Thursday, 7 July 2016

UL Poetry Reading by Dr Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

I attended the poetry reading by Dr Patricia Jabbeh Wesley at the University of Liberia auditorium yesterday. The event started at 2 but Haresh and I only reached by quarter to 3. The office car was in Sinkor picking up Kavita and Musu from summer camp. We hailed a keke just outside our office. It’s LD 60.00 for any single ride in town.

As always I enjoyed the rickshaw ride to the LU campus. Although the driver brought us to LU, he kept driving past it until we told him to turn around. I gave  US $ 1.00 to the driver but then he didn’t have change. Some kids rudely kept asking me to leave the keke and I explained I was waiting for change. Frustrated, I just left. Three students climbed in after me.

Haresh and I walked to the Auditorium. I had attended a lecture in 2011 or 2012 by a fellow who was talking about security. He had researched perception of the public of the UNMIL peacekeepers, of the police and of their own army. So, I knew that this reading was probably going to be in the same auditorium. The persons in the security booth at the entrance had no clue about the event.

Haresh mentioned to me that the thermographic cameras were broken and probably sitting in someone’s home. He was chatting about the cameras with the folks in the security booth while I was being hassled by those kids, trying to get my change.

Haresh thought I was being so stingy by asking for change. He and I quarreled about it on the way to the Auditorium.

Needless to say the event had started already. As I entered the hall, I saw lots of students outside and, wondered if there was no space inside or whether they were interested in the reading at all.

We entered to find a very empty hall but the poet’s voice booming across. We found a couple of seats right at the front.

After 13 years of living in Liberia, this was the first time I had the chance to attend a literary function in Monrovia. I had read the bio that was circulated on Google Expats Group yesterday and, was excited to be able to listen to and meet a distinguished Liberian poet and writer.

Patricia was reading her poems with command and rhythm.  And, what’s best was that this was no American voice but a “real” Liberian voice! I was really pleasantly surprised and sucked right into the sound and fury of her vivid words, descriptions and emotions.

If you have lived long in Liberia and try to navigate through its rather opaque society, you’ll be lucky to meet distinguished personalities, office going folks, and movers and shakers. Most times, many members of Liberia’s upper middle and upper classes have spent considerable time in the US so their accents are bona fide American, which can sometimes throw one off. (In fact, the same is true of polite Pakistani society where the younger generation will sport American accents, even if they haven’t been to the US).

So, my first impression of this poet was feeling rather star struck. Here, was a published Liberian poet, teaching at an American university, lived many years of exile abroad and yet spoke, nay sang, with a Liberian accent, an accent which I have come to really love over time.

Patricia recited a poem she wrote when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had been elected as the first post war president in a democratic election. She used the imagery of a rising river, digging up dead bodies, and how this was not only the time to celebrate Ellen but also all the other Ellens. She took Liberian names and recited them. Next was a poem she wrote for her brother’s visit to the US. She painted with irony how different life was in American where she vacuumed, cleaned, and sometimes wouldn’t meet anyone else for days, except for the pizza delivery guy. She said when she first arrived in the US, she would hug people naturally but after a while, it got too strange. She missed how someone would come to the house to sell fish. She also talked about writing poems about her children and, joked about how they were tired of another poem by Mommy about them.  She said she liked to write a poem on any occasion.

Patricia recited a poem about her son, who was also in the audience, and, it was a funny description of a teenager hooker to wires and head sets.

Patricia was engaging with friends in the audience and her friend, the VP/Dean of Student Affairs. She was joking and, it was extremely entertaining.

Liberian humour is frank. If you are a stiff, introverted and quiet type of person, you have no chance against it.  Liberian humour is banter, friendly insults, and teasing. Joking is meant to ease conversation, start the conversation and end it. Teasing is harmless and intimate. Then, there are the mannerisms that form Liberian way of speaking. There is the oh at the end of every sentence. There is the thud-like ahan pronounced to seek affirmation.

There’s also the freestyle use of grammar. Sometimes, when Kavita is walking down the street, passer bye’s, hawkers, security guards, and market women will tease Kavita and ask her for her bag or toy or share her plantain chips. When she says “no,” someone will joke to her and say, “Oh you want to mean me.”

I love Liberian mazak!

So, here was Patricia the poet bantering and joking in between reciting her poems that were her memories of her country, of war and of her children.

She was trying to fan herself, hold the microphone and recite her poems. After a while, she got frustrated and just asked the person next to her to help. And then, someone was about to take her photograph and she warned him that there better be no sweat on her face, oh!

Then, after a while, the curtains were closed, the lights were turned on and the ACs came on. The Dean joked that in case she wrote a poem about LU, she should write that the AC was on. 

It’s this joking kind of that characterises the Liberian sense of humour. It is frank. It will make light of almost all seriousness and, try to reduce the pomp and formality.

At the same time, despite all the humour and frankness, Patricia is a poet who has seen violence, murder, death, war and grief first hand. As an exile, she has nursed a life-long longing and nostalgia for the days before the war and missing home. She herself said, no matter what, home is home. And, therefore, the joking and banter can hide pain and anguish. Or, maybe it lives side by side.

During the question and answer session, one audience member asked whether Patricia would come back to Liberia. While answering it, she spoke of another anecdote where someone had asked her what she had contributed to Liberia and, they would not asked it if they had known her. She said she had taught for many years at LU and, often walked home. She was making about $ 200.00 and would gladly come back to Liberia if she were paid a proper salary.

A student expressed his excitement at attending the event and, that he wanted help in getting published. He had written about 20 poems. Patricia said she would be happy to help but she hoped help would be properly received. She said often times she has met students who are arrogant and, don’t want to take advice and comments. And, sometimes, they self publish! She said self publishing is like going to your own medical school! She said self publishing was the graveyard for writers. She also said that to be poet and writer, one had to humble oneself. She said she used to go to Bai T Moore’s office once every week to listen and talk to him.

She commented on how empty the auditorium was while dozens and dozens of students were out and about on the campus. She referred to a comment made by another dignitary at the event who said “Liberians were not ready” and she agreed. They were not not ready to listen. She said, she had been to university campuses in Kenya where the auditoriums were full and youngsters were hugging her, and taking photographs with her. She said when she bought her property in the US, her neighbours googled her and when they found out she was a poet, they wanted to put her on the cover of a magazine.

These comments were not a brag but pointing out the irony that of the few Liberian intellectuals and artists that existed, they were not celebrated or even known at home with the same enthusiasm and appreciation abroad.

I asked her what hope she had for the preservation of Liberian’s indigenous languages. She said there were so many languages in Liberia with many sub dialects. Unfortunately, Liberians referred to the different languages such as Mano, Gio, and Grebo as dialects instead of separate language groups. She said one sentence in Grebo and, said it was almost no use in translating it into English because the meaning is lost. Patricia said that not even enough work was being done to preserve history and arts and, languages were being left behind. She said she and I should exchange numbers! And, she also said, “Welcome, this is your home, too” because when I introduced myself, I mentioned that I had lived in Liberia since 2003. 

I nodded to Haresh, laugh together with him, with the audience and, keenly listened to Patricia. During the question and answer session, which was rather too short, and looking around the room, gazing at faces of older faces, I was reminded again of Liberia’s faded glory and how much Patricia’s generation and those even older than her, were traumatised by loss, what they had witnessed, and nostalgia.

At one point, Patricia said that it was very important to preserve Liberia's history and, realise its uniqueness in West Africa. Yes, the Congo had come to Liberia to colonise it but their history is intertwined with Liberia and, it is no longer useful to keep blaming them. She said ironically that it was the very Congo presence that made Liberia unique in Africa. 

She was asked whether she had gone back to Duport Road or Soul Clinic, places with some of the worst massacres. She said she had deliberately not read any passage from her upcoming memoir because it still made her cry. But she briefly mentioned running in the streets, seeing murder, even a pregnant woman cut up, and trying to comfort a woman who had her husband murdered and her son was missing. She said she was regularly coming back to Liberia to go back to the places, which were scenes of carnage or where her friends had been killed or where she had lived.

The event ended soon and, I asked Haresh to take a photograph of me with Patricia. A group had formed and, cameras were clicking away. I managed to have a few photos taken, including one with Miatta Fahnbulleh! I told her I had a painting by her Duke Ellington, which I hurriedly corrected to Duke Appleton.

Patricia’s poetry volumes were for sale. I asked her husband which one he recommended as a start and he told me to take her first one: Before the Palm Could Bloom. I also bought my first Liberian children’s book!

We didn’t have change so I went out of the auditorium looking for our driver Morris who by now had come to pick us up. I found him, and gave a $ 50.00 bill to break. When I got back into the Auditorium, Haresh was chatting to Mien-Too, Patricia’s son. Mien-Too and Charles Cooper own and run, a very popular app for ordering food in Monrovia. Haresh was regaling him with an interesting food order experience. 

We spent $ 27.00 on the 2 books. Money well spent!

I really enjoyed this reading on a rainy, gray Thursday afternoon. Cultural or academic events like these are too few.

Thinking about business, managing staff, and worrying about generators all day really takes a toll. We have settled into daily routines of calculating figures and complaining about the state of things day after day. Even while working in the development sector, the connection to Liberia’s literary voices was nonexistent. We thought and analysed Liberia only in terms of cold development numbers: number of population, demographic of population below 15 years of age, number of wells and latrines, number of ex-combatants, kilometers of feeder roads, number of public school buildings, cars in the annual budget, notepads and pens needed for a workshop, and so on. 

I remember during my time at UNDP, hearing exasperated comments made by fellow international colleagues, “The war is over! Why can’t get everyone get over it!” Now in hindsight, I think of how callous such remarks were in every single respect. Someone who would say something like this probably didn’t experience the war in Liberia nor even have a deep understanding of what happened. But then again, one doesn’t need to know. I would imagine a common person would understand from history of how long it took the United States to recover from its Civil War or of how almost 2 decades of civil war in Afghanistan had utterly devastated it and hardly left any semblance of what Afghanistan was in its heyday. So how, can a professional international officer at the UN make such an ignorant remark? 

International staff of aid agencies is often merely a bunch of technocrats. Deep historical or socio-economic knowledge and understanding of they countries they serve is not required. What is required is proposal writing to rich donors, draft a budget, write a log frame, convene workshops, and write reports. Now that a master’s degree in development is almost a must, aid workers are increasingly knowledgeable about gender issues, how globalisation affects development issues, war and conflict, but this knowledge is somehow not really informing development policy or agenda. NGOs still base their short-term projects on the underlying market-driven, liberal democracy ideology.

After participating in this poetry event, I realised that Liberia’s intellectual class has hardly had any public opportunity to talk about the war. I don’t remember any series of talks or public conversations where artists, poets, writers and journalists could come together during post war Liberia. We had of course the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but it was criticised for lacking any solemnity or soul searching. It was presided over by a very young fellow who could not lend the process any weight. Those testifying or sharing horrific experiences of rape were heckled. Moreover, the President herself at first dismissed it and then reluctantly attended the last few sessions. And of course, none of the names recommended for barring from holding of public office in a very disjointed report, were barred including the President. A series of Palavat Hut ceremonies were held all over the country but from what I remember, they did not really achieve healing or reconciliation but were mere formalities in the rush to create a semblance of peace. This event made me realise that Liberians have not finished talking about the war and where it is headed. The Europeans still remember and commemorate World War 1 and 2, noble wars against fascism. North America and Europe still can’t get over The Holocaust. Never mind that these were not world wars but European wars which were taken to colonial territories; that Bengal suffered Famine because its rations were diverted to World War 2 soldiers; and, that African and Asian soldiers who served in WWI and WW2 have been all but forgotten. Almost every year, Hollywood or Europe makes a move about these Wars. Don’t these newscasters on BBC wear a red flower on their lapels to commemorate the War? Aren’t Palestinians still paying for the Holocaust? In short, why not remember all wars and, their consequences? 

Where are the voices and images recounting the Liberian war? Postwar Liberia is compromise with itself, with its warlords and the richer, more powerful regional and global powerful. In the post war Liberia, we don’t talk about the war any more, its brutality, or its destruction. We don’t hear from the old generation. In fact, we hardly see the old generation. The newspapers are full of political scandals, stories of bribery and corruption, sensational news of looting and armed robberies, football, and photo opportunities of some NGO or UN agency inaugurating a latrine or donation of vehicles to the Police. The public service billboards in the country almost infantise the populace: wash your hands, don't rape, report corruption, etc. They are dotted with logos of donors and 'implementing partners.' There is sense of betrayal of course everywhere: of how deprived Liberians still are and what a deep sense of mistrust the Liberian has with his or her government. There is a sense that the powerful and rich are just “eating money.” It is difficult to find deep and honest political commentary that is well-written in newspapers and editorial columns. And even if you manage to find some, it is lone and without further debate. There is definitely an intellectual vacuum in Liberia. 

During the answer and question session, someone from the University bemoaned the lack of research in the departments. Patricia agreed and said even basic curriculum needed to be revised.

How will an intellectual  and artistic revival will take place in Liberia?

Will there ever be a Museum in Liberia which pays homage to the victims of Liberia's civil war?


  1. This is a lovely post. Yah lookin' fahn oh! ;-)

  2. Wow! This is a really interesting article, analytical, powerful, and informative. I love how you talked about the reading with a backdrop of historyour. Thsnks you, Farzana.

  3. Wow! This is a really interesting article, analytical, powerful, and informative. I love how you talked about the reading with a backdrop of historyour. Thsnks you, Farzana.

  4. A great post! This post is a beautiful description of all that is Liberia with her qualities, her faults and her history. You obviously have enfolded Liberia into your heart and have many truths to tell from the perspective of one who sees clearly and loves dearly.

  5. Hmm. Come back to Liberia if she was paid a proper salary? Right.