There is a certain Paynesville resident who every morning makes it his duty to pick up students and drop them at their schools in Monrovia. He usually asks their names, whereupon, he detects the ethnic group from which each hails.
He also asks, “Do you speak the language? To the child named Juah,” he asks, “Do you speak Kru?” To the name Korvah comes the question: “Do you speak Lorma?” Sia, “Do you speak Kissi?” Fanta, “Do you speak Mandingo?” Wede, “Do you speak Grebo?” Yormie, “Do you speak Gio?”
It is most unfortunate that for 98 per cent of these children, the answer each morning is “No!” or, “I don’t know that thing, oh.”
What a national tragedy—Liberians are not teaching our children their languages.
However, for most of the Mandingo students this Paynesville resident picks up, the answer is YES! The Paynesville resident then asks each with the answer No to make him a promise: “When you go home today, please ask your ma, pa, aunty or grandmother to teach you your language. It is very important for one to speak his or her own language.”
At this point in this Editorial, we say a joyful Thank God for four people: Senator Varney Sherman, his maternal grandfather, grandmother and grandaunt!
These are the people who raised Varney Sherman from infancy through high school. His maternal grandfather, a traditionalist, spoke Vai fluently and cared for his relatives, including his sisters, who were Varney’s grand aunts. But none of them spoke English. So since they were responsible to raise this child—his mother, shortly after his birth, traveled to Monrovia to complete her education—the grand aunts spoke nothing but Vai to Varney. So from early childhood he grew up speaking Vai—before he learned English.
Varney was very bright and studious. In our recent interview with him, he told our team of reporters, “I did not only learn to speak Vai. I studied it.”
Is there any wonder that because he was bright and studious he excelled academically, becoming valedictorian at St. John’s Episcopal High School and graduating from Cuttington, excelling in Science and Mathematics?
His St. John’s teachers, especially Ms. Banarby, the school’s legendary American Science instructor, wanted him to become a medical doctor because he excelled in Chemistry, Biology and Math. What they probably did not know was that Law was in Varney’s genes. Both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were lawyers. Both were also elected Grand Cape Mount Senators. The paternal grandfather founded the Wakolo Law Firm in Robertsport in 1928. Varney’s father inherited that firm and several of Varney’s brothers became lawyers. A younger brother also graduated from Harvard Law School.
Today, Varney Sherman is one of Liberia’s most successful corporate lawyers and many believe he is Liberia’s richest lawyer. His firm ranks, along with the nation’s oldest—the Henries Law Firm (1944)—as the second firm in its own building. Others are Pierre and Tweh Law Firm and The International Group of Legal Advocates and Consultants.
All of these successes—and legacies—would naturally lead Varney into politics.
His 2005 presidential bid was unsuccessful; but that could not possibly have been the political end for this talented, wealthy, ambitious young man. So, like his grandfathers, he decided to enter Cape Mount’s 2014 Senatorial race. And that is when his linguistic legacy laid in.
Varney is modest, never boastful. So only a few knew of his Vai linguistic prowess (ability, competence, dexterity). So when he appeared before his proud Cape Mount people, the vast majority of whom—whether Dey, Gola, Mende or Mandingo—speak Vai—he addressed them in the classical Vai he learned from his grannies.
When the votes were counted, he had won by a wide margin.
We have taken pains today to explain how one man’s example convincingly demonstrates the importance of learning to speak one’s indigenous language. Liberian parents, PLEASE TEACH OUR CHILDREN OUR LANGUAGES! Look how far it has brought Varney Sherman!
Ministry of Education, please start teaching our languages in our primary and secondary schools throughout the country—NOW! All Liberian universities should also require every student to be able to speak at least one Liberian language before graduation.
Remember, language is the bearer of culture. Lose it, you lose your culture.