When Liberia’s legendary folk singer Yatta Zoe made a blunt remark recently that “Liberians don’t respect artists,” she knew exactly what she was talking about. The reason for her remark probably stemmed from frustration about the lack of national cultural endeavor and her desire to galvanize support to set up a ‘cultural spot’ in Tom’s village, near the Maher River on the Bomi Highway where she now lives. By all accounts, Yatta Zoe, a woman whose name became a household affair in Liberia during the 60s and 70s, is right.
At a very tender age, Yatta Zoe became a famous folksinger and by the late 70s at the peak of her musical career, she had tour Africa, Europe and America where she rubbed elbow with world’s renowned singers including Nigeria’s born Reggie star the late Fela Korte and South Africa’s Merriam Makeba.
Now for such a famous woman as Yatta Zoe who has traveled the world over, and dinned with kings and queens to reside in a single room mud dubbed hut with no electricity, and no inside bathroom, in a remote village, speaks a lot about respect for our culture and artists. But this is exactly the reality about the life of this once well-known and celebrated woman, who’s now 71.
Affectionately known by fellow villagers as “Ma Yatta,” misfortune to some extent brought her this untimely fate which came as a result of multiple surgical operations she had following the civil war. Without assistance from governments, MaYatta was forced to auction her home in order to defray huge hospital charges related to her surgical operations.
Even so, Ma Yatta seems happy living in a village in Western Liberia where she is surrounded by her Gola people. Among her Gola people, MaYatta is often looked out for and provided with affections she hopes to receive from artists she taught and raised as her own children.
Unlike soccer, most Liberians generally don’t take cultural heritage seriously. Many thus have adopted a lackadaisical approach towards Liberian artists and the arts itself; and the same treatment of artists remains unchanged even after the individual artist leaves the stage.
In years past, elaborate cultural festivities graced the Christmas and New Year’s seasons and much of them took place either at the Kendeja National Cultural Center, Behsao or the historic Providence Island in the heart of the capital where entire families spent countless hours enjoying cultural extravaganzas which included fine arts exhibits.
More so, with an inaugural celebration just around the corner, the momentum of it all would by now be resonating via the rhythms of Sasa, djembe and based-drums across the city in preparation for the pending occasion.
But this is not the case here. So far, it is unknown whether a single cultural performance was held in the capital by any group or individual during this gone Christmas and New Year’s Season, or those that preceded it since President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf came to power. Interesting as this may appear, neither the current Cultural Minister Jackie Karphat nor Liberia’s Cultural Ambassador, Julie Endee Tarpeh can recall the last time a National cultural festival took place in Liberia.
Moreover, as far as the pending inaugural celebration is concerned, this writer has learned that none of the country’s drama or cultural ballet dance groups has been contacted to provide entertainment for local and foreign guests expected at the January 16th program.
“It could be that they [government] have asked Julie Endee Crusaders to perform as usual,” said Mr. Victor Taylor who along with Kekura M. Kamara heads the Balawala-UNMIL peace-reconciliation sensitization program.
What is even more pathetic is the lack of a national cultural agenda since the closure of the National Cultural Bureau in early 1986 although, ironically, the country still maintains a cultural minister and a cultural ambassador whose private troupe known as “Liberia Peace Crusaders” is said to now play the role of the former Liberia National Cultural Troupe (LNCT).
And worse still, is the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government’s apparent consistency to discount the rich cultural heritage of the Liberian society. This is evident by the president’s 2008 awarding of the national cultural shrine of Kendeja to U.S. Billionaire, Robert Johnson in the name of INVESTMENT to build a four-star hotel resort with a promise to build a new center for members of the LNCT.
This faulty and hasty presidential deal has a life span of 50 years and will accordingly, put U.S. $800.000 annually in the coffers of a corrupt government. And as for the hotel construction, Liberia’s President Johnson Sirleaf’s longtime college schoolmate, Robert Johnson has already completed the facility which is now running smoothly under the same unique name KENDEJA.
Last year, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf while visiting her home region to carry on her voting registration questioned the role of traditional Zoes engaged in rituals in connection with a long standing land dispute, and suggested that disputes be handled by the legal systems.
In an interview with former TV presenter, the Director for Balawala International Production, Mr. Kekura Kamara, who is also a former Unity Party sympathizer, Mr. Kamara expressed disappointment at the lack of a national cultural troupe in the country.
“The current government continues to downplay our culture and that’s why I personally joined in the race so we can advocate for good policies that will build the country’s cultural image,” said Mr. Kamara. Unfortunately, Kamara who fought for Monrovia’s District #5 legislative seat on a CDC ticket did not win. Nevertheless, he insists, this isn’t the end of his vision for arts.
The more Ma Yatta Zoe reflects these activities that weakens Liberia’s national culture, the more she mourns Liberia’s folk writer Bai T. Moore plus two of the country’s former outstanding leaders in the persons of Pres. William V.S. Tubman and Dr. William R. Tolbert, all of whom she praised for their exceptional love for Liberian cultural artists.
It is apparently the same love for the arts that led young Yatta Zoe to sit in the presence of kings and queens, among them, late President, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the former Central African Republic at whose crowning ceremony she told me, she also performed.
Despite the odds, Ma Yatta still manages to go on with life day by day. During and after the war, not many knew the whereabouts of MaYatta, until Tim Nevin, an American professor and Historian working on his PhD dissertation discovered her near the River Maher in Tom’s village, Bomi County few years ago.
Because of Ma Yatta’s glorious past, whenever a journalist or press crew stops by the village, her compatriots know who the news crew is there to see. It’s Ma Yatta Zoe, a woman who has given so much to her country with little or no recognition.
What fascinated us most during two visits to meet this musical legend was the care and dignified manner she’s being treated by the local villagers. Though she lives alone in her little hut, her fellow villagers know where she is and what she’s doing at any given moment – whether in her garden or at her farm. Across from the main highway, a child or adult would gladly take your hands and lead you to Ma Yatta’s residence located in the far left end of the village with about a dozen huts.
During our last trip to see MaYatta recently, the village residents greeted us warmly again. Soon they surrounded us and began to sing Yatta’s old favorite debuts such as: “Send all the pocket pickers down to Belleh Yellah” and “Young girls stop drinking Lysol.”
After this impromptu festivity, Ma Yatta got set to lead our news crew to the country’s second oldest and largest cultural village, Behsao (Sao in Gola means “I’ve gotten it”) located in the Gola settlement in Western Liberia.
The visit was the result of my insistence during our first visit last November that the singer took my colleague, Musue Haddad and I to Behsao so we could see this iconic cultural village as well as its relics since none of us had been there before.
The trip was exhilarating as a visit to Arizona’s Grand Canyons, and we discussed a lot about the Liberia’s 16 original tribes; the loss of Kendeja for a hotel resort and what that meant; the need to honor many of those who have contributed to Liberia’s cultural development.
MaYatta suggested that government recognize the contributions of “Old lady” Gbessey Zinnah, a founding member of the former Liberian National Cultural Troup. “Ma Gbessey,” was name MaYatta referred to constantly as one of those who contributed immensely to the growth of Liberia’s culture. Ma Gbessey was one of the oldest cultural performer and teacher. She died a year ago in Monrovia while cultural officials at the Ministry of Information were still undecided over whether or not she merited a state honor. But thanks to the Liberian National Cultural Union for its farsightedness to honor Ma Gbessey few months before her passing.
“As for me…I want my flowers while I am still alive,” Ma Yatta chuckled as we drove pass her ancestral village of Gbanah Bondi which is very close to the home town of Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
As the journey progressed, it become evident that with all the odds before Ma Yatta Zoe at the moment, the most honorable thing she would love to see happen in her life time is to have the current government petitioned to transform Behsao into a vibrant national cultural center in place of Kendeja, since Kendeja is no more.
Elder Morris Beysolow, the oldest surviving resident of the cultural village and probably in his early 90s, agrees as he slowly takes us on a guided tour of the village and a few sacred sites. Among the sacred sites elder Beysolow took us to see included the grave of King N’Jola; a King in whose honor a small group of cultural dancers were name. The female traditional war dancers, “The Daughters of King N’Jola” backed Liberia’s folksinger Fatu Gayflor, and they were applauded for their striking performance.
Behsao is beautifully situated in the highland dotted with palm trees and swamps. Though a William Tolbert guest compound plus an open-air theater used to stage festivals are no more, an unfinished concrete museum in the form of palava hut being erected by the Interior Ministry stands pitifully in the center of the village. In front of this unfinished palava hut museum is the grave of the great warrior, King N’Jola.
At the center of village life here is the seasonal Polor and Sande Bush schools which are situated behind the high forests overlooking the village.
Passionate about cultural arts and entertainment, Yatta Zoe feels this village is an ideal spot for tourism and she urges the Liberian Government to turn it into the country’s national cultural center where residents could erect and exhibit symbolic homes and artifacts belonging to each original ethnic group of the country as they did at old Kendeja.