BUDUBURAM Refugee Camp & My Journey Home to Liberia:The Past Still Holds On to the Present Despite the Untold Stories of Ruin and Hope

Visiting One’s Original Homeland for Research is Not Easy: Part I- Buduburam & Accra, Ghana

MY Journey back home to Liberia began on June 14. I arrived in Accra, Ghana on June 15, 2011, where I revisited the infamous Liberian Buduburam Refugee Camp, now with only an estimated 11,000 refugees still living. Three years ago, I visited the Buduburam camp and interviewed Liberian women. This year, I interviewed women and was fortunate when the UN Manager of Settlement, Mr. Gavivina Yao Tamakloe granted me a lengthy interview on the state of the refugees and the camp. His generous decision to allow me into his office and to be interviewed on his perspectives about working with Liberian and other African refugees and the camp has contributed immensely to my on-going research.

(Left: Liberian refugee lady who has been in exile since 1990, lost to her children until recently. She told me she’s all set to return home, and was negotiating assistance with the UN refugee office.)

LIBERIA stands once more at the crossroads as the Presidential elections campaign begins, and if you’re not paying attention, please begin to. As I write, there are still thousands of Liberian refugees in camps in Ghana, in Nigeria, and in other parts of the world, who still need to return home. But Monrovia has become Liberia, exploding with people who have no reason to live in the overwhelming city.


Human beings are not animals that are kept in a cage until we can end our wars. This is why keeping people or allowing human beings to remain in a refugee camp for five, ten, twenty years is not good.

Two Women-Two Directions and Decisions: Comfort Roberts (L) undecided about returning to Liberia while Marie Mapu Gpabo ( R) showed me her papers for her return home to Liberia by the end of the month. She is excited to hopefully reunite with her lost children she has not seen for more than 20 years while Comfort, originally from Maryland County, Liberia, a woman who still knows Grebo will remain with grandchild and one daughter, working with the UN office. She introduced me to the Camp Manager and helped me get a an audio/video interview with the manager. These women do not only need their stories heard. They need the UN to change its policy on the kind of assistance refugees are given in the repatriation process and how they are received in Liberian upon arrival.

According to them, the UN gives each family a hundred dollars, no pots or pans, nothing for resettling back home. The United Nations has to do more in order to encourage refugees to return home.  As for Liberians who  have been in Buduburam and other smaller camps in Ghana for many years, the need to return home or be returned home should be the priority of both the United Nations and the Liberian government. These women above have lived at Buduburam for at least fifteen years each. The lady in the blue, Ms. Comfort Roberts, fled to Ghana in the heat of the war when her husband and two daughters were killed. He story is too graphic to tell. Now with one grandchild, she works in the UN office at the camp. She does not know when she will ever return home or if there is something to return home to.

Above are photos of the Buduburam Refugee camp that thousands of Liberian refugees have lived in for up to 15 or more years. Many have died naturally in this camp, had children and grandchildren, yet others have returned home over the past five years. My sister-in-law, Ora Wesley, a lovely and hardworking young woman died here in Buduburam in July of 2008. This time around, I walked around trying to find someone who remembered her, but found none. That is how sad the life of a refugees is. Refugees are people without a home, and often, forgotten as soon as they die.

Over the years, there have been numerous incidents with Liberian refugees in Ghana. Most recently, a few months ago, there was an incident of rioting and a police raid by the Ghanaian government, and it was alleged that several Liberians were killed by the government crackdown. My question on this research mission to refugees I spoke to, both men and women was: Why can’t you just return home to Liberia?    

Liberian Attitude and the Liberian Refugee:

After my five day research trip in Ghana, I boarded the Delta flight to Monrovia, Liberia, on June 19, 2011. The plane had just arrived with hundreds of Africans from the United States. As I made my way to my seat that afternoon, a Liberian man, about my age or older looked at me as I struggled to fit my overnight baggage into the overhead bin. Instead of assisting me as any gentleman would, he wanted to know what I had been doing in Accra, whether I was leaving the refugee camp or whether I had simply stopped over from America for a short visit. I did not answer him until I was seated. Then I told him that I had stopped over to visit Buduburam Camp. He quickly began to laugh at me, looking at me with the kind of cynicism one would to put another down. “So, you living in America and keeping you children in the camp eh?” He asked, laughing. “You people sit in America and keep your children in the camp?” At first, I did not know what he was saying, but when it sank in, I was shocked. I was hurt. Did he think I was the kind of mother who would live in America and keep my children in a refugee camp? Did others do such a thing? And even if I was, why would he speak to me like this? I did not respond to his inquiry. I simply dismissed him because I felt too insulted for words, and if I said something to him on the plane as it lifted off the ground, they would have had to take me off that plane or throw me out the window.( Photos below are of my son and his friends at the party he held at the company house for me in Accra.)

Liberian attitude must change.

What the gentleman on the plane did not know is that I do have a son in Ghana, but my son is living and working as a computer consultant with a reputable company, independent, a young man who fell in love with Africa and moved to Accra on his own. In fact, it was his technical expertise that I depended on during my research trip. Above are photos taken at a welcome party my son, Mlen-Too Wesley II held for me, about forty of his friends in attendance that day. That was one day after he and I visited Buduburam, after we survived having our taxi cab taken off the road by police, taken to the police station in the scorching heat, waiting until the driver was clear. At Buduburam, my son, who was not a refugee,  recorded hours of video taping, took photos and helped me since of course, I am very unfamiliar with Accra.

