefathers that we are still alive to come together as we are doing here today, to reflect on our common problems as a people. Again, I am happy to be with you this afternoon.
History is an experience and a tapestry that is waving and unfolding right now before our very eyes. Each one of us at this historical junction is a part of the eking, weaving visible threads of history in the fabric of our nation and in the pattern of our lives. So as we gather to rally to revise our history, we will be remembered for the inclusiveness we seek, in order for the "Love of Liberty to unite us – the indigenous and settlers.
Brothers, sisters, and friends of Liberia, we are the new generation of our nation’s brightest crops of future leaders and beacon of hopes for raising the consciousness bar for Liberians and improving the conditions of our people. Indeed, we are all Liberians so we must treat each other with respect at all times. It doesn’t matter whether you were born in Liberia or here in the U.S. Once you are born a Liberian, you will always remain a Liberian. It doesn’t even matter if you hold USA, German, British, French, or Chinese passport due to conditions beyond your control. You will always be a Liberian as long as you have Liberian blood in you. You are what you were born to be. You do not subordinate your culture to any foreign nation.
As many of you might already know, I belong to an organization called LIHEDE—which is the acronym name for the Liberian History, Education, and Development. We in LIHEDE believe it is imperative for us to know and understand ourselves as Liberians. LIHEDE believes that once we light the corridor of past history to understand ourselves through education, then we will be prepared to see more clearly the potential for a better future that is yet to come.
In August 2009, LIHEDE held its 5th Anniversary Jubilee in Greensboro with the theme: “Understanding Ourselves and Our History: A Call to Collective Unity and Development.” The jubilee was a great success and the main resolution that derived from the Jubilee was to revise our history in order to reflect the collective and inclusive nature of our being.
I would dare to suggest that Liberian history, identity, culture, and tradition of which you are a part, have a reason for being. Liberian history, along with what it implies, has a distinctive education that this world desperately needs to learn; learn because any nation without a defined history and identity is very hard to lead. Such a nation is difficult to lead because the people of that nation won’t really have anything in common to hold them together, as a result, the people will not be willing to die for their nation. Therefore, any leader in Liberia will be effective only if he or she knows and understands the history of Liberia. For example, the uplifting stories, struggles, and triumphs of the ethnic groups of Liberia have yet to be written and taught in our schools. As a result, many of us do not know our history. It is this lack of collective oneness that has been one of our major national problems, which has continued to suffocate our people and the development imperatives of our nation.
Liberians did not appear on the world stage yesterday. We were not born in the ACS bosom either nor did we emerge from dog-eared copies of European historical lenses. The Liberian people are a great and distinctive people of the world. Our people handy works derived from the great aquatic civilizations of the Khemit, Sudan, Kumba, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem Empires, etc. These aquatic civilizations produced the Bassa-speaking people who migrated from Mozambique. It produced the Mande-speaking people whose leaders unified the two separate (upper and lower kingdoms) of Egypt and went on to build the powerful Malian Empire and the Benin kingdom.
Pre-Liberia Ethic Kingdoms and World Trade
Before 1822, there were the Bassa Kingdom; Belle (Kuwaa) Kingdom, Grebo Kingdom; Mende Kingdom, Krahn (Wee) Kingdom, Sapo Kingdom, Kpelle Kingdom, Kissi Kingdom, Prebo Kingdom, Gbii Kingdom, Via Kingdom, Dei (Dewion) Kingdom, Gio (Dahn) Kingdom, Loma Kingdom, Mandingo Kingdom, Mahn (Mano) Kingdom, and the Klao (Kru) kingdom in the area present day Liberia occupied. These traditional kingdoms were not founded by the signing of Western-like documents. They were formed consistent with their culture and tradition.
Ladies and gentlemen, there was more than 300 years old Liberian (Melegueta, Grain, Paradise) Civilization that traded with Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho in 600 BC (2 Chronicle, 35:20-24) and Hanno of Cathage in 520 BC or the Empire of Carthage (1000-150 BCE…688), and Phoenicians. The melegueta pepper was said to have been an extremely valuable trade commodity at the time for its culinary and medicinal qualities or properties so the name “Grain Paradise” or “Grain Coast” as it was the principal item of the barter trade that existed during that era.
