By Dag Walker
Thirteen years of civil conflict nearly destroyed the small West African nation of Liberia in the late 20th century. The period of reconstruction that followed in 2003 has surprisingly resulted in an explosion of local literature, some of it world-class in quality. A nation destroyed by war has suddenly produced writers of world-renown and hope for its literature lies on the horizon. “Usually wars or crises provide a new germination, if you will, like a forest that burns down and where new vegetation sprouts,” notes Liberian poet, Cherbo Geeplay. Such a phenomenon is taking place in Liberia today.
As well as established Liberian writers known to the international reading public such as Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Wayetu Moore and Vamba Sherif, one finds poet Cherbo Geeplay. Geeplay takes after the tradition of those who came before him, like Roland Tombekai Dempster and Bai T. Moore, and Wesley herself— these writers especially inspired a generation of Liberian literature. Wilton Sankawulo is also worth mentioning; his novella and short stories are popular folktales that have left lasting imprints on the small west African country.
Geeplay also writes short stories and is thinking about writing either a novella or a novel. In time, “all of these can be done”, he says, as he frees his “mind” and develops the characters and subjects that he wants to put out there, to enrich the literature of his homeland. If he is one of the stronger and more articulate voices of new Liberian literature, that is because he has humbled himself, studied the art, and received mentorship from veteran authors like Althea Romeo-Mark, editors like Stephanie Horton, and academics like Jackie Sayegh. As a poet, Geeplay’s works are rooted in tradition, transcending the particular to reach into the universal, thus becoming serious literature, powerful and relatable to all.
In an interview with Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, an award-winning Liberian poet and writer and an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University, Geeplay (who regards the author as his “big sister” and mentor) explored the importance of writing poetry and the influences that have inspired his works, the primary influence being his Grebo culture. Aware that one of his heroes and a giant in the literary world, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, wants African writers to write in their native tongues, Geeplay acknowledges that “neo-colonialism “1. has been a cause of concern in places like Liberia, where no efforts have been made to develop nor teach African languages”. He states, “I write only in English. But the Grebo language and tradition, like other languages, possess a rich heritage with a lot of cultural heirlooms. You can only draw inspiration from Liberian culture. My Grebo heritage is very important, it is an African and Liberian story and comes with that perspective. A Zulu or Yoruba can only speak about his culture and in the process enrich African literature, and this is what we are trying to do” “2.
It is worth exploring the concept that “the cultural milieu in which we all live is a linguistic construction” “3. When one reads Geeplay’s poems, the subtleties of Grebo-Kru sub structural linguistic influences are at once unique to the place and universal. In the poem below, ‘Farewell to Ellen’, published in both the Adelaide Literary Magazine and Rigorous Literary (based in New York and New Orleans), the Liberian poet writes about love, a city, a nation emerging from war and a poverty that has consumed the nation like in many African countries while corruption is rife amongst the political elite while the masses search for answers. It is this humanistic and deep thinking that he brings to his work and that has won him praise; his work is nothing shy of brilliance, and offers the maturity that many readers seek to satisfy their literary cravings. In this excerpt from ‘Farewell to Ellen’, the poet writes:
Life comes to a slow twiggy
motion; the forest is breathing
with moisture, like a hut puffing
smoke as a pipe. While the creek
bridged their ledges, there is a
seismic run-down Waterside!
Enough, no more, the sewage
can take! She is in my arms,
listening to the music
pounding the roof. Still,
calm, reading Ebony Dust,
though, with lightning bolts
yelling to be heard. The clatter
is like a rumble—tumbling
falling rockets. The sorry
corrugated zinc holds her
Seams, the bed is dry,
but the room is a puddle.
The truncated lines combined with the lush imagery create a fullness of experience related in the poem that is unique and startling. Such is the work of Geeplay. The spirit of Africa, the experience lived by the people, the soul of the poetry reveals inner depths for the world to feel and understand. A particular achievement well-done by a master craftsman of language, who studied journalism, once worked as a newspaper reporter and is a constantly evolving student of poetry.
Cherbo Geeplay was born in Pleebo, Southeastern Liberia. His father was a grade school teacher, a clergyman and physician’s assistant, and his mother a Sunday school teacher and nurse who taught kindergarten. He began experimenting with words early and by high school had taken full interest in poetry. Geeplay often sent his works to national radio station ELBC, where veteran Liberian broadcaster James Wolo read his poems. The poet would later work at the radio station where his poems were once read, but within a year would resign his position, opting instead to work in print media as a senior staff reporter. He published his first set of poems in 2009 in the Liberian Sea Breeze Journal, edited by Stephanie Horton. His poetry has since appeared in the Blue Lake Review and the Adelaide Literary Magazine, both based in New York, where he was the finalist of the Adelaide Literary Award for Poetry 2018. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies.
Whilst Geeplay’s poetry is greatly influenced by his Grebo culture of Southeastern Liberia as stated above, it is also heavily influenced by his interest in Pan Africanism, “a philosophical belief in the political, cultural and economic liberation of Africa as a whole”. He uses his poetry as a tool, fighting to expose and explore the lessons to be learned in contemporary Africa literature.
The poet uses his voice to make the case for understanding amongst African peoples and encourages reading as a tool that can empower Africans to hold their leaders responsible. Geeplay never hesitates to explore many issues, that range from culture to politics as well as corruption and good governance. He especially speaks for the disenfranchised, such as women, children and the displaced. Through his works, one can see Geeplay’s deep commitment and passion he has cultivated.
Whilst the literature of the 1970s was dominated by progressive agitation against the Americo-Liberian hegemony and neo-colonialism in west Africa, the 1980s saw military dictatorships on the continent under leaders like Samuel Doe or as many leaders as Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia. Now, in these post-independence times, we find an Africa that seeks answers to the continent’s myriad problems. It is this same kind of thinking displayed by emerging writers including Geeplay: that literature and scholarship can inspire new heights. Geeplay is one of many diverse voices in African and Liberian literature today, and is located amongst emerging writers that are keenly aware of the power of poetry, and how words can play an important role in healing our troubled world. “4. Culled from the www.parrotnewsonline.com
About the Author: Dag W. Walker is an American writer currently residing in Quito, Ecuador.
“1. Kwame Nkrumah, “Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, Introduction.” Marxists.org 1965
“2. Interview: “Dr. Patricia Wesley & Comrade Cherbo Geeplay”. Liberian Listener. August 14, 2019, https://www.liberianlistener.com/2019/08/14/interview-dr-patricia-wesley-comrade-cherbo-geeplay/
“3 Wen Wryte, “Dismantling the cancel culture.” American Thinker. July 6, 2020. https://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2020/07/dismantling_the_cancel_culture.html
“4. Trudier Harris, “African American Protest Poetry.” National Humanistic Center, 1917 http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917beyond/essays/aaprotestpoetry.html