(L-R- Aggie, Me, and Patricia, my son’s friends, posing with me.)


Liberian attitude to being a refugee, to refugees, to their homeland or returning home, and to what it means to move on after the war must be changed if we as a people will survive. During my one hour plus interviewing Mr. Gavivina Yao Tamakloe, the UN Manager of Buduburam, he said several things which support my belief. He indicated that his experience at the camp has taught him that Liberian women are some of the most hard working, dynamic and self initiative taking people in the world. He said that seven of the organizations on the camp were started and controlled by women. They are the care givers, the supporters of the families and that the men on the camp sit around all day and waste time. This attitude in the men must change. If they are refugees in such a horribly dirty camp, then how bad do they want life to be for them to get up and do something?

Another thing that must change is refugee refusal to return home to their own country even though many of them would be better off if they did. Those who do not want to return home also do not want to assimilate or become part of the Ghanaian society. They want to remain the camps or remain refugee all their lives unless they get a ticket to come to the United States. They know that there is no longer any resettlement of refugees to the western world, so many just want to remain in a camp and let life pass them by. There is nothing better than living in your own country if the alternative is living in the sort of refugee camp that I photographed above. Liberians who returned home have unfortunately settled in Monrovia, overcrowding the city while most of the countryside is empty, but that can change if refugees return to their original homelands where they were before the war.

More Photos of my better experience in Accra: My son’s friends.

The Liberian story of suffering and hardship is unending and must be told. One of the things that struck me about life in Buduburam or in any other refugee camp is that those who arrived in the camp nearly 20 years ago went on to have children who in turn had children. I wondered and was saddened by that. How can a refugee whose country is no longer at war explain passing on to their children the gift of a refugee status? That is what the refugees at Buduburam are doing to their children. They are leaving an inheritance of the status of refugee with their children. Why is this so? Is it because their home country does not have the suitable facilities the Buduburam camp provides?

I have documented Liberian women’s stories, collecting them for an anthology that I hope to publish someday. This quest to tell the Liberian woman’s trauma stories from the war has allowed me to interview dozens of women over five years, in Africa and in the US since 2006. Much of that research was supported by my university, the Pennsylvania State University. This year, the research mission to Africa was supported by two grants: Penn State’s AESADE grant, a collaborative grant that two of my colleagues, Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, Dr. Julia Hudson-Richards and I were awarded. I then applied for supplementary funding to augment the AESADE grant from the Penn State University’s Africana Research Center’s Faculty Grant, and obtained that grant. These two grants made it possible for me to travel to Ghana and to Liberia, where I conducted several workshops, trained teachers, recorded women’s stories and did radio and tv interviews and poetry readings. I am grateful to my university for this great opportunity to follow the stories of Liberian women and to be at Buduburam this year.

As I conclude this blog post, let me say that I know there are some who think I should go into refugee camps with gifts for refugees as my service to my country. But there are many who are already doing that, and our people are still stuck in that ugly camp after twenty years. Free handouts are not the solution to helping people recover. I believe that if someone is inspired by words and encouragement, by teaching and education, they can do everything they want to do for themselves. There was one objective I had besides collecting whatever stories I could get, and that was to inspire at least one woman about her worth. I wanted them to know that they can return home and live a better life. During my visit I did that. I walked them through my belief in them as the masters of their destiny. I was so glad when one of the women insisted on taking me to her shack to show me her papers and promised me she was returning home soon. Another woman told me that when she arrived at the camp, she was a young girl, and now, she’s old and needs to return home.

There was one young girl in her teens who had just returned to the camp from boarding school. I was saddened to see a child who went to boarding school where no one really feels like home and returned to the camp where not even her parents live. She, not photographed, came to me for advice. I told her that if she went to school and continued and obtained a good education, she would someday never live in a camp like this. Our people need the courage to move on, not condemnation. They need to return home, but the United Nations cannot give them $100.00 to return home to a land they may never have known or to a land they’ve lost.

My trip ended and I moved on to Liberia. Within a few days, I’ll be posting the stories of my time in Liberia. Come back and visit.

My Poem, “One Day,” is the American Life in Poetry Selection for the Week: Thanks to US Poet Laureate (2004-2006),Ted Kooser for Selecting Me in A Country of So Many Great Poets

When you come from the small West African country of Liberia, you are not expected to be picked by the US Poet Laureate in his search for what he knows is a great poet to share with his millions of fans and readers. So, you can understand why someone as lowly as I am should be so grateful that US Poet Laureate chose my poem several months ago to be featured today on American Life in Poetry and to be permanently included on the Poetry Foundation website. Thanks, Mr. Kooser for selecting and featuring me this week. It makes my life better to know that there are poets who are so well learned that they understand the simplicity of the language some of us from far away backgrounds speak, and that even our voices must be heard. I am humbled by this kind honor.

