On February 4, 1857, Mary Mickey, a former slave from Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote a letter to her former master about her journey to Liberia and her impression of the new country she would now call home: “It affords me great pleasure to have this opportunity to address a letter to you. In the midst of danger & death, while we could discern nothing above, & around us but the blue canopy of heaven, & under us the deep, deep blue sea, we were Providentially cared for, and bless to reach this our destined port, Monrovia. I am much pleased with this place indeed, Monrovia is nearly as large as Charlotsville and has some fine houses in it. The people here are very genteel. I thought to find things different, and that we would have to enlighten the people, but I find that we need teaching ourselves…For myself, I would not go back to America no how.”
Mary’s impassioned quest to live her life unfettered by the shackles of racial oppression that drove her away from her former country is conspicuous but, that notwithstanding, she and many others like her who immigrated to Liberia were no sooner confronted with the prodigious challenges littering the paths of new immigrants: Dealing with the cultural shock of a new society; finding shelter and a means to sustain their livelihoods; and assimilating into the societal schemata of the indigenous inhabitants. And, Liberia’s history, which cast an indubitable shadow over its present, is one fraught with the efforts — some noble and others not so noble — of Liberia’s African American founders, not unlike Mary, to settle in their new country.
Land of My Fathers, a novel by Liberian author, Vamba Sherif, is a tour de force literary journey back to those incipient years of Liberia’s nationhood through to its recent history that not only breathes life and vitality into the story of these would-be African American nation-builders as they negotiated their way around their new home but, with what is certainly a most enthralling addendum, it places the lives of Liberia’s indigenous inhabitants front and center by giving them a voice and paying homage to their cultural and religious beliefs, rather than relegating them to a diminished role as is the case in most tellings of Liberia’s evolution as a nation.
And, though the narrative surrounding the assimilation of Liberia’s African American founders with the indigenous population is hardly one that always had a harmonious denouement, Vamba’s Land of My Fathers doesn’t focus on rehashing the inharmonious. Rather, it is a story about genuine friendship, mutual respect and love between an Americo Liberian, as the settlers became known, and an indigenous character that stood the test of time. It is truly a story about what was possible and what could be for his country, Liberia.
Land of My Fathers…radiates with the narrative hues of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’…
Told through the lives of Edward Richards, a former slave, who immigrates to Liberia after obtaining his freedom to pursue his long-lost lover, Charlotte, and a Liberian villager named Halay who, even as a child was rather precocious and seemed set apart by the ancestors for a special purpose, Land of My Fathers is a multigenerational story woven together with the thematic threads of exile, acceptance and assimilation, and finding a home away from home. Incidentally, these themes also have a profound currency apropos to prevailing world events which galvanizes Land of My Fathers with an uncanny relevancy, despite its dealing of those themes through a historical looking glass.
After arriving in Liberia, Edward, a preacher by profession, decides to travel to the interior of the country to spread the Christian gospel. There, he meets and befriends Halay, who is the son of the village chief. Edward soon starts a school to educate the village children and, to become fully assimilated into the village society, he is initiated into its revered esoteric organization. Halay, on the other hand, marries his childhood sweetheart, Miatta, and they soon have a son together as he becomes the chief-in-waiting. But, the peace of their parochial lives is soon upended by the incessant shrieks of the town crier announcing that war was imminent. And, when all means to avert the war prove futile, it would require a messianic act by Halay to end the threat.
But, many years later, when the villagers turned away from honoring the ancestral spirits that had watched over them for generations, their village is overtaken by war. Desperate to find solace from war, Edward and Halay’s descendants again come together and through the mysterious intervention of the ancestral spirits, the war is finally ended.
Land of My Fathers is a novel pulsating with African spiritualism rooted in a belief in the power of ancestral spirits to intervene in the lives of the living that radiates with the narrative hues of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’: former slaves trying to exert their humanity unshackled by the oppression of slavery and the mysterious capacity of the dead to hold sway over the living.