For many countries, being endowed with a rich cultural heritage is not just a blessing but represents an opportunity to boost tourism.
But that’s not the case with Liberia, a country vastly rich with lots of abandoned cultural heritage, lying in ruins across the counties and without any care.
“The current situation, which is the result of several factors, has put this tangible cultural heritage at greater risk of extinction if nothing is urgently done,” says Darius D. Gweh, Director for Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.
Mr. Gweh cited examples of the Belleh, Dey and Gbi Languages.
“If they are totally lost, part of history will be gone forever and difficult to recover. The continued endangerment of our cultural heritage is not a good sign for the present and future generations,” he said.
Kekura Kamara, president of the Liberia National Cultural Union, added that cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes that are inherited from past generations and passed on to future generations.
He added that cultural heritage provides a sense of unity and belonging and allows us to better understand previous generations and the pre-history of a country.
Although Liberia is an early signatory to UNESCO cultural convention concerning the “Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage,” the country has not even ratified said treaty, localized since 1972. This international treaty was created to identify, protect and preserve cultural and national heritage around the world.
Article 5 of the 1985 constitution of Liberia calls on the government to preserve, protect and promote positive Liberian culture, ensuring that traditional values, which are compatible with public policy and national progress, are adopted and developed as an integral part of the growing needs of the Liberian society.
Despite this clause in the constitution, successive Liberian governments have not done much to fulfill the aspiration of such a clause.
Notable among the many memorable ruins and heritage sites includes the 400 plus year-old fortification wall in Lofa County, as well as the home of Africa’s first elected president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, which should have been turned into a museum, replicating its exact structure in the 1800s. It is now used as the law library with little care.
There is also the late Amb. T. Ernest Eastman’s home along the Tubman Boulevard in Congo Town, which housed several members of the South African resistance against apartheid, including the late Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, during the 1960s. Before the house was gutted by fire about a year ago, the bed and all other things Mandela used were reportedly offered to the government of former President H. E. Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; but her government did not act on the offer in a timely manner, thereby losing all the artifacts to the fire.
Also, the OAU village in Sanniquellie, the birthplace of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union), has been abandoned. Five years ago, it lost its heritage value after undergoing extensive modification.
In addition, memorable cultural heritage items like the Vai script and the book “Legends of Liberia” are seriously missing in Liberian schools.
Mr. Kamara added that, in this day and age, it is unfortunate that Liberia’s post-war governments have downplayed the promotion and protection of the national cultural heritage.
“We must understand there can be no strong sense of nationalism where a strong sense of cultural identity and appreciation are lacking. Therefore, the government needs to step up and do better and preserve the cultural heritage,” he said.
Dr. Elwood Dunn, a renowned Liberian historian, said the preservation of cultural heritage is very important for educational purposes and for promoting tourism both internally and externally.
“It would be good if the government could lead; but if not, organized citizens within civil societies should take the lead. If well-organized, resources could be tapped both internally and externally, these cultural heritages will become sources of revenue.
“Individuals and families have a role here, for they own some of the properties we are talking about. Citizens of Sanniquellie should take the lead in restoring the OAU monument of Tubman, Touré, and Nkrumah. I know a wealthy businessman in that town who could alone do that job if appropriately approached,” he said.
Mr. Kamara describes the current situation as a wake-up call and one that needs government’s urgent attention. He said: “We are people because of our cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible. I still don’t understand why the promotion and preservation of cultural heritage is not a priority in this country. It is a sad situation, but that’s the reality. We are a very unique group of people who must care for our cultural heritage, which will not only be a source of revenue, but pride.”
Cause of the problem
The primary result of this situation is, since the founding of this nation, due to the lack of a national cultural policy to promote, preserve, support and safeguard the country’s cultural heritage. “Currently, we don’t have a nationally adopted culture policy and this has been the case since the country’s independence. In the absence of such policy, the promotion and preservation of our cultural heritage will not be a priority,” Mr. Gweh said.
The only known cultural policy of Liberia was written by Mr. Kenneth Y. Best and published in 1974 by UNESCO. It was never adopted, despite calls to do so at that time. Another problem is the continued low budgetary support for the Department of Cultural Affairs & Tourism at MICAT, which is in charge of the responsibility of protecting, safeguarding and promoting the nation’s cultural heritage.
According to Mr. Gweh, “it is not that the culture department has not tried; we have but cannot do much when the cultural department has been be left underfunded. We have plans to rescue some of these neglected tangible cultural heritage pieces but we cannot do anything in the absence of money. Their hands are tied in that department. The political will and well-being has to be there from people who have the authority to make the change in the promotion of our cultural heritage,” Mr. Gweh said.