If you are wondering where to go to read this poem, here is the link:


Click to access COL325.pdf

American Life in Poetry: Column 325


Many of us have attempted to console friends who have recently been divorced, and though it can be a pretty hard sell, we have assured them that things will indeed be better with the passage of time. Here’s a fine poem of consolation by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, who teaches at Penn State.

One Day

Love Song for the Newly Divorced
One day, you will awake from your covering
and that heart of yours will be totally mended,
and there will be no more burning within.
The owl, calling in the setting of the sun
and the deer path, all erased.
And there will be no more need for love
or lovers or fears of losing lovers
and there will be no more burning timbers
with which to light a new fire,
and there will be no more husbands or people
related to husbands, and there will be no more
tears or reason to shed your tears.
You will be as mended as the bridge
the working crew has just reopened.
The thick air will be vanquished with the tide
and the river that was corrupted by lies
will be cleansed and totally free.
And the rooster will call in the setting sun
and the sun will beckon homeward,
hiding behind your one tree that was not felled.

“One Day” was originally published in my fourth book of poems, Where the Road Turns (Autumn House Press: 2010)

When a Poem Stays With You Forever: Recalling Those Poets That Influenced Me. Post Your favorite poems in No Longer than 20 Lines in Response, Will You?


Some poems stay with you forever. They are there when you need them- they nag you, inspire you, make you change your world, comfort you when you need comforting, help you climb your own hills as if you were a hill climber. Some poems manufacture other poems within your deepest guts, and make you walk on water. Some poets remain with you like the poems they carve, and as a poet, when that happens, you become what you were to be. You come across these poems in school, often as early as grade school, in college, during your search for your own poetry career, and are there when you need that extra push. They shape your philosophy about poetry, about the world and its people, and you go back to them again and again for solace. For me, the poets I am listing and many more that cannot fit this blog’s limited pages, these poets and poems have been with me forever. They have influenced me in some ways, often, helping me carve up my own career as a poet. Even though I have picked out just one poem from some of these poets, there are many more of their poems that have affected me positively. What I want my own poetry to do for my readers, lovers of my poetry and those who are eternally lovers of any poetry is that I affect you just as beautifully as these poets have affected me. I want to help you carve up the brushes along your own path, and find where you’re going. I am not saying that poetry is everything, that poetry is god; I am saying that poetry is essential to our lives, and that each of us is a poet inside, whether we know it or not, In any case, if I inspire you in any way, just find a moment and write a poem, read a poem, or just support a poet. Poets are not rich people. They work very hard and hardly ever get paid for helping to reshape the world. Enjoy my poets the way I enjoy them, and leave a note if you feel strongly about poetry.

John Pepper Clark

John Pepper Clark Bekederemo

(1935- Present)

Nigerian Poet and Playwright, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo was one of my first favorites. His use of African oral traditional images, the dirge, song, and music in his style intrigued me. His ability to capture the Nigerian civil war in “The Casualties” affected me decades before I could even imagine that I too, would be a victim of a civil war in my own country.


————-John Pepper Clark Bekederemo

The casualties are not only those who are dead;
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are wounded,
Thought they await burial by installment
The casualties are not only those who have lost
Person or property, hard as it is
To grape for a touch that some
May not know is not there
The casualties are not those led away by night;
The cell is a cruel place, sometimes a heaven,
No where as absolute as the grave
The casualties are not those who started
A fire and now cannot put to out. Thousands
Are burning that had no say in the matter.
The casualties are not only those who escaping
The shattered shell become prisoners in
A fortress of falling walls.

The casualties are many, and a good number well
Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;
They are the emissaries of rift,
So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,
They are wandering minstrels who, beating on
The drum of human heart, draw the world
Into a dance with rites it does not know

The drum overwhelm the guns…
Caught in the clash of counter claims and charges
When not in the niche others have left,
We fall.
All casualties of war,
Because we cannot hear other speak,
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd,
Because whether we know or
Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides,
We are characters now other than before
The war began, the stay- at- home unsettled
By taxes and rumor, the looter for office
And wares, fearful everyday the owners may return,
We are all casualties,
All sagging as are
The case celebrated for kwashiorkor,
The unforeseen camp-follower of not just our war.


Wole Soyinka

(July 13, 1934- Present)

Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning poet in Literature, playwright and memoirist is one of my favorite. I admire his use of African oral tradition in his plays, but “Telephone Conversation’s” biting sarcasm and wit can knock anyone off their feet. I discovered the poem while I was still in high school, and have loved it since. I met the great one during the African Lit. Association conference in Burlington, VT last April, and of course, he was a great orator, literary critic and all during his keynote address to our conference.

Telephone Conversation

——————by Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. ‘Madam,’ I warned,
‘I hate a wasted journey – I am African.’
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
‘HOW DARK?’ . . . I had not misheard. . . .
Button B. Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis –
‘ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?’ Revelation came.
‘You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?’
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. ‘West African sepia’ – and as afterthought,
‘Down in my passport.’ Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. ‘WHAT’S THAT?’ conceding
‘DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.’ ‘Like brunette.’
‘THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?’ ‘Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused –
Foolishly madam – by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black – One moment madam!’ – sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears – ‘Madam,’ I pleaded, ‘wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?’


Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000), one of my favorite poets that I met before she died. I was a part-time instructor of English, African  and African American Lit. at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids Michigan. She was a visiting poet at that Catholic college sometime in the middle 1990s. After her reading, I stood in line to meet her, and she noticed me in my African dress, and drew me close. I was of course, a part-time teacher, an insignificant person as far as my colleagues were concerned, and I was having the toughest time in my career that year. In fact, I had the worst experience of my teaching life at that college, so it was such a fresh blessing to be spoken to in such kind words by the famous Gwendolyn Brooks, whose work I was teaching in my African American Lit. classes there. I told her that I was a poet or at least I thought I was, unpublished in the US, and looking forward to putting together my first book of poems. She hugged me, smiling proudly, telling me that if I had made it out of the Liberian civil war then in 1995, I would make it to be the finest poet ever. Maybe she was right; maybe not, however. When I finally got a publisher in 1997, I sent my manuscript to the famous poet, asking her for a blurb. She wrote back immediately, telling me that she was not doing well, and was dealing with the pressure of finishing one last book before life could overtake her; cheering me on, she told me how proud she was of me, and that she wished me a great career as a poet. She also sent me a card, congratulating me on my publication. Her long letter, written in her fine handwriting even then, gave me more reason for my dream to be a poet. I knew then that it was not only my father, Moses C. Jabbeh, who could push me on. She also recalled meeting me years earlier, and that her hopes for me had been realized. Very rarely does one ever come across a sweetheart such as Gwendolyn Brooks.

Young Afrikans

by Gwendolyn Brooks
of the furious

Who take Today and jerk it out of joint
have made new underpinnings and a Head.

Blacktime is time for chimeful
but they decree a
jagged chiming now.

If there are flowers flowers
must come out to the road. Rowdy!—
knowing where wheels and people are,
knowing where whips and screams are,
knowing where deaths are, where the kind kills are.

As for that other kind of kindness,
if there is milk it must be mindful.
The milkofhumankindness must be mindful
as wily wines.
Must be fine fury.
Must be mega, must be main.

Taking Today (to jerk it out of joint)
the hardheroic maim the
leechlike-as-usual who use,
adhere to, carp, and harm.

And they await,
across the Changes and the spiraling dead,
our Black revival, our Black vinegar


(26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936)

A.E. Housman was one of my favorites when I was a grade school student. I loved his narrative style and his ability to create concrete images that made the storyline in his own violent world then, real. Most of all, I loved his ability to deal with real issues of life, dying, conflict of relationships and the world of youth.

Is My Team Plowing by A. E. Housman

“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep,
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.


Nikki Giovanni

(June 7, 1943-Present)
I have never met Nikki Giovanni, but she was one of my earliest influences as a young poet, writing in Monrovia, Liberia. I heard her read one of her most powerful poems about the connection between African Americans and Africa during the early 1980s. The Liberian Association of Writers (LAW) visited the United States Embassay to hear her read via satelite TV, and I was never the same after that. I wrote my poem, “Heritage” that is included in my first book of poems, Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press, 1998). I rushed home that day and wrote the poem that also talks about another kind of connection, the one between myself and my place as a Grebo woman from the Tuobo Patton (Clan). Over the many years of my career since my twenties, I have enjoyed reading Nikki, and have come to adore her powerful lines, her ability to bring to life images that are truly about black people and the black experience. I continue to be her fan today.

Today, my colleague, friend and sister, fellow Penn State professor, Sandra Staton Taiwo sent me two photos of her meeting Nikki Giovanni at a literary event where she still is. I was intrigued and jealous of course, of my sweet friend. I thought, oh, my goodness, it should have been me. But I’m joking. Sandra deserves to meet the great one, Nikki Giovanni, whom so many of us adore. She continues to be a great inspiration today. Enjoy the two photos.


Prof. Sandra Staton Taiwo and Nikki Giovanni (Nov. 2009), taken by Sandra’s Blackberry.

Sandra and Nikki

Nikki can reached an adult as well as a child. Here is my friend’s daughter, the intelligent one that she is, meeting this great mountain that is Nikki.

They Clapped
—————-by Nikki Giovanni

they clapped when we landed
thinking africa was just an extension
of the black world
they smiled as we taxied home to be met
black to black face not understanding africans lack
color prejudice
they rushed to declare
cigarettes, money, allegiance to the mother land
not knowing despite having read fanon and davenport
hearing all of j.h. clarke’s lectures, supporting
nkrumah in ghana and nigeria in the war that there was once
a tribe called afro-americans that populated the whole
of africa
they stopped running when they learned the packages
on the women’s heads were heavy and that babies didn’t
cry and disease is uncomfortable and that villages are fun
only because you knew the feel of good leather on good
they cried when they saw mercedes benz were as common
in lagos as volkswagens are in berlin
they shook their heads when they understood there was no
difference between the french and the english and the americans
and the afro-americans or the tribe next door or the country
across the border
they were exasperated when they heard sly and the family stone
in francophone africa and they finally smiled when little boys
who spoke no western tongue said “james brown” with reverence
they brought out their cameras and bought out africa’s drums
when they finally realized that they are strangers all over
and love is only and always about the lover not the beloved
they marveled at the beauty of the people and the richness
of the land knowing they could never possess either

they clapped when they took off
for home despite the dead
dream they saw a free future


