15 February 2012

Liberia: Book Review - Welcome to Little Liberia

Little Liberia, as the title suggests, is about the Liberian community in a big Western metropolis: Staten Island, New York City. South African writer, Jonny Steinberg, follows the life journeys of two Liberians, Jacob and Rufus, whose paths cross. The book is, in its way, a critique of post-colonial Africa. Standing out from the crowd from early on, Rufus became a successful tailor in Liberia while the rest of his age-mates in Twelfth Street, Monrovia, were unemployed or casual workers.

He also owned a soccer club, Roza, and was widely respected - and envied. Without telling anyone, he arranged to leave for the US. Once there, he was determined to not work for anyone, unlike the African-Americans in the housing projects who, "when they get educated, go into legal slavery. They work all day for just enough money to pay the rent."

He left for America in 1986. In the early 1990's war broke out in Liberia, and refugees started pouring in. By then, he had an engineering degree, and knew how to find his way around. This was just the opportunity to establish his vision: to help young Liberians touch ground and do something useful with their lives. These kids had been soldiers; they already knew what real war was, not the games of gang war practised by the Americans.

Roza (Rufus' initials) was to be a team through which young people could rebuild their lives. Every young man associated with Roza must work through his formal education up to college level. Jacob arrived in New York when Roza was up and running. He was looking for an organization to work with. In Roza he found activity, idealism, and Rufus took him on. Soon, though, he left, seeing - unjustly? - in the founder a man "who took American money in the name of his fellow Liberians, but used it to make a personal fiefdom".

"Was this smudging," he asks, "of public representation and private empire not the story of successive Liberian presidents?" Had the defects, rivalries and corruption of Liberia been transplanted onto American soil?

At one point, Steinberg asks Rufus what it is about Liberia that produces so much suspicion and jealousy. The answer he gets: It is because of how our families are structured; one man, four wives, four sets of children, four sets of goals. Each mother looking after the interests of her children, hoping the other children do badly in life. Jealousy is woven into the fabric of family life and society. Food for thought.

Book: Little Liberia

Author: Jonny Steinberg

Publisher: Vintage Books, 2012

Volume: 286 pages

Cost: Shs 32,000

Reviewer: Martyn Drakard

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