A Book Review by Theodore T. Hodge
The author’s primary purpose is to set the record straight about his nationality, and that of his father before him. That is too easy a case to make. He uses strong and impressive arguments from the outset by using general history and personal genealogy. To borrow a popular cliché of our times, it is a slam-dunk.
Besides nationality, Konneh addresses the sub-themes of tribalism, religion, and patriotism. Commonly held beliefs among many Liberians include the false point of view that Mandingo is not a Liberian tribe. The author debunks that theory with logical arguments and historical references. The French independently set new boundaries between its newly carved territories and the young Republic of Liberia. Through a show of strength, the French wrestled away what was Liberian territory and turned it into theirs. Clearly, the Mandingoes are indeed an integral Liberian tribe though many of their kinfolks reside in Guinea and elsewhere. The history of Liberia is replete with stories of migration; the Mandingoes are no exception. The author makes a compelling case.
Then there is the sensitive issue of religion. While most Liberians consider themselves Christians, either by practice or preferment, the Mandingoes are overwhelmingly Muslim. But since the constitution makes it a point to honor the ‘freedom of religion’ as a right, being a Muslim does not nullify one’s citizenship. After all, both Christianity and Islam are foreign religions to Liberia.
The questions of ethnicity and religion lead to the issue of patriotism. Could a group of people whose ethnicity remains questionable, and whose religious preference is different, be trusted to be patriotic? Those questions come to the forefront as war breaks out in the country. The author painfully narrates stories about Mandingoes being singled out, questioned and harassed by immigration officers at checkpoints; other citizens stand by without questioning the unruly actions of the officers. In fact, they seemingly approve and support and abuse and harassment.
But things get worse and the Mandingoes become real targets and are forced to flee to neighboring countries for refuge. The author tells a tragic story of betrayal and confusion and sadness. Friends and relatives die in the struggle for survival, but in the end, the group decides to fight back instead of fleeing. They join a coalition with the Krahns, only to see the alliance break apart. The Mandingoes are seen as unpatriotic to the land of their birth, not fit to run the country. They are seen as outsiders in their native land. But the struggle makes the group more politically conscious of their rights as they fathom new social and legal rights.
Alhaji Kromah, a controversial figure, emerged as the national leader of the monolithic Mandingoes. The author takes to task a benefactor who makes an unflattering remark about Mr. Kromah. He writes, “At this time, just like thousands of Mandingoes, my love and support for Alhaji were very extreme. I was his fanatic and would have taken a bullet for him. So at this moment in Fleminster’s house, I did not hesitate to tell him what I felt about his unflattering statement about Alhaji Kromah. I responded to his statement by saying that ‘whether somebody likes it or not, Alhaji is our leader.’”[P.138]
The part about fanatic support and the willingness to die for a leader simply on the basis of tribal allegiance may be a bit shocking to many readers because throughout the narrative, Konneh writes about the close-mindedness of other tribes, such as the Manos and Gios, who are willing to shut out the Mandingoes and victimize them in favor of their chosen ones. So how is this attitude any different from the others? How could he both frown upon and embrace blind tribal loyalty?
To the author’s credit, he apparently sees the illogic of his fanaticism as he writes unflatteringly about Kromah himself: “Those who opposed him in any shape or form were ridiculed and ostracized by the community. They were labeled as ‘enemies of Mandingo progress.’” [P. 144] He writes further, “Alhaji Kromah, just like many African leaders, found it difficult to resist the temptation of being dictatorial because people were paying too much homage to him.”[P. 144].
The author does a fantastic job of bringing alive the political and military struggles that led to the dethronement of a government and how different individuals and groups manipulated others to fill the existing political vacuum. Innocent citizens were victimized as ambitious and sometimes vicious leaders sought to fulfill their own ambitions. Things fell apart as the self-destructive tendencies of warlords and their teams of blind and loyal supporters placed the welfare of the general citizenry below their personal agendas. What would follow could only be described as Liberia’s darkest days.
The narrative craftily weaves the stories of a young man, his people, and country. He takes the reader on a fantastic journey in this memoir. He brings history to bear witness as he narrates his genealogy as far as three to four generations deep. If it is one thing that he establishes, it is that he knows his roots and is proud of his ancestry. But it is not enough; he loves his country too and it pains him to see it falling apart as general anarchy replaces the rule of law. As the chaos sets in, the young man dreams on.
Through mere luck, as if sanctioned by destiny, the young Konneh gets an opportunity to leave Liberia and travel to the United States. Konneh’s fascinating journey takes him from a wayward corner of Liberia, in Saclepea, Nimba County, to the capital city, Monrovia, and other parts of Africa. But the journey does not stop there; he travels the continents in an admirable way. What propels and sustains him is pure determination and optimism. He is determined to survive, to succeed, and to tell his story.
This is his story. It is not the typical Liberian story. The typical Liberian story is told from a Eurocentric point of view with Western names and a Christian sensibility. Konneh is a proud Muslim and a Mandingo, but his story is just as relevant as any other Liberian story. He must be praised for having the courage to tell his story and the pride to claim his heritage.
The recently deceased icon of African literature, Chinua Achebe, once said, “There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Achebe went on to say that storytelling “is something we have to do so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even of the lions.”
Nvasekie Konneh has now become that storyteller who has vowed to give us another perspective. We have an obligation to listen and take heed. His story has relevance. As the late Liberian journalist, Tom Kamara was fond of saying, “This too is Liberia.” His story is a new Liberian story that has many facets. It is sad, cruel, challenging, liberating, and in the end, it is both refreshing and triumphant. I recommend it without hesitation because it is like a breath of fresh air in a stale environment.