W. H. Auden (1907-1973), powerful poet writing  during times of war. I mostly have been influenced since grade school, by his ability to articulate the angry feelings that war evokes. His poem below has been used by everyone in times of adversity.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone

W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Kofi Anyidoho


Renowned Ewe and African poet, Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana is one of those poets who has contributed much to many of us newer African writers in so many ways. He is able to bring the African oral tradition to life in every line, whether that line is in English or in Ewe. I was a fan of his poetry and his writing prior to meeting him. In fact, I used his writing to reference the scholarly section of my Ph.D. defense in preparation for my Creative Writing (Poetry) dissertation. I was very blessed to meet him first, finally, in Illinois at the ALA conference. But when I met him in Accra, Ghana, at the PALF writing residency I had summer of 2008, he was a great inspiration to me. He gave me a tour of the University of Ghana, introducing me to university officials, giving me a tour of the English Dept. at Legon, the other name of the university, and gave me a cd of his beautiful poetry. Then I heard him recite his poetry at one of the evening readings at the Pan African Literary Forum. He is a brother, a mentor, and an African poet, who has helped many of us newer poets see that one can certainly be an African writer even while writing away from home. Below is one of his beautiful poems. Enjoy.

photos-for-mom-112This is me with Poet and Professor, Kofi Anyidoho

My Song

Kofi Anyidoho


I sell My Song for those with ears to buy
It is to a tree that a bull is tied
You do not bypass the palm’s branches
to tap its wine

The things I have to say

I say them now
I shall stand aside
from those who care
to clear their throat and
dress their shame in lies

When you meet a poorly-dressed neighbour
at a great durbar
you do not spit on the ground
and roll your eyes to the skies

The umbrella I bought
You stole from my rooms at dawn
Now I walk in the early morning rain

You point at me to our young maidens
And they join you in laughter

My People
Think well before you laugh at those who walk in the rain.

The gifts that bestows at birth
Some had some splendid things
What was mine?
I sing. They laugh.
Still I sell My Song
for those with ears to buy

My cloth is torn, I know
But I shall learn to wear it well

My voice is hoarse, I know
But I shall learn to wear it well.


Langston Hughes

Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967), one of those poets whose mark remains with you forever. I discovered him early, probably as late back as in high school, and then in college, where I drank every bit of his poetry with hopes of following after his footsteps. I thought him in the 1990s and currently in African American lit classes and in any literature course about the world. As a poet writing in the 1960s, his voice joined the many voices of African poets seeking to bring Africa out of Colonialism. He was the Negritude poet for me just as poet, Aime Cesaire was in Martinique or Leopold Sedar Singhor was in Guinea. His poem below is one of my favorite.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

———by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.


Herb Scott

Herb Scott, (Feb. 8, 1931-Feb. 12, 2006) of Michigan, founded the New Issues Press that has published some of the finest poets in America today. He was my professor, mentor, friend and publisher, and without his influence, my career would not be where it is today. Herb was one of those who believed in you no matter where you come from, and worked with you no matter your race, class, educational level, etc. His life was lived as if he had not time to left, and when you walked into his life, he was there for you. Of all my influences, he remains a living monument in my life and poetry. He was as personal as a father could be. Love you Herb, and blessings to your beautiful family who shared you with the world. Enjoy the poem below. I recall reading it in tears at Herb’s memorial service in March of 2006.


By Herb Scott

Skin, and bone, and weed
flower in the flesh.
Do not go to sleep.

Love is a dust we keep,
silt of the body’s dreaming.
Do not go to sleep.

If I were the speech of leaves
I’d let my body sing.
Do not go to sleep.

Words like willow branches
bend to the earth’s reach.
Do not go to sleep.


Marie Howe


One of my favorite poets, Marie Howe is a great American poet. I was influenced by her couplets, her ability to bring images to life, and her love of life. My favorite of her books, What the Living Do remains a lasting impression on me. I met her last spring at the AWP conference, and wasn’t it wonderful? She and I communicated by e-mail briefly after that, and despite my inability to meet with her this summer, I plan to reopen our dialogue and meet with her next summer for coffee. She is a great poet and I am her fan. Love you, Marie, and never told you that Marie is my middle name that got lost in the long list of names my parents gave me. My childhood friends still call me Marie, however.
The Star Market
by Marie Howe January 14, 2008

The people Jesus loved were shopping at the Star Market yesterday.
An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout
breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps.

Even after his bags were packed he still stood, breathing hard and
hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them:
shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if the Star Market

had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in
with the rest of them—sour milk, bad meat—
looking for cereal and spring water.

Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, looking for my lost car
in the parking lot later, stumbling among the people who would have
been lowered into rooms by ropes, who would have crept

out of caves or crawled from the corners of public baths on their hands
and knees begging for mercy.

If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought,
could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?

looking for cereal and spring water.

Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, looking for my lost car

in the parking lot later, stumbling among the people who would have

been lowered into rooms by ropes, who would have crept

out of caves or crawled from the corners of public baths on their hands

and knees begging for mercy.

