The approach to writing this paper is also different. It merges social science constructs and autobiographical narratives to establish the premise that ethnically blended communities are possible in Liberia. Furthermore, it argues that when ethnically blended communities and customized service learning activities where diversity, relationships, and academic achievement are the highlights are intermingled, coupled with intentional conversations within families about how to build interethnic relationships, these processes can cumulatively help curb the strong animus that exists amongst social groups.
Children and youth are the targets of this article. However, we cannot talk about youth in isolation of the family. In this vein, the paper can be couched under the auspices of Family Policy. Family Policy refers to “policy choices that aim to address problems that families are perceived as experiencing in society” (Zimmerman, 1995, p. 3). Ethnic conflict and the resulting political instability have led to the predictable consequences of family breakdown and hardships in nation building. Clearly, the absence of social cohesion reflects a family problem, especially since there is a symbiotic relationship between family well being and nation building.
The heuristic devise (means of appropriating and understanding human interaction as ‘content and process’) that underlies this paper is drawn from the academic literature on intercultural communications. It is captured in three interrelated axioms. The first axiom asserts that when people are made conscious of their “behaviors, beliefs, and assumptions” about their culture or ethnic backgrounds, it enhances their ability to interact with people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. The second axiom suggests that the degree to which people increase their ability to negotiate and navigate cultural difference corresponds with their intercultural communication competence. The third and final axiom notes that if the two previous maxims are satisfied, they provide impetus for people to develop trans-ethnic or cross-cultural relational skills and competencies. These capacities are apt for helping people to succeed in pluralistic social environments (Boyer & Baptise, 1996; Dolo, forthcoming).
Applying these empirical structures to discussions regarding a setting where people have been saturated in ethnic differences and the core of human relations ruptured, as in the case of Liberia, is it possible to evolve a strategy for developing trans ethnic relational skills? If one were to develop public spaces where young people mutually explored social differences: ethnicity, gender, religion, and class, with the guidance of responsible adult facilitators, would they be able to accumulate a broad array of trans ethnic relational competencies? Taken a step further, beyond rhetorical explorations, if youth from multiethnic backgrounds were brought together periodically to engage in civic or service learning via short-term multiethnic communal living activities, during which they engaged in life skills development such as teambuilding, public street cleaning exercises, mentoring younger children, sports activities, etc, would these activities improve their capacities to function effectively within pluralistic communities?
Liberia is one of those few nations in the world, where the older generation may be formally educated than the younger generation. Due to the war and associated instability, schools were dysfunctional more than they were functional. When schools were functioning, the quality of educational offerings were generally poor, in part, due to limited or no resources, mediocre teacher quality, policy incoherence, lack of clear accountability standards, lack of common sets of success indicators, lack of incentives or remunerations for teachers, brain drain, or a combination of these factors plus more.
That being the recurring experience for 14 years unabated, it may be possible that the older generation received a more stable, coherent, and perhaps higher quality of education than the youth that attended school during this period. If the older generation is more educated than the younger generation, and youth are the subset that has the responsibility to administer society when the older generation retires, socioeconomic development is clearly in danger. Averting this possible hazard remains a clear public policy quandary.
Unfortunately, when I have spoken with some people in the intellectual and policy circles, it has become common for them not to acknowledge the line of causality between the exclusion of Liberian youth from the center of decision making and the woes of the society. The seductions of wayward life and distorted social cultures will always be important lures in the lives of our children and youth. However, we have the duty as adults to provide them more viable alternatives and opportunities.
Add to these factors, the grave problem of the pervasive lack of cohesion among the various social groups. Indeed, if one is to find policy solutions to the low educational achievement among Liberian youth, the problem of their location at the periphery of public policy priorities have to be resolved. This has to be attended to by using interventions that are fundamental and also structural.
Refusing to Surrender to Misery
The failure of governance in Liberia seems to have led to unprecedented levels of despair about the possibility that the nation will bounce back from its wretched state. Because neither a repressive Americo-Liberian oligarchy nor indigenous tyranny has proven to be successful, there is a growing tendency to conclude that our country is simply not capable of being transformed. The inability of the cultural elites (intellectuals and political opposition movements) to deliver the ”liberation” that they promised, has not only disappointed and discouraged their committed followers, but also heightened cynicism among their critics. It has also caused these supporters and critics alike to acquiesce to a bleak future.
This paper is indicative of the fact that I am not prepared to accept the conclusion that a complete turnaround is impossible, while still remaining resolute that the status quo is unsatisfactory. Conditions have not gotten so badly that they cannot be salvaged. There is a simple reason that these two options are not feasible. I have come to lodge faith and hope in Liberian children and youth, and the prospects they present for halting and reversing the corrosive conditions in Liberia. Their life chances are intricately linked to that of the nation. Therefore, they are the most valid barometer of whether or not we will succeed in fostering the conditions that can repair the social fabric and economically invigorate the “truly disadvantaged” communities in Liberia. Investing in their future means investing in the future of all Liberians.
To refuse to integrate children and youth in the change making processes, would be reckless and also serve as an indicator of unwillingness to halt and reverse course. I should repeat a caution that I have made before. Investing in youth does not mean neglecting other sectors of society or other social groups. But it means addressing one of the major sources of our problems. By helping youth gain social and literacy skills, become employable, get jobs, and transition to adulthood in good psychological and physical states, we effectively reduce crime; decrease the potential for their children to repeatedly cycle in and out of poverty. Eventually, we erect barriers to repel and even quash their propensity to adopt the undemocratic insurgency ethos that has become an attractive alternative means of livelihood in our country.
Making Liberian Youth Partners in Nation
Just as adults need to talk about the problems facing Liberia, so do the children. In this way, they become stakeholders and own the problems, rather than merely inheriting them unprepared to respond appropriately. I have come to the strongest recognition that it is crucial for Liberian youth to be brought on board as we try to build a nascent democracy. That is why this paper is written solely with Liberian children in mind. It is about each reader’s child: biological or otherwise. It is about making them partners in the national conversation about the role ethnic hatred has played and continues to play in dividing Liberians further apart from reconciliation, peace, and long-term security.
As they learn and live together, would these youth also glean special insights about each other’s life experiences, make fundamental shifts in ethnocentric (narrow-minded) beliefs and attitudes, thus, increasing their level of interethnic sensitivity? As young people build stronger relationships with their peers from other ethnic groups, increase their interethnic sensitivity, might this process also translate into civic consciousness, and mutual accountability? Might there also be a possibility that these virtues could be carried over into adulthood and employment? Being quite optimistic, might we be able to envision a group of Liberian citizens who would break the vicious cycle of difficulties associated with distinguishing government property from personal property? Essentially, might we be able to cultivate more civic-minded citizens? I believe in these possibilities. In this paper, an attempt is made to actualize this process.
Talking About the Civil War
I have laid the premise above to talk about one the main instruments of society that teach the first lessons in how humankind response in interethnic or cross-cultural situations – the family. The family mediates numerous interactions and transactions between and among social actors. The family is not “value-neutral.” The family can either teach tolerance or intolerance. The family plays an essential role in whether or not children and youth will grow up being civic conscious or self-absorbed and/or ethnocentric adults.
Indeed, I invite adults; hence, families, to think about the compelling need for Liberian children and youth to talk about the civil war in age appropriate ways. I think it is about time that responsible adults guide them through this conversation. In doing so, I believe, we can devise strategies alongside our children and youth to look deep inside ourselves and begin to dispense with grudge and incessant pointing fingers that have consumed us, although understandably.
Should you agree with me that our youth need to be full partners in the nation building project, starting with talking about the civil war, I suggest the following questions as starting points. What are their general assumptions about the causes of the war? What are their perceptions about dynamics of the past and present related to the oppression of certain groups that caused the war? What are their perceptions about other ethnic groups? What prejudices or stereotypes have they being taught that might need to be challenged in order to stretch their minds, and give them more realistic starting points toward healing the wounds that the war caused?
