Historical Preservation and National Food Security: The Way to Self-Development


Speech By

Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Executive Director, Liberian History, Education and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), Greensboro, NC

Associate Professor, Environmental Health and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC

Delivered At


Booker Washington Institute (BWI)
Kakata, Liberia


May 27, 2009

Principal  Mulbah F. Jackollie  and members of the BWI faculty staff;  County representatives and members of the BWI Board of Trustees; The student council president and members of BWI student body; Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, friends:
I am grateful and enormously honored to be here this morning. BWI is a place where famous Liberians, men and women, have studied, laughed, and shed tears of joy for a sound vocational education supplemented by a high school diploma. BWI is the place where great Liberian men and women have grown up to cherish songs like “A mu kwi tabede kon dedee zon-doo au blah-o,” which when translated from the Bassa language literally mean, “we will eat on the whiteman’s table some day.” Indeed, BWI graduates are “eating” on the whiteman’s table today in many ways, even with clear heartbeat. For the name BWI not only elevates the heartbeat of every Liberian in terms of its national standing as the first and foremost vocational training institution in Liberia, but also BWI manifests determination of the human spirit to excel under any circumstance. And so it was that BWI came into being in 1924 as result of President Charles Dunbar Burgess King’s visit to the United States. During that visit, a journalist asked President King to name anything of significance that he wanted to take back with him to Liberia, and the President responded: "If it were possible I would like to take Tuskegee Institute with me to Liberia."
The Tuskegee Institute was a leading black learning institution in the United States at the time. It was headed by Dr. Booker Taliaferro Washington, after whom BWI is named. Well, as the story goes, back in the 1800s when a white southerner, W.F. Foster was running for a seat in the Alabama State Senate, he enlisted the help of Lewis Adams, a freed black slave, to deliver the black vote. Adams could read, write, and speak several languages, but he had no formal education by American standards. Nonetheless, Adams believed during those days that formal education was the key to emancipating fellow freed slaves or Negroes, so he entered a pact with Foster in exchange for delivering the black vote. Adams’ exact words to Foster were “give my people education and I’ll help elect you senator.” Foster agreed to the terms and after he was elected Senator of Alabama, he worked to pass a legislative act (House Bill 165) for the amount of $2000 to create the Tuskegee Institute for blacks on July 4, 1881.  
Indeed, it was impossible for President King to have physically taken the “Tuskegee Institute with him to Liberia” as he had requested in answer to that journalist’s question. But President King succeeded in bringing the Tuskegee Institute to Liberia in another sense. BWI, which was originally modeled after the Tuskegee Institute was established in Liberia in the 1920s when Ms. Olivia Phelps-Stokes, an American Philanthropist, offered the needed funding to build the institute in honor of the leader of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Booker T. Washington. Today, BWI is the pride and joy of not only those Liberians who have passed through the walls of this great institution, but also the Liberian government and people who have continued to benefit from the expertise developed at BWI. BWI has produced its share of Liberian agriculturalists, mechanics, builders, and other categories of technical and professional personnel who have made and continued to make immense contributions to the growth and development of Liberia. But nothing can be more pressing and soothing about the role of BWI in the development of Liberia in these words of wisdom articulated by Dr. Booker T. Washington over a century ago: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”  Indeed, as Liberia rises from 14 years of civil war to redefine itself and its national priorities, BWI too needs to rise up and redefine itself to meet the pressing manpower needs of Liberia in the technical and non-technical fields. Evidently, when President King negotiated the establishment of BWI, he knew that not only liberal arts education but also technical education was the bedrock of development in Liberia. To this end, I believe that with the current rice and other food supply problems in Liberia today, BWI can reclaim its traditional role as a truly agricultural and technical institute by serving as a catalyst for increased and agricultural production in Liberia.

