Reasoning Together to Move Beyond Our Physical And Psychological Injuries
By Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor
Posted May 9, 2002
As human beings we are often susceptible to personal physical and psychological injuries than we ever care to admit. And certainly as Liberians, we have witnessed in the last two decades alone unimaginable human sufferings, death and destruction resulting from self-inflicted physical and psychological inquires rooted in our greed for power, wealth and influence. I cannot help but wonder if the huge cries from wailing mothers, fathers and children who lost loved ones and all their earthly possessions during the senseless mayhem dubbed “civil war” were worthwhile for the results we have so far attained in supplanting the seeds of democracy in Liberia. So as I sit at home recuperating from cornea transplant operation to my left eye, my mind ponders away at the prospects of us reasoning together as Liberians through our physical and psychological injuries.
Suffice this to say that on Thursday, April 25, 2002, I underwent a successful Cornea transplant operation on my left eye. During the period leading to my operation, there were lots of people who were of tremendous support to me spiritually and morally through prayers and personal visits. To those immediate family members, church family, relatives, friends and staff of The Perspective who stood with me in time of great anxiety, I extend my sincere thanks and appreciation for your prayers and moral support, and may the Almighty God continue to richly bless you.
Now, exactly thirty-nine years ago, March 15, 1963, on the birthday of Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, I sustained a physical injury to my left eye when a sharp object accidentally thrust into my eye and left me partially blind in that eye. This incident made me feel as if I was one of the earlier victims of what later became known as the “Turbulent 60s”, a period noted for the assassinations of African revolutionary Patrice Lumumba of (former Belgium), Congo on February 13, 1961, charismatic U.S. president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, November 22, 1963, President of the Republic of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963, U.S. black civil rights leaders Malcolm X on February 1, 1965 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, and the U.S. attorney-general Robert Francis Kennedy on June 6, 1968, coupled with scores of other assassination attempts, coup d’ tats, counter coups, the Congo Crisis, the Cuban Missiles Crisis, the Nigerian Biafra War, liberation and independence struggles throughout the world. Indeed the turbulence of the 1960s took on such velocity that the American revolutionary Patrick Henry’s rally call - ”Give me liberty, or give me death" sounded like music to the ears.
At the same time Monrovia was beset with waves of teenage girls committing suicides out of frustration with failed love triangles and relationships by drinking the intoxicant, Lysol, while Liberian comedians and public entertainers, notably the Liberian Sani Claus (Santa Claus in English) capitalized on this tragedy with their popular lyrics and song: “Monrovia young Girl stop drinking Lysol, if you want to live long, stop drinking Lysol, if you want to live long, stop drinking Lysol….”
And because suicide by Lysol drinking soon escalated beyond teenage indiscretion to other age groups, my mother was nervous that the very prospects of me losing total sight in one eye could be so overwhelming that I may fall victim to Lysol. So she became restless at finding the best eye doctor available for me. I can still remember the very day my mother rushed me to the Eye Clinic at the Old Government Hospital, Snapper Hill, Monrovia near Rockcrusher (in the vicinity of Ducor Palace Hotel) in a “Yes Taxi Cab” owned and operated by the Yes Transport Company of Tommy Bernard, the gentleman who had near monopoly control over public transport in Monrovia at the time. I was immediately admitted at the Eye Clinic as Israelis Ophthalmologist; Dr. Gunbush performed an emergency surgery on my eye while my mother stood by my bedside. Dr. Gunbush was on loan to Liberia under the Liberian-Israeli “goodwill” exchange program manifested by the “goodwill” generated by Liberia’s historic vote at the United Nations for creation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.
Of course the surgery was successful, but I was ill prepared for the psychological ordeal I experienced during the week and a half I stayed in the hospital. I had heard earlier from family members regarding the head nurse or administrator of the Government Hospital whose identity I will not reveal but instead, refer to her as Auntie Gemama. Auntie Gemama I was told, was very mean to native Liberian patients or “Country People” and was notorious for putting down and insulting them at will; yet, majority of the patients visiting government hospitals and clinics in Monrovia were people of native Liberian heritage, the so-called “Country People,” and their children because these were the manual laborers, janitors, cleaners, laundry workers, cooks, grade school teachers, nurse aides and the like.
