Remembering Tarty Teh: A Liberian Literary Genius
The late Tarty Teh was born in July, 1946. He was a literary genius, a Liberian and a friend. In honor of his birth, I have decided to republish this article with additional reflections on the man.
The death of Tarty Teh did not come as a surprise to me. About two weeks before his passing, I had a dream in which he brought George Oppong Weah to my place.
We were sitting on my patio conversing. Weah later wanted to rest, so I took him to my guest room.
Then George W. Bush, US former president, came and requested to talk to George Weah. Bush was dressed in ordinary clothes, no security. I went to get Weah. He and Bush went to a private area to talk. At this time, the press and security personnel were all over the place.
I woke up from the dream. I called Kpanneh Doe in Atlanta, Georgia and told him about the dream. We all pondered over it. I have never met George Weah before, though I knew his father when I was a boy living in Claratown, Monrovia, Liberia.
“Why George Bush”? I asked Kpanneh.
“What was the connection”?
“What does this dream mean”?
I told Kpanneh that I think something will happen to Tarty. Teh was the only one in the dream I knew in person. Few days later, Kpanneh called to tell me about Tarty’s death.
I have observed that when a person is sick and is about to die, he/she may suddenly appear in a dream or may physically be lively, happy, talking, joking, laughing, walking around or may have a big appetite. You may think that the person is getting well. But often the person is about to die and is saying goodbye.
So when I had the dream, I thought of Teh’s health and his illness. Perhaps he brought Weah to meet me or Weah’s presence meant nothing.
Teh lived an active life. Many tributes have been paid to him. I will here briefly talk about him as a personal friend. I met Tarty in the late 1970s through Momo Rogers, now an official in the President Sirleaf government.
Momo brought Tarty to my place in Washington, DC. Tarty had just been assigned to the Liberian Embassy, Office of Press and Culture as a press officer. He was an outgoing and out spoken person. He made no excuses to tell you where he stood on issues concerning Liberia. Tarty stayed with me until he found a place in the Washington DC area.
All serious and passionate writers have obsessions. With Tarty, his main obsession and concern were the plights of the Liberian native people. The Americo-Liberians oppression of the natives was dear to his heart. Wherever he had the opportunity to express this cause, he used it. He did not forget where he came from and the life and background that shaped him.
Pallipo, a village in River Gee County, was his birthplace where he was born on July 18, 1946. He played the drums and danced to the songs of his people. He remembered the story of the enslavement of his people from the region in Fernando-Po.
He lived the life of a village boy and saw the suffering of his village people, the down trodden masses of Liberia. It was this culture that he expressed in his writings and had given him the strength and base. Like most good writers, he wrote like the way he talked.
His was simple, and with African cultural symbols. He was a good storyteller. This skill was his weapon. And many Liberians with Ph.Ds or with other higher degrees could not match him with the pen.
Tarty was not only prolific, but he was very skilful with the computer, on which he spent lot of time doing his work. We shared an office space on K Street downtown Washington, DC after he left the Embassy. K Street, Northwest DC, is an impressive address and was a good location for my firm, Planning and Development International.
The office was good also for Tarty to get out of the house and concentrate on his writing in a professional environment. He would stay up late, writing and just writing. An American friend would visit the office simply to read Teh’s writing.
When the Internet came of age, we were all excited with this technology. He was an original member of the Liberian chat room, with Ijoma Flemister, George Fahnbulleh, Konia Kollehlon, Jesus Weeks, Mary Broh and others. He was a voice particularly of native issues. To my knowledge, he coined the word “Americos”, to describe the Americo-Liberians and the Congo people as a group.
He called the Liberian natives “African- Liberians” or Liberians of culture. He founded and published, with the assistance of Blamoh Seekie, the Blojlu Journal as a media of advocacy of native rights. He was not jealous of other Liberian writers or emerging writers. He admired the creative work of Siahyonkron Nyanseor and wanted to publish Nyanseor’s poetry and short stories.
Tarty was not liked in some quarters of the Liberian society, for his candid discussion of the Liberian problem. He lived to the true essence of his name Teh, meaning linguistically “issue”. He had no problem debating with anyone on Liberian affairs. Nyanseor’s defense of Tarty in 1998 captured well the nature of Teh when he wrote:
“Teh’s inquisitive approach in probing the conscience of most Liberians cannot be compared to anything but excellence and patriotic. Teh’s probe intends to raise vexed issues and to provoke serious discussions regarding Africa and Liberia in particular.
He is not in this debate to win popularity contests. He is honest and sincere about the issues he discusses. And I am one of those individuals that cannot wait to receive my daily email from my friend and brother, Tarty Geesayfahnonkon Kloba BodiohTeh”.
