The Role of the Bassa in Reshaping Liberia

(Keynote Address)

Editor’s Note: Dr. Syrulwa Somah, an Associate Professor of Occupational Safety and Health at NC A&T State University and Executive Director of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE) , during the Memorial Day weekend (May 28 – 31, 2004) served as the Keynote Speaker at the 14th National Convention of the United Bassa Organization in the Americas (UNIBOA), Inc. The Convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Below is the full text of Dr. Somah's address:

Mr. President, Ba Thompson DahnSaw, Mrs. Vice President, Ne Evita Bestman, Mr. Secretary General Ba Victor B. Smith, Mr. Treasurer, Ba Arthur Garbla, Ms. Financial Secretary, Ne Mai Carter, Chairman of the Board, Ba Walter Greenfield, Mr. Co-Chairman of the Board, Ba. Ernest Simmons, Mr. Chaplain, Ba M. Dorgbor, Ms. National Queen, Ne Edna Tucker, UNIBOA chartered chapter presidents of North Jersey - Newark, South Jersey - Trenton, New York - Brooklyn, Minnesota - Minneapolis, Rhode Island - Providence, Washington, D.C, Georgia - Atlanta, North Carolina - Charlotte, Pennsylvania - Philadelphia , Michigan - Detroit, Texas - Austin, Ba Ramsey B. Zeon, Convention Chairperson, Ba Robert A. Garguah, Convention Coordinator, Ba Calvin Bropleh, Convention Coordinator, distinguished quests, mes amigos, madames et messieurs, my fellow Bassa and Liberians, ladies and gentlemen.

First, let me thank the God of our forefathers and foremothers by saying m po Gedepohoh zuo-bahn-bahn. I also want to thank God very much for everyone’s safe journey and assembly in this great city of Atlanta for the 14th Annual Convention of the United Bassa Organization in the Americas (UNIBOA). As Bassa people, or as descendants and friends of Bassa people, we have come this far by faith (hwodo kon-dede) in the Almighty God (Dido Gedepohoh) of our parentage, the Creator of creation. It is my wish to share with you few parables and conventional aphorism from the Bassa culture, which clearly indicate that each of us in this life has only two choices.

We have the choice to choose to do good to every stranger we meet, or we can choose to do bad to every stranger we meet. And the choice is entirely ours as to how we decide to treat a stranger, but we must always remember that a stranger could be anyone or anything. The stranger could be an angel with a specific message for us, or an evil person desiring to do us harm. But whatever the case, we stand to earn or lose a person’s respect depending on how we first interacted with that person or stranger. So in Bassa traditions, we are taught to treat a stranger with respect because we can never tell in advance if the stranger is a bearer of good fortune or a bearer of bad omen.

In Bassa culture and tradition, we have several parables to drive home the point that courtesy to strangers is always the right thing to do. For this reason a Bassa elder would advise his son or daughter in this manner: “if you cook yourself in a cup, no one would care to find a cooking spoon to dish you out because the only ideal instrument necessary to dish you out would be a piece of bamboo (stick). But if you behave like a chicken and begin to scratch from the door or cleave to your root, no one could ever dish you out with a piece of stick.” Thus, Bassa parable, “Sooh zao gbo win baah,” means, in essence, that one must never depart from one’s root (in this case our Bassa root).

At this point, I must admit that it is a pity that many of us know little or nothing about the language, customs, and traditions of the ethnic group to which we were born. And it doesn’t matter if you were born in the United States, Germany, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Great Britain, or other countries in this world. Once a Bassa, you will always be a Bassa whether you like it or not. Neither you nor your parents asked to be born into the Bassa ethnic group, so you have got nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t ever deny your Bassa heritage or your Liberian heritage, even if you were born outside Liberia, or you decided to naturalize in other countries as a result of circumstances unique to you. Those circumstances may have been necessary to improve your growth and development, but those circumstances did not change your Bassa heritage or your Liberian heritage. You will always be a Bassa man, woman, or child, and you will always be a Liberian man, woman or child. And if you think I am joking, just try to commit a serious criminal offence here in the U.S., you will be on your way back to Liberia in the next 24 hours even if you were a naturalized U.S. citizen (Liberian-American).

