“Until my recent visit, my last time of visiting Saclepea, my birthplace, was November 1989, just a month before the war started. As the rumor became a reality, my folks fled the town, with some coming to Monrovia and others going to Guinea and Ivory Coast. Most of them left, thinking that things would be over soon and they would return home. Since then, many have not made it back. Some like my father, Ngoamilleh Konneh, died longing for the home they couldn’t go back to. Some went back to settle when Taylor became president, hoping that the war was over and that peace and reconciliation would be the order of the day. At the end of the day, they were chased out. This made headline news in Liberia but no action was taken to address the problem.
August 2005 made it ten years since I left Liberia. During those ten years, I visited Liberia once and for only two days in 1998. Since then, I had always hoped to visit Liberia. I couldn’t think of doing so when Taylor was in power. Since then, I had always hoped to spend time in Liberia. I couldn’t think of doing so while Charles Taylor was in power. Since I was serving in the US Navy, I could not get a leave approved to visit Liberia because of the unfavorable security condition. Going there would have also been a personal risk. This, plus the fact that I had written articles that were critical of the Taylor regime and had participated in demonstrations against the regime convinced me that I would be arrested if I had visited. Given the current political climate, I visited Liberia in October 2005. Even though my visit coincided with the campaign season, my visit to Liberia was primarily to visit families and friends I had not seen for all these years. May be to experience the place and to feel at home once again. As it’s obvious, my visit to Liberia wouldn’t be complete without visiting Saclepea. As I have mentioned earlier, the reason was that it’s the place of my nativity, a place more than any other place in the world that holds my childhood memories. Enough reason to visit there to see how different it is now from what it was 15 years ago when I last visited.
Another important reason to visit was to see with my own eyes as to what extent the issue of illegal occupation of homes and properties belonging to the Mandingoes was true. As a writer and editor in chief of Limany website at the time, we had written many editorial pieces about that illegal occupation, condemning it in the strongest term possible. Now that I was in Liberia, I deemed it necessary to go there, to be able to tell my readers if what we have written about in the past was still the same. Some people had accused us of exaggerating this confusion over land in Nimba County. For these people as well, it was extremely necessary for me to visit my hometown.
Still, there was another important reason for my trip to Nimba, a visit to Tengbenye, a village about a 45-minute drive from Saclepea. Tengbenye is the birthplace of my grandmother, Mah Tolor, the mother of my father. I had been curious to know how grandma’s people were doing. It was to be a kind of family reunion between the Mandingo and Mano sides of my family. My father had enjoyed a very good relationship with his uncles. Since he was no longer alive, I wanted to rekindle that relationship as a tribute to his memory. I was curious as to how my father’s uncles would receive us after these many years of animosity between the Mano and Gios on one side and the Mandingoes on the other.
Given my multi-ethnic heritage, I had in mind that my visit to Nimba County, particularly in Saclepea and Tengbenye, and my interaction with the Mano side of my family could in one way or the other help in some small way in bringing about greater understanding among our people, leading to the resolution of the land problem. With all these thoughts on my mind, I and seven members of my family left Monrovia on the evening of October 7, 2005, three days before the historic election of October 11, 2005, in Liberia. My four aunts also share the same multi-ethnic heritage of Mandingo and Mano backgrounds.
We were caught up in long traffic at the Red Light. By the time we were clearing out of the traffic jam, we met the convoy of candidate George Weah, triumphantly entering Monrovia for the “Million Man March” the next day. He was waving to his supporters from the open top of his hammer jeep. The crowd was going wild for him and he was just smiling and waving. We waited for the candidate to leave before we could pull on. As we went, our first stop was Kakata. It was so lively with so many people. Since all of us were fasting, we went to a restaurant to break our fast. While we were walking on the street looking for a place to eat, we heard a group of people speaking Mandingo and we went and greeted them. We sat and ate with them in a local restaurant. We continued our journey after forty-five minutes. Between 10:00 to 11:00 p.m., we were in Ganta. Whereas before the war one would see many Mandingoes on the roads, this time you came across them as passengers passing through town. The shops that used to belong to Mandingoes were either occupied or demolished and new shops were built in their places. I visited the home of one of my deceased aunts and could not see any familiar faces. I could see the vivid signs of the war on a mosque that was badly desecrated. Efforts were being made to renovate the mosque but those efforts had not produced any dramatic improvement. Nevertheless, I saw a few people praying there. I didn’t ask if they were passengers passing through or if they were residing in Ganta.
