The Mandingo People of Liberia: A Historical Fact Most Liberians Overlook
By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
I was born in a diverse community located in the vicinity of Camp Johnson Road and lower *Clay Street in the city of Monrovia named in honor of the 5th president of the United States James Monroe. And Thomas Buchanan whom the cities of Lower and Upper Buchanans in Grand Bassa County were named after was the second governor (April 1, 1839 September 3, 1841) of Liberia. Also, Thomas Buchanan is the cousin of James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States.
In this community, there were Klaos (Krus), Bassas, Krahns, Sapos, Mandingoes, Lomas (also referred to as Buzzy), Kpelles, Vais, Fantes, and Americo-Liberians or Congo people as they preferred to be called. Growing up in this diverse community gave me a sense of understanding and appreciation for individuals who behaved and spoke different languages than mine. I never felt out of place, except for the occasional conversations I overheard regarding the Congo and Mandingo people. Some of these conversations went like this: “The Congo or Americo-Liberian people think they are better than country (native) people.” The Congos/Americo-Liberians and some ethnic groups referred to the Mandingoes as strangers because of their custom, religion and social ties with Mandingoes in Guinea. They would usually say, “These Mandingo people need to go back to Guinea.”
In May 2005, I wrote this article due to the misunderstanding of ‘real’ Liberian History by many Liberians. Secondly, it was written to settle the issue whether Mandingo people are truly Liberian citizens. I believe if the true story of the Mandingo people had been told in the history of the Settlers (wrongly called Liberian History); we would not be having this fuss about whether Mandingoes are true Liberians.
In order to settle this issue, we need to answer the following questions: Who are the ethnic groups that make up Liberia? How did they get to be considered Liberians? In fact, who made that decision? For that matter, why is it that most Liberians tend to exclude the Mandingoes as a Liberian ethnic group? However, these questions are answered, the true history of Liberia tells us that the people other Liberians often referred to as foreigners were inhabitants of the area known as Liberia today, prior to the arrival of the Settlers from North America and the Caribbean.
In the research I conducted, I learned the Mandingo or the Malinke pronounced Mah-LEEN-kay were former successful Muslim conquerors. Today, they are the major ethnic group in Guinea with significant presence in Southern Mali, Northern Cote D’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau. The Mandingoes are closely related to the Bambara and are famous for having had one of the greatest empires of West Africa: the Malinke Empire of Mali in the 14th century that includes the cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, Gao and Agadez. These areas were not just the leading cities in the Sahara trade routes; they were centers of Islamic learning with major universities, cultural and historical centers.
The Mandingoes like the Klao (Kru), Bassa, Krahn and Kpelle ethnic groups of Liberia, can be found in the Ivory Coast, Republic of Guinea, Cameroon, Niger and elsewhere in Africa. Why do most Liberians believe these ethnic groups are Liberians, and not the Mandingoes? Personally, I believe it is due their religion Islam and their way of living.
Global Player Digest and Singer & Wood (1978) found that the Liberian Mandingoes were peaceful traders and merchants in this part of Africa prior to the arrival of the Settlers. Presently they can be found in Western Liberia but are also concentrated in Mekka Chiefdoms (Lower Lofa County where there are Kpelle speaking people) and in Northern Lofa, where there are Loma speaking as well. A larger concentration of Mandingoes is found in Nimba County where they face their greatest opposition. I always felt it was wrong to have named political subdivisions (counties) after an ethnic group, i.e., Bassa, Grand Kru (Klao), and based residency on tribal lines. As citizens of Liberia we should be able to live in any county of Liberia without being told you are not from there or you are a stranger.
According to West African history, the Mandingoes travelled far and wide across the Sahara and throughout West Africa seeking commercial opportunities. During the early stage of the formation of the Liberian state, the Mandingoes had several bitter encounters with the Americo-Liberians over commerce; a monopoly the Americo-Liberians held along the coastal areas of Liberia. The Americo-Liberians picked similar palaver with the Klao (Kru) fishermen who traded with European commercial ships on the ocean. At that time, in the Liberian state, indigenous Africans were not considered citizens; yet the government wanted them to pay port duties on the goods they received from European ships anchored on the high sea. These indigenous Africans refused to pay port duties because there were no ports in the area. Fights broke out over this issue. The African inhabitants felt that they were not obligated to pay taxes or custom duties to a government that had no legal jurisdiction over them. This policy and related abusive policies directed at the Klaos (Krus) and Grebos, led to some of the serious uprisings in the southeastern areas of Liberia.
