Permit me first to thank you, Madam Culture Assistant Minister Margaret Cooper Frank, for your kind invitation to be part of this important forum. I have one more thing to thank you for — you and Cultural Affairs Director Darius Gweh: for acknowledging me as what you both have called in letters to me on March 8 and 18, 2019, respectively, “the first person who wrote or worked on The Cultural Policy of Liberia.”
I must tell you that this is the very first time I have ever received a letter from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism acknowledging my little contribution to the study of culture in Liberia. I wrote the book in 1973 and it was published by UNESCO in June 1974. But never once has anyone at my old and beloved office, MICAT, ever said even a word to me acknowledging that I had anything to do with this book. But there is much more to be said.
Let me begin this reflection by posing the question, What is Culture? We need to know this what we are talking about. Culture, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training; the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and social norms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group; also, the characteristic features of everyday existence, shared by people in a place or time; the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices associated with a particular people, field, activity or societal traits that characterize a nation, institution or organization.
Let me give you a particular example of what we are talking about here: One day in 1982 I decided to take all of our children to the National Cultural Center at Kindeja, on the Robertsfield Highway. And what did we find there? A highly talented young acrobat named Jacob Dweh, who hailed from Grand Gedeh County. Jacob was doing all kinds of unimaginable things with his body. This included walking on his hands with his feet behind him high up in the air!
When we returned home, our four year-old son, Bai Sama Gwenning Best, still in Kindergarten, as soon as we entered our house at Voker Mission in Paynesville, immediately got on the floor and started walking on his hands, with his feet behind him high up in the air! This child had decided to apply swiftly what he had learned culturally at the National Cultural Center. And guess what: Bai, though now in his early 40s, can still walk on his hands with his feet behind him up in the air! This is what culture does. It helps form our habits and capabilities. If the culture we learn is good, it makes us good. If it is bad, then we become bad.
This is the meaning and importance of culture.
At this juncture, I call on President George Weah to take immediate efforts to rebuild the National Cultural Center. We need it, and our young people and children, even the children yet unborn, need it NOW!
And what did Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) do for me in my own formative years? Cuttington, thanks to the dynamic and highly committed teachers we had there, taught and compelled us to use and appreciate the library. We had to visit and use the library regularly as a MUST if we wanted to make progress in our academic work.
It was this cultural habit of appreciating and regularly visiting the library at Cuttington that led me to do the first thing when in December 1972 I arrived in Paris as part of the Liberian delegation to the UNESCO General Conference in Paris. The visionary and enlightened Minister of Education, G. Flamma Sherman, had written to my Boss, G. Henry Andrews, President Tolbert’s first Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, telling him, “UNESCO is not only Education, but also Culture and Information—that is you. So please name one person to be on our delegation to the UNESCO General Conference.” As God would have it, Minister Andrews named me to be on the Education delegation. It was the first and probably the only time an non-Education person had named on the delegation to the UNESCO General Conference!
The first thing I did on the morning after my arrival in Paris was to visit the UNESCO library. I went straight to the Liberia section of the library. And what did I find in the three or four box files under the name LIBERIA? There was not a sheet of paper in any of those files. Absolutely nothing!
I immediately went to see the Chief Librarian at UNESCO to enquire what happened? Why there was nothing in the Liberia boxes? She told me, “Every year your people come to these conferences—some come two to three times a year for committee meetings and each time we ask them, on their return, to send us some information on Liberia for placing in the Liberia shelves; but each time they return with nothing. I then gave her my business card and asked for hers, which she obliged. I pledged that from then on, every press release, pamphlet, book or film we produce at the Ministry of Information will be sent to the UNESCO Library from then onwards.
I then returned to the UNESCO library and quickly discovered something else: There was a Cultural Policy on every shelf—the cultural policies of the various nations, but NONE on the Liberia shelf. There was the Cultural Policy of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, all the French-speaking African nations, all the Asian and European nations, but NONE on the Liberia shelf!
I returned to the UNESCO Chief Librarian and asked How come there was no Cultural Policy of Liberia on the Liberia shelf? She told me the same thing: “Every year your people come here and we suggest to them that they find two or three persons at the University of Liberia or Cuttington to write a Cultural Policy of Liberia; but every year they return with nothing.”