If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought,

could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?


There are numerous more influences that I cannot include in these brief pages. Some of these great authors are short story writers or have no poetry online to post. Writers like Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, whose story telling style reminds me of how my Iyeeh and my mother told the ancient Grebo tales to me, Buchi Emecheta’s feminist drive for bringing out the stories of women, Kojo Laing and his humor, and Kwesi Brew and his oral traditional wit have all left their mark on me. Others like Bai T. Moore of Liberia, whose poem, “Monrovia Market Women,” remains embedded in my mind, S. Henry Cordor, who was one of my first writing mentors, Robert H. Brown of Liberia, and Althea Romeo Mark, fellow writers, former professors, friends and mentors  have all left their mark on my own career, and there would be no space on the Internet were I to recall all of these great writers. If you are like me, maybe all you can do is to continue to write and publish, continue to pass on your skills to other students of writing, continue to cry out against injustices through your own poetry, just continue to be you. It is a privilege to be able to say that someone touched my life and maybe I, too, can touch another person’s life. Maybe you too can touch someone’s life. Life is too short to live forgetting those who have given more than their share to you directly or indirectly.

National Poetry Month- Featuring Poets in My Life- Fellow Poetry Friends, Mentors, and Global Poets I Admire: Join Me In Celebrating The Power of Poetry


Wole Soyinka– 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner:


Soyinka is the author of such powerful poems like “Telephone Conversation,” “New York,” and many others. Even though many of us who love poetry adore Soyinka as a poet, he is best known for his great plays that capture the realities of African oral culture and tradition. His power over language is amazing. Many of us learned how to write poetry by reading and teaching Soyinka’s many plays and poetry, feasting on his ability to use vivid images to explore tradition, myth, community by his use of language as a tool in writing African literature. Even though Soyinka is a Nigerian writer first, his work is true to all of Africa, and his power of the word is appreciated by anyone who loves literature.

Civilian and Soldier

by Wole Soyinka

My apparition rose from the fall of lead,
Declared, ‘I am a civilian.’ It only served
To aggravate your fright. For how could I
Have risen, a being of this world, in that hour
Of impartial death! And I thought also: nor is
Your quarrel of this world.

You stood still
For both eternities, and oh I heard the lesson
Of your traing sessions, cautioning –
Scorch earth behind you, do not leave
A dubious neutral to the rear. Reiteration
Of my civilian quandary, burrowing earth
From the lead festival of your more eager friends
Worked the worse on your confusion, and when
You brought the gun to bear on me, and death
Twitched me gently in the eye, your plight
And all of you came clear to me.

I hope some day
Intent upon my trade of living, to be checked
In stride by your apparition in a trench,
Signalling, I am a soldier. No hesitation then
But I shall shoot you clean and fair
With meat and bread, a gourd of wine
A bunch of breasts from either arm, and that
Lone question – do you friend, even now, know
What it is all about?

AWP in New York City: Poets, Writers, Publishers, Everything About Writing: Let’s Meet At the Autumn House Press Book Table


The Associated Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference has come around this year again, and this time, we’re moving in on the Big Apple. Already, friends have contacted friends, new phone numbers have been exchanged, those who were lucky to get their panel accepted are bracing in to present, new authors are about to sign new books, publishers are going to be there too, to meet potential authors, literary magazine publishers, journalists, poets, poets, poets are going to be all over the place like crazy, and of course, some folks are going to be interviewing for jobs in the middle of all of this crowd of more than seven thousand registrants, and did I hear that AWP is so sold out that there will be no one registering on site, no room in the INN, and oh, my God!


—–AWP – Austin TX in 2006- Lydia Melvin (Meta Sama) and me at our publisher, New Issues Press book table where Jade’s first book had just come out——-

For some of us who love to write and to see our work published, AWP has been a place for finding a base. When I went to my first AWP in 1999 in Albany New York, the city on a hill where the walls of official government buildings are marble even on the outside in that hilly town. I was the African woman everyone was surprised to see at a conference that almost saw no African presence. There were hardly any black people around, I tell you, and yet, my publisher, the late Herbert Scott of New Issues Press and Prose was confident that I would make it. “You’ll survive, Patricia, you will.”

He believed in me, so I took on AWP, jumped in the Western Michigan University van with him and three other grad students who were taking turns to drive. I had decided I had never driven anywhere that far from Kalamazoo before, and most of all from Kalamazoo to Albany, and I was not signing up to drive, and of course, Herb looked at me with that disapproving look, but I didn’t budged and didn’t drive. “If you didn’t sign up, you can’t drive now,” he told me when suddenly, I felt like driving after we’d overcome some hills or because I opened my eyes during the night and thought the car would throw us down the mountain.


—-AWP -Chicago, 2004- New Issues Press book table- Ever Saskya, New Issues Press poet and I pose for a shot. Ever’s book had just been released—


So, there was I in Albany, signing books, attracting conference attendants who stopped by our table just because of my accent. “So you’re from Africa?” People would ask me,”and how did you end up here?” They’d stand, surprised, and I wondered then and now whether they bought my books in good numbers because they liked me, hated to make me feel rejected or simply because they were surprised at my accent or by my boldness.Was my poetry that good, I wondered. Whatever it was, it was good to sell books those first years.

