Robtel Neajai Pailey’s children’s book Gbagba is populated with characters bound to the changing meanings of ethics in post-war Liberia. The story touches on the role of traditional values to transform social thinking.
When the young twins Sundaygar and Sundaymah leave the countryside to visit their aunt in the capital Monrovia, the collusion of adults in everyday corrupt practices—robbery, bribery, fraud, vigilantism—collides with the children’s strong moral sense of right and wrong.
Immediately after the children arrive in the city, a thief “in dirty clothes” snatches their suitcases in broad daylight. The description of the robber tells us that that the man is poor and desperate. But the idea that it is greed rather than dehumanizing poverty triggering the man’s thievery incites the threat of mob justice. Equally disturbing to the children, an “angry crowd made a circle around the rogue like they wanted to harm him.”
The twins later observe their aunt’s driver bribing a police officer. Their aunt’s indifference during this encounter stands in stark contrast to the twins’ sharp perception of the unfair advantage that takes place after the transaction.
“Corruption” is a new word the twins hear on the radio and look up in a dictionary. The twins interpret it to mean gbagba, the word they know in Bassa – their first language. For all of the grim statistics about rampant corruption, gbagba translated simply means bad behavior. With the simple, uncomplicated logic of children, the twins know that “lying, cheating, and stealing” are wrong. The book offers an educational message about social taboos in rural and urban spaces of public and private life.