Literary Education and Canon Formation:
The Liberian Experience
S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko, II
For the past fourteen years, the name ‘Liberia’ has been inextricably linked to warlords, war exportation and gunrunning in the west African subregion. These linkages, a result of the activities of the country’s leadership, made Liberia an international pariah and brought about the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations. Within the comity of nations, Liberia came to be viewed as a country that significantly contributed to the destabilization of the subregion through encouragement and support given to various armed groups that allegedly attacked Sierra Leone, ...view middle of the document...
Furthermore, research scholars interested in the field of creative literature and print culture in Africa will be stunned by the contributions made by this tiny country of 42,000 square miles. Henry Cole names the Liberia Herald, published in 1826, as the first newspaper to appear in sub-Saharan Africa.1 Liberia is also among the non-western countries in the world that have original scripts for their languages. Momolu Duwalu Bukele conceived the syllabary of the Vai language circa 1833.2
In 1891, Joseph Walters, a Liberian student at Oberlin College, Ohio, USA, published his Guanya Pau. Of this novel, University of Liberia professor K. Moses Nagbe wrote, “The Joseph Walters novel is history in itself . . . Guanya Pau is believed to be the first prose fiction in English to come out of Africa. It is also a forerunner novel on the theme of female assertiveness” (Nagbe 1).
From 1940-41, Liberia College, precursor of the University of Liberia, was perhaps the first institution of higher learning in Africa to establish a post graduate creative writing program. Liberia's Poet Laureate Roland Tombekai Dempster, who is to Liberia what Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) is to Great Britain, had this to say about the program: "The opportunity for Foreign Scholarship in those days being poor, the faculty of the college set up courses of study for post graduate work. Studying here from 1940, I completed this rigid discipline in 1941, receiving the Masters of Literature degree. The distinction was so outstanding that TIME MAGAZINE (May 4, 1942) reported it" (Dempster 70).
How come then, despite these hallmarks, this tiny west African country that is the oldest independent country in Africa and the second oldest independent black country on earth—the first being Haiti in the western hemisphere—has lagged behind other countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe in literary education, canon formation and literacy? What are the contributing factors? Has there ever been a period in Liberia's recent history in which some efforts were made to encourage creative writing, and subsequently, literacy?
This paper seeks to provide some basic answers to the queries above and to many others unasked. The paper will first give a broad analysis of how English literature and eventually African literature came into being. Secondly, the paper will critically analyze the reasons for the slow pace of literary education and low literacy rate in Liberia, which have stifled the growth of a creative writing class of authors that by now should have developed a literary canon distinct from the western canon. Thirdly, this paper will suggest ways by which literary education will be improved in Liberia.
The Emergence of English and African Literatures
Literary education is that body of knowledge that deals with creative writing and literature. It studies the genres of prose, drama and poetry as distinct specializations. In the field of literary education,...