A Liberian Woman’s Push for Academic Excellence
By Dennis Jah
First Published on the Liberian Way
It is amazing to me as to how those of our parents and grandparents some of whom had no formal education and lived in the most abject form of poverty would strive to educate their children and relatives. I sometimes wonder as I think of my own parents as to what drove them to send their kids to school amidst the many odds. Anytime I ask, the response has always been the same: they want their children and all those who come after them to live a better life than what they experienced. Especially in the countryside where much of government’s development priorities are still limited except to extort taxes and conjure votes, rural dwellers would even sell all they have to pay the meager sum of money required to get and keep their children in school. They encourage, force or push their children with all their power to get an education so as to stand up to the people who ill treat them or just excel beyond their societies.
To be convinced about the benefits of something, you must experience it yourself. But in the case of these parents they were willing to give what they never had or experienced before. For many rural parents, educating their sons and daughters meant they wouldn’t have to suffer poverty and the abuses of the elite class through tax extortion, alienation and sometimes forced labor. Whatever their motivation, they push with sweat running down their backs to educate their children.
Of all the responses I got for rural and poor parents’ determination to send their children to school, one stands out as it did not only emphasize going to school for the sake of it but urging their children to strive for the top. Mr. Siahyonkron Nyanseor is the name of the man who told me via telephone the story that I found so intriguing.
Siahyonkron Nyanseor whose name means Savior and frontrunner came to the United States around age twenty one and has been here for the past forty or more years. You will not believe that this man still drinks, eats, sleeps and belches Liberia after so many years of staying out of the country he so dearly loves. By my own estimation, Siahyonkron had no reasons being so attached to Liberian culture and issues except for the simple reasons of nationalism and patriotism. Like many who quickly became detached from traditional Liberia, Siahyonkron was born and raised in Monrovia specifically on the “unpaved side of Clay Street” as he always made the distinction. Those were the days when the Country-Congo divide was so pronounced and that a way for any native to get ahead was to graduate into the ruling Congo mindset and ideology. Instead, he cherished his Klao (Kru) and Bassa roots and even up till present speaks both languages fluently.
Most of the things he learned and heard about his Klao lineage came from his uncle popularly known as Sergeant Moore. Siahyonkron will go on and on telling you stories told to him by Sergeant Moore. I don’t believe that Sergeant Moore served in the Liberian army; how he has come to be promoted to the rank of a sergeant, even his nephew Siahyonkron cannot recollect. Sergeant More himself got no formal education. He could neither read nor write but told stories not only about his Klao ethnic group or his country Liberia but even those as far as the Western World and beyond. He was an expert on early indigenous Liberian educators like Gbi Wolo and Didwho Twe. He recounted their life stories even their day to day graduate school experiences in the United States. Come to think about it now, Sergeant Moore was the first Wikipedia to which the determined young Siahyonkron will come to have unfiltered access. He was one of those children of various ethnic and no ethnic groups who gathered in those days to hear Sergeant Moore put out information only an encyclopedia would have the capability store.
Today, Mr. Nyanseor tells those stories with the same zest and fascination with which he heard them from Sergeant Moore. With the passion he narrated this story; I fell obliged to write it down for a wider audience.
Wesseh was in elementary school, fourth or fifth grade to be precise. His mom has accompanied him for the school closing program as usual. The list for each class was read aloud. When ever the name was called, the caller would wait for the student to march up on stage before announcing either pass or fail. That way every one knew every one’s status. The way each class roster was called was in alphabetical order so you would expect Aloysius Wesseh to be at the tail end of the roll call. When the time to call Wesseh’s class reached, his mother waited impatiently to hear the name of her only son. She did not quite get the concept of alphabetical order so she sat at the edge of her seat waiting and waiting. Wesseh was unperturbed and kept reassuring his mother that he would be promoted to the next class and that his mother needed not to panic.
Slowly and surely the roll call went on. Finally Wesseh was called. When he walked up on stage, the announcement was “under condition.” This was the first year the passing under condition system was introduced by the Secretary of Education, Mr. Massaquoi. He thought that it was unfair for students to be retained in a class for failing two- three subjects so he introduced that those failing two to three subjects should not be required to repeat the class but pass under the condition of passing those very subjects in summer school. Hence the name “pass under condition” was introduced.
Wesseh’s mother did not know what “pass under condition” meant. She was expecting either pass or fail so “under condition” confounded her sensibility. She was unsure what Wesseh’s status was. Did he pass? Or did he fail? She found no answer. The words “under condition” kept dancing in her mind that she heard nothing else that went on after that point. She could not wait to seek clarifications from some one who was so educated to understand the phraseology and at the same time so traditionally versed to break it down to her level. She did not want to find out from her son so she asked one of her educated neighbors after the closing program. And this is how he explained it:
“Your son suppose to fail but he did not fail. He suppose to pass but he did not pass.”
The explanation was clear and to the point. Wesseh was in a limbo, his mother thought to herself. She first had to decide on a plan of action. She wanted to do something not so bad that would drive Wesseh from school and not so pleasant that would suggest to Wesseh that it was okay to pass under condition. By then, Wesseh have heard so many times that being at the tail end of operations was not typical of a Klao (Kru) male. So many times he had heard “don’t you know that you are a Klao man?” If there was any thing to slip out of his cognitive vocabulary, being last was “un-Klao” and that thought should never depart from his memory.
By the time she got home Wesseh’s verdict was in hand.
“Wesseh,” she called. “So you passed under condition?” She asked knowingly.
“Yes Mama” Wesseh responded with his face half bow.
“From this day forward, you will eat under condition, sleep under condition and work under condition.” She ruled. From that day forward, when food was ready and served, she would look at Wesseh straight in the face and say “under condition Wesseh, you suppose to be hungry but you not hungry. You suppose to be full but you not full” before cutting down the food just enough to make Wesseh stay alive. In fact “under condition Wesseh” was his new name. Anytime his friends stopped by to visit, she would ask them “oh, you want to see under condition Wesseh?”
The following school year, Wesseh bounced back so hard that even his teacher called him “no condition Wesseh” to emphasize that no condition could limit or stop anyone who works hard.