WHAT ROOTS ARE WE GOING BACK TO? SPEECH DELIVERED BY CHRISTOPHER Z NEYOR AT PROGRAM COMMEMORATING THE 175TH INDEPENDENCE ANNIVERSAY OF LIBERIA BY THE UNITED LIBERIAN ASSOCIATION OF HOUSTON HOUSTON, TEXAS AUGUST 6, 2022

The Chairman of the Board, President, Officers and Members of the United Liberian Association of Houston (ULAH), Invited Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I want to express once again my thanks for your kind invitation to serve as Guest Speaker at this special event commemorating the 175th anniversary of our country’s independence. I am honored to be here in this great Houston metropolis, a melting pot of people and cultures from around the world representative of what America is. The Liberian Diaspora in Houston is part of that melting pot with its own distinct characteristics many of whom have achieved the highest level of education and proficiency in their fields of endeavor.

Among this Liberian Diaspora with distinguished excellence in their profession is my niece and host Dr. Venee Tubman, a Harvard and University of Pennsylvania educated Pediatric Hematologist who specialized in blood disorder and is a Sickle Cell expert at Texas Children Hospital and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Venee has ongoing Sickle Cell research in Liberia and Tanzania where she visits at least twice a year. Dr. Tubman is my special guest here tonight and I am sure with this introduction she can become associated with projects ULAH is undertaking for Liberia and the Liberian community here.

With all the achievements we have made in this country as Liberians or of Liberian heritage, there is an unquenchable yearning in our hearts for that acreage of 43,000 square miles (111, 000 square kilometers) on the west coast of Africa 4 degrees above the equator. Just about every Liberian in the Diaspora has that longing for the motherland with strong inclination to visit and help family and friends back home. Remittances, money sent back home from Liberians abroad was over 300 millions in 2019 and at its peak constituted some 22% of Liberia’s GDP. This clearly shows the attachment of the Liberian Diaspora to their root.

And talking about roots brings us to the theme of this event, “Going Back to Our Roots”. Just what is roots? Alex Harley wrote his classic ROOTS in the 1970’s that traced his roots to a slave, Kunta Kente, from the Gambia, West Africa where majority of the transatlantic slaves came from. In this sense, ROOT refers to where one comes from and everything that represents that place, that culture, that tradition, that history that is your origin. But roots is more than just where one came from; knowing your roots provides an anchor, grounding, for your life journey. Knowing the totality of your roots defines your worldview. It is said if you don’t know where you came from you cannot know where you are going.

What is that place, that culture, that tradition and that history that we come from? Before going back to our roots we must know the culture and tradition and history of that place of our origin. It is in an attempt to answer some of these very relevant questions that I beg your indulgence to share my thoughts with you briefly on the topic “WHAT ROOTS ARE WE GOING BACK TO?”

Let us do some basic definitions before we move forward. In sociology “culture” refers to the beliefs that people hold about reality, the norms that guide their behavior, the values that orient their moral commitments, or the symbols through which these beliefs, norms, and values are communicated.” Traditions are ideas and beliefs such as a religious practice or a social custom passed down from one generation to the next with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. History is the medium for recording and interpreting our culture and tradition over a specified period written or oral.

Where we come from, our culture, our tradition, our history has some good and some not so good aspects. In the area called Liberia before 1822, there is a history of disunity and internecine tribal warfare as it was in many parts of West Africa. The arrival of the Europeans and their quest for slaves fed into these tribal conflicts where Africans captured other Africans and sold them as slaves.

I am sure that is not a root we want to go back to.

There is that ugly tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) where young girls were deprived of their natural sexuality instigated by selfish men. In many parts of today’s Liberia, this inhumane practice continues where old traditional women chase the young girls into the Sande bush where FGM are performed often under unsanitary conditions.

I am sure this is not a root we want to go back to.

This does not mean all of what girls learn in these tribal “schools” are irrelevant. Infixing the positive traits into the formal education system led by those with expertise in curriculum development should present an excellent opportunity to go back to this root and use the positive attributes for educational expansion.

There is also history of contradictions from the very finding of Liberia in the early 1800’s. In 2014 I was invited to serve as keynote speaker for the 205th birth anniversary of Liberia’s founding father JJ Roberts. I stated the following in my remarks regarding contradictions:

“JJ Roberts was not a perfect man but he was a good man. None of the great people I have studied was perfect, from Abraham, Moses and David in the Holy Bible who had their own flaws to the founding fathers of America who accepted the universal truth that “All men are created equal” but were themselves slave owners, to those who fought for the liberation and independence of Africa but did everything to keep themselves in perpetual power. These are human contradictions and there is a little bit of this ugly behavior in each of us.”

