By J. Yanqui Zaza
|Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh|
It is a general knowledge that mankind is not only endowed with his/her genes, but endowed with family norms, educational developments, religious upbringings, community influences, etc.; or as Ms. Carolyn N. Kinder of Yale University puts it: “The genes you are born with influence your behavior. Your social environment including your family, school and neighborhood also influence your behavior.”
So your protégé’s character was not only impacted by the values from Lofa County and the Monrovia-ghettos’ diverse culture, but also impacted by two less obvious things among the different developments in the 70s. These two things, A Song And A Pair Of Sandals, grounded in the goodness of simplicity, also added a meaningful interpretation for me to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said; “…they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In addition, I understood later that when Dr. King, Jr. used the phrase “the beloved community” he was restating God’s demand on human to seek an “equitable society,” not just ordinary love, according to Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor of Trinity Church of Christ of Chicago, IL.
The message of equity was mentioned in many songs Liberians sang. And the song called “Blue Diamond Says,” preaching the message of equity, was among the many informative and poor-people’s uplifting songs Mr. Anthony Nagbe sang. The message in “Blue Diamond Says” taught me a lesson. The lyrics of the Song did inform someone that his/her wearing of an expensive shirt as compared to my inexpensive shirt did not indicate he/she was more important than I am. To me, and some friends, this Song reminded us to appreciate ourselves and respect others. I used the lyrics of this Song to mentally insulate myself from the shame of wearing cheap clothes/shoes, living within huts/zinc shacks or eating malnourished food.
I do not know whether Mr. Nabge’s songs influenced Dr. Togba Nah-Tipoteh who introduced the idea to wear a pair of sandals (called “Tipoteh Sandals”) made out of used tire of a vehicle or vice versa. Dr. Tipoteh, who could afford any kind of expensive pair of shoes, wore this pair of sandals to all gatherings, both private and public, in order to spread the issues of Rice and Rights within the monthly newspaper published under the name GWEI FEI KPEI. This monthly newspaper, produced by the 70s progressives, called on Liberians to seek justice at any time, and anywhere.
Dr. Tipoteh was one of the progressives in the 70s whose agenda was to change the mentality of the Liberian people, especially the youth. They did believe that the “unchecked gap between the Monrovia-elites and the masses could lead to Catastrophe if the masses did not speak out. The masses’ rejection of the harsh economic conditions was a better remedy since Liberians could not depend on the benevolence of society to care for those who are left behind. These progressives were educated and had the experience to earn high salaries either at private companies or public offices, but they chose to work in places where they would interact with the youth. In addition to teaching Liberians at formal gatherings such as academic environment, they organized intellectual forums or monthly meetings to discuss issues ranging from Liberia’s social, economic, cultural and political conditions to issues affecting other poor countries.
Unlike the stories about the issues of Rice and Rights in Liberia published in the GWEI FEI KPEI, wearing the “Tipoteh Sandals” was a message that was visible and eye-catching. Besides being loud, clear and convincing, wearing of the "Tipoteh Sandals" indicated to the poor that all Liberians are equal irrespective of economic or social status. Implicitly, it indicated to the onlooker to respect the person wearing the “Tipoteh Sandals” and he/she will be respected. Also, implicitly, the pair of “Tipoteh Sandals” did not represent the individual. If it were so, Dr. Tipoteh, someone who had earned a doctorate degree in economics, would not have worn shoes made out of tire of a vehicle. Further, to the onlooker, the message was not to allow material things to be the priority; rather to encourage people to acquire knowledge. Finally, the message invited the onlooker to join the idea of enhancing knowledge and rejecting material things, bigotry, ethnicity, hatred, religious prejudice, etc. Dr. Tipoteh’s colleagues joined him in wearing not only the sandals made from used tire that are found on dump sites, but wore kaki pants and inexpensive shirts. The progressives’ attire became the dress code for many people, especially students attending the University and night schools.
I got the message, that is, be yourself and do not pretend to be someone else. In any case, I wore the “Tipoteh Sandals” because of necessity, not necessarily to appreciate the goodness of simplicity. This is because I did not only save myself the money I did not have, but it allowed me to attend the University of Liberia without the shame of being perceived as an unwanted student. This is because there was an unwritten rule for all students to wear nice shoes and clothes to attend classes, which I did not have. More so, being aware that many other students living in better communities in Monrovia will wear nice shoes and clothes, I would have to secure money to purchase for myself a niece pair of shoes and clothes, if Dr. Tipoteh did not introduce the idea of wearing kaki pants and the “Tipoteh Sandals.”
Well, since attitude is contagious, students of the haves and have-nots at the University of Liberia began wearing the progressives’ attire. Interestingly, the “Tipoteh Sandals” –wearing students were smart, had acceptable characters, and had excellent family upbringing, etc. I joined many Liberians who accepted the clarion call to wear simple attire including the “Tipoteh Sandals” and seek advance knowledge. In fact after the April 12, 1980 military coup, the late Cephas Mabandee, a professor at the University of Liberia, refused to accept his appointment as an Associate Justice of the Republic of Liberia because the legal system did not allow him to wear his cultural shirt. Also, Dr. Boima H. Fanhnbulleh paid US $50 fine because he wore his African shirt and refused to wear western attire during his confirmation hearing in 1980.
The idea of simplicity and honesty began to have an impact in Liberia before April 12, 1980. Government officials of the William R. Tolbert Government participated in the famous Student Intellectual Discourse Symposium at the University of Liberia where the audience asked any questions affecting the country. Students debated unlimited issues under the Palava Hut at the University of Liberia. The University Spokesman, a newspaper produced by the Student Government at the University of Liberia, carried stories narrating the ills of the Liberian society.
Certainly, there were many other factors that impacted my life, but the activities undertaken by the progressives, especially the “Tipoteh Sandals,” issues carried within the GWEI FEI KPEI newspaper and University Spokesman, made a memorable impact and helped to make me what I am today. So, I say thanks to Dr. Togba Nah-Tipoteh for a job well done. I hope Liberians will follow the philosophy of the progressives by moving away from this money culture or get rich quick culture, bigger house, bigger yards, ostentatious lifestyles, etc. to the culture of the virtue of simplicity, demonstrated by getting affordable attire, reasonable home, etc.