Culture Clash: What Can Liberia Teach the African Diaspora About Returning Home?*
Culture: Defined as the mental blueprint that guides thoughts, actions, and reactions to the surrounding world, in essence it is the way in which a group views the world and itself in relation to the world. It is intangible yet defined, and furthermore, is intricately linked to the history of a people. According to Amilcar Cabral, the nationalist scholar who was instrumental in promoting the independence movements of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, lack of understanding of the culture of a particular society is the root cause of failed projects in that society.
Simply, social initiatives that do not incorporate the culture of the communities in which these projects are being implemented, and those that do not reflect the values of those communities ultimately risk failure. When thinking about the African Diaspora and their efforts in Africa, one must consider which cultural value-set they are operating in, those of the local communities they are trying to develop, or those of the society they currently inhabit.
A look at the repatriation experiment that resulted in the creation of the Republic of Liberia, where the Diaspora returned with new norms and practices, and intervened with an interventionist mindset rather than a cooperative one serves as a cautioning example.
Liberia was founded in 1821 by the African Colonization Society (ACS), an American organization of mostly powerful Southern white men. The goal of the ACS was to secure slavery in the United States by eliminating the threat of freed slaves, who ACS leaders believed would incite slave rebellions. ACS leaders believed that while Blacks were an “undesirable element in America,” they would serve the U.S. well in promoting Christianity and civilization in Africa. Essentially, the freed black Americans were to help develop Africa.
After an unsuccessful attempt to set up a colony on Sherbro Island in modern-day Sierra Leone, and a tumultuous path to colonization that included death from diseases and failed treaty talks with established British merchants, the surviving passengers arrived in Cape Montserrado and established a settlement town in 1822. The town became known as Monrovia, named after U.S. President Monroe who granted the ACS funding, and eventually expanded to the hinterland as thousands more freed Black former slaves arrived. Various settlements were eventually established and became known collectively as the colony of Liberia, stemming from the word libre, meaning free in Latin. The Republic of Liberia declared independence in July 1847. For 133 years, Liberia was ruled exclusively by an Americo-Liberian oligarchy until it was overthrown in 1980 in a coup led by an indigenous African, Samuel Doe.
The country was embroiled in civil war until 2003, and finally held democratic elections in 2006. Today, Liberia is still recovering from years of war and corrupt public administration. With roughly 85 percent of its population living on less than $2 a day, Liberia ranks as the second poorest country in the world. Liberia’s Human Development Index (HDI) is one of the lowest in the world, falling even below the Sub-Sahara African average.
Looking at the country from a redemption standpoint, as well as broad-based development and national progress, Liberia was a failed experiment of Diaspora inclusion. The key to understanding Liberia’s troubled and tragic history and why it continues to suffer from underdevelopment can perhaps be found in the dynamics between the indigenous communities who were there before Liberia was conceptualized and the settlers who immigrated there nearly two hundred years ago. When the settlers arrived in Africa, they were completely oblivious to the living conditions of West Africa, not to mention the culture and traditions of the indigenous people.
As one scholar said, they (Black Americans) were in Africa, but they were loyal to anything but Africa. The settlers saw their culture as superior to the indigenous culture and viewed their own life style as progressive and worthy of African emulation. The settler’s haughty disdain for African culture combined with their attitude of superiority led them to maintain their own distinct culture and they remained separate from the indigenous communities. So much so that they lived in exclusive communities called “civilized settlements,” and discrimination against Africans persisted not only in the realm of personal relations but also in the legal system.
The Americo-Liberians never fulfilled their glorious goal to redeem and develop Africa because they came to reform and reinvent it, not to become a part of it. The rejection of indigenous culture and the settlers’ failure to recognize any wisdom in anything native justified and perpetuated an unjust and exploitative governing system. Because the ruling Americo-Liberian elites never made an effort to learn the local culture, there was no collective social conscience to develop the necessary mechanisms to deal with the imbalance and conflicts. Traditional institutions were weakened with the establishment of Western-style institutions.
Consequently, development could not be achieved because the settlers did not incorporate the local culture into its development strategy. The African descendants who landed in Montserrado mimicked Western culture and carried out the Liberian operation with lack of humility. The lesson to be learned here is that even with the best intentions to redeem and develop Africa, and even if that development is done by the African Diaspora (both descendant and migrant), without respecting and incorporating the local and dominant culture, the operation is doomed for failure. The question now is: how does the Diaspora, or anyone for that matter, who wish to participate in Africa’s emergence, promote cooperative growth with local communities without dominating and controlling the process of development?
Sia Vue has lived in the US, Paraguay, China, and South Africa and speaks several different languages. She enjoys traveling and pushing herself out of her comfort zone to explore new places and cultures. Her research interests include traditional societies, indigenous knowledge, and endogenous private sector development. Sia holds a Master of Business Administration and Master of International Affairs with a regional specialization in Africa from American University in Washington, DC, where she currently resides. In her free time, she enjoys dancing, cooking, and creative writing.
*This article originally appeared on Compare Afrique April 10, 2013.