Warning: If you are uncomfortable with violent histories or killing animals for food, read at your own risk.
July 26 is Liberia’s independence day and largest national holiday. On this day in 1847, Liberia declared it’s independence from the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was an American organization that freed a bunch of slaves and shipped them back to Africa. The motivations to create this organization were mixed: some were really interested in the abolitionist ideals that they rallied around; others were simply wanting an outlet for slaves that might organize a revolt against their American masters.
About a month after Liberia’s declaration of independence (August 24, 1847), Liberia officially adopted a national flag. That day is known and celebrated nationally as “flag day”. As you can see, Liberia’s flag has a little bit of American influence:
Not only did the early Liberians borrow from America to create their flag, they also borrowed from America to create much of their civilization. Their constitution draws heavily from ours. The homes they constructed, the clothes they wore, even the Baptist church services they ran looked like they came straight out of the deep American south. Here’s a picture of the first Liberian president’s house.
While it makes historical sense, learning about such borrowed identity made me feel uncomfortable. What made me even more uncomfortable was learning that the settlers took advantage of the native populations already in Liberia, treated them as subhuman and used them for forced labor (reminiscent of the slavery they were freed from).
Before you judge the settlers for their actions, consider the emotional mechanisms that can be behind such behavior. One documentary I watched in training referred to Liberia as “America’s stepchild”. It’s such a good picture, on many levels. As cycles of violence, abuse, and neglect are passed from parent to child, so it is with countries, apparently.
All this injustice, inequality and oppression created a growing animosity, discontent, and resentment throughout Liberia that were major contributing factors in the start and brutal nature of Liberia’s 14 year long civil war. (Sure, there are many other pieces to the picture here, but that’s enough depressing history for now. We have an independence to celebrate!)
Liberians celebrate their independence with food, drink, and all around merriment. (Liberians refer to the latter two collectively as “jolly jolly”). It’s also their main time of the year to give gifts.
My family celebrates by cooking wonderful food, dressing the kids in new clothes, and then spending the afternoon / evening watching movies. When the kids are inside, they are less likely to get into trouble with all the jolly jolly going around on the road.
Also, since our front porch is basically a bar, there’s no reason to go out when all the people come to you!
I spent the morning helping Ma cook for the day. My task was to kill the rooster for the soup. Here is Ma outlining proper rooster killing procedure.
Her instructions were simple enough: dig a hole for the blood, step on the chicken’s feet, pluck the feathers on the neck, and then cut through the vein there. Remain standing on the chicken until it stops jerking.
So, I did it.
The knife was a little dull, but after my second try I cut through. But the blood went on my foot instead of the hole Ma dug.
After the rooster stopped flopping around, we poured boiling water on it and Ma and Naomi began plucking the feathers. Somehow, everyone in Africa seems to be able to handle boiling water with their bare hands.
(I’ll put the rest of the recipe in a future post)
I visited some neighbors in the morning as well, and got some good pictures of their preparations.
At about 3p, the food was done and all the kids got on their fancy clothes. When someone is wearing stylish clothes or accessories, Liberians say they are “bluffing”.
Sometimes Liberians will wear earbuds even if they cannot afford an mp3 player, and just tuck the plug into their pocket. This is also “bluffing”.
We all went inside to start watching movies, but the generator wasn’t working. So, I made all the kids balloon animals (I brought balloons from America!)
I hadn’t made balloon animals since elementary school, so I didn’t remember how to make anything other than the basic balloon “dog”. When a kid would ask for a specific animal, I would agree and just try to adjust the proportions or color to suit. Giraffes were dogs with a long neck. Lions were yellow dogs. Rabbits were white dogs with long ears.
I couldn’t believe how much use I got from those balloons. When the kids would pop their animal (they always do) they would bring back the pieces. After tying off the bad part, we would re-pump it. One balloon could have up to 5 lives.
Finally, the generator was working, and we started our movie marathon.
The only DVD my family had was a compilation of movies on African crises. We watched “Blood Diamond” (starring Leonardo De Caprio) first.
“Blood Diamond” is set during Sierra Leone’s civil war. On March 23, 1991 (a little over a year into Liberia’s crisis), Foday Sankoh led a group of rebels called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from Liberia into Sierra Leone, setting off Sierra Leone’s 11 years of brutal conflict. The child soldiers, severed limbs, countless rapes, and starving people were a complete mirror of Liberia’s experience.
Sierra Leone’s crisis can really be seen as an extension of Liberia’s. Sankoh didn’t just use Liberia as a staging point; he was supported by special forces from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which controlled much of Liberia at that time. Sankoh was good friends with the leader of the NPFL, the infamous Charles Taylor (who later, as the president of Liberia, became the only president in history to be convicted of war crimes while still in office). They met each other while receiving training at the same Libyan insurgency camp. They both relied heavily on child soldiers and scorched earth tactics in their campaigns. Not surprisingly, diamonds were laundered through Monrovia, Liberia, under Taylor’s influence.
Oh, and did I mention that Sierra Leone began as a colony of freed American slaves that had taken refuge in Nova Scotia during the America Revolutionary War? All these connections make my head spin.
During the movie, Ma would sometimes point to the screen while people were being hacked apart or kidnapped and say “it was just like that“. My younger siblings joked that one of the neighborhood children we were watching with “carried arm” (was a child soldier) and “killed plenty”. They would pretend to find him among the child soldiers in the movie. While it was just a joke in this case (the kid was a couple years too young), we do have plenty of ex-child soldiers in the community around here.
We watched “Sometimes in April” next.
“Sometimes in April” was about the Rwandan genocide. Even though this conflict wasn’t directly connected to Liberia’s history, it had the similar element of being an explosion of violence driven by years of injustice and inequality.
Since Rwanda had only two major tribes (unlike the many tribes in Liberia), the violence was much more targeted and specific: death squads, assassinations, etc. In contrast to the chaos in Liberia, this was a focused and methodical ethnic cleansing.
But the content of the violence was all the same. People being hacked apart at checkpoints, women raped in their own homes while the rest of their family was held hostage, entire villages massacred, you name it.
I only stayed for the first quarter of the movie. By then I just wanted to be alone in my room so I could rest and process. It had been a long day. And it didn’t help that earlier in the week when we watched “Shooting Dogs” (another movie on the Rwandan genocide on the same marathon DVD), my family kept calling the main caucasian teacher protagonist by my African name. The small children in the movie became my brothers and sisters.
Until now, the suffering in Africa has been something always on my radar, but never something I felt like I had any responsibility toward. I think that unconsciously I probably harbored the mentality that the situations here are the way they are because of their own doing. But the more I learn, the more I am realizing how the historical actions of now “developed” countries (including my own) were instrumental in setting the stage for these disasters and then (by and large) turned a blind eye to them as they were happening.
Add to this the fact that the people who are now my family experienced these horrors in what is now literally my backyard.
In short, I’m feeling a little bit more invested in this whole Africa thing now.