Blojlu’s Journal May/June 1991
Blojlu’s Alliance for Constitutional Knowledge (B.A.C.H.)
By Tarty Teh
When we the African Liberians speak about injustice, we often do so at a choking point. As a result we tend to display more fury than facts. (Now, that’s something worth quoting!) But we are not lacking facts; we are overwhelmed by them to such a degree that we find it difficult to maintain the composure which third parties find necessary as a condition for rendering informed judgment either way.
Well, if we are inundated by facts than I should have no difficulty coming up with a relevant example of what constitutes the collective African-Liberian gripe. Americo-Liberians generally are not easily guilt-stricken, especially if you try to tag them with the faults of their forefathers. So we are not going to dwell on the selling of African Liberians into slavery, for which the League of nations convicted Liberia in the 1930s during the administration of Americo-Liberian President Charles D.B. King. Although Liberia’s trade in human cargo after an international ban on slavery remains a legitimate issue, none of the criminals involved in those transactions are alive; so we can’t demand answers. But we need to indict those who have shown similar tendencies toward such criminal conduct, while, at the same time, offering them an opportunity to defend themselves publicly against any resulting charges.
I am presenting this case in the context of the current arguments being waged by Ambassador Francis Afonso Dennis and others. They maintain that there is nothing unusual or unfair about the way they, the Americo-Liberians, ruled Liberia for more than a century. At the same time they believe that there is everything wrong with the way Samuel Doe ran Liberia for 10 years.
First of all, the Doe phenomenon came about because the Americo-Liberians maintained, for more than a hundred years, a tradition of avoiding being regarded as Africans. Part of the blame is ours, of course; because, as the Americos grew more strident in announcing their claim to cultural supremacy, the African Liberians waxed proportionately docile. And when were fully domesticated, the Americos decided to take their beastly treatment one step further. They harnessed us and rode on our heads in wave after wave of hammocks’ as both a sadistic and practical means of jungle locomotion. This is the shameful shackle from which Samuel Doe, Thomas Quiwonkpa and others freed us in 1980.
I have said enough in the past about the Americo-Liberians’ Afrophobia; what concerns me now is that most of them have failed to realize that African Liberians are now more determined than ever before to prevent a recurrence of their dominance. But every time I think about how we all–African and Americo-Liberians–could come together to share our country with due respect for one another, I am forced to face the realization that Americo-Liberians are still saying that what we are complaining about never happened. So I will try one more time to prove that it happened.
This will not be the first time that I have accused Ambassador Francis Afonso Dennis of anything. And although I have confronted him in the past for alleged offenses against other people, this is the first time that I have alleged an incident in which I personally bear a grievance.
Right now, Francis Dennis, a former Liberian ambassador to the U.S. and U.K., is angry with the U.S. Congress and State Department for believing that Liberia had been dominated by the U.S. ex-slaves, who call themselves Americo-Liberians, until 1980, when Samuel Doe ended their previously unchallenged grip on political power.
Ambassador Dennis is outraged especially by the U.S. State Department’s forecast, through Ambassador Herman Cohen, that no Americo-Liberian will ever again become president of Liberia, given their inglorious 133-year reign over the native African Liberians. Selling African Liberians into slavery was once an official Liberian government policy. As I have already said, Liberia was convicted by the League of Nations in 1930 for trading African Liberians into slavery. Ambassador Cohen thinks it is only logical that African Liberians will, therefore, naturally guard against being dominated once again by the Americos.
Typically, the Americos are enraged by what seems to them such a far-fetched, improbable postulate which, although unlikely in their opinion, may, nevertheless, inspire African Liberians who would otherwise have no ambition beyond merely being tolerated.
I don’t know a great deal about many of the persons who are either responsible for, or have expressed an opinion about, the killings in Liberia. So when someone about whom I know considerably more joins the debate, I feel lucky for the opportunity thus afforded me make known what I would otherwise have been hard pressed to voice without sufficient provocation.
I had an interesting encounter with Ambassador Dennis in the late 1970s when he was Liberia’s ambassador to Washington. At that time I was a research assistant in the same embassy’s Information Center.
Which Door Will It Be?
I had joined the embassy staff in mid 1976, but did not attend formal diplomatic functions until a couple of years later. I did not know for sure why Ambassador Dennis seemed to be uncomfortable with me, but I suspected he thought I wasn’t polished enough for the delicate diplomatic minglings which were a part of senior embassy staffers’ routine. He was right. But I never volunteered to be a part of any receptions the ambassador hosted, unless I was required to be there. Besides, I didn’t enjoy such gatherings and would just as soon have excused myself.
However, because I managed to learn to operate all the visual equipment at the embassy’s Information Center, Ambassador Dennis saw more of me than he cared to. When his wife wanted to have other diplomatic wives over for lunch or for some other entertainment. I would be asked to set up the film projector at the ambassador’s residence. I returned again after the gathering to retrieve the equipment.
After a couple of years, I felt that I was suave–maybe not suave, but certainly adequately polished–at least for some of the less structured functions. Realizing that the ambassador didn’t really care to disguise his dislike for me, I too was done with trying to please him. After all, these was but so much “refining” a man of different cultural upbringing could undergo without erasing something dearer and original in him.
