Saturday, 12 October 2013

Liberia - Three Questions

In keeping with my new 'strand' of research, I have done a quick Google Instant test on Liberia - to see what kind of questions people are asking about this West African country.  The questions people ask are sometimes quite predictable, to be honest, although I guess the following questions are probably quite relevant to anyone who is learning about Liberia for the first time.

Do Liberians speak English?

This seems to be one of the most popular questions generally, if you type Do (nationality) . . . into Google.  We seem to be a bit of obsessed about whether or not the rest of the world speaks English and I guess this type of question reveals a deep-rooted awareness (or even phobia?) of our own monolingualism. 

The Vai script of Liberia
There is a psychological condition called xenoglossophobia or Foreign Language Anxiety - which I'd imagine is a pretty genuine condition for many people trolling the Internet!  I think I have the opposite condition - xenoglossophilia - ie. love of foreign languages. 

I've lost count of how many languages I've started to learn and I'd like to think I can speak four languages reasonably well (my native language is English, but I also speak/know Irish, French and Russian)

And in answer to the question - well . . . kind of - English is the official language of Liberia although many people, especially outside the capital, speak English as a kind of creole, which might be difficult for non-Liberian English speakers to understand. 

Actually, there are more than 30 languages spoken in Liberia - including Mande languages like Kpelle and Vai (which has its own script) and some of the main Kru languages, like Bassa and Grebo.  To learn more about African linguistics, have a look at my blog post about Togo

Does Liberia have oil?

Protest sign by Toban Black
Another Western obsession!  Well, there are many oil-producing countries in the world, but Liberia isn't one of them.  In fact, West African countries in general aren't big producers of oil, with the exception of Nigeria and Cameroon. 

Nigeria produces more oil than Norway or Azerbaijan, which I found surprising, until I remembered having read about the environmental and human rights issues between Shell and the people who live in the Niger Delta. 

It's probably better not to have oil, as oil seems to bring trouble and, given Liberia's recent past, trouble is something the Liberian people could do without!

Are Liberians American citizens?

I was a little bit surprised by this question and why so many people might think that Liberians are American (I presume they mean US) citizens?  Liberians are not US citizens, although they do have a long history with the United States and, as I mentioned in my first blog post, Liberia was established by an American society to repatriate freed black (African) slaves from the United States. 

You might have noticed that the Liberian flag looks remarkably like the flag of the United States - also, Liberia is one of only two countries in the world whose capital is named after a US President (James Monroe - Monrovia).  And the other country is?  You guessed it . . . the United States (George Washington - Washington D.C.)

Flag of the United States of America
I think it's fair to say their relationship with the US is still important to Liberians today.  Until fairly recently, the US was by far the biggest donor of aid to Liberia, although this has now changed and the EU and UK have given most aid to Liberia in recent years.  I wrote quite a bit about 'Aid' when I was blogging about Togo - if you want to read more, just click here

Despite their close relationship, the United States government refused to recognise Liberia as a country during its first 15 years as an independent nation.  And the reason?  Well, according to Tim Butcher in his marvellous book Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit (2011) - the thought of having to accept a 'coloured' Liberian diplomat in Washington D.C. was too much for a racially-charged nation that was soon to tear itself apart over the issue of slavery, during the American Civil War. 

Image credits: 

The image of Vai script is from Wikimedia commons and in the public domain, as is the image of the United States flag.

The picture of the protest placard is from flickr user Toban Black who is from Canada.  You can see more of Toban's work on his blog

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