The Road to Harper and the Reconstruction of War Memory: A Literary Travelogue


By Gbanabom Hallowell

Experiences in this travelogue demonstrate that the sensory details of an explosion serves to recreate memories, both real and imagined, twenty years later. Driving on the road from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Harper in Liberia, a journey of 1014 miles and meeting with several conditions, I suddenly fostered a compelling recollection recreating memory during the Liberian civil war along the affected counties. Interestingly, to understand Liberia’s socio-political and cultural milieu, I overcame wild Sierra Leonean myths, which nevertheless played a role in exaggerating the recreation of memory. Tied to this reality is the fascinating role memory played in untangling of historical facts. I felt that collective experiences were about to be reenacted because there was always the certainty that memories were not always truth.

For Sierra Leoneans who lived through the war in country, events and recollections of experiences shared in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone signal compelling reconstruction of memories when paths cross.  Usually, wars beat the rains too hard and too long in the land, and after they have subsided, citizens aspire to put these memories behind them and carry on with their lives.  The regional West African wars that broke out in the countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1989 and 1990 respectively were long and scandalous wars that cost thousands of lives and depleted the West African regional economies drastically.  The episodes of the two wars left tragic memories.  But truth be told, memories always reenact on a sporadic and occasional times.  In fact, as a thesis, the memories in this travelogue reenacted, often reconstructed, and caused a protrusion of a third eye, distancing from the original event to recreate objectivity and verity.

Such was the situation I encountered at William V.S. Tubman University weeks after the human resources department had sent me an electronic copy of my letter of appointment to Harper City, Maryland in Liberia.  I excitedly accepted the offer and was told that I could fly from Freetown to Monrovia and then again fly from a local airport in Monrovia to the university, so that I avoided the four hundred mile stretch of horrendous road network to Harper.  Half of my journey got soothed with encouragement on phone by those urging me to take the touristic experience on the ground, a road trip.  The rainy season was far away; therefore, I had plenty of time to watch the sky from the road. As luck would have it, funds from the African Development Bank (ADB), provided the capital to enable China Railway to begin constructing on the road prior to my arrival. Aware that 90% of the road still laid bare and vehicularly unpassable, it was all the more reason to sacrifice half of my comfort to discover Liberia proper.

Myth and memory

With that resolve, I decided not to entertain any more discussion with those who wanted me to go by road, instead of by an hour-long flight.  I wanted to crisscross Liberia.  Despite having just suffered an injury to my right leg, which put me on crutches, I decided to manage my excitement. My truck was in good shape, and my driver and a young fellow out of school, both from Sierra Leone, agreed to accompany me on the journey.  My team was set and I was ready to go. There were memories of the war and many of my friends (who had told me they were going to miss me if I left) also took time to scare me by describing how horrifying the journey by the northwestern down to the southeastern Liberian road would be if I attempted it.  Jocularly, yet borne out of the myths they hold, they assured me that dangerous people awaited me on the road, people who would have no hesitation swallowing their prey raw and whole, and that monkeys were their appetizers when hunger roamed the land. They swore they had memories of cannibals who sniffed into holes and caves to consume potential targets of human flesh and eat them raw. I refused to be intimidated.

This bridge situated in a small town on the Mano River divides Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Though all of these were a ploy, the myths remained in their memories, although I chose to dismiss them. I realized that since the two countries shared borders, in many respect, the two had many instances where they bond and between them that remained unshakeable, a situation I wanted my friends to accept. As a matter of fact, during the two wars, these sister states cried and migrated into each other’s arms in fear, pain and solace like estranged spouses.   In time they mingled with each other and settled as neo-nationals, enjoying the security of human warmth.

Shame on the two countries for spreading unfounded rumors across each other’s borders!  Statistically speaking, sister states ought to take the opportunity and the responsibility to dispel such myths in the interest of peace.  In his chapter, “Toward a History of Social Thought” an author and psychologist admonished that we should “try to understand what these different “blind men” are telling us and to take from each of their views what we can use to develop our own conception of the truth.” As I began to reflect on relocating to Harper, I found that even among residents of Monrovia, they confessed they knew very little about the region. They remarked to me that Harper and indeed, Maryland County, was the Liberia that never was. Somehow, that unease struck me.  Apparently, while most of the Northwest and Southeast of Liberia knew about William V.S. Tubman University, Liberia’s second largest public institution remained far removed from the national discourse, at least, socially speaking. It appeared from the many people I spoke to on the road, that there were no landmarks that pinned down William V.S. Tubman, not with all its proud name, and never mind the many people who graduated from there even though they’d been long gone away from there.

