Jonny Steinberg’s Tale of Two Liberias

little-liberia-an-african-odyssey-in-new-york-cityIf you’re looking for a whimsical read, then steer clear of Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City (London: Vintage Books, 2012). But if you crave a journalistic style that ably presents riveting episodes from Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-96, 1999-2003) along with their ripple effect upon “Little Liberia” (Liberians refugees exiled on Staten Island in New York City), then Steinberg’s account is for you.

Full disclosure: I cannot read Little Liberia without seeing it through the eyes of my own visits to that country. It was during a lull in the fighting in the Spring of ’95  that I first touched-down in Monrovia, to teach a theology class to twenty pastors. Subsequent visits have confirmed for me the resiliency of this people, a determination to stick together through tough times. To visit Liberia is to love Liberians, a gregarious and hard-scrabble people.

This same enduring spirit imbues Steinberg’s book, narrated through the eyes of two Liberian refugees living in New York City. Rufus Arkoi was a soccer coach and organizer who left Liberia in 1986. His path later crossed with Jacob Massaquoi, whose foot had been badly mangled in a shooting in Monrovia during an outbreak of fighting. Through their childhood stories, we catch a glimpse of the historical dynamics that laid the tragic groundwork for the gathering storm.

What is it that made Liberia prone to such brutal civil wars? Part of it – according to Rufus Arkoi – is the “suspicion and jealousy” that permeates society. When asked where that comes from, his answer is polygamy (p. 149-50):

I always say it is because of how our families are structured: one man, four wives, four sets of children, four sets of goals, not one set of family goals. Jealousy among the four sets of children. This mother is only looking at the interests of her children and is wishing that those children from the other mothers do badly in life. That’s the family structure. That’s the society.

And yet the amazing thing about both Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi is that – whatever the cause of suspicion – they both are most of the time able to rise above it, contributing to the good of their fellow Liberians in important ways. Theirs is an optimism that sees not only what is but what can be, both working to help Liberian youth on Staten island get the education that will keep them out of gangs, enabling them to build for a brighter future.

In connection with economic development back in their homeland, one assumption that that author never challenges is that salvation must come from outside of Liberia. It is Liberians working in New York City who – much like Haitians – send a significant portion of their salary back to their country of origin. On the one hand, this is admirable, a sign of solidarity that should be applauded. On the other hand, it perpetuates a cycle of dependency, blinding citizens to local resources. Of course, this is the dilemma of all foreign aid. How can legitimate human need be met without creating in those helped a sense of entitlement? To use the words of the late Jack Kemp, how can assistance be a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out”?

In the last chapter of the book, Rufus Arkoi returns to Liberia and makes promises that he will go back and raise money from American donors, that he will send American soccer scouts to Monrovia to recruit Liberian players for foreign teams (p. 241). One more time, he works from an old paradigm, that someone else from somewhere else will solve our problems. What is lacking is a strategy for developing local resources for long-term sustainability. To borrow a political slogan, how can Liberia move from “Yes, they can” to “Yes, we can”?

For those who have never traveled outside of North America, Little Liberia it is an excellent introduction to dynamics that operate not only in Liberia but across sub-Saharan Africa.  Truly, this is a continent with huge potential and where most of the solutions to most of the problems lie close by, not far away. A pastor from South Africa put it well: “We are a rich people with a poverty mentality.” Yet it is more than outlook; it is also values. Solutions are short-circuited by individual greed, through misappropriating for oneself funds that were intended for the common good. (And lest we Americans get too self-righteous on this score, Google “Bernie Madoff.” Pot, meet kettle.)

As Christian educators, our task remains to inculcate in the young the integrity that will prevent the corruption that has tainted the past. Economic poverty is closely tied to moral poverty, no matter where in the world one is working, Africa included. It is righteousness that “exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). Truly, holiness is Africa’s hope; indeed, it is the world’s hope!

Whether describing the depressing ravages of civil war or the optimism of re-directing youth through sports and education, Jonny Steinberg is a gifted writer well worth the reader’s time. I highly recommend Little Liberia.

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Photo credit: Angus Robertson

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