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Literary Education and Canon Formation: the Liberian Experience

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Kpanbayeazee
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Literary Education and Canon Formation:
The Liberian Experience
S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko, II


For the past fourteen years, the name ‘Liberia’ has been inextricably linked to warlords, war exportation and gunrunning in the west African subregion. These linkages, a result of the activities of the country’s leadership, made Liberia an international pariah and brought about the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations. Within the comity of nations, Liberia came to be viewed as a country that significantly contributed to the destabilization of the subregion through encouragement and support given to various armed groups that allegedly attacked Sierra Leone, Guinea and La Côte d’Ivoire.

Liberia, nevertheless, is also associated with legendary contributions to Africa and the world at large. These contributions range from the fields of politics to sports, medicine, and religion. In the area of politics, Liberia produced Angie Brooks Randolph, the first African female President of the UN General Assembly. In sports, specifically in soccer, Liberia produced George Oppong Weah, the only African so far to capture two major football titles: World Best from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and European Best from the European Football Association (UEFA).

In medicine, Liberia produced the renowned cardiologist, Jerome Ngana, and the prominent AIDS researcher, Stephen Kennedy. In religion, Liberia produced Prophet Wade Harris, founder of the Protestant Methodist Church, La Côte d’Ivoire; Canon Burgess Carl, former Secretary General of the All Africa Council of Churches; William R. Tolbert, Jr., President of the World Baptist Alliance, and Liberia’s 19th president who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1980; and Herman Brown, one of the first blacks to serve as Special Assistant in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London.

Furthermore, research scholars interested in the field of creative literature and print culture in Africa will be stunned by the contributions made by this tiny country of 42,000 square miles. Henry Cole names the Liberia Herald, published in 1826, as the first newspaper to appear in sub-Saharan Africa.1 Liberia is also among the non-western countries in the world that have original scripts for their languages. Momolu Duwalu Bukele conceived the syllabary of the Vai language circa 1833.2

In 1891, Joseph Walters, a Liberian student at Oberlin College, Ohio, USA, published his Guanya Pau. Of this novel, University of Liberia professor K. Moses Nagbe wrote, “The Joseph Walters novel is history in itself . . . Guanya Pau is believed to be the first prose fiction in English to come out of Africa. It is also a forerunner novel on the theme of female assertiveness” (Nagbe 1).

From 1940-41, Liberia College, precursor of the University of Liberia, was perhaps the first institution of higher learning in Africa to establish a post graduate creative writing program. Liberia's Poet Laureate Roland Tombekai Dempster, who is to Liberia what Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) is to Great Britain, had this to say about the program: "The opportunity for Foreign Scholarship in those days being poor, the faculty of the college set up courses of study for post graduate work. Studying here from 1940, I completed this rigid discipline in 1941, receiving the Masters of Literature degree. The distinction was so outstanding that TIME MAGAZINE (May 4, 1942) reported it" (Dempster 70).

How come then, despite these hallmarks, this tiny west African country that is the oldest independent country in Africa and the second oldest independent black country on earth—the first being Haiti in the western hemisphere—has lagged behind other countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe in literary education, canon formation and literacy? What are the contributing factors? Has there ever been a period in Liberia's recent history in which some efforts were made to encourage creative writing, and subsequently, literacy?

This paper seeks to provide some basic answers to the queries above and to many others unasked. The paper will first give a broad analysis of how English literature and eventually African literature came into being. Secondly, the paper will critically analyze the reasons for the slow pace of literary education and low literacy rate in Liberia, which have stifled the growth of a creative writing class of authors that by now should have developed a literary canon distinct from the western canon. Thirdly, this paper will suggest ways by which literary education will be improved in Liberia.

The Emergence of English and African Literatures

Literary education is that body of knowledge that deals with creative writing and literature. It studies the genres of prose, drama and poetry as distinct specializations. In the field of literary education, the experiences of humankind, imagined or real, according to Lawrence Perrine and Thomas Arp, “can provide authentic insights” (3). Literary education therefore has a dual function: (a) to widen our understanding of what life is by helping us interpret human experience and, (b) to entertain us by making us believe for a short while that our problems/worries in life are over (Perrine, Arp 4).

