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Today you / looked at me, and said how beautiful I had become / in the war.



Books by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Before the Palm Could Bloom  /  Becoming Ebony / The River Is Rising / Where the Road Turns

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After All the Flame

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley Is Survivor

& Witness to War in Liberia

By Randy Wells


Patricia Jabbeh Wesley doubts that anyone ever wrote a poem immediately after winning a lottery.

“But when people are going through deep trouble and they’re very distraught, they’ll go in their room in a quiet place and they express their deep emotion on a piece of paper,” she said.

Wesley speaks from experience. Much of her poetry expressing her emotions was forged in the deep trouble of Liberia’s civil war. The fourteen-year conflict has wasted her homeland and devastated her family, friends, and neighbors.

“I have seen my poetry heal me. Writing heals,” she said.

Wesley is continuing her recuperation at IUP, where she joined the faculty last fall and this spring is teaching poetry and creative writing.

Wesley grew up in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, but also experienced village life while attending boarding school at age eleven. She came to America in 1983, earned a master’s in English Education at Indiana University at Bloomington, and returned to Liberia in 1985.

“Before the war, Liberia was the pacific place to be in Africa because of stability of government and strong ties to America,” she said. “I grew up not rich, but not really needy.

“The economy began to fall after the mid-’80s as the Samuel Doe government had problems managing the country,” she said. “By 1989, we knew the war was just a matter of time. The country was at the brink of a breakdown because of all the anger and the rivalry between government people and politicians.”

Her family heard of massacres elsewhere in the country. “Fighting began to engulf county after county,” she said. The fighting killed some of her neighbors.

On July 2, 1990, the rebels entered Monrovia’s suburbs, and her family realized they would have to flee their home.

The war will come and pass, and we will get a president and we will go back to our regular lives—that’s what we thought,” she said. “When the rockets were falling in my backyard and my house was shaking, that was the time we knew that everything we had was going to be blown up.”

One of the most disturbing images to come out of Liberia’s civil war was the widespread use of children as soldiers.

“A kid held me at gunpoint,” Wesley said. “A nine-year-old kid!”

Another child-soldier pulled her mother aside in a refugee camp and threatened to shoot her because he thought she was speaking the language of the enemy group. Patricia intervened and convinced him that her mother was speaking Grebo—an ethnic tongue of the people in southeastern Liberia.

The children were recruited by former president Charles Taylor’s forces, “and given drugs,” Wesley said.

“I saw daily… kids in a camp, carrying their weapons and arresting people and killing people,” she said.

Mothers dragged their young along Duport

looking for a decent burial ground.

there is no burial ground anymore.

In their shallow graves the corpses

dance Liberia's cradles empty

(from "War Children" in Before the Palm Could Bloom)

The Wesleys fled their home, taking only what they could carry on foot, and stayed in refugee camps for four months. Peacekeeping forces eventually drove the rebels out of the city, but sporadic fighting continued.

In 1991, Wesley, her husband, and children emigrated to America, settling in Grand Rapids, Mich.

I bent down,


Stepped aside.


like a crab.


into a shell.

I hid, a leech

under a green leaf.

I quit talking

quit breathing

quit laughing.

I waited

for the storm to pass.

(from "The Storm" in Before the Palm Could Bloom)

Wesley taught at colleges and earned a doctorate in English before coming to IUP last year. She remembers starting to write as a child and becoming a poet at fourteen.

“Poetry became more significant for me during the war,” she said. “One time I was writing in a camp while they were bombing, and people would say, ‘Oh, this woman! You’re writing poetry while they are bombing?’ ”

Her poetry, and prayer, helped get her through the war years.

“I found it was easier for me to write a poem about a gruesome experience than to write prose about a gruesome experience,” she said.

Some of her poems have been collected into two books. Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa was published in 1998 by New Issues Press of Western Michigan University, and Becoming Ebony was published in 2003 by Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press.

Often her poetry takes final shape after midnight. “Most of my work is done when everybody is sleeping,” she said. “But one thing I encourage my creative writing students to do is to write whenever the idea comes… So I write whenever I have an idea.

“I write in English, but some of them are very traditional, and you can tell that they are written from my Grebo brain.”

Both of her published collections contain glossaries. “The books have some words directly from my language, words that are not translatable,” she said. “English should have to bear my language, as well as my language bears English.”

She cannot choose a favorite among her poems. “Writing is like having five children—and trying to pick a favorite one,” she said. “‘Becoming Ebony’ is a poem that I love because of its closeness to my memory of my mother… Sometimes I love my poetry that speaks to my tradition, and actually is written out of my ethnicity.”

She feels no guilt over leaving her homeland. “If everybody remained in Liberia, it’s possible that everybody would be killed,” she said. “And then nobody would be there to help the others who will survive. I see myself as one of those people who is set aside to live so that life will go on in the future.

“Having left gave me the opportunity to be in America, where I was safe and could have the opportunity of publishing my books and using my anger and my bitterness, putting my anger and bitterness into poetry, and helping the Liberian people get recognition... I felt blessed that I had the opportunity of existing in both worlds,” Wesley said.

“There are Liberians who fled before the war reached the towns, so they do not have a sense of the history of the violence. I and my family stayed until the entire country was overrun. I saw myself as being privileged to have seen the evil that war can bring. I saw my neighbors killed. I saw my neighbors kill neighbors. I saw the worst. And then I saw the best. I saw how people can live together in a tight space with nothing—and still care about each other.”

