By D Kaihenneh Sengbeh
He mustered courage and strength in his old ailing muscles and stood to greet and welcome the visiting team into his house. He had never before seen such a delegation of his professional colleagues at his house. He felt it was very appropriate to wake up and greet them.
“No, no, you don’t have to do that,” the head of the delegation advised empathically. “We understand your situation; just sit down.” The ailing old man returned to his sunken wooden seat, where he now spends bulk of his days—in a zinc shack house—listening to radio broadcast and following national issues.
As he looked at each member of the delegation, seeing familiar faces—people he had work with and covered news stories—tears oozed from his sickly eyes down his cheeks. I turned my face around, squeezed my eyes to stop any trace of my tears from rolling down, and continued taking my notes of the conversation—my job.
The episode above took place at the home of ailing journalist Paul Noring, in the Parco Island Community on Bushrod Island, when the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) led a delegation of the Union’s leadership and few members to visit with journalists who have been ill for several months to years.
The December 30, 2014 visit was the PUL’s way of reaching out to journalists and former members who have been down for many months due to mishaps and invertible situations beyond their controls. It was the journalists union’s approach of giving them hope, which included sharing of gift and purses with them, and reminding them that a professional group of people, with whom they had once intermingled, still cares for them even on their respective beds of affliction.
Ahead of the visit, the PUL had issued a release encouraging interested journalists to converge at the Union’s headquarters with whatever gift for their sick colleagues, and to join a convoy to the homes of the journalists shut behind doors by illness. Mr. Nagbe Sloh of the Liberia News Agency (LINA), Calton Boah of the In Profile Daily Newspaper, Sando Moore of the Image Magazine and Journalist Lawrence Randall responded well with cash donations, and the PUL remains grateful to them as their respective contributions made the visit a success.
A delegation of eight including the PUL President K. Abdullai Kamara, Vice President Jallah Grayfield, Secretary General (author of this article), former President James Kiazolu, long time journalist Ansu Konneh, PUL Accountant Henry Page, as well as journalists Henry Bestman and Gabriel M. Dixon made the trip. The surprised visitation targeted four ailing long-time journalists including Paul, Chris Kroteh, John Taweh and Ernest Kiazolu. It climaxed at home of the longest serving president of the PUL and the country’s oldest surviving journalist, James C. Dennis. The first stop was at Paul’s residence.
Paul has been ill of over seven years. His condition doesn’t seem better as he appears frail from internal illness including swollen feet. He worked for the Liberian state for 45 years (1968-2005) at LINA, under the wings of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT). Retired in 2005, Paul said “it is unfortunate to see a man who has worked for the government and the state to be dying by the wayside, and nobody seems to care.”
Among the older generation of journalists and some of us who started at the turn of the millennium, Paul isn’t a stranger. He’s one of those who went after human interest and community development-related stories, to get the voices of the ordinary people heard. He worked for the defunct Star Radio after his retirement at MICAT, before he took sick around late 2006. He has never recovered.
“We have heard that you have been sick for some time now, and we thought it was wise to visit with you during this festive holiday season,” PUL President Kamara said, introducing members of the delegation. Paul didn’t need Kamara to introduce people like Ansu Konneh, Henry Page and me to him. “I know this man, this and this,” he pointed at each of us, calling our names confidently with smiles. We all laughed.
“We have not forgotten about people like you who have contributed a lot to the work of journalism in Liberia, despite the challenges and distractions we face,” Kamara stated in a message he delivered to all those visited. “Our leadership is determined and committed to reaching out to every journalist, especially those who are now old or ill after serving our profession for many years,” he continued. “We need to put into place a strong welfare policy to better cater for our members—the sick and elderly who can no longer work due to their conditions.”
This can only materialize, Kamara, opined, when journalists and media entities begin to pay dues regularly and when journalist get better salaries. When this happens, the Union’s leadership becomes capable of reaching out and helping its members who are ill or distressed.
As the conversation continued, a bright countenance of joy appeared on Paul’s face. No more tears. “I am happy that you came; I am happy to see all of you,” he asserted with smiles written on his face. “It is not about money or gift,” the PUL former Membership Committee Chairperson went on. “The mere visit is very important. You don’t have to wait for people to die before you come. I appreciate this.”
Paul became a member of the PUL in 1984. “I have been part of the PUL since 1984, when we used to regularly pay our due which was one dollar at the time.” Before his illness, he remembered working with Henry Page (Accountant) and the late Financial Secretary of the PUL, Joshua Kpenneh. He regretted Kpenneh’s death and sympathetically recalled: “He called me one day and I told him I was in town; he promised to send [scratch card] for my phone, and the following day he died.”
After Kamara presented the gifts—a bag of rice and envelope of US$30, it was time to go. About 45 minutes of visit and interaction was worth with Paul. He was left lifted as he felt the olden time warmth and conversation with his professional colleagues once again. In 30 minutes, the delegation would be with another colleague, Chris Krote.