Eurocentric literature written by Africans undoubtedly arises out of the experiences of western imperialism and colonialism. Literary education throughout Africa under colonization came to signify and typify western values, norms, and mores. Citing Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest: Literary Study of British Rule in India in his The Problems with English Literature: Canonicity, Citizenship, and the Idea of Africa, A. O. Amoko hypothesizes, “English literature, as a specific academic discipline institutionalized in universities across the English-speaking world, consists of a singularizable discursive formation whose origin can be traced back to an ultimately imperial pedagogical imaginary” (18). This dominance was officially institutionalized with the carving up of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. France, Portugal and Britain became the major colonial barons in Africa. Thus, everything African, in the views of these western colonial barons, was negative, while everything western was positive. In his lectures during the 1970s, Liberian scholar Similih-Managwalah Cordor referred to the western literary bias as litereo-centricism.

The field of African literature itself as an academic discipline and a political tool against decolonization is linked to the struggle against colonialism in Africa. During the wave of anti-colonial movements in Africa, aesthetic or creative freedom was also seen as part and parcel of the movement for political freedom. Africans from the mainland and the Diaspora studying in Europe and the Americas saw themselves as one and the same color, facing the same or similar situations. Aimé Césaire from the Caribbean (Martinique) initiated the Negritude movement, which rejected Eurocentrism and affirmed African cultural heritage and racial pride. Léopold Senghor of Senegal became one of the foremost earliest proponents of Negritude, followed by others renowned writers such as the poet David Diop.

In the United States of America, there was the Harlem Renaissance that produced many of the greatest African-American creative writers of the last century. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, whose writings inspired many worldwide, were among this group. In Africa, many of the creative writers of the anti-colonial era were also part of the voices of independence. Their voices were heard both in their writings and their activities against colonialism. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child speak of the struggle of the African masses against colonialism. Simon Gikandi in his Theory, Literature, and Moral Considerations attests to the role writers in Africa played during the decolonization when he writes: “The artist had, after all, been an ally of the politician during the nationalism struggle, while becoming a writer had been one of the most important sources of legitimacy for the political class in Africa” (1).

African literature gradually evolved into a special discipline associated with literary education in the western world. Hence, the canons associated with English literature became the canons by which African literature was judged. These canons also became the standard that guided African writers. However, the late 1960s witnessed a wave of leading African "rebel" writers and academics who rejected the subjugation of African literature and languages in favor of the Eurocentric criterion. For them, the creation of an African canon was essential to the decolonization process and the reclamation of African cultural identity. This radical metamorphosis was led mainly by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Henry Owour Anyumba, and Taban Lo Liyong who, on October 24, 1968, re-echoed their position that was earlier presented in September 1968 to the Arts Faculty Board of the University of Nairobi.

These men wrote, "One of the things which has [sic] been hindering a radical outlook in our study of literature in Africa is the question of literary excellence; that only works of undisputed literacy excellence should be offered. (In this case it meant virtually the study of disputable 'peaks' of English literature.) The question of literary excellence implies a value judgment as to what is literary and what is excellence, and from whose point of view. For any group it is better to study representative works which mirror their society rather than a foreign culture.

"To sum up, we have been trying all along to place values where they belong. We have argued the case for the abolition of the present Department of English in the College and the establishment of a department of African Literature and Languages . . . We want to establish the centrality of Africa in the department. This, we have argued, is justifiable on various grounds, the most important one being that education is a means of knowledge about ourselves" (Thiong'o, Homecoming 150).

The Liberian Scene

If age or long years of existence were the sole determinant in the overall development of a nation, then Liberia, being the continent's oldest independent republic, would be the most developed country in Africa. Although Liberia obtained its first printing machine in 1826 (Cole 1); established Liberia College, a degree granting institution of higher learning) in the 1800s; and produced the first published work prose fiction from Africa in 1891, literacy and literary education yet remain abysmally low in the country. This low level of literacy and literary education is the result of a combination of factors, many closely associated with the status quo.

Since literary education goes hand in hand with the overall educational achievement of a society, the promotion and enforcement of compulsory quality elementary education help to promote an increase in the number of persons constituting the literate class in any given society; and from this literate class emerge men and women who promote and engage in literary education. In Liberia, the law for compulsory primary education has been on the books since 1912. Nevertheless, this law has never been enforced by successive Liberian governments. This is one reason why Liberia has nearly an 85 percent illiteracy rate.