Many of us are wrapped up in the “receivership end” or “step-child position”, so cherished by our nation. We can learn a lot from the Jews, Chinese, Koreans and other Asian ethnic groups who are making use of what America has to offer. There are Chinatowns all over America. There are Jewish schools, universities, hospitals, congregation halls, and business associations all over America. They are Americans, too but they do not lose appreciation for the cultural values dearest to them-those spiritual and social practices that has sustained them through the centuries. They have managed to keep what is dearest to them. As a result, they can tell their own stories with fanfare.

My presentation here tonight is in no way intended to chip away at your citizenship responsibilities in this country. I am only want to reminding you that regardless of whatever you become in this world, the place you were born and the heritage to which you belong will always be part and parcel of your makeup. So for those of you like me who still have much to learn about your Bassa culture, tradition and language. I can tell you that it is not late for you to learn about Bassa heritage. In fact, you have shown your desire to do just that by affiliating with UNIBOA. In addition, your next step is for you to learn how to speak Bassa, even if your Bassa expressions seem incorrect at first, because your Bassa heritage and your Liberian heritage will always be a part of you.

As for me, I want you to know that I love my Bassa culture and tradition. In fact, I love to socialize with my Bassa ethnic family—the Belle, Dei, Grebo, Kru (Klao) and Krahn people. I was born a Bassa child, and I cherish the Bassa language and people. The first language that I heard on this earth was Bassa. The first words of praise to God on my arrival on earth were Bassa. When I began learning at my mother’s knees, my language of instruction was Bassa. Therefore, regardless of my current residence, education, or social status, I intend to remain a Bassa man irrespective of the consequences, if any. Bassa owes me nothing but I owe Bassa and Liberia a lot. I was taught in the powerful cultural institution (Poro University) about high moral character, humanism, culture, governance, nature, and love. I was taught the Bassa philosophy of “chin-m- ke- chin” or “live, let’s live” long before my exposure to western civilization. And when the time comes for me to appear before the Almighty Creator of the Bassa people, I want to answer about my deeds on this earth on that day, if the God chooses to see me, in my mother tongue, which is Bassa.

In this regard, I want you to know that my speech here today is not about the importance of the Bassa Language (our mother tongue), therefore, I will table the topic for now, and wait on another occasion like this one to talk to you in details about the richness of our language. Notwithstanding, I am reminded of the parable our people usually use to drive their point home: “Don’t throw the cutlass behind the snake after it has passed.” By this I mean, I want you and the world to know how I feel about my Bassa heritage and my responsibility to my people. I do not want to “roast the rat with intestine intact” or as we will say in Bassa, “Be ni sa wood ke o ni ede,” which means, “If the intestine remains in the rat, it will not get done properly.” In other words, if you want to enjoy roasted rat meat, you must remove the intestine before roasting the rat.

By now I hope you have gotten the point why Bassa people are keen on using proverbs to provide moral guidance to the youth. In fact, the Bassa people employ proverbs to touch on every facet of life, which includes but not limited to childbearing, death, dreaming, hunting, wealth, curse, poverty, health, sickness, joy, sorrow, marriage, farming, eating, fishing, building, trading, healing, cooking, walking, sleeping, childrearing, training, and a host of other things. Moreover, the morale of the rat proverb is that those who select to roast a rat with the intestine intact, lack basic knowledge of accountability. A good example is our beloved country! Today in Liberia, we are having serious problems due to the lack of good governance and accountability. Some of us do not know who we are, and on the other hand are afraid to know – much more, accept who we are. For instance, if we took the intestine from the rat before roasting it, we might enjoy the roasted rat meat in the same way we might enjoy our country if we accept to be who we are. In other words, we must donate our time and resources to the development of Liberia if we want a prosperous Liberia. Otherwise, we will continue to have a half-done (underdeveloped) Liberia for a long time. Therefore, my people, whatever we do, we must remember that it is the responsibility of the current generation of Liberians to build a great nation for the next generation of Liberians.

