“The Life of Joseph- A Review of A Book: “From Foya to the Capitol”  by Dr. Sakui Malakpai

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 25, 2017


His Excellency joseph Nyuma Boakai Sr., Vice President of the Republic of Liberia
Foreword by Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President, Republic of Liberia
African Homestead legacy Publishers
Cherry Hill, New Jersey, USA
www. Ahlpub.com
ISBN 978-1-937622-76-3
© 2016 Sakui Malakpa
226 pages
US $38.00

The title of this review may sound messianic in a way, and it is meant to be so. The book about Joseph Nyuma Boakai is written like a story out of the Book. The story of Nyuma is like the story of Joseph, a name the subject will pick up some time in his life, as he transited from one village to another, from one town to another, in search of a stable home. Like Joseph in the Book, his life is a succession of hardship and uncertainty, built on a narrative of sufferance, endurance and hunger.

The story starts with an introduction to the mother of the character, named Ma Lusu Kumba Kpetu, whose picture is on the second page of the book. She goes from being a “domineering Lady with a strong personality,” Page 9, to a helpless and degraded woman on the same page:

 A little more than a year after Hallie was born, the World Health Organization (WHO) started a vaccination campaign against sleeping sickness. Unfortunately, many of the people administering the vaccination were not trained. When they injected ma Lusu, she ‘went off her head.’ She took Hallie around at odd times and in odd places. Instead of Tamba Yamba [Joseph’s father] helping, he took another woman to sierra Leone to a man named Saa Lami whom he claimed as uncle. Ma Lusu took Hallie to Bolahun but her family took her back to Worsongo. As she was not well, they put her on a foot cuff, an instrument used to restrain people by putting an iron around one foot and nailing it to a big log” Page 9.

This long quote sets the pace and tine of the book, it goes in depth into the life of this young boy, born in a village where there was no school and no clinic. It is a life that many Liberians in the countryside know very well.  However, what makes this story different, is the dysfunctionality of the family and the quest of the character to escape. The book tells the story of a family where the kids, Nyuma – name given to the fifth son - and his brother Hallie “appear wrathful against their father, […] partly because he was not a true father figure in their lives but much more than that, it is especially because he deserted their mother when she most needed him.” Page 9.

The narrative of desolation continues on the same page, “when VP Boakai was only two or three years old, his mother developed a serious ambulatory problem as she began to lose her toes. […] often, the problem exuded a horrible stench which VP Boakai could not stand but bore patiently. […] “She had a chronic sore that stank of rotted flesh, but I couldn’t show her that it bothered me...”  […] in 1968, with assistance from Reverend and Mrs. Kingsbury, people whom Boaki knew, her foot was amputated at ELWA Hospital near Monrovia. In addition, she lost her sight totally for a period of three year.” Page 10.

This story unravels like a novel. It has a mythical tone to it, at times, it reads like the troubles of Joseph, at other times, it is the Myth of Sisyphus, the perpetual struggle to get the rock to the top of the mountain, or a passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The character seems locked in a vicious circle of poverty, hunger and perpetual struggle.

Young Nyuma is constantly on the move, from a village to a town, from a school to a mission, from a farm to a rubber plantation. “.” He grew up in Worsonga where there was no school. He therefore had to work on the farm like other boys of the village. Page 11.
The book came out in a politically charged atmosphere. The main character of the story, Joseph Nyuma Boakai is facing the biggest challenge of his life: to square off some twenty opponents to emerge as the next President of Liberia.

One particularity of this book is that it’s written by Dr. Sakui W. G. Malakpa, a Liberian academic, who surmounted the challenges of total blindness to earn a masters and doctorate from Harvard University and is now a professor at the University of Toledo. This is the case where the life of the writer somehow mirrors the life of the character in the book.

The author uses the old Mandé tradition of storytelling, called by literary critics the “griotic,” from the word “griot” or praise singer. From the onset, the writer makes his intentions and direction very clear. “The purpose of this work is not merely to chronicle the life story of VP Boakai. Rather, the purpose is fourfold: (A) to document the work and monumental contribution of the vice president; (B) to show appreciation to the vice president and thank him for his contribution; (C) to tab in this reservoir of knowledge and experience; and (D) above all, to present him as an inspiration to present and future generations.” Page 3.
The story is told on three layers. First is the painful childhood, where at a very tender age, Nyuma was moved from one place to another, from one uncle to an aunt, with an absentee father and a once strong mother eaten by disease under his very eyes. Those years give an insight in village life, the ties that bind people who experience rites of passage together. The second part is the search of knowledge. Because he was lazy at working on the farm, young Nyuma found school as an escape route. He goes through great challenges to maintain his focus on his education, not hesitating to pack his bag, even at a very young age, to go away when not satisfied.  Or cleaning bathrooms to pay his school fees.

Young Nyuma is constantly on the move. It was during these peregrinations, sometimes into Sierra Leone, sometimes at Firestone, that he acquires the names he came to be known by: Joseph (at a Mission school) and Boakai (from an uncle, who took him as a ward and made him tap rubber while he was struggling to keep going to school). By the time he manages to enter the University of Liberia after attending the most exclusive high school in the country, the College of west Africa, Nyuma, the son of Tamba and Ma Lusu had become Joseph Nyuma Boakai. The final part of the book focuses is the professional life, or one should say, the work life.

The author put much emphasis on the sufferings and cruelties handed to Nyuma. This goes from his early childhood, his teenage years, his professional life. From seeing his mother “going out of her head” to hearing on the radio, while in a seminar that he had been fired from his ministerial job, he experienced the pains of life and carried them on his back.

If one were to point to any possible weakness in the book, it may be the long list of people who have been brought in to testify for Nyuma. The story stands by itself and could even be much stronger without the “testimonies”. But again, that is part of the “griotic,” giving the full contour of the personage, including the views of society.

The book is a great read, not only because it details the life of someone who is at the threshold of political power, but also how he lives through the social, political and economic history of the country at the time, from the days of Tubman to the current administration, as an innocent bystander or active participant.   

The book suffers the same fate as many Liberian publications: it is not available on the market and if it were, the price of US$38.00 would be beyond the reach of the average Liberian. The lack of literary infrastructure – writers, publishers, bookstores, libraries and reading rooms – is a major cultural handicap in the country. In the current political debate, everything is about food for the body but little is said about the mind. This is a big prejudice for young generations, whose reading habits are now limited to sound bites and videos on social media.

This is a book for the times, to be read to understand the man standing before Liberians, asking them to give him a chance to be President.


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