I then asked, How does one write a Cultural Policy of Liberia? Having seen my card, Assistant Minister for Information at MICAT, she asked, “You’re a journalist, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then you can write a Cultural Policy of Liberia.”
“How do I do that?”
“We will ask you to sign a contract, and when you do you can return and do the research and write the Cultural Policy of Liberia, send us the manuscript by October 15, 1973 and UNESCO will publish it by June 1974. We do not have a lot of money to pay you for this work, which I’m sure will be a lot. But we will give you an honorarium.”
“Money is not the problem. But Liberia needs a Cultural Policy like all the other nations. Bring the contract. I will sign it.”
I immediately set to work on return home in February 1973. I started right at Information, in the Ministry’s Cultural Bureau, headed then by the legendary Bai T. Moore. He provided me with all the information he had, including the documentation transferring to Information all cultural and traditional activities from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Act of Legislature effecting the transfer. He also gave me the Act and other documentation establishing the National Cultural Center at Kendeja.
I visited the National Cultural Center and captured all that was going on there.
My next stop was the University of Liberia, where I received all the information on its establishment and operations; and then on to Cuttington for their information.
I next visited the William V.S. Tubman High School, which at the time had a dynamic cultural program—they were the first to organize a school cultural troupe and soon, most other schools followed. Tubman High also had a full scale curriculum on African History and Culture, from eighth grade to senior high, and they gave me all their information.
I then found information on the establishment of the Tubman Center for African Culture in Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, which the Cape Mountainians built in 1964 to honor President Tubman on his 69th birthday.
Initially I closely examined the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia which, though it had absolutely no mention of culture in the entire document, I tried to link as many of its parts to cultural relevancy.
I next began to gather photographs to back up my thesis. By October 14, 1973 my secretary at Information, a fellow called Derrick, not unfortunately deceased, set to work to produce the final manuscript. We sat up all night until 4 a.m. typing the document. We left the office at 4:15 a.m. and after dropping him home, I proceeded homeward in Oldest Congotown where my young wife, Mae Gene and I lived. Half asleep on the wheel on Tubman Boulevard, I almost ran into the steep ditch at the Catholic Hospital junction. But the good, gracious and merciful Lord stopped me, and I returned to the highway and got home safely.
UNESCO fulfilled their promise and sent me two copies of the book entitled Cultural Policy in Liberia, published by UNESCO 1974. By that time I had resigned from the Tolbert government and accepted a job as Information Director of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) in Nairobi, Kenya. Our UNESCO friends knew that and sent me the two books and a US$400 honorarium. In their letter, addressed to me in Nairobi, they told me that they had sent several boxes of the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, to the Ministry of Education and to my old office, the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.
In 1975 my brother-in-law, Sama Byron Traub, died in a motor accident. So I accompanied Mae Gene to the funeral in Liberia. Following the funeral I seized the opportunity while at home to visit first, the Education Ministry, to found out whether they had received the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, which UNESCO said they had sent.
My first stop was to the Education library on the fifth floor of the Ministry. The librarian, Leo Eastman whom I knew very well—he had helped introduce me to literature in the mid-1940s when I was yet in the premier classes. He told me he had never heard that I had written a book. I persuaded him to look on his library shelf because I was pretty sure a copy was there. We looked and looked and there was none to be found. He escorted me outside and just then we say Bertha Baker Azango walking toward another office in the Ministry. She was one of those at the UNESCO General Conference which I had attended. Mrs. Azango, an Assistant Minister at Education, was frequently in Paris. When I asked her about the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, she had a snappy answer for me. “All that money the people finished paying you, you haven’t given people once cent, and you come asking them about book?”
I was shocked at her response and felt deeply downhearted.
I left the Ministry and my next stop was at my old office, where I had spent the first 10 years of my professional life—1964-December 1973. At Information, I met one of the young fellows I, as Director of Press and Publications, had trained. He came to us from Dakar with two diplomas, one in French and the other in Journalism, in 1968 and was assigned under me. I found him to be very serious and dependable and soon he became my right hand man in the Bureau. In 1972 when I was elevated to Assistant Minister for Information, I was asked whom I wanted to succeed me. “Johnny McClain,” I replied. He got the job.