Agricultural Production
In this context, I want to devote my presentation to you this morning on two key arguments. My first argument is that promoting agricultural production and reforming our environment should be a must in the new Liberia, in order to maximize the nation’s resources for the benefit of all Liberians. I believe that with only a little over three million people, Liberia might not need 10 or more years to achieve food self-sufficiency, if only the new national leaders of Liberia made agricultural production a national priority and rallied the Liberian people to the cause. I believe agricultural production is one of  the most effective ways to reduce the current levels poverty, hunger, unemployment in Liberia, provided that technical learning institutions across Liberia, including BWI,  are empowered and supported to train more Liberian agricultural technicians, planners, and workers to lead the charge at food production in Liberia.
I believe that because food security is important for the national growth and development of any country, it is now time for the government and people of Liberia to commit to a long-term agricultural development program duly sanctioned through legislative enactment. Yes, if the executive branch won’t food sufficiency a national priority, then the national legislature must act by passing a law that makes it mandatory for each county to operate a national county farm.  By national county farm, I mean that each of the 15 counties of Liberia should establish a national farm based on the type of cash crops that can be grown on the soil in each county. For example, if Grand Bassa County has a rich soil for growing cassava or rice, then Grand Bassa should establish either a national cassava farm project or a national rice farm project. And based on this formula, national farms concentrated on producing Rice, Cassava, Eddoes, Plantains, Yams, okra, bitter  balls, and other cash crops  for local consumption and export could include the Bomi County National Farm, Bong  County National Farm, Gbarpolu  County National Farm, Grand Bassa County National Farm, the Grand Cape Mount  County National Farm,  Grand Gedeh County National Farm, Grand Kru County National Farm,   Lofa  County National Farm,  Margibi  County National Farm,  Maryland County National Farm, Montserrado County National Farm, Nimba County National Farm, River Cess County National Farm,  River Gee County National Farm, and Sinoe County National Farm.

Under this national farm scheme, no two counties will produce the same crops in order to create balance and avoid unnecessary competition, even if several counties had the same conducive soil type for growing, for example, rice, cassava, eddoes, pepper, or okra.  Liberia has unlimited capacity for food production, including fertile soil and abundant arable land to support the growing of cash and food crops in each county, if only the necessary steps are taken by the Liberian government and people to minimize the current affects of mining, logging  operations, and deforestation on these arable land areas. About half of the Liberia's land is suitable for the cultivation of tree and food crops. An estimated two million acres of land can be devoted to food crops production, while another five million acres of land on rolling or hilly terrains can be used for tree crops production. Indeed, with the current scale of suitable land in Liberia for food and cash crops production, food shortages should not occur in Liberia, or if there is a food shortage in Liberia at all, it should not be widespread. Why? Well, because more than 90 percent of national economy is agrarian, but harvests constantly fail and our people usually lose their crops, with nothing left in their hand for very obvious reasons. Consequently, I believe we can do better in Liberia, and we must do better in Liberia by being very careful not to give our mouths to others to feed us. We should be able to feed ourselves in Liberia, provided that the government instituted a national policy geared toward food self-sufficiency through effective use of Liberia’s rich soil, as a first step toward eliminating Liberia’s current dependence on foreign food imports for daily consumption by the Liberian people.

Ladies and gentlemen, the key argument here is that we in Liberia should be able to control our belly and stop the heavy dependence on outsiders for our daily bread. BWI, as an agricultural institution, can be very effective in the national drive toward food self-sufficiency in Liberia. Graduates and advanced students in the  agriculture program at BWI and the agriculture college at the University of Liberia could collaborate during summer breaks or as part of their academic internships to work with farmers in each of the 15 counties of Liberia for purposes of increasing agricultural production in Liberia. BWI students and LU students could serve as agricultural field extension workers and technicians in the various counties on either the various national county farms, farmers with agricultural cooperatives  in selected counties, or individual subsistent farmers across Liberia, providing expert advice how to prepare the soil for maximum production.

