Gbapleh and the Liberian Women in America

By Martin Ray Toe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 12, 2003

For decades, Monrovian women have gingerly walked the feces-littered beaches of the Liberian capital to buy Gbapleh, a species of fish used in Liberian cities to prepare pepper soup. The tiny Atlantic fish is cheap, tasty and especially popular in the slums of Monrovia. But suburban Monrovian women make do with it in time of economic crisis. Essentially, the fish is an alternative bargain on the Monrovia fish market hence most dwellers of the city buy it for the sake of its taste, and only its taste.

Thin and tiny (almost the size of your index finger); Gbapleh is usually sold in large chunks. The head is probably as small as palm kernel and collects sand, making it unpleasant to crunch. Besides, Gbapleh has lots of needle-like bones, which can be uncomfortable to chew and swallow. Hence its preparation is awfully time-consuming and demanding. “To make it eatable you first have to chop off the tiny heads”, says Teresa Gray, “and then fry it in chunks before it is ready for soup.” “When it is prepared, you get the taste rather than meat”, she added.

The name Gbapleh (certainly not an English word) has taken on a new meaning since the nineteen eighties. General Gray Allison, the articulate Doe henchman, is said to have frequently used it whenever he lashed at the then “irritating” Liberian press. Whatever the late Allison meant, the term Gbapleh has since gained currency among somewhat sophisticated Liberian women who variously use it to refer to “poor quality” men; that is, men who aren’t their “match”. Invariably, Liberian women in the United States apply it to some Liberian men who, for some reasons or the other, have been living on the margins of the American society but whom, for the sake of having husbands, the women have had to go out with. In doing so, the women have had to labor not only to make such demoralized Liberian men gain self-confidence but also to make them the caliber of men they (the women) deserve to be with.

Who is a Gbapleh?

Gbapleh is a “how for do” man – cognitively, a misfit with several faces. Thus, he is the young countryman who has not adopted the tastes of modernization, and lifestyle in Monrovia. In other word, he is not trendy or fashionable, still wearing mismatch colors. Gbapleh is also the rural politician who, upon winning an elected post in the Legislature, comes to Monrovia, is given a car with a driver and lives in a modern home with running water. But he practically lacks the attitude of mind and the flair of being bossy and the mannerisms, tastes, dress code and lifestyle of the “pioneers”. He is too down to earth, if not country.

Gbapleh is also the semiliterate Liberian soldier who suddenly finds himself on the corridors of power on April 12, 1980 but who lacks the wits, the appropriate language code and the posture for being in the limelight yea the company of the Americo-Liberian “beauties” and/or “civilized” women he has long lusted for. In another sense, Gbapleh is the ill-fated man who has fallen from grace to grass. He is so distressed that he tends to assume inferiority complex in relation to the so-called sophisticated Liberian women. The name is also applied to a novice who can easily be manipulated by the women.

In the United States, Gbapleh is ambiguously used to refer to the postwar Liberian man. On the one hand, he is that man who, before the war, was either a professional politician or a senior civil servant back in the war-torn country. He is educated and is said to have been an ambassador, a cabinet minister, a managing director, etc. Having been a big shot in Monrovia, he is accustomed to being waited on by servants, his wife and concubines alike. Because of his social and political connections, the guy hardly paid bills back home.

Following the civil war, this once privileged man is left in the cold. In Taylor’s Liberia, he is practically incapacitated - having lost his privilege and power he once wielded. Demoralized, he has become a refugee made idle in the Americas. His only defense mechanism, though, is his academic credentials which he is supposed to have earned in an American university. He is always bragging about them in social gatherings, although he is snubbed on the American white-collar job market, consequently rendering him unemployable. His precarious status in America is the Liberian woman’s burden. “Such a man is the most problematic of all the Liberian men in America”, says Hawa, whose deceased husband was a well connected Americo-Liberian businessman but who is now living with a former Doe cabinet minister in Maryland, “for he buries his head in past glories. To make him compatible, you’ve got to work on his mindset; and that is painstaking.”

On the other hand, Gbapleh is the ordinary Liberian man who had never dreamed of living in America save the resettlement program. Thanks to this goodwill American immigration program, he is now able to earn money, own a decent home and a car, the types befitting only a finance minister in Liberia. In spite of these high status symbols, the guy is not groomed enough to enjoy the company of a sophisticated Liberian woman. But, since most victims of the civil war were high-caliber men, the woman has no other alternative but to settle down with this “low-grade” man, hoping to tune and/or polish him to the standard of her choice of man. “To this end, the woman assumes a sense of duty”, says Monica Sirleaf, a successful real estate agent living with a semi-literate soldier-turned taxi driver in Trenton, New Jersey, “while at the same time improvising. “The issue is, you’re making a somewhat parochial chap civilized. Like Gbapleh, you are seasoning him in order to enhance your status,” she said emphatically.

What is a Gbapleh?

The man called Gbapleh has no special physical features; he may be a tall or a short man, fat or slim. He may be good-looking or even ugly. What distinguishes him from other men is primarily his personality. For the most part, Gbapleh tends to be less assertive hence can be vulnerable and manipulated - lacking self-confidence. In some cases he buries his head in the past, which makes him somewhat incompatible. Because of his somewhat glorious past, the man finds it extremely difficult to acculturate and/or adapt to his new environment. Psychologically, he cannot work with the elderly nor can he take care of retarded kids, the types of jobs that many Liberians do in the United States. The Liberian big shot syndrome is very much with the guy - still regarding Liberian women as those air-headed beauties who, back home in Liberia, had to serve his whims and caprices. “Culturally, he is shocked”, said Hawa, a registered nurse living in Seattle, adding “The worst can be fatal.”

His Role at Home
In America, Liberian women like Hawa have been empowered by the almighty dollar, but finding a “matching man” is said to be an uphill task which is why they often settle for a Gbapleh - essentially a window-dresser. His precarious economic standing has cast him in the pathetic role of a two-legged bulldog that barks thunderously but too lame to bite. He routinely loiters between the kitchen and the sitting room, where he spends the most part of his time switching from TV channel to another.

By an unsavory swap of role, this demoralized Liberian male becomes a passive recipient of the benevolence of his spouse now cast in the dominant role in America. To reciprocate, he has to do the washing up (the dishes), vacuuming, ironing among other chores. In most cases, he has to mind the children whom should spank but who occasionally yell profanities at him. More demeaning is that under the constant surveillance of the omnipresent Big Sister (his benefactor spouse) who effectively remote-controls from her place of work, (while warding off female intruders). Since Gbapleh is potentially a class embryo he must learn how to dance to the music of the Big Mamma, eat to her taste, get on with her crowd and adapt the style of dress she prefers – much to her ego.