And I have survived well, thanks to Herb Scott for that small beginning. That year, I was so afraid of going to AWP that I didn’t book a hotel room in time or didn’t have the money to book a room that year. After all, I was a PhD student with a family of six, trying to recover from the Liberian civil war even while that war still raged, trying to joggle my newly turned-teenage two older kids, trying to joggle my beloved husband, and everything a woman joggles, trying to make sense of the news of on-going war at home, trying to be helpful to ailing parents, dying cousins, uncles and neighbors at home, etc. etc.

I got bunked up in a Best Western with another younger grad female student on New Issues Press booking, and stood at the table for days to pay for my free hotel bed.

From then on, I discovered that AWP was indeed very very white, but that there was still room for me, the African woman with the African accent, writing poetry that people were beginning to accept and love in America where everything African is unknown, and best of all was that I was building up a new family of poets who were of all races, male and female, and I was also learning that the life of a poet is different from any other life because you belong in a community, and that I was also here on this earth to change the way things look before I arrived.


___ AWP – Vancouver-The late Herb Scott, founder of New Issues Press standing next to New Issues current Managing Editor, Marianne Swierenga at the book table in Vancouver, Canada——

I went to every AWP since ’99 beside Vancouver. I don’t know why I didn’t go, but maybe I was afraid of another country, maybe. There was Kansas City, and then came AWP New Orleans soon after September 11. And then, I got one more book published from just being a part of an organization where I met publishers and friends who were like and unlike me. I got on panels and did readings, and saw another African or two at the AWP conferences following. There is always room for one even if that room is not as open as should be, but there is always room for another.


——(AWP- Chicago 2004, Ade-Juah, my then ten year daughter, our youngest and I walk through the Book Exhibition hall at the Palmer House Chicago. Every now and then, I take a child with me to AWP. Ade loved meeting the many great writers and publishers, and collecting AWP pins and pencils during the last days of the conference. She still remembers some of the writers by their names up to this date.)

Now AWP conference in New York City is full, I hear and I’ve read. I will be there however, having signed up early as always. My new publisher of my third book, Autumn House has signed me up to be at the table at 1 pm on the 31st to sign books, that is if anyone cares to come by and buy my books. If they do, thanks to them because there are so many books, anyone can get overlooked in the crowd of great writers.

Beside book signings, there are numerous other things I may be doing. Eating with friends, visiting with old friends from grad school, making new friends. I will also be reading at the New school in Greenwich Village. I am so honored to read with such a good group, and then I will be reading with a friend of mine, Ruby Harmon. It’s going to be hectic, but that’s why one attends a writers’ conference, to work.

____Here are some of my most lasting memories of past AWP conferences. In AWP conference in Atlanta last year, I was pulled to PEN America reception where I met all of these great writers as AWP draws out. Right before me in the crowd of writers eating and drinking was Rita Dove and her husband who had over heard me telling a Mexican writer that I would be attending the 17th International Poetry Festival of Medellin in the summer of 2007 as an invited guest. Rita and her husband, German born novelist, Fred Viebahn drew closer to us, and I was introduced to them. We were now in a circle of about six writers who had had the Medellin experience, and everyone was excited to recount their stories about the famous festival. Rita and Fred stood there and both took turns excitedly telling me about the International Poetry Festivals held every year in Medellin, and assured me that I would have a good time and not to worry. After a long conversation with them and others in a small circle while the others around us chattered in the small room, I realized I wanted my college son, MT Wesley, whom I had brought along to the Atlanta conference to meet Rita and her husband, especially, since they had a daughter at the University of Rochester where my son is studying.

My son, who had just arrived on a plane from Rochester came up quickly to the PEN America reception. I was so excited, I was beside myself. My son was going to be meeting a great American poet like Rita tonight. Of course, I’d met Rita numerous times at AWP, but had never been in a close conversation with her this long, so it was great.

MT, then a junior student at college, came up and I introduced Rita and her husband to him. But his eyes did not light up and he was not as impressed as I was. So I said to him, “MT, do you know who this is?” His eyes had that look of “okay, Mom, who is Rita Dove?”

“MT, ” I said again, “Did you learn any literature in high school and in college?”

“Mom, please help me, who is she?” MT, his hand in Rita’s hand was unlike the kid I thought I would have, verse in literature and all of the great writers, especially, of the black world. So, I was embarrassed.

Rita said, “It’s okay, hi MT, I’m Rita.”

“Hi, nice meeting you,” he smiled and said “Sorry, Mom,” I don’t know all the great poets you know.” k

“We have a lot that our schools are not teaching our kids,” I said to my embarrassment. “Every American kid and every black kid should know the great writers of our world,” I said. I then excused my not so literary son from the group, and moved him around the room to meet all of the poets and writers in the room that evening. I wanted to give him a literary lesson at this very literary conference. He shoke hands with Sonia Sonchez and all of the great writers in the room before I let him off to run back downstairs. I am sure that he was glad to be set free from what he called, “a bunch of crazy poets.”

But MT was the wrong kid. He told me throughout the Atlanta conference how much he disliked artist and their confused festivals and writers conferences like the one he was attending with me. The book tables and booths, he thought were all confusing to a guy who loves computers and Economics, law and the like.

