Who Is The Grassrooter?
By: Kaazogon-gbay Geekan
Since the possibility of a presidential run-off election between George Weah and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf become apparent, a new language crept into the vocabulary of “sidewalk intellectuals” and “Hatai politicians.” As a member of this new breed of informal parliamentarians, I feel compelled to dispel the bogus and erroneous interpretations that my colleagues are applying to some sociological and political terminologies. One such terminology is grassroots or “grassrooters,” if such thing as the latter rendition does exist.
Definition of the Term
In order to get proper grasp of the basics of what, or who, constitute
the grassrooters, let us begin with the definition as found in Webster’s
New world Dictionary – 3rd College Edition.
Grass roots 1. [Colloquial] the common people, originally those especially of rural and non-urban areas, though of as best representing the basic, direct political interest of the electorates. 2. the basic or fundamental source of support, as of a movement.
The first part of the definition indicates that the concepts of grassroots has its etymological origins in the difference between rural peasant people who were primarily farmers and urban dwellers who were largely civil servants and other wage earners, tradesmen and women, politicians, business people and other types of urbanities. In the second part of the definition, grassroots is given a more political connotation when it is said to mean the basic source of support for a movement. This could be an ideological movement such as a political party or revolution, religious movement, or socio-cultural movement. It is this latter definition that is being twisted by the fickle logic that has become hopelessly characteristic of this year’s elections.
The Fallacy of Generalization
Most of my fellow Hatai politicians say that the grassroots – or “grassrooters” – are the sixteen pre-1822 tribes of Liberia. What this means is that only, and all, the Bassa, Dan/Gio, Dei, Gbandi, Gola, Grebo, Kissi, Kpelle, Krahn, Kru, Kuwaa/Belleh, Lorma, Mann/Mano, Mandingo, Mende and Vai speaking people are grassroots both the first and second definitions. Accepting these simplistic notions risks some unfounded generalizations such as the following:
i. All members of the sixteen tribes live in rural areas;
ii. All rural dwellers are farmers or workers of the soil;
iii. All the indigenous urban dwellers are members of the proletariat,
i.e. working class or wage earners.
iv. Every single member of any of the sixteen tribes is a ‘common person.”
One could go on postulating countless other generalizations if only such effort would not be meaningless given the fact that all of the above arguments and similar lines of reasoning are utterly erroneous and representative of the type and caliber of personalities in whose interest they are concocted. Here are reasons why.
Firstly the idea that all the sixteen tribes live in rural communities can only be sold to the gullible, uncritical people for whom it was conceived. Of such people there is an abundance of them in Liberia as in other countries with similar demographic profiles, low literacy for instance. The fair God’s truth, however, is that there has always been mix of indigenous and non-indigenous people in all urban and rural settlements in Liberia. In every sizeable town or city one finds non-indigenous like descendents of Americo-Liberians/Congo settlers and Guineans, Ghanians, Sierra Leoneans, Lebanese, and other nationalities. This contradicts the notion that the rural areas are occupied by indigenous Liberians.
Secondly, all the rural dwellers do not conform to the one size fits all grassroots-common people and farmers stereotype that is being painted on Carey Street and other parts of Monrovia. In the rural areas, one is certain to find hierarchies, social elites, and cultural stratification that distinguish people on the basis of age, wealth, parental background, and membership in fraternities. Hence, to cling onto even the dictionary definition of the grassroots as basically rural or non-urban residents can be deceptive as well.
Thirdly, all the indigenous people in communities are not of the proletariat (working class) neither are they all lumpen proletariat (common masses). They cannot all be put in the typical Hatai intellectual mold. Look around and you will see significant numbers of indigenous in high places: religion, business, politics, education, development work, and other reams of societal activities. Conversely, there are people of non-indigenous stock that are living no better than the average “grassrooters.” The only difference is that each has his own approach to the situation.
Finally on this point, there are some members of the sixteen indigenous tribes who will not take kindly to the label “grassrooter” or “common man.” These people consider such nomenclatures as demeaning to their sense of self-awareness and self worth. As such calling them common people or grassroots is a disincentive for their drive towards personal achievement. Imagine if some of our today’s soccer stars were constantly referred to by their European coaches and teammates as Third World players. It would have affected their self image.
In Search of the Grassrooter’s Identity
In the midst of the ongoing hullabaloo of inflammatory election campaign rhetoric, people with sinister and insidious motives are taking advantage of the generally low level of political education, coupled with the traditional habit of some Liberians to accept notions and opinions as facts, to deceive us into believing that the term grassroots or “grassrooters” is specifically applicable to particular candidates. Should this be the case, we first need to know to what extent these candidates represent the sociological and politico-economic characteristics of the grassroots. Since the elections have filtered down to two candidates for the presidency, we will use the earlier Website definitions to measure the qualification of both George Weah and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf insofar as their grassroots credentials are concerned.
1. Member of the common people or a product of the masses: As a member of the masses, the so-called grassroot candidate must have known what it means to be poor and destitute; what it is like to be in need of food, clothing and shelter, and what it is to work for a living. Have Weah and Sirleaf ever shared these experiences? I say yes. Mrs. Sirleaf knows what it is for a young woman to suspend her education in order to know what it is for a young woman to suspend her education in order to raise a family. She knows what it is like for a civil servant to surrender his/her checks to Lebanese LPA merchants. Yet she overcame these hurdles to attain such heights that some disgruntled person want to put us under the impression that she has no grassroot experience. As for Weah, his rise from Gibraltar in Clara Town to FIFA’s hall of fame happened just yesterday as we all remember. When one sees him drive around in a Mercedes convertible, it is tempting to forget his origin.
Therefore on the basis of experience, both Mrs. Sirleaf and Mr. Weah are originally from the grassroots irrespective of the high national and international heights they have reached, though in different spheres.
2. The basic source of support of a political movement: It is in this second part of the definition that the stark contrast emerges between Weah and Sirleaf. Any Liberian or keen observer of Liberian politics over the past twenty years knows that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been a part and parcel of the agitation and advocacy for social and democratic change. Nothing whatsoever is known about George Weah’s political activities, even in elementary or high school student politics. In this respect, and in the context of the grassroot as a political concept, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf belongs to the grassroots.