Bentol, a small city situated thirty minutes from Monrovia, still bears some scars of the vandalism and looting that characterized Liberia’s first military coup in which President William Richard Tolbert, a Baptist preacher and native of the town, was slain in 1980. The town also suffered more extensive looting during the country’s back-to-back civil wars of the 1990’s.
Ancestors of the Tolberts migrated from South Carolina in the United States in the 1870s due to oppression and headed to West Africa. Their home, Bentol, is the combination of the last names of two former Liberian presidents hailing from and with strong connection to the town – Stephen Allen Benson and William Richard Tolbert – both of them descendants of former slaves freed and repatriated.
After serving for nearly ten years as president, Tolbert was killed in the Samuel Doe-led coup of 1980, forcing many surviving family members to flee the country and leaving Bentol lying looted, vulnerable, idle and in ruins.
President Tolbert’s eldest daughter, Christine Tolbert- Norman, at age 70, graciously accepted President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s offer in 2013 to serve as mayor of the virtually disserted city.
Norman is approaching her mid 70’s. But age has not impeded her desire to rebuild and restore life to Bentol – a city whose fast development was truncated by the killing of her father – the beginning of Liberia’s doom era.
“I actually desired to be the mayor of this city,” she told this writer on a visit, sitting in her office in one of the buildings that stood out in the town when her father was president.
“At some point when I saw my city just sitting idle, I saw that I could make a difference; so when the president appointed me because of my desire to help, it was very much an emotional moment for me,” she said.
“I thought it was one of the best things that could happen to me at this stage of my life.”
Struggling to manage and work with a tiny annual government subsidy of around $30,000, Mayor Norman’s focus has been largely on providing education opportunities for hundreds of children whose parents cannot afford tuition and fees in distant, expensive schools. By this, she says, she wants to keep alive the dream and philosophy of her late father who had started planting schools in isolated rural towns fast before his death.
“Development is about the mind,” she said, “if you have development in the mind where you have people who believe in themselves, people who have confidence in themselves, people who have love for themselves and for their community and for their country, you have development; and this is what I am seeing, and seeing now.”
She has proudly nicknamed Bentol: “A city of promise, purpose and prosperity” and this is emblazoned to the back of red t-shirts she wears in the field on casual days.
Her excitement to govern what is left of what her late father put in place and the progress she’s seen so far gives her reasons to try to give a lot of other names to the city.
“Bentol city is going to be named city of learning,” she declared with a broad smile. “If we focus now on teaching our children to read; teaching them basic skills, teaching them life skills – which is practical skills – tailoring, sewing and so forth, even giving them a sound high school education, we have our manpower to develop this city in about twelve years.”
There is a youth training center in the city where carpentry, computer science, soap making and other basic skills are offered. One of the beneficiaries, Augustus Cocker – now in his late thirties – earns a living from the computer training he received. He speaks of how “this place was dead and underdeveloped until Madam Norman became mayor.”
“Thank God, our city is taking its place once again in the society,” he said.
Showing the writer around while at the same time meeting people, including well-wishers and farmers, Mrs. Norman paused to explain why besides having the pedigree to serve, she sees returning to Bentol as an obligation.
“One, I was born in this city, I grew up in this city, I went to my first education program in this city; but my dad, President Tolbert, was born in this city, he grew up here; he lived here until he died,” she said with some level of emotion.
“I am happy to be doing this because at my age, I have lots of endowments when it comes to education. I figure I can add value to helping to mobilize the city and to inspire leadership in the city”.
At the other wing of the mayor’s office, a group of community farmers gathered to be supplied with vegetable seeds, an effort to build their capacity and enhance food sufficiency across the township. Mrs. Norman believes through such programs Liberia’s reliance on imported food can be reduced.
A decision by the government of her late father to up the retail price of rice, Liberia’s staple diet – from 22 to 26 dollars in 1979 so that, in the view of the proponents of the scheme, local farmers could get more from their efforts and encourage others to go into farming, was apparently misconstrued by the public.
Political activists organized a citizen’s march in Monrovia to protest the increment; criminals soon seized the opportunity to loot Monrovia and the march turned violent, killing hundreds of people.
Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup a year later.
Christine Tolbert-Norman wants to maintain the dream of her late father about self sufficiency in food.
“With agricultural production – an extended, expanded agricultural production – we can feel ourselves; we will have food security; it will help to alleviate poverty,” she said.
“Therefore, every school will be encouraged to have a school garden; every church will have a church garden.”
Looking around, one can see that Bentol still bears the legacy of the late President William R. Tolbert, including his once famous Lion House and the iconic Zion Praise Church that the president pastored up to the time of his killing; the streets, including one he named after Ivory Coast’s founding father and first president, Felix Houphoet Boigny, are being remarked.
The city is once again coming alive. Some of the features making Bentol once again a place to want to spend time include a peace park, a baptismal pool, which serves as a prayer garden and tourist attraction, and fruits; and on every Thursday, farmers and marketers from far and near meet in the outskirts of the city to do business.