It is within this context that I have decided to talk to you this evening on the topic: “The Role of the Bassa in Reshaping Liberia.” The truth of the matter is that the greatness of a nation begins with its people, especially when they are bond to each other like one is attached to his umbilical cord. It is the same way, a people must be bonded their nation. In other words, the citizens within a nation cannot be united as one people if the they do know their history, do not know who they are, and do not appreciate their culture. In fact, the people of a great nation are people with wisdom, high moral character, believed and committed to human rights, justice, political freedom and building a strong and peaceful nation.

In the history of the Bassa people, which includes the Belle, Dei, Grebo, Kru and Krahn kingdoms, there was powerful kinships and great social interactions. These Bassa kingdoms were great inter-ethnic and international trading posts, with learned people and leaders who fitted the pantheon of the gods, as well as truth-seekers, artists, scientists, and visionaries. This brings us to a crucial point of my presentation. To begin, we must ask ourselves these questions: What were the Bassa and other indigenous people doing before the pioneers came? What kind of social and political system united these ethnic groups? I guess to understand Bassa history, we have to examine some of the issues in earnest because there are lots of biases in the Liberian history they taught us from grade school and to some extent in college. The contributions made by our people – the indigenous people were presented as if they were insignificant; when in fact, the Bassa people were and are still a great people, and their contributions to the establishment of Liberia were invaluable.

What I am attempting to impress upon you here is that the Bassa, Kru (Klao), Dei, Grebo, Krahn and Belle are not only kinsmen and women but also blood-sisters and blood brothers as well. Yes, the Bassa people and people of the other Liberian ethnic groups cited migrated from the same area, therefore, it is safe to say they are one family. Thank God the griots have excellent good memory of our people and the Djuankadyu, the legend of the Bassa were able to narrate the stories of how the Bassa, Belle, Grebo, Krahn and Kru (Klao) all came from the kingdom of Nyanyan (known as Nyanja, Nanja, pahn, or Nahn). This kingdom was once located in the vicinity of the east bank of the Cavalla River, near the borders of modern day Ivory Coast. It was the last place our people lived before moving to the landmass of modern day Liberia at the dictate of the leaders of Nyanyan.

In those days the land that became the Liberian nation was a series of traditional indigenous kingdoms whose people lived in city-states. As such there was no single name for these kingdoms, which were believed to have covered more than 177,000 square miles. This area was called by names. It was referred to by to non-Africans as the Malaguatta Coast, Pepper Coast or the Grains of Paradise. Before the advent of Europeans the Grain Coast, which is present-day Liberia consisted of various ethnic kingdoms; they were: Bassa Kingdom; Belle Kingdom, Gola Kingdom, Klao (Kru) Kingdom, Grebo Kingdom; Krahn Kingdom, Mende Kingdom, Sapo Kingdom, Kpelle Kingdom, Kissi Kingdom, Pleebo Kingdom, Gbii Kingdom, Via Kingdom, Dei Kingdom, Gio (Dan) Kingdom, Loma Kingdom, Mandingo Kingdom, and the Maih (Mano) Kingdom.

These kingdoms became international trading posts that were visited by the Phoenicians and Egyptians as early as 600 B.C, and by the Carthagians in 500 B.C. Europeans first set up trading posts on this coast in the 14th century. The Dutch historian Ofert Drapper provides ample evidence that the Grain Coast was a peaceful land whose people were well versed not only in their own customs and traditions but also in international trade. Drapper stated “that the local populations enjoyed a high standard of political and social organization and that their institutions bare a strong resemblance to those of what was then the Sudan, probably as a result of contact with the North African Berbers who had been one of the most advanced and powerful nations in the world” (Drapper, O. A Comprehensive and Real Descriptive of Africa, 1668 [Reprinted 1967]).

