By Syrulwa Somah
August 25, 2004
In traditional Liberian Bassa culture, folklores and proverbs are used extensively to teach and reinforce social, cultural, religious, leadership, and other intrinsic societal values to the Bassa youth. And one such Bassa folklores, a creation legend, holds that one day in the fullness of time, Gedepohoh, the Bassa deity, summoned the family of man (humans) and the colony of creatures (plants, animals, and other living organisms) into the higher heavens and instructed them to go forth and live in peace on todokpa (the land earth), which he had created for their enjoyment. But instead of Gedepohoh ordering the multiplication on earth of farm crops and other seedlings for food, shelter, vegetation, and healing for the congregants, he decided that all plants and seedlings should physically be planted on earth.
However, among the first group of plants that Gedepohoh decided to plant on earth was “poisonous whey,” a dreadful green herb that can break down the humane system of any living organism in seconds and lead to instant death. But Gedepohoh did not want to personally plant poisonous whey on earth, so he asked for volunteers from amongst the family of man and the colony of creatures assembled before his waiting feet. “Who will volunteer to plant poisonous whey as the first herb on earth?” Gedepohoh asked the congregants, but the entire congregation agonized in silence as everyone seemed unwilling to plant poisonous whey. Then, after a long silence, Chameleon (Hwo in Bassa), that multi-colored, docile, unusual, and charming animal with tail resembling that of a monkey’s tail, and feet shaped like a crab, stepped forward before Gedepohoh and said, “Let me carry it..” At first, Gedepohoh didn’t think Chameleon was up to the task, but when Chameleon got through beating its chest in re-assurance, while rotating its globular eyes, changing its color, flashing its tongue, and capturing insects at amazing distances with lightning speed, Gedepohoh was obliged to give Chameleon the assignment.
Well, while Chameleon was on its way to earth to plant poisonous whey, Gedepohoh had second thoughts about planting poisonous whey on earth, so Gedepohoh called to Chameleon to abort the trip, but being the stubborn creature it is, Chameleon refused to abort the trip and continued with the journey to earth to plant poisonous whey. At this point, Gedepohoh created an antidote to poisonous whey, and once more asked for volunteers from among the family of man and colony of creatures to run after Chameleon and plant the antidote to poisonous whey, to prevent the herb from germinating and becoming bountiful on earth. Again, the entire flock stood peeved in silence and seemed reluctant to carry the antidote for poisonous whey. Once more, like Chameleon, Rooster (Sohn in Bassa) stepped forward to plead with Gedepohoh to let it plant the antidote to poisonous whey. “I have a strong grip on things due to the muscles in my wings and feet, which allow for an effortless grasp of objects with both my forefeet and beck. I have storage channels for blood in my wings and feet, which enable me to clinch to a position and remain there for long periods of time without tiring. I will fly quickly to earth and plant the antidote! Let me be the one to do it please,” Rooster pleaded with Gedepohoh.
After much pleadings, Gedepohoh gave Rooster the antidote, and Rooster was well on its way to earth when it came across a thick vegetation of tropical rainforests and found a colony of termites whose coloration ranged from light brownish gray to deep reddish brown. Rooster soon forgot the task at hand and covetously began feeding on termites, insects, worms, fruit, seeds, acorns, grains, slugs, snails, and many other foods in the vegetation. The Bassa legend holds that after the failures by Chameleon and Rooster, Gedephoh finally gave the antidote to dog (Gbe in Bassa), which succeeded in planting the antidote to poisonous whey on earth, but then it was too late, as poisonous whey had already contaminated the earth.
Hence, as a mark of profound learning, the Bassa elder would tell the Bassa youth that the moral of the creation legend is that anyone who frequently changes his or her appearance (color) like Chameleon ought not to be trusted, and that anyone who touts his or her ability in self-glorification like Rooster ought not to be evaluated only by the person’s good intention alone, but by the dignity, composure, and balance of the person. For if we critically look at the reasons behind the continuing political infighting in Liberia, let alone the two civil wars in Liberia in the last 14 years, it might be easy to see the stubbornness of Chameleon and the greediness of Rooster at play in our political and social orders .