Nyanseor has an archive of Teh’s writings and I am sure he will publish them soon. Teh’s body of work is indisputably unrivaled by any contemporary Liberian writer.
Teh admired other Liberians, including the late Dihdwo Twe, Penyonoh Gbe Wolo, Albert Porte, Edward Blyden and C. Cecil Dennis Jr, former Foreign Minister. The minister recognized Tarty’s writing talent and encouraged Teh to take a position in the Liberian Foreign Service. But Tarty did not stop his advocacy because he was working for the government.
Dr. Elwood Dunn, former editor of the Liberian Studies Journal and Stephanie Horton, editor of the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings, respectively admired and acknowledged his writing skill.
He was not afraid to take on some of Liberia’s prominent opinion leaders on national issues. He took Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh to task in Teh’s “The Forgotten General”, showing Fahnbulleh’s disregard of the late General Thomas Quiwonkpa. Fahnbulleh replied in a piece entitled, “Of lies and Pretencies”. He was no match to Teh’s writing.
Tarty exposed Ambassador Francis Dennis of the mistreatment of native servants in the embassy, the ambassador’s residence. During President William Tolbert administration, Dennis was removed from the post and transferred to another country primarily because of Teh’s advocacy.
He challenged the late C. Cecil Dennis Sr., publisher of the once famous “the Liberian Age”, a pillar of the True Whig Party corrupt and repressive regime.
Teh considered Dr. Amos Sawyer a betrayer of the Liberian Constitution, when Sawyer campaigned for and became Liberian interim president. As a framer of the 1986 constitution, Tarty maintained that Sawyer should have protected it. In accordance with the constitution, Tarty stated that Harry Moniba, former Vice President of the Doe government, should have succeeded Doe after Doe’s death.
In December, 1999, Tarty wrote “With and Without Sam Jackson”, in which he told the story of him and Jackson growing up together as native boys in Liberia. But later, they took a different path in life during the Charles Taylor civil war and regime. Teh became a critic of Taylor while Jackson is said to have become a friend and benefactor of Taylor rule. Teh felt forgotten by and disappointed of Jackson.
Teh was the strongest and the most consistent critic of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from day one. Unlike those who criticized but later begged for jobs, Teh never wavered in his criticism of Madame Sirleaf even before she became president.
Before the thought of establishing or forming the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Teh considered Sirleaf a principal contributor to the Liberian civil war and that she had planned the war for her selfish and vindictive goal. The war indeed caused the death of over 200 thousand people and the destruction of some of the country’s infrastructure.
In response to Sirleaf’s written testimony to the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee hearing on June 19, 1990, Teh wrote Mrs. Sirleaf in part:
“I would not have known why you try too hard to avoid mentioning any truths that favor anyone whom you oppose, if I hadn’t learned much later on that you want to be president of Liberia. Although I do not submit that your presidential ambition suffices as reason for the totality with which you avoid mentioning any opposing truths. I have come to understand how you think such subterfuge is to your advantage”.
Tarty went on to say. “You diminished yourself as worthy of my respect when you failed to note the conditions of total discrimination against African-Liberians before the coup of 1980; when you used the word “oligarchy” not to describe the status quo of 133 years under the Americo-Liberian Dynasty, but instead used it to describe President Doe and his flock of new arrivals into the rank of the privileged, the rank that was once the exclusive providence of Americo-Liberians.
But what I find almost unforgivable is not any of the above. Instead, it is your sinister evocation of your dead mother’s name in your lamentation before a Congressional hearing, and portrays her as someone who died before reaching the Promise Land”.
Teh was a family man. He was a married man. He spent some time with me while trying to resolve a family matter. His two boys, Tyee and Jahtay and daughter Kaysah were his pride and joy. They visited him on weekends. The family would watch the children movies, particularly the Lion King, reciting the movie scribe or words from the beginning to the end and singing the songs together. Though they were born here in America, Teh wanted them to culturally become and taught them as Africans.
He gave them African names; and the children enjoyed African food and proud of their African heritage. His oldest son, Soklo, was with him in India, where he went for medical treatment.
Teh’s wife, Gabriella, also a writer, is a career social worker and provided a balance to his political stance. She calmed him down when he at times got hot on the Liberian issue. Tarty advocacy did not blind him from liking good things. He had a good taste of fine clothing. He knew the names of famous designers and their clothing lines. He was a good dresser.