It is also safe to say that because of the cordial relations and trading sophistication practiced by the Bassa people and other ethnic groups made it possible for the establishment of a trading post instead of a permanent colony. The trading interest up to the time attracted the Portuguese, Dutch, and Normans to visit the Grain Coast (Library of Black America, Book I, H. A. Ploski, 1971). Similarly, we can gather from the interaction between the Bassa people and Europeans, Egyptians, and other foreigners that the Bassa people had a system of civil administration as well as a good system of governance in place to have facilitated these trade transactions. It is clear that when “Little Bassa” existed, the United States of America had not been founded, as evident by the contact our people had with foreigners as far back as 520 BC.

The Founding of Liberia has its Origin in the Bassa Kingdom

According to Bassa oral history, the land on which the pioneers built their first settlement belonged to the Mamba Bassa who occupied the area of Monrovia. The land was given to the pioneers for settlement, which in line with the Bassa tradition of being hospitable to strangers. The Bassa people never sold their land as some historians will have us to believe. I told you earlier about Little Bassa, and how the Bassa people traded with Phoenicians and other outsiders. The story about the Bassa people selling their land is untrue. Bassa people greeted and treated these foreigners well, and extended the same hospitality to the pioneers. From here on, you do the math; from 520BC to 1822 A.D., the Bassa people did not sell their land to the Egyptians, Portuguese, Dutch, Normans, and the French during those many years, so what motivated them to sell their land to Jehudi Ashmun (1794-1828) and other agents of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1821? You need to ask yourself this question! I content that this was not possible under normal circumstances because the Bassa people and the other ethnic groups at the time did not believe in selling land. Land was a communal property, which was distributed according to the custom and tradition of the people.

Bassa King Zolu Duma (referred to as King Peter in some Liberian history books) persuaded his kinsmen to give a piece of land along Cape Mesurado, near the mouth of the Junk river and the adjacent island of Dozoa to the pioneers for their free assembly before the cordial relationship between the two groups went downhill over land disputes. The land dispute is attributed to attempts made by the ACS and their benefactors to extend their land holdings beyond Providence Island. In the initial conflict over the “land grabbing” soon led to the conflict, which resulted into the birth of a “divided society” (the Liberian nation) that is today in the state of comatose.

Just as the Bassa people welcomed the Egyptians, Portuguese, Spanish, Normans, and Dutch in years past with opened arms, they welcomed the pioneers or settlers in similar manner. In fact, Liberian historical books acknowledged that the Bassa people and the other ethnic groups warmly received the “pioneers.” As a practice or custom, the Bassa people always extend courtesy and respect to strangers for the sake of love and fellowship. (See J. B. Webster, The Growth of African Civilization, and A.A. Boahen & H.O. Idawu, The Revolution Years West Africa since 1800), (Nelson, Harold, 1985.)

If you can remember, we discussed earlier that a stranger could be anyone or anything. In the Bassa customs and tradition, strangers are cared for, treated with kindness, respect and dignity even if the stranger turns out to be a bearer of good or bad omen. The Bassa people’s respect for humanity led one of its sons, King Kadasie (referred to as Bob Gray in some Liberian history books) in the 1800s to forge unity between the pioneers and the Bassa ethnic group in the early 1800s (The African Repository, Records of the various State Colonization Societies). The Bassa people’s kindness is further exhibited during the conference of African kings when Bassa King Ba Caa received representatives of the pioneers in audience and accompanied the group to the meeting, after which Providence Island was given to the pioneers not sold to them.

