(By Joe Bartuah)
On Thursday, April 2, 2015, the people of Yarwin-Mehnsonon District in Nimba County and Liberians in general lost a great compatriot, in person of Teacher Wilfred Kehleboe Gongloe, patriarch of the Gongloe clan, who passed away at the ELWA Hospital in Monrovia. “Teacher”, as he was affectionately called by his numerous students, former students and admirers, was a pioneering educator in Yarwin-Mehnsonon, whose exemplary teaching career spanned more than 40 years.
In mourning the death of Teacher Gongloe, I am reminded of an adage which says that the success of a man is not necessarily measured by the height he attains, but also by the depths from which he comes. In the case of Teacher Gongloe, not only that he came from an abysmal depth of deprivation, but through his resilience, enduring endeavor and selfless commitment to public service, he also attained towering heights of success in his career and personally. He hailed from Glehyee-Zorpea, where there was neither motor road nor school during his childhood; generations before him had not seen what a classroom looked like, yet when the slightest chance availed for him to learn, he volunteered, despite the fact that the process was extremely difficult.
That is, in those days, children from the so-called hinterlands were sent to Provincial District Commissioners’ compounds in the district capitals around the country, through a compulsory “porter” system, to do slave-like labor in order to have the rare privilege of attending school. For those who are familiar with Liberian history, Teacher Gongloe’s eventual education is traceable to the Interior Policy which had earlier been introduced by President Arthur Barclay in 1908, to extend the authority of the Government in Monrovia to the “hinterlands”. There were only four counties then—Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Sinoe and Maryland—and so the rest of the country was divided into 23 “Provincial Districts; the districts were administered by District Commissioners, many of whom became more powerful and dictatorial than the presidents that had appointed them. As a result, Liberians in the hinterlands were subjected to all forms of brutal treatments, including forced labor. Most parts of the country were subjected to Provincial District Commissioners’ misrule until 1924 when Cape Mount became Liberia’s fifth county.
So many young boys (girls were not included at the time) from the remote parts of the country were sent to this education-through forced-labor system, but most of them soon ran away, due to the dehumanizing nature of the labor. Toting heavy loads from one town to another, fetching firewood for cooking at the Commissioners’ Compound, drawing water, making palm oil for cooking, disposing of faces contained in white buckets, which were some sorts of flush toilets for the District Commissioners and their families, thoroughly cleaning the portable “flush toilets”, toting Commissioners and their family members in hammocks, etc. were some of the nerve-wrecking chores at the time. Many fathers did not send their beloved sons to work on the Commissioners’ Compounds, for fear that their heartstrings would endure unbearable sufferings.
It was through such plethora of hard labor that Teacher Gongloe acquired his education. When he later enrolled at the erstwhile Laboratory High (subsequently renamed Tubman High), he received a clarion call from Chief Weh-Dorliae, the legendary Paramount Chief of Yarwin-Mehnsonon–who ruled in that part of the world for 35 years—to return home and begin to impart the knowledge that he had acquired so far into his younger brethren. Just as a disciplined soldier would obey a command from his superior, so, too, Teacher Gongloe promptly answered the call of duty. So began a dedicated teaching career that would last for 42 unbroken years before Teacher was honorably retired.
In my estimation, Teacher Gongloe attained towering heights of success because he opted to educate for generations rather than selfishly pursuing riches; he taught so many students who, like him decades earlier, were the first in their families to go to school. The exponential achievement of Teacher Gongloe is indeed, unquantifiable. All across Liberia, in public and private offices, and around the world, his former students who have obtained their Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degrees, excelling in their respective professions and contributing to their respective societies are indicative of his professional success as a teacher.
On a personal level, Teacher Gongloe inculcated a sense of discipline, principle, determination and humility in his children which eventually yielded dividends for his family. In a country which currently has a 75 percent illiteracy rate, Teacher Gongloe, a man who was born unto a 100 percent unlettered parents, worked assiduously, not only to educate himself, but also succeeded in supporting and influencing all of his children to obtain college education, with five of them current being holders of graduate degrees. For me, that’s a rare hallmark of success in a society in which some of the most economically potent parents at times end up with children that don’t prioritize learning.
For a man who performed slave-like labor for local government officials for several years in order to get his education, Teacher Gongloe had the divine blessings of seeing his elder daughter, Mrs. Edith Gongloe-Weh become Superintendent of Nimba County and his elder son, Counselor Tiawan Saye Gongloe become a cabinet minister.
And so as we all mourn the departing of Teacher Gongloe, we should also muster the courage to celebrate a life that was fully lived, because Teacher Gongloe worked so diligently while there was still time for him to work. To old lady Elizabeth Gongloe, his lovely wife for more than 60 years, and to his 10 children (six girls and four boys), a host of nephews, nieces, grand and great-grand children, we say in Liberian parlance, “never-mind”, because your dad fought a good fight. As compatriots, the best tribute we all can pay to the fallen sage is to try and emulate his indefatigable commitment to public service, keeping in mind the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”