By Geepu-Nah Tiepoh, Ph.D.
This piece summarizes two new books written by Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh and released on the eve of his 80th birthday recently celebrated. The first book, Bite and Blow: My Story, published by Publish Wiz based in Accra, Ghana, and dedicated to his parents (father, Korwreh Duwree Togba, and mother Geenah Wreh Kai), gives a riveting account of his early years and upbringing in the Old Kru Town and later at Snapper Hill, Monrovia; his exciting journey through higher education that landed him in the United States of America, in the heat of the civil rights struggle, and culminated in obtaining the Doctorate Degree in Economics in 1969 at the young age of 27; and more significantly, his over 50 years of progressive work in promoting economic and community development, social justice, and peace in Liberia and Africa. The book also outlines some of Dr. Tipoteh’s evidence-based perspectives on critical societal problems, such as mass poverty, community development, economic management, governance, and how these can be addressed. The second book, Pepperbird Bound for Freedom, also published by Publish Wiz and dedicated to the legendary Madiba Nelson Mandela, is a collection of 80 poems by the author, representing his 80 years of age.
The Bite and Blow title comes from Dr. Tipoteh’s early life experience as a barefooted boy growing up in poverty, constantly bitten by rats. It is also reflective of his unique creativity in using everyday expressions in society to describe important political-economic issues, for example, his popularization of the phrase, “monkey work, baboon draw”, in the 1970s to dramatize the worsening conditions of Liberian workers being paid “chicken feeds” while the shareholders of transnational corporations (e.g., Firestone and LAMCO) and their government collaborators got richer.
Being materially poor, although spiritually wealthy and hardworking, Dr. Tipoteh’s parents could not afford footwear for him and his other siblings. So, he went about without footwear. As he vividly narrates in the book:
“After taking bath, I would go to bed with a mattress on the floor. During the night, rats would come and concentrate on my feet, licking the grease and whatever rice grains they could find on my feet. The rats would skillfully bite and make strips on my feet, while some blood would flow and they would blow my feet for me not to feel the damage and pain from their biting.”
Such a rat-oriented bite and blow experience, and its influence on Tipoteh’s critical understanding of the Liberian State’s management behavior and policies, has guided his work in society in the last 50 years and is also reflected in the underlying theme of this book. As he argues forcefully, in the governance of the country, the powers-that-be “do bite with repressive measures and then blow with flattering rhetoric, policies, strategies and false agenda to give the impression that something better is about to happen, only to find the same old thing happening, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
In the book, one learns that even before migrating to the United States of America in 1960 to pursue his B.A. Degree in economics, and later on the Doctoral Degree on a Harvard University-United Nations Special Fund Fellowship, Dr. Tipoteh had carried out his first public protest by sitting on the sidewalk near the Executive Mansion. According to the story, he took an examination for a foreign scholarship to attend school in the United States. However, when the results from the exam were published, only eight persons (out of 200 applicants) were accepted, and his name was not on the list, even though, as he would later learn from one of the Examiners, he actually passed the exam and won a scholarship. Based on this new information about the actual exam results, he sent a letter of inquiry to the Secretary (now Minister) of Education. The story continues as follows:
“When I got no response after two weeks, I began camping out on the sidewalk at the President of Liberia’s office and residence, the Executive Mansion. The President’s wife, Mrs Antoinette Tubman, peace be to her ashes, upon seeing me, inquired about my situation and I informed her about the injustice done to me. She promised to intervene and she did intervene, resulting in my getting placed on the list of the persons who were successful in the examination, based on performance.”
The most important part of the book consists of the sections on Dr. Tipoteh’s 50 years of work in promoting national economic and community development, social justice, peace, and democracy in Liberia and Africa. Using simple and accessible language, characteristic of his exceptional ability to explain and make complex issues understandable to wider audiences, the author told the history of the various organizational and development activities that he and his colleagues undertook during the 1970s to push the wheel of social progress in Liberia, as well as the many obstacles posed by the prevailing repressive state machinery. When you read this book, you will learn about Tipoteh’s leadership role in the establishment of Susukuu, the 50-year-old poverty alleviation non-governmental organization that has fostered community and workers development, employment promotion, and legal assistance in Liberia, and the formation of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA).