And yet, this was not the most humbling of my AWP experiences. My first humbling experience was the Albany conference. I had just published my first book, Before the Palm Could Bloom in 1998, and felt like the world was now opening up to me again after all of my loss, and that I had achieved something even if that was just a small thing. So, I wanted everyone to know about my new book at that AWP.

Down the book exhibit aisle from New Issues Press book table was a tall, slender, blond woman looking like someone in their late fifties. She was staring ahead, so I drew her in a conversation. I was still bold enough to speak to strangers faster than I am today, having only been in this country then less than ten years. She lit up when I greeted her, and introduced herself, her calm voice of confidence. Then she asked about me, my books, etc., and I told her about my excitement of having published my first book. She smiled that knowing smile.

We talked for a little while and I wanted to know about her book or books, and if I could look at them if she had published a book. She smiled again, maybe feeling sorry for me or maybe identifying with me because maybe I was taking her to a past memory. “Do you have a book?” I asked.

You’ve got to understand that at the time I knew that you didn’t have to have a book to be here, but I wanted to meet people with books and to be encouraged by their presence.

“Yes,” she said. “I really like you, Patricia. You are so real,”

“Thanks. Can we go to your book table?” I asked. “How many books do you have?” I asked.

We walked, and as we walked, she said in that humble way. “I have published fifty books, Patricia,” she said in that soft voice only common to the famous. It is like they do not have to make an effort to say something about themselves because you should know if you knew any better.

I almost slipped and fell in the middle of the aisle, just hearing her say, “Fifty books.”

“But some of my publishers are here. The big ones are not here,” she said, taking my hand as if to help me not fall from the shock that here was a woman like me, not black, but a woman still, with fifty books.

I felt like a mosquito right there, a tiny little ant, standing and looking at this beautiful women who was humble enough to be here standing with me. This to me was AWP- where one can mix with the great and the small, the famous and the not so known, the student and the professor. I am looking forward to this sort of inspiration as I drive up to the big Apple for my ninth AWP conference. AWP conferences make me realize each year that there is more I need to do to be where I need to be when I visit the booths and see how many books being published and how many better writers are out there making a difference. And yet, I see myself also as an inspiration to someone like me who came to this country with nothing, someone who believes that there is still room in the INN for everyone, yes, there is room for all of us.


Two of my favorite poets, Paula McLain and Anthony Butts signing books at AWP Texas, 2006- New Issues Press table.

I will conclude on a poem I wrote on the train as I left AWP 2002 in New Orleans. That poem, “There’s Another New Orleans,” was pulled from Becoming Ebony before it was published, and never made it in The River is Rising, my third book. But it was published on my college website and in Chicken Bones soon after Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans. The poem below:

There’s Another New Orleans
By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Where the roads crawl backwards
behind streets broken up in many places
and children stand in doorways,
staring. Their eyes look far away,
and a woman stands by the street corner
hollering for a dollar to take her to the shelter.
At the Chinese restaurant,
a blind man was having a meal after
a long day collecting coins that we
tourists threw into a plastic bowl
on Canal Street.

My girlfriends and I took a streetcar
from Bourbon down to the Gardens
where colonial mansions rush past you
with lost history. I didn’t know
you could ride a streetcar on a sidewalk
and watch houses disappear into history.
I wanted to feel the years.
I wanted to holler until I cried, or danced
through these colonial-mansion-streets
so the past would come flying out like
chicken feathers.

The colonial houses want to tell me
we have done away with the past?
But the streets behind our view crawl
backwards into history we came here
to remember or forget.
Someone should have kept the years for us.
Someone should have carved up the years
on pieces of metal for us.

At the restaurant door, I lose my step
in the dark. A five-year-old-boy
is playing the harmonica–nine o’clock
at night on Thursday. On Bourbon Street
nude girls are dancing in a bar,
and the five-year-old-boy outside,
on the sidewalk collects brown coins
into a plastic bowl. Will we ever know
what pennies can do?
Down the road, we forget the child,
the penny-collecting-harmonica-playing-child.
Just a few steps away, a saxophone
wails on a thin string. At Bourbon and Canal,
tourists come out in colonies, holding
on to the thin evening air.

What brings out the best of Canal Street
brings out the worst of Canal Street.
The Saxophone player sweats and balloons
hard into the night air of footsteps coming
and going in search of food and drinks
and happiness. Lovers holding on to each
other as if afraid of unfamiliar ghosts.

There’s another New Orleans, I say,
where the blind man rises at dawn
below our passing feet.
You will not see him beneath the footsteps.
The tall buildings will lose him too,
in the French Quarters, where the smell
of Cajun spices and crawfish drowns us tourists.
The Gumbo tasted like home food to me,
and my God, they brought Jollof Rice
all the way here, and named it Jambalaya.

Our waitress placed me in the middle
of people eating fresh oysters and drinking
red wine. The wines and hot peppers will drown
only the moment. Outside the night air,
on our way back to where hotel rooms await us,
there, again is the five-year-old,
somebody’s son–the child who plays
the harmonica like no other person
in the whole world.

MARCH 2002