I entered Monrovia from Sierra Leone where, after I’d settled the matter of border and customs crossing, my most urgent matter was getting enough gas to convey us to Harper.   I’d been told that one of the jetties in the country was inoperable and that gas was going to be scarce until it was fixed.  It had been so for over three weeks February 2020.  But I found it unbelievable that from Monrovia to Harper, there were many gas stations shut or open but in inoperable conditions, while filled-up gallons sold at exorbitant prices along the streets. My team was already short of cash, and it seemed to me that if I continued to anguish about how much farther we had to travel, my frustration would increase to keep pace. We had no money left until I had an idea that we could sell the most valuable item we had. After I had sold my musical set to pay for gas, we arrived tired and haggard into Harper four days after.

History of politics and politics of history

By 1989, Liberia was falling apart, politically speaking. The country was at loose ends since its pants, tethered on the American apron strings, were pulled off as the US economy spiraled downward. The American government shied away from the stench of corruption under President Samuel Kanyan Doe. With the drying up of the fountain well, Doe began to consolidate his remaining personal powers ethnically within the Krahn group, as well as other cousin groups in the region. President Doe employed a sense of defense mechanism by dishing out favors, forgetting that people had lost confidence in his ability to protect himself as well as his henchmen, all of which caused a Freudian delay. In no time, alliances largely from neighboring Ivory Coast and supported by Charles Taylor dealt a decisive blow on the government. President Doe and his team saw impending danger and (Bohleber 2007, p. 332) deferred action. Gomez (2013) refers to this psychological tragedy as “the meaning and ways of symbolizing of the event in addition to the way in which they occur.”

Samuel Kanyon Doe served as Liberian leader from 1980 to 1990, first as a military leader and later as a civilian.

Liberia was the earliest country to initiate a civil war in the sub rejoin since the popular wave of independence in West Africa. Before this time, civil wars fought in Africa were under the brazen colonial establishment and were wars supported by Western powers under white minority rule. In Southern Africa and some parts of Eastern Africa, apartheid and discontent had been the bitter pill. We also remembered the civil wars in Angola and other places, as well as coups and insurrections but they never blew into all out wars. So, when Liberia broke out in a civil war, Sierra Leone became restless. I remember a fearless journalist, Elizabeth Blunt, stringing from Liberia, almost exclusively and Sierra Leone become a main source for information.  Excitement and trauma came upon Sierra Leoneans and the BBC Network’s morning signature tune and their sister Focus on Africa had many people endlessly clamoring to their radios.

Liberia was a hot bed of violence, and Sierra Leone was to sleep no more.  President Joseph Saidu Momoh’s political condition was shaky and volatile.  For the first time, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) considered broadening its mandate, giving it power to intervene on behalf of member states if insurgencies were becoming a restless game.  Ironically, it smelled dourly when strongman Nigerian President Abacha championed that clinical ideal in case he might have a need to call for help.  Consequently, regardless of the huge financial contributions Nigeria and ECOWAS offered, the rebel insurgencies and the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia didn’t trust the objectives.  The elephant in the room was President Sani Abacha who, at home had slaughtered leading human rights crusaders, such as Ken Saro Wiwa and couldn’t convince the world that his motives were genuine. The psychological narrative I’m analyzing now is made possible by the stories of the fall of sanity in the Liberian political leadership under President Doe. The realization of it all hit home after I began reconstructing my mental modes.  At once, I thought about how the international airwaves bombarded news on the war in Liberia.  Two years later, a civil war broke out, thanks to the rising discontent of the Sierra Leone army, most of whom were serving as a contingent under ECOWAS in Liberia, and the chicken quickly went to roost.  McClelland (2007) noted that “Clearly, knowledge acquired from experience is necessary, since the relationship between the word and the objects that it stands for are idiosyncratic and language specific.”

Of Kakata and Elizabeth Blunt

In 1989 when the war started in Liberia, Elizabeth Blunt fascinated me with her courageous reporting.  In fact, many people feared for her life. Many of us who listened to her pronounce the names of the places were mesmerized by them. There was a fellow who loved to hear the name, Kakata, and he would mimic Elizabeth Blunt’s reporting of heavy artilleries and the number of dead bodies on the streets. It didn’t matter to him whether Kakata was a place or person.  In time, he gave himself the alias Kakata. The name stuck.