In other words, Liberia’s social, economic, and political problems are borne out of greed and selfishness. Gedepohoh Veheneh (Almighty God) created a rich and beautiful piece of land called Liberia, with its own unique traditions, languages, mores, cultures, and governance systems, and told its sons and daughters to go forth and live in peace and prosperity, but Chameleon and Roosters infiltrated the status quo and created hell for everyone. So, although a lot of people are doing serious soul- searching to find out how we got to where we are today as Liberians, it is clear that if water drops from a mountain are not interrupted, the tiny water drops could turn into a big river in which a lot of people can get drown. In essence, Liberia is today drowning from the very slow leaks in its political and social orders because of greed for power and the lack patriotism. Hence, if the political, physical, and spiritual powers of a nation and people are allowed to be corrupted as in the case of Liberia without any durable institutional checks and balances, the end results are always political infightings and chaos.
Of course, in these contexts, it is fair to state that Liberia’s current social, economic, and political upheavals mirror the characters and circumstances of the Bassa creation legend, which can be interpreted to mean that unless Liberians are ready to re-ignite the human bonds of friendship and cooperation, infused by affection and the warmth of love and brotherhood and sisterhood, we will never be able to taste the rich joys and pleasures of living together as a single family or a unified people. We need to redefine and promote the virtues of justice, fair play, and patriotism in Liberian society because our very survival as a nation and people depends to a large extent on how we test and obey the laws of our land, how we respect and treat each other, and how we fairly distribute the nation’s wealth. Individualism, selfness, and greed have seriously undermined the unity, cooperation, and national development of Liberia, and we need to put our house in order to prevent such slow leaks in the future.
We need to get away from this false notion that two groups of citizens exist in Liberia, including a superior group and an inferior group, or that one set of Liberian culture is better than the other. I think these kinds of attitudes are unfounded and tend more to divide rather than unite Liberians. I think Messrs. Nat Galarea Gbessagee and H. Bioma Fahnbulleh, Jr., in their articles in the Perspective in 2002, “Liberia: Who Are We?” and “Crisis in the Soul” respectively, drove home the point that Liberians are faced with problems of identity, sincerity, and inefficiency, as opposed to the complexities of the existence of two cultures and two social classes in Liberia. But if Messrs Gbessagee and Fahnbulleh were mild in their critique of Liberian society, United Nation Security Panelists Chairman Martin Chungong Ayafor was very blunt about the misdirected priorities and inefficiencies of Liberians. “Liberia today stood among the world's poorest countries. Eighty per cent of the population lived in abject poverty on less than a dollar a day. Under-development, war and the inability to re-establish political and economic stability in the post-war period had left Liberia at the bottom of the human development index. In fact, it ranked 174th out of 175 countries.” For the most part, Liberia should not be a deprived nation as her capita income in 1970s was comparable to or par with that of Japan (Harold, Nelson D. Liberia: A country Study, U.S. Government, 1974).
But Liberia is really suffering from a “Crisis in the Soul” as Mr. Fahnbulleh indicated, or from a lack of self-identity, as Mr. Gbessagee indicated in “Liberia: Who Are We? Maybe not; but Liberians seem to lack any true sense of nationalism or "Nation first," as individualism, contaminated by ethnic and racial hatred, a tactic which tyrants use to divide and rule, remains the key pillars of our social, economic, political, cultural, religious, and educational institutions, thereby contributing to an untreatable cancerous crisis and political shortsightedness in the Liberian society. We do not value of our mother tongue (traditional languages) and spiritual values, but value those of others. We do not value our traditional religion, and our educational system does not promote the Liberian culture and social institutions such as the Sande and Poro Universities. Our newspapers take on the names of foreign newspapers, and our best known sport heroes and players name themselves after foreign players. We tend to lend more credibility to statements and proposals by foreign administrators and scholars than listen to our own public administrators and scholars in finding common solutions to our mounting and vexing socio-economic problems. And these are some of the serious slow leaks in Liberian society that we must strive to repair beginning with the elections in 2005.
