Pan African Heritage: Liberia

27 Sep

In my series titled Pan African heritage, today I pay homage to Liberia. Liberia is unique amongst African states in that it was founded by freed slaves from the American South, bringing with them their own culture and displacing ancient tribes who’d farmed the land and traded with European enclaves in west Africa for centuries.

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The culture of Monrovia has two distinct roots, the Southern US heritage of the freed Americo-Liberian slaves and the ancient African descendants of the indigenous people and migratory tribes. Most former Americans belonged to the Masonic Order of Liberia, outlawed since 1980, but originally playing a huge part in the nation’s politics. Settlers brought the skills of embroidery and quilting with them, with both now firmly embedded in the national culture. The haunting slave music and songs of the American South with ancient African rhythms and harmonies blended well with indigenous musical traditions of the region.
The diverse tribal ethnicities making up the population of Liberia today have all added to the richness of cultural life in the country. Christian music is popular, with hymns sung a-capella in the iconic African style. Spirituality and the region’s ancient rituals are reflected in the unusually intricate carving style, and modern Liberian artists are finding fame outside the country. Dance is a valued heritage, with the Liberian National Culture Group giving performances both in the country and overseas based on traditional themes. The gradual integration of all Liberia’s ethnic groups has given rise to a renewed interest in its tribal culture as a reminder of the diverse roots of the new country.

The official language of Liberia is English. There are also more than 16 indigenous languages. Among the most widely studied Liberian languages in schools and universities are Kpelle and Bassa languages and to a lesser extent, Vai. Loma and Mende also have their own unique alphabets but are studied less.

Liberia has its own ancient music and instruments. While Liberian music is part of wider West African music heritage, it is also distinct from its neighbours. There are several different types of drums used in traditional music. Drums are one of the most widely used instruments in many ceremonies both official and nonofficial, weddings, christenings, naming ceremonies, holidays, graduations, etc. Next to drums, beaded gourd rattles called Saasaa are also used in mainstream music by many Liberian singers, musicians, and ensembles across the country.
Songs are sung in both English and all indigenous languages. Other instruments similar to the xylophone include Yomo Gor. Music is a main highlight of Liberian culture not only used as entertainment but to educate society on issues ranging from culture, politics, history to human rights.
Religious music is also popular. Christian music is heavily influenced by its counterpart in United States regardless of region. Islamic nasheeds popular in many countries with Muslim communities are almost unheard of in Liberia. Instead, music for Liberian Muslims are based on Quranic citations, adhan and music related to everyday life called suku. Aside from religious and traditional music, rap and HiLife are widely popular especially with younger Liberians and American music aficionados.

Numerous newspapers, radio stations and TV programs are broadcast and can be heard in the capital Monrovia, coastal cities and towns and countryside. Radio, newspapers and online news articles are the main form of mass communication in Liberia in recent years, surpassing TV stations as the most accessible forms of media to Liberians. Many popular FM radio stations have their headquarters in Monrovia along with several major national newspapers.
Many radio stations are community based operated by joint United Nations and community councils, activists, youth groups, universities and neighbourhood programs. The major radio stations in Liberia are UNMIL Radio, Radio ELWA, Truth Radio, ELBC Radio, and STAR radio. All have programs available to listen to online. There are currently no AM radio stations (which existed before the war) but there are a few shortwave stations. Radio also serves to promote peace, reconciliation and connect the country both rural and urban Liberians through community based apprenticeship programs for youths and young adults.

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Liberia is renowned for its detailed decorative and ornate masks, large and miniature wood carvings of realistic human faces, famous people, scenes of everyday life and accessories particularly combs, spoons and forks which are often enlarged sculptures. Sculptures are produced in both the countryside and cities. Liberian wood curved sculptures are heavily influenced by ancient history predating modern Liberia, folklore, proverbs, spirituality, rural life and show the artist’s strong observations for grand detail and their connections to the people and objects sculpted. Liberian artists both in the country and diaspora have also gained recognition for various styles of paintings in abstract, perspective and graphic art.

A literary tradition has existed in Liberia for over a century. Liberia had no written tradition until the 19th century. Numerous Liberian authors throughout the years have contributed to the writings of various genres. They have written on folk art, ancient proverbs, everyday life in countryside, city life, religion and observation of their own lives. Culture, tradition, identity, society, taboo subjects, human rights, equality and diversity within Liberia, multiculturalism, Pan-Africanism, colonialism and its reverberating consequences today, post colonial African countries and future of the country have been featured in novels, books, magazines and novelettes since the 19th century.
Poetry is a prominent canon of Liberian literature. Many authors have presented their pose in all poetic styles. Often adding their own unique perspectives, writing styles and observation of the material and spiritual worlds into their books. Liberia’s prominent writers also share a variety of genres that cross several decades.

Liberian cuisine has rice as the staple. Other ingredients include cassava, fish, bananas, citrus fruit, plantains, coconut, okra and sweet potatoes. Heavy stews spiced with habanero and scotch bonnet chillies are popular and eaten with fufu.

fufu

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