The Tragedy of Liberia… Part I

Liberian Peace Corps photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A fading black and white photo shows children in Gbarnga, Liberia mugging for my camera in 1965. Life wasn’t easy– check out the head loads. But as adults these children would be thrown into Liberia’s Civil Wars, and life would get much worse. Many would not survive.

Earlier, I blogged about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa during the 60s. While life for tribal Liberians was tough at the time, is was about to get worse, tragically so. You can read about my two years in Liberia by going here and scrolling forward. Presently, I am reworking the posts into book format. In addition to having my book professionally edited, I have added several chapters. Hopefully the final product will reflect what I believe were two of the most interesting years of my life.

The book ends with my leaving Liberia, but I decided to add an epilogue that reflects what has happened in the country since. The Tragedy of Liberia, after editing, will become the epilogue. There are four parts in this series.–Curt

On April 22, 1980, thirteen Americo-Liberians were driven down to Monrovia’s Barclay Beach in a VW van, tied to telephone poles, and shot without blindfolds. One soldier was so drunk he couldn’t hit the man he had been assigned to kill. Afterwards, the bodies were stacked in a pile and sprayed with bullets before being tumbled into a mass grave. It marked the beginning of a tragedy that would see the death of over 200, 000 Liberians.

The international press was invited to witness the event. The names of those executed were a who’s who of Liberia’s history. Their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had ruled the country for period of time stretching back over 150 years.

The public executions were as savage as they were inexcusable. But they were also understandable, possibly even inevitable. Thirteen years earlier I had talked into the small hours of the morning at my home in Gbarnga with a representative from the US State Department about the future of Liberia. One of his first requests was that Sam, the young Kpelle man who worked for us, not be present.

Revolution of some kind, I had argued, was going to happen unless drastic changes were made in how Americo-Liberians ruled Liberia. Five percent of the population owned the majority of the nation’s wealth and controlled 100% of the political power. Tribal Liberians were widely exploited and treated as second-class citizens, or worse. Deep resentment was building; a time bomb was ticking. It would explode unless Americo-Liberians were willing to share economic and political power.

I was not optimistic. I related my experiences with setting up a student government at Gboveh High School and in writing a Liberian second grade reader. My goals had been moderate. I wanted my high school students to learn about democracy and my elementary students to increase their reading skills. I certainly was not involved in revolutionary activity. I was merely doing what Peace Corps Volunteers had been brought into the country to do: help educate and train Liberians for the future.

The drastic reaction of Americo-Liberians to my efforts reflected the deep paranoia that existed within the ruling class. The second grade reader, which featured folktales and stories about tribal children pursuing such common activities as playing soccer, was regarded as a revolutionary tract– not because it was anti-government, it wasn’t, but because it didn’t emphasize the Americo Liberian perspective. Even though Peace Corps staff had received initial approval from the Department of Education and arranged an editor, curriculum specialist and graphic artist to work with me, I was directed to abandon the project and never talk about it.

The response to the student government was even more dramatic. My students had decided it would be fun to create two parties to run against each other, like the Republicans and Democrats. Apparently this was a direct challenge to the True Whig Party, the foundation of Americo-Liberian power. Within days, word came down from Monrovia that my students were to be arrested and I was to be run out of the country unless the ‘political parties’ were eliminated immediately.

Americo-Liberians were not stupid, far from it. Many were highly educated and had attended some of the best universities in the world. They knew they were sitting on a powder keg. Change was coming and they could choose to embrace that change and help guide it, or they could resist and fight against it. They chose the latter course. Their power, their wealth, and their privilege were simply too much. They had controlled the tribal population since the inception of the country and believed they could continue to. People who challenged this assumption, even Americo-Liberians who believed that change was needed, were shut down, sometimes violently. Any change would be gradual, even glacial, and would only be allowed with acceptance of the status quo. It was a recipe for disaster.

Tribalism was another issue we discussed on that long ago night in July of 1967 as rain pounded down on our zinc roof, lightning lit up the sky, and thunder rolled across the jungle. When primary loyalty is to the tribe rather than the country, building a modern nation becomes much more difficult.  It may also have the impact of dehumanizing people, as I was to learn.

My wife and I were walking home from Massaquoi Elementary School at the beginning of our two-year stint when we found one of our students lying on the ground, obviously very sick. His classmates were walking around him, like he wasn’t there. Jo Ann was furious.

“Why aren’t you stopping to help?” she had demanded.

“He’s not from our tribe,” was the answer.  It was a matter-of-fact type statement. The point that he was a fellow human being was secondary.

The problems of tribalism are not insurmountable. I felt my high school students had moved beyond the deeper currents of tribalism. Or I hoped they had. They were proud to be Liberians. Tribal differences were noted with a sense of humor rather than passion. Education, it seemed, could overcome the harmful elements of tribalism.

I expressed one final concern with the State Department official; actually, it was more of a nagging worry. The dark side of juju, or tribal sorcery, lurked beneath the surface in Liberia. Newspapers occasionally included stories about people who had been killed and cut up for their body parts, which were then used in rituals to increase the power of the killer.  People were also made sick, or poisoned. When Mamadee Wattee, one of the candidates for student body president, came to my house late one night out of fear that the opposition had obtained juju to make him ill, I took his concern seriously. Every culture has its dark side. Think about the Salem witch trials. Kept in check, such practices have minimal impact. But what if the normal laws and customs of traditional and modern society break down?  Would the use of ‘magic’ become more prevalent? And what would be the result?

In 1971, four years after I left Liberia, William Shadrach Tubman, President of the country since 1944, died in a London Hospital. His Vice President, William Tolbert, assumed the reins of power. Tubman had been a master politician with strong connections to both the Americo-Liberians and tribal leadership. Tolbert lacked Tubman’s charisma and leadership abilities.

He did, however, move forward with Tubman’s unification program. Some of the more odious Americo-Liberian customs, such as the celebration of Matilda Newport’s birthday (her claim to fame was mowing down tribal Liberians with a canon), were downgraded or eliminated. The University of Liberia was expanded and improved to provide more tribal youth with an opportunity for higher education. Roads were added throughout the tribal areas. Tolbert also continued, Tubman’s open door economic policy. In a move that ruffled feathers in the United States, he even invited Communist countries to invest in Liberia. The US had long considered Liberia as its African beachhead in the fight against Communism.

In the end, Tolbert’s efforts benefitted the Americo-Liberians much more than they did the tribal population. Extra money invested in the country ended up in the pockets of Americo-Liberians. Roads to interior opened up vast new tracts of land for Americo-Liberian farms. They also provided a way for the government to more effectively tax tribal people.

No one profited more from Tolbert’s actions than his own family. Twenty-two of his relatives held high positions in the Liberian Government and/or on boards of major corporations doing business in Liberia. Wealth accumulated rapidly. The small Liberian community of Bensonville located outside of Monrovia was renamed Bentol in honor of Tolbert and became a family enclave complete with mansion-lined streets, a private zoo and a private lake. The town’s extreme wealth provided stark contrast to Monrovia’s hopeless poverty.

In April of 1979, Tolbert made a fatal error. He arbitrarily increased the price of rice by 50%. Rice was the primary staple of the Liberian diet. The increase meant that urban Liberians would now be spending over one-third of their average monthly income of $80 on rice. Students from the University of Liberia and other dissidents called for a major protest. Police ended up killing a number of the protesters and riots ensued. Tolbert restored order by bringing in troops from Guinea. He shut down the University, rounded up dissidents, and charged a number of them with treason. It was the beginning of the end for Tolbert, and for exclusive rule by Americo-Liberians.

NEXT BLOG: The story of Liberia’s civil wars.

21 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Liberia… Part I

  1. Incredible. Executions, tribalism, sorcery. You really have seen it all, Curt. You don’t leave me with any words except the fascination with the tribalism and the kids literally sidestepping the child who was not one of them (though that was just a small piece of the story). Rolling out a major interactive project on race soon. Looking fwd to your contribution.

    • The story of Liberia has been repeated over and over in Africa, D, usually for similar reasons. The challenge, faced by Africa, and those who wish to help, is to come up with solutions that address the continuing challenges of tribalism, abject poverty and the malaise created by a lack of hope.I will address these issues in my coming blogs.

      Looking forward to your project on race. –Curt

  2. Curt, excellent story. 

    I learned a lot of this from speaking with Bakeno Faso (Formerly Upper or Lower Volta, the poorest country in Africa then) communists during a week long protection assignment in NY. 

    Their President, our protectee, was an Army Captain who overthrew the greedy dictator.  He kept his uniform and wore a pearl handled revolver and sold the limousines and mansions.  He spoke to a huge crowd of American blacks at the Harlem Theater and I was in back of him with his head of security, as he used an interpreter (no teleprompter).  He would say something anti-white, then the crown raised their fists and pupated his statements.  When he started saying, “down with the whites”, the crowd went wild and waived their fists.  I remember looking at the security guy and pointed at myself indicating “does this mean me”.  He indicated “no, no, no” and I smiled back at him cause we had the a lot more guns.

    I always enjoyed speaking with recent immigrants and with the locals where ever I traveled. 

    At the top list in educating me are the following:

    I was asked by the communists why Americans sent money to help feed the starving people in the various African countries.  When I responded with words to the effect “as human beings, we feel we must try to help”.  Their response was, “these people contribute nothing and who will feed them when you stop?” They told me there are just too many people doing nothing in Africa and not enough food.

    An African told me God does not love the Africans as he gave them 170 languages and they can’t understand each other.  

    One guy said “if you are Zulu and a Tootsie is elected the leader, you will do nothing they say and not contribute in any way”.

    Was in S. Africa where an African (Dutch) land owner with 44,000 hectors, said he built a school building and tried to get the black villagers to send their kids which they refused.  He said before they made it illegal for blacks to own firearms, those who worked on his farms drank all weekend and often would come to work with bullet wounds so the tribal leaders encouraged the confiscation of guns.  Even the whites who seemed to treat the blacks well before the end of apartheid paid them so little they lived just a little better than the family pets.  When we were there some villagers hamstrung some of his cattle for no reason and of course they had to kill the cattle.

    One thing for sure is us human beans can be very cruel to each other. 

    I was told by Salvadoreans they were told our streets were paved with gold and if a woman had a baby, the US government would support them both.  She and her family were angry that those things were not true but they all seemed to work when the welfare was not sufficient.  Guess it will take another generation.  Our son Bob dated a beautiful Salvadorean and Lee a beautiful Bolivian girl, both families worked hard it seemed.  When Bob’s girl told me some day soon the Hispanics would take over the US and asked my opinion, I told her the only thing I know is “black is beautiful, tan is grand, but white is the color of the big boss man”. 

    I will sign off on that note but loved your post and admire you very much for having the insight and tenacity at a young age to join the Peace Corp and do so many great things.


    • Fascinating stories, Bill. Working for the US Secret Service, you lived an incredibly interesting life and gained a perspective that few people have. Sadly, the type of example shown by the president of Bakeno Faso has been repeated over and over.

      It’s always interesting to see what others think about the US and often it is far from the truth. But then if your perspective is created by Hollywood and the entertainment industry… 🙂

      The perspective of my students in Liberia was created partially by the occasional John Wayne western that made it to Gbarnga. They fantasized about walking down dusty streets with their trusty six-shooters in hand.

      But those were the days before the internet and instant worldwide communication.


  3. Curt, this is absolutely fascinating. Liberia is a part of Africa I have not visited, so I sat here open-jawed as I read your account. As an educator who worked in Sudan in the 1980s (during the Nimeiry coup) I can certainly relate to the government’s fear of education and tribal allegiances. I am so looking forward to the rest of your series. All the best, Terri

  4. Now I have to ask, why aren’t students in schools taught about these tragedies in other parts of the world? Christopher Columbus is so irrelevant to today’s people, yet it’s events such as this (and many others in Africa) which the majority of people have no idea even happened..The Liberian people still have it so very difficult..heartbreaking

  5. As you surely know, I read this with a combination of fascination and recognition. The imposition of geopolitical boundaries across tribal lines and loyalties is a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. It always has been, and it always will be.

    Of course, as you rightly point out, tribalism has its downside. I ended up dressing a body for burial in the Phebe morgue one afternoon because no one would touch the poor woman – different tribe. On the one hand, it was a terrifying experience. On the other hand, there always was interesting conversation when someone asked, “Well, what did you do at work today?”

    One thing I appreciate about this series of posts is how it helps me re-embed my experience into the larger chronology of the country. I arrived in-country in 1973, two years after Tolbert assumed power, and left before the coup. When I returned, I slipped in between the coup and the civil war. Needless to say, the second visit was quite different than my years there – and not only because i was traveling on my own.

    • I have been looking forward to your input Linda. It is difficult to comprehend what has happened in Liberia (or Africa) unless you lived there.

      For readers who aren’t familiar with the issue about tribes crossing borders, the colonial powers (France, England, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, etc.) paid no attention to tribal boundaries when they were carving up Africa. Therefore, major tribes often ended up in different countries. Since their primary loyalty is to the tribe rather than the country, it is easy to see the problems that were created.

      Your Phoebe example is perfect. And I am assuming these were relatively educated people. Or am I wrong?

      I haven’t been back to Liberia although I am in touch with people who have been as well as people who are there now.

      Question: Have you read “The House at Sugar Beach” by Helene Cooper? If not, by all means do. It is a beautifully written Americo-Liberian perspective on the whole tragedy.


  6. I just want to say that I agree, it would be difficult to understand the horrors that face brutalized natives and tribes all over the world without having a personal experience. I admire anyone who can face these situations and remain optimistic that something can be done. I also agree that something must be done and we cannot stop trying to bring peace and humanity to a very inhuman world. Drew went to school with a young man from Sierra Leone who had survived the civil war as a child soldier. Knowing his story really opened Drew’s eyes. You all have seen so much and all I can do is read and pray that the world changes. I will read “The House at Sugar Beach” and I would like to recommend “The Poisonwood Bible” to you. It’s fiction but I believe, from a very astute perspective.
    Fascinating, Curt.

  7. My gosh, Curt. I’ve been busy with this and that for about ten days and man, am I behind…once again.

    You (and Peggy) are truly global people, Curt. It is clear your Peace Corps assignment had great impact on your future. Your caring nature shows deeply here… and I am aghast yet not surprised with the history. Your “light skin” versus “dark skin” subject matter reminded me greatly of a exemplary Star Trek episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. Indeed, history always repeats itself. We never learn.

  8. Pingback: The Race: Caucasian in Oregon, Part 14 | A Holistic Journey

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