When in December 1973 I resigned en route to Kenya to take up my new assignment with the AACC, I was asked the same question—“Whom do you want to succeed you?” My answer was the same—“Johnny McClain.” The Information authorities put to me the same question they had asked before—“Johnny doesn’t have a degree.” And my response was the same: “Is it degree you’re looking for, or someone who can do the job?” Again, Johnny got the job.
When I reached Information that grim morning in July 1975, I went straight to Assistant Minister Johnny’s office. He said UNESCO had indeed sent several boxes of the Cultural Policy in Liberia book, and he had seen them. But he did not know where they were. The only copy he referred me to was one lonely copy locked away in a cupboard in the Information library down stairs! I couldn’t find anyone at Information who knew anything more than what Johnny McClain had said.
This means that the all the generations of Liberians since 1974 have been deprived of this valuable book—why? What happened to the book? Was it burnt? Thrown away? Locked away somewhere never to be found? Dr. Binyan Kesselly, who was then Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism is now deceased. Johnny Mclain, who later rose to become Deputy Minister, then full Minister of Information during the Tolbert administration, served UNESCO for over a quarter of a century following the 1980 coup d’état that killed President Tolbert and several of his topmost officials. Following the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Liberia in 1995, she appointed Johnny McClain Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.
During the first year of this new administration as again Minister of Information, Johnny one day invited me to a meeting at the Ministry and announced that he had asked UNESCO to send in an “expert” to develop a new Cultural Policy of Liberia. I attended the meeting and he told those gathered, the man who did the first Cultural Policy of Liberia is seated over there, and he pointed to me. What surprised me and most others, however, is that Minister McClain had not brought a copy of the Cultural Policy in Liberia, which he told the meeting had been authored by me. As a key UNESCO official in West Africa for many years, based in Dakar and elsewhere, he must have frequently visited the UNESCO office in Paris.
In 2008, when our newspaper, the Daily Observer, was observing our 27th anniversary, I told my son Bai Sama Gwenning Best that since we had decided to spend the anniversary at the National Cultural Center, it would be a good thing to take along with us a copy of the Cultural Policy in Liberia, written by me. “Let me check the Internet,” Bai replied.
He returned to me five minutes later and said, “Yes, I found several copies of the book available. But they are being sold for US$78!”
I told him, Bai, let’s by all means get a copy so we can take it to the Cultural Center on our anniversary. But Bai replied, “Daddy, today is Wednesday, and we go to the Cultural Center on Saturday. There is no way a copy of the book could reach us in time. It takes at least five working days to get a copy here.
“But Bai,” I insisted, “we need to have a copy to take with us.” He then replied, “Let’s see if we can find a printable copy.”
Bai returned in 10 minutes with a copy of the book! We immediately made several copies and the following day I hand delivered a copy to the Minister of Education, Dr. Joseph Korto. He seemed happy to receive it and said he had never before laid hands on one. He promised to convene a meeting with his senior staff and invite me to attend, to determine what to do about the book for the present generation of Liberians. I am sorry to say, fellow participants, that that meeting was never called.
We also presented a copy of the book to Information Minister Dr. Laurence Komla Bropleh and he, too, happy to receive the book for the first time, promised to convene a meeting with his senior staff and me to determine what to do about the book and how to share it with the present generation of Liberians. That meeting, too, never took place.
Before I close, permit me to present to you, Madam Culture Minister, two copies of Cultural Policy in Liberia, published by UNESCO—one copy for you and another copy for MICAT Minister Eugene Nagbe.
I once asked my former Daily Observer Editor-in-Chief, Stanton B. Peabody (deceased), who as editor-in-chief of the Liberian Age, the True Whig Party newspaper, what he thought happened to the book when UNESCO sent it to Information. Stanton was always close to Information, for we at Information had always had a close working relation with the Age staff.
And this is what Stanton Peabody told me: “Envy, Mr. Best, envy. They didn’t write the book; you did, and that made them uneasy and jealous. So they let the book disappear.”
I then asked Stanton, “how can we build a country on envy?”
As the popular American song of the 1970s says, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind… the answer is blowing in the wind.”