P.O. Box 435
Clinton, MD 20735
September 10, 1990
Dear Fellow “Country People”:
We may all be thinking the same thoughts, but if we do not talk to one another or share our feelings, whether they are feelings of fear or of hope, we will each remain powerless to change anything. I feel the same fear and vulnerability that you feel, but whether we are hopeless or not depends upon whether we are intelligent enough to pool our strengths together to overcome our fear.
We country people cannot take intelligence for granted, because not many people have given us credit for it. That does not mean that we are not intelligent; it only means that we have to prove it. These are tough times in which to sport intelligence. If you know that one or the other group in the current war killed your son or daughter, or raped your mother or sister, you may be excused from the exercise of intelligence. But you don’t know yet whether your brother was killed. Does it matter that those of your relatives who perished were Krahns or Gios or Manos or Mandingos? Or would you be less aggrieved because you yourselves are members of one or the other of the targeted tribes and probably should have known that you had it coming? It still hurts, doesn’t it?
I am neither Gio nor Mano. I am not a Krahn or Mandingo either. Yet, there is no security in being Grebo, which I am. I am from Pallipo in Lower Gedeh. My clan is a close cousin of the Kru and the Krahn tribes.
When I was in Pallipo growing up, Gio and Mano were distant tribes that I didn’t even know existed. When I went to Monrovia in the early ‘60s, I got to hear quite a bit about Gio, Mano, and a host of other tribes that were exotic and distant places and entities to me only a few years before. Once in Monrovia, I learned how to distinguish the Gio/ Mano dialect from all the other tongues, although I could never tell the two (Gio and Mano) apart.
I met Ed Vaye when I was working for the Embassy of Liberia in Washington, D.C., in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, and when I returned to Liberia in 1983, we renewed our acquaintance. We pooled our resources together during times of difficulties, especially for me. So we shared a house. In the house with us were Ed’s brothers Dahn-Gbaye and Mentor.
Ed complained that Mentor was not doing very well in school. But I saw Mentor differently. He was 14 and full of potential and enthusiasm. Mentor liked to hear me talk. He tried to talk like me. He read with interest everything I wrote. When I taught him, he
paid attention. I drew up a list of words each week that Mentor had to learn to defined and spell. The words on the list were those I felt he was groping for when he talked to me. Which is to say they were simple words. Then one day Mentor asked me what was the longest word in the English language. I knew one that was longer than “antidisestablishmentarianism,” and perhaps more impressive. I couldn’t spell it. I showed it to Mentor in a book. He quickly learned to spell it. Learning to pronounce it took much longer, but he got it. That’s how determined Mentor was. The day I left Liberia for the U.S., Mentor cried, and I could understand why.
The first time I went to prison was when a member of the People’s Redemption Council named Col. Albert S. Toe sent me there for mentioning the fact that he had illegally ordered a “sassywood” trial in Pallipo which killed seven persons. I was jailed because I refused to recant my claim that Col. Toe was part of the witchhunt that killed the seven. I had not known that General Thomas Quiwonkpa had forced Col. Toe to free me because he could not credibly charge me with a crime. I found out only when Gen. Quiwonkpa came into my yard one late afternoon, and drove away just after saying hello through a sliding glass door on the front porch. I had returned his greeting involuntarily and without knowing who he was, because I was not wearing my glasses. But Mentor became very excited. “That was General Quiwonkpa. You didn’t make him up?” meaning if I recognized him.
I learned later that he had only come to make sure that Col. Toe had freed me as he had instructed him to. That was in May 1983. by July the conflict between Gen. Quiwonkpa and C.IC. Doe had grown in such intensity that I felt that Quiwonkpa’s life was in danger. That is why when President Doe had me arrested and Quiwonkpa promised he would try to find out what I was being charged with I told him not to bother. I felt that his pursuit of fairness in this case could only give Doe even more reasons to hunt him down.
My arrest had come only three days after I had been turned away from ELWA and Catholic Hospitals for lack of beds. Between July 3 and 5, I was as close to death as I have ever come. During that time I would not eat. I threw up everything I ate or drank. Mentor thought if he cooked one of my favorite dishes I would eat. I could smell everything he cooked before he reached my bedroom with it. Even after I forced him to retreat wit the food, the scent lingered uncomfortably for a long time. Then Mentor hit upon an idea which Ed helped him implement. Crackers. They hardly have any scent; they are almost tasteless, too. So Ed brought crackers. But I smelled the wrappings of the crackers and that made me throw up Mentor cleaned after me without flinching or hesitating. One day he told me to hold my nose and drink a small can of V-8 tomato juice. By that time I really needed it. I had already gone two days without food.