Auntie Gemama personified the master-slave relationship that existed between the bulk of Americo-Liberians and African Liberians in the greater Liberian society so much so that she was always abrasive and loud toward both outpatients and inpatients that every inpatient knew when she arrived for work and when she left for home each day because one could hear her miles away whenever she was around. And I never truly felt at ease whenever Auntie Gemama was around, and I could hardly wait to be discharged, though sometimes I found her to be a very “amusing character”. At her morning rounds by 6:30 or 7:00 a.m., Auntie Gemama would fuss about the untidiness of the clinic and how “you country people can’t do anything right”, and so on.
Before my encounter with Auntie Gemama at the eye clinic, I never fully understood the gravity of the numerous stories I had heard about the mistreatment and abuses suffered by native Liberian children who became wards (domestic workers) of Americo-Liberian socialites. At the clinic I experienced for the first time the gross indignity of being treated as a subhuman, thanks to the sheer arrogance of Auntie Gemama, that I vowed to myself never to be a ward of any Americo-Liberian if I had to defile my humanity and dignity just to fit in. And luckily for me, I was born into the Klao (Kru) ethnic group, a tribe well known in Liberia for teaching its young to respect every human, but never to take filth from anyone; besides, my mother always reminded me and my brethren that nobody on earth was better than any of us, and that there was nothing in life that could not be achieved with God, confidence, persistence and perseverance. Mother also said failure in life resulted from an individual’s desire to quit just as his or her dream was within reach. My beloved mother Worhwinn Mardea Sarkpah was always right. May her soul rest in perpetual peace!
Now, if we must reason together through our physical and psychological injuries, one of the first things we need to do is to trace the root causes of our injuries, examine to what extent we were directly or indirectly responsible, and concentrate on what steps we ought to take so as not to re-injure ourselves. Regrettably, Auntie Gemama’s disposition typifies the general attitude and hegemony upon which present day Liberia was established (not founded) -- to Christianize and civilize the so-called heathen nations and peoples. In the case of Liberia, any traditional religions and cultural practices outside the so-called religion of the trinity -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- were branded as irreligious or uncivilized, and the local inhabitants were treated as savages and lesser beings or animals. That was what took place then, and what is going on today in Liberia and many parts of Africa where the indigenous inhabitants were colonized.
Historical research points to the fact that in any country were you have a group settlers, who imposed their cultural hegemony on the local population, you will find inequality, segregation and outright disregard for the culture and way of life of the indigenous inhabitant. Classic examples are South Africa of the Apartheid era and Liberia based on the belief system of the settlers. Direct and indirect colonial rule in Liberia and Apartheid South Africa poisoned the atmosphere with legal segregation and denial of voting and other rights to the natives. Prominent among these violations is the acquisition of land through “false” purchase, confiscation, and downright robbery.
In the case of Liberia, the settlers and their agents in the American Colonization Society (ACS) took pleasure in confiscating land from the native inhabitants at will through the force of arms and false treaties that guaranteed their eventual domination over the local traditional population. For instance, after dwelling for sometime on a piece of land at Cape Mesurado in present day Monrovia, which was freely given to the settlers by the local inhabitants as a temporary refuge, U.S. Naval Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton and Colonial Agent Eli Ayres of the ACS masterminded confiscation of the land under the so-called Treaty of Mesurado drafted by them and imposed on native leaders described as Kings Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter. Even the merchandise promised in exchange for the land was not fully delivered, and so in January 1822, King George and others protested to authorities in Sierra Leone about the unfairness of the land transaction. But the protest was too late as hostilities followed (Dunn & Holsoe, Historical Dictionary of Liberia, p. 173) that ensured full confiscation of Cape Mesurado and adjacent areas by the settlers and their ACS agents.