The pale-looking Chris stood behind the screened doorsill of his room as he watched PUL-1 and three other vehicles entering his father’s New Georgia Junction Community’s residence. Here is where he has been room-confined for at least two years. Both he and his father have been ill over the years and are unable to leave the house to fend for the family. They are like helpless children — no longer bread winners.
Still having molecules of strength to walk, Chris left from behind the screen door of an annexed two-room building and joined the rest of us outside, in the front porch of the main house, where his dad sits looking at people and vehicles plying the New Georgia Estate route.
The once handsome Chris remains physically poor, his appearance quite far-flung from what he used to be when blasting the airwaves on DC 101.1, or when he worked in the offices of former Speaker George Dweh as Press attaché during the National Transitional Government of Liberia. His exact illness is unknown. He told me in 2013 he was diagnosed of HIV. Sources close to him claim weak bladder is added. Whatever the case, Chris is not well. Illness has made him far older than his age (believed to be his 40s). His hair is all gray as he has lost several of his teeth.
“You and your voice have been missing for a while,” Kamara began the conversation. “We learnt that you were sick, and we’ve stopped by to say hello, to share the Christmas with you.” The PUL President told Chris that he still has age in his favor, despite his frailer-looking condition. “You should not feel discouraged, and we want you to know that we care about you, and that’s why we are here to identify with you.” He then presented similar gift given to Paul.
Joy was in Chris’ face. He smiled and nodded to each spoken words. In a feeble and slow tone, Chris responded: “This is the first time I am seeing you in group like this. I appreciate the visit and I am grateful to the PUL for this great gesture.”
A journalist is always a journalist. And like Paul, Chris said he’s always following the media. “I like to thank you guys for what you are doing in the media. I have been sick for three years, but I am following the media.” Chris, his dad and the rest of the family were in smiles, showing exceeding gratitude as the PUL delegation left for the home of John Taweh.
A man wearing red T-shirt approached us, as we got out of our 4-vehicle convoy. “That’s the man coming to greet us, that’s John Taweh walking there,” Kamara said, when we saw the senior journalist coming out of his house towards us. He was excited by the visitors which included one of his best friends, Ansu Konneh, who has been highlighting his illness on social media and visiting with the family regularly. Besides, in the delegation was someone he personally helped to groom in the profession, in person of PUL Vice President Jallah Grayfield.
Actually, John seems to be improving in health. He’s far better than what he appeared when Ansu first posted on facebook his ailing picture, with scaring protruding stomach early in the year. His illness, which started in his native Gbarpolu, is attributed to African Science. His wife Martha Taweh and two daughters (Miatta and Kemah) have been very helpful to reach him this far.
Before I started journalism 14 years back, I monitored John on the radio, with Talking Drum Studio. Before then, he worked with the Liberia News Agency of MICAT, like Paul. Currently, though he’s improved in appearance, but still far from his healthy days, John cannot speak clearly. His wife and children speak for him as they understand anything he says.
“We were hopeless when we first saw him,” his wife Martha recalled. “He couldn’t talk and he was like going crazy in his home town in Gbarpolu. We did not give up, the children did not. We brought him from the bush here. We prayed and ran after his illness, and to see him like this today, we thank God.”
Martha, on behalf of the family, applauded the PUL for the visit. “I am too happy today,” she maintained. “This visit shows that my husband has professional people who care….We are proud that you’ve come here and may each of you prosper.”
In his same message of the need to strengthen the Union’s welfare arm, Kamara said the PUL heard about the illness of John and “that’s why we are here at this time of the year,” mentioning the names of others who have been and to be visited. John emotionally broke into tears when he learnt that Ernest Kiazolu, the next on the list to be visited, had gone blind. Both of them had strong links and worked together for years. We didn’t know the story until we met Ernest.
Earnest remains very healthy in his beautiful compound in Paynesville. Many of the young journalists do not know him, but he remains treasured in the lives of many journalists of our generation—from the turn of the millennium to around 2010. Ernest worked at LINA for years when people like us were not thinking about journalism school, lest to mention practicing. Over 25 years ago, he worked as editor of the defunct National Newspaper. Thereafter, in the late 90s he became Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the United States Embassy near Monrovia, where he worked until he got blind in 2012.
It was in this latest capacity that Kiazolu really helped and encouraged several journalists to go on US fellowships, attend several training and workshops under the sponsorship of the Embassy. His office collaborated with the PUL to also empower local journalists. In fact, it was during one of those training, facilitated by trainers from the US that I learnt about blogging and set up my blog (sengbeh’s weblog). Ernest was actually helpful and always encouraged young journalists, including me, to take advantage of training opportunities.
He walked out of his room majestically to greet us in his living room. “I am emotionally moved by the visit; it’s a complete surprise,” he said after Kamara had explained the intent and trend of the visit and how he helped empower many journalists. “We have come to appreciate the work you have done,” Kamara told him.
Ernest, responding, indicated that the visit shows that the PUL has changed its policy around: identifying with people after their deaths. “I am happy that I am still alive and you have come to see me. Thank God it is not a funeral.”
