Liberia: Old nation but no library, proxy in shambles!

 

Photograph maybe subject to copyrights/James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Liberia declared independence in 1847 and is considered Africa’s oldest republic. Its national flag and constitution are replicated after those of the U.S. Founded by repatriated Black Americans, who ruled the country for more than a century, Liberia was once viewed by her neighbors and visitors as an American colony in Africa. The country is blessed with abundant resources like iron ore, gold, diamonds and timber but in spite of such accomplishments and blessing, the nation counts among the world’s poorest countries, and with not a single national library to boast of. A proxy ‘national’ library, remains in shamble- a case of total neglect! Writes James Kokulo Fasuekoi.  

Liberia, the oldest nation on the continent of Africa does not own a national library and it has been so for over a century and half in spite of possessing abundant mineral resources. Interesting as it seems, many of Liberia’s early presidents, born in the U.S. and educated there, prior to their migration to Liberia, West Africa, never considered the erection of a national library as part of their political agendas.

And the same is also true for succeeding administrations led by indigenous themselves, following the overthrow of the TWP oligarchy, April 12, 1980, beginning with Samuel Doe through Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, (a so-called ‘Harvard University trained economist’), and current President George Manneh Weah. In the meantime, a proxy “national” library stands in total shamble at the heart of Monrovia, with no one willing to revive it.

Back view of the Library, a building probably nearing 200 years old.
Photograph maybe subject to copyrights/James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Next July, Liberia will turn 172 years old but sadly, there’s barely a significant development to show to match her age. Basic social services like computer labs, national libraries, for instance, essential for research work as well as for enhancing the learning capacity of locals, remain practically non-existent. And things have been so before the war broke out.

Most find this rather ironic, especially for a country this old and with strong ties to the United States. The story, however, seems totally different with Liberia’s close and distanced African neighbors like Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana-all of whom gained independence in the 50s and 60s. They have modern roads, hospitals, universities, as well as modern libraries and computer labs.

Understatement

When Rev. Dr. Francis Tabla first raised the issue of the country’s lack of national library in 2013 in Minnesota in the US during a fundraising rally for the construction of a library in Kakata, Liberia, some gnashed their teeth in disbelief while others weighted his remark as an understatement. But an investigation by this writer proved Dr. Tabla was right and that there isn’t a single public, or a national, library in the entire country.

As of late 2018, a few universities and colleges in Liberia ran some type of makeshift library and with a few maintaining a computer lab. Even so, these institutions restrict use of such facilities to only their students, prohibiting the public and out-of-campus users from using them.

Such situation has left many in serious dilemma and with practically no hope in sight. Some educational experts attribute it to be largely the cause of mass failure in entrance exams offered by colleges and universities in the country, an example being the 2017 UL exams during which only 1,901 passed out of 10, 837 students who sat for it nationwide.   

But for Dr. Tabla who now owns a mega African immigrant church in Minnesota, there’s hope that his Kakata library-a resource center for the community-when finished, would help alleviate some of the headaches long faced by teachers and students in Margibi County.  

Paradox

It may sound paradoxical but it’s clear from a historical perspective that close to a dozen of Liberia’s twenty-three former presidents were freed black Americans who were born to slave parents in America.

Take for instance, Joseph Jenkins Roberts who was first president and a descendant of slave, was born in Norfolk, VA, as were presidents Edward James Roye, Newark, OH; James S. Smith, Charleston, SC; James S. Payne, Richmond, VA and Stephen A. Benson, Cambridge, MD. Daniel B. Warner, the 3rd president, originated from Baltimore, MD, while Alfred Russell and William D. Coleman, came from Kentucky.  

Except for a few, most received their secondary and higher education in the U.S. before their migration to Liberia which started 1822 with the help of the American Colonization Society (ACS). But in spite of their rich educational background, not a single one erected a public library.   

Neglect

During the eras of both Presidents Williams V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert, periods in which economists said Liberia experienced “surplus” in goods and heavily exported gold, diamonds, timber, rubber and iron ore at  excellent rates, nothing much changed in terms of national development and no one could dare press them for accountability. Both were descendants of freed slaves.  

Mr. Tolbert undertook the Rally Time project with the motive to improve the standard of living among ordinary citizens. But his dream ended a decade later when he was overthrown on April 12, 1980 by a group of soldiers who charged him and his cabinet officials for engaging in rampant corruption before executing them. Mr. Tubman, on the other hand, initiated some “development,” including building a library in his hometown of Harper, Maryland in Liberia.