At this point, my dear brothers and sisters, if you learn anything at all this evening from these remarks, you to teach it to your children and grandchildren about the role their ancestors – the Bassa people played in the birth of Liberia. In essence, the key to my message here is that if both King Kadasie and King Ba Caa had not extended hospitality to the pioneers by having them to meet with the other six Bassa kings regarding Providence Island, I don’t know if the birth of Liberia would have been possible. I am not suggesting that the Bassa people sanctioned the creation Liberia (it is a known fact that Liberia was created in America); however, initial hospitality extended to the pioneers was a key turning point in Liberian history.

In 1820, majority of the first group of pioneers the American Colonization Society (ACS) dispatched to Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone died as the result of the region's swampy, unhealthy conditions. Conceivably, the settlers were in the worst of conditions at the time they met with the Bassa people (African-American Mosaic: Personal Stories and ACS New Directions). The Bassa evaluate their leaders on the basis of love for their people and on how they interact and treat their fellowmen, especially visitors. It is believed that because of “deeh”, meaning sweet, visitors find it worthy to come visit from faraway places. This is how one’s reputation, whether good or bad, reaches worldwide audiences. For this reason, it was a common practice for our people to cook and put some aside for a stranger who may be passing by. The stranger does not have to be a relative to get water to drink, bathe or sleep in our home. As a Bassa person or a descendant of Bassa, you have it within you to do good to people and no one can deny you that right - even to provide assistance to our people at this period in our history when our nation is dwindling into destruction (Inside Africa: J. Gunther 1950).

My fellow Bassa people, we played crucial leadership roles in the birth of Liberia. Grand Bassa County (Bassa Cove) was one of the two colonies of the Commonwealth of Liberia (sandwiched between Sinoe and Montserrado counties). In 1839, four of her sons, Hilary Teague, Amos Herring, John Day, and Anthony W. Gardiner served as delegates to the constitutional convention that led to Liberia’s Declaration of Independence on July 26, 1847. For example, the four stripes on the Bassa County flag are in honor of these four men (The signs of men and peoples: our world in flags and ensigns by Whitney Smith, 1975).

The historical Bob Gray (King Kadasie) was one of the key leaders of “Little Bassa” and the commander of a military force, which consisted of about 1,000 to 6,000 strong warriors. He was highly influential and his cooperation was crucial to the founding of Liberia. After the Edina project, he also encouraged the pioneers to build schools in such areas as Sooh-Kon (Schiefflin), Kobain (Marshall), Dyabian-xwea (Hartford), Dyabian-win (Edina) and Mamba Point in Monrovia before the Declaration of Independence in 1847. But King Kadasie and other Bassa leaders were never deemed worthy of a national monument, highway, or building in their honor in Monrovia. I must, however, hasten to say that Providence Island is a monument in honor of the pioneers; and in the interest of ethnic parity and national unity, similar landmark should be dedicated to the natives who played crucial roles in establishing what is known today as Liberia. This effort could aid us in finding genuine reconciliation in order for all us - Liberians to truly say the “Love of Liberty Brought Us Together”.

Surface to say that it was through King Kadasie’s efforts that Edina became the second city of Liberia, and he was also instrumental in the building of the first public school for the Bassa people in Edina, because at that time Liberian schools were conducted on the porches of the pioneers and the natives were not allowed to attend (The African Repository and Bassa Oral History). In Edina, Grand Bassa County, there are statues of (President Joseph Chessman) and Kadasie in honor of him by his people for his contribution to helping the emigrants.

But the Bassa people are a patriotic and nationalistic people. It was in the spirit of this national consciousness that King Kadasie and other Bassa leaders continued to render assistance to the pioneers in the early stages of the founding of Liberia. The Bassa people possess all the attributes of greatness far in excess of some of her neighbors who are now setting the political tune by which Liberia is to dance in 2005 and beyond. If we were to add the people making up the family of Bassa ethnic groups (the Krahn (Wee), Kru (Klao), Grebo, Belle, Dei), we will have over 1.5 million family members of a rich and diversified culture, whose combined population and cooperation could easily win any presidential elections. In fact, history bears us up on this in that as early 1915, a Kru (Klao) became the Secretary of State for education and in 1925 a Grebo (Henry Toe Wesley) occupied the second highest position in Liberia, the vice-presidency.

