Echoes of Time: Promoting Liberian Literary Heritage
By Eduardo de Bosco
To talk of literature in Africa, one cannot but mention the west coast and a number of countries on the east, south, as well as other regions of the continent. Names such as Chinua Achebe, Camara Laye, Ayei Kwei Armah, Nadine Gordimer, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Nuruddin Farah, the West African Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and a litany of names are bound to hit the eardrums at the mention of African literature. What is not so known on the west coast of Africa, a coast which has hosted reputable writers is the fact that one small country, although given peripheral attention in the world of literature and arts, can boast of being the ‘frontier man of literature’ on the continent. And that is Liberia, where the first African novel in English was written.
The 1891 novel, Guanya Pau: A Story of an African Princess, by Liberian writer and missionary Joseph Jeffrey Walters, sets the record as Africa’s first novel against the claim that Ghana’s Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford’s 1911 novel, Ethiopia Unbound, was the first. Liberia has recorded not only the first novel but many other works since then. On her grand work ‘On Liberian Literature: The Name of the Sound, and the Sound of the Name,’ Dr. Acqui sought to unearth the long-buried literary and cultural heritage of Liberia. She posited that “Liberian literature has a valuable canon, a cultural asset to be preserved, organized, and recorded by literary history, both in Liberia and the world. It contains a chronological record of Liberia’s pastoral, folk literature, with its folk songs, proverbs, folk tales, known since the 1800s. There are writers, genres, and species, from poetry to drama, important to be taught for the ongoing development of Liberia’s literary history.”
Paramount in the just quoted work of Dr. Acqui is the emphasis placed at the end, which is “the importance to be taught for the ongoing development of Liberia’s literary history.” In this same vein, Nvasekie Konneh presented the pressing interrogatives, “Where are we and why our contribution to African literature is not acknowledged or even celebrated by ourselves, much less by others outside of our borders?” In answer, Konneh opined that “we don’t have a cultural policy that promotes literature and other works of arts as in other countries in our continent. In any other society, these early writings would be reprinted and taught to new generations, which may draw inspiration from them, as it is noted that ‘the past must inform the present.’”
There is a common saying that “if you want to hide something from a Liberian, put it in a book.” Although this statement is a generalization, it is fair to say that as a nation, we have a poor reading culture, coupled with other factors are said to be the reason why Liberian literature or literary heritage is yet to gain the attention it deserves. There is a dire need for the government to update our educational curriculum to serve the need of promoting Liberian literature as well as initiating state based cultural projects across Liberia and the diaspora. In as much as the works of Bai T. Moore and Wilton Sankawulo have their lofty place in our educational system, the need to introduce contemporary writers such as Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Prof. K. Moses Nagbe, Vamba Sherif, Saah Millimono, Emma Shaw, Hawa Golokai, Nvasekie Konneh, Prof. Momo Dudu, Wayétu Moore, Lekpele M. Nyamalon who have painted the Liberian culture and arts with their works stands as an urgency that should not be ignored. Their works have disclosed to the world hidden Liberian stories, traditional practices, folklores, songs, dirges that are not known to the younger generation of Liberian students. A Typical example is the praise poem written by Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. The poem which is a title poem for her book, “Praise Songs for My Children,” is listed below:
Let me sing to you, my daughters, you who have,
never known where we come from.
You who will never know your mother’s tongue,
you who have become the metaphor of lost
warriors, who were captured by war.
Let me be your songwriter, the song you sing,
the dirge you do not know how to sing.
The poem above is what we refer in traditional Africa as a “praise song.” It is a specific African poetic form, used to communicate everything from praise for heroes or family members, to dirges for the deceased. It is not only a song of grief or regret but a reminder to the daughters and sons of Africa in the diaspora. This piece is a clarion call that cannot be overlooked. In her explication of the poem, she says, “the entire poem is traditional; the way a grandmother would sing to her grandchildren”. It is an indubitable fact that Liberia lags behind in the area of finding her identity through her literature and arts. There is an urgent call to push herself to attain what the great African philosopher calls, “the exigencies of the cultural transition that is taking place in contemporary Africa.” Our own Liberian emphasis in this transition should be building a reading culture, promoting our arts and literature through governmental as well as individual initiatives, painting our works in the unique Liberian way, using the Liberian tone, language, and her entire reality as well as promoting and funding works of writers.
To conclude, I will like to draw our attention to the sad reality of our arts and cultural landscape. We live in a culture with lack of recognition and appreciation for intellectuals, a culture in which most parents are not role models to their children, and life is lived in a highly hedonistic style amidst the societal and political problems. In this light I think there is a need to decolonize our minds from such structures and reconstruct a culture in which people will be hungry to read, to write, to work and promote the Liberian heritage as well as expose Liberia to the world through her arts.
 Bill O’driscoll, “Homing Instinct: African-Born Poet Keeps Returning To The Theme Of Home”, published on june 1, 2020, https://www.wesa.fm/post/homing-instinct-african-born-poet-keeps-returning-theme-home#stream/0
 Kwasi Wiredu Symposium at the 18th world congress of philosophy at brighton,UK in August,1988 and published in Quest: An International African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. IV, NO. 2,1990(Lusaka,Zambia)