There were other reasons besides the control of commerce for which the Mandingoes were not regarded as citizens of Liberia. First and foremost, was their religion -- Islam. The settlers who considered themselves Christians did not want any competition in converting the natives whom A. Doris Banks Henries characterized as savages, primitive, belligerent people in her book, Civics for Liberian Schools (1966).
Unlike most of the ethnic groups in Liberia at the time, Mandingoes were 99% Muslim. Their education was limited to attending schools to learn the Koran in Arabic. During this period, only males attended school. Due to their proud and prestigious history, the Mandingoes placed emphasis on their culture, customs and language. They got along well with some members of the Vai ethnic group on religious line. The Mandingoes’ religion and customs made it difficult for them to assimilate or integrate well among most African ethnic groups in Liberia. The Mandingoes always established their own towns or compounds. They tended to marry among themselves. For Mandingoes, the word Allah is the most important thing to know and as Sunnis, they follow the Malakite School and interpretation of Islam. For them, acquiring the knowledge and skill essential to work as merchants was required.
Since many Mandingoes did not attend Liberian schools where instructions were taught in English, as the result, few of them occupied government positions. The first known Mandingo person to hold a high position in the Liberian government (Tubman Administration) was Momolu Dukley, Secretary of State (now Minister of Foreign Affairs). Rumor had it that the prerequisite for him becoming secretary of state was for him to join the First Church (First United Methodist Church) of which President Tubman was a permanent member and lay official.
In other words, Dukley had to denounce his Muslim faith and declare he was a Christian in order to join the upper echelons of Liberian government. The same rumor had it that one evening; President Tubman paid him an unannounced visit to his office only to find Dukley praying in the corner on a mat facing east. As the result of what was considered an embarrassment to the president, Dukley was relieved of his position.
Like Mandingoes, most ethnic groups who migrated to modern day Liberia, migrated on the basis of their professions. For example, those ethnic groups who earned their living by hunting migrated into the interior of the country. Those on the other hand for whom fishing formed the basis of their economy, settled along the coastal areas. Because Mandingoes were mostly merchants and traders, they went wherever there were commercial activities; be it in the interior or along the coast. Perhaps, this is the major reason there is not a Mandingo county in Liberia today.
I often wonder why most Liberians do not consider Mandingoes as a tribe of Liberia when in the so-called history of the settlers, which is passed off as Liberian history; Mandingoes are listed as one of the tribes of Liberia. Is it done out of ignorance or hatred not to consider them Liberians? I don’t know what to think. Members of African tribes in Liberia who still feel that Mandingoes are foreigners, should not forget that they too, who were in the area before the “Love of Liberty” brought the settlers, were only extended Liberian citizenship in 1904. It was not until 57 years after the declaration of independence for the ethnic groups to be recognized as citizens of Liberia.
Finally, it is a historical fact that Mandingo is an ethnic group in Liberia. Therefore, it is a total disregard of this historical reality to continue to refer to them as foreigners when the Klaos (Krus), Bassas, Krahns and Kpelles who are found in neighboring Africans countries such as, the Ivory Coast, the Republic of Guinea, and the Cameroon, are considered Liberians, while Mandingoes are treated with suspicion.
NOTE: Henry *Clay whom Clay Street is named after, helped establish and became president of the American Colonization Society (ACS); the group that came up with the colonization scheme to remove freed blacks (African American) slaves to Africa, and to establish Providence Island in ‘Dukor;’ later named, Monrovia for the purpose of re-settling freed blacks. Such a scheme in today’s language is called, ‘forced deportation.’ On the amalgamation of the black and white races, Clay is on record to have made the following statement: "The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it" -- the removal of Blacks from North America so as not to intermingle with whites. Clay went on preside at the meeting of the founding of the ACS. The meeting was held on December 21, 1816. The founding members were all white Americans. The meeting that was held at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. was attended by Robert Finley, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster.
About the Author: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is a native of Liberia. He is a poet, a playwright, a journalist, and a cultural and political activist who was recently ordained (May 19, 2012) as a Minister of the Gospel. Mr. Nyanseor is a founding member of the Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA), Inc. as well as the organization’s eleventh President and its historian. He is the current Chairman of the Movement of Global Pan-African Agenda (MOGPA), a non-profit think-tank democratic and research organization founded in 2011 to promote peace, reconciliation, democracy, justice and equal opportunity for Liberians at home and in the Diaspora. The MOGPA is the publisher of ThePanAfricanAgenda web newsmagazine. He is a founding member and current Treasurer of the Liberian History, Education, and Development (LIHEDE), Inc., an organization dedicated in promoting indigenous Liberian history and the advancement of human and civil rights for Liberians. Also, he is founding member and the current Vice Chair and Secretary of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. Mr. Nyanseor can be contacted at: Siah1947@gmail.com.