In addition, the indigenous people traded with the Americas via ship and ply the Atlantic Ocean as far as 1500 B.C. The discovery of scaled hard brick clay burial pyramids and sphinx in places like Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Ghana were especially built for their Kukia as well as in Nubia and Egypt. In 1200 A.D Spanish explorers or traders arrived on the Grain Coast, followed in 1364 and 1413 by the French, English, Dutch, Swiss, Cubans, and other western European traders. Pedra de Cintra visited the Grain Coast in 1461 and named such costal lands in modern Liberia as Cape Mount (or Cabo do Monte in Spanish) and Cape Mesurado, where our brothers and sisters freed from their bondage first landed. Flemish ships came to the coast to trade gold from 1475-79. Dutch traders arrived on the Grain Coast in 1611, followed by the Swedish traders in 1700s.
Vasco da Gama, Drapper Ofert, and other registries provide ample evidence that the area known today as Liberia had a civilization in which the people were not only advanced in their customs and traditions but in international trading with merchants from Dieppe who arrived first to set up semi-permanent settlements during the Malaguatta Civilization; among them were Grand Dieppe and Petit Dieppe, located at present-day Buchanan and Greensville. The malagueta pepper and basket-weaving industry were so huge that Rio dos cestos or River Cess was coined after the basket in which the people of Pre-Liberia traded their malagueta. Pre-Liberian people were doctors, lawyers, scientists, economists, judges, and servicemen, who were trained in learning institutions and universities such as Fez, Timbuktu, Sankore, Heliopolis, Poro & Sande during our people’s journeying. These pre-Liberia traditional kingdoms thus embodied forms of laws and established form of government. These traditional kingdoms were by their very essence democratic, based around the organic independence of individuals, without whom the Kingdom would have no substance.
The Liberian civilization would later produce three important scripts that Europeans had no part to play. For example, the Vai Script inventor, Duwalu Bukehdeh was a descendant of the Malian stock. Similarly, Mr. Kisimi Kamara, inventor of the Mende script, came from Mali civilization. Thirdly, Kpelle Script inventor Mr. Gbili Sanoyea came from the Sudan. For the Loma Script, Widor Zobo, its inventor, came from the Malian Empire. And the Bassa script, ‘Ehni Ka Se Fa,’ the Bassa alphabet, came from Abassania“. For example, the Mende script’s identical format and usage has been discovered in Mexico ancient Olmec monuments, which is dated 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C.
Liberians are unsurpassed in their ability to create exquisite and multifaceted art. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unique blacksmith technology that supplied cutlasses, axes, money (Kissi money) as medium of exchange in Liberia and Sierra Leone for a long, long time before the British Pound interrupted the indigenous people’s medium of exchange. Aside from its medium of exchange value, Kissi money is especially important to the Kissi people because of its religious significance and its representation of a well-being in an individual. So are our names, rituals, marriage, economic system of Susu, and barter trading, introduced by the Gbandi in other to assist each other.
Friends, brothers and sisters, our nation’s identity started a very long time ago. For example, Pre-Liberian ethnic groups started the formation of our identity as they came together. Later on, as our people begun trading with the Arabs and Europeans, it did well to help change the make-up of our identity. The ethnic groups of three distinctive “Niger-Congo” stocks melted into a new race of kingdom, comprising of more than 800,000 people who founded Pre-Liberia civilization. The “first citizens” of Pre-Liberia "melted together" into a harmonious whole, which had been over shadowed by the negative history that labeled them as a people of no historical beginning nor made any contribution to history. To this dynamic mosaic of a “melting pot” of a people who had bonded, through one goal of seeking the freedom, of some 5,000 people, who were recaptured from other parts of the Continent, mainly from Matadi, a seaport in Congo, and were resettled in Liberia as the new promised land where a fusion of different oppressed people and culture would land as an ideal republic and a "city upon a hill".
Out of the great migration, and a product of a culturally and ethnically mixed "melting pot," would produce a new diet such as ginger, which is traded to India and China. This new fusion in our diet probably came from 350 settlers who came from Barbados and became Liberian citizens. Recent Liberian historians and other documents have suggested that individuals such as Arthur and Edwin Barclay who became Presidents of Liberia brought the ginger crops to Liberia. For the most part, ginger was one of the known spices in Europe, especially for its medicinal properties, which was discovered during the plague.
One known Liberian diet is the cassava commonly known as Yucca, tapioca, manioc. The plant is not native to Liberia. According to Stephen K. O'Hair at the Tropical Research and Education Center of University of Florida, cassava (scientific namei Manihot esculenta Crantz) cassava is native to Brazil and Paraguay or the Amazon basin. The likelihood is that some of our nation’s citizens and traders, who came from South America, brought the plant with them and was adopted by the coast-side dwellers, especially the Bassa and Die (Dewion) who added a special ways (dumboy and fufu) of preparing it, which is now a part of Liberian diet. Legend had it that JJ Roberts, Liberia’s first president used the dish (dumboy) during his State inauguration celebration.
