Why Did the Book Disappear, Depriving Generations of Liberians Reading and Knowledge of Their Culture?
Address by Kenneth Y. Best, Publisher, Daily Observer Newspaper, at a Workshop Sponsored by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism and UNESCO, National Museum, Monrovia, April 17, 2019
Permit me first to thank you, Madam Culture Assistant Minister Margaret Cooper Frank, for your kind invitation to be part of this important forum.
Let me thank you for one thing more—you and Cultural Affairs Director Darius Gweh. I thank you both for your respective letters written to me on March 8 and March 18, 2019, both of which, for the first time in the history of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism and (MICAT), acknowledge me, Kenneth Y. Best, as “the first person who wrote or worked on The Cultural Policy in Liberia.”
I must tell you that this is the first time that anyone, besides UNESCO, the first time anyone in Liberia, and certainly anyone from my own beloved MICAT, which I served for the first ten years of my professional Journalism career, has ever acknowledged the little contribution I tried to make toward documenting the development of Liberian culture!
I wrote the book in 1973 and it was published by UNESCO in June 1974. But never once has anyone at my old and beloved office, MICAT, ever said even a word to me acknowledging that I had anything to do with this book. But there is much more to be said.
Let me begin this reflection by posing the question, What is Culture? We need to know this to help us understand what we are talking about. Culture, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training; the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and social norms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group; also, the characteristic features of everyday existence, shared by people in a place or time; the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices associated with a particular people, field, activity or societal traits that characterize a nation, institution or organization.
Let me give you a particular example of what we are talking about here: One day in 1982 I decided to take all of our children to the National Cultural Center at Kendeja, on the Robertsfield Highway. And what did we find there? A highly talented young Liberian acrobat named Jacob Dweh, who hailed from Grand Gedeh County. Jacob was doing all kinds of unimaginable things with his body. This included walking on his hands with his feet behind him high in the air!
When we returned home, our four year-old son, Bai Sama Gwening Best, still in Kindergarten, as soon as we entered our house at Voker Mission in Paynesville, immediately got on the floor and started walking on his hands, with his feet behind him high in the air! This child had decided to apply swiftly and exactly what he had learned culturally at the National Cultural Center. And guess what: Bai, though now in his early 40s, can still walk on his hands with his feet behind him in the air!
This is what culture does. It helps us form our habits and develop our capabilities. If the culture we learn is good, it makes us good. If it is bad, then we become bad.
This is the meaning and importance of culture.
At this juncture, I call on the President of Liberia, George Weah, to take immediate efforts to rebuild the National Cultural Center. We need it, and our young people, our children and even the unborn generations of Liberians need it!
None of us can ever understand why, after dislodging the National Cultural Center from the land on which President W.V.S. Tubman built it in the early 1960s, our first elected woman President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, sold the land to R.L. Johnson, an American developer, to build a tourist resort. Yes, but Ellen, our President, never rebuilt the Cultural Center. Why did she do that? Was she, or is she not interested in culture? She and all her siblings hail from one of the main centers of Liberian indigenous culture—Bomi County, inhabited by the Gola and Dey, two of Liberia’s oldest ethnic groups. The Gola and Dey, like their cousins, the Vai, are among the pillars of Poro and Sande Culture and Bush Schools. Bai T. Moore, Liberia’s leading cultural icon of his day, was part of the Dey-Gola-Vai tradition. Other ethnic groups that are part of this Poro and Sande tradition are the Kpelle, Lorma, Gbandi, Kissi, Mende and Mano. Gio women are part of the Sande tradition.
I repeat my fervent plea to President Weah that he should please rebuild the National Cultural Center. We hope that the government will choose either Dimeh, birthplace of Bai T. Moore, or the neighboring Bissau Village, which has been for generations among the centers of Poro and Sande culture, for the rebuilding of the Cultural Center.
Speaking of my own cultural and educational upbringing, I would like to ask, What did Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) in Suacoco, Bong County, Liberia, do for me in my formative years? Cuttington, thanks to the dynamic and highly committed teachers we had there, taught and compelled us to use and appreciate the library, which at that time held the richest library collections in Liberia. We had to visit and use the library regularly as a MUST if we wanted to make progress in our academic work.
