A Call and Plea to Liberia’s First Lady, Madame Clar Duncan Weah

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She is now 84 years old but still strong. Her beauty, even in such advanced age is remarkable and she carries herself with unpretentious grace and poise. She has since retired from the performance stage where she once acted out her life experiences in traditional dance and song on the world stage.

Over the course of her career, she had met and worked with the late great African diva, Mariam Makeba and others including Harry Belafonte, Philemon Hou, the famous Ballet Africaine, Liberian revolutionary songstress, Miatta Fahnbulleh, the late Peter Ballah, Jallah K.K. Kamara, Ma Gbeisay Kiazolu, Liberian dance artist and choreographer Aaron Lewis, the late Wilhemina Snyder (later became known as Mother Wilhemina Dukuly), and not forgetting her supporter in-chief, mentor and relative renowned Liberian writer and poet, Bai T. Moore. Earlier, while living and working as a performer in New York City, she would attend classes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to upgrade her skills.

Recalling history, she shot to local fame and prominence not by her scintillating performances on stage as a cultural dance artist, but as a singer with the hit song entitled, “Young Girls Stop Drinking Lysol”. Lysol was a poisonous liquid used mainly as disinfectant for bathrooms, etc. It was the rising suicide rate among jilted female lovers, mainly Monrovia socialites, that inspired the hit song.

Rather than face the shame of being jilted, they resorted to suicide. And the choice method at the time was to drink a bottle of the highly poisonous substance.  Monrovians recalled at the time that a promising young lady from a well known Monrovia family, committed suicide by drinking Lysol.  Methodist Preacher the late former President of Liberia College Dr. T. Ebenezer Ward, in his funeral discourse, is said to have couched his sermon in figurative tones.

He made reference to the oceans inhabited by a variety of big fish including barracuda, grouper, Marlin, locally known as “Napleh”, all hot favorites of local fisher folks.  And he likened the deceased to a fisherman/woman ignoring such categories of fish tugging at her line opted instead to pull the line tugged by a small bony fish commonly called “Gbapleh” which had little or no commercial value. Besides its flesh contained tiny but sharp pieces of fish bone which often got stuck in soft throat tissue causing great distress.

That she, according to him would commit suicide for a man worth no more than a Gbapleh, although he hailed from a prominent Monrovia family, was to Dr. Ward very distressful and virtually unforgivable.

Drawing on that episode, that beautiful young lady hailing from a lowly village from Dewoin District in Bomi County would craft a popular advocacy piece, ‘Young Girls Stop Drinking Lysol’, which would propel her to instant stardom.

For years, she served the Ministry of Information working with the Liberian National Cultural Center and dance troupe. She performed at the Algiers Festival in 1966 where Liberia won top prizes, the Dakar Festival and the Lagos Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) in Nigeria widely known as Festac where she also won accolades for Liberia.

Today, Yatta Zoe, now retired, sits out the rest of her days in a little village on the Monrovia-Tubmanburg Highway in virtual obscurity. There she maintains a collection of old newspapers recounting stories of her past, perhaps as a reminder of what was. Her home/house in Monrovia was burnt and destroyed during the war as well as a house in the village. She ended up selling the only decent property he had to pay for a life-saving surgery in Holland.

Although she rendered long years of service to Liberia as a cultural artist and icon, she does not even enjoy the benefit of a pension which would assist in addressing and catering to her daily needs. She acknowledges that she has received no royalties for music she produced, and she appears helpless to do anything about it. 

And despite the clamor by women rights activists about women representation and women rights, their attention appears not to be fixed on women such as Yatta Zoe, especially those hailing from traditional backgrounds, whose achievements and contributions to society have gone largely unrecognized. 

The victory of Madame Botoe Kanneh, a bush meat seller and ordinary market woman is being hailed by women activists as a great achievement for women.

But Botoe Kanneh comes to the fore, standing on the shoulders of other women of rural background, or “Lappa Women”, the first market women to become a legislator. Female presidential aspirant Macdella Cooper has described Botoe Kanneh’s achievement as a “Lappa Revolution”, meaning, we suppose, a victory for this daughter of Liberia whose traditional dress code, the lappa, can be considered intrinsic.

In every respect, Yatta Zoe’s lifetime achievement is a story to be told, which will definitely inspire other Liberian women. Part of this “Lappa Woman’s” journey of life takes her from rural surroundings to the city of Monrovia where class divisions were evident in daily life even at school, CWA which she once attended.

The fact that they were all school mates drinking from the same fountain of knowledge made little of no difference in the perception of upper-class girls who considered their counterparts “country”, a derisive appellation. “Country” girls knew their place and were expected to remain there being full aware of the expressions “Dogs among doctors makes medicine sick” or “Who Gave Dog Horns?”

Liberia has indeed come a long way, moving from the time when women had no voting rights to the election of a female president. However, despite such achievement, women for the most part still remain mired in poverty and obscurity. This new generation of women activists needs inspiration and guidance drawing on the life experiences of women like Yatta Zoe.

Can genuine women activists, not the FASHIONISTAS, take up the challenge to ensure that Yatta Zoe receives a livable government pension which she is entitled to by virtue of her age and contribution to Liberia? We commend former President Sirleaf for conferring on her a national distinction but that does not go far enough. This is a call and plea to President Weah as well as to Liberia’s first Lady, Madame Clar Duncan Weah to leverage her influence and power to ensure that Madame Yatta Zoe receives a livable pension before the Good Lord calls her home. This is not too great a favor to ask of a woman in the stead of the First Lady of Liberia, isn’t it?

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