The lack of total enforcement of the cardinal educational law was primarily due to government neglect, which played a major role in limiting access to education for the indigenous majority. As well, a sector of the ruling class purposefully attempted to deny indigenes full and equal access to education. This was done to continue the subjugation of the indigenes, because to expose a large number of natives to an education meant that they would become enlightened and fight against being dominated.

Of all the Liberian governments in the last one hundred years, the government that immensely contributed to literacy, and subsequently, literary education, was that of William Richard Tolbert, Jr. Although the Tolbert government never totally enforced the compulsory education law, it seriously supported education at all levels in the country. Tolbert increased the government's subsidies to private schools. At Cuttington University College, the government contributed subsidies for the tuition/fees to the tune of 50 percent for every Liberian student. This gesture by the Tolbert government saw the rapid growth in the number of indigenous students at the institution. Prior to the gesture, Cuttington was basically attended by children of the ruling elites, since many poor Liberians and indigenes could not afford the fees to send their children there.

To promote literacy and diversity in Liberia, President Tolbert encouraged Liberian students to enter the agricultural, teaching and medical professions. Students were offered full scholarships to attend the William R. Tolbert College of Agriculture and Forestry and the A. M. E. Doglitti College of Medicine at the University of Liberia; and the Teachers Training Institutes in Kakata and Zorzor respectively. As part of the program to create a pool of Liberian professionals in various fields, the Tolbert government took advantage of Liberia's membership in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Many medical doctors, engineers and agriculturists that are today serving their country were trained in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia.
President Tolbert also promoted literacy through the construction of two World Bank funded projects in Lofa and Grand Gedeh counties: the Voinjama Multilateral High School and the Zwedru Multilateral High School. Tolbert also opened the William V. S. Tubman College of Science and Technology in Maryland County. These institutions were created to produce middle level technicians in fields that had been dominated by other nationals from the west African subregion.

Tolbert, unlike Tubman, his predecessor, created a liberal atmosphere for intellectualism and academic activities. He encouraged many Liberians to return home to contribute to teaching at the then two institutions of higher learning in Liberia: the University of Liberia and Cuttington University College. Among the wave of highly educated Liberians who returned home to teach were Amos Sawyer, Elwood Dunn, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., Dew Tuan-Wreh Mayson, Togba Nah Tipoteh, Evelyn Kandakai, Nyan Kwiwon Taryor, Robert H. Brown, Kona Khasu, Wilton Sankawulo, Patrick Burrowes (Khadala Khafree), and Abraham James. With the exception of Mayson and Kandakai, all those listed above joined the University of Liberia teaching staff.

The flourishing intellectual atmosphere under Tolbert influenced several distinguished nationals from the west African subregion and the Americas to come to Liberia to teach. Among these were the celebrated Sierra Leoneon historian Arthur Abrahams, who taught at Cuttington University; and the poet and novelist Althea Romeo Mark and Kent Barlynetine – both West Indian and visiting professors at the University of Liberia.

The wave of academic and intellectual liberalism during the Tolbert era inspired creative writing on a large scale. Many creative works in all genres were produced. Two theater groups, Blamadon Theatre and Dekontee Artists were founded by Kona Khasu and Joe Gbaba respectively. Gbaba had been a student of Khasu at the University of Liberia. The presence of Khasu, Burrowes, Brown, Mark, S. Henry Cordor, Sankawulo and other writers on the faculty of Liberia College at the University of Liberia gave rise to a new generation of prolific Liberian writers. This generation included K. Moses Nagbe, K. Neville Best, Patricia Jebbeh Wesley, Gbawu Woiwor, Sarah Hayes Cooper, Emmanuel Abalo, Moore T. Butler, Osborne Collins, Sylvanus Tucker, Womi Neal, Joe Gbaba, William Harris (Bozekee), S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko, II, William C. Allen, Putu Sonpon, J. Hjamoinah Stewart, David Okai, Walter Taryenneh Moore, and James Dwalu (Nagbe, Liberian Literary Voices 15).

