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President Johnson Sirleaf Laments Wilton Sankawulo's Death
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Monrovia, Liberia - President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has expressed profound sadness over the death
Prof. Wilton Sankawoloof former National Transitional Chairman of Liberia, Professor Wilton Sankawulo.  Professor Sankawolo died on February 21, 2009 at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center following a brief illness.

The President spoke of the late Transitional Chairman’s contribution to the country during the most challenging period of Liberia’s civil crisis.

The Liberian leader also spoke of the immense contribution the late Professor Wilton Sankawolo has made in the educational development of the country through his literary work, noting that the country has lost a great pillar.

The President expressed heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family and prayed that God will grant its members the strength and fortitude as they endure the loss.

Former Chairman of Liberia, Author, Literature Professor

Published:  21 February, 2009
Picture of Prof. Sankawulo on the cover of Rain and the Night

Wilton Sankawulo, a renowned Liberian novelist and folktale writer, who served as Chairman of the Council of State of the Liberian National Transitional Government in 1995 during the civil war, died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center on Saturday afternoon, February 21, 2009, following a protracted illness. He was 71.

His wife of nearly 45 years, Mrs. Amelia Yatta Sankawulo, was at his bedside when he received his eternal summons.

On the night before his death he was visited by Liberia’s Head of State, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Wilton Sankawulo started his literary career at Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) which he entered in February, 1960. His short stories were first published in the Cuttington Review, the college’s literary magazine, edited then by his classmate, Kenneth Y. Best. The faculty advisor on the Review was Mrs. Judy Gay, Cuttington’s lead English teacher during that period. Wilton frequently won the top prize for short story. Following his graduation in 1963, he was awarded a fellowship to study Sacred Theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, United States of America. There he took the Master’s degree in Divinity. He later participated in a writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa, which led him on to take a second Master’s, the MFA degree in English.

Returning home in the late 1960s, Wilton was employed at the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs (now Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism), where he served first in the Press Bureau and was later appointed Director of the Overseas Press Bureau, during the administration of E. Reginald Townsend and later G. Henry Andrews, the country’s first Minister of Information. In 1973 he was appointed Special Assistant to the new Minister, Dr. Edward B. Kesselly. But during this early period, Mr. Sankawulo always maintained a teaching position at the University of Liberia, rising to the post of Associate Professor (1985-1990). He resumed his teaching at UL last year, following his return from exile during the latter part of the Liberian civil war years. He also taught English and Literature at his alma mater, Cuttington.

Professor Sankawulo began earning his fame as a prolific Liberian writer already in the 1970s. In 1974 he published The Marriage of Wisdom, his first collection of Liberian tales. The book was published by Heinemann Educational Books and became, like many others, a standard literature text in Liberian schools. His second collection, Why Nobody Knows When He Will Die, was later published by Macmillan Education Ltd.

The Rain and the Night, a novel, appeared in 1979. Many of Sankawulo’s stories appeared in the Pan African Journal, Negro Digest, African Arts, World Encounter. Sankawulo also produced an anthology of African stories entitled More Modern African African Stories, published by Fontana Books.

On the accession of William R. Tolbert to the Liberian presidency, Sankawulo, while still in the employ of the Ministry of Information, wrote a biography of the new President entitled Tolbert of Liberia.

Sankawulo’s last position at Information was Research Specialist, following which he was transferred to the Executive Mansion, where he spent almost a year as Assistant Minister of State for Presidential Affairs. Between 1983-1985 he served as Director General of the Cabinet and later Special Assistant for Academic Affairs to President Samuel K. Doe. It was in this position, as Doe’s teacher, that Sankawulo helped the Liberian Head of State to complete his academic work, leading to his graduation from the University of Liberia in 1989.

Professor Sankawulo later served as a writer with the Educational Secretariat, Catholic Archdiocese of Monrovia.

In 1995 he was named Chairman of the Council of State of the Liberian National Transition Government, a position he held until July 1996.

At a certain point Professor Sankawulo gave up his career in government to devote his life to writing and research dealing with Liberia’s traditional culture. According to him, he made this sacrifice because he felt that very little attention had at that point been given to the preservation of his country’s traditional culture, which he feared “was speedily passing away.” In this vocation, he said he had been inspired by the works of Liberia’s foremost folklorists, Bai T. Moore and Dr. S. Jangaba Johnson.

Though a novelist and short story writer, Sankawulo is himself best known as a folklorist. He described Liberian life in its traditional setting and bore witness to the richness and greatness of the mind and thought of the African people.

Wilton Sengbe Sankawulo was born on July 26, 1937, in Haindii, Lower Bong County, a Kpelle town in the Fauma Chiefdom on the St. Paul River. His parents were Dougba and Nasuaa (pronounced nay-suah) Sankawulo.

Wilton began his education at the Kpolopele Lutheran Mission near Haindii, and continued in other Lutheran Mission schools, first in Sanoyea, where he met his lifelong classmate, Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Liberia’s current Minister of Health and Social Welfare. Wilton and Walter completed the fifth grade in Sanoyea, then in the Central Province (now in Bong County). These two promising Kpelle boys were then sent to Belefanai, also in Bong, for a semester. In 1953 they were transferred to Zorzor for the sixth and seventh grades. From Zorzor they were again transferred to the Lutheran Training Institute in Harrisburg, where they completed the eighth, ninth and tenth grades. In 1958 Wilton and Walter, along with other students became numbered among the first students to enter the Lutheran Training Institute (LTI), which was transferred from Harrisburg to Salayea in the Western Province (now Lofa County). There they completed their secondary education, graduating in 1959.

The following year these lifelong classmates entered Cuttington, parting only in their sophomore year, 1961, after Walter, a brilliant Science student, received a Lutheran fellowship to study Medicine in Puerto Rico.

Wilton is survived by his widow, Mrs. Amelia Yatta Sankawulo; two sisters, Gbesse and Evelyn; two daughters, Mrs. Rose Cooper and Mrs. Minnie Ricks; two sons, Roland and Wilton, Jr. and a host of other relatives.

Funeral arrangements will be announced later.

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