Book review: The tales of war and peace

Momoh writes a gripping story about his experiences during the Liberian civil war

Momoh writes a gripping story about his experiences during the Liberian civil war

The author begins his narrative with a picturesque description of his current home and environment in the Mid-Western state of Minnesota but clearly Minnesota is not the beginning of the whole story narrated in the book, “Harrowing December.” This picturesque description of the scenic landscape of Otsego, Minnesota only shows how far the author has come from the village of Gordorlahun located in his native Lofa County, Liberia West Africa. This indicates the triumphant moment of a long and difficult journey that began in the early 90s when Charles Taylor’s rebellion started against the government of President Samuel Doe. When many of us left seeking refuge in neighboring countries, we thought it was going to be a passing moment and we would go back to our normal routine of life in our villages, towns and cities. But that was not to be the case. The result is that many of us have become wanderers in the wilderness, too far away from where we call home. For Momoh Dudu, while he may be a well accomplished man today as a university professor in the US, his nostalgic feeling for the village of his nativity, indeed the country of his nativity, is ever so strong,  proving the adage that no matter how far we go, “home will always be home.” The imprint of homes is ever lasting whether we go back or stay away forever.

In Liberia, a nation of strong Christian influence, the month of December, just like in many parts of the world, is a time of celebration and it was anticipated by many Liberians to be the usual pomp and pageantry. While majority of Liberians were planning to partake in the Christmas and new year festivities, there were others lurking in the dark ready to wreak havoc on the nation and its people. So instead of the usual month of festivity, what we got on Christmas eve in 1989 was a “Harrowing December,” the title of Prof. Momoh Dudu’s memoir.

War is not a picnic, nor a tea party and it can be very brutal and that was the case with the  Liberian civil. Not only was the government targeted, it was a war that went after ordinary people either on the accounts of ethnicity, religion, or even for being a mere government employee. Nothing has affected my generation of Liberians more than the war that made us to take guns killing our own people or sent us as refugees in all parts of the world and for many of us who have settled in those places where we sought refuge, going back home has become a challenge in itself. Despite that the nagging feeling about home is never abated.

The end of a prolonged devastating war such as ours, with massive deaths and destruction of properties, exodus of thousands of people across the borders as refugees should be followed by a period of creativity in many shapes or forms. In other words, the aftermath of a war should be a period of renaissance because we are bringing home the fusion of old and new ideas and experiences. Though there may be new political order but no group embodies the sense of renaissance than the artists and writers. Through their creative efforts we may find nuggets of wisdom, courage and the strength to remake the country far better than what it was before. These creative ideas and efforts may be showcased in novels, poetry, memoirs, short stories, songs, movies or dramas. Professor Dudu’s memoir is one of such efforts. It chronicles sweet and bitter memories of what life used to be before, during and after the war and where we are today as a people and nation. Though the country has put the war behind her for more than ten years now, it’s a good thing to refresh our memory of the past as we pass it along as lessons for future generations.

Though “Harrowing December” is about 15 chapters, Prof. Dudu’s memoir can be divided into three parts: his trial and tribulation in the war which drove him and his family first to Sierra Leone and then to Guinea as refugee, his journey to the US through the philanthropic efforts of Mary Anne Schwalbe who according to the author, “plucked  me out of despair and pointed me to the rays of hope,” and the new family he created in the US.

Through the philanthropic woman, Mary Anne Schwalbe, a prominent Jewish in New York,  Momoh came to the US on scholarship to pursue university education after the war had aborted his university study in Liberia. Having taken advantage of Ms. Schawlb’s generosity, today he’s a university professor and a Phd candidate in the state Minnesota. For a man who had to run for his dear life from the marauding gun totting rebels, sold fire wood for survival as a refugee and later on became a school administrator in the refugee school system in Guinea’s forest region to be where he is today is indeed a sheer determination which was aided by the kind gesture of a philanthropist whose generosity went beyond color, religion and ethnicity. So while “Harrowing December” is about the horror of the Liberian civil war, it’s also about the triumph of the man who is standing today at the cusp of academic success in the US.

While Momoh may have written the book about his own experience in the war, in essence he’s telling the story of his generation of Liberians who either perished or survived the war. Those who died during the war are not here to tell their stories but those of us still living must. We all have stories to tell of our experiences, sometime bitter, but sometime sweet as well but not everyone will ever tell his or her story. Those of us who have the capacity and the opportunity must tell our stories because the more we write the better the future generation will be educated about what we went through as a people and nation and what lesson to draw from it. Many will certainly see their own reflections in all the stories that have been written about the Liberian civil war. As the author clearly stated, the Liberian war can be explained and understood from different perspectives, all depending on where each one of us were. According to him, “Harrowing December” was written in “this honest spirit. It is my candid attempt at contributing to the recording of, for posterity’s sake, the disturbing circumstances that caused our nation pain, tears, untold suffering, and ultimately the life of many fellow citizens.”

The author refreshes our memory of the atrocities that were being committed in Monrovia by the government soldiers. Who can forget the pictures and stories of beheaded civilians suspected of being rebel sympathizers? Those people were mostly Nimbaians of the Mano and Gio ethnicity. While the atrocities committed by the government soldiers were well documented in the newspapers, reports of the rebels’ “destructive exploits” in the interior were scanty or at best ignored by many until they entered Monrovia.

The ethnic factor of the war may be kind of complex for many people. It was largely a power struggle between the Krahn ethnic group which was in power and the Gio and the Mano dominated rebel NPFL. The Krahn dominated government army would kill because they wanted to maintain power and the Gio and Mano dominated rebels would kill because they wanted to wrestle power from their rivals. But then the million dollar question that most Liberians don’t want to talk about is the Mandingo/Muslim factor. From day one of the war, Mandingoes were killed everywhere. Even a mentally deranged Mandingo person could not be spared. The first Mandingo casualty of the war in Hambeh Clan were four persons. Trying to escape the war to Sierra Leone, they were arrested by the rebels and slaughtered like cows, sheep or goats. In the same time period there was a “crazy man” in town, Moivabah Bawoh, who did not bother anyone. He walked around minding his own business and was obviously oblivious to the danger around him until one day the rebels decided that the only good Mandingo is a dead Mandingo and as such they could not even spare the life of a “crazy Mandingo man” who posed no danger to them.

For all those who want to further enrich their understanding of the Liberian civil war, this book is highly recommended.

About the Reviewer: Nvasekie Konneh is a Liberian writer and cultural activist. He’s the author of the book, “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” memoir of the Liberian civil war and a collection of poems, “Going to War for America.” He’s a nine year veteran of the US Navy. He’s currently working on a documentary on ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia. He can be reached at
267-206-8909 or or