Acquired Ingratitude

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective

September 29, 2001

Acts of goodness shouldn't be all that difficult to notice when they occur. But since we often take our cues from history about how we are likely to be regarded, even praises, in some regards, may not be read at face value. Call it suspicion, because that's not such a terrible name for this kind of vigilance; but to regard it as paranoia will be an exaggeration. Whether we have good reasons for our suspicion may be another matter.

However, when we acquire new tastes for which others refuse to give us credit, or when credit is set under low ceiling as acknowledgment of perceived inadequacies that are regarded as terminal, then what was offered in innocence may indeed generate contentions. And that's because such improvement may be seen as exceptional by one set of standards, but well within the perimeter of perceived deficiency by another. Arrogance would be a good way to describe this denial of credit; but calling it hatred might be an overstatement of the fact. Treating either reaction as wrong or right might be simplistic.

"Remember, we are the ones who put clothes on your backs" is one refrain we have heard from those fed up with what they see as the ingratitude of the newly civilized. This kind of civilized people would include most of the uppity tribal Liberians. Tested for its truth content, the claim is more true than false, but it still manages to miss the whole point. And so, instead of repentance for the alleged ingratitude, the aggrieved exhibit anger and attitude.

The same thing will happen if someone tells another, "I don't blame you. If we didn't allow you to go to school, you wouldn't be writing all this nonsense." How true, but only as a function of pure logic that we can suggest some causal relationship between academic opportunities and being qualified for political and social duties as result of such preparation. But there is no accommodation of the human pride in the claim that carries the regret for the exposure that has made possible inputs that are more nearly equal from both sides into the current debates. Yet, co-existence begs for more sensitivity.

Taste changes expectations so that what once prompted a truly heartfelt gratitude passes as predictable outcome when two otherwise diverse systems meet and press some demands for mutual accommodation. But conflict will be the likely result when the growth of taste ­ in the form of professed refinement ­ is experienced by both sides but is acknowledged by one side in itself without acceding it in the other.

From that general principle, let's see what changes have occurred in Liberia, and to what extent they have been acknowledged by all segments of the Liberian population.

It's the mid 1970s, and the capital of the political entity known as the newly created Gedeh County (which used to be Eastern Province) is now reached by motor road. This means that government officials arriving in Zwedru from northwestern Liberia do so by way of a mechanical device called a motor car. Until then, the steady string of traveling government officials came by means of some jungle contraptions called hammocks. These things required four human beings apiece to operate down the jungle trails. A non-dieting government official occupied each hammock as a rider; four bare-footed, abusive-labor-hardened natives assumed the burden. Hammocks came in waves of hammocades at the heights of the interior farming seasons.

First of all, I will not pretend that the practice of forced hammocking has not been explained each time it has been offered as an example of the inhumane treatment central to the charge of abuse as tribal people have leveled it over the last 150 years. We complained and they explained. Some of the justification for hammocking went something like this: "The settlers had no other way for getting around in the deep of the jungle. Besides, it wasn't the settlers who introduced hammock as a means of transportation. Tribal people were already doing it among themselves."

This was, and remains, a foolish attempt at being cute. Hammock did not exist as a junglemobile for long distance travel until the settlers arrived. Until then, it was a leisure craft anchored between two terminals for some singing pleasures. Linear mobility for the thing was the settlers' idea. Although the settlers' claim is false, it still suffices as their own rationalization of their inhumanity toward tribal people. And so, if we must subscribe to the tenor of general insensitivity for a moment, we can pose a question.

Maybe they will understand it better if it is applied against their own sad history. What if the tribal people, on being made aware of the settlers' dreadful fate as slaves in the "New World," treated them - for that exact reason - as slaves. It would have followed - sadistically - the same line of reasoning as the settlers have offered for riding on the heads of the Africans they met in what is now Liberia?

Let me return to more solid and familiar grounds. Until the road passed through Zwedru and went much deeper into the eastern districts of this County, government officials headed west toward Zwedru would still be borne by hammocks. But roughly speaking, half of the hammock trouble was now over for the citizens of Zwedru, if not for all of Techien District. With that in mind, what was it that a Krahn man was trying to say to a council convened by President William Tolbert in Zwedru in the 1970s?

Well, not much is known about what the seemingly hard-to-please Krahn man was complaining about. But we know that it had a ring of ingratitude to it based on the series of questions fired at the Krahn man by an equally (if not more) fed-up government official who was part of President Tolbert's entourage. The government official was the Honorable Richard Henries; the Krahn man was insignificant.

It appeared that the Krahn man was unwilling to acknowledge the progress of then recent years which had brought the motor path to his neck of the woods. Paraphrastically, the exchange between the Honorable Henries and the ungrateful Krahn man will follow shortly. But first, let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Krahn man was complaining about the central government's yearly demand that inhabitants of the interior counties take time away from their farm work to satisfy the whims of traveling government officials.

And so the Honorable Richard Henries asked the Krahn man: ''How did we get here?'' This must have sounded like a puzzle to the Krahn man. But what the Honorable Henries was referring to was the mode of transportation that brought President Tolbert and his retinue to Zwedru. So the correct answer was: ''You came by car.'' This brought the Honorable Henries even closer to the point he was trying to make. ''Did you and your people have to carry us on your heads as you used to do?'' Of course the correct answer to this question was no. The Honorable Henries rested his case.

Today they came by cars, not by hammocks. Yet the Krahn man could not see that enough progress had been made to spare him the burden and time for carrying government hammocks and government loads on his head. Now, all that was required of the Krahn man and his fellow inhabitants of Gedeh County had been to find enough palm wine and enough happy people to stage a song and dance for the visitors from Monrovia. Instead of that, this man had a complaint. Anyway, that's how the complaint was taken care of.

You know, there are days when you just don't feel like singing - even if you are a tribal person with no status in the national scheme.

We probably don't need to know exactly what the Krahn man's gripes were in order to view the context of his discontent, because even as late as the early 1970s, there was never a shortage of new issues on top of old worries. Nor was there a lack of willingness of the government for finding additional means for taxing the time - the one thing that the tribal people never seemed to have enough of.

So there were town-by-town (more like relay) loads, circular letters announcing pending official visits, District Commissioners' "patrols," etc. There were smaller irritants that destroyed half-days at a time while the interior inhabitants braced themselves for the big ones - like the President's regional visiting councils and other labor-intensive extravaganzas.

An opportunity for rice farming, which seemed to be the sole reason for putting up with these parades of government functionaries, waited while the traveling officials took turns to bask in the glory of occupying these critical chunks of time in the interior inhabitants' farm schedules for their own pleasure. The tribal people waited for these government officials to have their fill of tribal generosity that was no longer volunteered but demanded just the same. Farm work resumed only after the government officials had left.

I know it's hard to imagine; but there is a visual aid. Those Liberians who have a hard time imagining all this should think about the time they themselves had to wait for a president as Liberian schoolchildren. Sometimes it was your own president or a foreign one, or both. Your school waited at the roadside from morning until the hottest part of the sun had been spent; all the while you were trying to stand at attention, trying to keep your place in the line, waving a Liberian flag you probably made yourself, and coping with hunger. Wasted time away from school probably wasn't your immediate concern. As a child, you had more tangible worries than that. But waving to a president - domestic or foreign - was nowhere near the top on the list of things you would rather do away from school.

It was the same in the interior, only whole villages were shut down at the same time. So, instead of one ruined day away from school in the city, it was a week at a time spent away from the farm work in the interior, tending to government officials in search of their own self-importance. In either case, time was lost, and we have not caught up since.

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