Liberia's tale of two peoples - a rejoinder

In Defense of My Late Blojlu Tarty Teh’s
“They Could Have Exterminated Us”

 

 By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

Lawrenceville, GA
May 18, 2014

 

Country and Congo Debate Revisited

Settlers, Aborigines, Natives, Indigenous, Country people, Americo-Liberians, African Liberians, Congoes, Civilized and Uncivilized are words we cannot erase from our history. They are historical facts! They will forever remain part of the Liberian debate/discourse. These words are like White AmericansBlack Americans and slavery, which are part of American History. After 200 plus years, these words have become a part of the present discourse in President Obama’s America. Why then must many of us (Liberians) find it so terrible the mere mention of Congo or Native in our debate without being accused of divisiveness or ‘pushing up fire? How can the history of ALL of the people of Liberia be discussed without mentioning any of these words? I don’t know about you, but I find it hypocritical.

 

However, it is my honest belief that only those that lacks objective reality of the Liberian experience and true understanding of the history of ALL the people of Liberia will refer to Tarty Teh as “The man is clearly out of touch with reality. This time playing the unsubstantiated ethnic card will not exonerate his indicted “Godfathers”. Surely, these ramblings are not worthy of any dignified response”.

 

You [Tarty Teh] still play the Native vs., Congo card. Go ahead and eat your guts out, because I don’t waste my time discussing conspiracy theories”.

 

I find this manner of debating our national issues very disconcerting. This line of reasoning gave credence to the very fact Mr. Teh alluded to in his article -“They Could Have Exterminated Us”. Brother Randolph Ben-Davies, you did just that - Exterminated Tarty Teh with your statements; something the Settlers could not do to us.

 

Brother, why insult a fellow Liberian who you disagree with when he too, has every RIGHT to participate in our national discourse? What is in Mr. Teh’s article: “They Could Have Exterminated Us” that lacks reality, is rambling, playing the unsubstantiated ethnic card or is conspiracy theories? If I may ask, who are his indicted Godfathers?  Do you really know Tarty TehI doubt it!

 

For whatever it may worth, find below some historical facts that could be useful in the ongoing Liberian discourse regarding the relationship between the Settlers, Aborigines, Natives, Indigenous, Country people, Americo-Liberians, African Liberians, Congoes, Civilized and Uncivilized.

 

This article, LIBERIA: A TALE OF TWO PEOPLE was first published in The Perspective’s September 10, 2004 Edition. It was written to counter those that were accusing my friend of TRIBILISM and HATE.

 

I started out by quoting historian Richard Poe. According to him, “History was designed to justify European domination.” Regarding Liberia, a similar case can be made, that the history of Liberia (Settlers’ history) was written to justify and promote the antebellum southern plantation cultural and religious heritage at the expense of the indigenous population (“Natives’).

 

Even Edward Wilmot Blyden alluded to this reality when he wrote in 1903 that, “Every race has a soul, and the soul of that race finds expression in its institutions, and to kill those institutions is to kill the soul… No people can profit or be helped under institutions which are not the outcome of their own character.”  Due to this very fact, Liberia was, and to some extent, “a tale of two people”, and as a result, it suffers from a condition called, “Congo Mentality. It is this practice in our society that this article will attempt to address.

Our great patriot, Albert Porte, said some time ago that:

 

Liberians will always be looked down upon, despised by other nations and peoples, unless as a people, we be courageous enough to cry loudly against existing evils, and our leader be tolerant enough to face our problems calmly and dispassionately, and together we have them remedied.  We cannot delay and wait for others to do these things for us and still expect to maintain our dignity and self respect as a nation...

 

In this article, I intent to raise some vexed issues to start a serious discussion(s), which I hope in the end will make every one of us face up to our long-avoided wrong(s). This article is a continuation of “Liberia's Ugly Past” started by my colleagues James D. Smith and Abraham M. Williams in 1996, which highlighted key indelible elements of the Americo-Liberian legacy, which up to the present time continue to leave lasting effects, retard our progress and foster unhealthy social interaction between the descendants of Americo-Liberians and African-Liberians.

