By: Theodore Hodge
I have been called upon this afternoon to give a literary perspective on Nvasekie Konneh's book, "The Land of My Father's Birth: A Memoir of the Liberian Civil War."
I will like to stress an important distinction here for our discussion. It is my understanding that in the case of a work of fiction, a literary perspective encompasses delving into such technical matters as mode of narration, plot development, character development, general style, etc. We are, therefore, not required here to give an analysis of the techniques of fiction writing.
This book (under discussion) is a memoir and thereby falls under the genre of non-fiction. In that regard, the perspective that forms the crux of the book is strictly the domain of the author's. Upon reading the work, a critic, or any reader for that matter, can express an opinion as to whether he likes or dislikes the work. I am on record of stating that I like the work and highly commend the author for his great effort of telling his personal story which has wider dimensions for our society.
The perspective herein expressed is straight-forward and unique; it belongs to the author. The author writes from a first-person perspective and tells a personal story. He uses a clear style to deliver his message. He goes from the specific to the general by first telling us the story of his grandfather's migration to Nimba County and his subsequent relationship with the local tribes. He marries outside his own tribe and thereby blends the mixture from which later springs the author’s father and subsequently the author himself. Later on, the Liberian civil war brings to focus some ugly realities stemming from differences engendered by religion, culture, ethnicity and even politics. By the time the story ends, the reader comes to the realization that the author craftily tells a story of very broad dimensions worthy of further study and discussion.
What I want to do here now is to give a cultural and sociological background that formed the author's upbringing and helped to shape his perspective. I want to argue that this background gives credence to his viewpoint. I want to also argue that in this regard, although he tells a personal story, the story has far-reaching dimensions for the broader society; it tells the story of a people and a culture.
The theme I shall speak on this afternoon is "The Danger of a Single Story". I give full credit to the young, brilliant and incorrigible Nigerian writer Chimamandi Ngozi Adiche. She writes, "Show people as one thing only over and over again and that is what they become."
She tells a story about herself. According to her, when she began to read, there were no characters in the books and stories that looked like her. All the characters were blue-eyed, blond haired children who ate apples, drank ginger beer and played in snow. At a very early age she had a desire to write and so she began to write short stories. She created characters like the ones she had read about; that's all she knew... she thought these were the only kind of people about whom stories and books were written. Imagine that!
She said she considers herself fortunate to have discovered the African writers, the legendary Chinua Achibe and Camara Laye at an early age. They introduced her to a new frontier. Through reading them, she began to realize that there is no single story for a people. We all have various complex and multi-faceted stories --- it all depends on who tells your story and from what point of view. Yes, the author's perspective matters, as the African fable about the Lion and Hunter tells us: The story of the hunt is always told to us from the hunter's perspective, not the lion's. Maybe one day lions will learn to read and write their own stories, but until then, we have to live with the hunter's tale.
Adiche emphatically warns us and illustrates the danger of reducing other people and cultures to a single story rather than recognizing that we have overlapping, multiple stories... stories that may be quite contrary to the popularly accepted views expressed by others about us. She says further: "When we reject the single story, we realize that there is never a single story about any place or people, we regain a kind of paradise."
Let's examine the case of Liberia for a brief moment. How did we come to have a single story? Was it by accident or design? I am prepared to argue that it was by deliberate design.
Our so-called founding fathers set out to carve a national story at the exclusion of various segments of the Liberian nation. The document referred to as the Liberian Declaration of Independence is tantamount to "A Recipe for Disaster." I shall examine it briefly by highlighting two brief quotations from the document. It says: "...While announcing to the nations of the world the new position which the people of this Republic have felt themselves called upon to assume, courtesy to their opinion seems to demand a brief accompanying statement of the causes which induced them, first to expatriate themselves from the land of their nativity and to form settlements on this barbarous coast, and now to organize their government by the assumption of a sovereign and independent character..."
The word "Nativity" strikes me as strange in this usage. Since these settlers were forcibly taken from their homeland, Africa, and taken to America where they were held as slaves, shouldn't America be referred to as a land of bondage, instead of the land of nativity? Since the black man originated from the African continent, why was this group of settlers referring to America in such a manner? I think the consequences are indeed psychological and crippling.
One practical example comes to mind: The Jews were displaced from their homeland and scattered all over the world. They were once held in bondage in Egypt in biblical times. Many Jews were born in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries. Do Jews dare refer to these foreign countries of their birth as the land of their "nativity"? No. Many Jews, in modern times were born in Europe. Let's take Germany for an example. Do Jews refer to Germany as the land of their "nativity"?
