Book Review: Gbagba Is Simultaneously African and Universal

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By Shirley Cox

Robtel Neajai Pailey’s Gbagba is definitely a Liberian story. Equally so, it is African and universal simultaneously because it addresses corruption, the enemy of economic progress and social development everywhere. For children, particularly in developing countries, Gbagba is a compulsory read. Pailey skillfully unmasks corruption through the focused eyes of twin characters, Sundaymah and Sundaygar.

The story begins with the twins preparing to leave their port city of Buchanan to visit their aunt and uncle living in the capital city of Monrovia. That Sundaygar and Sundaymah do not gleefully pack their bags to visit their aunt and uncle indicates that the warmth of home penetrates deeper than neon city lights and abundant attractions. Despite all the material benefits and comforts capital cities usually have, the twins, particularly Sundaymah, are reluctant to leave the trusting environment of their hometown. However, as Sundaymah lists all the things which tug at her heart thereby making the visit to Monrovia seem unnecessary, her brother Sundaygar moves quickly to remind her of the hot baths and television programs which await them at Auntie Mardie’s and Uncle Momo’s house on the Old Road in Sinkor, a suburb of Monrovia.

Before boarding a taxi for Monrovia, the twins listen attentively to a loaded piece of advice from their mother—behave yourselves—which is enough for a dutiful, loving parent to understand that her children would rise to the occasion anywhere, including Monrovia, and do the right thing.

Following the journey from Buchanan, the twins’ maternal aunt Mardie is awaiting them at the taxi station in Monrovia. The delight at seeing her niece and nephew is evident in her voice and the twins reciprocate by quickening their steps to fall into her warm embrace. No sooner do the twins alight the taxi from Buchanan and greet their aunt do they encounter a crisis.

Before they settle in the backseat of the government-owned jeep in which driver Opah chauffeurs their aunt Mardie around, the twins hear the unfriendly noise of bystanders alerting the driver that the trunk of the jeep has been opened. Luckily, Opah proves more agile with his feet than the unkempt man who is making away with the children’s suitcases. After he retrieves the twins’ belongings, Opah comes to a standstill in heavy traffic. If Sundaymah and Sundaygar had hoped that the rest of the journey to Auntie Mardie’s and Uncle Momo’s house—not quite a ten-mile distance—would have been uneventful, they are in for some surprises.

The first surprise is subtle.

The president’s voice on the radio gives the twins a new word to think about: “corruption”. It is not in their vocabulary, but they like the sound of it and cannot wait to find it in Uncle Momo’s big red dictionary.

The next surprise is more disturbing. Auntie Mardie has the rank of “minister” in the Liberian government. When she tells the twins not to worry, that a way would be found out of traffic delaying all vehicles caught in a jam, they are shocked when their aunt’s driver slips an unscrupulous policeman a 100 Liberian dollar bill to quench his “thirst.” They see this action of cutting ahead as a contradiction of what their parents have taught them—that when forming queues, wait for your turn. Unfortunately, Pailey does not enable the twins to voice their concerns in this instance.  But they do question authority in the next scene.

The third surprise is possibly criminal.

Sundaymah, Sundaygar and their aunt stop at a supermart to get snacks, and Auntie Mardie enables them to choose familiar chocolate bars. To the twins’ dismay, the chocolate tastes quite different – spoiled – because it has long expired. Yet, Auntie Mardie checks the dates and promises the twins that she will be “right back” with some positive results. Instead, she exchanges pleasantries and a warm handshake with her “friend”, a foreign merchant. The twins grill her after she gives them the lame excuse, “He does not usually have problems with his goods, so I let him go today.” They respond, “But what if he does it again to another person who comes to the store?” The twins’ aunt ignores their protests and walks away without a reply, much to their dismay.

When Opah parks the jeep in his boss’ garage, it is Uncle Momo who embraces the twins in bear hugs. Sundaymah and Sundaygar do not forget, however, the promise they make earlier to themselves and each other. So, off to the library they rush to look up the word “corruption”! In all its ugliness, the word stares the two minors in the face—lying, cheating and stealing is what it means, they discover—the same as the word gbagba in their native language Bassa. The twins immediately recall incident after incident of corrupt practices their parents have pointed out and warned them against, and realize that they do not like the word “corruption” after all.

Pailey has woven into the story Gbagba some of the many facets of corruption. Yet, given how entrenched corruption is in Liberian society, she only brings to the fore this vice as it is manifested in the lives of adults. Gbagba could certainly do with a scene showing children engaged in dubious acts, to showcase the pervasiveness of corruption.

Nonetheless, Gbagba gives hope through the discerning eyes of Sundaymah and Sundaygar.  It is courage such as theirs that will keep corruption at bay. Therefore, it is imperative for teachers and parents, particularly in Liberia, to read, digest and interpret to children the implications of Gbagba. If children could emulate the strong ethical compass exhibited by Sundaygar and Sundaymah, there would be hope for the future.

This review is being published in commemoration of International Anti-Corruption Day, December 9, 2014.

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