Tragically, with the demise of the Tolbert regime in the bloody coup of 1980, came the demise of liberalism, a decline in educational standards and a mass exodus of trained men and women. This exodus had a severe impact on the nation's educational system. But perhaps the most critical reason for the low literacy rate and lack of creative writing in Liberia is the absence of a truly indigenous cultural program that every Liberian can rally around. At the government owned University of Liberia, no attempt has ever been made to establish a department of Liberian languages where students will be offered a degree in Kpelle, the most widely spoken Liberian language, or any other Liberian language for that matter. At the moment Kpelle is the only Liberian language taught at the University of Liberia as a college requirement. Neither is there a department of performing or creative arts that offers degrees in music, drama/theater or dance. This contrasts sharply with countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.

One would agree with the view that for a society to become literate and encourage and promote the creativity of its citizens, a political decision must first be made to say "yes” to the idea that education is key to national development. This political will also means that the government must then provide the necessary financial support needed to promote national educational development, and that this must be linked to the cultural emancipation of the country and the individual. This view is vividly seen in the person of Kwame Nkrumah, who as president of Ghana supported his country's traditional culture as part of his nation building efforts to make Ghana an educated and traditionally culturally conscious society. W. Ofotsu Adinku, in "The Early Years of the Ghana Dance Ensemble," tells how President Nkrumah attached importance to the Institute of African Studies at its formal launching in October 1963. Adinku quotes President Nkrumah saying, "In this way the Institute can serve the needs of the people by helping to develop new forms of dance and drama, of music and creative writing, that are at the same time closely related to our Ghanaian tradition . . . This should lead to new strides in our cultural development” (131).

Another significant reason for the low production of creative literature from Liberia is the lack of publishing houses and printing presses, and the high cost of printing charged by printeries located only in the capital, Monrovia. Prior to the civil war, it was only the religious institutions that operated publishing houses, while businesspersons operated private printing presses. The religious publishers were the United Methodist Publishing House, the Baptist Publishers, Catholic Herald Publishing, Inc. and the Institute of Liberian Languages. All were engaged generally in publishing and printing religious materials. Today, only Herald Publishing, Inc. is still functioning. In collaboration with the Bishop John Collins Teachers College of the Don Bosc Polytechnic (Catholic), the Herald publishes educational materials, including creative literatures. This venture was the brainchild of Catholic nun Sister Mary Laurene Brown.

Private printing presses, prior to the war, were established and owned by foreigners, chiefly Lebanese, Ghanaian and Nigerians. The only Liberian that operated a competitive medium sized printing press before the war was newspaper publisher Kenneth Y. Best with his Yandia Printing Press. Nearly all of the foreign printing presses opened their doors again after the civil war. The largest are Sabonnoh and Universal – both owned and operated by Lebanese. However, the high cost of imported printing materials makes the cost of printing very high in Liberia. This cost is increased for people outside Monrovia. Because there are no modern printing facilities outside Monrovia, people from the leeward counties are forced to pay almost double the costs of printing because they have to travel to Monrovia.

The national government operated Central Printing, Inc. (CPI) as a commercial printery before the war. CPI was the brainchild of President Tolbert when his government began publication of the government owned New Liberia newspaper. After President Tolbert's murder, CPI was mismanaged and eventually looted under the Doe regime, and is still down today. Thus, in the absence of publishing houses, with high printing costs and the government’s lack of sufficient financial support for educational and publishing endeavors, Liberian creative writers resorted to mimeographing their works in order to publish. In Nagbe's words, "Limited publishing facilities have often made Liberian writers produce mimeographed or what one might call pamphlet literature" (10). From the 70s through the 80s, Cordor, Nagbe, Brown, Mark, Sonpon, Duworko, Collins, Moore, Best and others exposed their writings to the Liberian population in this way. Others published their works in the newspapers, and a few others were privileged to get their works printed by printing presses abroad. Among these privileged few were Brown, Cordor, Moore, Burrowes, and Sankawulo.

Encouraging Quality Education and Creative Writing in Liberia

The countries that offer a quality education to their citizens are those countries with the political will and financial commitment to say yes to a quality education for all. In Liberia, the political will means reviewing the entire educational system from the elementary to tertiary level. Critical issues must be addressed: Is the current curricula relevant for today's Liberia? Is there a qualified teaching staff? What changes should be made?

