Monday, February 25, 2013

A Review of Nvasekie Konneh’s “The Land of My Father’s Birth”

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Nvasekie Konneh’s The Land of My Father’s Birth is a narrative of the tragedies and agonies of the Liberian civil war. The book narrates particularly the ordeals of the Mandingo ethnic group during the civil war and the attempts by the Mandingoes to resist what was becoming a genocide in the early 1990s. In his book, Nvasekie Konneh brought to us a true story of his own experiences during the war. This story, while centered on the encounters of a young man growing up in Liberia, reveals the ordeal of a nation infested with tribal hatred and its resulting tragedies; a nation confused with historical occurrences that had left it in a desolate situation with a people not knowing themselves, their origin and traditions. Thus, they fight amongst themselves for land, citizenship, class and status.

While thematically the book delves into politics, religion, ethnicity, and multicultural issues, I particularly capture the following as themes worth noting and revealing. First, it is the theme of ethnicity, race and citizenship. The book discusses how one ethnicity and race has lots to do with the perceptions of others on his citizenship. While the Mandingoes live in the territories of today Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone long before the arrival of the Americo-Liberian settlers in the 1800s, according to Nvasekie’s recollection of history, the Mandingoes still suffer tribal prejudices in Liberia, and this has come to affect them in economic and political activities in Liberia. They have potentials to advance in trade and commerce, but they are being weakened by encroachments on their properties, particularly in places like Nimba County where rival tribes benefitting from the spoils of the civil war have claimed ownership over strategic properties of economic values historically owned by Mandingo people. Based on the question of their ethnic identity, Mandingoes are being targeted by state security officers, mostly Immigration officers, and this action by state agents have portrayed Mandingoes as foreigners (Guineans) in the eyes of other tribes including rival ethnic groups, thus denying them the right to advance themselves politically, for example denials to vote during national elections. Like the Mandingoes’ quest for equal rights as citizens of Liberia, Nvasekie touched on the Black question in America, particularly during the times of slavery and segregation when blacks where denied most privileges in the US and treated as underclass citizens. Today black Americans are proud of their advances in all spheres of American life, from the academics to the economy and politics, all of which have been starred by the emergence of Barack Obama as the first black president of America.

The second theme that runs through Nvasekie’s book is that of perseverance and persistency of a young man determined to realize his life dreams. Nvasekie was born in Nimba County, Northern Liberia, a county divided among several ethnic groups with his ethnic group suffering prejudices that put his Liberian citizenship into questions by neighbors and rivals alike. He was born to a Mandingo father, who himself was a son of a Mandingo man and a Mano Woman. He did not cause it. He was born a Liberian by law, and a Mandingo by natural imposition. He was made to flee the land of his and his father’s birth when civil war broke out during which his ethnic group was targeted for discriminate killings. During the civil war, as a young man with no employable skills, he fled and lived as a refugee in Guineas and Ivory Coast, returned home and then travelled to the United States of America after winning the American Diversity Visa Lottery. In America, Nvasekie explained how he restarted life taking menial jobs against his wish just to make a living. Out of desperation to make a living and remit some income to his family back in Liberia, he would fall for anything legitimate that pays. Destiny put him in military service, something he never thought he would have ever done. He became a member of the US Navy and served for almost a decade traveling to over 15 countries on sea, and then left the navy to become a civilian again to pursue his life dream of becoming a writer and poet. The Land of My Father’s Birth has come as a product of a dream well nursed in a man for years, and has been manifested through courage, hard work, and determination in the midst of harsh situations – identity crisis, civil war, poverty, involuntary emigration.

While in the US Navy, Nvasekie applied for American citizenship, a status that would enable him access to so many privileges. His American citizenship was conferred at a ceremony graced and celebrated by Americans. The irony in getting his American citizenship was that while the Americans, both black and white, celebrated him as a citizen of their country, his fellow black Africans, all born in the same land (Liberia) continuously denounce him, chase him out, and grudgingly accept him today. On this irony, Nvasekie wrote:

“…as Mandingo, I am constantly reminded by my fellow Liberians that I am a foreigner, even though my father and mother were born there before I was even born. In America, it took a mere procedure for me to be a citizen and I am entitled to all the rights of American citizens, but in my native country, my birth record is not even enough for me to be considered a full fledge citizen. I have to constantly fight to prove my citizenship”(Pp. 206 – 207).