The Bassa people are champions of great hospitality and goodwill who believe in promoting individual as well as the family, which in the end will benefit the entire society. Also, we are respected for the leadership roles have played as excellent civil servants. The record will attest to it that before the political subdivisions of Liberia, which were known as provinces (Central, Western and Eastern), became counties, Zamgbah Liberty, Charles H. Williams and Albert T. White who were from Bassa served as their commissioners. Other outstanding Liberian civil servants that were from Bassa include individuals like Presidents Wilmot Anthony Gardner, Daniel E. Howard, Joseph J. Chessman, Steven Allen Benson, VP James Samuel Smith, and famous postmaster general, McKinley A. Deshield. Deshield was a professional shoemaker from Buchanan who rose from shoemaking to become a well-known postmaster general of Liberia. Adding to this list are Richard Abrom Henries, the man who represented Liberia at the founding of the League of Nations (now United Nations), Dr Flo Lewis, the first Bassa physician and a graduate of Syracuse University, who wrote the Bassa alphabet, the Bassa Vah Script (BVS), and Dr. Dickson Reed, the first Liberian biochemist who catalogued herbal remedies at the University of Liberia.

Sons of Bassa such as Joshua L. Harmon, Charles Williams, Joseph M.N. Gbadyu, the Rev. Dr. Abba G. Karngar, and Jimmy Barrolle also played crucial roles in the political, educational, and religious transformations of the Bassa people and Liberia in general. Besides, Bassa women held administrative positions such as “Judge” and “Governor.” One such person was Ne Hweh-gedepohoh-Titi; she provided strong leadership to the Liberian Market Women Association. Her leadership compelled the William R. Tolbert and Samuel K. Doe administration to realize that the market women deserved a healthy environment, market buildings, because their labors accounted for a hefty chunk of Liberia's economies. Thus, under her leadership, Liberian Market Association became independent, strong, and influential.

Generally, the Bassa people do not like for anyone to impose on them or to try to force something down their throats. The Bassa people are a proud and self-respected people. And this is the history we must tell our children. This is the history for which we must take responsibility to let others know. These are facts: that are cataloged in the Library of Congress in the African Repository section. Some of the information can also be found in my recent book: Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration and Government of the Bassa.

Fellow Bassa people and friends, if you know your history you will never be ashamed to know that Bassa people love the profession of steward. Before Jimmy Barrolle became butler to President W.V.S. Tubman, he was first a steward to him. President Tubman respected Bassa people because of their understanding of leadership, spiritual values, collectivism, and stewardship. He reinforced his respect for them internationally when Amadu Ahidjo, the President of Cameroon, paid a state visit to Liberia. In fact, President Tubman took him to Grand Bassa County. While in Grand Bassa County, the President asked Ahidjo how were the Bassa people of Cameroon contributing to his administration. Ahidjo responded by praising the Bassa people in his country. President Tubman went on to say that in his government, the Bassa people are trustworthy. He went on to say that their philosophy stands for commitment to nation and nation building. He also made the observation that a Bassa person will not undermine you; and will not bite his tongue when there is injustice (J. M. N. Gbadyu, 2001). As Bassa people, our upbringing taught us that, “where the flame is higher is where you will find the people with a cold.” In other words, respect unity or togetherness!

Perhaps, this was the reason President Tubman ended his remarks when he said, if the Americo-Liberian president vacated the presidency of Liberia, the Bassa man would be the right person to lead Liberia. The Bassa people love to be respected. Perhaps, this is the reason we are always taking people to court instead of violating the laws of our country. To us, respect means one must conduct him or herself in a responsible way, so as not to endanger his or her own life, and those of others. Respect is about giving credit where credit is due. In other words, while the scene advances at a sightless speed, it is always important to pause, take a look back, and examine where it came from.

