Have you ever been around a parent who constantly calls a child “lazy,” “stupid” or “useless”? What do you think will be the long-term effect?
Those who say “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can’t hurt me” are wrong. Words do hurt. And they do even deeper damage and leave lasting emotional scars. Children learn to live almost exactly as they are labelled. Call them “stupid” often enough, and they will accept your definition of them. Derogatory labels can lead people to develop deep feelings of inferiority that stunt them for life.
As it is with individuals, so it is with entire countries. Keep telling them that they are lazy, and they will prove to you just how lazy they are.
Most countries know that, so they refuse to let others define them and their children. After gaining independence, Americans went so far as to put their own stamp on the English language they had inherited from the British, changing “colour” to “color” and “connexion” to “connection.” That’s why Noah Webster wrote his Dictionary of American History.
No change is too trivial for some nations, when it comes to defining themselves. Neither China or the United States would ever allow the other to write its history. But, self-sufficiency in writing one’s own history is not just a policy of big powers.
Upon gaining “flag” independence, every former colony in the world has insisted on doing the same, including tiny islands in the Caribbean with far fewer resources than Liberia. In neighboring Senegal, for example, one of the leading universities was renamed after Chiekh Anta Diop, who spearheaded the rewriting of African history from an Africanist perspective.
Not so with Liberians.
Almost everything we know – or think we know – about ourselves are dokahfleh stories passed down to us by others. Some of those cast-offs came clean and pressed. Others are laced with poison, like the shining blankets infected with smallpox that were given by Europeans to Native Americans, which caused hundreds of thousands to die.
Take the phrase “Country Devil,” used to describe masked ceremonial dancers. “Country” connotes rural but also “bush” and backward. “Devil” is derived from the most powerful spirit of evil in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam who is often represented as the ruler of hell.
Like many such derogatory phrases used to describe features of African culture, the “Country Devil” label was first introduced by European explorers in the 1600s.
Indigenous Liberian are not alone in being routinely disparaged. Take the notion that African-American repatriates to Liberia and their descendants oppressed Indigenous Liberians for over a hundred years. Crafted by white American polemicists posing as scholars, it has come to be accepted as self-evident truth, just by being repeated over and over.
This dangerous claim holds the entire group responsible for the crimes, sins, and failings of any of its members. After the failed coup d’état of the late Thomas Quiwonkpa, innocent Mano and Gio were slaughtered based on that perverse way of thinking. Some people are now making similarly sweeping – and dangerous – claims about all Muslims due to the violent behavior of a few.
That same flawed logic was used by the Nazis to justify their attempted extermination of Jews during World War II. It reappeared recently in Rwanda, with equally devastating consequences.
That is why Rwandans wrote themselves a new history, immediately after the fighting ended. They did it to get rid of poisonous German, French and Belgium influences. And they didn’t wait for “international donors.”
For that reason, I was initially excited to learn about the Liberian Historical Website at the Center for National Documentation & Research Agency. That excitement quickly turned to outrage upon discovering that our government had outsourced the writing of Liberia’s history to a consortium of American universities, led by Indiana University. While preaching “Liberianization,” our leaders sidelined widely published and internationally renown Liberian historians in favor of foreign “scholars” with less expertise.
“Outsourcing” in Liberia masquerades as a policy, but it s not. It is an abdication of responsibility to organize, manage and develop the country’s human capacity. At root, it reflects an inferiority complex, a profound lack of confidence in local capabilities, and a failure of leadership. It is deeply unpatriotic because it denies the ability of Liberians to think and plan for themselves, the very raison d’être for having a nation and a government in the first place.
By way of contrast to Liberia, consider Rwanda and Ethiopia. Like Liberia, both underwent massively disruptive wars. Yet, both are now more developed than they were before their wars. Is there a key difference between them and Liberia? Yes. Their leaders have the sheer audacity to believe in coherent, locally determined policies as the best solution to local problems.
A nation will lack coherence if its government is driven by the conflicting agendas of external donors and their NGOs. Of course, when their agendas fail, foreign entities will be nowhere around to claim responsibility or suffer the consequences.
Liberians desperately need, not just a new history, but a new sense of our commonalities, self-worth and possibilities. Well-intentioned allies can certainly help. But we must take the lead. None but ourselves can heal our minds.
Liberian history is no different. Yes, many of our differences are rooted in reality. But, it is also true that our antagonisms have been fueled by foreign scholars who stand in the shadows and chuck rocks, then pin responsibility on one group of Liberians or another. No institution has been more culpable than Indiana University.
Unlike our leaders, folks at Indiana know exactly how important history truly is. That is why they seem determined to control ours, with the blessings of our leading scholars. To cite just one shameful example, control of the Liberian Studies Association is lodged in Indiana, while Ph. D.’s and universities are “wasting” in Liberia.
Liberia is now caught in a vicious cycle with no apparent end on the horizon. Our leaders lack confidence in what we, Africans, can accomplish because they don’t know Africa’s true history. Their commitment to Africa seems limited to their symbolic adornment in country cloth lappa suits and shirts, with no grounding in substantive ideas. Lacking self-confidence, their answer to every problem is “outsourcing,” including history which lies at the core of national identity. But a history written by others only engenders a deeper sense of inferiority. And so it goes, round and round.
Unless we stop outsourcing the writing of our history, our “hay way lee insah long time.” Leave it to others, and the myths that divide us now will be passed down to our children’s children’s children.
Author’s note: C. Patrick Burrowes, Ph. D.
Burrowes is the author of Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea: A History of the Liberian People Before 1800. The book, which took 30 years to research, will be published in a few months. To learn more about the book, go to Kickstarter.com and search for “Kola Forest.” For information on the author, visit www.patricksplace.org.