By Nvasekie Konneh
When most Liberians think of arts and culture, their thinking and definitions are limited to what used to be Kendeja or the national cultural troop performing on stage during national occasions. But understanding and appreciation of arts and culture goes beyond such simple definition.
The broader definition of culture include our ways of life, our ethnic and cultural diversity, our behavior patterns, beliefs, our crafts, cuisines, traditional dance, folklore, music, film, photography and even our architecture. Art is the creative process through which our culture is portrayed or promoted and it includes literature, performance and visual arts, fashion, photography, food etc.
Though we have the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, the cultural affairs and tourism portions of the ministry have not been as vibrant as they should be. When fully developed, arts and culture can be a lucrative portion of the nation’s economic activities and can also be a source of employment for many people, especially the youths.
In this day and age, it is unfortunate that many of us have not seen or seem to appreciate the role artistic creativity can play in our body politic and the national economy. Such could be the main function of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism besides its usual role as the political propaganda arm of our government.
The ministry must make arts, culture, and tourism relevant factors in our nation’s economic development planning. Towards this end, we must develop a national cultural policy that will encompass all aspects of Liberian art, culture and tourism.
While the US is known as the most dominant economic and military power of the world, its cultural dominance of the world is even evident everywhere. And this is done through its literature, fashion, music, movies. So even if some people in some parts of the world may resent the US because of its military, political and economic dominance, no one can deny the allure of its culture portrayed in its literature, movies, music, fashion etc.
Same thing could be said of Jamaica and the influence of its reggae music that draws millions of tourists every year to that Island nation and Nigeria and its legends of writers and artists such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Fela Kuti and now the Nigerian movie industry which can only be compared to Hollywood or Bollywood given its popularity worldwide.
Liberia as a nation born of the coming together of free black slaves from the US and Caribbean and the native Africans they met on the ground should boast of culture born of that coming together and market that to the rest of the world, especially people of the African diaspora, as part of its cultural policy as it relates to tourism.
One of the great Pan African thinkers and writers who is called the “grandfather of Pan Africanism,” Wilmot Blyden was a Liberian. Though he was born in the Caribean, it is in Liberia where he became famous as a Pan Africanist. Where in Liberia did he live? What about King Sao Bosso Kamara and his Condo Confederacy, or Bob Gray the Bassa Chief?
What about the Vai Script, or the stories of Madam Suacoco or even Joseph Jenkins Robert and others of our former presidents born in the USA? How much do we know about Benjamin J.K. Anderson and his exploration of the hinterland that took him to Musadou? The stories relating to all these are parts of our cultural heritage that is worth being celebrated.
When we are talking about tourism, our discussion should not only be limited to the physical features such as the beaches, forest reserves, or waterfalls. If Ghana has Elmina Slave Castle and Senegal has Goree Island as major tourist attractions for the Diaspora Africans, we too should include our unique history in Africa as tourist attractions for millions of tourists that may find interest in visiting our country.
To achieve the goal of promoting Liberian arts, culture and tourism, we must work, and develop a national cultural policy. Such national cultural policy will focus on the development and promotion of Liberian cultural heritage. It is said that there have been previous studies and conferences with regard to developing our national cultural policy.
One of such is the Cultural Policy of Liberia, written by the famed Liberian journalist and publisher of the Daily Observer newspaper. This cultural policy was published by the UNESCO as far back as 1974, but neither this book nor the results of studies and conferences have been utilized.
Therefore, it will be prudent to bring together individuals and organizations to study all previous cultural policy documents so as to develop a comprehensive national cultural policy that will take into consideration all the modern means of communication technology of our time in promoting Liberian arts, culture and tourism.
Today there are many talented Liberian writers, performance and visual artists both in and outside of Liberia but because of lack of a defined cultural policy, their impact on our national development are not felt. It is imperative that we harness the creative energy of these creative Liberians everywhere with great sense of nationalism and patriotism for the development and progress of our nation.
We can start with organizing a conference inviting Liberian writers, writer organizations, performance and visual artists, actors/actresses and producers and the media to discuss the roles individuals and groups can play in the formulation of our national cultural policy.