As we left Ganta, my memory took me back to the days before the war. I was talking and my traveling companions were confirming where so and so person’s house or shop used to be. Someone else was occupying them while the owners were either in Monrovia or Guinea, afraid to come to claim ownership of their properties. Some of the occupiers, I was told, had entered into a lease agreement with the legitimate owners to keep some of the properties.
We passed Yasonoh, the home of the famous Nimba County senator, Johnny Voker, in whose honor my Alma Mata, Johnny Voker High School in Sacleapea is named after. As we passed through there, my mind went to Vamunya, a friend who died during the war in Monrovia. Yasonoh was his birthplace. I looked to where their houses once stood. Since it was night time, we did not stop to inquire as to who lives there now. May his soul rest in peace.
Another town along the way that brought me some memory of the past was Karnwee, the home of the late Gen. Robert G. Saye, one time Superintendent of Nimba County, and one time Director of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Gen. Saye was one of those that became an early casualty of the instability that finally swept the whole nation. I remember Karnwee for two other persons, one of my teachers during my elementary school years, Mehwonkeh and of Gen. Mohammed Dumbuya, the late ULIMO Field Commander who was once Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Gen. Dumbuya died during the April 6 crisis. May his soul rest in peace.
When we got to Mehnpa, I started breathing the air of Saclepea. This was because Mehnpa is just a stone-throw from Saclepea. As we passed through Mehnpa, I was reminded of some controversy I stirred up at Johnny Voker High School about Mehnpa. Our class, 11th grade, had a program in which I served as the keynote speaker. I delivered a very controversial speech that upset some fellow students at the school. Among things I said was that a Mandingo man started Mehnpa and that’s why it’s called “Menhpa.” The Mano people call us “Mehn.” In that sense, the literal meaning of Mehnpa is Mandingo town. I used that as my reason for saying that Mehnpa was originally a Mandingo town. This really upset some guys at my school. As I passed through the town this night, my mind went back to that experience.
After Mehnpa, we passed the Moslem cemetery where so many people I once knew are being laid to rest. I was sort of wondering if those dead people could be aware that their living folks made an involuntary journey out of town and have not returned since then. I wondered who might have been the last person buried there before the mass exodus of the Mandingoes from the town. That would probably be Aleo Foday, the only Mandingo casualty of Saclepea. It wasn’t the rebels’ bullets that killed the man who used to call prayer for our mosque, rather it was an AFL soldier, assigned to protect civilians. While the AFL soldiers were in town “providing security,” some of them went to grab a goat that belonged to Aleo who protested. A scuffle developed and he was shot dead. That was months before the Mano folks of the town advised their Mandingo folks to leave town to avoid calamity. Most Saclepea Mandingoes considered that advice as a kind gesture by their Mano neighbors. Because of this kind gesture, Saclepea was spared from the massive Mandingo hunting and killing that took place elsewhere in Nimba County and other parts of Liberia. If my father had had any choice as to where he would like to be buried, his choice would have been this graveyard. He couldn’t have imagined that he would die in Monrovia in 1994 and buried there instead of Saclepea.
After the graveyard, we passed the place where grandma Matian used to farm. Many times I came there to help her plan or harvest bitter balls, tomatoes, potatoes, and other garden products. Grandma Matian is a Mano from Karnwee. Her daughter, aunty Mamadia, the oldest living daughter of my grandfather was traveling with me. After passing where grandma’s farm used to be, we passed a creek that we used to swim in when we were little. Many times we accompanied our brothers or uncles to wash their cars. We kept on going, passing the big building where old man Donzo used to have commercial rice machines. Before reaching the city center of Saclepea, I saw the police station where on many occasions we went to settle cases or witnessed thieves being flogged. I remember one occasion. That happened right after the November 12th failed coup. I was in my mother’s shop when this army guy came in and started taking things without paying for them. When I protested, he got mad. He hauled me from behind the counter and dragged me to the police station. There was no policeman on duty when we arrived at the station. He locked me up without any investigation. After an hour, one policeman came in and I made some noise with the hope that he will know I was there. He opened the door and told me to come out. He asked what I was doing in there. I told him that an army man had brought me in here because I won’t agree for him to take things from my mother’s shop without paying for them. He told me to go home and to come the next morning. I did not go back and no one bothers me thereafter.