 

For example in the 1950s, the noted America writer, John Gunther warned that “Liberia is a sick country, it may some day get well (Inside Africa).” Yes indeed, there was something sick about the way things were in Liberia!  In 1980, another American writer, J. Gus Liebenow made similar observation: he went on to say, “The struggle which culminated in the April 12, coup d’ etat had been long in its gestation.  Indeed, the depth of hostility that lay beneath the surface had been marked to the outside world by the very urbaness and sophistication of these young diplomats and other officials who represented Liberia abroad during the past two or three decades.”

 

The Americo-Liberians he explained imposed a set of dominant cultural norms for the new state, which was roughly modeled after those of the society across the seas that had rejected them. Those norms, he explained, include “the Christian faith; monogamy, a commitment to private ownership and free enterprises; and increasingly Liberianized version of the English language; a preference for American style in clothing, food, architecture, literature; and the creation of a political system which superficially resembled that of the United States.” (J. Gus Liebenow, “The Seeds of Discontent”, Part I – Liberia: The Dissolution of Privilege, 1980, pp. 1-2)

 

Out of this culture derived the behavior that is commonly referred to in Liberia as “Congo Mentality”.  What is it, and how did it come about?  Who exhibits this type of behavior?  Does it still exist amongst Liberians?  The answer is a resounding YES! Congo Mentality does not only exist in Liberia, it is also found amongst Liberians living in the Diaspora.

 

The word Congo is pronounced KONGOR. Congo as a group came about because of the abolition of the slave trade.  When the slave trade was declared illegal in West Africa, there were those who continued to participate in the trade.  The Africans who were recaptured by American gunboats were resettled in Liberia.  It was assumed that these Africans came from the Belgium Congo; therefore, they were referred to as Congo people

 

Prior to the resettlement of the Congo people, there were two distinct groups of people living in Liberia.  They were the Americo Liberians and those they called the Natives or Country people. The Americo Liberians are descendants of freed slaves. These were individuals who were deported from North America because the American capitalist system had no more use for their services.  The Natives on the other hand, were the indigenous inhabitants of the area that is known today as Liberia.

 

Based on the socialization of the Americo Liberians in North America, they adapted the prejudices of their slave masters in their dealing with the indigenous population. They assumed a position of superiority – one similar to the arrangement that existed between them and their slave masters on the plantations in North America.  As the result of this orientation, they considered the indigenous people backwarduncivilizedpaganheathen, Bush Niggers, etc.

 

It was this general attitude that brought about the division in the Liberian society.  For example as far back as 1864, President Daniel Bashiel Warner was concern about the division created by the settlers; therefore, in his inaugural address of January 4, 1864, he made an attempt to bring it to the attention of the ruling elite; it reads:

 

“Of late, however, I have noticed with emotions of deep regret what I consider indications of a growing feeling of sectionalism among us, manifested particularly within the last few weeks.  Need I say, that, in every point of view, whether affecting the social condition, the material prosperity, or the civil liberty of our country, down among us, for it cannot but exercise a deep and wide – spread influence for evil and only evil continually. (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses, 1980, pp. 52-53)

 

In Arthur Barclay’s Second Inaugural Speech (January 1, 1906), he stated:

“There is often manifested among the civilized population an active although secret disloyalty, especially in matters affecting the native tribes which has been very troublesome and embarrassing.

 

“The Americo-Liberian citizens may do, and in the past has done the most harm in connection with the subject (African inhabitants) now considered, by maintaining a contemptuous, ungracious, and unjust attitude toward his aboriginal brother, by a want of politeness and good feelings”. (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses – 1980: 215)

In the 1800s, these prejudices (or attitude) were common practice in the Liberian society, and were referred to as the Americo Liberian Mentality.  As the society moved into the 20thCentury, the Americo Liberian Mentality underwent a transformation. This change came about as the result of one major reason.  The Americo Liberians minority needed to incorporate into their rank other immigrants for the purpose of managing what they perceived as “The Native Problem.”  These new immigrants came from places like the Caribbean, Sierra Leone, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, etc. 