With a cultural policy we can demonstrate proper analysis and understanding of the Liberian cultural life, cultural values and cultural needs and expectations of people; affirmation of our authentic cultural values and cultural heritage; building up of a national cultural identity and parallel affirmation of cultural identities of different ethnic groups; development of cultural infrastructure and introduction of new technologies in promoting cultural activities; establishment of links between culture and education, as well as between education and different cultural industries.
National Cultural Festivals
Another thing we can do as a result of national cultural policy is the hosting of annual cultural festivals which will bring together Liberian talents and creativity to showcase their creative talents on national stage. On such occasions, awards should be given to the best writers of novels, short stories, poetry, dramas, dance, music, movies etc. Such annual cultural festivals should help in developing our sense of oneness and unity of purpose.
Why We Don’t Appreciate Who We Are?
Why we don’t appreciate who we are as people and nation? Where is our sense of cultural identity? Why we always complain about and denigrate each other? Is it because of self-love or self-hatred? These questions are asked a lot. Listen to any Liberian radio station. You will realize that foreign music dominates our radio stations playlists.
It is always western, Nigerian, or Ghanaian music that dominate our radio stations’ air time. Then you ask why? In 2010 while in Liberia during which time I published the Uptown Review magazine promoting Liberian arts, culture and tourism, I did an extensive article on this issue by interviewing many Liberian radio journalists.
You can read that article here just to give you some ideas as to why you only occasionally hear Liberian music on our radio stations. Go to any Liberian program, be it birthday or social event. You will hear all kinds of music from everywhere but very little from Liberia.
That attitude only shows that either we don’t have any culture to be proud of or we are a people who are ashamed of their cultural identity. With a national cultural policy, we can make Liberians to be appreciative of themselves and their cultural values. We must understand there can be no strong sense of nationalism where a strong sense of cultural identity and appreciation are lacking.
Not only our electronic media is foreign dominated in term of arts and culture, our print media is dominated by political discussions with headlines always about politics and politicians as if to say nothing else is going on in the country. With national cultural policy, we can encourage the media, both electronic and print to diversify the contents of their news reporting and commentaries.
While most Liberian newspapers only carry foreign stories in their entertainment columns, Frontpage Africa and Daily Observer have done well over the years in showcasing Liberian creative talents and their creative outputs. We can encourage other media entities to follow suit in diversifying their coverage to include inspiring stories of our novelists, poets, artists and fashion designers etc and the creative industry as a whole.
Promoting Liberian Literature in Liberian Educational System
When I attended grade school through high school, most books used for instruction were written and published by foreign writers and publishers. This is the same for majority of students in our school system even today. Just as we describe the lack of air time given to Liberian music through our electronic media, same thing can be said of books written by Liberian writers based on Liberian experience which have not been considered for our schools.
This situation has been decried by Liberian writers over the years. Our educational budget for books has millions of dollars that go to foreign writers and publishers at the detriment of Liberian writers and students. How can we inculcate the idea of love for country in our students when majority of the learning materials in our schools are not about our own environment and experience?
That leaves our students knowing more about other places than their own villages, towns and cities. Though some efforts have been made by the government to ameliorate the issue, we shall study to what extent this has gone and see how we can accelerate the progress. In that light, we shall encourage Liberian writers to visit schools throughout the country to promote reading culture among students by conducting reading and writer workshops. Our national cultural policy should address all of these.
How Arts and Culture Can Be Used to Foster National Unity?
Over the years we have heard so much negatives about each other ethnic groups, to the extent that the moment you mention any group’s name the only thing that pops up in people’s minds about that group is a negative stereotype. This kind of negative stereotyping reinforces negative tribalism where people are skeptical of all others and only feel secure with their own kind.
Our cultural policy should embrace and celebrate any Liberian who has done something remarkable for which any Liberian can be proud of. We must understand and appreciate that we are one people with diverse cultures. We can identify the positive contributions we all are making towards the development and progress of our nation. And we can do this effectively with a national cultural policy.
About the Author: Nvasekie Konneh a Liberian writer and author of three books, “Going to War for America,” The Land of My Father’s Birth” and “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together,” a collection of poems and essays. He is a contributing writer to the on-line Liberian literary magazine. He also contributes articles on African arts, cultures and politics to several newspapers in Liberia as well as in the US, including Black Star News in New York City. In 2014, he produced two parts documentary on ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia which has had rave reviews on Youtube as well as on local television station in Liberia. He can be reached at [email protected].