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What Could LTI Teach The Nation About Tolerance, Unity And Diversity?

By: G. Yanquoi Lavela, Esq.*
Doctor of Jurisprudence

In the fall of 1965, as a young and impressionable teenager, I arrived at the campus of the Lutheran Training Institute, affectionately known simply as “LTI”, with a suitcase in my hands that my grandfather had given me, which contained all my essential supplies of bath soaps, towels, toiletries, a few items of clothing, and nothing more. And there sat before my unbelieving eyes, a nondescript Lutheran operated high school in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched in the swampy valleys between the foggy foothills, with a sprawling landscape, just on the outskirts of the sleepy little town of Salayea, enveloped in the solemn peace and decorum of a Benedictine monastery. This was to be my new home away from home. Here, I was to spend the next four years, punctuated by short summer breaks, and engaged in a grueling, unrelenting and rigorous mental gymnastics with other carefully selected students from all across Liberia and from every ethnic group based on merit. LTI at that time and before then, was the “Harvard” of Liberian high schools, comparable only to “CWA” – The College of West Africa – located in the heart of the Capital City of Monrovia - that is owned and operated by the Methodist Church. Both schools have been in existence and preparing the minds of young Liberians for leadership and all professional disciplines for more than 150 years dating back to the mid-1800s. This was my freshman year in 1967. The school accepted no transfers or “rejects” from other high schools. The Lutheran faculty had determined that they needed four solid years to mold every student into the Judaeo-Christian model of the “virtuous man or woman” of the universe to go out and change the world for the better. Hence, one had to begin from the beginning as a freshman, or from 9th grade through 12th grade, because of the rigid four-year core curriculum of studies that every student was required to endure, including Latin, French, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Home Economics, World History, Geography, Library Science, Theology, starting with “General Science”, for incoming Freshmen. And, yes, Typing Class also, to learn how to type “Term Papers” and “book reports” every semester from Sophomore to Senior Class. Books that were required Freshmen and sophomore readings were Jack London’s: “Call Of The Wild (1903)”; Mark Twain’s: “Huckleberry Finn (1884)”; Charles Dickens’: “Tale of Two Cities (1859); Mark Twain’s: “The Prince and The Pauper (1881)”; Herman Melville’s: “Moby Dick (1851)”; Sir Walter Scott’s: “Ivan Hoe”; George Eliot’s: “Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe”; James Fenimore Cooper’s: “The Last Of The Mohicans”; etc., etc. And to share my experiences of this era of my life , don’t you know that I made my children read all of these books in addition to their regular school work back in the day when they were kids? Of course I did. And they didn’t like it. Not one bit. I was their dinosaur that they would rather soon leave behind rattling down in the corridors of time and oblivion.

Like every other freshman student who entered there, prior to my arrival at LTI in 1965, I had gone to other schools, from elementary through junior high, attended almost exclusively by members of my own ethnic group, who spoke the same tribal language and shared the same cultural values as I did. But that quickly changed when I met my fellow incoming freshmen that year at LTI, who spoke nothing that I spoke but English as a common language, and vice versa. They were from every geographic region of Liberia and from every ethnic tribe, such as the Gola, Bassa, Krahn, Gio, Mande, Kissi, Mano, Kpelle, Grebo, Kru, Loma, Mandingo, “Congo People”, or the ethnically neutral descendants of slaves but self described Americo-Liberians. Naturally, the initial social atmosphere among the incoming freshmen was one of tense trepidation, unhealthy suspicions one about another, preconceived notions, or hate and fear of others different from us. But the Lutheran school administrators were not unmindful of this undercurrent of social unease based their knowledge and understanding of the social and political history of Liberia. And so they put in place what I call “enforced socialization” policies that governed every aspect of student life, from random dormitory room assignments, to careful dining table seating arrangements, and a “tap dance rule”, that required a student to politely step aside and let another student dance with your boyfriend or girlfriend on “Social Nights”, if he or she but gently “taps” you on the shoulders in the middle of a dance on the dance floor to signal his or her desire to dance with your partner. And to get a better sense of every student’s professional aspirations in life, each incoming freshman student was required to write an autobiographical essay in the school’s newspaper, “The LTI Spokesman”, setting forth how the student wanted their education from LTI to shape their future. And, of course, as an aviation enthusiast, I wrote that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, because it was the year before in 1966 that NASA had its astronauts perform the first “Extra-Vehicular Activity“ or exiting the space craft and walking in space. But the social circumstances of my country compelled me to study law many years later in order to advance social justice in my country, very much in the tradition of the famous American Negro Civil Rights lawyer and renowned jurist, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, using the existing legal system to transform Liberian society without firing a shot at anyone. Another very good friend of mine even to this day wrote that he wanted be a “Newspaperman”. And he would later go on to become editor of one the nation’s respected newspapers, get his Ph.D in mass media studies and to later retire as a seasoned diplomat, because the exigencies of our country can sometimes force many of us to change course from selfish career pursuits to doing what is presently required to uplift our nation. Trapped in the swampy valleys between those foggy foothills on LTI, and having nowhere else to escape until summer vacation, we learned how to tolerate, love and care for one another, irrespective of tribal affiliation or ethnic identities. In many ways we were the microcosm of the future of the Liberia of the future to be, and what a multi-ethnic nation living in harmony should look like. Our love for one another was not superficial. It was, and still continues to be, very deep and real, as if our umbilical cords were tied together as one family. During the one and a half years that I was fortunate to have spent there, before transferring in the second semester of 1968 to MCSS (Monrovia Consolidated School Systems), under the legendary principalship of Mr. Arthur Nanu Manley, there was a tragic incident that galvanized and put on full public display our mutual love for one another as a student body, which vividly still stands out in my mind today, as if it just happened yesterday, even after 53 years.

It is one Saturday morning in the first semester of 1968. There was an overcast of dark and thunderous clouds. The tremulous leaves of the palm trees were dancing to and fro in the winds at the behest of the impending storms. Everyone was tentative and indecisive about taking a stroll down the road to Salayea to hunt for some palm wines or to utilize their precious “weekend pass” on such a dreary day. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the entire student body was called to assemble in the dining hall for an important announcement. There we were told that two of our most beloved females students named Ida Holder and Grace Kromah had suddenly died from a strange and unknown virus, and the school administration wanted the entire school and student body to stay in a locked-down mode, as a preventative measure until the cause of death could be authoritatively determined and neutralized by medical experts. During that locked down mode we held a memorial for our fallen schoolmates. Ida Holder and Grace were both sophomore students. Ida was a petite and diminutive young lady in physical stature, but elegant and angelic in her ever smiling face and friendliness towards everyone, high or low. Grace Kromah, on the other hand, was the elder sister of our freshmen classmates, Abraham and Dudu Kromah, and the younger sister of the nationally renowned athlete, Kadala Kromah, who would later become my classmate at Rutgers University in the USA. She was a very good dancer and well proportioned as a woman that no man could ever pass without taking a second look to see what you’re missing and leaving behind. On behalf of the student body, an “upper classman” then named Joseph Subah Morris, Jr., (who now prefers to carry his ancestral name: “Dr. Joseph Qwelibo Nyanquoi Nyampee Subah), was called upon to deliver the eulogy. And he chose, quite appropriately, "Death Be Not Proud", a fourteen-line poem, or sonnet, by the famed English poet John Donne (1572–1631). There the poet chastises death as the thief of life who, in the fullness of time, would eventually run out of lives to take and may have to take his own life in lieu thereof. That student eulogist of LTI would later go on to take two Bachelor of Arts degrees, plus one Masters degree and a Ph.D in agronomy, as Liberia’s first indigenous research scientist in agronomy, who obtained his doctorate degree from Iowa State University in 1981, with a thesis entitled: "Mineral Nutrition of Developing Soybean Seedlings: A Greenhouse Investigation With Nutrient Solutions And Sand Medium ". In a very complex and analytical 229-page thesis, backed by solid scientific data that he compiled, he concluded that his: “underlying hypothesis was that although seeds generally contain adequate amounts of most nutrients that are essential for the early growth and development of emerging seedlings, they are often low or deficient in certain nutrients, for one reason or another.” His greenhouse study was to: “investigate the effects of different nutrient solutions on soybean seedling growth and development.” One of his younger brothers and a former classmate of mine in 1967 at LTI is Sizi Zubahyea Morris, who in 1980, also got his Ph.D in agronomy from Kansas State University based on a thesis entitled: “Composite-Environment Interaction And Density-Depth Interrelationship Studies with Maize In Nigeria.” The youngest brother of that family and also a former classmate of mine is, Pewu Subah, who in his own rights is a respected economist with a Masters degree under his belt, and is one of Liberia’s leading entrepreneurs with more than 30 years of successful business ventures. The entire family, from father to children and grandchildren, are one of Liberia’s most intellectually prolific, patriotic, selfless, and gifted families that the nation should be proud to have. Pewu’s son, Galadu Subah, born during the civil wars and placed at the mercy of God in that turbulent period, as his name suggests, is now pursuing a Masters and Medical doctors degree combined at New York Medical College and has written an insightful thesis on: “Spreading Depolarization In A Mouse Model of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury.” This is what Liberia needs to develop. Not runway models in beauty contests or football players or nightclub swingers.

But my whole point in this exercise is that friendships that we formed at LTI across all tribal and ethnic lines have lasted us for a lifetime since 1967, some 53 years ago. We still call and check on each other, even when we are far apart, no matter where we are. Nobody has ever referred to another in the pejorative, or by their ethnic identity, such as “Congo Man” or “Contry Man”. All that we are is our common upbringing as one people, one destiny, and one country, bred and raised on LTI. How wonderful and beautiful it would be if the nation’s educational school systems modeled after LTI, where academic excellence, meritocracy, diversity, tolerance, unity, brotherly love, and sisterly embrace were the only things that mattered, and nothing else. But the task before us, as former students of LTI, especially in times when divisiveness, ethnic feuds, and cries of social injustice based on ethnicity are being raised, is to speak in the loudest and clearest voice possible that we will NOT stand idly by and aside while any of our fellow citizens are mistreated or ill-treated because of any other factor besides merit. And we should never hesitate to rally for the cause of any ethnically deprived or socially marginalized groups in our country, nor hate those of us who dare to speak out against such practices in our country. LTI would be disappointed in us if we did. Never forget our school anthem, written by none other than our ubiquitous and now deceased principal, Dr. Henry Galakpai Kwekwe. It simply says: “I love the name of LTI; LTI, my LTI. We love her precepts and her rules; We love her days and Sunday schools.” Liberia can learn a lot from LTI.

*[The author is a lawyer and a Liberian citizen residing in the United States, who occasionally comments on events taking place in or about Liberia. He obtained his Juris Doctor degree from University of Detroit School of Law (now Mercy College of Law) in Detroit, Michigan; a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy with honors from Rutgers University, with minors in sociology. He was admitted to the Liberian bar in 1981 and served briefly as judicial assistant to the Chief Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court before joining the legal staff at the Ministry of Justice, from which he resigned to return to the United States to serve in the Law Department of the City of Detroit. He subsequently relocated to Minnesota and passed the Minnesota Bar in 1996.]