Still I was shocked by the depth of Ambassador Dennis’s antipathy toward me when one afternoon I was denied entrance through the front door of the ambassador’s residence by his middle daughter, Beryl. I had gone to the residence to pick up a film which the wife of the Zambian ambassador had left there. The young lady, in denying me entrance through the main door, had argued that Ambassador Dennis had decreed that no one came to visit any of the domestic servants whom the family had brought from Liberia would be allowed into the house through the main door. Since she accused me of coming to visit the servants, that mean I had to use the back door which opened into the kitchen, and was reachable by going past the garage and into the backyard.
Miss Beryl Dennis’s argument that my presence served no further purpose than to visit the servants was based on sound reasoning, but still resulted in a wrong conclusion. I had called the ambassador’s residence half an hour earlier, and a servant named Julius Wesseh had answered the phone. I believe that someone else had picked up the phone on another extension, hoping to monitor Wesseh. I can only image the frustration of the person who was listening in when I spoke to Wesseh in Grebo.
Historically, Americo-Liberians don’t speak any African languages. Rather than asking Wesseh what the conversation had been about, Beryl Dennis simply assumed that a plot had been hatched through the conversation which she was determined to foil. So, how could I say I wasn’t there to visit Wesseh?
I must have breached some other internal protocol in the ambassador’s home. In fact I took a delight in violating some of the social edicts which I suspected the ambassador had fashioned on his own. For instance, I sensed that the Ambassador’s wife and two daughters resented my calling the residence and seeking to speak with Wesseh. then Wesseh told me that they could not stand my habit of requesting to speak with “Mr. Wesseh” every time I called. They had instructed Wesseh to tell me that I should not call him at their telephone number.
They even complained about mail coming to the servants through their address, and had begun to impound it. Mail from home was so important to the beleaguered servants that I asked them to use my address instead. When the first piece of mail arrived at my address, I gladly called the ambassador’s residence to inform Wesseh about it. Close to 90% of the time I called for the servants I was told they were not available to take the call. That meant I had to leave a message, which had about a 10-percent chance of being delivered. But the delight I found in leaving the message was more than worth the reduced prospect of delivery. Each time I got a piece of mail, I gladly told the Ambassador’s wife or any of the two daughters to tell Wesseh, or David, that I would be stopping by to deliver it.
Still, I did not consider any tacit or declared state of belligerency between Ambassador Dennis and me to be sufficient reason for denying me the use of the main door, no matter what my mission. That is why I was going to let the ambassador know what his daughter had said to me; namely, telling me to use the back door on the suspicion that I gone to the residence to visit a servant.
I wasn’t really surprised when Ambassador Dennis explained it to me. It sounded innocent, familiar, and, in fact, almost logically consistent. The familiarity carried with it the subliminal concession which an African Liberian was always expected to make whenever a conflict arose between himself and an Americo. In this case, however, Ambassador Dennis went out of his way to make it easy for me to concede his ancient right to triumph over mere Africans. He was very patient with me when he explained. “You see, we receive our guests through the front door”; so the servants should receive theirs though the back. “But I don’t think that applies to you,” Ambassador Dennis was quick to add. I told him that I had called only to verify that such a rule existed, not whether or not I was exempt.
The shame I experienced from this incident could not compare with what the African servants in the ambassador’s home suffered. So I decided that if I went public with the complaints about the ambassador, it would not be on my own behalf; it would be about the bad treatment Ambassador Dennis and his family were given the African Liberian servants that had brought from Liberia.
I sent the first draft of my report on the ambassador’s conduct to an association comprised of Liberians from Lower Gedeh. I asked the association to consider telling Ambassador Dennis they were aware of some ill treatment of his domestic servants. But two weeks after the association had received the draft report from me, one of its members wrote anonymously to Ambassador Dennis, warning him about my secret plot to get him “in trouble.”
Ambassador Dennis wrote to my superior, attaching a copy of the unsigned letter and asking my boss t extract from me a reply to the nameless writer. I replied that as soon as I found it necessary to complain, the ambassador would be the first to know. I finished a 13-page report under my own signature the following week and mailed it to Foreign Minister C. Cecil Dennis Jr. in Liberia. As I promised, I gave Ambassador Dennis a copy of the report. He has never issued a written denial. About two months later, Ambassador Dennis was recalled, but sent to London instead. That was not what I had in mind, but it was better than nothing at all.
The question still remains: What did Ambassador Dennis do to his domestic servants? The question is fully answered in the report I referred to earlier. I will make it available in due time.
Hammocking was a form of forced labor and a means of transporting America-Liberians in comfort throughout the hinterland. A frame, with a hammock hanging from it, was mounted on the heads of four Africans–two in forward position and two in the rear–as they carried government officials throughout the country along jungle foot trails. It was also called toting. “Collect 50 proters to tote the Commissioner and his staff,” an official document might say.
Published in Blojlu’s Journal May/June 1991 Edition
Blojlu’s Alliance for Constitutional Knowledge (B.A.C.K.)
P.O. Box 435
Clinton, MD 20735
1991: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive