Tuesday, 11 August 2015


Learning the other day that the coastal west African nation of Sierra Leone was so named by Portuguese explorers for how its promontory mountain range looked from the sea like a sleeping lion, I was struck about how little I gave much of a thought to the vast and variegated continent. Whereas the doo-wop song was originally a Zulu piece composed in South Africa, whereas I thought the name was a colour like Burnt Sienna, whereas I feel confident that I am not alone in this omission, and whereas I reserved a bit of a purchase on the region by knowing before all the dread news of refugees and communicable disease and blood diamonds that Liberia had a special relationship with the United States by having formed the vague idea that it was somehow founded by freed slaves, I suppose that most people out of Africa regard it as some sort of terrible incubator of the above ills.

While our sleeping lioness is no stranger to the usual litany of exploitation, corruption and mismanagement that’s understood somehow to be endemic—though recently and uniquely a seated government was ousted democratically and went away in abeyance with the vote instead of holding fast to power and there is a marked degree of religious tolerance, it is the overshadowing, cursorily familiar origin of its neighbour that tells this country’s story. Liberia, with its counties of Maryland, Mississippi and Monrovia, named for US president James Monroe, is rather a singular peculiar in the scramble of colonialism being that it was founded under the auspices of a society rather than by a European power. Though the membership of this society were committed abolitionists in sentiment and action (whose rolls of donors included Abraham Lincoln), the society believed, like the British sending power of Sierra Leone, that the solution lied ultimately in repatriation. Once the Empire had outlawed slavery at home and abroad, the protectorate of Sierra Leone came to embody a studious endeavour in sending Africans back to Africa, regardless of course whether the diaspora had lived in western, coastal Africa beforehand or whether they had been in Europe, the Caribbean, or America their entire lives. It really wilts whatever unformed and tenuous idea of Liberia I held beforehand, making it into a place of resettlement for individuals that could not be integrated into the milieu of polite society. Sandwiched between the British colony and the French land of the Ivory Coast, without the protection of a world power behind it, Liberia’s territorial integrity was under constant threat and suffered significant losses. This perception of neglect engendered feelings of resentment and disappointment with America.