The library’s current full staff.
Photograph maybe subject to copyrights/James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Though some credit Tubman as the “Father” of “Modern Liberia,” historians remain critical of his administration, an era of “surplus”, where they argued that developments undertaken by Tubman didn’t commensurate with the revenue intake from the booming mining industries at the time.           

Substitute  

In the absence of a national library, the Law Library located in the heart of Monrovia and operated by the local lawyers’ committee has managed to fill in the gap all these years.

Although this library itself, falls short of functional equipment and academic researched materials, needed to run a modern library, yet journalists, visiting scholars, teachers, and students, across Monrovia and beyond, have found it resourceful and far better than having none.  

Like every institution in Liberia, the two civil wars of 1989-1996 and 1999-2003 took heavy toll on the Law Library when the fighting reached downtown, Monrovia. Looters broke into properties including this library and looted them each time there was a lull in fighting.       

Remnants

When the wars ended, the library staff went in and recovered whatever had been left there after the looting. And it soon became obvious that this record-keeping center stands badly in need of rehabilitation and donation in order to keep it alive after its assistant manager Petar Doryen Wreh, took me on a tour of the facility early last March.

On its partly emptied dusty shelves, are books on religion, Liberian and world history, as well as US encyclopedia, literature, science, math, chemistry and physics. Among its treasured collections are braille on Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the history and life style of Braille Francis, the inventor of the Braille. Its oldest book is a World’s Atlas, printed in 1972. Most appeared worn out, something Wreh attributed to the books’ extensive usage and lack of ventilation.

Unlike most modern libraries, the Law Library lacks functional equipment like computers (desk and laptop) and photocopy machines. The most valuable equipment found is a 2020 Microfilm projector-though obsolete-that sits on a table in the corner.

Opposite the adult library, the staff also runs a skeletal library for children and like the adult library, the kids’ library exists only in name because it practically lacks computers, and current reading books, magazines and toys for children.

Donation

Doryen Wreh said he and his staff had been hopeful for some aid from Mrs. Jewel Howard Taylor, now vice president of Liberia. He explained while Mrs. Taylor was still senator for Bong County, she had promised to give help to the library but according to him, “She hasn’t made meaningful contribution to the library.”

Wreh didn’t make it clear whether he made any attempt to contact Mrs.Taylor’s office in the past concerning such pledge. Attempt by this writer to contact Mrs. Taylor’s office proved futile.

On the other hand, a pledge made by a local Lions Club regarding renovating the library came through in 2009. Wreh maintained that the club also donated chairs and tables, enabling the facility to stay somewhat functional.

Library’s History

This iconic one storey building opposite Centennial Pavilion on Ashmun Street, where all of the country’s past and current president were sworn into office, is the private home of Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts who served a two terms.

According to Doyen Wreh, Pres. Roberts turned the family residence into a ‘presidential palace’ soon after he became head of state in 1847. Roberts is said to have lived and conducted state’s affairs from this building till the first state’s house down the street, was erected. Roberts’ family later donated it the local lawyers committee to be used as a library.

Manager ‘Steals’

In a country where states leaders barely show respect for law and order, amid widespread corruption and abuse of power, even junior staffers, including heads of government bureaus think stealing of public funds or properties is normal.     

In the months leading to the end of Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s regime, Wreh said a senior female Sirleaf’s appointee seized and took the library’s single big screen television home for her personal use.

“She came one day, just packed it and took it home,” Wreh told this writer. The TV was donated not long ago by an organization. No action was taken against the woman, he said.

Wreh and his staff show some of the library’s oldest and remaining braille books
Photograph maybe subject to copyrights/James Kokulo Fasuekoi

‘Blind Steals’

Amid hardship and a culture of impunity, in the post-war nation, a blind too, took his chance, carrying away one of the library’s treasured books, “The History and Life Style of Braille,” the inventor of brailling.

How did the library staff get to know it was a blind person who has stolen the missing referenced braille? I asked.

“We know because, he [blind] hasn’t come back since that incident. Besides, he had expressed love for this book several times and wanted to take it home but we refused because that’s the only copy we have here,” says Wreh.   

Meantime, the library staffers are pleading for aid from philanthropic individuals and groups to help rescue the proxy national library already nearing collapse. The appeal, Wreh says, also goes to Mrs. Taylor to make good on her promises.

Wreh named two wall fans, twelve desk computers, several laptops, a copier and a digital camera, as items they need badly in order to keep library functional. The laptops and cameras he said, would go a long way in training staff to do a documentary on the history and cultures of the country’s distinct sixteen ethnic groups. 

 

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is a special contributor in Minneapolis, MN.  

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