Mind you, I am aware that our people will still be unable to buy food from the market even if the food were available, due to lack of farm-to-market road and a robust national transportation system. If you ever went to the countryside, you will notice huge amounts of cassava, eddoes, pineapples, plantains, sweet potatoes, oranges, pawpaw, plums, grapefruits, butter pearls, etc that cannot be moved to the urban areas or other parts of the nation where majority of Liberians would need these commodities the most due to the lack of transportation. And I do agree that transportation is key incentive for any successful agricultural production initiative. However, I know that BWI is not a transportation school but an agricultural school, so my focus here this morning is agriculture and not transportation.  I believe that since the basic for agricultural production is already present in each county in terms of fertile soil and arable land, what is needed for improved food production in Liberia is effective agricultural policy and improved service delivery system. In other words, the government could partner with private Liberians to set up national farming plantations and factories that will grow and produce rice, eddoes, potatoes, plantains, oranges, grapefruits, papaws, guavas, bananas, pineapples and other food crops for local consumption and export, in addition to the county farms being proposed. And the private entities, if not the government, could solve the transportation problem in due course.

I want to reemphasize that food self-sufficiency through increased agricultural production should be the national priority of the Liberian government, in order to eliminate the country’s current dependent on rice and other cash crop imports. Of course, once the soil in each of the 15 counties has been tested for the kind of food crops and cash crops suited to the soil type in each county, then we can set about the national goal of food self-sufficiency by planting rice, cassava, eddoes, potatoes, and cocoa, or any variety of food and cash crops. In addition to the national farms, sub-national farms should be established under the national farm concept, devoted to the production of fruits, oil, and other liquid or cash crop products. At least one hundred acres of land should be identified for fruit or vegetable plantation in each county. For example, Liberia has some of the sweet oranges, grapefruits, pineapples, papaws, guavas, sour-saws, cocoa nut, wild-cherry, etc. These fruits could be grown in each county as part of the county farms or private farm initiatives to produce Liberian own juices and soft drinks for local consumption and export. In other words, as an agricultural and technical school, BWI has a major role to play in shifting agricultural production in Liberia. I hope those of you currently at BWI, especially those of you in the agriculture program, will take your studies seriously and make maximum use of the great employment opportunities ahead of you. Many of you could be the next minister of agriculture, county agricultural officers, or managers of your own fruit processing companies if you play you cards right. I hope you understand that food self-sufficient is overdue in Liberia, and you have the opportunity to shift national policy in Liberia by insisting on agricultural production. I know you will take the challenge before you seriously, and act now to secure a better future for yourselves and the Liberian government and people.

Liberian Studies Curriculum
My second argument is that it is about time that we in Liberia begin to understand ourselves and our history as Liberians. We need to appreciate our oneness as people of a common homeland, Liberia, by learning about the indigenous Liberian culture and traditions, including the Sande and Poro Institutions, as well as all persons who contributed to the creation of Liberia. You see, my colleagues and I in the Liberian History, Education, and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE) have scheduled our 5th  anniversary jubilee in August this year devoted to understanding our Liberian history. We have invited guests from all walks of life to talk about the history and tradition of the various ethnic groups of Liberia, and the relationships we share as Liberians. I am sharing this information with you because if you have read President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s book, you will understand what I am driving at. The president wrote that she didn’t know much about Liberia and its history until she arrived at Harvard for studies. She wrote specifically: “I had arrived at Harvard at an exciting time –it was the first year of the Afro-American Studies Department, created after black Harvard students banded together to agitate for change. Among the first professors to teach in the new department was Dr. Martin Kilson, a professor of government who was also the first African American granted full tenure at the college in 1968. Dr. Kilson helped me realize that to understand nation’s future, one had to first understand its past. I plunged into the study not only of Liberian history but of the history of West Africa.  It is no great exaggeration to say that I learned more about my country in the book stacks at Harvard than I had in my entire life back home in Monrovia. It is no small irony that I had to cross the Atlantic to America to learn about my home.”
At the same time, I read an exchange on the Internet the other day in which a Kru or Kroa woman, Mrs. Cecelia Brown, expressed shock that a Kru man, Dihwo D. Twe (1879-1961), led a major political party in Liberia, the Reformation Party, to challenge President William V. S. Tubman during the 1951 Liberian national elections. She wrote, “I never knew that D. Tweh formed a political party that ran against President Tubman….” Well, this is information that every Kru person living in Monrovia is supposed to know, especially persons like Mrs. Brown who once lived in the New Kru Town area of Monrovia. However, the historical fact is that President Tubman did not take lightly the challenge of Mr. Twe.  President Tubman not only discredited Mr. Twe as a "man with premedieval mind," but also declared Old Kru Town, a public domain, in order to facilitate the construction of the Free Port of Monrovia, in spite of the objection of the Kru people. President Tubman, in fact, boasted for evicting the people of Old Kru Town by saying, "For having razed Kru Town, I have no apologies, explanation or excuse to make" (Tellewoyan, 2004).

