Robtel’s sectors of experience are academia, government and the media.
She writes for a host of national and international media, and in 2013, she was recognised in ‘99 Under 33’ – an international list of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33. Most recently, she was listed by The Financial Times as one of ‘25 Africans to Watch’. Her first book ‘Gbagba’, meaning ‘trickery’ in the Bassa language, was also published in 2013 by One Moore Book.
“It was written with the intention of starting a ‘revolution from below’,” she says. “I wanted to begin a national conversation with Liberian children about what it means to be accountable to oneself, one’s community and one’s nation.”
Here she discusses her work, her influences and the future of Liberia.
My intellectual curiosity was piqued at an early age when I discovered words followed by stories. I devoured books one by one, and couldn’t get enough of them. I was in middle school when I started to deconstruct ideas, ask critical questions, and wonder why things were the way they were. In high school, my analytical skills were further sharpened, but I didn’t study in a culturally affirming environment. I went to a predominantly white all girls’ college preparatory school in Washington, DC, USA, and remember feeling like ‘the other’ most of the time.
It wasn’t until I took a 20th century honours history class, where we had a module on African history, that I felt deeply invested in the learning process. When a classmate remarked during one of our sessions that she was discussing the class with her father and he didn’t seem to understand why we were studying Africa, I wanted to defend Africa as the cradle of humanity, but I didn’t have an arsenal of evidence at my disposal back then.
So, I pursued African Studies as an undergraduate at Howard University and then as a graduate student at Oxford, before settling on development for my PhD at SOAS, University of London. I studied Africa in the US, in Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, and in the UK because I wanted to understand how my continent was being imagined in intellectual discourses across the globe.
It was while working as an aide to Liberia’s president in my mid-to-late 20s that I discovered I had a particular interest in the intersection between Development and African Studies, two interdisciplinary fields that are widely contested. But I’ve never been interested in convention, so most of my research interests are related to alternative models of development, of Africa developing on its own terms rather than through ‘development’ fashioned by Europe or North America.
This is where the activist in me comes in. I use most of what I learn in the classroom or in highly dense academic readings to have a conversation with a wider non-academic audience about contemporary issues such as post-war recovery, governance, the political economy of aid, trade, and remittances, migration, etc., all with respect to Liberia, specifically, and Africa, more generally.
One of the biggest challenges in my work is maintaining a critical stance on received wisdoms that people hold dear, and going toe-to-toe with ‘authority’ figures (academics, policy makers, donors, etc.) with whom I fundamentally disagree. The spaces in which I operate have been thoroughly colonised, so there’s often push-back from people who don’t want to see an assertive African woman enter the fold.
Working in Liberia for four years was the most life-altering experience of my professional career to date. It sobered me up and made me realise that our challenges can be surmounted if only we had a critical mass of committed reformists. Finishing my PhD thesis on a topic that I find to be personally and politically vexing—the constructions and practices of ‘Liberian citizenship’ across space and time—has also been incredibly fulfilling. I hope that it will contribute to a better understanding of why Liberia is Liberia and how Liberians have come to be Liberian.
The key challenges Liberia faces over the next five years are the nature of political leadership as the 2017 presidential/legislative elections draw near; economic development and diversification given Ebola’s adverse impact on economic activity; peace and security in light of the drawdown of the United Nations; and shoring up enough domestic financing for strengthening health, education, and infrastructure.
From what I have seen of our latest budget, the allocations for health and education have increased slightly, though they could be increased significantly more if we slashed recurring expenditures such as exorbitant salaries for political appointees and elected officials, travel budgets for ministries, and fuel subsidies for government employees. The new minister of education says he’s going to shift Liberia’s education from ‘mess to best’, but that’s a lofty goal for a three-year mandate. Training teachers, improving salaries and benefits, revamping the curriculum, and recruiting Liberian educators from the diaspora are among some of the important steps in improving the system.
The Ebola crisis has forced politicians to realise that the aspirations of citizens matter. There’s a confidence deficit in our politicians, and citizens are becoming more and more disillusioned with policy makers who are either ill-equipped/unqualified for the jobs they have been entrusted to do or otherwise self-serving and corrupt. Ebola exposed the tense relations between state-citizens and it’ll be an uphill battle to improve those relations.
There were some foreign outlets that reported the complexity of the outbreak much better than others, but overall, I don’t think Ebola has fundamentally shifted Western media representations of Africa. If anything, it’s fed into the same tired, simplistic narrative that keeps getting recycled over and over again. I don’t want the foreign press to revel in any kind of delusion that my continent is completely perfect or severely imperfect, because that would be the greatest form of deception. What I would like to see, however, is Africa’s complexity, the nuances of our lived experiences, explored in the media more meaningfully.
The highlight of my experience with the media development agency New Narratives was the ability to once again write in my own voice, with my own byline. My pieces were unrelenting, hard-hitting, and often very controversial, and I appreciated that I could be given the platform to speak my own truth again in such a public manner. I remember writing an emotional piece in 2012 about the disappearance and death of my cousin Ballah Scott, whose body was found decomposed in the very hospital compound where he worked. I used that piece as an opportunity to connect such a tragic, personal story, to a more general observation about how ill-equipped and ill-managed our entire healthcare system was. Needless to say, the powers that be were not pleased. I was even called into a meeting with the president where she used the occasion to question why I was making negative comments about a major referral hospital in the capital. This was almost two years before the Ebola outbreak. So, the problems in Liberia are perennial, and Ebola exposed the fault-lines in our own policy-making choices as well as the complicity of international actors whose neo-liberal agendas do not serve the interests of most Liberians.
But despite the issues Liberia faces, I love how open and generous Liberians are (almost to a fault, especially when it comes to foreigners). I love the fact that we know how to rejoice and celebrate the small milestones in life (the birth of a child, a graduation, a marriage, the home-going of a loved one). I love our deliciously spicy, well-seasoned cuisine, the best in all of West Africa, I think. I love our folktales, riddles, and emerging literature. I love hearing our local languages, and listening to the colloquial music that is taking the art scene by storm. I love our reverence for the ancestors and our indigenous names and their meanings. Most of all, I love how resilient we are as a people.
My mother, Ethel Neajai Johnson Pailey, is my she-ro. I got my core values (selfless service to others, integrity, compassion), my fighting spirit, and my humility from her. I carry my mom’s feistiness like a badge of honour. She’s defied the odds, is incredibly hard working, and sacrificed so much for me and my younger sister Ella to have the life she never could.
I also admire women like my mentor, Emira Woods, who was the first Liberian female activist I saw take the world by storm in my lifetime, doing it with such grace and tenacity. Another Liberian woman I have come to respect is Ma Gbessie Kiazolu, who was the matron of Liberia’s cultural centre, Kendejah, for over 40 years, and groomed so many of Liberia’s artists. I grew very close to her after we did a video interview together for the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings in 2008 and she became a surrogate grandmother. She passed away in 2010 before I relocated to the UK for my PhD and I was deeply saddened by this loss.
I also appreciate the work of Arundhati Roy, the Indian activist, and have become increasingly fascinated by the late Audre Lorde, who was othered in every way imaginable yet lived life to the fullest in her relationships with others and through her work as a feminist, writer, poet and essayist.
This article was written by Robtel Neajai Pailey based on her interview with Kate Kerrow in June 2015.
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