Now let’s suppose for the purpose of our discussion that the land was freely exchanged for merchandise between the settlers and the natives under the Treaty of Mesurado as claimed in some Liberian history books, then what were the reasons for the constant disputes and hostilities towards the settlers, and vice versa? Can any historian answer this question and similar questions regarding settlers-natives hostile relations with certainty? I guess not because historians of the settlers have attempted to justify their claim based on the same rationale proffered by the early American settlers regarding their confiscation of native American (American-Indians) land and the near destruction of Native American culture and language. But these “we fooled you” attitudes often fostered strong, deep-seated resentment for the settler regimes, be it Liberia or Apartheid South Africa, and the ongoing conflict in Liberia could very well owe its roots to such attitudes.
Of course, the roles and actions of the so-called Christian missionaries in condemning and rebuking the religious practices, culture, and languages of the indigenous inhabitants in their calculated efforts to Christianize them cannot be overlooked in perpetuating a new culture of inequality, injustice, and inhumane treatments towards the native inhabitants. Needless to say, it is hardly surprising that settlers’ rule in Liberia, with its coercive demands and regulations, racism, and unfulfilled promises of personal growth and up-liftment, encouraged hostilities. These responses took many forms, including the overthrow of the True Whig Party regime in the April 12, 1980 coup, which has turned into Americo-Liberian Charles Taylor’s personal “Pepper Bush” from which innocent citizens are ruthlessly killed and their properties stolen or destroyed.
On the other hand, those who were not at the receiving end of the inequality and injustice punctuated by the settler’s rule, or those who were too brainwashed to see the psychological impact of the system on the broad masses of the Liberian people, continued to find it somewhat hard to understand our rationale for digging into history to unearth the true stories that characterized settlers-natives co-habitation in Liberia. Instead, these fair-minded sons and daughters of Liberia are quick to point to the benefits native Liberians derived from our master-servant relationship, i.e., civilization, religion, education, Christian name and modern medicine. Yet, when I got injured in 1963, at the tender age of about sixteen years old, I could not receive better treatment, and worse of all, I had to endure my physical pain in addition to the psychological torture that Auntie Gemama ditched out every morning bad-mouthing “Country People” during the entire week and a half I stayed in the hospital.
For instance in 1983, there were only a total of thirty-two hospitals (a total of 2,500 hospital beds) in the Republic of Liberia, a country established in 1822 with a population by 1983 of two and a half million people. Fifty-two percent of the hospitals were owned by the Liberian government, twenty-eight percent by foreign concessions, fourteen percent by private missionary groups and six percent privately owned. The concessionary hospitals included Duside Hospital in Harbel, Margibi County owned by the Firestone Rubber Plantations Company, Bong Mines Clinic in Bong County owned by the Bong Mining Company, and the LAMCO Hospitals in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County and Yekepa, Nimba County, owned by the LAMCO Mining Company. The missionary hospitals included Phebe Hospital in Suacoco, Bong County owned by the Lutheran Church, ELWA Hospital in Paynesville, Monrovia, owned an evangelical fellowship church and Catholic Hospital in Sinkor, Monrovia owned by the Catholic Church. The majority of privately owned hospitals or clinics were based in Monrovia and belonged to members of the ruling class (Card-carrying members of the True Whig Party (TWP). They were Cooper’s Clinic of Dr. Henry Nehemiah Cooper, a personal physician to President William Richard Tolbert, Jr. (1972-1980) and the Brumskine Clinic of Dr. Walter Brumskine, one of key surgeons with Dr. Cooper within the Liberian government hospital system (Dunn And Holsoe, Historical Dictionary of Liberia, p. 89 & Nyanseor, “Health Care: A Human Rights Issue”, pp. 5-8, A Presentation).