We got to the center of Saclepea where I grew up as a child. We used to play hide and seek, sometimes with the girls, other times with our crowd of boys. I could see familiar places but since it was passed 12 midnight, the town was quiet and that wasn’t the time to be looking for any familiar faces. As such time of the night, our main concern was to find a place to sleep. So we headed straight to Grandma Mawa Voker’s place on Tappita road. As mentioned previously, Grandma Mawa was a relative of the legendary Johnny Voker. Through her marital relationship with my grandfather, she gave birth to a son, Vafuomo, named after the father of Sheik Kafumba Konneh. Grandma Mawa was very resourceful and this is evidenced by the number of lands and houses she owned in Saclepea. It was in one of the houses we spent the night. By the time we got to the house, it was some minutes past 1 am. The other house next to the one we slept in holds some more childhood memories for me. It was rented and used as a madrassa, which later on became a bilingual school of Arabic and English learning. The Moslem Union School, headquartered in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, administered the madrassa. Our first English teacher was Lincoln G. Nya. Throughout the time Mr. Nyah taught us, many of us admired him. He was a strict disciplinarian. The last time I saw him was 1998 during my two-day brief visit to Liberia.
Having gone to bed from around 1:30 to 2:00 am, we woke up to a bright Saturday morning. The first time in fifteen years I had wakened up from sleep in Saclepea. We all took a bath and prayed. There were two things that we wanted to accomplish on this day. One was to walk around Saclepea visiting our neighbors and other people we knew in town. The other thing we wanted to accomplish was to visit Tengbenye. We agreed that the first order of business was to visit Tengbenye. But we were told that the road was in disrepair and not good for the van we had carried. Fortunately for us, a brother-in-law of mine had a pick-up truck and he decided to take us there. My sister Mawa is married to him. Mawa is the daughter of Uncle Vafuomo but she has spent most of her adult life with her Gio mother and her people from Kpaytuo. While we call her Mawa, her mom and other people from Kpaytuo call her Martha. Interestingly indeed, sister Mawa or Martha’s current husband is a Guinean Mano. He proved to be very hospitable as he drove us to Tengbenye. He talked about the deep-rooted ties between the Manos from Guinea and those from Liberia. He named many towns in Guinea and Liberia that have identical names, suggesting that Manos from the original towns in the place that became Guinea migrated to the land that became Liberia and they named the new towns after the old ones. That is just another effect of the European balkanization of Africa, drawing lines to divide families into separate countries. In this case, a family member on one side of the imaginary line became a Guinean, and the one on the other side became a Liberian. This effect of colonial division is evidenced everywhere in Africa today and it’s the source of most of our conflicts. Immigration authorities in Africa don’t take into consideration the family ties that existed before the colonial division and have only enforced that division, thereby making a mockery of all our talks of African unity.
When we got to Tengbenye, we were warmly welcomed. Since it was the campaign time, some of the family members had gone to Gawompa to attend the campaign functions of some candidates. Among the family members we met, there was only one surviving brother of Grandma Tolor. It was he who I turned to for some information about my grandmother. I told him and the crowd that had gathered in the living room that I had come from the United States all the way to Tengbenye to reconnect with this side of my past, the past that connects me to Tengbenye, the birthplace of Grandma Tolor. I told them about my experience in the US Navy and as a writer who had written a book of poetry. I presented two copies of the book to the public school of the town. I told them whenever they read the book they should remember that it’s written by someone who has a connection with them and the town.