A second key point is the reference to the description of the African coast as "barbarous". What makes this the barbarous coast? Was the barbarity not perpetuated against the peaceful inhabitants by so-called enlightened and civilized people of the West? It should be clear who the barbarians were in this case. To refer to the victims as barbarians is false, misleading and unconscionable. But that is what happens when the story of a people is told by others, instead of by the people themselves. The so-called civilized people of America created our story and sold it to the settlers and the settlers were happy to run with it. They created a single story, a story that depicts the indigenous African as warlike and barbaric, making America the dispenser of enlightenment and the settlers as its messengers... the story of the nation becomes the story of the settlers; that is an example of the danger of the single story.
Let's examine a second quotation as it appears in the same document: "We, the people of the Republic of Liberia, were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America." Again, one has to wonder about the usage of the word "originally". Weren't these people originally taken from Africa? If so, when does America become their original home? And here it does not take too much effort to come to the realization that the authors of this historic document only set out to tell the story of a small segment of the Liberian nation. Were all the people of Liberia "originally" from America? No. The attempt at deception and domination is quite obvious to the casual observer.
Revisionist accounts of history tell us that the tribes occupying the land mass that became known as Liberia were always at war. Perhaps the case is made that is was through Divine Intervention that the slave trade began... that the slave trade was a kind of salvation because the natives were always at war killing each other before these slaves were taken to America. So perhaps, slavery saved their lives? Hogwash, I’d say.
Let us examine empirical evidence to debunk this myth. Since the return of the settlers (former slaves) back to Liberia leading to the "founding" of the nation, there have been no major wars between and among the major indigenous tribes. The only uprisings in the country were directed against the government, in self defense. For example, there were the Kru Wars and the Grebo Wars. But the Krus never fought the Greboes, neither did the Krus fight the Bassas or the Kpelles against the Lormas. The Krahns never fought the Gios or the Manos. No tribe ever fought the Mandingoes nor did they fight against any other tribe? How does one explain this discrepancy? Again, if these tribes were so warlike and barbaric, why did they suddenly stop fighting each other? One must conclude that the theory is fabricated for the benefit of those telling our story.
I once again emphasize why this book is an important read. We are used to telling Liberia's history from the narrow perspective of a very small segment of the population. We believed that the country belonged to the settlers at the exclusion of the indigenes, hence the myth of the "founding" theory. We are told over and over again. "Liberia was founded by former black American slaves." In all fairness, that is partly true; but only partly so, the rest of the story is much more complicated and complex.
Let's examine the issue of who is a bona fide Liberian and who is not. Liberians of various persuasions are quick to tell you that Mandingoes are not genuine Liberians. When pressed to argue the case, they are quick to point out that the Mandingoes are originally from Kankan, Beyla, N'Zerekore, Masedu (all in the Republic of Guinea) or even from Mali, Senegal, Mauritania or Sudan --- anywhere but Liberia.
Press the case further and question why Mandingoes born on Liberian soil for generations should not be considered Liberians despite the fact that their ancestry hails from further afar? The answer is generally puzzling. It goes like this: "Because they have no known ancestral villages in Liberia." They will continue, "I can show you Grebo towns, Kru towns, Gio and Mano towns, Kpelle and Lorma towns ---- can you show me any Mandingo towns?"
At this point I know they have lost the argument. The constitution of Liberia does not stipulate or require any ownership of ancestral lands as a precondition for citizenship. The argument for ancestral land ownership by the group is bogus. And here is why. We have people in Liberia referred to as "Americo-Liberians" and in some cases as "Congaus". Do these people have any genuine ancestral villages in Liberia? The answer is no. Does that disqualify them from been called Liberians? No. So why is the standard different for the two groups?
Furthermore, here is a group of people that boldly tells us that their ancestry lies somewhere in America, perhaps North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania or Maryland. If we accept them as genuine Liberians, why should we deny people who come from neighboring African countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast? Once the logic is fully examined, the case becomes duly clear and convincing.
And that is why I want to thank the author again for insisting boldly and demonstrating clearly that Liberia does not have a single story. If the Liberian nation can adopt strangers from as far away as North America, it should not take too much of a stretch of imagination to accept other Africans, especially our very close neighbors and relatives. We must not be brainwashed into thinking or accepting the fallacy of a single story --- we must beware the danger of the single story.