These government-owned hospitals and clinics, including the Old Government Hospital and later the J.F. Kennedy Medical Center, and Maternity Center were poorly managed, ill equipped, and inadequately funded. Theft of drugs, medical supplies and equipment at these hospitals was rampant, and corruption was also rift at these facilities so much so that quality treatment was limited to kickbacks and “who know you” (special contact). It was also not uncommon to find consignments of supplies intended for government hospitals offloaded at the homes of hospitals administrators or private clinics with contacts to the administrators. By contrast, the non-governmental hospitals were well equipped and provided quality healthcare services though their fees were usually exorbitant and unaffordable by the average Liberians. So the majority of Liberians continued to settle for the substandard services at the government hospitals and health clinics (Nyanseor, IBID, pp. 6-8).
But lest I be accused of exaggeration, author Nya Kwiawon Taryor, Sr., in his book Justice, Justice: A Cry of My People, captured the essence of healthcare delivery services in Liberia as follow: “There are many hospitals, for example, but most of them are private hospitals which charge you a ‘cow’ and a ‘calf’ to go to them. The government hospitals are always without drugs, to the point where patients are constantly asked to buy their own medicines. If you go to JFK hospital in Monrovia, you have to wait a good part of the day before being attended to. The overworked and badly paid medical personnel usually shows a ‘don’t care attitude,” nonchalance and even hatred towards patients. As a result, the death rate at JFK is high. That is why some Liberians referred to the JFK Medical Center as a place “Just For Killing Monrovia Citizens’” (Taryor, Sr., Justice, Justice: A Cry of My People, pp. 48 & 49).
The truth of the matter is that throughout history the existence of the human society has been based on land as a community property. Land, according to Taryor, Sr., did not only provide “a home for the people, but it was also the source from which they got those things necessary for the satisfaction of their needs. Land itself was never the property of one person. Ownership of land was always in the hands of the village community, as a whole, which divided it among the various households as required (Taryor, Sr., Justice, Justice, p. 30).
In the same manner that leading physiocrats (Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Henry George) of 18th-century believed, “land is the source of all wealth,” LAND was considered a community property and a key mainstay of African Liberians’ culture and religious practices until the arrival of the settlers in 1822, who under the so-called Treaty of Mesurado imposed their concept (European) of land ownership on the Africans.
In his book, The Black Republic: Liberia: Its Political and Social Conditions To-Day, first published in 1923, by Henry Fenwick Reeve, Acting Governor of the British Colonial government in The Gambia, Colonial Secretary and Chief Commissioner of the Anglo-French Boundary Commission between 1895 to 1896 and 1898 t0 1899, wrote in relations to the Treaty of Mesurado:
“The author’s first awakening came through reading a history of the country from the landing of the first mission in 1822, written by an American visitor who adopted the useful but always thankless attitude of candid friend, and showed plainly that even Perseverance Island, the first landing-place on the beach at the mouth of Mesurado River, and afterwards the promontory of Mesurado, had to be defended by force of arms against the coast tribes whom the Missionaries came to redeem from savagery… A permission to live on the coast from the Chief, a plot on which to build the store house or settlement, further territory acquired by Treaty in return for a few trumpery presents, interference with native rights and customs, consequent retaliation by the stoppage of trade roads, the fight, large or small, where the primitive arrow and spear were opposed to modern rifles, the natives trying to drive the intruders from their territories back into the sea, sometimes successfully for a time; but the end always the same more rifles and guns come over the sea and the Chief’s town is burnt. Victory is followed by an assertion of sovereignty over the lands overrun, by a new title of ‘Conquest by War,’ and, as the doctors say, ‘The mixture to be repeated,’ up the coast, down the coast, and as far into the Interior as it was safe to penetrate for the time. This mixture is known to diplomacy as ‘Peaceful Penetration,’ a euphemism which in practice means that the penetrated have to take everything lying down, while the penetration is carried out as described above.
“From an ethical point of view, acquisition in Africa of lands of the Africans is based upon similar false titles; and in this direction the Liberian (meaning a settler), excepting for the fact that he has not improved the conditions of the native races, or brought any benefits in the train of Conquest, is no worse than his white neighbor; but what they both construed into a title to land by treaty is merely a right to occupy during the pleasure of the Chief and his people” (Reeve, The Black Republic, pp. 44-46. Similar accounts are given in Liberia: Description, History, and Problems, by Frederick Starr, Chicago, 1913).