Bassa as Official Language of Liberia

We have earned the respect of our brothers and sisters because we respect ourselves first so we are able to respect them. It was therefore no accident that the Bassa Language became the trade language of Liberia. We put premium on education from the very beginning so that all Liberians to learn and know about each other. This is why well-known Bassa such as Joseph M.N. Gbadyu and Abba G. Karngar contributed to the founding the literary movement championed by Dr. Flo Lewis, the individual that redesigned the Bassa script, ‘Ehni Ka Se Fa,’ (the Bassa alphabet), which he taught to his people. Dr. Lewis knew the power of the mother tongue therefore he made the effort for Bassa to become a major medium of communication at the regional level and national levels. This effort was supported by individuals like McKinley A. Deshield, Secretary General of the ruling True Whig Party; Richard Abrom Henries, Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, James A. A. Pierce, Chief Justice of Liberia; and Joshua L. Harmon, Senior Senator of Grand Bassa County and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Executive for Presidential Affairs. These individuals were helpful to the delegates of Bassa Vah Association (BVA) from all over Liberia to promote the Bassa script and to meet with prominent government officials, including President Tubman.

In the early 1970s, the Liberian Government and Education Ministry recognized both the Bassa and Vai Languages as written languages of Liberia. The Executive Officers of the Bassa Vah Association (BVA) were instructed to meet with the administration of the University of Liberia to register the Bassa Language as a curriculum as well as to prepare the syllabus. The President of BVA and the secretary registered the Bassa Language and paid the required fees. The Bassa Language was accepted as a subject at the University of Liberia. The University Academic Affairs department asked for two faculty members from BVA to begin teaching Bassa. But all those who were could teach the Bassa language were already occupied with other positions, and they could not leave those position without being assured of stable employment. This goal was not realized because the Liberian Government could not fund the project or failed to attract those qualified Bassa speakers. As a result, the dream of making the Bassa Language a subject at the University of Liberia suffered a serious setback.

At this point, my dear friends, our message here will be incomplete if we do not talk about matters of the heart. I guess you have wondered many times why Bassa men and women are very sociable and friendly. If you did know then, let me tell you. It is part of our chemistry and the way we are socialized! You may have also heard the joke that we like to cook or that we are good cooks, good lovers, good socialites, as well as good leaders. I could go on and on! But let me continue with the matters of the heart that I started with. The matter of love and beauty is not about only physical beauty, it also includes inner beauty. This is one of the many reasons Bassa women are very desirable to marry. Furthermore, the Bassa system of marriage was (is) a no non-sense affair. Our traditional marriage system speaks to the very foundation of building and sustaining a stable and prosperous family. For example, the tradition of courtship and marriage go like this:

1. Kmohn bein (bein-kmohnkmohn is noun) is the first contact phase. The young man is obliged to tell his parents if he meets a girl he likes, “I saw a girl and I want to catch her”. At this stage there is no obligation but it opens the way to communication. When the young man’s parents like the girl and if the parents have a good reputation in the community, the parents may decide on “bah-sohn-kohn.”

2. Bah-sohn-kohn (the second phase) means “touch on the shoulder.” This means that the young man is ready to ask the girl if she will accept his proposal. Bah-sohn-kohn also means that the boy has “marked” the girl as his. If any man comes around the girl and tries to start a love affair, the parents will say, “Our daughter is engaged.” In fact, they will not allow it to happen.

3. Khna-gbo whon-hwie, (the third phase), means to close the door; that is the young man is taking on the family responsibility—domestic, economic, and social. It also means that whatever the girl’s parents do, the young man must join them because he had closed all the other avenues for their daughter.

4. Po- bui, (the fourth phase), is like a trust fund; once the girl and her parents agree, a mutually inclusive relationship is established, the boy’s parents would bring food, money, clothing, domestic animals, and the like to the girl’s parents. This process is called “nynohn-dohnon” or “buying” the woman. This is not buying as in the western sense. The parents also help with the “bohn-Non-Je” or all issues about the initiations, as well as the “bohn-whor,” meaning celebration of the feast. Nynohn-je is another word used to describe this process of contributing physical labor and cash payment. In this process, the parents, not the girl, determine the methods of payments for such things as buckets, clothes, cattle, money, and so forth.