The third day was of the most concern to Mentor. I was now too weak to walk to the bathroom only a couple of yards away in the master bedroom. On that day, Mentor paid me too many visits. At last I told him to shut my bedroom door and never to open it again. It was so hard to gather strength to say anything. But I was determined to issue a warning so severe that Mentor would be forced to heed it. The ever so respectful young man let me know that I needed not say any more when he slammed the door hard behind him. But he had only let the door slam hard in its frame. He held down the lock’s handle all the while so that he managed to leave a crack in the door trough which to spy on me. Moments later, I saw a pair of bright eyes lined vertically in the seam in the door. This time I did not have the heart or strength to admonish him once again. I realized that all he wanted was to keep an eye on me. So every time those eyes appeared in the door, I move a leg. Then Mentor would know that I was still alive. That’s all he wanted.
Two days later I began to save Mentor lots of trips by deliberately coughing out loud even when I did not feel like coughing. I was getting better now, but I lost so much weight I was ashamed to expose myself to anyone else. Then one afternoon Ed’s driver, Zayzay, inquired about me. Mentor told him I did not wish to see strangers. Zayzay didn’t think he was a stranger. He was a friend. Mentor followed closely behind when Zayzay entered my bedroom, ready to explain that despite his warning Zayzay had entered my bedroom. I told Mentor it was okay. I was practicing my walk by pacing up and down the floor. Zayzay’s suggestion: “Why you can’t go outside and enjoy some of the national breeze”? Yes! That was what I needed. The national breeze that had swept me home after the coup, the euphoria of being proud to be a country man in Liberia. That national breeze was mine to enjoy. And it was still blowing. No matter what Albert Toe or Samuel Doe did, I would not deny myself the right to enjoy the national breeze.
Like an Edgar Allan Poe horror story, just when I realized what pleasure there was to be had in the enjoyment of life’s simpler things, like the common air we breathed–the national breeze, that is–I was picked up by Doe’s task force, headed by Col. Jacob Swen. I had not fully recovered from my sickness. Imagine how Mentor felt. Do you think it matter to Mentor that I was Grebo and he was Gio?
I was sent to the Post Stockade. No reasons given. Five days later, I was flown to Belleh Yallah. That was July 11, 1983. September 16, 1983, I was flown from Belleh Yallah to the South Beach Prison. February 7, 1984, I was brought before President Doe, who asked me, “Are you sober now?” I was not sober; not based on the question I asked him. Had he tried to find out whether or not I was guilty of writing the letter whose photocopy Col. Toe had given him as proof? The next thing he said was, “You are free.” But the security officer who had taken me before Doe got angry because I did not break into a dance on learning I was free.
Mentor was glad to see me. He did not cry. But his brother Ed wept like a child on seeing me. Ed who always wanted to act like a tough guy did everything for me short of bathing me that night. He even suggested that I sleep in his bed. I told him the last thing I needed was to be under anybody’s watchful eye. “I don’t think I like you that much,” I told Ed. Remember, these are Gio people. I am Grebo. We are only connected by concern for one another. But that was all we needed.
In one of his letters to me shortly after I arrived in the U.S., Mentor wrote, “I scored a total of 57 goals since you left Liberia.” What a thought! This 14-year-old, this avid soccer player, this Gio boy must have dedicated some, if not all, of his goals to me, a Grebo man. Whenever he did something wonderful, he thought about me.
Before the fighting broke out, Ed had said he was thinking about sending Mentor to Tapeta where it was cheaper to go to school. I knew that Mentor wouldn’t like it. He liked being in Monrovia, because, among other things, he scored “so many goals all the girls about me in my school.” I urged Ed not to send him back to Tapeta. Now I hope he didn’t. I don’t know where Mentor is right now. I also have my son, Soklo, about Mentor’s age in Monrovia. He’s been there since 1988. Mentor promised me he was going to find Soklo and let me know. I can’t afford to lose both boys.
When my mother died in 1986 I received a letter from Mentor which brought tears to my eyes. He knew that though I loved my mother I could not return to Liberia to bury her. In my reply I reminded Mentor that when I went home to see my mother just before leaving for the States I had told her about what he had done for me. I also told him in another letter that in case he thought I might neglect him, my mother had told me to take care of him.
We each have something to lose in this conflict. But what do we do after all these sacrifices that are being forced upon us? Do we turn on one another with still more recrimination? We are country people; we are known for fighting for crumbs. So, let’s do something different this time. Let us get together, Gios and Krahns, Manos and Mandingos. We are not fighting to save one person; we are fighting to save Liberia and our heritage. We have a proud history that we have only just begun to write. I don’t want Mentor to be ashamed to do that crazy Gio dance he often did to make me laugh. Should he die because he’s Gio? Are the differences among the tribes really that outstanding that we should continue to kill one another for them?
They call us all country people. Let’s accept who we are and work together. Who are we? We are children of the soil. Country people.
*Signed copy in my file.
Published by Blojlu’s Journal – September 10, 1990.
1990: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive