By: Nvesekie N. Konneh
Like many Liberians my first encounter with the late Liberian comedian, Peter Ballah would come obviously when I heard his comedy skits that were recorded on cassettes in the 1980s. At the time, I lived in my home town of Saclepea, Nimba County. The humorous skits on radio came in the form of advertisements that were also packaged as public service messages. When I moved to Monrovia in 1988, I encountered his act first hand on TV. When the war came in the early 1990s and Liberians started running helter skelter, Peter Ballah, aka Flomo was quoted to have said of rebel leader Charles Taylor who was later elected president, “I thought he came for the front doors, behold behold he also came for the back doors and windows as well.”
Personally though, I met the well known comedian in 2009 when he came to Philadelphia, the United States to participate in “Philadelphia Celebrates Africa,” a cultural festival organized by the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the trip he was honored at several Liberian events for his efforts in promoting Liberian arts and culture. We had the chance to talk while he visited.
I was sitting with Voffee Jabateh in front of his ACANA (African Cultural Alliance of North America) office in Southwest Philadelphia, when Flomo appeared. Instantly I recognized him and spoke to him fervently. He sat down calmly accepting my invite, and we engaged each other. It was more of a general conversation and about the war specifically and how it affected the development of Liberia’s cultural institutions and how Liberian arts and culture were not being supported and celebrated by Liberians at home and abroad. I told him I wanted to interview him for an article. Before giving his consent to the interview he asked for my name. When I told him my name, he started speaking to me fluently in the Mandingo lingo. Surprised, I asked him, “So you speak Mandingo?” He said yes, saying he learnt language when he spent part of his upbringing with a Mandingo family in Lofa County. Though he was Lorma, he said he spoke several other Liberian languages besides his native Lorma.
As the evening turned to night, we parted with the understanding that I would find him over the weekend to conduct the interview. At the appointed time, I met him at the home of Komassa Bobo in Yeadon, Pa. Despite his legendary status in Liberia, I found Peter Ballah to be a very simple man who did not take himself too seriously and was neither of proud spirits. What must be stressed as we remembered him is that, Ballah used his talents during his lifetime to nurture his students, while giving the general public a sense of appreciation of Liberian culture and arts across the length and breadth in Liberia!
During the course of the interview with Ballah, we touched on many issues. First, I asked, where did everything start, meaning his career as an artist and cultural enthusiast. Perhaps what I did not expect from the famous comedian was the fact that he had gone to Italy in the 1960s to study architectural engineering. Given his sense of humor and a conscious choice to live a life of a common man versus the ‘life of a bishop’, I could not imagine him being a trained engineer by profession.
But, according to him, while going to school in Italy, he developed great interest in African culture. African cultural renaissance was still in full swing in Europe and in many parts of Africa as Africans were fighting to free themselves of European colonialism. Mr. Ballah said he was very much fascinated by the sense of cultural pride amongst Africans students he encountered in Europe and now back in Africa that he thought of joining efforts to lead a similar movement in Liberia where he said our African culture was under-appreciated.
As such, he saw it as his mission to promote Liberian culture to the fullest. He traded his engineering credentials for artistic lessons to poke fun at us and make us laugh at our own shortcomings and pretenses, all with the sense of the cultural activist and nationalist he was. For as long he took in the sweet air of life, he breathed and talked arts and culture wherever he went and whomever he met.
Upon returning to Liberia after his studies abroad, he went to Gbarnga as a teacher to teach at the United Methodist School. According to him, amongst his students at the United Methodist School in Gbarnga was Losene Kamara, the former Finance Minister of the Republic of Liberia. That was a shocker to me! I thought to myself, “Peter Ballah who is known as Flomo the comedian once thought a future minister of Liberia? Perhaps many other students that rose through the ranks of the Liberian society and government to become so-called “big men” were his pupils also. While Ballah took comfort in his natural callings as a comedian, he chose life to promoting his country’s cultural legacy, meanwhile, his students went after power and influence in society, and that didn’t bother him. As I sat with him, I thought to myself, “We must never stop appreciating our teachers, even though we may go on to achieve great successes in life.
Continuing the conversation, he said while still teaching at the school in Gbarnga, he was fascinated by a Mandingo gbombay group, Super Yeyea whose dancers and drummers he started training to perfect their artistic crafts. Around the same time he would take the Methodist School cultural troupe to Sanniquelli, Nimba County in 1972 in celebration of Liberia’s independence. It was during that festivity graced by the late President Tolbert that led Flomo to the National Culture Troupe. He and his performers mesmerized the late president. Willie Tolbert immediately offered him a position to lead the National Culture Troupe. In that capacity, he represented his nation at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Lagos, Nigeria in 1975. He also represented Liberia at a cultural festival in Algiers, Algeria as well as at the US Bicentennial in 1976.
As we ran down the things that he considered obstacles to promoting Liberian culture, he said that despite all the difficulties, he was not giving up. He sounded very much like the cultural nationalist he truly was. I could tell that he was very passionate about anything to do with Liberian culture and its growth.
We ended the conversation on the project he said he started in Dimeh, the birth and resting place of the late Liberian poet and novelist, Bai T. Moore. According to him, he was doing this for the great sacrifice Bai T. Moore made in promoting the Liberian culture through his writings as well as his work at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.” He said he was soliciting funds to build a befitting memorial to the late Liberian writer and cultural advocate. Building this cultural center was part of every conversation Mr. Ballah had with everyone he met during his short stay in the US in 2009. As I left him after the interview, I told him of my plans to travel to Monrovia and we agreed to take a trip to Dimeh to see the project he was undertaking there. He gave me two booklets, “Liberian Proverbs: Keeping the Torch of Our Heritage Burning” and “Liberian Names and their Meanings.”
Though I went to Monrovia few months after, we did not make that trip to Dimeh but I met him one last time. That was at the Paynesville City Hall in April 2010 during the launching of the National Vision Project. At some point during the program, the audience was broken into discussion groups. Even though I went there in my capacity as a writer to cover the event, I joined Peter Ballah and others as they discussed obstacles to the promotion of Liberian arts and culture. At the end of that exercise, I reminded him of our conversation in Philadelphia and we promised to pick up where we left off. Unfortunately, he and I did not make that trip to Dimeh; I returned to Philadelphia disappointed given our busy schedules, Dimeh eluded us yet again.
Peter Ballah, aka Flomo diligently exercised his duty and responsibility with serious commitment as a Liberian cultural artist and performer. Did his countrymen and women take him seriously during his lifetime? Did they support him? While all the tributes will be written about him now, the most befitting honor in my opinion that Liberians can bestow Mr. Peter Y. Ballah is to complete his unfinished project in Dimeh, so that life is breathed into his legacy and memoir. Maybe at its completion, it should be called Bai T. Moore and Peter Ballah Cultural Center. That will be like killing two birds with one stone.
About the Author: Nvesekie Konneh is a Liberian writer based in East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of the forth coming book, “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” memoir of the Liberian civil war scheduled to be launched in Philadelphia on February 23rd. Nvesekie Konneh can be reached @ Konnlove@aol.com .