The Tax Collector and the Canoe Operator

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 9, 2003


In the 1940s, an incident occurred between a tax collector from Monrovia, and a Klao (Kru) man who provided services for those who had to go across the Sanquin River. In those days, some government officials such as district commissioners, tax collectors and constables had what in Liberia we referred to as “bad attitude” when dealing with those they regarded as “natives” or “country people,” and this tax collector was one of those persons.

On this particular day, the operator of the canoe was sick. He had diarrhea. Since he was the only person assigned to perform the service that day, he had to show up for work. He was used to performing his duties under similar circumstances; therefore, no diarrhea was going to prevent him from serving his people. Due to the training Tugbeh Nagbe had acquired when he worked aboard British and German ships, he could not be stopped by diarrhea (runny stomach), because his personal philosophy of ”Dedicated to Service, no Matter the Condition or Consequences” would not have permitted him to do so.

While the Operator was away attending to nature’s call, the Tax Collector arrived in a hammock with four porters, the two that toted him, and the other two who carried his loads. The tax collector seemed to be in a hurry. When he looked around and did not see the canoe operator, he proceeded to call out loud for him. Upon hearing the call, the canoe operator rushed from the bush in response to the call. Upon his arrival, the tax collector proceeded to yell insults at him and berating every country person he had had dealing with in the past - his reason being - they lacked education; they had not attended the College of West Africa (CWA) in Monrovia, an opportunity common to most individuals in his position. While he was carrying on, the canoe operator interrupted with the question, “Honorable, what is all the fuss about?” The Honorable replied,”Are you not aware that I am a big shot from Monrovia on an important government business?” The canoe operator responded in kind,”Bossman, I am sorry you had to wait, but I too, had a pressing business to attend to. And there is nothing that you or I could do about it.”

This excuse provoked the tax collector so much that he continued to levy insults at the canoe operator and people of his kind. He went on fussing! In the process, the Honorable asked the canoe operator whether he ever stepped his foot in a classroom. Of course, the canoe operator had attended grammar schools when he lived down the coast - Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. But the canoe operator felt school had nothing to do with their discussion, therefore, he said “Bossman, what school got to do with taking you across the river?” The Honorable responded by saying, “I am only curious.” The Canoe Operator then said, “The only time I entered the door of a school house was when I took my children, nieces and nephews to register.” The Canoe Operator’s response made matters worse. It appeared as though the operator had poured kerosene on fire.

According to the tax collector, people like the Canoe Operator and others like him, (country people) behaved this way because they never had the privilege, opportunity or the ability to have attended CWA - to study biology, psychology, zoology, ‘historiology’, mythology and ‘peopleology’. The operator’s response was,”My good friend, I beg you; let’s go, don’t waste your time and mine. I don’t know anything about those ‘ologies’ you are talking about.”

Finally, the Honorable got in the canoe, and the two men started their journey across the Sanquin River. When they got as far as the middle of the river (the deepest part), the operator said to the Honorable, “Bossman, I want to ask you a simple question”. The Honorable replied, “You can ask me any question you wish to ask, simple or difficult, it doesn’t matter for I am a product of CWA’s Class of 1935.”

The canoe operator proceeded with, ”Honorable, back on shore you asked me if I knew something about ologies, now it is my turn to ask you a sample question, not a difficult one. I too am curious to know how good you are in this area”. “What area,” asked the Honorable? The Operator continued, “Honorable, it seems that you people from Monrovia know everything.” The Tax Collector replied, “Certainly, so!” ”Ok Honorable, since I do not know any of the Ologies you asked me about, what’s about you, do you know anything about swimmingology?” the operator asked. “What the hell do you mean?” inquired the Honorable! To which the Operator replied, “I mean can you swim?”

Realizing what was about to happen, the Honorable started begging the canoe operator for forgiveness, and how sorry he was to have said all those unkind words to him and his people. There and then, Tugbeh Nagbe said, “I need to teach you a lesson or two, so the next time you will not bring your big-for-nothing-big-mouth to another country person, also for you to pass the experience onto your children and grandchildren, if you survive!” Having said that the canoe operator overturned the canoe.

Not knowing how to swim, the tax collector almost drowned. After he had swallowed lots of water, the Operator re-positioned the canoe, assisted the Honorable back into the canoe, and onto shore, and performed CPR on him. When he regained consciousness, he said to the operator, “You almost killed me. You didn’t have to go to this length to prove your point.” In response, the operator said, “My good friend, do not ever underestimate a book because of its cover. And since you don’t know the difference between the ‘divisions of labor’, let me tell you. Divisions of labor simply mean that not everyone can perform the same duty or profession; therefore, individuals specialized in different professions. That’s the reason, I am not familiar with any of your ologies and you are not with mine, either. For this reason, you depend on me to get you across the river. So from here on, you better watch what you say to the next country man you meet up with as you go about your so-called “important Government business”.

What is the message here? To put it simply, it is the Liberian people that are responsible for the continuation of this kind of behavior in our society. Just as it took the canoe operator to change the manner in which the tax collector viewed and interacted with country people, a similar but peaceful approach could be used by us Liberians to change the behavior of our countrymen and women.