In addition, how have their lives been shaped by myths about which religious group started Liberia, and which religion is superior or inferior? How do they view people of the opposite gender relative to equality and justice? By seeking to answer these questions and many more, we will be helping Liberian youth to sort out their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors relative to ethnicity, race, gender, class, faith, and other important dimensions of what it means to live in a pluralistic democratic society.
It is immensely critical that early on during this period of a second lease on life (the new era), that we intentionally expose our children and youth to a process of multiethnic growth. To do that, they must listen carefully to how others perceive them and spur them to share how they perceive others. In doing so, these young people will be shedding light on some of the vital aspects of life, that we have managed to keep as secrets for so long. We cannot engage in a meaningful nation building project without our children and youth being a part of the national conversation and the steps forward toward healing.
Transcending ethnic difference is the way forward in deeply transforming the poisons that have divided us. To allow our children and youth to be partners in this process is to prevent them from inheriting this toxic legacy. Young people can help us adults see ourselves and the past in a much more clearer light than we can personally, because they may have not received the near lethal dose of prejudice that have weakened our capacity to live peacefully in a pluralistic society. To help our children and youth overcome the negative legacies that we created and/or inherited, we must be their partners in unpacking the remnants of ethnic, gender, religious, and class domination that have evoked hatred and war.
Partnering is about coexistence and common experiences. Therefore, there is a place for adults to engage in this process as well. Here are some questions that adults can ponder alongside their children and youth. What negative thoughts of people from other ethnic groups linger in your mind? Are you an Americo-Liberian who does not take any responsibility for the role of people from this ethnic group who formed part of the repressive oligarchy that ruled Liberia for over 150 years? Are you one of those Americo-Liberians who think that indigenous people are inferior? Are you an Americo-Liberian who discounts the role of people from this ethnic group who supported insurgency movements that thwarted the liberties of other Liberians? Are you one of those indigenous people who blame the Americo-Liberians for the war and all that happened in Liberia and negate the roles of dictatorial indigenous regimes or insurgent movements?
Besides, how do you characterize members of other ethnic groups? Are you part of a privileged group who often characterize others using condescending generalizations? Are you one of those educated people who believe that everyone else is lazy and have not tried enough because “you made it?” Are you one of those people who went through the war, and feel entitled, because others managed to leave the country? Are you one of those people living abroad who believes that your lived experience is superior to others living in Liberia? Do you have a bias or prejudice against rural inhabitants because you live in the urban community with better opportunities than the rural inhabitants? What is your source of bias and prejudice? When was the last time you said something nice about a person from a “rival” ethnic group? When was the last time you felt so strongly to confront a person that was making a stereotypical or prejudicial statement about another ethnic group and you did not speak up?
Adults must realize that we cannot be partners in a venture whose vision we do not fully embrace. Children and youth are probably better at reading our body language than we are in reading theirs. Lying or faking your feelings can no longer be an option once you have started on this life affirming and empowering journey. This is literally the road to freedom from the shackles of self-imposed vanity and despotism.
There are many vital missing ingredients in the post-conflict nation building project; one of them is the seeming lack of preparation and commitment to breaking down the barriers that have kept Liberian youth at the margins of our national debate. In these young people I see promise because they are likely to keep us straight once they latch onto a patriotic spirit and discover its life-redeeming value. For that reason, there is no foolhardy decision than keeping them out of the nation building project. We stand to lose than to gain when we keep children and youth out of the nation building project.
Children behave in ways that are consistent with their life experiences. Like parrots, they blurt out what they hear and act out what they see. My nearly two year old daughter, Yeliah, has increasingly made me conscious of this important life lesson. Their socialization patterns, their worldviews, and levels of consciousness regarding difference, and national identity – their feelings about their Liberian identity, are all shaped by how we socialize them. Too often, we expect our children to love others or love Liberia, when we have not provided them opportunities to learn about other people and Liberia. Everything we say about Liberia may be derogatory, and even when we reminisce the good old days, we may make it to appear so ancient that the relevance slips away. Some of us generalize concerning other people without being mindful about the negative repercussions.
We are on a journey both of personal growth and societal transformation. We can look inward and deal with our personal needs, but we must also look outward and acquire an even higher consciousness and hence, build national unity. We stand in danger of perpetuating the kinds of stereotypes and prejudices that caused the war. But if through our children and youth we can capture such virtues as equality, justice, empathy, self-respect, mutual responsibility, patriotism, civility, and others, upon which every great nation is built, we stand a chance of rebounding and proving detractors wrong.
The dominance of one group over the other can only be dismantled, if we stand ready together to say: we love Liberia even more, despite the pain that we have suffered. We must hold in creative tension two essential values: love for self and love for Liberia, allowing each to dialectically reinforce the other. That means that we cannot love ourselves and Liberia, without loving all Liberians. You may be tempted to ask, how about the chronic wrongdoers? They need to face the full weight of justice, be it in Liberian courts and/or an expanded jurisdiction. But they cannot be the reasons why we stop sowing the seeds of love, empathy, and patriotism; and carrying out acts of stewardship - taking good care of gifts that we receive. Therein resides our chance to transition from pariah to democracy.
Recall that personal transformation goes hand in hand with renovating the arrangements of systemic dominance that are embedded in our governance structures. We are a country still struggling to live up to the visions that influenced its conception. One hundred and fifty nine years since the quest for freedom birthed this nation state, we have failed time and time and again, to achieve that promise. However, no other opportunity to fulfill the promise equates with this one. It comes in the wake of a heavy price – the largest numbers of lives lost in any war prior. The most widespread destruction ever combined with massive displacement, rendering unparalleled numbers of us second class citizens in nations spanning several countries and continents.
If looking backwards has any value, it resides in just imagining the opportunities lost. We must take courage in the fact the chance has been afforded us to rebuild. Americo-Liberians can no longer be blamed exclusively for our plight. Equally so, indigenous people can no longer be blamed exclusively for our plight. Even the failed opposition and insurgent movements cannot take full responsibility for what went wrong in Liberia. Our intellectuals too, cannot be fully culpable for the massive leadership failures. All sides have caused so much disarray that we have enough blame to go around. But to wallop in blame shifting can only achieve one goal – distract us from forging ahead.
Are you ready to let go of the blame and refurbish the hunger for freedom that made Liberia the “beacon on the hill” for many African nations and spawned waves of independent movements on the continent? For so long, we have allowed the politicians whose only claim to prominence remain over-promising and under-performing to brandish power, to tell us that we are not ready to unite and deliver for ourselves the promise of “letting freedom ring” in all of our corridors and courts. The chance has come for us to say no to our detractors and even prove them wrong. We have seen enough bloodshed and can no longer invite these hecklers to sideline us or our children in the nation building feat that stands before our eyes to conquer.
Drawing Life Lessons from a Youthful Past
As a parent, I have come to learn that the mission of parenting is likened to being a crafts person. I watched many crafts people when I was a lad at Ganta United Methodist Mission. They were men and women who were either recovering from the physically paralyzing disease of leprosy, but were some of the best crafts people that I have ever encountered. Despite their disability, they honed some of the best handicrafts my eyes have ever seen. Parents have the capacity to craft the best out of their children, even amidst the paralyzing emotional turmoil they go through. To each of our parents we owe great debts. To mine, I owe debts of lessons in appreciating diversity and a heightened consciousness about transcending difference and building relationships more enduring than even those hinged by blood.
I recall lessons from my youthful past, when I shared classroom with students from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. There was limited gender diversity in my high school class, but the few girls in that class were mighty warriors of gender equity. They surpassed every stereotype about girls and their academic performance. Many of them led the class academically and others made equal showing like the rest of us boys, if not, better. I was one of the most playful in that class stroking many troubles from youthful indiscretion. But we also had fun learning about how to meld our diverse ethnic and social backgrounds in ways that those differences went unnoticed. We did not negate our cultural differences, but these differences did not gain prominence over our shared commitments to achieving the best education our parents’ and sponsors’ money could purchase.