Like cassava, the eddo, which is not native to the continent, was discovered some 2,000 years ago from a plant in Asia. The plant would be brought to the Liberian Civilization on slave vessels bound for the Caribbean. Of the more than 15,000 settlers who came from mainland America plantations, they also did their part to add to the new Liberian identity. The likes of pork and Collard greens were also introduced to Liberia, which Liberians were able adapt to their own way of preparing.
The discussion of Liberian diet and staple food cannot end without talking about the heart of the matter. Rice! The people of Pre-Liberia have been harvesting this crop for about 3000 years. Reportedly, it was the staple food for Abassina who lived along the Nile River. In fact, Liberia would go on to perfect rice production to define its place in the world as the breadbasket of Africa.
The Grebo who came along with the Bassa, Sarpo, Kru (Klao), Belle (Kuwaa), Krahrn (Wee), Dei (Dewion) would develop a special way of cooking palm butter sauce, one of Liberia’s dishes for rice and dumb-boy. Its use crosses Liberia, as well as those in the Diaspora. The Via would become known for cooking cassava leaf in a special way, where as the Bassa, would use the rhizome of the cassava, to create a specialty type of dumpling called dumb-boy. Back by these dishes are peppers of all kinds, some of which came from Egypt, India, Niger, and Jamaica to make, for examples, “Killi Willie, Sammy’s Mechen, pepper fish”, etc. Mangoes, bananas, sugarcanes, and other fruits from Asia would also influence Liberian diets.
Social Symbols and Behavior of Liberian Identity
Fellow Liberians and friends of Liberians, our nation revered national places and shrines reveal the extent of our mindfulness of what we have in common. We have arts and cultural festivals such as the celebrations of Poro and Sande Universities, Gbetu, “Snake baby”, Gela, Nafia, burial, birth, etc. that attract a wide following of both locals and overseas visitors. We have treasures of dances and songs, including our national anthem and our Grand March or Quadrille; combination of sake dance copied by France, passed on from the American plantation, and introduced to Liberia. Today, this way of dancing and dressing distinguishes us from all other people of the world.
Our handshakes and nestled groupings, bears a striking similarity to those of the earlier settlers. In fact, no important meeting would take place or conclude in Liberia without a hearty handshake. The Liberian handshake is one of the cultural mosaic or symbiosis.
Why these national identities that bind us not being taught in Liberian schools? Why hasn’t our history reflect what we have in common? This brings us to the main reason we are here today, which is about the need for Healing the Historical Divide for Self-Empowerment and Self-Preservation in Liberia. The nation elections in 2011 could be the turning point in our history because the frog theory has come into play. It's time to step back and look at how Liberia is crippled due to our divided house and hatred. Commitment and devotion to a National History Project, which I believe is the road to dealing with the future, must be one of the factors of consideration of voters when voting in the 2011 elections in Liberia. For far too long, Liberians have been a divided people due to lack of understanding of the customs and traditions of one another. The new leader of Liberia must pledge to correct this imbalance in the Liberian society by devoting considerable time and resources to revising the history of Liberia, in order for it to include what is left out. The new leaders of Liberia should fulfill our nation’s creed, which reads – “People united, indivisible under God.” The new leaders should work hard to make Liberia one nation, one people, and our community associations, one community, one people, in spite of our ethnic, social, economic, and scholarly diversities. There is no angry fix to our history and identity problems. Our nation needs a reformer or future leader to establish a "bonne entente" among our people, to go ahead and have this encounter with the past in order to launch our nation into the future. After 14 years of two brutal civil wars, we saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by angry fits and the madness of wars in which brothers killed sisters; sisters killed brothers; parents killed their children and children killed their parents. These wounds are still being licked. They have not healed. I think it will be unwise to not look to history and imagine the future of the next generation.
The enemy or leadership drought that is popping up like a wild mushrooms in every Liberian organization and listserv across the Internet has a historical beginning. What one absorbs as a child, without a sense of history, shapes what he/she will become in the future. We are duty bound to abate our unconquered pockets of ignorance and self-hatred, unanswered questions of how we are. Sadly, in Liberia, there isn’t a template for leadership and mentors for tomorrow leaders. Our past national leaders were leaders who did not demonstrate leadership. They sought to promote and protect their own greatness and forgot about the young generation of Liberians. Hence, the generations that follow, will define from their point of views, the ideals of a leader, to be someone who forces his/her way into the helm of power or an entrepreneur as a person who amass wealth fast, by using corrupt practices.
