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Special Feature

Inauguration Leads to a Cultural Rebirth

This isn’t America’s Eddie Murphy type of comedy where the scenes are set in an imaginary African kingdom, where a supposedly powerful king known as “King of Zamuza,” with plenty of servants, stunningly bring leopard and lion skins to the Western world.

Not that kind of Hollywood comedy movie. This time, it was former first lady Madam Jewel Howard Taylor, fully clad in a leopard skin outfit. The animal skin is an award Mrs. Jewel Taylor received recently from elders living in Liberia’s central region of Sanoyea, Bong County, a place where the root of great people such as the ancient Liberian “female-warrior” Madam Suakoko and US. Multi-billionaire, Talk Show host Opera Winfrey has been traced.

The recipient of the Madam Suakoko Honorary Award, Mrs. Taylor, a senator for Bong, originally hails from lower Lofa County’s Zorzor District, a place with similar heroine stories as Madam Suakoko’s. As Mrs. Taylor walked majestically alongside the president on a red carpet headed for the podium during inauguration, a detachable dried leopard skin stretched across her chest with a dangling tail drew attention from everyone present.

The history behind the wearing of leopard skin by both sexes in Africa is rooted in tradition; it goes to say that powerful rulers such as kings, queens, or emperors in ancient time added leopard skin to their outfit as a way to symbolize greatness in such manner that leopard also rules over the animal kingdom.

It further states that it was very rare to see a woman sporting a leopard skin-fashioned dress in ancient days. But whenever that happened, that person had to be a woman worthy of trust, good character and a symbol of hope and inspiration for her people and generation as well as her country. An example of such character is the legendry Madam Suakoko who, according to oral historical accounts, fought to protect her native Kpelle and their culture against outside forces.

It is therefore for this and many more reasons that the citizens of Bong County over the years combed through the length and breadth of this republic in search for a match equal to Madam Suakoko so as to confer this unique title upon that individual. It turned out that Jewel Howard Taylor who ranks high among several great Liberian women became the best choice for the title, “Madam Suakoko.” Bong elders recently bestowed upon her, this honor at an elaborate traditional ceremony in central Liberia.

This title and honor come with a leopard skin to be worn by the recipient at special events, whether Western or traditional as a symbol of that person’s popularity and greatness among her people.

In real life, the woman, Madam Taylor, is herself a typical traditional woman. Whether on an ordinary or official working day, Jewel Howard Taylor can be seen often sporting everything African-from a typical African hair braids decorated with shells to African made necklaces, wrist and ankle bracelets.

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For the just ended inauguration which ushered Liberia’s “Iron Lady” into her second term, it should be one’s guess what Mrs. Taylor chose for the occasion.  She surprised local and foreign guests with a special in African female attire and hair braids that date far back in Kpelle-Lorma cultural history; a locally woven dress embroiled with stars and other elements complimented by a leopard skin.

In addition, Mrs. Taylor brought alive a special Sande hair braids called “Zeebligee” mainly seen among the Lorma and Kpelle ethnic groups of Liberia usually during ritual ceremonies or the graduation of Sande girls from the bush school.

Perhaps Jewel’s most memorable moment was when she removed her shoes and joined female traditional dancers to dance during the inaugural dinner at the Capitol Building after she presented a gift to Pres. Sirleaf upon Madam Sirleaf’s historic inauguration.

For President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, culturally speaking, she failed to impress cultural lovers and traditionalists after they discovered that Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had not mention anything about Liberian Culture in her inaugural speech, a clear manifestation that Sirleaf’s Government lacks a “Cultural Agenda” for the country. Even a second speech, “The State of the Nation” address delivered by Pres. Sirleaf on the seventh day after her inauguration, equally failed to mention a thing about the preservation of our cultural life. 

President Sirleaf’s move to sell Kendeja to a U.S. Billionaire for a luxurious hotel business few years ago brought endless criticism to her government.  Cultural lovers described her action as an affront to Liberian cultural heritage and demanded she back off from the deal. The “Iron Lady” however stood her ground. As a result, more than a hundred members of the former Liberian National Cultural Troupe were hastily evacuated from the premises with nowhere to go in order to give way for the hotel construction.

Meanwhile, critics argued that nothing in both speeches seems new; that the two speeches lacked cultural programs for this war battered country where 15, out of a total of 16 ethnic groups are deeply attached to their African cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, President Sirleaf had vowed at the start of her first term to vigorously pursue the path to healing the wounds of the war. She further promised she would do all within her power to stamp out corruption which is largely responsible for the backwardness of the country. But she failed. Now in the face of a “renewed zeal” couple with new promises to do better, critics sees her shortcomings as a little more of a joke.

Political analysts spoken to, think reconciliation and the eradication of corruption in this post-war country are key factors to the achievement of true peace and stability for Liberia. With no exception, Pres. Sirleaf and most of her cabinet ministers have been blamed for the high wave of corruption in her government. Some citizens have accused her of rewarding those guilty of economic fraud with new post in her government instead punishing them. Thus, many view her latest pronouncement on reconciliation and anti-corruption as mere rhetoric.

A foreign aid worker stationed in Southeastern Liberia described the situation as “Transparency without accountability.” It remains though to be seen whether Pres. Sirleaf will turn rhetoric into reality this time around.

As for the fashion world, particularly African, forget it! It’s her “area” like the Liberian musicians would say. Beginning 2005 when she got elected as president her dress pattern showed Pres. Sirleaf has a strapping taste for the kind of striking dress-suite common among Ghanaian and Nigerian women. It’s an outfit that normally carries an extra shoulder piece with a matching fabulous hair-tie worth worn by a king’s spouse.

For the inauguration, Pres. Sirleaf wore a gray-purple like suite embedded with sparkling rhombuses with matching shoes and a pearl necklace that befit a president. And it’s this type of unique African attire that has brought pride not only to her country, Liberia, but also to African women in general, thereby adding prestige to the office of the president of the Republic of Liberia.

A bi-weekly Liberian paper, The Uptown Review published by Liberian-US. based Author/Writer Nvasekie N. Konneh, last year featured Madam Sirleaf for her glamorous African style fashion.

“Fashion is one area her critics will agree on even if they disagree with every other matters relating to her administration” said Kaba, 39, and a former Sociology student.

And then there was Madam Kartumu Boakai, the wife of Vice President Joseph Boakai whose unique locally woven attire also added color to the occasion which was attended by numerous African heads of states along with high-ranking officials from friendly countries, among them, US. Secretary of state Hilary R. Clinton. Madam Boakai’s attire is locally known as “Country cloth.” Her attire matched those worn by her beloved husband during the occasion.

Mrs. Boakai and Vice President Boakai come from Lofa County, a part of the country known for higher production of rice, the country’s staple food prior to the civil war. The locally woven “Country cloth” worn by both is rarely found these days in Liberia; and if at all you spot one, chances are, it could come from Lofa, one of few places in the country where young boys are still being groomed to become traditional fabric weavers and blacksmiths.

An army of cultural, musical and dramatic groups participated in the inaugural festivities on Capitol Hill as spectators watched a full display of traditional dances from various ethnic groups as well as acrobatic maneuvers by kids as young as five-year old. The University of Liberia national chorus comprised of ULAA members, stunned the crowd with a special song “Geeo-nii-kron” meaning in Kru, “Leopard is in town,” a metaphor that portrays Pres. Sirleaf as the “rooster” over the opposition in the country.

A ULAA member of the UL chorus group based in the US, Mr. Charles Russell told this writer as he set up equipments for another performance on the main campus last week that his group sang the song for late Liberia’s Pres. Samuel Doe, William Tolbert as well as the former dictator Mobutu SeSe Seko Congo, formerly Zaire. 

In all, there were 10 cultural troupes (excluding musical groups), out of a total of 12 registered by the Liberian Cultural Union and the Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism in the country. The latest inauguration, according to one artist, is the first event in many years that saw the participation of nearly all of the cultural troupes in Liberia.

Throughout her first term, most local cultural leaders including solo-artists persistently accused Pres. Sirleaf’s Government officials at the Ministry of Information for marginalizing them whenever there is a crucial national event such as inauguration or an international travel associated with Liberia’s cultural image-building abroad.

Though unclear, some cultural lovers believed a recent critical cultural piece entitled “FACE TO FACE WITH YATTA ZOE” authored by this writer and published in two local dailies may have spurred the latest gesture which apparently led Ma Yatta Zoe, a forgotten Liberian cultural icon and former folksinger to participate in the inaugural festivities held in Monrovia. 

A cultural official says a source, described the post-inaugural era as a “new beginning” and a “time for dialogue and reconciliation,” promising to bring all the cultural groups of the country together.

By James Kokulo Fasuekoi/MF Media Consultancy, Inc.

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