Our classmates, whose parents suffered from or were recovering from the debilitating illness known as leprosy, would invite us home to eat regularly. We did not have second thoughts when the invitations were tendered. We went with them and ate their parent’s cooked meal. The food was always delicious. I remember the same guys as competitive student athletes, and some of the best minds amongst us. One person rose to become the Student Council President. This particular student was physically disabled, but was probably as articulate as anyone I have ever encountered. His command of the English language was rich and powerful. He devoured his competitor in the debates and when elections ended, he claimed victory as the best candidate in the race.
I also recall taking these Congoe youth home with me to visit. They ate my mother’s Country cooked meals, especially the GB – the Liberian dish made from cassava that is a staple for people from Nimba County, “like it was going out of style.” They could not wait for the weekend to join me to get a taste of my mother’s cooked meal. I do not remember my mother making distinctions between Congoe and Country. She disciplined each child equally. “Clean after yourself and watch your dishes,” were the rules and there were no exceptions.
I recall my Lebanese and Mandingo friends who also shared meals with us and joined us at the local night club – DARK FOREST – where our dancing talents were put to test. It was the sale of my mother’s GB combined with a scholarship from a local company that landed me a spot at the local parochial boarding school. We lived in a blended community, where surnames were the least important features of what made us a community.
In our midst was a very special man. He had suffered paralysis from a childhood illness and had difficulties walking. He was older than all of us. We had a special place for him in our hearts. We took terms helping him up the flight of stairs to our classroom, which was perched high up, next to the school’s gymnasium. He was not excused from our cruel childhood pranks and jokes. He too stood his ground. When the word mainstream was not a part of my lexicon and perhaps a fabric of education policy, he was “mainstreamed” among youth just a few years older than his own children. We never teased him about his disability, but found reasons to make him feel a vital part of our blended community. Girlfriends, grades, gimmicks, all formed areas in which we had the pleasure to tease him about. He came back at us with “slide jokes,” punching holes into our supposed youthful invincibility. He loved us and we loved him too.
It was hard to distinguish who was rich and who was
poor, since we all wore gold shirts and navy blue
pants for uniform. Perhaps, some of us changed our
gym shoes more often than others, and had more money
to buy “kala” and donuts for lunch. But
we also shared our “skopies” (sneakers),
more than we hoarded them, as we did our food too.
Just reminiscing about the many nights out and the
youthful lapses in judgment, and yet still, the solidarity
and support gives me hope that my children can have
this beautiful life too. I am now compiling these
stories to tell my children because I want them to
grow up appreciating my heritage, so that they can
embrace it as their own. I should add one important
lesson. The friendships that emerged out of these
blended communities did not depend on ethnic, gender,
religion, or class identities, rather on shared values
and norms. Moreover, these friendships have endured
the polarizations of the war, and even solidified
as we have reflected on our experiences. As adults,
many of us have come to choose our friends not based
on sheer narrow identities, but on the basis of shared
values and norms. Could it be that our upbringing
had a substantial impact on us?
We did not have the luxuries that some of our children and youth have available to them. MP3 players, laptop computers, cell phones, digital walkmans, and the many gadgets that our children can easily access today. My daughter has DORA, and will soon graduate to BARBIE, but the little girls of my day had very specialty made dolls, crafted from bamboo trees and adorned with slick distinctive hair, long enough to fall all the way on her back or short enough to fit any style the owner desired. Girls also jumped rope, played kickball, volleyball, basketball, and engaged in all sorts of fun activities. Girls even went fishing with their mothers and aunts, although not using fishing boats, but the exotic art of using a fishing-net, and the camaraderie of going at it together. For boys, we had soccer, volleyball, table tennis, and jump rope. We hunted birds and deer, and fished exotically with our fathers and grandfathers and some of us even bird watched with slings in the rice patch.
We did not have to worry about terrorism and possible threats from nuclear or biological weapons. I can keep playing this mind game on myself that I am still a kid and not stop because believe me, these are the best times, apart from the University of Liberia days, when I stood with other students to challenge tyranny. It is painful to record the latter experience because many of those with whom I stood those days against dictatorial rule were killed during the war by unscrupulous characters. Yet still, there are some of us carrying on the struggle in variety of ways now as adults and in different venues. I wish I could call names, but I would forget and leave out some. I would therefore not take such a risk. To these champions for freedom and justice, I say hold your heads up high. Your generation is proud of you. Store up those stories for your children. For my children, Yeliah and Chuku who is 12, I have many of these stories to tell them to nurture hope for a better Liberia.