In response, they said they were surprised but truly happy that we made it to Tengbenye. They said we were welcome and they will always remember this day. They said that the fact that I could come from America and consider coming to Tengbenye, with the road condition being so terrible was beyond words. They said that Tengbenye is our home since it was the home of our grandmother. They said we were protected in Tengbenye as any native-born person of the town. They even showed us some Mandingo nephews and nieces who live with them. These are the children of the late Muesiamana Koisia who lived there and had children by a Mano woman. When the war came and the Mandingoes fled, the Mano woman and her Mandingo children remained. And they survived the war and have no intention of leaving Tengbenye to go anywhere. One of their father’s sons, Small Man, wasn’t so lucky as he was one of the early casualties of the war. He had left Saclepea to another village at the time the war was still in its infancy. He and another passenger on a motorbike did not make it back to Saclepea.
My father’s uncles urged us strongly to sleep so we could meet other town folks who had gone to Gowonpa. Earlier when we came, they said they had just left. Someone was sent to let them know about our surprise visit. They were already at that program; they sent a town chief, who happened to be much younger than what town chiefs used to be, to meet us. He came and spoke on behalf of the town people, saying that we should spend the night so that other people will meet us in the morning. We said that we had other engagement in Saclepea and we had to leave. We told them to extend our greetings to everyone in town.
It’s a tradition among the Manos for their visiting nephews to grab a chicken or goat. This is a sign of hospitality. As tradition required, we were given two chickens. They said they would have given us a goat if we had agreed to sleep.
After all that formalities, we said good-bye and headed back to Saclepea. Upon reaching to Saclepea, we stopped in Tonween to speak to Old man Sammy Dahn, former Nimba County representative in the house and a brother of one of Liberia’s many political figures, Marcus Dahn. I saw something remarkably different from the old man and his house. In days gone by, Sammy Dahn’s house was the most beautiful house in Saclepea. This time, I could not see that beauty. The last time I saw the house was fifteen years earlier. I had been to Abidjan, Monrovia, America, Europe and other places and seen so many beautiful buildings. Was that why the most beautiful building in Saclepea didn’t look so beautiful in my eyes now? The old man’s health condition was not the best either. My aunts and brothers told him we were the children and grandchildren of Bolekayfa, my father’s father. From the way he looked, he had much to say but the condition would not allow him to say. The last time I saw Sammy Dahn, he was much healthier and energetic. This time, old age and bad health were taking their tolls on him. We left Tonween and headed for town.
After climbing down the hill from Tonween, we reached the place we Mandingo people used to call “Macanisunboula,” meaning a mechanic place. We had named it that way because most of our tribal people who lived there were mechanics. I can’t remember now how the Mano people call it. As we passed there, my mind went to two friends that died in the war. One was Junior Mamie, a Mano and the other was Losene Bamba, a Mandingo. Both of them lived right in this neighborhood and their houses were opposite each other. While Junior Mamie was one of the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre in Monrovia, Losene Bamba was killed behind the rebel line outside of Monrovia. While Junior Mamie was killed because he was Mano, Losene Bamba was killed because he was a Mandingo. May their souls rest in peace.
Another person that lived not too far from where Junior Mamie and Losene Bamba lived was Mohammed Kamara. His mother was Mano. When the war started, Mohammed fled to Sierra Leone. When Taylor’s loyalists crossed the border to Sierra Leone, one of them who knew Mohammed is said to have killed him simply because he was a Mandingo. I wonder if his killer knew he was the son of a Mano woman.
Not too far from Mohammed Kamara’s parent’s house, my aunts took me to another house. Some family members live there. I was introduced to them. They were the children of one of my grandmother’s younger sisters. After the usual greetings, they told me that two of their brothers live in the US and I should establish contact with them when returning to the states. They told me these were my father’s direct cousins. Their names were Magnus Saye and Raphael Saye. They gave me their numbers. When I arrived back in the states I contacted Uncle Magnus and his brother Raphael Saye who recently passed away on January 1, 2013. They were surprised to hear from me. I told them we should be happy that we have discovered each other. They asked about my father and his sister Bendu Kenneth and I told them both had died.