 

The Americo Liberian Mentality became so prevalent until Arthur Barclay made reference to this reality in his First Inaugural Address of January 4, 1904. He said:

“…The United States is not the only source from which we may draw desirable immigrants has long been recognized.

 

“We have the West Indies and the English West African colonies.  A large and increasing number of Sierra Leoneans which people with those of Liberians constitute at present the largest Negro English speaking population on the West Coast are now settling in the country. It is an interesting fact. It may have far-reaching consequences.  Be hospitable and liberal, conciliate the populations in the colonies around you, and they will help you to tide over things until our relatives abroad shall come to our assistance.” (Joseph Saye Guannu, Inaugural Addresses, 1980, p. 204)

 

Based on Arthur Barclay’s plan, an indigenous person had to meet certain requirements before he or she was accepted as citizen of Liberia. These requirements were:

“The willingness of applicants to qualify for Liberian citizen by adopting the Christian faith, Western living conditions, and Western standards of conduct, dress, and general appearance.  An African, in effect, would have to detach himself from his own customs by completely accepting the Americo-Liberian set of values.  Citizenship and voting rights might then follow.” (Yekutiel Gershoni, Black Colonialism: The Americo-Liberian Scramble for the Hinterland, 1985, pp. 37-38).

 

It was based on these requirements that the indigenous population were allowed to become citizens in their own land; and it was not until 1904, citizenship was extended to the indigenous population.

Another area of contention or conflict was the land palava. This issue is clearly explained in Impact of the African Tradition on African Christianity written by Dr. Nya Kwiawon Taryor, Sr. Dr. Taryor identified the conflict between the settlers and the indigenous people as: “Community structure, land and property, laws and taboos, religious concepts, religious leadership, religious symbolism, magical concepts, rituals, worship, and vernacular”. (1984, pp.72-73)

 

According to him, “In the African traditional life style, what was the basis of the community structure was anathematized… the kinship system.  In marriage and family life, the ideal family is as large as possible in order to maximize the size of the kinship group, and is therefore, polygamous. This meant that the ideal form of marriage was polygamy. All members of the community were required to be initiated in some way, before they could be recognized as full adults who were eligible for marriage. Marriage was not between two persons or two individuals alone, but between the families involved.  Bride price had to always be presented by the parents of the man to the parents of the woman as a means of uniting the two families in one lineage through the sharing both substance and persons.  In this family life, sex was regarded as something good and sacred and it existed primarily for enlargement of the family. Sex violations were considered those sexual activities, which tended to disrupt the family.  This idea of extended family came in conflict with the new western idea of nuclear family –a family consisting of only a man, his wife, and children. The African traditional wedding also gives way to western Christian practices”. (Ibid., p. 73)

 

Contemporary Congo People
Interestingly, Americo Liberian Mentality became to be referred to loosely as Congo Mentality, and it is influenced by the conflict identified by Dr. Taryor.  Today, those who practice Congo Mentality are a combination of Americo Liberians, immigrants from West African countries, the Caribbean, and *Wards (African-Liberians) from both groups. Since these new immigrants could not be identified as Americo Liberians, they were placed into the Congo category. The Congoes and the Americo Liberians became inseparable. As the result, they were loosely referred to as Congo people. This group then recruited from the rank of the indigenous population. Their goal was achieved through the apprenticeship system (*Ward), Christianity and the integration policies of the Hinterland. It was through this process, the attitude we referred to as the Congo Mentality developed. Congo Mentality is becoming kwii (civilized) for all the wrong reasons. First of all, to become kwii is not such a bad idea. However, in Liberia, Kwii people took the Kwii business to the “far extreme.” When one becomes Kwii, he/she acquired a complete new ATTITUDE and a so-called civilized name to go along with it.  At that point, the person even refused to be identified with the area of the country he/she comes from. Some of these individuals are ASHAMED to be identified with their indigenous parents. ASHAMED of their MOTHER because she is considered a lappalonia (indigenous attire referred to as costume by Congo people). ASHAMED of their FATHER, too because he speaks Waterside English (broken English).

