My Country ‘Tis of Thee, a book by James B. Freeman

(A Book Review)

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 29, 2004

“The idea behind the school was not just to educate the students, but also convert them to Christianity.” Page 35.

“My father was a very strict man. Everyone in the village was afraid of him… He was their Chief and ruled them with an iron hand. At a very young age, I became the custodian of his house.” Page 37.

“Julius Nyerere was president and he spoke directly to his people in Swahili.” Page 71.

“Many Liberians became victims of such fabrications during the Tubman administration. People were paid … whose sole role was to lie.” Page 89.

“Stephen Tolbert, who had become Secretary of Finance, began to act like the Prime Minister.” Page 93

“My wife had gone home … and while there, learned about a child that I had kept secret from her.” Page 95.

“I had heard that Zambians drank so much that President Kaunda had cried on television and threatened to resign if his countrymen did not stop.” Page 158.

“Military coups were nothing new in human history, but he was shocked that Liberia had decided to project such a negative image…” page 181

“Charles Taylor’s NPFL fighters took over Monrovia … on August 11, 1990.” Page 283.

“I saw a number of people fall dead from fear and exhaustion and they were buried in the bushes… Fighters finished some people up, by shooting them.” Page 285

“Two of the them surrounded me, pointing a gun to each side of my head…” page 288.

“In the night it was too scary to go to out to use the toilet. We used buckets and emptied them in the morning.” Page 300.

“I stopped at my house at Congo town to see what was left of it. Everything had been looted, down to the carpet on the floor.” Page 303.

“There is a new breed of Liberians who will never allow things to return to the ante-1980.” Page 317

Born the son of town chief Manju Fahnbulleh, he was being groomed to learn the Qu’Ran and steps into his father’s shoes one day. But after he spends an afternoon at the local school singing with pupils, his life takes a turn. Rather than the Muslim school, he ends up at the Mission reading the Bible, graduating many years later from the premier private Christian institution of Liberia, the Cuttington College and Divinity School. Mission schools could only take children whom they could “civilize,” not only by teaching them how to read or write English but also by instilling in them the ways of God according to the Holy Bible. Thus young Fahnbulleh grows up to become James Freeman. Rather than Town Chief and perhaps Imam in Kenema, in Cape Mount, in northwestern Liberia, he becomes a devout Christian and a diplomat in some of the highest postings in the field. Rather than the arranged marriage in the village where he would have certainly ended up marrying more than one woman like his father who had six wives, he falls in love with a college student, a young Christian woman to whom he will remain married for 35 years until death parted them. They met on their first day at college, during registration. His shirt and her skirt were made of the same material.

A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a Masters in Diplomacy, Mr. James Freeman attains the summits of the diplomatic world. From dusty Kenema, we follow the narrator around world capitals, to Washington, DC, to Paris, to Nairobi, to Dar-es-Salam, to Conakry, to Rome and to many other places where his studies and diplomatic service took him. At every stop, we get an insight of the local culture, be it racism in Boston or in South Africa or life in Stalinist Guinea under Sekou Toure.

In the company of the narrator, the reader meets such political figures as George Pompidou, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, the fascinating Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, William Tolbert and Samuel Doe among others, all presented through the eyes of a keen observer of human nature. Through office politics, we get a close look at Liberians of all walks of life. While Freeman travels from one diplomatic post to another, Liberia goes through social and political transformation and the changing of the guards. We see the narrator with the Tolberts when his wife and Mrs. Tolbert had become great friends and later with Samuel K. Doe, while smuggling a girl into the presidential quarters in Addis Ababa. We read about the kangaroo court put together by President Tubman sentenced Ambassador Fahnbulleh to 20 years of hard labor and how one of Tolbert’s first official acts was to free the same man.

Author James Freeman, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday and seems to have no intention of slowing down is a front seat witness of the political and social changes Liberia went through in the past five to six decades. A Malian writer, Amadou Hampate Ba said that the death an elderly person in Africa is akin to the burning of a library, because of the amount of knowledge and wisdom that person goes away with. Thanks to his life story, Mr. Freeman shall remain with us forever, giving to generations of Liberians to come an insight into the politics and social life of his time, with a deep understanding of the various forces at play. From his Mande-Vai culture perspective almost unaltered by years of jet setting around the world, he takes a rare and honest look at his native Liberia.

