11 Questions: Robtel Neajai Pailey, Writer/Scholar


 Pailey is a Liberian writer/independent researcher. She has written for several publications including: the Newsweek-Daily Beast, Pambazuka News, The Guardian (UK), the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings, and the Liberian Studies Journal, amongst others. Robtel is currently pursuing her doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She is also a New Narratives Fellow. Her recent children’s book, Gbagba was released by publisher One Moore Book earlier this year.

1. You recently wrote a children’s book entitled Gbagba. Those who are familiar with your writings would be surprised you wrote a book for children. Why?

I always thought my first book would be an academic text, or a memoir, but I discovered that writing for children is more nuanced. I wrote Gbagba, which loosely translated in the Bassa language means ‘trickery’ (or corruption), for three reasons. First, I wanted to create a story that Liberian children could see themselves reflected—with familiar characters, names, sites, experiences, scenarios—in order to develop a love of reading at an early age [Because Liberia does not have a culture of reading, we suffer from lack of a critical consciousness]. Second, I wrote the book because Liberian children ages 8 to 10 are at a stage in child psychology where we can instill new ethical codes of behavior, even though the current ones are completely skewed.  And third, I wrote Gbagba because I wanted to start a national conversation with Liberian children in order to minimize the practice of corruption in the next generation. One of my critics has said that focusing on children is misguided because they cannot change policy. On the contrary, writing Gbagba was not about transforming policy, but about revolutionizing practice.

2. The argument has been made that there is a need for Liberian books to be taught in Liberian schools, which has not been the case over the years. Your book should complement those efforts.

Yes, I certainly hope so. But Gbagba has not happened within a vacuum. The Liberian Ministry of Education has been working with the Liberia Association of Writers (LAW) for years now on its Reading Liberia Program, in which a number of Liberian writers and illustrators have paired up to create beautifully derived stories for Liberian children. Some of these stories have been incorporated in the national curriculum and are being taught in schools throughout the country. I am currently in negotiations with the Liberian Ministry of Education to incorporate Gbagba into the national curriculum for 3rd to 5th graders. Once I get that commitment, it will give me legitimacy to approach donors, philanthropists, etc. to subsidize the cost of the book so that all 3rd to 5th graders throughout Liberia have their own personal copy of Gbagba. I also intend to take the book on the road, from county to county, because Gbagba is more than just a book. It is a movement. I remain wholly convinced that it’s the tool Liberian children need to lead our moral re-armament.

3. You worked in the Liberian Executive Mansion during President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s first term. What was it like working for and with the first elected female head of state in Africa? 

Working with President Johnson Sirleaf was challenging because she’s an incredibly complex political animal. And Liberia is an incredibly complex country, with a fractured history and an even more fractured contemporary landscape. Post-conflict countries like Liberia are difficult to navigate because there are so many competing priorities, and working in the highest office of the land is about constantly negotiating those priorities. I think the most challenging part for me was my desire for change to happen rapidly, knowing that it could happen if we could just get people to commit to the change they wanted to see. But I painfully realized that the politics of the day does not allow for true transformation to take place at break-neck speed.

4. What in your opinion will be Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy? Some have said it is too early to give a true assessment, but the prognosis is there after seven years, don’t you think?

I think Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy hands-down is peace. She has been able to keep warlords and detractors at bay through some very hefty political maneuvering. She’s attempted to quell rising discontent with soft power. She’s been able to keep UNMIL grounded, although they are drawing down. She’s also been at the forefront of regional peace negotiations. However, Liberia is experiencing what social theorist Johan Galtung called ‘negative peace,’ peace that is derived from the absence of physical violence only. But Liberia should be striving for what Galtung referred to as ‘positive peace,’ where the root causes of the conflict are addressed, issues like inequality, disenfranchisement, and poverty. We have yet to truly experience ‘positive peace’ in Liberia, nearly a decade after our uncivil wars officially ended.

5. One of your most provocative articles, “The Negro Clause In Liberia’s Constitution Is Not Racist; It Is Protectionary,” drew quite a reaction in Liberia and abroad. Why the passion?

The responses to that piece were so visceral, it struck a chord on all sides of the divide. As someone who has researched issues of migration for quite some time now, I thought it was a topic that I needed to critically engage in my writing. Some people misunderstood my argument, and accused me of being a racist. But I remain a nationalist and I think Liberia’s major problems can be attributed to the fact that we never went through a nationalist movement, where everyone felt that they had a stake in the process of state formation and reform. So we never truly developed pride in what it means to be Liberian, because so few people benefited from the national pie. My argument has always been that the ‘Negro Clause’ was instituted at a time in the 19th century when black settlers were escaping economic slavery in the U.S., so there’s a context that many people ignore. We should not change our nationality laws just to appease pluralists when concerns about foreign domination and economic servitude have not been addressed in the 21st century. When Liberia can boast of a shrinking poverty gap, a thriving middle class, stringent laws and regulations that protect its current citizens from socio-political and economic exploitation, then we can begin to think about expanding our nationality laws. Now is not the time.