 

Introduction of Antebellum Southern Plantation Culture
It is generally believed that Liberia is a Christian nation. As a result, monogamous marriages became the accepted practice amongst the settlers. The Polygynous (Polygamous) form of marriage was frown upon. But having been used to the antebellum southern plantation culture, the settlers soon adopted a brand of their own that I called “Chrismonopoly”.

 

Prior to their arrival in what is known today as Liberia, polygyny was the acceptable form of marriage practiced by the indigenous inhabitants. The establishment of Liberia as a “Christian state” gave rise to the conflict that developed between polygyny and monogamy. In other words, since the Americo-Liberian settlers condemned the practice of polygyny, monogamy was emphasized like other Western cultural hegemony in the Liberian society. However, the natives or country people (as African Liberians were referred to) were allowed to continue their polygynous relationship.  In fact, a court (Native court) system was established to handle palava related to this practice and related issues.

 

In spite of the Americo-Liberians’ condemnation of polygyny, they too began to practice a brand of polygyny, which I referred to as Chrismonopoly (Christians' monopoly of marriage – having it both ways: monogamous and Polygynous relationships). Chrismonopoly became a practice adopted by the settlers (men). This is an arrangement in which a male settler who is already involved in a monogamous relationship (with a Christian wife) - engages in polygynous relationship with "African Liberian women."

 

The adoption of this relationship is no accident! This relationship can be traced back to the antebellum southern plantations, where the settlers were once held as slaves. On these plantations, the white slave masters were involved in polygynous relationship. For example, a slave master could have any slave woman he chose to have because back then, slaves were properties of the slave master. While the slave master was engage in this practice, he also had his Caucasian wife in the “Big house.” The children produced out of the polygynous relationship were considered his properties, and were not part of his immediate family. Therefore, whenever he needed money, he would sell these women and their offspring.

 

The Americo Liberian settlers carried on similar practice in Liberia. The Liberian experience was such that the offspring that were produced out of this relationship - Americo Liberian male and African Liberian female (native or countrywoman) was not considered legitimate children. Instead, they were referred to as "outside children," whereas the children of the so-called westernized (monogamous) marriage were viewed as "legitimate" and "inside" children. However, there were some exceptions but in most cases, this was the accepted norm in Liberia.

 

In most cases in the interior, the "countrywoman" lives on the farm of the Americo Liberian, and in the urban areas, a house was either built or a room rented for the “countrywoman” and her children. Social and economic opportunities as well as certain privileges were reserved for the westernized (commonly referred to as civilized woman) wife and her children, while the “countrywoman” and her children to some extent depended partially on the man and the rest she has to provide for she and her children.

 

Some children who were born in this relationship (Chrismonopoly) suffered from serious inferiority complex. They are regarded and treated by some of the civilized wives as bastards and illegitimate children. Illegitimacy is one of the problems the practice of polygyny was established to solve. For instance, "inside and outside child" or “half-brother and half-sister distinctions that is prevalent in a monogamous relationship is hardly found in a polygynous family. For example, among two ethnic groups of the Kwa speaking people, siblings referred to one another as (among the Klao/Kru speaking people) “Na dee eh ju” (My mother’s child) or “Na me eh ju (My father’s child); similar references are made in Bassa as well. As a matter of fact, the practice “It takes a village to raise a child” is the cornerstone of polygynous communities.

 

In short, if you do not remember most of what I explained in this article, just remember: “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward out research.” (Malcolm X) And that “Truth does not yield to a lot of dressing up”. (Tarty Teh – September 14, 1992)
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*The Ward System is a common practice by which young African Liberian children are sent to stay with settler families as well as Congo families in exchange for education and assimilation.

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About The Author: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is the Chair of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. He is a poet, Griot, journalist, and a cultural and political activist. He is an ordained Minister of the Gospel. He is Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of theperspective.org online newsmagazine and Senior Advisor to the Voice of Liberia newsmagazine. In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology; his book of poems: TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut will soon be on the market. Nyanseor can be reached at: siah1947@gmail.com
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All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. To send a rebuttal or contribute an op-ed, please contact thevoiceofliberia@gmail.com