Experiential Teaching and Learning
What is that life story from which your children can learn about Liberia? Have you told those stories to your children so that they can learn about their heritage? Are they aware of the great rivers and vast array of fertile land unscathed by housing development and their healthy environmental benefits? What types of responses do you give them when they ask about Liberia? Are you dismissive or condescending in your comments toward Liberia? Are your responses thoughtful and timely? Do you invite your children to explore more and increase their knowledge about Liberia? I will not apologize that this article is not infused with recitations of the horror stories of the war and their consequences. Perhaps, I have come to a place where it is important to find solutions than to dwell on the past.
As parents, we embody the preserving and transforming powers of being lifelong teachers, and learners, perhaps, mutually benefiting similarly from our children as we do from our elders. What examples have you decided to teach your children, spouse, friends, and neighbors in the New Year about Liberia? The kind of youth development or family policy paradigms that I have introduced in this work is simple in its conceptualization and underpinnings. It draws precepts from the belief that when we engender critical thinking simultaneously with multiethnic rhetorical and social engagements, we provide the components of a transformative power base. More importantly, we build capacity for people to think for themselves. Those who are able to think for themselves are often stimulated to enjoy the liberating power of dislodging the constraints that tyranny imposes. Self-mined information has democratizing power, especially if it emerges out of the crucible of reflexive engagement and consensus. The critical thinking skills that people build in their mutual interaction with others; and the benefits of experiential insight and knowledge from elders are all cumulatively indispensable to breaking down stereotypes and prejudices.
Building Trust and Other Relevant Virtues
The community that springs from this deliberate and purposeful action is ironically natural and unstructured. In this kind of “spontaneous community” the tendency is for good perceptions of others to drive out bad perceptions. Common purposes evolve gradually as would mutual trust. Francis Fukuyama (2000) has come to define trust as the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms…” (p. 259). Simply, the objective here is to help young people create “social capital,” defined also by Fukuyama (2000) as “a capability that arises from the prevalence of trust in society” (p. 259). Rather than being saturated in lingering distrust and an accompanying misery that creates social tensions, our youth and us get immersed in its antithesis – TRUST.
The social capital and goodwill that springs from these activities go beyond trust. All of us can gain such invaluable resources as loyalty, honesty, and dependability. Noteworthy, these are rare stocks in an ethnically riveted context, such as Liberia. The more we all accumulate these values and virtues; we destroy the proclivities to harbor undemocratic tendencies like corruption and cronyism.
The ideals of pluralistic democracy are ours to capture and celebrate. They are not too far into the wings. Tolerance: defined as “the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs, practices, and inherent traits” (Webster Dictionary) of others has come to be the lynchpin of how we can surmount tyranny both in the form of egotistical self-absorption or in the systems of governance, manifested as tyranny and the subordination of others. Each Liberian owns Liberia, all of it, referring to our public spaces. Each of us therefore has the obligation and responsibility to forge mutual coexistence. Each Liberian child is entitled to lessons in tolerance and social justice, and we deny them that opportunity every time our lips spew hate and when we hold grudge. In hate mongering and grudge keeping, we fail to tap the wellsprings of emotions that our children have accumulated during the war and intervening years. We deny them an opportunity, never to describe bad or good feelings amassed from watching or participating in various multiethnic life pursuits. Moreover, we dampen motivations and enthusiasms by being so engrossed in narrow-minded selfish activities that divide rather than unify.
As we inaugurate a new president, we have a greater responsibility to these future leaders of Liberia: legislators, doctors, teachers, lawyers, mine workers, taxi drivers, journalists, pilots, fishermen/women, stay-at-home fathers, housewives, nurses, historians, economists, electricians, writers, poets, farmers, architects, etc, to do it differently. We have a duty to give them a legacy that they will proudly call their own.