Though he liked and enjoyed music, he was not a good dancer. He would at a party usually talk politics, but he would shake his head to the sound and beats of the music while participating in the conversation. When he ever got to the dance floor, he would dance like some White people, moving his body with no rhythm. I jokingly told him that he danced like a White man. He would just smile, saying nothing.
Sometimes, you could not tell if Tarty was from Africa. He blended in very well in the American society. He told me that during his courtship of Gabriella, she told her father that she was dating an African. There was another suitor, an American, whom she also told the father about. Later the father got sick and was hospitalized.
Teh and Gabriella went to see him; his first time meeting Teh. The father was so impressed with Tarty that he told Gabriella in private to date only the man whom she brought to the hospital and not the African. Teh always joked and laughed about the incident.
Tarty’s favorite dish was cassava leaves cooked with fowl chicken. He would buy two or three packs of the leaves and some chicken from the local Spanish store on his way to the house.
“I like the way you cook it Kiah”, he would say complimenting my cooking. But he would add lots of hot peppers to his plate. His children liked peppers too. They used to it.
“It is spicy”, they usually said as they ate.
Teh was unemployed and was seriously looking for work when he was with me. I would play or mess with him when the house phone ranged. I would rush to the phone, pretending that the call was his, though really it was mine.
“You want to talk to Mr. Teh, and you say this is about a job”?
I would ask the caller and walk to the next room. Tarty would surprisingly look at me, throwing me sign that I should give him the phone. But I wouldn’t.
“Ok sir”, I continued, “Mr. Teh is presently not in but I will take and pass the information to him when he comes,” I would say to the caller and would later hang up. Tarty would be mad, saying.
“Why you did that for? The call was mine, you have no damn right taking it and not giving it to me”, he would say with vexation. When he little calmed down, I would tell him the truth.
“I hit that when Kiah does that to me”, he would relate the fun and joke to Kchebeh Walker, a mutual friend. Tarty would later pay me back unexpectedly, giving me a taste of my own medicine.
Losing a respectable government job and having a family whom you cannot support because of unemployment would be frustrating and depressing. He would walk around in the house looking confused. Whenever he got nervous, he would grind his teeth. I would say,
“namanju”, meaning man child, “take it easy, things will be fine”.
Going to the office with me regularly was therapeutic. It released him of stress. He got frustrated also when his children sometimes could not come for their regular weekend visit due to schedule problem with Gabriella. He would be mad.
His last trip to Liberia was to see about his back pay, which he claimed the Liberian government owed him. I wondered could the Sirleaf government willingly pay him back the money when he did not support her politically and also when he in the past had criticized her for “wrongful behaviors?” Considering his advocacy, Sirleaf government could argue that the back payment situation occurred in a previous administration.
Therefore her government should not be pressured. They could give him the runaround just to frustrate him and strangulate him financially. I felt sorry for him. I think he did not get the money before his death, because Gabriella wanted to give me document to deliver regarding the money during my recent trip to Liberia.
Tarty was committed to his writing. Writing is an art, which does not come by easily. You have to work at it, develop it and nurture it by writing consistently. He was dedicated to the art. His commitment would have encouraged and inspired young and new writers to the discipline.
He told me a story after a trip, which he took to Liberia while working for the government in DC. He took an assignment with the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, editing the work of junior staff to help improve information delivery.
He corrected their work, had the work typed and trashed the edited copies. The staff would search the trash basket for the copies to view their mistakes. They did not get mad, for they learned from his skill, his writing ability.
I worked with Teh with his writing. I slightly edited some of his articles. But it was not easy at first. He was very particular about his writing. He had a bit of ego, a sort of arrogance, thinking that he knew it all. As our friendship grew, he was relaxed and comfortable to have me view his drafts for suggestions. He was a born writer, wrote well.
Tarty was not a college graduate. Many people did not know that and would not have believed it. He finished high school in Liberia.
But he did not have to have a degree. He had a God giving gift, a gift to excellently tell his story, the condition, the problem and the suffering of his people. He would have made a lot of money had he focused on or specialized in writing stories for pleasure reading. Perhaps that was not his calling.
There was one thing about him that I could not understand. He did not see anything wrong with some native officials who misused their power. Teh blamed their former Americo-Liberian/Congo masters for teaching them such behaviour and for not setting a good example.
He was sent to “Belleyalla”, a notorious prison, during the Samuel Doe regime. Upon his release, he was not angry for the treatment. Instead, he supported the administration.
Tarty died of throat cancer on February 15, 2012 after a long battle with the illness. He died in his native land Liberia. He was buried in Pallipo, his village, where it all started.
Liberia has lost a literary genius. May his soul rest in heavenly peace.
Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore,