The first African novel is said to have been written by a Liberian writer, Joseph Walters, in 1891. The novel was Guanya Pau, a story of an African Princess. If you add the names of other Liberian writers such as the renown Pan-African nationalist, Wilmot Blyden, Edwin Barclay, Hilary Teage, who wrote the
Liberian National Anthem, Doris Banks Henries, Roland T. Dempster, Robert H. Brown, Henry B. Cole, or Kona Khasu, it shows that Liberia has made great contribution to African literature from as far back as the late 1800s to the present. While most of these writers’ names are lost to contemporary Liberians, two names clearly stand out and those are Bai T. Moore and Wilton Sankawulo. For a long time, Bai T. Moore’s Murder in the Cassava Patch and Sankawulo’s “Why Nobody Knows When He Will Die” have been required reading in Liberian schools.
With this being said, fast-forward to the 2000s and the question is, is there any such thing as contemporary Liberian literature? Of course! The answer is a resounding, ‘Yes!’ Unfortunately though, when it comes to African literature, all the buzz is about Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and others.
Where are we and why our contribution to African literature is not acknowledged or even celebrated by ourselves, much less by others outside of our borders? The simple answer is we don’t have a cultural policy that promotes literature and other works of arts as in other countries in our continent. In any other society, these early writings would be reprinted and taught to new generations, which may draw inspiration from them, as it is noted that ‘the past must inform the present.’
According to Dr. Eva Aquii, a university lecturer, translator, award winning poet and fiction writer who once taught at the University of Liberia and now lives in her native country of Romania, “Liberian literature has a valuable canon, a cultural asset to be preserved, organized and recorded by literary history, both in Liberia and the world. It contains a chronological record of Liberia’s pastoral, folk literature, with its folk songs, proverbs, folktales known since the 1800s. There are writers, genres, and species, from poetry to drama, important to be taught for the ongoing development of Liberia’s literary history so contemporary Liberian writers have a strong legacy to stand on as they continue to write their Liberian stories in various literary genres and from different cultural perspectives.”
Among the names that will pop up when it comes to contemporary Liberian literature are Prof. K. Moses Nagbe, Prof. Patricia Jabeh Wesley, Vamba Sherif, Saah Millimono, Emma Shaw, Hawa Golokai, Nvasekie Konneh, Prof. Momo Dudu, Wayétu Moore, and the list goes on. Among the names, both Prof. Nagbe and Prof. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley stand out and should be the bridge linking the past to the present as they both are well respected and admired by many contemporary Liberian writers because of their early days of teaching at the University of Liberia and involvement with the Liberian Association of Writers based in Liberia. What may be lacking is the leadership role they should be playing in helping others along the way as well as promoting Liberian literature in general. Over the recent years, some efforts have been made to promote Liberian literature. There was Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings, an electronic magazine edited by Stephenie Horton. For years this became the common meeting place for Liberian writers as they contributed poems, short stories, book reviews and essays for publication. In 2005, a group of Liberian writers came together to form the Liberian Writers Network. Members included the Prof. Wilton Sankawulo, Ophelia Lewis, Prof. K. Moses Nagbe, Ray Martin Toe, Stephanie Horton, Robert Sesay, and others. The interim leadership of this group was led by Nvasekie Konneh who connected most of these folks who didn’t have any personal connections before. LWN’s mission was to form “collaborative venture to promote Liberian literature, drama and poetry as part of our national process of transformation. Recognizing the important role creative writers have to play in the cultural revival of our country at this critical juncture, we seek to pool our individual and collective talents and resources through a networking partnership.” It sought collaborative efforts with the Liberia Association of Writers (LAW) in Liberia but over time things did not work as planned as everyone focused on their individual efforts and progress with Prof. Sankawulo and Stephenie Horton leaving the group because, as they said at the time, “they preferred working as individuals rather than belonging to group.” What is left of the Liberian Writers Network now is its presence on Facebook. At least with this, its spirit is kept alive as it is been moderated by Ophelia Lewis who has published several books over the years through publishing outfit, Village Tales Publishing.
Now we are here again with the Liberian Literary Magazine edited by energetic comrade, Othniel Forte, and it seems like the interest is very high as many who associated with both LWN and Sea Breeze are in the house. Will we keep the momentum as we are now planning the Liberian literary festival. As we are planning this event, let’s remind ourselves with these words from Dr. Eva Aquii again, “The danger of myths and motifs vanishing into oblivion does exist, unless people themselves hand over this rich cultural heritage to the present and future generations, and teach them the pride of holding such an inheritance. There have been notable efforts in preserving folklore, in the writings of Wilton S. Sankawulo, A. Doris Banks Henries, Peter Dorliae, addressing the preservation of Liberia’s rich folklore by bringing it into print.” Are we up to the task? With the abundance of energy, creativity and determination now on display in this age of social media, it is fair to say we are definitely up to the task.
About the author: Nvasekie Konneh is a poet, writer who has written extensively in Liberian media on art, culture and social political development of Liberia. He’s the author of The Land of My Father’s Birth, Going to War for America and currently working on a documentary project on ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia. Nvasekie Konneh has a BA in Comparative Literature from the Union Institute & University.