Like the characters in the Bassa creation legend, Liberians need someone to plant the antidote of unity, peace, and cooperation in Liberia before the 2005 general elections. It is very important that the outcome and campaign tactics of the 2005 would seek to unify Liberians in the rebuilding of Liberia, rather than seek to polarize the country through manipulation of the elections results as was so common in Liberian history, beginning with Liberian chief executive and colonial master Jehudi Ashmun in 1826. Mr. Ashmun justified single-handedly nullifying the results of the elections this way, “The Agent...has the high satisfaction of finding himself sustained by a body of assistants, in whose good dispositions and capacity he has great confidence" (Gurley, Ralph Randolph, Life of Jehudi Ashmun (1794-1828), late colonial agent in Liberia, Negro Universities Press, New York, 1835). Similarly, another Liberian chief executive, President Charles D. B. King made name for himself in Guinness Book Of World Records by winning the Liberian presidential elections of 1927 with a majority of 234,000 votes when the official voters roll stood at only 15,000 registered voters, or 151/2 time less than the winning. This fraudulent practice continued throughout our history, which eventually led to a de facto one-party dictatorship, and the current civil uprisings in Liberia.
But these “slow leaks” or bad precedents in Liberian history were not only limited to elections. For example, another Liberian chief executive, President Arthur Barclay blended native Liberians heathens, and sought to use Christianity to pacify them. In his inaugural address, the president implored the Christian church to play an active role in pacifying the heathen.” Seated amid a heathen population of our Race, with whom the work of amalgamation has already commenced, the manner and the direction in which the influence of the church is exercised, and its modes of procedure become, politically, of paramount importance (Guannu, Joseph Saye, The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of Liberia, New York: Exposition Press, 1980, p. 204).
These slow leaks were also apparent in the social context. The abuse of ordinary citizens by the government security apparatus was commonplace, and justice and fair play in society were woefully lacking as the courts not only became impotent but toothless. For example, when a Liberian youth was choked to death by a Lebanese merchant for eating one candy bar in a supermarket in Liberia, it is believed that the Lebanese merchant fled Liberia overnight with the assistance of some Liberian government officials rather than face trial for murder. Similarly, many prominent Liberians supported various rebel causes to ignite the civil war in Liberia out of disagreement with some Liberian government authorities. For example, in his article, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Meets Liberians of Metro Atlanta, Mr. George Nubo, Managing Editor of The Perspective, provided vivid insights into the political scandals and struggles for leadership in Liberia when, he wrote, “In a rather surprising candor, Mrs. Sirleaf admitted that she supported Taylor in the initial stages of the civil war. She further indicated that she, Amos Sawyer, Tom Woewiyu and others raised at least $10,000.00 to assist Taylor in his quest to seize power” (The Perspective, 1997).
Certainly, as the Bassa legend suggests, Liberians anxiously need an antidote to poisonous whey in Liberia before our political infighting and greed for power contaminate our souls. Liberia needs good leaders and sound policymakers who have genuine love and concern for peace, stability, and national development in Liberia. Liberian politicians must become servants of the people and not their masters by showing care and concern for their plights in the same way Mahatma Gandhi once told Indian policymakers, "Recall the face of the poorest person you have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be any use to them." But are Liberian politicians paying attention to the plights of ordinary Liberians enough? Apparently not, as Liberian politicians and national leaders have yet to come to grips with breaking the old habits of selfishness, which needlessly accord primacy to the continuing gulf between the rulers and the ruled in the 157 years of our history of inter-relationship, to the point where Liberians have become totally alienated from the national leaders or predatory elites.
We must be careful so as not to continue to breed our nation to death if we keep sweeping things under the rug, which will never bring recovery and peace to Liberia. If we do not kindle within all Liberians the principles of humanity, patriotism, and social responsibly, we will only continue to promote a culture of fear and deception, which are finding their way to the fourth Republic. We must make sure that those who violate the trust of the Liberian people and misuse the nation’s wealth and human resources to promote their own interest are never again put in positions of power to repeat their crimes. Hence, the only way we can walk in truth is to replace the lies and ineptitude with true patriotism and equal justice. For once we have been cleansed in our hearts and souls, then the leadership in Liberia will respond and the nation will experience true healing. And, if we prosper in our thinking and souls, then we will also prosper in our national outlook. The only safe place for any of us is in the will of truth, which we are yet to live up to in Liberia.
