I thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir by Helen Cooper, an “Americo-Liberian” who grew up as a privileged child in one of Liberia’s elite families in the 1970s and whose world changed forever with the 1980 coup. I have heard some criticism of the book for supposedly presenting a biased view of Liberia, but I liked it – for someone who is new to Liberia, it is a good introduction to the country’s history and culture. And, regardless of the setting, it also happens to be a well written memoir which is at times heart-breaking and other times entertaining.
I learned a lot of interesting facts about Liberia from reading this book. Early on in the book, Cooper explains the use of the terms “Congo” people and “country” people. For those who know their geography, it may seem odd to hear Congo in Liberia, since Liberia is nowhere near the Congo River. But there is story behind it. Congo is the label given by native Liberians to the freed American slaves that arrived by ship and settled in Liberia in 1822. But why?
Well, around the same time these freed blacks were arriving from America, Britain – which had abolished the slave trade in 1807 – was dutifully patrolling the coast of West Africa and seizing slave ships. The Brits would free the slaves on board and then proceed to dump them in Sierra Leone or Liberia (even if they didn’t come from there originally, which most of them hadn’t).
Since many of those illegal slave ships came to sea from the mouth of the Congo River, the native Liberians referred to the freed African slaves as Congo people. The freed African American slaves just happened to be arriving in Liberia around the same time, and while they looked very different from the freed African slaves (most of the Americo-Liberians being light-skinned mulattoes), all newcomers simply became known as Congo People. In turn, the Congo people called indigenous Liberians country people. This Congo / country divide formed the basis of many problems to come.