Kakata knew all the names of the war locations in Liberia.  He had learned them by heart even though he had never been there.  He knew all the counties affected and their cities and whether or not forces loyal to the Liberian government or the other side where in battle.  Kakata could tell which side was having the upper hand in the war or which side was losing.  He was particularly keen to know through the reporting of Elizabeth Blunt, how the city of Kakata was fairing on and always wanted Kakata city to be victorious regardless of who was in battle.  As far as Kakata was concerned, it didn’t matter who was fighting against whom, as long as Kakata city did not report of deaths of innocent civilians.  We were amused by his rational and it was always difficult to know of anyone who supported him and for what.

Liberia was the earliest country to initiate a civil war in the sub rejoin since the popular wave of independence in West Africa. Sierra Leone followed afterwards.

Now journeying through Liberia into Harper, my interest in tracing those locations grew and a desire kept playing in my psyche. I wanted to see the locations, to walk the streets and to chat with the people. But my guide kept hastening me as we had still not got the required gas for the truck to be on the road, it would soon be dark.  That night the truck broke down, and we slept in the cab for the third night.  Stress has a way of bringing all the frustrations from personal to the collective. In the car, were the Sierra Leoneans who themselves had mental modes of places and people they had known and intense recollections of the Liberian war. We chatted way into the night, vividly recollecting the fellow who had named himself Kakata. Gomez (2013) the psychologist, rightly noted that “sharing the memory does not necessarily mean the speech. It implies an expression.The possibility of expression occurs in multiple forms (verbal, playful, artistic, performative, etc.). This needs another person to listen and the construction of a relationship between pain and horror…” (p.47).

That night I realized that the path leading to our destination went through to Monrovia down to Harper was the one that Elizabeth Blunt and others had been reporting about, where hundreds of people had perished during the war.  It became obvious that in many ways, we were on our way to reliving the Liberian civil war.  We mentioned important names, such as Samuel Kanyan Doe, Nancy Doe (wife and widow of Samuel Doe), Charles Taylor, Prince Johnson, and I couldn’t believe that driving from Monrovia to Harper, I was bound to meet some of those people, or to simply hear about them, perhaps even places to see the houses they had lived in.

Then there were places then that the BBC spoke about such places as Nimba County, Bong County, Margibi County, Lofa County and Montserrado County, Grand Gede County.  They became larger-than-life people, places, and characters!  When I realized that the places and the people I was about to encounter were history of the present, I shuddered with reality, not because I felt that their collective experiences were about to be reenacted but because there was always the truth that memories were not always truth. Memories need not be true, and in fact they more likely would be exaggerated. Often, when we entered into those places, we drove our vehicle, without incidence, merely just passing by calmly. We saw children with belongings on their heads and waving happily at us.  What was I thinking? Was I expecting to hear the voice of Elizabeth Blunt in the counties? Or the sounds of AK47 Kalashnikovs? Or a replay of 1989! Was our truck moving toward the dark memory of the past or was it moving toward reality?  It was already dark, and we didn’t know what was pushing us forward, especially since at each stop, immigration security wanted us to pay a bribe or else we were not going to move forward on our journey.  The only saving grace was our insistence that we were guests of William V.S. Tubman University and that by the university’s authority, we were highly expected to arrive that night!  It so happened that all of the security officers had respect for the sound of a professor and the security men agreed they needed us to be allowed through remarking that these professors were there to educate young Liberians.

At that point in the journey, we saw the ruined and fabulous home of President Samuel K. Doe and someone told me that Nancy Doe her widow would be in there at home, brooding. We wanted to see Prince Johnson’s house, but it was at least three miles away so we decided not to bother them.  In the end, after we had fed to our brim, we agreed that there was nothing extraordinary that neither the players of history nor the stages set on the road. We saw Montserrado where Charles Taylor might have ruled the world, but he now remains in jail in the U.K serving an International Criminal Court (ICC). It dawned on me that though we had passed by those locations, making them no longer part of imagination, but instead, reality of the past players who had captured President Doe or Charles Taylor with his insistence to govern the country, or of Prince Johnson, slicing the ears of his boss humiliating him in the media, had not brought hope to the common man.  At once, I imagined I heard the voice of Foday Sankoh, that Sierra Leonean warlord who had been caught in the middle of another man’s war. I was in the highest of my memory reconstruction, mnemophobic!