In the new Liberia, we must never allow those who wish to oppress and exploit our people to team up to use money (poisonous whey) to have their way with political and social developments in our society. We must not allow the few to continue to dictate to the majority. Otherwise, we will continue to have ourselves to blame. After all, we can only say collectively that we love Liberia when we do not join revolutions that only seek to replace one dictatorship with another, without any real improvements in the civil liberties and living standards of the Liberian people. We cannot say we have genuine love for Liberia until we remove all concerted aggression against the common people. And I do not believe that any love that drives a nation of people to the edge of self-destruction and nakedness before the world is by divine Providence. Love and patriotism speak otherwise. For if we truly love Liberia and we want Liberia to rise as a unified nation and people, then the masses of our people must not be forgotten in the fourth Republic. And those who appoint themselves stalwarts and leaders of the Liberian people must take responsibility not to be self-indulgent in shady deals and activities, but to devise programs that will improve the socio-economic conditions of Liberians.
Today, Liberia is at a critical junction in its national history. Liberia has just ended 14 years of two civil wars, and the country is currently experimenting with a tenuous transitional government, while in about a year, Liberians will go to the polls to elect new national leaders. But the fundamental issues of constitutional law, civil liberties, democracy, and good governance still elude the nation. Hence, I do not believe the upcoming 2005 general elections, which are intended to usher in the 4th Liberian Republic are about mere elections. To me, the 2005 elections are about deciding whether or not to entrust the leadership of Liberia to a new group of Liberian political elites, or the old group of Liberian political elites. I also believe the elections are about uniting the Liberian nation and people around the principles of mutual cooperation and final liberation, thereby mentally freeing our nation from the dictation of a mother country, regardless of any special relationship, ideological, or historical affinity. I believe the 2005 Liberian elections must be about nationhood and sovereignty.
We need to get beyond the legacy of failures and ineptitudes that have characterized successive governments in Liberia since 1822, which have in turn conditioned Liberians to believe that if a public official is honest and refuses to participate in corruption, then that public official is stupid. We need to get beyond this kind of mindset about our public officials if we must ever succeed in rebuilding our nation. Therefore I believe that post-conflict Liberia must become a new beacon of hope where those who refuse to steal from the nation must never be called stupid again. The 2005 elections must be a point at which we can all break with the past acts of corruption and move on. It is the very nature of the Liberian character is that being decided from now to 2005, not just the elections. The upcoming presidential election featuring 18 or more political parties and candidates will be a referendum on all these issues. But Liberians will have another opportunity to decide whether they want a president that exploits, kills, degrades, and destroys the Liberian nation and people without provocation, or they want a new president who unites and builds strong and prosperous nation all Liberians would be proud of!
In 2005 and beyond, Liberians will need a new set of national leaders in Liberia that will listen to the views, opinions, and wise counsels of Liberians inside and outside government service. In other words, the new Liberia will need a group of national leaders who will be open to and take advantage of criticisms and suggestions from a cross-section of Liberians without branding persons uttering such criticisms and suggestions as enemies of the state. The views of every Liberian should be welcomed and appreciated, regardless of the person’s social status, education, or ethnic background. In fact, we must not permit ethnic hatred and political dictatorship to foster in the 4th Liberian Republic, as in the past. We must accord due respect to every Liberian, and we must embrace good governance and the rule of law in the 4th Liberian Republic and beyond. Similarly, regardless of education, affiliation, or social status, the Liberian people must never again recognize anyone who ascends to power in Liberia outside the democratic process. We need to repair all the slow leaks in Liberian society before these leaks turn into a great ocean that might consume all of us in ways far worst than what we have witnessed in the last 14 years. Hence, we still have a chance to repair the slow leaks in Liberian society, if only we could start right now, especially during the 2005 Liberian general elections!