It was this cultural habit of appreciating and regularly visiting the library at Cuttington that led me to do the first thing when in December 1972 I arrived in Paris as part of the Liberian delegation to the UNESCO General Conference. The visionary and enlightened Minister of Education, G. Flamma Sherman, had written to my Boss, G. Henry Andrews, President Tolbert’s first Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, telling him, “UNESCO is not only Education, but also Culture and Information—that is you. So please name one person to be on our delegation to the UNESCO General Conference.” As God would have it, Minister Andrews named me to represent MICAT on the delegation to the UNESCO General Conference. It was the first and probably the only time a non-Education person had been named on the delegation to the UNESCO General Conference!
The first thing I did on the morning upon my arrival at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris was to visit the UNESCO library. I went straight to the Liberia section of the library. And what did I find in the three or four box files under the name LIBERIA? There was not a single sheet of paper in any of those files. Absolutely nothing!
I immediately went to see the Chief Librarian at UNESCO to enquire what had happened? Why was there nothing in the Liberia boxes? She told me, “Every year your people come to these conferences—some of them come two to three times a year for committee meetings—and each time we ask them, on their return, to send us some information on Liberia for placing on the Liberia shelf; but each time they return with nothing. I immediately gave her my business card and asked for hers, which she obliged. I pledged that from then on, every press release, pamphlet, book or film we produce at the Ministry of Information will be sent to the UNESCO Library.
I then returned to the UNESCO library and quickly discovered something else: There was a Cultural Policy on every shelf—the cultural policies of the various nations, but NONE on the Liberia shelf! There was the Cultural Policy of Sierra Leone, of Ghana and of Nigeria, and of all the French-speaking African nations, all the Asian and European nations, but NONE on the Liberia shelf!
I returned to the UNESCO Chief Librarian and asked How come there was no Cultural Policy of Liberia on the Liberia shelf? She told me the same thing: “Every year your people come here to conferences and we suggest to them that they find two or three persons at the University of Liberia or Cuttington to write a Cultural Policy of Liberia; but every year they return with nothing.”
I then asked, how does one write a Cultural Policy of Liberia? Having possession of my business card, which read Assistant Minister for Information at MICAT, she asked, “You’re a journalist, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then you can write a Cultural Policy of Liberia.”
“How do I do that?”
“We will ask you to sign a contract, and when you return home, you can do the research and write the Cultural Policy of Liberia, send us the manuscript by October 15, 1973 and UNESCO will publish it by June 1974. We do not have a lot of money to pay you for this work, which I’m sure will be considerable. But we will give you an honorarium.”
“Money is not the problem,” I told her. “But Liberia needs a Cultural Policy like all the other nations. Bring the contract. I will sign it.”
Upon my return home in early February, 1973, I immediately set to work. I started right at Information, in the Ministry’s Cultural Bureau, headed then by the legendary Bai T. Moore. He provided me with all the information he had, including the documentation transferring to Information all cultural and traditional activities from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Act of Legislature effecting the transfer. He also gave me the Act and other documentation establishing the National Cultural Center at Kendeja.
I visited the National Cultural Center and captured all that was going on there. One of unique features displayed at the Cultural Center was an array of 16 huts, in which lived people from Liberia’s 16 ethnic groups, each speaking their own language, cooking and eating their own food, producing their own art and artifacts and practicing their own dances and acrobatics, etc.
I would like at this juncture in this Address to urge Liberians to teach their children our languages. There are too many families that are failing to teach their children their indigenous languages. Language is the bearer of culture. If our children do not learn their languages, Liberian culture will die out. This is a very dangerous development and we need to STOP IT NOW.
My next stop in my research on Liberia’s cultural policy was the University of Liberia, where I received all the information on its establishment and operations. I then traveled on to Cuttington in Suacoco, Liberia, for their information. UL and Cuttington were then the country’s only two institutions of higher learning
I next visited the William V.S. Tubman High School, which at the time had a dynamic and elaborate cultural program. Tubman High was the first to organize a school cultural troupe and soon, most other schools followed. Tubman High also had a full scale curriculum on African History and Culture, from eighth grade to senior high, and they gave me that syllabus and all other relevant information.
I then found information on the establishment of the Tubman Center for African Culture in Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, which the Cape Mountainians built in 1964 to honor President Tubman on his 69th birthday.
Initially I closely examined the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia which, though it had absolutely no mention of the word “culture” in the entire document, I tried to link as many of its parts to cultural relevancy.