A self-respecting Bassa parent will never give a loosed daughter away in marriage. For this matter, the Bassa allow their daughter to be given in marriage over time. The Bassa government does not allow the kind of wedding we see in the western world: meet today marry tomorrow. Marriage requires commitment, total involvement, family input, and adherence to Bassa mores, traditions, customs, and folkways. The parents’ involvement is their expression of accountability and love for their daughter. In this arrangement, the daughter will not only appreciate her parents support, she will respect and cherish it. During this exercise, the girl’s parents will put the groom to a test to see if he is qualified to marry their daughter. With this kind of system, no young man would pregnant daughter and then say, “It isn’t me!” This is why it is difficult to see the kind of family breakdown and high divorce rate that is common in modern societies.

Fellow Bassa, I hope my brief lesson into Bassa history and tradition have inspired you to begin to trace your Bassa root if you do not already know. We must never forget who we are and where we came from because if we forget the past, we are likely to forget the present, and we will not be prepared for the future. So, are we ready to tell ourselves the truth? Are we ready to dig deeper into our heritage and learn those lessons that will help us to become good leaders? I hope so because if at least one child or one adult in this audience can go back to his or her roots, then there is greater hope for peace, unity, and development in Liberia. We only need to begin developing the Bassa counties, and our brothers and sisters in the other counties would follow suit, and before we know it, Liberia will once more be heading in the direction of a prosperous nation.

You know, the Bassa people have a proverb that says: “The hotness of a pepper pod begins in the ground and not at its maturity.” You have a moral and ethical responsibility to see Liberia rise again, regardless of the fact that some of our sons and daughters have tainted our character and dis-positioned our standing. Never forget the Bassa history I am sharing with you here today. Teach the greatness of our people to your children. Our forefathers taught us that tool shapes the hand as well as the hand shapes the tool. In other words, it was in the palm of our hands that Liberia was born. It was our love for all people and our straightforwardness that other ethnic groups called on us to force their attackers to surrender.

In closing, let me say to you that we must continue to be friendly, civil, strong-willed and straightforward talking people. We must always seek the best for ourselves – but in the process, we must take pleasure in undermining others. It is this quality that has landed us many leadership positions in various Liberian counties like Nimba, Bong, Lofa, etc. Former Lofa County Senator and Superintendent Zamgbah Liberty was from Bassa; one of my in-laws, Mr. David Moore served as a commissioner in Nimba County for decades. Moreover, it was through the leadership provided by individual from our county, the first school for the natives was built, which became a national project.

Therefore, we must not only enjoy ourselves here today but also do some serious thinking after our meal, dance and BBQ. For our forefathers and mothers worked too hard for us to throw away all that they have gained on our behalf. We need to take action - to return to our roots because we are not people who wait for someone to bring opportunity to us. Currently, all kinds of alliances are being formed and many changes are going on around us, while our homeland lay in want of good leadership. We have to change our trends of thoughts. We need to move away from this “yes sir” mentality and begin to do something good for our ourselves and people. We need to find all the Bassa people living in North American who are not in UNIBOA and bring them onboard. We need to act and act today because everything around us is changing. We have the ability to partake of the change. Let us begin to look inward beginning today. Liberia will rise again, and Bassa must rise along with her. I thank you for listening!

About the Author: Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D., is a tenured professor of Occupational of occupational safety and health at NC A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is the author of several books, including, The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and It Environmental Impact, Christianity, Colonization and State of African Spirituality, and Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration & Government of the Bassa (a book about traditional Bassa leadership and cultural norms published in 2003). Dr. Somah is also the Executive Director of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), a nonprofit organization based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He can be reached at: