In January 2012, as we drove pass her ancestral village of Gbanah Bondi on our way to the Behsao national cultural center located in Western Liberia Bomi County, Liberia’s former folk singer, Yatta Zoe said something that will stay in my memory for a lifetime.
“As for me…I want my flowers while I am still alive.” That was her statement in reference to a conversation about how most Liberians care less about giving recognition or celebrating the works of outstanding artists in the country.
Yatta Zoe’s comment was sparked by a conversation about Liberia’s legendry cultural artist,Ma Gbessey Kiazulu who died in Monrovia few years ago while still displaced. Old lady Gbessey’s home in Kenema not far from where the Liberian National Cultural Center was once situated (now home to Billionaire Bob Johnson’s Kendeja Hotel), got ransacked by looters and destroyed during the civil crisis.
Ma Gbessey Kiazulu, born into a traditional Gola family, devoted nearly her entire life to acting, singing and dancing for the Liberian National Cultural Troupe (LNCT) from its inception in 1964. Though she didn’t remember her age, “Ma Gbessey,” as she was affectionately known, is believed to have been the oldest performing cultural artist in the Republic of Liberia. But pathetically, she didn’t get to see that moment she had longed for in her life-acknowledgement for her hard work-by the MICAT/GOL before her death.
Since her death, the story of “Ma Gbessey” has lingered around like a cancer in remission but often resurfaces whenever Liberian artists are gathered for a cultural event; and the visit to Liberia’s second largest cultural village of Behsao presented one such occasion for Ma Yatta Zoe.
Now at 72, Yatta Zoe who rose to the peak of her musical career during the Tubman and Tolbert era, singing for and dinning with kings and queens fears similar fate. She expressed regret over the downward trend the country’s cultural heritage is heading under the current administration and insists “if people want to honor me, they should do so while I’m still alive,” an apparent reference to the government.
In what appeared to be an attempt to avoid a repeat of the Ma Gbessey episode, MICAT officials recently organized a hasty “Cultural Extravaganza” on the Providence Island in Monrovia in honor of the recent fallen legendry comedian, Peter Yarkpawolo Ballah just days after he was pronounced dead by the Du Side Hospital in Firestone. The GOL used the occasion to announce it would disburse the amount of $10,000.00 USD as its contribution toward the late artist’s funeral. The event, according to artists and ordinary citizens interviewed in Liberia attracted thousands of fans to the cultural icon.
While this attempt by the government deserves praises, it is only fair to note that MICAT’s move was belated. It should therefore be scorned by cultural lovers and all well-meaning people. In the same manner, it must be stated clearly that cultural supporters are not at all surprise by the authorities’ failure to honor the legendry comedian when he was alive. That’s because, the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has proven in every way to be the worst enemy to the country’s cultural heritage by its systematic destruction of cultural institutions and cultural relics spared by the war.
The late Peter Ballah, also known as “Flomo,” like “Ma Gbessey,” devoted more than half of his life promoting Liberian cultural heritage at home and abroad through drama, songs and various tribal dances. And whenever “Flomo” wasn’t busy managing the National Cultural Troupe, his focus was on “Our People, One People,” his private dramatic group he used to provide local audience with civic education through radio and TV geared toward building a wholesome society for all Liberians.
With such love for the arts plus the vigor with which the late Ballah pursued his dream to place Liberia on the world’s cultural map, many people see the GOL anti-cultural policies (and nothing is ever mentioned on culture during annual address) and persistent hostile attitudes toward cultural development as an affront to Peter Ballah’s dream. That is why it will be very difficult for the public to see any sincerity in the so-called “honor” conferred upon the late Ballah by the MICAT and the Liberian Government.
But just who was this man called Peter Yarkpawolo Ballah? The late Peter Ballah, a son of Lofa County and also Lorma, was by all accounts another genius of his own. His struggle to bring about Cultural Revolution to the entire African continent began way back even before the birth of the Kendeja national cultural center which American history professor Dr. Tim Nevin described as a “talent incubator” in his dissertation on the role of Liberian Musicians in the struggle for freedom and justice in Africa.
In the 50s and 60s, as the colonial era in Africa crumbled to an end, so were numerous challenges facing African nationalists, among them, the search for a true cultural identity that could rival the unwanted cultural baggage left behind by former colonial powers. And that’s when terms like “cultural emancipation” kicked in; and to the amazement and admiration of many people, the West African country of Guinea took the lead by sending its then newly created national ballet dance troupe, Ballet Des Africans all over Africa and the world where it displayed and celebrated the continent’s authentic rich cultures.
Amidst these developments, Liberia, which by sheer luckhad not suffered colonization during the dark period comfortably stood on the sidelines as sister countries worked vigorously to showcase their cultural dignities. At the time, there existed no cultural cohesion as it is today among the indigenous tribes of the country. And worst still, the repatriated free black slaves from the U.S. rarely had a culture of their own in practice to showcase; theirs was a painful history of slavery that haunted them. In fact, unfavorable cultural climate would lead to a foreigner, mainly a Haitian being the first to serve as director for the Liberian National C Troupe.
While repatriated former Black slaves who resettled in Liberia shy from discussing their bitter past, their cousins left behind in the U.S. often openly speak of the humiliation they endured with their parents in slavery in the U.S. And it goes beyond that. Each year in September, they gathered on Sapelo Island south of Savannah, GA once a slave station, to commemorate the struggles of their forefathers. During this cultural event, scores of slave descendant’s often clad in “overall” and long flowery dresses similar to those worn in the cotton fields, to mimic their grandparents. It’s a tearful sight and photography is completely prohibited.
However, back then in Liberia, the prevailing situation prompted people like the late Peter Ballah, Bai T. Moore, Jallah K.K. Kamara, Pastor Mother Dukuly; together with Khona Khasu who had been exposed to post-colonial cultural movements during their studies abroad to undertake similar activities at home. And their hard work together with those of other people eventually led to establishing the country’s first national cultural center of Kendeja.
This endeavor would lead all above five personalities to work with a Haitian named Roger Dorsinville who according to Dr. Nevin’s cultural research, served as first director for the LNCT then based in Kendeja in the early 60s. Others like Peter Ballah and Khona Khasu would later serve as second and third directors of the troupe after the late Pres. Tolbert dismissed reportedly Mr. Dorsinville due to unexplained reasons.
In this business to fight at all cost to put their country on the world’s cultural map, the two, Peter Ballah and Bai T. Moore became drawn together by their passion and love for Liberian indigenous culture so much so that Mr. Ballah would later insist, according to cultural sources that he be buried in Demen next to the tomb of his late brother in culture, Bai T. Moore, when he dies. Fortunately, this request was honored by the families of both men recently after Peter Ballah passed away.
After making an indelible footprint on the sands of Kendeja by taking the LNCT to numerous international cultural festivals and winning first and seconds places as well as trophies for Liberia, (the last of which was the 1984 LNCT-USA visit), the late Ballah decided to scale down his activities with the national troupe so that he would devote more time to his dramatic group, “Our People One people, “which was later named: Flomo Theater.
Throughout his exciting career as a comedian, the late Ballah proved to be idealistic and innovative and this phrase: Our People, One People” should serve as an example which could easily pass for a national reconciliation theme at this time in the country’s endless search for peace and reconciliation.
In whatever activities found himself engaged in with people, the late Ballah always gave his best! He was always ready to explore new frontier with no limit in sight! In the process, he and his dramatic group took on hot topics that some of their counterparts won’t dare pick on be it cheating in school, or just pure discrimination against Mandingoes as practiced by Liberian immigration officers at checkpoints along the highways.
Though Flomo Theater’s radio and TV dramas may not have succeed in eradicating such vices altogether from the Liberian society as evident by last years’ public flogging of an Imam in Karnplay, Nimba by immigration offices, however, the group’s timely move to voice out such mistreatment and negative perception held by some against a group of Liberians, at least added a Band-Aid to a gaping wound at least for some time.
To the late Ballah, there were no limits to where arts should take place even in war! Caught stranded across the dreadful Taylor led NPFL rebel lines with a handful of his Flomo Theater casts in 1990; he went straightly into business after seeing that the war has turned into a tribal genocide. With his few stranded members, some of whom were Sarpo, Krahn and Mandingo (presumed NPFL targets), the late Ballah developed a war drama called “No one decides his tribe,” a play that was meant to dissuade the lawless Taylor fighters from killing innocent civilians on the basis of tribal linkage.
From the Western Liberian cultural village of Behsao where they were stranded, the late Ballah and his casts performed this drama till they got close to the Liberia-Sierra Leone Bo Waterside border from where incidentally, all managed to crossed into Sierra Leone, according to one of the casts, Isabella Wreh-Fofana who goes by the nickname Saybah.
Determined to play a pivotal role in stopping the carnage, Ballah is said to have returned to Liberia in 1991 with some of his members who fled with him. Eventually, it didn’t take too long when chaos erupted again as a result of the Taylor-Kromah led April 6, 1996 Monrovia streets war which forced them to flee the country, this time to the Ivory Coast.
From the time of my first encounter with the late Peter Ballah in 1982 as a dancer and actor for the Liberian Cultural Ambassadors, I found him to be one who strives for excellence in the arts. And what should be made clear is that he was one of the best critics of cultural films in the country. There was no film repertoire too good to be criticized by him and that set him apart from many of his peers.
In the late 80s, after the nation’s popular Malawala-Balawala dramatic group made its groundbreaking debut title: The Cassava Bag, the late Ballah managed to reach me after he read my news article which praised Balawala’s comedy, a play that centered on cheating.
“I’ve been reading your stories about the Cassava Bag but you need to come and see what we [Flomo Theater] are doing,” he suggested.
He told me that if his group were to develop a drama like Malawala’s La La or Cavassa Bag that tend to raise moral questions about tricking and cheating of one’s partner, they [Flomo Theater] would make sure to add a good moral virtue to the story end in order to form a complete story. This, for Ballah was necessary because, to him, our Liberian society is so gullible that people are fast at copying the negative aspect of things more than the positive side; in such a case, he maintained, one has to present the entire “package” or the full story.
There are just so many things for which both Liberians and foreigners will always remember Ballah. Some will remember him in pre-war drama such as “House Boy” otherwise,“Flomo in Monrovia,” a drama which leaves an unskilled adult living in a big city with no choice but forced to sell cool-aid in order to survive. Others may remember him for post-war drama like “No One Decides His Tribe” or better still; the group’s other drama that urges relatives of ex-combatants from taking reprisal against their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who were forced to fight for various rebel armies thereby committing heinous crimes against humanity. Yet, most will remember Flomo’s “News in Brief,” an episode which metaphorically depicts him as a TV anchorman, broadcasting news in his underpants-another of his many satires.
The late “Flomo” played his part so well before leaving us. Yet, contemporary Liberian musical and cultural arts are still faced with numerous challenges. And there’s no secret that the present Johnson-Sirleaf led government will go down in history as the anti-cultural regime which oversaw the systematic breakdown of Liberian cultural institutions including the historic national cultural center of Kendeja that the late Peter Ballah worked hard to build and preserve.
As is usually the case when great people die, great speeches were also delivered during the funeral rites over the remains of this cultural icon both in Monrovia and Demen. However, the real deal now is identifying real people who will remain committed and determined to foster the late Ballah’s legacy not by merely promoting the arts, but fight to revive the current state of cultural degradation caused by anti-cultural elements in the Liberian society. That’s indeed the real deal!