Today, Liberia's greatness as a nation is being severely challenged because we do not know what exactly we want and cherish as a people or a nation. No wonder the leaders of our nation and organizations have had so much trouble persuading people to participate in national governance or community development actively. Apparently, the situation in Liberia and amongst Liberian organizations today, is a testimony to the proverb that “a divided house against itself cannot stand.” What we are seeing in our nation and the Liberian Diaspora amounts to re-runs of the biggest mistake that was made in the modern history of our nation – the disregard and disrespect for the culture and practices of the people “The Love of Liberty Met in present day Liberia.”
One generation after another, our nation has been unable to unite and to rise above the series of pettiness that has kept us apart. There is no appreciation for collective history, oneness, and unification as a people willing and ready to live together in peace and work together freely to develop our nation and ourselves. Since our modest beginnings as a nation, Liberia continues to grow amidst shoals of reactions and prejudices because generations before us have not laid the foundation for us to build upon. Therefore, our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but rather due to acts of indifference and intolerance and lack of respect for one another. Imagine how a leader could go on to impact the lives of our people, just as his/her life was touched by past leaders. One thing I know for sure in life is that good leaders are a nation’s most valuable resources for nation building.
All great people or nations have a defined historical root, an underpinning upon which the minds and souls of new generations are hanged. All great people or nations celebrate their past embrace their future. Therefore, when we look at our individual struggles for freedom, social justice, and personal growth from a historical perspective, it becomes clear that we Liberians ought to know and understand that we are engaged in a collective struggle for national peace and prosperity in our homeland. We must learn to share our laurels with not only ourselves but also with all the peoples who have contributed their part to our way of life. This is the challenge to members of this organization and the future leaders of Liberia. This is why I am saying the battle of the 2011 elections in our nation will be fought and won by candidates who articulate and crystallize a national platform. The candidate who proposes traditional nation-building will win the hearts of the people because at the root of our national problem is an unresolved and chronic issue of national identity, national purpose, and national destiny.
At this stage in our existence, it is sad that we are largely out of tune with our true selves. We tend to be inwardly fragmented to some extent, with different parts of our inner nature warring and in conflict with our own history. Hence many people frown on writing our collective history because they are under the illusion that it will open our old wounds. But this is exactly the problem we face in Liberia. If we don’t write our own history, then we shouldn’t get angry that Europeans, Americans, and fellow Africans are writing inflammatory things about us. We cannot have it both ways. We can either write our own history or simply accept what others write about us. As a people, we need a history in which all of the ethnic groups that make up the history that will lead us into a dialogue about the meaning of our lives and relationship we share with one another. In essence, we should seek to unlock the mystery that lies beyond and within us as Liberians in order to unite and rebuild our shattered homeland.
This generation must now come of age, shape by an unprecedented appetite for genuine change. The change ought to begin in this audience so that the next generation and new crop of leaders will be able to walk in our footsteps. You have a stake in this, and must sacrifice to help bring Liberia closer to the spiritual principles of love and justice for all its citizens. Please help us in our investigation and research quest to write a revision of history that will reflect and represent the cultures and traditions of all the peoples that make up the Liberian nation.
Our struggle is not about being poor, but rather a genuine need for groundbreaking knowledge and discoveries through the independent and vigorous academic research about who we are. Go amongst our people, from Cape Mount to Montserrado to Cape Palmas. Go tell it from the Nimba highland to the hardwood forests of Grand Gedeh: teach the doctrine of unity, love, and oneness, and carry the message of freedom from the low valley to the crest of the Cavalla River and over every hills and every corner of Liberia. Teach our people to rely upon themselves and re-construct themselves materially, spiritually and otherwise.
Revising our history is self-preservation aims to strengthen and preserve Liberia; its aim is to demonstrate that no one can lead Liberia unless such person knows the collective history of the people. This means if Liberians are going to impact the world with the truth of the message with which we are commissioned as a distinctive sovereign and independent nation, we should listen and embrace our history. We should find out who we are and what our heritage is, and teach it from one generation and to the next. This is the legacy … a legacy that is expected of us as Liberians! I Thank You …!!!
About the Author
Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Environmental and 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 Its 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). Somah is also the Executive Director of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), a nonprofit organization based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com