14th Anniversary: School of Liberian Arts and Dance Talks Performers’ Drug Problems, Plans for Future

School of Liberian Arts and Dance students at their 14th anniversary celebration

By Samuel G. Dweh*

On Ghana’s refugee camp, in 2007, a 29-year Liberian cultural dancer and drummer founded the School of Liberian Arts and Dance (SLAD)—after he had left the Liberia Culture Dance Troupe (the first camp-based Liberian cultural performance group founded in 1990) where he had risen from mere dancer to Director of Training.

Few years later, he returned to his native Country to contribute to the performance-related cultural growth of Liberia.

In Liberia, SLAD’s current membership contains kids between ages five and 11, making up its “nursery group”, to later take over from older members who had left. One of the kid-members is Queen Morris (age now age 9) 

“SLAD focuses on four areas as platforms of nation building: Traditional Dance, African Dance and Drumming, Arts & Craft, and Drama,” Chief Executive Officer, Emmanuel B. Lavelah, explained to me during the Institution’s 13th celebration in New Kru Town, Bushrod Island, Monrovia (base of the CEO and most of the other members) The 13th anniversary celebration was mostly for sensitization on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Liberia and supply of foods (rice and vegetable oil) soaps and hand wash buckets to most disadvantaged residents of the Point-4 Community, of New Kru Town, during that time.

Begun with a community-wide sanitation exercise, SLAD’s 14h anniversary (Saturday, October 30, 2021) focused on lots of issues including drug addiction of some performers in the cultural industry.  Discussions were held in the Living Room of the CE0’s matrimonial home, in the Liberian Coast Guard officers’ residential area. Some members sat on the porch of the house because there was no space in the room. The total number of members present was over 45.

“I was taking drugs…in the morning, afternoon and evening,” the 14th anniversary’s first Guest Speaker, Mr. Patrick Varney Coleman, a founding member of SLAD on Ghana’s refugee camp, said during his speech. He was trained on drum beating by SLAD’s Founder/CEO Emmanuel B. Lavelah.

No longer actively involved in cultural performance, Mr. Coleman said he’s now a career Psychologist, trained in the United States of America where he had migrated to from Ghana’s refugee camp and became a member of the U.S. Army.

“Drugs eat up the consumer’s brain and make him or her forget things easily or think or act irrationally,” the former drug addict explained to his cultural colleagues and invited guests.

“Drug or opium consumption puts you on what is known as The Cloud, where you feel you are the only person living there,” the Guest speaker said, referring to “hallucination”.

He also said, when he was in the United States Army, he was on drugs for a long time. “Drugs caused me to insult and beat people, which I shouldn’t have done if I was not under the influence of drugs,” he confessed, and blamed peer-pressure for his plunge into consumption of narcotic substances.

In the concluding part of his speech, the retired Liberian-born U.S. Army officer declared, “I’m now off the hook of drugs, and now into business.”

The Chief Executive Officer of the Nay Jay Group of Companies in Liberia, the Guest Speaker warned members of SLAD against falling in love with any cultural performer or entertainer on drugs. “This person will drop drugs into your drink or food, and you will never be your old, good self again,” he said.

He asked the body of performers about each person’s personal experience of consumption of drugs. Only members Thomas Freeman and David Gray came forth.

“I took drugs, but it was in a soup served at a program I attended. Later, I was seeing everything in the house turning around me,” Thomas Freeman narrated his experience.

“I took drugs in Togo,” David Gray admitted.

Buttressing Guest Speaker Coleman’s drugs-related presentation, SLAD’s CEO said he, too, was being lured into consumption of drugs by some of his trainers. “They told me to take it small, saying it will make me active during the performance, but I refused. I’ve never taken drugs, I will never take drugs.” 

The second Guest Speaker was Samuel G. Dweh, president of Liberia Association of Writers (LAW) and a freelance journalist. The title of his speech was “Cultural Sector-Media Partnership for Development of Liberia’s Arts and Culture Industry”

“The major responsibility of the media in this partnership is to sustain the visibility of the cultural sector through regular productions of news stories on nation-building activities of the sector. The sector should facilitate the media’s part by paying for media practitioners’ professional service fees, howbeit small,” Mr. Dweh advised.

He also advised SLAD to come out with attractively outstanding activities that will emotionally move financially privileged individuals and organizations to support its future programs.

He also cautioned SLAD to be civil when engaging the National Government on support. “Don’t use critical language or condemning words as the majority of other organizations are noted for doing just to get Government’s attention” he said.

He warned the CEO against being domineering and proud in his interaction with other members.

“Be empathetic to others on their being slow to grasp cultural knowledge you’re imparting into them, different people have different comprehension capabilities. And be transparent on the financial returns to SLAD from various members’ inputs. These are attributes of a good leader,” he coached 

The 14th celebration began with a peace-promotion section in which the CEO asked members to pour out their hurts against him or another member.

Mary   B. Weah, Asset Manager, complained about no visit or phone call from any member of the leadership to her when she was chronically sick of Malaria and pains in the joints of her bones and lying at a hospital’s bed in September.

Other complaints were from Practice Sessions leaders on junior members’ recurrent late arrivals at practice sessions, disregard for issued instructions, and some members’ refusal to collaborate with others on practice grounds because of personal grudges between members or groups of members.

CEO Lavelah settled the issue impartially — pointed to the fault of each accused person or accuser. 

During the segment on planned projects, outstanding issues and challenges, CEO Lavelah talked about the Italian Embassy’s denial of Visas to nine members of SLAD, out of 10, for a Cultural Festival in Italy; purchase of SLAD’s Cultural Land in Bomi County; SLAD’s Cultural Icon Award (CIA); and registration of school with the Ministry of Education. 

 “The Embassy told us, when Liberians travelled to Europe they don’t come back,” he reported to the body, highlighting one of the “challenges”. 

On next year’s anniversary, CEO Lavelah solicited suggestions from the other members.

Some of the recommendations that came out were: creative fundraising strategies by performing at Embassies, Entertainment centers; all members’ commitment to SLAD’s projects; and mutual respect among members.

 SLAD’s 14th anniversary celebration wasn’t characterized by attention-grabbing activities, unlike past celebrations. 

“We didn’t have money for a well-publicized celebration. We wanted to use the Liberian Coast Guard’s Hall, but we didn’t have the one hundred and fifty United States dollar the authorities were demanding from us,” SLAD’s CEO, whose wife is a member of the Liberian Coast Guard, responded to this writer’s expressed concern about the 14th anniversary’s discussions held in a “room”, instead in an “public event hall” 

The 14th celebration ended with cultural displays — drumming and dancing — in the public square a few yards from where the indoor segment was held. Guest Speaker Patrick Varney Coleman exhibited his drumming skills acquired in Ghana's refugee camp. 

SLAD has been battling chronic financial handicap, since it started operations in Liberia—in  spite of contributing to Liberia’s cultural sector development, through teaching at some universities and high schools, training participants of national beauty pageants, and being a partner to Canadian and American Arts Institutions.

“SLAD won’t stop culturally serving Liberians and promoting our foreign partners, because of these finance-related challenges,” Founder/Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel B. Lavelah said to this writer during cultural performances during the 14th anniversary.

* Samuel G. Dweh is a freelance journalist and president of Liberia Association of Writers (LAW). He can be reached via phone: 0886618906/ 0776583266 or email: samuelosophy1@mail.com)