To reading Liberia I bring the sad but important news of the passing of a great American scholar of the Liberian experience. Professor Warren Leonard D’Azevedo, an expert on the Gola people, passed away peacefully in California, USA on January 19, 2014 at age 93. He died surrounded by family, notably his wife, Kathleen Addison D’Azevedo.
In my hearing he told of his first visit to Liberia in the early 1950s to conduct research in Western Liberia among Gola-Liberians. Because those were times when foreigners required governmental permission to undertake research especially in rural Liberia, he received written permission at the hands of President William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971) before embarking on a research journey that would span in excess of half a century. He became a pioneer scholar of the Gola people, and used his research findings to enhance understanding of the Liberian state.
Born Oakland, California August 19, 1920, he was educated at the University of California, Berkeley (BA, Anthropology, 1942) and Northwestern University (PhD, Anthropology, 1962). He settled early on a dual research career –Native/Indian American studies, and Liberian studies. In 1963 he joined the faculty of the University of Nevada-Reno where he went through the ranks to full professor and departmental chair. He retired in 1988, but remained an active scholar well into the first decade of this century. Professor D’Azevedo was also director of the first Peace Corps project in 1962, and continued as consultant to Peace Corps projects in Liberia and Sierra Leone through 1979. He was visiting professor at the University of Liberia in 1981, and received from the Liberian Studies Association a decade later the first annual Lifetime Achievement Award.
So while he was both a Native American and Liberia scholar, it is the latter that this brief tribute focuses. D’Azevedo was anthropologist, sociologist and culture historian combined. A major theorist in the study of African art, he seemingly extrapolated from there an intellectual framework, which he brought to the study of Liberia. He postulated the study of indigenous peoples in their natural habitat amidst the complexities of interactions with other peoples, some of a vastly different culture and consequent worldview. Among his numerous scholarly publications were the following:
“Some Historical Problems in the Delineation of a Central West Atlantic Region”, (1962)
“Tribe and Chiefdom on the Westward Coast,” (1971)
“Gola Poro and Sande: Primal Tasks in Social Custodianship,” (1980)
“Uses of the Past in Gola Discourse,” (1962)
THE GOLA OF LIBERIA (1972)
“Traditional Artist in African Societies,” (1974)
“A Tribal Reaction to Nationalism,” (parts 1-3, 1967-1970).
Dr. D’Azevedo also once shared with me a draft unpublished article titled “The Tenth County” of Liberia. Recall that to Liberia’s original five counties of Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe, Grand Cape Mount, and Maryland, were joined in 1964 four new counties of Bong, NImba, Lofa, and Grand Gedeh. The draft article alludes to the circumstances under which Bomi became, eventually, in 1984 the tenth county.
In a word, his Liberia work focused Gola social organization, ritual tradition, artistry, intergroup relations, socio-cultural change, and the impact of the Liberian state on these features of the Gola people. D’Azevedo’s “A Tribal Reaction to Nationalism” is illustrative of the significance of his work in general to a deepened understanding of the formation of the Liberian state. Exploring historical and structural processes affecting development of the state, he sought to establish the inadequacy of the view that politics indigenous to the Liberia area were simply “awkwardly overwhelmed” by the state. Professor D’Azevedo provided evidence “that the dynamics of Gola subjugation and eventual co-operative involvement in the emerging Liberian nation must be understood not only in terms of specific features of Gola and [colonial] Liberian social organization, but also in terms of regional historical events prior to colonial occupation and during the struggle on the part of the newcomers to establish cultural and political jurisdiction over a portion of the west African coast.”
The study importantly went on to draw the inference that this way of viewing Gola reaction to nationalism in Liberia may well be applicable to the other ethnic communities indigenous to the Liberia area. This nuanced understanding of the formation of the Liberian state has contemporary relevance as we grapple, in our post-conflict era, with appreciating the ingredients of state formation in our quest to build a more cohesive and democratic state. What a contribution of distinction of an itinerant scholar to understanding our fledgling democracy! May many daughters and sons of Liberia strive to build upon the solid foundation of this exemplary scholarship, especially at a time when a National History Project is on the horizon.
Thank you Warren, and Rest in Peace!