Harper, the Liberian capital city that never was

The name of Harper sounded to me like a musical instrument, perhaps like the harp.  It was not difficult to know that the city was surrounded by beaches and capes and they were built such that the waves struck notes as the seas overflowed in ebb and tide.  In one of our conversations on Facebook, the distinguished and respected Liberian poet, Patricia Jebbeh Wesley, domiciled in the USA and professor of Penn State University, told me how happy she was that I had been offered a position as Assistant Professor at William V.S. Tubman University, even though Harper was a long ways away from Sierra Leone.  I cannot but accept that Harper was the reverse of the eponymous Godot that would never arrive on the road.  The vehicle always had more gas to drink and more distance to cover.  I was not Godot, and I planned on arriving to teach. There was a time when Harper was just a name to me.  But long ago in history, Harper was the name of the white American activist and United States senator who suggested to his American and African-American activist colleagues to name Liberia as Liberia. In turn, Harper was named after that senator, Robert Goodloe Harper.

But for the accident of history, Harper city would never have been a location in the country of Liberia. With the support of activists and political heavyweights like Harper, American anti-colonialists determinedly created a country in Africa that was exclusively American. Maryland County was chosen as a settlement for the new Africans returning from America and the country was called the Republic of Maryland, and it was well advanced and detached from the rest of Liberia.  The Republic of Maryland effectively governed itself for a period from 1834 to 1857.  I wanted to know whether there were efforts made by these black colonialists, to proselytize native Liberians particularly the tribal groups of Grebo, Gios, and Krus who stood their grounds repeatedly to have their own integrity and independence of space and belonging of citizenship!

But for the accident of history, Harper city would never have been a location in the country of Liberia.

A Liberian poet, Siahyonkron Nyanseor, had a vexatious perspective on that matter.  In a work he wrote, quoting an African proverb, he said, “The first thing a person who is about to travel should put in the suitcase, is his/her behavior.”  Needless to say, down the lane of history, there were many challenges that frustrated the settlers through history, there were many challenges for the settlers, resulting in a decreased pursuit to Americanize Liberia. In addition, there was no more space for a new African country.  However, since history had been set, the pioneers brought forth descendants with new ideas who (no matter how minor their minority) have continued to create impact in the new Liberia. These descendants that sprouted, for better for worse, grew into the Congors (descendants of migrant African-American re-settlers).  A memory had been constructed. Thankfully, the Congors were not looked upon as a tribal group but rather as a country in reserve, and an opportunity arose for the rest of the natives to be looked upon as pioneers and beacons of hope. Congors drew their lineage from Liberian ethnic groups. The Congors eventually grew into an influential group of people with the wealth and education in the land.  Many of them went into serving in government and in places of learning. The Congors started out as frustrated poor ex-slaves, mostly in Baltimore in America, and insistent meetings at the American colonization Society in their ancient winters of the discontent trying to find an integrity deprived of them.

Today Harper remains an apparition of its original self, yet with lively and extraordinary people.  Statistically speaking, Harper’s mainly youthful population is not without an industrial ambition, from Fish Town to the rubber factory at Cavalla to Pleebo, the commercial grassroots. To understand Harper is to borrow from, and in contextually different matter, in the words of the celebrated writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, comparing it to a tired woman in his novel, Weep Not Child, once vivacious, and the Harper itself described as “ times and bad condition do not favor beauty.” Harper runs across two foundational and economic settlements.  Indigenes would hardly refer to Harper itself as the financial hub of Metropolitan Maryland County. Planted in the central city, Harper is a small town but with considerable history.  Huge and esoteric ruined buildings prowl about its manageable circumference, with church cathedrals and other ceremonial edifices dotting the interior.  In one of her Facebook correspondences, Professor Wesley told me that “Harper was a great little coastal city, because of course, that is William V.S. Tubman’s hometown” (Wesley 2019). William Tubman remained the first gentleman in Harper’s history.  He was the first President of Liberia, born in Harper and a proud Haperian!

