Ernest, a proud Kpelleh man who will tell us more about the peculiarities of the ‘country of freedom’ and what freedom means for Liberians.
Born to a native Liberian mother and a father who migrated from the Barbados (the Caribeans), Ernest had the opportunity to have
a bi-cultural upbringing. Unlike the African tradition according to which a child identifies with the father’s culture, Ernest took on this opportunity to fully identify as a Liberian. He asserts, “I’m African and mostly Liberian”. His Barbados father encouraged him to immerse himself into the Liberian and the Kpelleh culture which is his maternal tribe. Geographically, one of the largest ethnic groups in Liberia, the word ‘kpelleh’ is often used to refer to someone who is hardworking and very humble as they survive mostly on staple crop rice. Adding to this image of the tribe, Ernest stresses their generosity, “the kpelleh people are very kind and could do anything possible to help a stranger and this has been seen as a sign of stupidity by other tribes in Liberia”.
According to Ernest, “Liberia is a beautiful country on the West coast of Africa with beautiful and lovely people who are welcoming. Liberia is unique and has very distinctive aspects compared to other African countries. It was the first African nation to gain its independence in 1847, the first to have a female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf”. The country is the place where 16 tribes, Muslims, Catholics and other more traditional believers are co-existing.
Generally speaking, history books tell that Africa was ruled for many years mainly by the French and British administration, but Liberia is exception to the rule. Prior to its present-day name, the country was also known as “the Pepper Coast” or “Malagueta Coast” in the 1400s after the Portuguese discovered the abundant melegueta pepper, a trade commodity valued for its culinary and medicinal qualities.
History also tells that pepper wasn’t the only valuable commodity that attracted European interest. The trade flow between Europe, Africa and the Americas degenerated into a transatlantic trade of slaves to the Americas. This triangular trade occurred as such until Black slaves uprose late in the 1700s and until the US Congress banned the importation of slaves to the country in 1807. Until that point, the coastal location of Liberia facing the Americas had been the curse of the country.
A group of slaveholders (also supported by Blacks leaders) formed the American Colonization Society (ACS) to send free Blacks to Africa, mainly to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ernest explains that “it was a social initiative by the ACS for those freed slaves to govern and lead the country”. Their gain of power led to the independence of Liberia and created a ruling group against the rest of the population. This American-influenced group called Americo-Liberians named the capital city, Monrovia, after the US President James Monroe (1817), a supporter of the ACS initiative. They also brought a similar flag leaving only one star on the emblem.
“Between 1847 and 1980, the Americo-Liberian ruling class stayed in power until two ethnic groups – the minority group of Krahn and the Gio group – initiated a coup d’état and put a Krahn leader as head of state”. Tensions went crescendo over the years but a peace movement of women – Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace – gathered in 2013 to pressure on the President to negotiate with rebel groups and to not leave the peace talks without a resolution. As a result, an agreement was found and women became a political force bringing to power the first African female President of Africa.
Ernest proudly adds that “the role of Liberian women in bringing peace and the inspiration they give other African women to take up the challenge of state leadership in Africa is incredible”.
Ernest described his country as “the step child of the United States” to get a sense of the historical challenges of Liberia. Very close to his maternal culture, Ernest deeply misses his motherland. He has traveled to and lived in Libya, Ghana, the US, Europe to arrive here in Australia where he co-founded the African Australian Youth Resource Centre (Melbourne) and is an active member of the Federation of the Liberian Communities in Australia (FOLICA). He has studied widely and is currently undertaking a course in Community Development at Victoria University to practice his passion in helping Australian Indigenous communities. Far from Liberia, Ernest holds the dream for Liberia to be “a nation that will use knowledge development and technological innovation to create a just and fair society that will be inclusive and give equal opportunities to young people who were heavily impacted by the civil war in Liberia and I look forward to a Liberian community in Australia that will support the development of Australia and be law abiding”.