Narrated in the first person, straightforward, never stopping to cast judgments on a society at times divided along determining social and ethnic lines or to indulge in political theories, the book tells a lively story in the tradition of African storytellers. Candid but respectful, the book throws a light on many facets of life in Liberia as seen through the eyes of a lively boy, a vibrant young man, a rising star in the corridors of diplomacy and finally a frail and humbled aging man caught in the throes of the dehumanizing civil war the nation experienced in the last decades.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, is certainly the most powerful eyewitness account of the transformation Liberia went through, from the illusory stable years to decades of upheaval. Mr. Freeman does not stray from what he has lived and seen to speculate about what could have or may have happened elsewhere while he was somewhere else. He sticks to what he knows best, his own life and he tells it without shame, without exaggerations, with a truthfulness that turns the book into a great human adventure. From office politics to extra-marital affairs to national politics, the narrator speaks candidly about everything, drawing a subconscious parallel between his personal growth and aging and the slow slip of his country into the abyss that will engulf all by the end of the book.

Through the eyes of the narrator, facets of Liberia come alive, people who shaped the history of the nation in the past many years spring into reality, through their direct contact with the narrator. From the Tolbert family to the very elusive Charles Taylor, passing through Samuel Doe, Earnest Eastman, Grimes, the town sorcerer and family members, the book is like a giant colorful mosaic of people and events. The direct description of other actors and events gives the story a realistic nature rarely achieved in biographies.

Presenting this book as a political biography would not do it justice. That would leave out the very intimate nature of its content. Situations and characters are not narrated or described because they serve to introduce a grandiose order of things, they are brought in simply because they are there, just as in real life things and people just happen to come by, shaping our lives one way or another, through accidental occurrences. There is no grand design behind events and people, they just happen to be.

However direct and personal, the narrator never misses an occasion to scrutinize the social backdrop of a historical time when belonging to an Americo-Liberian family or a “native” setting was more important than any other personal attributes in achieving social status and professional success. In a chapter dedicated to “The Americo-Liberian Problem”, the author discusses the great social and economic gap that plagued the society. This social dichotomy and its effect are well presented throughout the book, as a divide between the haves and haves not. However, the lines between “natives” and “settlers” are not always as distinct and clearly drawn as one may think: the narrator marries the daughter of a “prominent settler family” while President Tolbert’s wife came from the Vai tribe. Underlying all the contradictions, there is a continuum in the message: the uniqueness of the Liberian culture, an amalgam of all possible worlds that makes all Liberian one people in their diversity.

Through the tragic destinies of the Tolberts, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor and others, the narrator presents succinctly the illusion of peace, stability and happiness in a society that was more a sleeping volcano than the beacon of peace. If he attained political and economic success under the Tolbert regime, the narrator was never blind to many injustices and many cases of what some termed as “Black apartheid” in Liberian society. During the cruel war that at times looks like a deadly carnival, we witness first hand the barbarity of oppressed people once they are giving the power of life and death over those who oppressed them. On a few occasions, we are shown acts of retaliation by people who had been subjected to humiliation and depravation by the “big shots” for whom they labored day and night. The war brought to the surface generations of deep-seated anger and humiliation in a society supposedly “built on Christian principles”.

In the last chapters of the book, the narrator turns the light from himself to take an analytical look at Liberia, the peace process and the way forward for the nation. He does so again with a rare honesty and almost with a sense of duty.

From the pinnacle of power to human warehouses of the war and its death camps, there could be no better account of Liberian contemporary life. Great literature blurs the lines between themes and ages, providing every reader with the possibility of transcending his or her own individuality to reach the universality of humankind. In the end, with all its characters and colors, Freeman’s book teaches one great lesson: we are all unique in our universality. It is a must read for all.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, (378 pages) by James B. Freeman, published by American Literary Press, (2004) Baltimore, Maryland ($20 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling).

Mr. Freeman can be reached at: