I crossed the Montserrado river for the first time. Halfway across, we could see the destroyed bridge to the left – so iconic during the war. It remains in disrepair, like so many gutted buildings and abandoned building projects. Heading out of town that way, we passed the port, sparking for me, a reminder that the port was part of the final push in the war. The port cut off the city, no food or supplies could leave…or more importantly…enter Monrovia.

My tongue reacting before my brain could, I made a passing comment about the significance of the port in the war. And as the words left my lips I wondered if that was something better left unsaid.

This is new ground for me. Post conflict. Still so fresh in the history of the country, I’m not sure what I should say or not…what I should ask or not. Even things I would generally consider benign have potential to be divisive. My genuine interest could inadvertently slight…and that troubles me.

The dominant language of my area is Kpelle. Because this is such a short assignment we didn’t do any language training (the national language of Liberia is, after all, English) but language can go a long way and so I try to learn greetings and “thank you”, things that let people know I am interested to learn – to know. But the many different groups and the less rigid boundaries of ethnic groups and languages since the war makes that difficult.

Add to that the complexities behind the war. I’m still reading, still learning, but alongside the “haves” and “have nots” and the indigenous and americo-Liberians, there were also conflicts between ethnic groups. It makes me cautious about asking people what tribe they are a part of even for benign reasons.

The other day, sitting with a bunch of nursing students, and other folks assembled,  I asked one of the more vocal guys where he was from. It is the way I have tweaked “what language do you speak?” or “what ethnic group do you identify with?” into something that feels less acrimonious.

He looked at me and said, “I’m a Liberian. From Liberia.”

He went on to talk about the war. To talk about the division that ethnicity had played in it. How he, and other young people, were tired of it and wanted on to be kinsmen. Liberians. Without the tribal demarcation.

I understand the sentiment…moving from “tribalism” to “nationalism.“ At least wars fought for nation are less likely to be your family, your neighbors.

I don’t think nationalism yields much better results though. The territories and populations get bigger…but so do the wars. Afghanistan moved from internal turmoil to successive external combat…Russia and now the US. War is still war.

It isn’t a victimless transition either. In the wake of national solidarity, language and customs are pruned to make way for a more homogenous country-view. I remember a colleague in South Africa telling me that South Africa should discard the local languages and adopt English as the only official language. “they are holding us back,” he said. And he is right that speaking Zulu or Venda will not help you beyond the borders of South Africa the way English might…but there is more to language then the global market.

And it is a luxury of speaking English and being simply american that I can philosophize about the importance of language and kinship, culture and identity. A luxury because my little blue book, the passport that grants me entrance and exits from countries worldwide, has a definitive language and identity tied to it. And even though my brown face and kinky hair aren’t what first comes to mind when many people think american, I am still granted the protections of that book. A luxury because the rivalries between states – hippy dippy California vs. rude New York – doesn’t result in armed conflict.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that what might be lost in movement toward a unified and more uniform Liberia will be less than what is gained. Hell, I hope a unified Liberia is possible…that vision of a young Liberian who is ready for peace to take root and grow in the years to come. I hope Liberians everywhere are able to sit in the shade of that tree. And for the sake of that hope and the shade of that tree, I’ll rethink the questions I ask.

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1 Comment on liberian from liberia

  1. Dad says:

    Every time I read one of your bloggs, it brings up issues & situations that I never thought about. (I will own this so I won’t say we.) I live in a place & time where I am privileged to speak, think & pretty much do as I want. There are many around the world that can’t, sometimes under penalty of death. So too, I must think first about who I am speaking & how the question may affect the that person. And it don’t matter if that person is from here in Good old USA. There are places (as well as times for us all)that what we say will have as much negative effect as if we were in some of those third worlds we often talk about… There are places here that are third worlds.

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