Mama Monrovia's Fictive Tales

by Sheyi Oriade

Anyone who enjoyed the privilege, or suffered the peril, of having to attend boarding school as part of the process of receiving a secondary education, may recall with good humour, certain episodes which occurred after hours to lighten the mood and provide relief to boarders from the drudgery and homesickness which occasionally beset them during their long periods of confinement within the walls of strict educational establishments, to which they had been consigned, by parents desirous of producing well rounded, educated, and disciplined children, albeit through vicarious means.

One such episode took place at a girls’ boarding school several years ago and, was told to me by someone who witnessed it. It relates to an unscheduled visit by a certain woman to the school one evening during prep period. The woman in question had somehow managed to evade the attentions of the school’s security man and found her way to classrooms where girls were busy studying. She apologised to the girls for interrupting their prep period, claiming and complaining that her pitiful circumstances compelled her to do so.

As her tale went, she claimed to be from Monrovia, Liberia, which according to her, was in the throes of a horrific armed conflict from which she had barely managed to escape. Her family members were less fortunate and had perished in the conflict. She was now destitute in a land not her own. So she was appealing to the girls to help her in whatever way they could, but preferably through gifts of money, edible provisions, and clothing items.

Given the impressionability of the girls, it never once occurred to them that the woman’s tale could be a fabrication cut from whole cloth. Believing what they were told, they dispersed dutifully to their respective dormitories to gather what they could, spreading the word to other girls along the way, who were equally touched and taken in by the tale. Within a short time they had all returned to the meeting point laden with edible provisions, clothes, and money.

At the sight and size of bounty collected on her behalf, the woman was overcome with emotion. She decided that one good turn was deserving of another. And so she proceeded to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving in benediction over the girls. Her prayers, she assured them, would not only invoke God’s favour upon them, but provoke him into crowning their academic endeavours with success. Her decision was to prove a tactical error.

She began to pray and sway in flamboyant fashion, indulging in sanctimonious repetition, eliciting full throated responses of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ from the girls. The otherwise tranquil night, began to resound with echoes of her pretentious pious outpourings, which travelled as far as the school principal’s residence and ears.

Upon hearing these echoes, the principal set about discovering their origins. Before long she had established the source and was on the scene demanding an explanation. One of the more senior girls present stepped forward and narrated what had happened up to that point and then pointed to the woman in an act of identification, referring to her respectfully, as Mama Monrovia. Immediately, the principal walked towards Mama Monrovia to confront her. She began to tremble violently, for reasons which were about to become clear. It turns out that each woman had recognised the other, and the principal exclaimed in horror:

‘Ah, Morenike, you spawn of the devil, you mean you are still up to your old tricks, after all these years’?

It transpires that Mama Monrovia was actually Morenike from Monatan a district in Ibadan, and had a reputation for being expert at fleecing, and then fleeing from, impressionable school girls. That fateful evening she ran out of luck and was promptly dispatched to the local police station. She was not to be seen in that school ever again. Nonetheless, Mama Monrovia achieved folklore status and the encounter with her was often retold as a cautionary tale to impressionable new girls.

Memories of the tale came flooding back to me recently, when I stumbled upon a profile in Time Magazine proclaiming President Jonathan one of the hundred most influential people in the world. My first impression was to think that the West through Time was up to one of its old tricks of flattering to deceive us in order to pick our pockets; aware as they are, of how much are leaders value their approval.

On closer inspection, however, I was surprised to discover that the profile, on which the nomination was based, was the handiwork of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. At which point, I could not resist thinking that Mama Monrovia had struck again, spinning a whole new tale. A tale predicated upon premises producing conclusions few Nigerians could identify with.

Reproduced below is the actual profile produced by President Sirleaf on President Jonathan in Time Magazine:

‘Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan exemplifies the African political renaissance at a time when the people of the continent are starting to reap the fruit of their resources and their hard work. President Jonathan, 54, possesses the qualities needed at this moment of great challenges, having come to power at a crucial moment in the history of Nigeria. The country has grown out of its past of corruption, mismanagement and brutality, but the foundation of good governance is still fragile.

In two short years, President Jonathan has shown the same dexterity he demonstrated as governor of Bayelsa, the same ability to find the remedies to the many complexities of running a nascent democracy. He has spearheaded the fight against corruption and turned Nigeria into an example of good governance. He has also made a significant impact on consolidating peace and security in West Africa. From the onset of our own crisis, Liberia has benefitted from the support of Nigeria. President Jonathan not only upheld the trend but added to it. With leaders like President Jonathan, Africa is sure to move toward prosperity, freedom and dignity for all of its people.’

Reading through the above, the first sentence of the first paragraph throws up a number of moot points. Can a political renaissance be said to be taking place in Africa at present? If so, is President Jonathan an exemplar of it? And if there isn’t a renaissance taking place, then he can’t possibly exemplify it. And are ordinary Africans really reaping the benefits of their resources and industry? Perhaps, they are in Liberia and Ghana, but I doubt so in Nigeria. The validity of the second sentence of the same paragraph remains to be proven. We watch with interest to determine that it is indeed the case, and we most certainly hope that it is, otherwise we are in much deeper trouble than we think. The formulation of the third sentence is entirely baffling, as it conveys on the one hand a proposition which is entirely false and, then seeks on the other, to validate it by wedding it to one which is not, as if they are logical concomitants.

The first sentence of the second paragraph is revelatory. We must study our president better. It is not inconceivable that he is possessed of the dexterity which President Sirleaf ascribes to him, but we would like to see it more in action dissolving and resolving our many critical national challenges. Without wanting to sound cynical, Nigeria is yet to witness any meaningful reformation or transformation of its government’s processes.

The second sentence of this paragraph is entirely problematic and does not bear any kind of scrutiny. Are we really expected to accept this premise as valid? Or is such acceptance, only expected of the Editors of Time Magazine? One wonders whether her knowledge of Nigeria transcends her brief stays at the presidential lounge of Abuja International Airport; or the time she spends travelling in Nigerian presidential limousines looking th

rough rose tinted windows; or the time spent reposing in the opulence of Aso Rock. She seems to reference an entirely different Nigeria to the one which most Nigerians are familiar with.

The actuality and factuality of the premises in her third and fourth sentences of the second paragraph are supportable and present no difficulty. The premise of the final sentence is futuristic and, therefore, debatable. The last word on this will be voiced by Nigerians, and perhaps other Africans, when they come to assess the effectiveness of his presidency and decide, whether or not, a replication of it elsewhere in Africa, will ensure the attainment of the prosperity, freedom, and dignity that Madam Sirleaf asserts.

There can be little doubt about the fact that well meaning Nigerians would like for their president to be regarded as influential within and without of our national borders, but only on a proper basis. Such a basis will necessitate the president enthroning standards of probity and accountability as crucial hallmarks of his government. This must be aligned to a proactive eschewal of corruption on his part, which puts an end to the preferential and deferential treatment of the corrupt in our society.

To fail to do so, will render nonsensical any self-serving and flattering nominations or citations published in the international media by the likes of President Sirleaf. Such entries will be viewed by Nigerians with scepticism and regarded as being as credible as the testimony of Mama Monrovia recounted above.

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