I next began to gather photographs to back up my thesis. By October 14, 1973 my secretary at Information, a fellow called A.B. Derrick, now unfortunately deceased, set to work to produce the final manuscript. We sat up all night until 4 a.m. typing the document. We left the office at 4:15 a.m. and after dropping him home, I proceeded homeward in Oldest Congotown where my young wife, Mae Gene and I lived. Half asleep on the wheel on Tubman Boulevard, I almost ran into the steep ditch at the Catholic Hospital junction. But the good, gracious and merciful Lord stopped me, and I returned to the highway and got home safely.
UNESCO fulfilled their promise and sent me two copies of the book entitled Cultural Policy in Liberia, published by UNESCO 1974. By that time I had resigned from the Tolbert government and accepted an appointment as Information Director of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the leading pan African church body, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Our UNESCO friends knew that and sent me the two copies of the book and a US$400 honorarium. In their letter, addressed to me in Nairobi, they informed me that they had sent several boxes of the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, to the Ministry of Education and to my old office, the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT).
In 1975 my brother-in-law, Sama Byron Traub, died in a motor accident. So I accompanied Mae Gene to the funeral in Monrovia. Following the funeral I seized the opportunity while at home to visit first, the Education Ministry, to find out whether they had received the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, which UNESCO said they had sent.
My first stop was to the Education library on the fifth floor of the Ministry, then at the corner of Broad and MeChlin Streets. The librarian was Leo Eastman, whom I knew very well—he had helped introduce me to literature in the mid-1940s when I was yet in the premier classes. He told me he had never heard that I had written a book. I persuaded him to look on his library shelves because I was pretty sure a copy was there. We looked and looked and there was none to be found. He escorted me outside and just then we saw Mrs. Bertha Baker Azango walking toward another office in the Ministry. She was one of those at the UNESCO General Conference which I had attended in 1974. Mrs. Azango, an Assistant Minister at Education, was frequently in Paris at UNESCO meetings. When I asked her about the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, she had a snappy and shocking answer for me. “All that money the people finished paying you, you haven’t given people one cent, and you come asking them about book?” And she quickly walked away from me.
I was shocked at her response and didn’t know what to think of it.
My next stop after leaving the Education Ministry at my old office, the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), where I had spent the first 10 years of my professional life—1964-December 1973. At Information, I met one of the young fellows whom I, as Director of Press and Publications, had trained. He came to us from Dakar with two diplomas, one in French and the other in Journalism, in 1968 and was assigned under me. I found him to be very serious and dependable and soon he became my right hand man in the Bureau. In 1972 when I was elevated to the position of Assistant Minister for Information, I was asked whom I wanted to succeed me. “Johnny McClain,” I replied. He got the job.
When in December 1973 I resigned en route to Kenya to take up my new assignment with the AACC, I was again asked the same question—“Whom do you want to succeed you?” My answer was the same—“Johnny McClain.” The Information authorities put to me the same question they had asked before—“But Johnny doesn’t have a degree.” And my response was the same: “Is it degree you’re looking for, or someone who can do the job?” Again, Johnny got the job.
When I reached Information that grim Monday morning in July 1975, I went straight to Assistant Minister Johnny McClain’s office. He told me that UNESCO had indeed sent several boxes of the Cultural Policy in Liberia book, and he had seen them. But he did not know where they were. The only copy he referred me to was one lonely copy locked away in a cupboard downstairs in the Information library! I couldn’t find anyone at Information who knew anything more than what Johnny McClain had told me.
This means that the all the generations of Liberians, young and old, since 1974 have been deprived of this valuable book—why? What happened to the book? Was it burnt? Thrown away? Locked away somewhere never to be found? Dr. Edward Binyan Kesselly, (PhD, Political Science), who was then Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism is now deceased. Johnny Mclain, who later rose to become Deputy Minister, then full Minister of Information during the Tolbert administration, served UNESCO for over a quarter of a century following the 1980 coup d’état that killed President Tolbert and several of his topmost officials. Following the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Liberia in 2005, she appointed Johnny McClain Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.
During the first year of this new administration again as Minister of Information, Johnny McClain one day invited me to a meeting at the Ministry and announced that he had asked UNESCO to send in an “expert” to develop a new Cultural Policy of Liberia. I attended the meeting as an invited guest and he told those gathered, “The man who wrote the first Cultural Policy of Liberia is seated over there, and he pointed to me. What surprised me and most others, however, is that Minister McClain had not brought a copy of the Cultural Policy in Liberia, which he told the meeting had been authored by me. As a key UNESCO official in West Africa for many years, based in Dakar and elsewhere, he must have frequently visited the UNESCO office in Paris. Why had he not brought a copy with him? It is often said in Africa that when you want to plat a new mat, you sit on the old one at least to observe the old pattern. This African tradition was broken. Why? We may never know.
