By Abraham M. Keita
July 9, 2020
Dirges will be written, paeans spoken, and lofty tributes unleashed – all in dedication to the various, simple yet so complex, lives of Representative Munah Evangeline Pelham-Youngblood. Fantasies will be evoked just as truths will be told. Some will remember her as the young lioness, whose voice roared and rattled across the corridors of the National Legislature, imploring her fellow compatriots to crave and create a better Liberia. Some will survey the lanky and tough-talking Munah who, despite churning of righteous indignation over the scarcity of dignity in politics and the pauperism that holds in chains the people of Liberia, remained an unswerving party loyalist. Others will examine her as a beauty queen, retired supermodel, business owner, and public speaker with a capacious tenacity for profound harangues.
As someone who came to know Munah not only through her public life but with unrestricted access to her personal and private space, I will speak of Honorable Munah E. Pelham-Youngblood, my friend, advisor, and mother. It must be noted, however, that I always addressed her as “Mommy” – a moniker, I reasoned, that encapsulated the bond between us. But in these lines, I will use her forename most.
“Keita, the only thing I can say to you is ‘remain humble and stay true to who you are’. Never forget where you come from; for it is only when you are humble that you gain fame and achieve greatness; let the sky be your beginning” – she said to me in November 2015 upon my arrival at the Roberts International Airport, after having been named that year’s winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize. Sitting here, my fingers fidgeting and jostling across the keyboard, these are the words of Honorable Pelham-Youngblood that keep nabbing at my mind, and her memories keep rising and falling like the ocean wave.
It was in the throes of an election year, 2011, that I first heard her name. Passionate, committed, and blazing with youthful gleam, she quickly captured the public gaze – thanks to a life in pageantry – and only at 27, was running against an incumbent, Dr. Ketekumeh Murray, whose fame as an erudite speaker was surpassed only by his “University of the Air” talk-show on Farbric FM. I was in the tutelage of Dr. Murray and twice was interviewed on his radio program while in junior high school.
Like the horde of young Liberians who swiftly surrendered to the lure of her subtle but stentorian eloquence, I followed in their track and submitted to the chorus, heaping brandishing praises at her youthful articulacy. I knew her before she knew me. And seeking to strike a balance, I took in the task of meeting her, so that she may know me too, however, treading meticulously. Not even the bond between Dr. Murray and I could stop me from meeting with his political rival since my intent was strictly apolitical. Besides, I was far below the voting age.
Having exhausted some efforts on ends in pursuit of what for me had become a holy grail, it was in 2012, barely a month after the second term inauguration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that I bumped into the newly-elected representative of Montserrado County District 9 in the rotunda of the Capitol Building. I had gone there, along with some friends, to collect the contact details of new members of the committees on health, gender, women, and children in both the House and Senate. When she continued walking, I ran in her direction and dashed across her path, my eyes colliding against hers – making not a blink or a wink – while I stood firm and fixated. We exchanged numbers, well I gave her my mother’s number, and the rest is history.
In the chaotic cauldron of Liberia’s political discourse, Pelham-Youngblood’s voice never dimmed and faltered. She spoke clearly and scathingly but never resorting to vile slander even against those she disagreed with. For a nation that was still gyrating and reeling from a tumultuous past, her election, and subsequent reelection, to the House of Representatives paved the way for a new generation of leaders. In Munah, young people saw a figure who had cracked open the wall that stood in their path to political leadership. She mentored others to become leaders in their communities and use their voice to demand change.
To Liberia and the world, Munah was a politician and fashion model. But to me, she was the first person who threw herself into my story, who stood in my shoes and see the world through my eyes. She not only bolstered my activism for children’s rights by granting me opportunities to be interviewed and listened to during those halcyon days; she contributed to giving me the most powerful weapon of change: education. Having attended the Marvii Sonii Public School in Clara Town for one academic year, I was enrolled at the J. J. Ross Memorial High School – the Pelham family’s school – for both 9th and 10thgrades.
Munah never hesitated to advise me on matters of life. She invariably reminded me to emblazon the little things I have, and do small acts of kindness in great ways. She believed in me more than I did in myself, told me that I was intelligent and very brave, and encouraged me to keep learning new things. She was basically telling or retelling me things I had heard or would hear from my mother. I knew that Munah loved me when she gave me to Lorenzo Pelham and the rest of her siblings. And when she introduced me to Mrs. Elizabeth Pelham, her mother, and said “meet your new grandson.” So Munah had transitioned from my friend and advisor to my “Mommy” – she and my mother jointly raising and shaping me into a better person. Munah knew that for a child who was born in a society that intended that he would perish in the slum, that he should make peace with mediocrity, she knew that his world needed more love and laughter. And I’m blessed to have had her in my life.
Just as death cannot be resisted, so too is life relentless. After this moment of grief, the paroxysm of pain will assuage, and life will march on. But as Representative Munah E. Pelham-Youngblood joins that guild of Liberians who clamored for a better Liberia, the race for national transformation remains stern and ever-unwavering. We must grieve but never give up. For the family of Munah and her loved ones, you are wondering: why should we associate with life again to be hurt again? Why should we love again to experience loss again? But look no further, for her life is a crowning example. She shared a piece of herself with everyone who met and knew her. Love each other. Protect, cherish, and look after one another. This is how Munah would want us to live.
Wherever you are right now Mommy, I know that you have not passed on because you are an angel, and angels never fade away.
Shine brighter in another realm!
Abraham M. Keita, Yale University ’24
International Children’s Peace Prize Winner 2015
Youth Board Member (stateofyouth.org)
One Young World PEACE Ambassador (oneyoungworld.com)
Advisory Board Member, The Fund for Global Human Rights (globalhumanrights.org)
“One of the young champions of justice is named Abraham Keita. He won the Children’s Peace Prize last year. At that time, the United Nations congratulated him through my Youth Envoy, Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi. Abraham first started protesting violence against children when he was just nine years old. Now he is organizing Liberians for children’s rights and inspiring people across the globe. Abraham once said he is fighting for a world where every child gets justice, every child is free from violence and every child is empowered. I share this vision and I have high expectations for ending violence against children through this new, action-oriented Global Partnership.” – Ban Ki-moon, Former UN Secretary-General