Today you

looked at me, and said how beautiful I had become

in the war. And when the night came, we fell asleep

listening to the shooting outside. You said you loved me

even though you saw what I did not see. And sitting

in the crowded camp, we held hands tight, waiting,

praying . . .

laughing at ourselves over

and over, our new eating habits, our new bathing habits,

our new songs, days handed to us in brief interrupted

installments . . .

(from "For My Husband")

But, Wesley is not obsessed with war. In her poetry she also observes and celebrates the small details of everyday life, in Liberia and America.

“It’s going to take twenty to thirty years to reconstruct Liberia,” she said. “I see myself going back to live” there, and perhaps leading groups of Christian students to work there.

I know the feeling

after all the flame and the smoke, after a long rainy night,

at dawn, the burnt shells of snails, the charred corpses

of scorpions, the forest fire, now quenched.

Trust me -- we will return home someday, trust me.

(from "I Am Acquainted with Waiting")

Randy Well '84 is a reporter at the Indiana Gazette / Photography by Barry Reeger

Source: IUP Magazine (Volume XXII, No. 1, pp. 2-3, 22-23)

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Nobel Peace Prize Winners are Subjects of Prominent PBS BroadcastsThree women—Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakul Karman of Yemen — have been named co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy, and gender equality. Their remarkable stories are part of public media’s Women and Girls Lead pipeline of documentaries. Public media leaders from ITVS, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting joined the rising chorus of voices congratulating Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her co-patriot Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakul Karman of Yemen, the three women named co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Pray the Devil Back to Hell   / Leymah Gbowee Wins 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (video)

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Where the Road Turns

By   Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

In this her fourth volume, I witness Patricia Jabbeh Wesley courageously dipping her pen into her own wound and splashing vivid imagery upon the canvas of her own skin. That is an illusion, for that pen is really a scalpel cutting the gangrenous and the rotten out of her nation's violated flesh. But that too is an illusion. That scalpel is a steel tongue in a powerful Grebo woman's mouth weaving a fine gauze from dirges, love songs, praise songs, fragments of aphoristic wisdom, fables, new myths, narrative and lyrical dialogues in order to bind our own wounded psyches.

Proud Grebo women's voices burst through her mouth to chastise depraved men who harvest babies to stoke diamond wars as they blaze through forests of dry human bones in their imported death chariots. Beyond celebrating these fiery taboo-breaking warrior women who are passionate about peace, justice, their right to forbidden fantasies, she also claims her place, though exiled, in the lineage. Condemned to bear upon her back her home, she is the strong earthen vessel that safeguards the essential spiritual Grebo values bequeathed to her by the village elders in a circle. Because moving is never a leaving, memories of home constantly surge through the poet's wry humor and wit that serve as balm for the ever-nagging pain.

To honor her ancestors' memories Wesley has planted these enduring trees whose fruits must nourish us all if we are willing to avail ourselves of her poetic gifts. These are brave and fearless poems in a harsh dark season, yet necessary for the witness they bear to human folly while insisting on our capacity to love. With each new volume, her voice grows stronger as it blends with those of Ama Ata Aidoo, Alda do Espirito Santo, and Jeni Couzyn. She is without doubt among the most powerful of the younger generation of African poets.—Frank M. Chipasula, editor, Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Poetry/ co-editor of The Heinemann Book of African Women's Poetry

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Pray the Devil Back to Hell

A film directed by Gini Reticker

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a captivating new film by director Gini Reticker. It exposes a different story angle for the largely forgotten recent events of the women of Liberia uniting to bring the end to their nation's civil war. This film is amazing in the way it captivates your attention from the earliest frames. It doesn't shy away from showing footage of the violent events that took place during the Liberian civil war. But the main story of the film is that of Leymah Gbowee and the other women uniting, despite their religious differences, to force action on the stalled peace talks in their country. Using entirely nonviolent methods, not only are the peace talks successful, but Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, is forced into exile leading to the first election of a female head of state in Africa. The women of this film are truly an inspiration and no one can fail to be moved by the message of hope that comes through clearly in this film. These are heroes that deserve to be remembered and with Pray the Devil we are able to do that, gaining both a knowledge of the history we are ignorant of through archival footage and an understanding of the leaders of this movement through close-up interviews with the many women who lead it. The film also offers a great soundtrack & inspirational song- "Djoyigbe" by Angelique Kidjo & Blake Leyh.Amazon Reviewer

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Mighty Be Our Powers

How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

By Leymah Gbowee

As a young woman, Leymah Gbowee was broken by the Liberian civil war, a brutal conflict that tore apart her life and claimed the lives of countless relatives and friends. Years of fighting destroyed her country—and shattered Gbowee’s girlhood hopes and dreams. As a young mother trapped in a nightmare of domestic abuse, she found the courage to turn her bitterness into action, propelled by her realization that it is women who suffer most during conflicts—and that the power of women working together can create an unstoppable force. In 2003, the passionate and charismatic Gbowee helped organize and then led the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sat in public protest, confronting Liberia’s ruthless president and rebel warlords, and even held a sex strike. With an army of women, Gbowee helped lead her nation to peace—in the process emerging as an international leader who changed history. Mighty Be Our Powers is the gripping chronicle of a journey from hopelessness to empowerment that will touch all who dream of a better world.—Beast Books  / Pray the Devil Back to Hell

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 26 March 2012




Home Patricia Jabbeh Wesley Table    Transitional Writings on Africa   The African World 

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