Now, why do I have to engage in the exercise that involved revisiting the genesis of Liberian history, when the topic I started with had to do with “Reasoning Together to Move Beyond Our Physical and Psychological Injuries”? The reason is plain and simple. In order to find lasting solution to the problem facing us as a people, we need to go beyond the symptoms and deal with the source of the problem, like the way hospitals do. When you go to the hospital with a problem, the first thing the medical practitioners do is to obtain your medical history, which include your family history. Having gotten that, they will proceed to diagnose your problem and then attempt to treat your sickness.
But with us in Liberia, we tend to do the reverse. We usually make attempts to find a cure before finding out the problem. This goes back to the settlers’ preoccupation with “civilizing the natives”, which has divided us into two separate camps the privileged and underprivileged. The privileged look down on the underprivileged. This line of division determines who gets the best of medical treatment, like in the case of my experience at the Government Eye Clinic. And the privileged tend to protect their statuses by engaging in lies and deceit to cover their misdeeds and corruption. As one small lie leads to a bigger lie, the habit soon becomes a way of life. And since no story is complete without historical background, I had to share with you some of the historical facts and circumstances that led to the continuing social and political conflicts in Liberia, and its resultant physical and psychological impacts on all Liberians.
For one thing, history as the recorder of past and present events cannot be erased nor avoided because it continues to serve as an instrument by which any given problem is diagnosed, and the WHY, WHO, WHEN, WHERE and HOW of an event is determined. This is the reason why when you are admitted in the hospital, you are asked to provide your medical history in order for the nurses and doctors to determine your illness and prescribe appropriate treatment. It is not like the common practice in Liberia where the patient tells the doctor, “Doctor, I think I have pains in my tight and I came for you to give me injection”.
In the history of the human race, LAND is like a palaver that has no END in sight. A glaring example of land dispute is the current warfare between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Middle East. But is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a purely land issue? I hasten to say “No” because it is well documented in history that the conflict has religious, political and physiological undertones. And the same is true with the ongoing conflict in Liberia. The conflict in Liberia today has less to do with land ownership, but more to do with the system of domination that appropriated the nation’s wealth and resources, social, economic, cultural and political privileges to Liberian pioneers and their offspring, while subjecting the majority of African Liberians and their offspring to abject poverty and slave labor.
So any pretense that Liberia was better off before the 1980 coup is a calculated attempt to rewrite the facts of history and apportion blame where none is due. True, Liberians of all walks of life directly or indirectly contributed to the present stalemated conflict in Liberia through acts of commission, omission, or inaction, but we should never lose sight of the fact that had the so-called founders of Liberia instituted a system of merit, equal treatments and equal opportunities for all Liberians instead of the patronage system that ruled the day, Liberia and Liberians may not have had any reasons for the 1980 coup or the rebel incursion of 1989 leading to the seven-year devastating civil war.
It is time that we heal the scars of the physical and psychological impact of Americo-Liberian Plantation hegemony lasting well over a century, or some might suggest the military dictatorship of the 1980’s, and move forward with creating a new society in which all Liberians will be treated equally before the law, and in every area of human endeavors. Our history books will have to be corrected to reflect the sacrifices and contributions made by African Liberians and Americo-Liberians to the viability of the Liberian nation. African Liberian cultural and religious practices will have to be respected in the same way cultural and religious practices of Americo-Liberians ought to be respected. But Liberia will be doomed should there be any attempts to return to Americo-Liberian plantation hegemony, and the African Liberian-dominated military dictatorship.
As a true believer in history, I feel that to right the wrongs of history, the truth must be told in order for the necessary corrections to be made, and for similar wrongs to be avoided. In this regard, we (Liberians) must put our cards on the table and ascertain their authenticity as we reason together through our physical and psychological injuries, once and for all.