It is generally agreed that a sound primary education is the foundation of a well functioning educational system. The overall poor performance of an overwhelming number of students in freshman and sophomore composition English courses at the University of Liberia suggests that these students had poor backgrounds at the elementary level, and probably through high school. For these poor performance students, the literature portion of the university curriculum seems outlandish. There is need to revise the courses of the English Department at the University of Liberia and focus on Liberian and African literatures written in English. The present courses were designed to promote western values and do not address the realities or hold the interest of students. Additionally, there is a need to create schools of Liberian languages and performing arts at the University of Liberia as a means of promoting Liberian culture. A department of Liberian languages will teach and preserve Liberian languages, ensuring that these languages do not get extinct. Already, a language such as Dei is becoming extinct. The teaching of Liberian languages will also foster the development of scripts for those languages like Tempo that do not have scripts. For its part, a department of performing arts will offer courses in theatrics/drama, dance/choreography and music. This department will have as its core the preservation of Liberian culture through the dramas, dances and songs of the various Liberian ethnic groups.

The revamping of the English Department of the University of Liberia and the creation of a department of Liberian languages and a department of performing arts; and revamping the language programs from elementary to high school will expose students to a variety of literary works from within and outside Liberia. This exposure will give them a broad view of their own culture and will help them to have a sense of pride in their heritage. It will also encourage students to write because they, too, will want to leave behind a record of their heritage, to show to future generations what past generations thought and did.

A substantial financial investment is needed to support quality education in Liberia. Physical structures must be constructed. There must also be a commitment to recruit the best brains in the teaching profession for elementary through college, and to pay teachers decent wages. Currently, the highest paid teachers in the country are all at private schools: Cuttington University College and Lott Carey Baptist Mission (elementary to high school). Many of the books stacked up in libraries/reading rooms across the country are outdated. The University of Liberia library is no exception. Finances must also be provided for the building of new schools, necessary teaching materials, libraries, laboratories, and offices.

Scholarships and other assistance must also be provided so students can obtain undergraduate, graduate and post graduate education in their respective fields, so that there can be a continuity of trained professionals. Some students may need scholarships to study abroad as their areas of study are not offered in Liberia. There must be an enabling environment so that qualified Liberians and other foreign nationals will come to Liberia to work. Many of Liberia's trained men and women live and work outside of Liberia. There are scholars in all fields whose return home will help to contribute immensely to the country's development.

1. Speech delivered by Henry Cole at an international seminar on Press and Progress in West Africa, University of Dakar, Senegal, May 31-June 4, 1960.
2. Robin Dunn-Marcos et al. from “Liberians: An Introduction to their History and Culture.” Center for Applied Linguistics. Culture Profile No. 19. April 2005.

Works Cited
Adinku, W. Ofotsu. "The Early Years of the Ghana Dance Ensemble." FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theater and Film. Eds. Kofi Anyihodo and James Gibbs. Atlanta; Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Amoko, A. O. "The Problem with English Literature: Canonicity, Citizenship and the Ideal of Africa." Research in African Literatures. Vol. 32, No. 4 (2001).

Awuyah, Chris Kwame. "The Roles of Print and Non-Print Media and Promotional Associations in the Development of Ghanaian Written Literature." FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theater and Film. Eds. Kofi Anyihodo and James Gibbs. Atlanta; Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Cole, Henry. "The Press in Liberia." Speech delivered at an international seminar on Press and Progress in West Africa. University of Dakar, Senegal, May 31-June 4, 1960.

Cordor, Henry S. "A Short Bibliography of Liberian Literature." Modern West African Short Stories from Liberia. Monrovia: Liberian Literary and Educational Publications, 1977.

Dekutsey, Wole A. "Book Publishing and Creative Writing in Ghana." FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theater and Film. Eds. Kofi Anyihodo and James Gibbs. Atlanta; Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Dempster, Roland Tombekai. "About the Author." The Mystic Reformation of Gondolia: Being a Satirical Treatise on Moral Philosophy. Great Britain: Dragon Press Ltd, 1953.

Gikandi, Simon. "Theory, Literature and Moral Consideration." Research in African Literatures. Vol. 32, No. 4 (2001). pp. 1-18.

Nagbe, K. Moses. Plots and Points: Summaries and Comments on 22 African Novels. Monrovia: Pen Tina Publications, 1999.
----. The Liberian Literary Voices: A Guide to Liberian Literature. Monrovia: Pen Tina Publications, 1988.

Thiong'o, Ngugi wa, Henry Owour-Anyumba and Tamba Lo Liyong. "On the Abolition of the English Department." Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Perrine, Lawrence and Thomas Arp. Story and Structure. Texas: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.

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