By this time we decided to just walk in town as a matter of exploration. From around Saclepea Inland Church, we walked as a group, passing familiar places but seeing unfamiliar faces. People we know to own certain places no longer lived there, and people we didn’t know now live there. When we got to the center of Saclepea, where we once had a big store with a gas station, another store stood in its place. Uncle Amara Donzo was the richest man in Saclepea before the war, and his store, once the biggest store in town was now occupied by someone else. There were three other houses built on our family land. The house in which I was born and raised was occupied by some people. The mosque my grandfather had built had been demolished and his grave that used to be in front of the mosque had been desecrated. The remnant of the mosque was being used as a carpenter shop. The last time there was a problem between the Manos and Mandingoes during the Taylor regime, I understand that it was caused by someone who was desecrating Grandpa’s grave and someone from the Mandingo side protested. It resulted in a conflict in which several Mandingoes were killed and others fled the town. Since that incident, most Mandingoes have been afraid to come back.
Opposite our yard, I saw a nightclub built in the Bility family yard. This is the birthplace of Musa Bility, a prominent businessman in Monrovia, and is also the birthplace of Hassan Bility’s father, Alhaji Lassana Bility. Other people’s houses were also destroyed to build this nightclub.
We then went further down on the street that divides our yard from the Bility’s yard. While walking on the street, I saw some of the old people we were planning to meet. Among them were Cooper Toh, a former Town Chief, and Sekou Cooper, a former Paramount Chief of Saclepea Mah County District. With them was another elder of the town, John Gborley. They were keeping the conversation at Evan Koah’s mother’s shop. Evan was one of the senatorial candidates of Nimba County in the 2005 election. His sister’s father is a Mandingo. I had forgotten about her until one of my brothers told me “this is Gboyo’s (Aleo Bility) daughter.”
Aunty Madeaba spoke in fluent Mano, telling the gathering of the purpose of our trip to Saclepea. She introduced me as “our son has come from America and was interested in coming to see his home.” By this time now a small crowd had gathered to witness what was unfolding. Among this crowd, I met many friends I had not seen all these fifteen years. There was Betty Mehn, a classmate from 10th grade through 12th. She and other friends told me how proud they were when they heard me on Voice of America reading a poem about growing up in Saclepea. Hearing them tell me that made me proud too; that despite everything, these Mano friends could express some pride in me. Their simple expression of the joy of seeing me convinced me that despite everything, there was a possibility for reconciliation among the tribes in Saclepea and the rest of Nimba County.
Having been introduced, I told the gathering that as a child of Saclepea, I have always lived with the burning desire for this place. That the fifteen years’ absence from the town feels like living in forced exile. That in all those fifteen years, I have remembered and celebrated Saclepea in my writings. I told them that I have romanticized my childhood experiences of Saclepea in poetry that have won me many admirers. I told them that Saclepea was a home that nurtured me and those childhood memories will remain with me wherever I go. This had been the case even when I had been stationed on the US Navy ships cruising the high seas of the Atlantic, Adriatic, Mediterranean, or the Persian Gulf. Because of this strong feeling, it felt like I was on a pilgrimage to the past I feel so strongly about. This is my heritage as much as it is theirs and the same way they are proud of it, so am I. The place was very quiet and everyone was very attentive to what I was saying as it was being interpreted in Mano. At the end of my short speech, I presented two copies of my book to Johnny Voker High School. I would have been glad to have made the presentation on the campus while school was in section but it was Saturday. That being the case, I gave them the books to be given to the school on my behalf. Coincidentally, the chairman of the Parent-Teacher Association of the school arrived. The books were presented to him.
I could see that the old people felt some emotion in my speech. I could tell from their faces that my speech had taken them on memory lane. For them, Sekou Cooper did most of the talking. He talked warmly about my grandfather and his historic contribution to the making of Saclepea. He enumerated some of his personal encounters with the old man. He said grandpa was like his own father and he treated him like his own child. He said the reason he is called “Sekou” is because his birth coincided with the arrival of a respected Mandingo man. The man requested that since his coming coincided with the birth of a child, the child should be named after him. He went on to say that to see “Old man Bolekayfa’s children coming to town was a happy occasion which deserves celebration.” While he was talking, everyone could tell that he was on a long memory lane, trying to connect the past with the present.