6. Why are you on the fence when it comes to the issue of dual citizenship for Liberia?

As a researcher, I have not come across enough empirical evidence to prove that dual citizenship would help or hinder Liberia’s development. One of the fundamental gaps in making claims for or against the proposed dual citizenship bill in the Senate is the lack of comprehensive data on how many Liberians actually live abroad. This dearth of data is particularly troubling because we do not know how many individuals the proposed bill would affect. Most of the arguments for or against enacting dual citizenship are based on conjecture and sentiments, not on hard facts. A case in point, those in favor of dual citizenship argue that Liberians abroad who may have other citizenships should be allowed to retain their Liberian citizenship because they send remittances home. But there has been no comprehensive empirical study on the developmental impact of remittances beyond the average Liberian household. So, using remittances as an argument in favor of dual citizenship does not hold water. Another case in point, those who are against dual citizenship argue that giving Liberians by birth two citizenships will enable them to come back and take over the country’s economy, thereby privileging an already privileged group of people. But there’s no guarantee that this will happen, that there will be a mass exodus back to Liberia because of dual citizenship. Furthermore, current stats on post-war returnees are negligible at best.

Liberian laws are entirely too porous, and lack implementation. The current proposed bill on which dual citizenship stands is very low on substance, and without substance it will be very difficult to enforce. For example, the proposed bill does not state whether or not dual citizens would be able to hold high political office, vote in national elections, or serve in our military, and this has implications for Liberia’s political stability and security. The current proposed bill does not explicitly address whether or not dual citizens would have to pay taxes to the Liberian government, or how tax collection would be enforced for nationals abroad. The current proposed bill does not address whether or not dual citizens can be extradited if they commit a crime in Liberia and flee the country. The proposed dual citizenship bill needs reconstructive surgery before it can even be a policy issue worthy of discussion, and empirical studies need to be commissioned on the developmental impact of Liberians abroad in order to enrich the discussion on dual citizenship.

Citizenship is not about demanding rights and privileges alone. Rather, it is about fulfilling obligations and responsibilities. Until we can reconfigure the current meaning and practice of citizenship in Liberia, I will continue to be on the fence about dual citizenship.

7. You are also a New Narratives columnist/commentator. Another New Narratives fellow, Mae Azango, recently won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, for her ground breaking reporting on the harmful effects of female genital cutting. What is New Narratives?

New Narratives is a project supporting leading independent media in Africa, with a special focus on Liberia. Although the project is now on hiatus, it raised the profile of journalists like Azango because its fellows covered breaking stories that few media houses were brave enough to tackle in Liberia. New Narratives started out as a project to support and train female journalists, but has expanded to include the likes of Front Page Africa publisher Rodney Sieh. The project was co-founded by Prue Clarke, an Australian-American journalist who wanted to transform the media landscape in Liberia, where most journalists are paid a pittance and many media houses rely on the largess of benefactors who pay for stories. When journalists are paid well, and media institutions rely on advertising dollars to sustain themselves, they are less likely to fall prey to sensationalism and tokenism. This is the business model that New Narratives believes in. Whereas most media development initiatives sponsored by donors focus on quantity—training X number of journalists in a relatively short period of time—New Narratives is particularly interested in quality—increasing the quality of reporting by training journalists within 24 months to write compelling human interest stories that can transform both policy and practice. In just two years, New Narratives has won national and international awards, and its fellows have written for a number of high profile international news media.

8. “165 Years Young and Counting: What Have We Really Got to Celebrate,” was a stimulating piece you penned last year. Derek’s story was also touching. What’s your current assessment of the health care and overall reconstruction efforts presently?

I wrote that piece in a state of shock and disillusionment when I came back from London after a year away from Liberia. One of my former students who showed such potential had passed away because his family was not wealthy or influential enough to airlift him out of Liberia for medical treatment—he had experienced internal bleeding after being severely beaten by armed robbers. Not too long after Derek’s death, my cousin Ballah Scott disappeared from JFK and his body was found weeks later decomposed within the hospital’s fence. That case has yet to be resolved. There are entirely too many reported cases of negligence that could be averted if we had nurses who were more nurturing, or doctors who were better trained as specialists. In fact, I think our entire health care system—from the policy makers in the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare, to the donors who support our Health Pooled Fund, to the registrars in our hospitals, to the pharmacists who dispense medicine—must be overhauled.

As far as reconstruction is concerned, I think there has been too much emphasis on cosmetic reconstruction manifested in the physical—roads, buildings, etc.—but there hasn’t been enough focus on structural reconstruction—on changing norms, practices, rules, and regulations that brought about Liberia’s conflicts in the first place.

9. Besides the children’s book, do you plan on writing any other books?

Yes, I’d like to eventually write a memoir about my experiences returning to Liberia after nearly two decades abroad. There is also the possibility of publishing my Ph.D. research into a book. And there’s a sequel to Gbagba in my head that’s fighting to come to life.

10. What do you do in your leisure? Any role models you would like to share with the audience and your admirers?

I read ALOT, pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I also jog three times a week and practice yoga, to keep mind-body-spirit balanced. I love sitting by the ocean and soaking my feet in the sand because it clears my head, and listening to music at the highest volumes because it helps me think out loud. I also love dancing, and taking long walks in varying terrains. I have chronic wanderlust, so I try to visit a new country once a year in order to get the perspective that I need to function as a critical thinker.

My mother is my she-ro, and my father is my compassion barometer. They sacrificed so much for me and my younger sister to have the life that they never had, constantly reminding us that one who is blessed must be a blessing to others. I also admire Liberian women like Stephanie Horton, who is so committed to Liberian arts and letters, and Emira Woods, my mentor, who has an uncanny ability to challenge her adversaries in the policy world with such tact and diplomacy.

11. The Liberian Listener thank you for this interview, Robtel. Do you have any final thoughts?

Another Liberia is possible, and those committed to true transformation and change must work in solidarity to unsettle the status quo—for now and for generations to come.

I want to thank the Liberian Listener for giving me the space to speak my truth.

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