He described the visit of the PUL to ailing journalists as a “panacea” to the healing process. “When someone is sick and knows that there is a care and support, it enhances the healing process,” he continued. “I am grateful to the leadership and membership of the PUL, and accept my best wishes for a prosperous and productive new year.”
Ernest, who worked along with John Taweh at the defunct Nation newspaper, remembers how cordial their working relation was, and how they stuck to professional standards even when the owner of the paper wanted them act otherwise. There were other sweet stories and no wonder John emotionally shed tears when he heard that this Ernest, with whom he had personal ties, had gone blind for two years.
Ernest attributed his blindness to “forces outside of our control” and “setback” that nobody supports for themselves, adding “Man proposes; God disposes.” Though he regrets and partly blames the poor health system of the country, Ernest insists he is not yet finished as a professional person and he is finding something to do.
“I have been sitting here since 2012 to keep hope alive until God’s time,” he asserted. “I still don’t feel that I can’t be useful. The brain is still good, but it’s the sight that has gone bad. Technology has advanced and a blind person can be employed.” Ernest spoke very confidently, giving hope to himself more than we could do for him. He was instead inspiring us. “I am not going to allow myself to sit down here; I am healthy, and by God’s grace, my trip to the great beyond is still far.” He was proud that one of the several young journalists he helped to empower, Jallah Grayfield, now serves as Vice President of the PUL.
Praising the progress in the Liberian media, Ernest insisted that the freedom today is not a gift from anyone. “We worked for it.”
The daylong tour could not end without a visit to the home of the Mr. James C. Dennis, Sr. unlike the others earlier visited, Jimmy, as he is commonly called, is healthy and kicking strong at 86. He’s a founding member and longest-serving president of the PUL from 1968-1980. Jimmy is the oldest surviving journalist in Liberia, while his best friend, Kenneth Yarkpawolo Best, Managing Director of the Daily Observer Corporation, is the oldest practicing journalist in Liberia. Best is also former President of the PUL.
“We’ve come to see you, a founding member of the PUL that we head today, to get inspiration from you….We are here to let you know that we care about you and how we can learn from your knowledge to strengthen the PUL.” Of course, the delegation did get a huge inspiration as we sat in a history class of the Liberian press for nearly two hours without noticing the day was running out.
Jimmy told the delegation he was surprised about the visit. “I was shocked when I got the call (from the Secretary General) this morning. It has never happened like this before, that a delegation of the PUL will come to visit me. I appreciate it very much.” Jimmy said the press environment has improved over the years with a greater freedom, and charged the press to be responsible.
He would explained how he became a journalist after he left high school in 1949, how he introduced advertising in newspapers, and how his inauguration as President of the PUL was held at the now abandoned Executive Mansion under the auspices of President William V. S. Tubman. The lecture was sweet and insightful, and more would be held at a special forum to be organized by the PUL leadership later this year.
Certainly, the visit by the PUL to the homes of ailing journalists and the former President of the Union taught lots of lesson. The decision was overwhelmingly praised by both journalists and members of the public. Even up to now, commendations are still pouring on social media. It is being described as an excellent initiative that must be kept alive to change the trend of identifying with journalists only when death strikes. It suggests that we, in the media, need to be our brothers’ keepers and strengthen our relationship with the Union. It means that the PUL will have to strengthen its welfare committee to regularly reach out to members who are not well or are faced with affliction. In fact, that is the reason why the committee is among the five statutory committees of the PUL.
However, if the committee, the Union at large, should succeed in this drive, it would require members of the Union playing their respective roles—by taking part in the Union’s activities and regularly paying their dues. Unfortunately, with active membership base hitting 500, besides the leadership, only at most four journalists paid any portion of their dues in 2014. This is saddened for a noble professional body like ours. The PUL does not have any other source of income. It has to write projects to run activities, and if projects are not approved by donors as has happened in the recent past, the Union becomes dead. If all members of the Union and media houses that are members were to pay their dues, the Union would generate at least US$45,000 annually. This is a lot of money that would make the Union vibrant. We need to understand that donor monies for whatever project must be used for said project, and nothing less of more.
The leadership may have an excellent agenda to draw up a better welfare policy—to reach out to ailing and old-age journalists, or bereaved families of fallen journalists—but this would never easily succeed unless members are supportive. The Union is also aware that journalists will find it difficult to pay dues when they are not on better payrolls. This means that media managers need to pay their workers better wages to enable them lead better lives, improve the quality of their work and the media landscape in general.
“When the Union’s members begin to pay dues, the leadership would set aside a special welfare fund to help journalists in critical needs and reach out as often as quarterly to those in need like the ailing band elderly,” Kamara noted. “This is why we have to work with media houses to improve salaries also make the Collective Bargaining Agreement works.”
About the Author: D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh is the Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia since December 2013. He has more than 13 of experience as reporter and editor in Liberia. An award winning journalist and UN Fellow, Sengbeh manages the Secretariat of the PUL and writes extensively on several national issues as a freelance journalist. He’s reached via (0886/0777) 586531.