The book also discusses the many instances of threats and harassment that he (Dr. Tipoteh) and other progressive leaders of Susukuu and MOJA encountered from the Tolbert government to undermine their work. Prominent examples of such harassment, as explained in the book, relate to the various actions of the government to close down the Putu Development Corporation (PUDECO), a farmers’ cooperative between Susukuu and the people of Putu in Grand Gedeh County. In particular, the Tolbert government took Susukuu to court under the false charge that it was trying to impose itself on the people of Putu and to destabilize the government through its presence in the region. In addition, you will gain great insight into Susukuu’s relationships with many of Liberia’s agricultural and mining workers during the 1970s, mainly those working on the Firestone rubber plantations and at LAMCO and the Liberia Mining Company (LMC). Furthermore, the historical context of MOJA’s formation in March of 1973 and President Tolbert’s initial membership into the organization and subsequent withdrawal from it are laid out in the book.
You will also learn about Dr. Tipoteh’s teaching, research, and organizational work at the University of Liberia during the period 1971-74, particularly how his tenure there came under persistent threats from the University President and the Board of Trustees. The accounts of his dismissal from the university and the position of Budget Advisor to the President of Liberia, without due process of law, are quite revealing. Moreover, the book argued that during this period, even within the environment in which scholarly/scientific research work was not being encouraged by the President and the Board of Trustees, some prominent scholars were still able to produce groundbreaking research work at the university. The examples are given of the works of the late Dr. Nah-Doe Bropleh, Professor of Agriculture, who in his research showed the possibility of the productive co-existence of farming and the production of logs on a commercial basis; the late Dr. Krawre Sio, Professor of Forest Economics, who demonstrated the “value addition relevance through the production of logs for the local manufacturing of furniture and log-related housing construction materials”; and the outstanding work of Dr. Amos Sawyer, Professor of Political Science, on socialization, where “he showed successfully the undemocratic decision–making in state management, as the national budget formulation made allocations based on personalization rather than national relevance.”
The events leading to the April 14, 1979 rice mass demonstration planned by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), and the context in which the leaders of MOJA decided to advise the PAL not to hold the demonstration, are well explained. Here, after reading the account, one will be convinced that “no PAL demonstration took place but only government security forces, in the form of the Liberia National Police, committed a massacre on April 14, 1979.” In a related section of the book, the story of the April 12, 1980 military coup is discussed, particularly how two leaders of MOJA, Dr. Boima H. Fahnbulleh and Dr. Tipoteh himself, were called, via radio stations announcements, to serve in the new military government. Also, the background information related to Tipoteh’s decision not to return to Liberia from an official meeting held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1981, is provided. When you read these two accounts, on the rice demonstration and the military coup, you will learn that MOJA was never behind the planning and execution of either of these events, contrary to the baseless views often peddled in certain quarters.
Finally, the last part of the book consists of the collection of some of Dr. Tipoteh’s recent commentaries offering his perspectives on a wide range of societal issues, such as mass poverty, wealth and income inequality, community development, gender equality, economic management, and governance, and how these problems can be resolved. The overriding perspective in these commentaries is the need to spread evidence-based knowledge to guide and take non-violent actions to solve societal problems.
The second book, Pepperbird Bound for Freedom, is a collection of 80 poems by the author, representing his 80 years of age. It speaks about the various ways of understanding the sources of injustice and suffering while motivating people to take non-violent actions to “end the suffering by ushering in freedom, justice and progress for all.” Perhaps, two of the major poems in the collection are the one that bears the title of the book and the one called Bird of Pepper. Here are brief excerpts from the latter:
“I am the Bird of Pepper
Wherever People Repeat Corruption
You will find me there
Slicing up the corruptors
Spicing all of their wounds
Putting fire in the struggle
Out of the ashes of the beast
Burned through people’s power
Will rise the tree of democracy
Flowering freedom over our land
Ending Monkey work baboon draw
Bringing justice and peace to all people”
Students of Liberian history, politics, and economics will find these two books quite useful. They can be found on the website of Amazon.com.