The New Kendeja, Symbol of a New Liberia
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
The event was full of symbolism. The site where the 5-star hotel now stands once housed the National Cultural Troop of Liberia that President William V. S. Tubman, grand father of Barkue, created in the early 1960s, to serve as a reservoir of national culture. It became a symbol of Liberian nation tapestry, melting in one pot traditions from every parts of the country. Young men and women came from remote villages to learn and practice many aspects of a culture that was being ghastly swallowed by modernism. The kids went to school and graduated from high school just any other child of the country, with the added advantage of having lived in a cultural environment where they learned to dance, sing, and practice many cultural acts that their peers were oblivious to.
For forty years, Kendeja became a repository of national cultural theory and practice until the 1989 war brought an abrupt end to all things. Like everything else, Kendeja fell into pieces. The artists fled, when they escaped the bullets of child soldiers. The children scattered in refugee camps in the region. Some of the dancers found their way to the US and became rolling entertaining troops for exiled Liberian communities. The center slowly fell into total disrepair. In 2004, we spent a week on the grounds filming a documentary. When we asked Boima, the director of the center at the time to bring in dancers and drummers for a performance, it took him three days to assemble enough people for the occasion. They were all scattered around the city, doing various things.
According to Boima, who was among the first group of youngsters to be brought in the center in 1965, the center had turned into a displaced camp during the war, with more than 15,000 people living in quarters built to accommodate a few hundreds. In the process, everything was looted, broken down and carried away. Lands around the camp were taken over by squatters who built mansions and could not be ejected. According to him, it would have been much easier to build a new modern center than try to revive the old one where he grew up. The same could be said about many structures. It would probably be easier and cost effective to build another Ducor Hotel than revive the old one. Of course, nostalgia can be costly…
When the current government decided to allow Robert L. Johnson to acquire Kendeja and build a new hotel, there was an outcry from many quarters. We found ourselves somehow ambivalent on the issue. Why specifically Kendeja and that site? Why not give Mr. Johnson a piece of land somewhere on the hundreds of miles of pristine of beach land of the nation? If he were providing $400,000 for the building of a new cultural center, why not use that money to renovate the old center and let him build something in Marshall? Why sell something that has such a national symbolic value?
The answer was economics. As anyone visiting the area can see now, more than half of the land that had been set aside for a cultural village has been encroached upon. Buying from dubious landowners during the years of instability, many people have built strong structures. Removing them and bulldozing their mansions would have taken more resources and time than it would to build a hotel on the remaining portion and provide the cultural center with a new space, away from squatters.
So it happened. Robert L. Johnson was given the right to build his hotel. There may have been a lack of candid information to the public on the part of government. Given the high level of attention given to the issue, the government should have made available to the public every aspect and step of the transfer of land, the new construction project and pay special attention with some sense of emergency to the plight of the artists and their children who were being removed. This institutional negligence forced the inhabitants of Kendeja to undertake disruptive actions before their plight could be taken into consideration. Government may have done its homework in one way finding investors, finding new land, finding new money and all but it failed where it mattered most: keep the public informed of what is attaining.
Robert L. Johnson who founded the first major Black entertainment television station in the US history is a known quantity in his country. He has the ability to change the image of Liberia in America just as he contributed in changing the image of Black entrepreneurship not only in the US but around the world. He has the naiveté and dedication of pioneers, who see every problem as a new stepping stone to forge forward. He can be that partner in America that Liberia has almost never had. During remarks at the opening ceremony, he said that he would endeavor to make sure that African-Americans establish with Liberia the same relationship Jews have with Israel. Can he? Would he? Will Liberians help him do it? It is a golden and historical opportunity to seize.
The inaugural ceremony was symbolic in many other ways. It brought to the front the big change that has gone on in Liberia and the challenges the country faces as it moves forward. Young dancers of the Kendeja cultural troop, after performing breathtaking moves, started to introduce themselves to the audience. An 11 year old girl said she wanted to be president of the republic when she grows up. Why not? “Ma Ellen,” her inspiration, was there sitting just a few feet away. Then came a tall, lanky young man who said he was 17 and was still in 5th grade. This dichotomy describes where the nation stands: the lingering challenges of the past and the hopes of the future. The dichotomy was not lost to President Sirleaf who cited the case of the young man as symbolic of the challenges facing the country and the problems many young people encountered in growing up during the years of war and instability.
The RLJ-KENDEJA-Resort & Villas is a first class hotel, like the ones in the Bahamas, Cannes or Tahiti. It has everything that the sophisticated international traveler or tourist looks for. Couched a few feet away from the Atlantic, with bungalows style rooms and apartments, it reflects what first class hospitality is supposed to be. The dancing stage, the bar and the swimming pool, all take us back to those places that we once in a while see in movies or in travel brochures. It is a great investment in a country that, just five years ago, was the poster child of failed statehood. May it serve as an attraction to business people and tourists, as a haven to our brothers and sisters of America looking for a foot hole on the continent.
Soon, may be, Bob Johnson will bring his friends and brothers of the African-American middle class on our shores, to spend some quality time and some money, and showcase this piece of American culture in Africa. We are talking about the Magic Johnsons, the Condoleezza Rice, the artists that Bob knows in numbers, the Bill Cosbys and the Michael Jordans. May be he can bring Oprah Winfrey around to be proud of and embrace her Liberian ancestry according to DNA tests. And may be, we could make that one historical movie that tells the story of Liberia, an American Enterprise on the African continent.
The cultural center that government promised to build will some day become a reality, sooner than later. An editorialist asked why the hotel was completed and the cultural center has yet to merge out of the ground. That is because government is not always as efficient as private capital.
As the new Liberia takes shape, nostalgia will have to give way to progress. The old Kendeja will become a multi-million dollar resort. The old UL would become the old campus, the old Executive Mansion a museum of presidential history. Nostalgia and progress don’t always go hand-in-hand. To embrace progress, Liberians will have to be less nostalgic.
The RLJ-KENDEJA-Resort & Villas points to a new direction for Liberia. More than a hotel, it is the symbol of things to come, if Liberians open their minds and hearts to progress. Of course, they will not have to lose their souls in the process.