Good men who were in search of liberty from the harsh treatment of whites in America found themselves inflicting the same pain on the natives they met on their return to our common African homeland. The natives were not citizens initially in the republic they founded in 1847, they could not vote, they could not sit at the same table with them and their children for a meal and they could not go beyond certain grade level if they ever went to school. The love of liberty brought those founding fathers to the shores of the land they named from liberty but for a long time that liberty was denied those they met on the land and who offered them accommodation. Human contradictions.

I am sure this is not the kind of root we want to go back to.

Of course Liberia has made progress with integration and the country has had head of state from the rank of the natives the free black slaves from America met on their arrival. Contradictions however remain a mainstay of our society. Recently my sister and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee wrote a piece about contradiction in our society. Here’s what she said:

“As a Liberian, I constantly think about the land of my birth and the future. Recently, my thoughts have been on the many contradictions of our land and how we can traverse these contradictions. Liberia is:
The Sweet Land of Liberty
Africa’s Oldest Republic
The First Elected Female President
Two Women Nobel Laureates in One Year
World Best, Africa’s Best, Europe Best Footballer All in the Same Year
First Footballer to Become President in Africa
This list could go on and on. We have done so much but find it easy to taint all these accomplishments with violence, poor judgments, and choices. These contradictions are glaring in our everyday life. Liberia is the only place I have visited where women are accorded seats and men are asked to stand in public gatherings. Yet, this very land is where rape and abuse have become a daily reality for women and babies.”

That is indeed not the root we want to return to.

Our history is filled with accounts of integrity issues or the lack thereof. From the very founding of the country in the acquisition of land and in politics and business and even in the religious institutions integrity was found lacking to the point that we are in the Guinness Book of World Records for election fraud.

That is definitely not the kind of root we want to go back to.

Corruption unfortunately has taken root in just about every sphere of Liberian public and private life and has become the cancer limiting our economic development. Corrupt practices in public office have become the source of ill-gotten wealth for many Liberians. Sadly, even Liberians from right here in the United States critical of corruption back home became more corrupt when offered public positions in our country. Corruption has been getting progressively worse in Liberia to the point where public stealing of our collective resources is more conspicuous. It is bold, in your face arrogant corruption committed in the sight of all as if to say, “I will steal from you, I will be dishonest and what are you doing to do about it.”

We can all agree that is not a root we want to go back to.

Contradictions, corruption, poor governance, abuse of human rights, injustice are vices that breed violence. We saw what this did to breakdown of law and order, the massive atrocities and destruction of the civil conflict in Liberia. It seems we have not learned our lesson and we see these ugly demons creeping up again. Just this recent 26th. which we are honoring here today in Houston, violence erupted on the streets of Monrovia near the United States Embassy when government supporters inflicted severe injuries of students of the University of Liberia who were peacefully protesting. One of those students is in critical condition and I understand he had to be flown out of the country for medical treatment.

This is indeed not the kind of root we want to go back to.

When this kind of man inhumanity to man occurs in our homeland and we say nothing, we become silent encouragers to future abuses and tyranny, prescription to instability and conflict. Being a friend of the national leadership or being a supporter of the government does not mean one should condone doings that are wrong and could quickly condemn were you on the other side. The best friends any President can have are those who speak truth to him and not the sycophants.

What roots do we want to go back to? The ANSWER? We have to create it! We have to forge a genuine new roots of unity, mutual respect, love of country and integrity. Our culture, our tradition, our history and the founding of Liberia were not perfect but we can work together to perfect them, one generation at a time. Americans reached a significant point of perfecting their union with election of a black man few years ago, a person from the rank of those who were slaves to the highest office in this country and perhaps in the world. How can we perfect the history of dishonesty, selfishness, contradictions and corruption and build a more perfect republic? The answers rest with each of us to first become the change we want to see in Liberia.

Former Vice President Bennie Warner once said, “What is wrong with us is us; our undermining of each other, our easy satisfaction with the mediocre have kept us from being our best selves.” The key to a better future for Liberia, the creation of the new root we want to go back to rest with us individually and collectively.

God bless Liberia and God bless the United States that has provided us sanctuary in our Diaspora.

Thank you.

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