The Liberian Cultural Identity Crisis: Where We lost, and How We can Find
By: Abner ‘The Pahpay’ Bropleh
In the past year, as media custodians of the Liberian entertainment industry intensified their focus on the genres it comprises, Liberians around the world began paying attention to diverse variations of Liberian entertainment. One of these variations with a brightening spotlight is the pageant industry, which saw some high-profile local pageants in the past year. Following the Liberian pageant queens and their various costume choices, what has stuck out most is how Liberian culture is being represented or misrepresented in the segments featuring traditional and cultural performances due to the low knowledge of the distinctive characteristics of Liberian culture.
One pageant in particular was hosted on the night of December 21, 2018, as Liberia watched five vibrant, and beautiful young women compete for the 2018/2019 title of Miss Stella Maris Polytechnic. The multifaceted young women participated in various segments of the pageant including a traditional segment, in which the women dressed themselves in what they considered traditional Liberian wear.
Some of the contenders dressed in raffia skirts and cowrie shell jewelries, performing skits that were reminiscent of a stereotypical and generic idea of traditional African culture, where indigenous people are portrayed as primitive savages. In addition to the simplistic rendition, many of the “traditional” outfits were akin to non-Liberian traditional styles that is popular in Nigerian movies and videos. This is not the fault of the contestants, as these women were simply replicating what they know, what they see, and what is popular. As such, watching this unfortunate misrepresentation of indigenous Liberian culture by young Liberians made me question what has happened to the Liberian cultural identity.
My qualms were not with the contestants, as I am proud to call them my Liberian sisters. Although, the issue is bigger than them or their respective host pageants. It is an issue of misplaced cultural identity that is leaving the nation lost and without clear direction to its future as a result of a disconnection from its past.
With the 14 years of civil unrest in the country, starting in 1989 and ending in 2003, many families did not have the luxury of teaching their children the uniquely diverse Liberian cultures. The war removed us from our rural communities and native counties, and as we relocated, we became further removed from our traditional customs. We absorbed the cultures of our new homes which we became immersed in, and somewhere along the way, lost our cultural distinction from other West African nations. Although, it is imperative we reclaim what is uniquely ours, for the sake of the nation’s future.
Many non-Liberians, especially other West Africans, erroneously deem Liberians as cultureless or “Americanized”; however, this is an oversimplification that erases 17 distinct but connected ethnic groups that contribute greatly to what is known as Liberian culture. Before the freedmen came, before the “repatriation”, before 1822, there were people in what is modern-day Liberia. Those distinct people had their own cultures, customs, and ways of life. For example, the Kissi had their money, and the Gio (Dan) had their wood sculptures. The Kru, at one point and time, had their brass jewelry and their face tattoos, and many other ethnic groups had related, but distinct ‘secret’ societies that taught young men and women how to be upstanding members of their respective societies. Mainstream Liberian culture can be summarized as a conjunction of Indigenous, Antebellum, and Caribbean culture, and to a lesser extent, a blending of other West African cultures.
In my childhood, I remember my Congau (Americo-Liberian) grandmother wrapping her head with a vibrant lappa cloth, in a matching lappa print skirt and top. Likewise, my Kru grandfather, from time-to-time, would wear a country cloth that had various stamped patterns on it, gifted to him by the Grand Cess association. I remember my relatives in Upper Buchanan with their wide brimmed hats, coat suits, and interesting accents. I have relatives from Careysburg, Buchanan, Grand Cess, Harper, Greenville and elsewhere, who were all distinct but still uniquely Liberian in their ways of speaking, cooking, and dressing. Liberian culture is not a monolith, but a series of several distinct cultures.
When we look at modern Liberians, we see many imitations of Nigerian culture. We see many “traditional Liberian weddings” that look like they came straight out of Nollywood, or reminiscent of Flavour’s “Ada Ada” video. We see people marking their faces and bodies with white chalks and wearing coral beads in a fashion that mimics Igbo and other southeastern Nigerian cultures. We hear Liberian people using phrases like “akata”, “oyinbo” and others, while many have abandoned our Koloqua slangs. We see the modern-day Liberians at home or in the diaspora wearing Aso ebi, gele, and agbada, which are all traditionally Nigerian. While it is beautiful and complex like Liberian and other African cultures, their culture belongs to them, not us.
We have our own culture and need to find pride in what is ours. As such, what Liberians needs at this point in time is a cultural renaissance that revisits our roots and learns what is ours. This goes beyond aesthetics, butt to the way we talk, dance, and live life. I am not advocating for a socially regressed life, or one where we uphold customs that are sexist or classist; however, I am advocating for a Liberia were we can represent our individual cultural heritages with acceptance and pride.
I am thankful for people like Tokay Tomah, Friday The Cellphone Man, Zaye Tete, Fatu Gayflor, and numerous others that push Liberian culture as often as they can. I hope to see a Liberia where at special occasions, Seaside Grebo boys will wear their coat suits with country cloth wrapped around their waists; or women in Yalahun, Lofa, with anklets lined with shells and mud cloth printed skirts, will sing and dance traditional songs. I like to also imagine the people going to Morning Star AME Church in Kingsville, Careysburg with hats and frock coats; or the people in Bandela, Grand Cape Mount who wear country cloth off the shoulder their women’s hair braided in a distinctive u-shaped pattern.
An old man in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa once told me “When the people lose their culture, they lose they lose their identity. People with lost identity have no pride, and nothing to pass down. We must give our children something to identify with.”