Interestingly, President Sirleaf and Mrs. Brown are not at fault for not knowing certain historical facts about Liberia. The Liberian school system that is supposed to be the source of such knowledge did not teach the political system and ethnic history of Liberia, so many Liberians today know little or nothing about one another. But this is something my colleagues and I in LIHEDE wish to reverse. We have embarked on a national curriculum project geared towards the teaching of Liberian culture and tradition in Liberian schools from grade school through college. I elaborated on this LIHEDE curriculum proposal, called the “National Curriculum for Liberian Studies (NCLS),” during my recent presentations at the Liberian Studies Association annual meeting held in Monrovia, and before students at Tubman High School in Monrovia. I shall now endeavor to share with you the key points of the Liberian Studies proposal as part of my second argument .

Indeed, in effecting change, especially in discovering ourselves through history, we need to pay attention to our oral histories, legends, linguistic links, documents, spirituality, cultures, words, voices, groves, buildings, oracles, and sacred places of the past. These oral histories and legends should be preserved because they are the lifeblood of peace and stability. These historic resources can tell us time and again who we are, where we came from, and how we got here as Liberians. This is the purpose for establishment of the National Curriculum for Liberian Studies (NCLS) I spoke about at the LSA and I am speaking about now, and will continue to speak about until the God of Liberia hears my prayers. The proposed National Curriculum for Liberian Studies (NCLS) from elementary school through Ph. D. is designed by LIHEDE, Inc. The goal of the proposal is to promote peace, unity, and development in Liberia by including in the Liberian grade school, high school, and college curriculums the teaching of Liberian languages, culture, and traditions to help Liberians understand themselves and their self-identity as Liberians.

Liberians young and old need to know the contribution of the traditional Poro and Sande institutions to the growth and development of Liberia, and understand that our traditional chiefs and elders are not uneducated and illiterate people, as we usually referred to them. Our traditional chiefs and elders are simply different from us in terms of education. They went to the Poro and Sande learning institutions, and they are educated in indigenous Liberian culture, tradition, customs, mores, philosophy, medicine, law, and governance, while we are educated in western culture and education. So they are not “illiterates” simply because they don’t speak and write in English like we who are western educated do. For if we who are western educated do not call ourselves “illiterates” because we are not grounded in traditional culture, then we have no reasons to refer to our traditional chiefs and elders in such manner. But these are stereotypes that we learned in English schools in Liberia. We who go to English schools think we are more educated than our traditional leaders. We need to stop this kind of stereotype and learn to utilize the natural talents and knowledge of all the citizens of Liberia without suppression of the rights of some of our citizens on falsehoods about our own importance in society as western educated persons.

Indeed, the absence of a thriving NCLS in our national curriculum to speak to our oneness and national identity has been one of the most divisive chapters in the history of this nation. Liberians are continually being denied the storehouse of information about their origin and cultural diversity. Consequently, this attitude has cast a pall of gloom over Liberia since its inception as a modern nation-state in 1847. We need to change course in Liberia. We should no longer sit by and let others tell us who we are or who we should be as Liberians. We must bear in mind that without a common curriculum framework that speaks to our national unity, stereotypical expressions such as “Bassa people make good cooks,” or “Kru people like pepper,” and other very negative expressions about other Liberian ethnic groups which don’t want to repeat in this public forum, will continue to breed hatred, disunity, and self-dejection in Liberian society. Therefore we must act soon to teach Liberian culture and tradition in Liberian schools because we cannot expect our children, or even some fellow adults, to know what they were not taught by their parents in the home or by their teachers in school.

We cannot expect our citizens to acquire knowledge regarding their culture if they have not been introduced to reading books and instructional materials that are focused on Liberian history and culture. This is why under the LIHEDE curriculum proposal, the main goal is to revamp the Liberian national curriculum, and to produce culturally relevant textbooks written by Liberian writers and scholars to strengthen academic and professional excellence in the presentation of Liberian arts, culture, history, and communication across ethnic boundaries. The time is now ripe, after 162 years of national independence and 14 years of civil war, for Liberian languages to be offered in our elementary, junior and senior high schools, and colleges, especially the colleges beginning to grant the Bachelor of Arts or Science to Master’s and PhD degrees in Liberian Studies.

Ladies and gentlemen, what Liberia needs at this juncture of its history is a transformative educational system that will bring out the best out of every Liberian citizen in order to remove all forms of hatred, racism, tribalism, sectionalism, fear, disease, poverty and self-destruction from our midst. This is one major reason why all great nations of the globe have found it necessary to heavily invest in national studies, sciences, math, cultural development and social research in order to uphold their unified national bond at all cost. For an example, just before World War II, China was called the “sick man” of Asia, but through sound education, and with emphasis on cultural pride and technology, China not only improved its image on the world stage but it also turned out both as a military and economic power. Even in Nigeria, Liberia’s next door counterpart, there are Nigerians who hold BA, MA, and PhD degrees in studies related to their local languages, including but not limited to Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa studies, and so forth from Bayero University in Nigeria.  Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya also offer degree programs in their local languages, so Liberia will not be alone in this enterprise.  

Closing Thoughts

Fellow Liberians and friends, what I have done up to this stage of my presentation is to give you some convincing examples that speak to some of the problem areas in our educational system and food self-sufficiency as they stand today. Hence, what is needed to propel the Liberian nation to the frontline of progressive or transformative education is a sound Liberian Studies program that does not leave any aspect of the nation’s history behind and a national food production to feed ourselves. I believe that NCLS is a promise rooted in a shared vision of nationhood and learning community. It is an oasis of academic excellence and a place of caring and compassion, tolerance, enduring friendships, and civil discourse. It is therefore no coincidence than that we as Liberians must be fed up with stereotyping ourselves and writing off our own history from our nation’s academic curriculum. We need to preserve our oral history, legends, linguistic tongues, spirituality, cultures, oracles, and sacred places as a means of learning about ourselves through history and service delivery.  Liberian language, geography, history, mathematics, science, physical sciences, and religion must be taught in our schools if we must survive as a nation and people. It is time to establish a new educational system of Liberia that recognizes and codifies Liberian cultural values and norms not only into the national curriculum of Liberia, but also in the Constitution of Liberia, in order to prepare Liberian citizens for the task of nation building now and in the future.

On food self-sufficiency or agricultural production, the national county farms could be a good starting point in our national development efforts. BWI is here today because President King asked his American friends back in the 1920s. The Tuskegee Institute was replicated in Liberia and today we have BWI. We must hold open fresh possibilities of new life today to support the establishment of a NCLS from elementary to PhD to teach us about ourselves in the new Liberia. We must ask the President  to make agricultural production a national priority in order to reduce Liberia’s current dependence on food imports. We must ask the National Legislature to pass a legislation to make a mandatory for the creation of national county farms in each of the 15 political subdivisions of Liberia in order to boost food production in Liberia. Indeed, I have come to you for all of us to see reason to professionally and peacefully call on national leaders to make food self-sufficient and Liberian studies the top priorities for national development in post-conflict Liberia. For as one Chinese adage teaches, it is challenging to find money to go see the doctor for treatment, but easy to find it for a casket for burial. Over the last few years, Liberia has seen far too many caskets in the wake of 14th year’s civil wars. The time is ripe for the President and the National Legislature to increase the use of preventive NCLS and food production. I challenge you to think on these things.  

I thank you, and may the God of Our Parentage Bless the BWI family and Liberia.



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