In 2008, when our newspaper, the Daily Observer, was observing our 27th anniversary, I told my son Bai Sama Gwening Best that since we had decided to spend the anniversary at the National Cultural Center, it would be a good thing to take along with us a copy of the Cultural Policy in Liberia, written by me and published by UNESCO in 1974. “Let me check the Internet,” Bai replied.
He returned to me five minutes later and said, “Yes, I found several copies of the book available. But they are being sold for US$78!” How sad that a book by a fellow Liberian, which Liberians threw away is being sold abroad for US How sad that a book by a fellow Liberian, which Liberians threw away is being sold abroad for US$78!
I told him, “Bai, let’s by all means get a copy so we can take it to the Cultural Center on our anniversary.” But Bai replied, “Daddy, today is Wednesday, and we go to the Cultural Center on Saturday ensuing. There is no way a copy of the book would reach us in time. It would take at least four to five working days to get a copy here.
“But Bai,” I insisted, “we need to have a copy to take with us.” He then replied, “Let’s see if we can find a printable copy.”
Bai returned in 10 minutes with a copy of the book, which he had found on the Internet! We immediately made several copies and the following day I hand delivered a copy to the Minister of Education, Dr. Joseph Korto. He seemed happy to receive it and said he had never before laid hands on one. He promised to convene a meeting with his senior staff and invite me to attend, to determine what to do about the book for the present generation of Liberians. I am sorry to say, fellow participants, that that meeting was never called.
We also presented a copy of the book to Information Minister Dr. Laurence Komla Bropleh and he, too, happy to receive the book for the first time, promised to convene a meeting with his senior staff and me to determine what to do about the book and how it may be shared with the present generation of Liberians. That meeting, too, never took place.
I insist it is not too late convene these meetings—first at the Ministry of Education, then at MICAT; and later perhaps, the two Ministries need to hold a joint meeting to determine the way forward. These meetings should determine what to do about the book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, authored by me and published by UNESCO in 1974. Should it be reproduced and circulated in its present form, since most Liberians have not yet seen it, but people all over the world have read and deeply appreciated? Scholars the world over have said they found the book very valuable in their research on Liberia and Liberian cultural heritage.
Should the book also be expanded, to include all that has taken place culturally in Liberia since 1974? This is, I believe, a necessity, and I would be willing to join a team of researchers to pursue this initiative.
Before I close, permit me to present to you, Madam Culture Minister, two copies of Cultural Policy in Liberia, published by UNESCO—one copy for you and another copy for MICAT Minister Eugene Nagbe.
I once asked my late former Daily Observer Editor-in-Chief, Stanton Peabody, who served for many years as editor-in-chief of the True Whig Party newspaper, the Liberian Age, what he thought had happened to the several copies of the book that UNESCO sent it to Information in 1974. Stanton was always close to Information, for we at Information had always maintained a close working relation with the staff of the Liberian Age.
And this is what Stanton Peabody told me: “Envy, Mr. Best, envy. They didn’t write the book; you did, and that made them uneasy and jealous. So they let the book disappear.”
I then asked Stanton, “How can we build a country on envy?”
As Bob Dylan’s popular American song of the 1960s says, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind . . . the answer is blowing in the wind.”
Sitting at my computer at the Daily Observer office yesterday afternoon, July 13, 2021, I came across a copy of a speech which I had been invited to make at a Workshop Sponsored by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism and UNESCO, at the National Museum on Monrovia, April 17, 2019. It was after having read that speech, delivered at that UNESCO conference at the National Museum in 2019, that I decided to publish it today in our newspaper, the Daily Observer, for the benefit of the many who may not have seen it, and the tens of thousands more who have never heard of a book, Cultural Policy in Liberia, written by a Liberia journalist. I pray that this article will help our people to understand the role ENVY among Liberians toward one another has played in keeping Liberia continually undeveloped and backward.
When will we Liberians ever learn to start loving and appreciating one another, instead of envying, hating and undermining one another? Can we not see this attitude has taken us nowhere and never will?
The painful, tragic result is that our beloved Liberia, though the oldest Republic in Africa, remains one of the most backward.
We pray that we will stop this evil disposition of envy and hatred which we have toward one another and start loving and encouraging one another for the good of ourselves and our country.