William V.S. Tubman University here I come

Twenty years after the Liberian civil war, William V.S. Tubman University couched itself in the category of a rural and post-conflict University with a potential to benefit from community land and marine resources to enable research collaboration.  Every post-conflict university that emerges from war wants three possessions: structures, resources and innovation.  My commendations to William Tubman University come on the grounds of its resilience to sustain progress and a liberal capacity, while being far removed from the limelight of the capital city over 400 miles away. There is a report (Gallagher et. al) that states that education after conflict does not directly and necessarily influence violence, based on interactions with individuals, rich and poor; and that education determines attitudes and values across generations, as well as religious, political, social, and ethnic lines. The report further stated that, negatively or positively; education could teach minorities and their children biased history, language and their culture to take ownership of the design and delivery of education.

Twenty years after the Liberian civil war, William V.S. Tubman University couched itself in the category of a rural and post-conflict University with a potential to benefit from community land and marine resources to enable research collaboration.

After driving for almost a week from Monrovia to Harper, Maryland County, I arrived before the gates of William V.S. Tubman at 6 a.m. in the dawn.  The campus was bright with bulbs shedding light around the property.  The university was as quiet as an academic gown, and I had no reason to stop to feed my eyes, an act that left me hungrier with questions.  My fellow passengers, including Chris, a William Tubman university student who had been asked to convey me to Harper, my driver, Mohamed and Sembu with whom I had endured the travails of the road, were tired and it was clear that we all wanted to retire for the remainder of what was left of the night.  William V.S. Tubman University was a beacon to all Harperians.  William Tubman University has two challenges: its four hundred mile from the capital city of Monrovia, the city of power to influence support from Monrovia and the cost of the national civil war and all its memories in other to come to speed with development from its rural origin. I have seen resilient authorities who exhibit courage and bring sunshine to a university that also had to soothe the battered faces of a country picking up from tribulation.

If one drives around the campus and in the small city of Harper, one sees occasional traditional, humanitarian, non-governmental vehicles.  In many ways, Tubman University reminded me of Harvard University and the city of Cambridge where I had gone to do a leadership certificate program.  In Cambridge, I was tempted quite a lot to stop by and buy from bookstores. At Harper, I stopped by occasionally to fill gas in my car.  One of the fascinations I had of William Tubman University was its website, which I found and considered quite colorful and engaging. Prior to coming to Harper, many of my questions were answered by simply visiting their website. However, I thought the university should regularly update its information such as policies. As a new faculty at the William Tubman University, it took almost three weeks before I was able to settle down to organize the modules I had been given to teach.  My chair, Professor Sunday Dawodu, was a very appreciative personality who had had to answer countless questions about the whereabouts of the new faculty member.  So, when I walked up to inform him that I had finally arrived, he set me to work almost immediately, and I gladly accepted.  In a very quiet meet-the-new faculty gathering, for faculties employed the last one year, I met with the President of the university, Professor Dr. Elliot Wreh-Wilson, a vivacious personality.  He was very distinguished about chatting the university forward and the challenges there were.  I admired his love for Socrates, bringing to fore the sage and his thirst for answers, his many references to drive his message forward and his suicidal commitment to knowledge and truth.  I thought it was a thoughtful way of introducing the new faculty’s endless search for knowledge and peace if William V.S. Tubman was to wake up to a sunshine.

Creating of memories

In the end, dreams, imagination and memory meet at a point where learning is supreme.  Memories are mere templates, and what really matters are what we make of the dreams, imagination and memories.  For me, memories are an end product when we can recreate them to what we want them to be. No, doubt, horrendous memories can bring nightmares and in a normal situation, nobody moves toward causing harm. Therefore, the perspective of this essay draws strongly from Epictetus, the philosopher (ca A.D. 50-ca.130 who noted that “Remember that you are an actor in a play, the character of which is determined by the playwright. For this is your business, and to play admirably the role assigned you; but the selection of that role is another’s” (p.283).

Looking back at my journey, I have woken up to a dawn of new memories.  The country, Liberia was a new memory and the human resources department had informed me that my new nomenclature was that I was an international employee.  My car had been given new documentation and that in four months I was to re-register the car as a Liberian car. It appeared to me that I had taken off a new dress and was about to put on a new one.  In a land that was closer to my country, Sierra Leone, I was creating new memories. 1014 miles away, I had journeyed from Sierra Leone creating and recreating memories along the way. In this journey, there were memories of broken political leaderships, of insurgencies, memories of ethnic clashes and of history in which a new country attempted to emerge and waned.  I came away from this experience, believing that memory changes man as much as man changes memory.

Gbanabom Hallowell is Assistant Professor of Language and Literature at the William V.S. Tubman University in Liberia.

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