Back in the Day: Before the War Came: Nostalgia and Liberian Independence

 

Song: Comin’ Home
Artist: Tecumsay Roberts
Album: Comin’ Home
Writer: Tecumsay Roberts, Anthony James, Boni Boyer
Released: Bamboo Records, Year Unknown

All Hail Liberia, Hail:

Liberia, West Africa was colonized by freed slaves from the United States of America, through the sponsorship of the American Colonization Society. It was their belief that freed blacks would have more opportunity for success in Africa, and more than five-thousand black Americans were sent to Liberia. These Americo-Liberians or “Congo People” as my mother references them, created a socio-political caste system that mirrored that of the United States; a minority ruling class maintaining complete control of the country’s socio-economic and political endeavors. This imbalance of power lasted for more than one-hundred years and erupted into a twenty year civil war. Liberia, a country of almost three-million lost close to one million of its population.

History tends to sterilize the effects of imperialism and neocolonialism; as a Liberian I am both politically and personally aware of how brutal the effects can be. I often see the word revolution and war thrown around loosely during these times of activism in the United States and I remain silent at the casual manner of it all. It is important to understand that revolution is not fancy, it is bloody and brutal and becomes entangled with politics and greed; civilians always paying the price. So when the term revolution is spoken, it is important to understand the total implications and how much it changes everything in an instant. My family’s history and so many Liberian’s histories are indicative of how swiftly life changes.

It All Began on July 26, 1990:

I recently read a letter that described the death of my grandmother during the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997). The fourth line read, “It all began on July 26, 1990. . .” and went on to describe the events that led to the passing of my grandmother, Mary Jumah Stevens. The letter read like something out of a book on human rights I may have read in college; however what is simple political literary fodder for many is a part of my family history. For many Liberians, this mixture of personal tragedy and political history is not uncommon. Liberians were given the fate of knowing how bitter war can be. Yet, in all the bitterness  we continue to be resilient and happy with what life we are blessed to have; we are a prime example of black strength and survival.

My mother is from Gardnersville, Liberia and my introduction to Liberian culture was from the source of the children of Liberia’s Golden Age. An era before the twenty year long civil  that ravaged the country between 1989-2003. My parents met and married during the Presidency of William R. Tolbert, an Americo-Liberian who ruled under the True Whig Party, which ruled the country for more than one-hundred years under the hand of the minority Americo-Liberians.

From their memories, I know of a Liberia that thrived economically and socially, my father worked for the government and my parents enjoyed a life of privilege, until the war came. There are always two memories I am given about Liberia; life before and after the war came. When the war came, my parents fled to the United States in the early 80s and my mother has not returned since. Her story is not unlike many others, which both saddens and inspires me. What strength refugees carry to make a life when their old life has been buried in political and literal mass graves.

But Liberia Will Always Be My Home:

I grew up in a house hold that always smelled of clean linen and red palm oil. Where we ate rice every day and cassava leaf was my favorite. Where at any time a revolving door of aunts and uncles and cousins visited and we would sit down to eat rice with them. I grew up attending weddings where I always wanted to have a partner as the grand march wrapped around the reception hall, eating rice bread and watching men discuss politics and drink Heineken, the women discussed the men. Everyone discussed the war. I grew up experiencing early morning phone calls, having to speak loudly because of poor connections and relatives asking for help because “eh nah easy.” I grew up always scared when the phone rang, because more often than not news from home was not  good news. I grew up not knowing half of my bloodlines because civil war tends to split families apart and mine was no exception. Despite these things, I also grew up surrounded by a people who laughed and danced and ate and joked their way through trauma. I grew up part Liberian.

Growing up, the word “home” always meant Africa. For my mother and various aunts, uncles, and cousins (usually not blood related), “home” always meant Liberia. In retrospect, everyone I grew up with was a refugee. So the idea of going home meant returning to a land that purged itself of its native sons and daughters. Even I, who was born in the States, have a heavy longing to return to Liberia, in order to know the part of myself I’ve never met. All of us yearn to see the faces of people who are no longer, to return to the places that are burned down. Going home for a lot of Liberians means to return to a place that no longer exists. This is the aching nostalgia so many Liberians experience; the longing of a time and space that was violently taken and the only thing left to hold on to are memories of people and places and things gone by.

 

 

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