Grandpa Kalifala Konneh is also known as Bolekayfa. While the Mandingoes call him Kalifala, the Manos call him Bolekayfa. He was an Islamic scholar who built a mosque to propagate the religion of Islam. He is said to have performed “mole” work for some people that became very powerful and prominent. Among them were Dahn Gbonwee and Johnny Voker. He also became a government official, a marketing coordinator for Saclepea and the surrounding towns and villages. It is said that in that capacity, Grandpa used to go around the market, which was held in his yard, to inspect the goods brought in by various towns and villages within the district. He would levy fines on any town or village that failed to bring its shares of goods to the market. Accordingly, that was one way the government was trying to bring the native people under its control. As a prominent religious leader among his people and being very active in local tribal politics, grandpa is well respected by everyone. Our Madrassa was later named after him.
Thinking about grandpa Kalifala reminds me of an incident on November 12, 1985, the day Quiwonkpa announced to have removed Samuel Doe from power. On that day, which was Saclepea’s market day, I was pushing wheelbarrow as a means to earn some money. In the process, I overheard a Mano gentleman saying, “We are just waiting for the night to get rid of all the ‘dingoes’ from this town.” At that moment it was a sure case that Samuel Doe was history and the new president was Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa. As this fellow turned around and saw me, he said, “When we talk about the Mandingoes, we don’t mean people like you, the Bolekayfa’s children are prominent citizens of this town.”
As a sign of hospitality, Sekou Cooper and the other people offered to buy us some soft drinks to cool our thirst. But too bad it was Ramadan and we were all fasting. So we said goodbye and left. Our last stop in Saclepea was to old lady Mary Yongah. We went to her place. We met her and her son Joseph Marshall whose biological father, Alhaji Sekou Koisiah, was one of the prominent Mandingoes of the town. In the past, Mah Yongah was what we used to call a “civilized or kwi woman.” She was beautiful, very energetic, and powerful. One could tell that by the way she dressed and the house she lived in. I remember one time one of her sons died in Monrovia in a car accident. As a young boy growing up in Saclepea, it was one of the most colorful funeral services I had witnessed. That was the first time I entered her house to view the body. I was amazed by the big “kwi” house. Looking at Mah Yongah during this trip was a testament to only one thing; no matter how energetic we are at one point in life, there will come a time when we have to slow down. Sickness and old age would take over. There had been fifteen years since the last time I saw her and now seeing her again was indeed a happy occasion. We all expressed how we missed each other over the years.
After that encounter with Mah Yongah and her son Joseph Marshall, we headed for Monrovia. In another time, instead of visiting Saclepea just for a day, I would have spent at least a week or two with my family. But since my family had been dislocated as a result of the war and are still afraid to return because of the illegal occupation of their homes, my visit was brief. During Taylor’s time, some Mandingoes came back to town, hoping that the war was over. Their dream of living peacefully in their homes was shattered in a brutal attack. As I understand, there have been some peace and reconciliation talks and most of my family members and others were only waiting for the seating of the new government. By that time the expectation was that things would be better and people would get their homes and other properties back.
In spite of the illegal occupation of properties, I felt a high degree of hospitality during the entire trip. In the eyes of the people, I could see the hope of finding a lasting solution to all the problems. I felt really satisfied that despite everything we could still be nice to each other, recognizing and celebrating our multi-ethnic heritage. It’s my hope that my experience in both Tengbenye and Saclepea could be replicated in other parts of Nimba County, indeed all of Liberia.
With all these thoughts going through my head, I was left wondering if Saclepea could speak. More than likely it would encourage all of us to come together and rebuild our lives and relationship as they were before the wars. ”
Nvasekie N. Konneh is a writer and nine-year veteran of the United States Navy. He is the author of two books of poetry, Going To War for America, The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together and The Land of My Father’s Birth, a memoir of the Liberian civil wars. Nvasekie Konneh can be reached at 267 826 3952 or through email @ firstname.lastname@example.org