A third theme one can learn from Nvasekie’s memoir is the challenges of governance and development in Africa, and the consequences of the lack of effective leadership on the continent. One can tell from the story how colonialism separated African peoples of the same ethnicity and divided them among separate states, a division only shown by artificial boundaries. For example, the Mandingo nation that existed under kings in the Mano River Basin area is now divided amongst the states of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. So are the Manos, Krahns and Gios divided among Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast in different ways. Even in the aftermath of these colonial oddities, African leaders have not been able to provide good governance and better development to ameliorate the sufferings of their people, unite them and make them proud of Africa. As a result of poor governance in Africa, poverty and civil wars have been recurrent in most countries, particularly south of the Sahara. Nvasekie wrote that it is because of poor leadership and the lack of better incentives for the advancement of life, that the individual African citizen is challenging all odds and even taking risks to escape wars, poverty and political upheavals in Africa. In addressing the mass exodus of Africans, he recommends democracy and good governance as the best options that can provide the environments needed for the African citizen to achieve his life dreams:

“Some come to seek fortune, something they have found very difficult, if not totally illusive, to achieve. So until we have good governments that will create the environment for people to pursue their dream of success in Africa, these waves of Africans wanting to seek greener pastures abroad will continue to increase. So with all the talk of relieving Africa’s debts by the West, the other things that need to be done is to advocate for democracy, good governance, and eradication of corruption. That will require leadership that is guided morally”. (Pp. 182)

Finally, the fourth theme of the memoir is the acceptance and celebration of tribal and religious diversities. As a product of multicultural heritage, the author calls for the embrace of our cultural diversity instead of making it a source of conflicts as we have seen in recent years. As someone with family ties both Mandingo and Mano ethnic groups, and he is a Muslim, the story of his father’s birth to a Mandingo father and Mano mother speaks a lot about inter-marriages between the Mandingoes and Manos and the Gios in Nimba County. So many other children of Mandingo, Mano or Gio descents are products of such arrangements. One would think that a society of such interconnectivity among its different peoples would be peaceful and progressives building on the mutual relationships they form. In Nimba, the case has been different, and it turned brutish in the 1990s. It will take all Nimbains, particularly children of intermarriages, like Nvasekie, to bring their own peoples together. On a trip to his birthplace, Nvasekie wrote that his origin as a product of two rival ethnic groups could be used as a rallying point to resolve some of the conflicts that have undermined Mandingoes, Mano and Gio unity in Nimba County.

“Given my multi-ethnic heritage, I had in mind that my visit to Nimba County, particularly in Saclepea and Tengbenye, and my interaction with the Mano side of my family could in one way or the other help bring about a greater understanding among our people leading to the resolution of the land problem”. (Pp. 220)

Nvasiekie was right to believe that way. His grandmother’s people did not disappoint him. They received him warmly and they were proud of him. The lesson here is that people need to build on ethnic and religious diversities as building blocks for peace and development rather than as precipices of conflicts. In another instance of his numerous life encounters, Nvasekie explained how Americans are making use of, or ignoring religious and other cleavages and uniting around their common nationality to progress. The story of using a single chapel for all religious services – Islamic, Christian or Jewish – on a US Naval ship as told in this book is revealing of this lesson.

In Nvasekie’s memoir, there are many lessons to be learned from the themes identified above. First, as a young person with a life dream, you will learn that no matter what the situation in life is, and no matter the career path destiny places you on, you can achieve what you are passionate about. Escaping the terror of the civil war and the hatred against his ethnic group, and joining the US Navy did not stop Nvasekie from becoming a writer. Second, as a nation we can learn from the narration in this book that ethnic, religious and racial prejudices and hatred destroy a whole country, and until people can accept each other for the sake of their common humanity, societies will continue to be in violent crisis based on inevitable differences like ethnicity and race. Finally, leaders of a nation-state will have to follow good governance practices and moral standards to avoid upheavals and curb poverty among their people.

Readers of The Land of My Father’s Birth must put themselves in the circumstance that motivated the writing of this book, and in addition to understanding the literature and the tragedies narrated, readers must work to avert such situations in life - war, poverty, political crisis, and bad governance. With the lessons from this memoir we can be messengers of peace and development, and we must also be challenged to tell the truth of our own experiences in the world as Nvasekie has taken the time, courage and pain to do so. One can simply describe the book as a memoir of a single person, but tells the story of tribes haunted by legacies of colonialism and entrenched prejudice built from envy and ignorance.