Liberia: Frustrations & “Spiritual Gains” of “Development Journalism”—A Personal Story

By Samuel G. Dweh—Freelance Journalist; president of Liberia Association of Writers (LAW) +231 (+231) 886618906/776583266/samuelosophy@yahoo.com, samuelosophy1@mail.com)

…And highlighted “low mark” by national political leaders, Press Union of Liberia, UN Development Agency, and Int’l Development Partners

Emmanuel Kollie with his creation

Clarifications:

My mention of names of persons or institutions in this article isn’t intended to bring them to public ridicule. Rather, it is for the sole purpose of flushing out the spirit of “gratitude” (in the beneficiary of professional service-based humanitarian gesture) and to turn the development-centered “attention” of “philanthropists” toward the “humanitarian service provider (writer)”, too.

MY BACKGROUND OF DEVELOPMENT JOURNALISM (REPORTING)

This started at the Times Journalism Institute (TJI), a Nigerian journalism school I enrolled in (2004) during my 10 year-old refugee life (2001-2011) in that Country. When I entered TJI, the school was a training arm of the Daily Times Newspaper of Nigeria. On support by my Nigerian “friend” and “fellow writer”,  Mr. Leke Oshunniyi, a Medical Doctor (Executive Director of the Royal Cross Medical Center—based in Obalende/Ikoyi, Lagos State), I enrolled  at TJI to get an Ordinary National Diploma (OND) in 2004 and to later move up to getting the Higher National Diploma (HND) in 2006. During this period, the location of TJI was Plot 40/42 Imam Dauda Road, off Eric Moore Road, Surulere, Lagos State, Nigeria. The name of the Institute’s Director was Mr. Ndubuisi Ugbede, with this personal mobile phone contact: +234 (0) 8023214545

The teachers’ lectures that hooked me most were those about “development journalism”. On this subject, our coaches always told us development journalism is reporting (speaking or writing) on people’s manifested talents or exhibited ideas or concepts that are enabling them overcome poverty or contributing to the development of their Country.  I vividly remember one of our teachers saying this to the class: “Development or human interest story can grow a country faster than political reporting can do. In fact, political stories divide or destroy a country, and they benefit individuals most than they do for the country.”

My favorite teacher was the one who often talked about “the pictorial story”—description of scenes or the story’s  main focus person (example: innovator)

Unfortunately, financial handicap halted my journalistic education at TJI in 2005.

Nonetheless, with the ‘little media knowledge’ acquired, coupled with my writing talent, I started freelancing for some of Nigeria’s newspapers—The Vanguard and the SUN. Later, I was hired by the publisher of Courtly Magazine, Mr. Pius Odiaka (contacts—+234 0803 0536 867; odiakapius@yahoo.com), former Features Editor of The Guardian Newspaper of Nigeria. I was given two responsibilities: Going ob the field for stories and proofreading of some of the stories. (First, he refused to employ me because I didn’t have “at least an Ordinary Diploma in Journalism”, he had bluntly told me during our first meeting on my job application letter)

My first story for Courtly Magazine was about “street trading” in Lagos State in 2008. The story’s title, chosen by my employer, was “Street Trading in Lagos”, with a subtitle “Bad Habits Die Never”.

My boss advised me to submit this story (published in  Courtly Magazine) to the CNN/Multi Choice “African Journalist of the Year Award”—sponsored by Cable News Network (CNN), popular American electronic media institution, and South Africa’s popular media institution—Multi Choice. “It’s story like yours that can win the first-place prize in the CNN-Multi Choice African Journalist of the Year Awards. Your story is like a video, showing street trading scenes to anybody who is reading it. The Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, read it and graded it the best Nigerian story he has ever read, and asked me to connect you with him,” my boss, Mr. Odiaka, had told me week after the launch of the maiden edition of Courtly Magazine.

My natural creative writing (Literature) background (prose writing) ‘spiced up’ my story on the wisdom-based actions—but ‘environmentally desecrating’ attitudes—of street traders in Lagos State (Nigeria’s Commercial Capital)

Unfortunately, my ‘pictorial story’ was automatically disqualified for the CNN/Multi Choice contest on “publication year. The entries needed were stories produced in the current year: 2009.

I still have with me (in my Country—Liberia) my copy of Courtly Magazine with my story of street-trading in Lagos State.

In 2011, I returned to my Country, holding dearly to my “development journalism” culture (or orientation) infused in me at the Times Journalism Institute (TJI) But I found myself in a “journalistic environment” (orientation-wise) roundly opposite from the Nigerian kind into which I was groomed. In five years, beginning from the time I touched down on ancestral land (Liberia), I had worked for seven newspapers (including the most popular ones), employed as Proofreader, News Editor, Editor-in-Chief, and Reporter-Editor. But, I stayed for a “short time” with each on “journalistic cultures incompatibility”—I for “predominant development reporting”; my employer for “predominant political reporting”

ON MY LATEST DEVELOPMENT STORY: VISUALLY IMPAIRED (BLIND)14-YEAR-OLD STREET TRADER    

At 8:05Am of Saturday, November 13, 2021, I received a phone call from 14-year-old visually impaired (blind) “innovative” male Liberian named James Timothy (Photo above). The boy told me: “A man gave me two hundred United States dollars on your story about my phone business and my other skills. He took me to his house, introduced me to his family, and told to be in contact with him always.”

My story James referred to is about his being involved into phone call credit/internet data sale business (he tours around to find customers), his mechanical knowledge for bicycle repair, and his knowledge of carpentry and block-laying. The technical and vocational knowledge serves as backup to the telecommunication business. His ‘technical tools’ are often in his back bag he always took with him on his phone business.

The FrontPage Africa and Daily Observer (Liberia’s current leading independent media entities) published the story on their respective websites and hardcopy on November 8 and 9, 2021. The Inquirer and Heritage newspapers also shared the story as reported to me by some of the people who had read in each of these dailies.

I had shared the boy’s personal phone contacts—0555115896 and 0777440037—to each of the persons who requested it from me, after reading the story in the newspapers (mentioned above), unlike (majority) of other Liberian journalists who will prefer being the only channel for anybody wishing to reach the person made nationally popular by their story. Only a writer with clandestine intention will do that. This is my personal belief. Based on my  journalistic orientation (from the Nigerian Journalism School mentioned earlier), and my personal professional philosophy, I do not demand ‘financial gratitude’ (money)—explicitly or implicitly—from any of the “financially poor” persons who has received “financial assistance” from another person based on my writing-based service (news story or article) about their ingenious economic or educational exploits.

MY OTHER “DEVELOPMENT STORIES”

In 2017, I did a story about a model story building (with swimming pool and battery-powered lights) constructed by a 17-year-old, 9th grade student (of the Kakata Community College—a Junior & Senior High School, Margibi County) See photo below.

The Daily Observer newspaper shared the story through the hard copy and the Institution’s website 

I met this young Liberian “architectural engineer” by ‘accident’ when I was strolling around his neighborhood to release mental tension from plenty writing for a Monrovia-based NGO, Pen-Pen Peace Network (PPPN) involved in reducing conflict between traffic officers of the Liberia National Police and commercial motorcyclists during national elections time.   

In June, 2017, I wrote a story about a 26-year-old female Tractor driver (single mother), Rose Sieh, with Grand Kru County’s branch of Golden Veroleum Limited (GVL), an Indonesian palm plantation company currently in two of Liberia’s Counties—Grand Kru and Sinoe. This is one of the stories from my Presidential and Legislative Elections monitoring in the County.

The sound of this lady’s machine always disturbed my sleep between 4am and 5am whenever she was passing her regular route (in front of the house I was being hosted by my biological uncle, Peter Jeh, in Zoloken) whenever she was passing to pick GVL’s field workers for the company’s plantation in Zoloken (Town)

The story was published in the Women’s Voices newspaper, with my title: “Uncommon Woman”, with a subtitle: “Single mother takes up a ‘man’s job’ in Grand Kru County”

On August 1, 2019, I wrote a story about a model air plane built from wooden and metal scraps and seats made of sponge. The builder was a 17-year-old school drop-out named Emmanuel Kollie. I titled the story: “School Drop-Out, 17, Builds Plane, Other Machines”.  The story was sent to various newspapers to publish it, but only the Editor-in-Chief of the Heritage Newspaper, Augustus D. Bortu felt the story ‘developmentally worthy’ by being the only person who published it in his newspaper.

A fellow Liberian Journalist told me about a “very talented young Liberian, an inventor on building of air plane”, took me to the lad’s ‘automobile workshop’, but couldn’t find time to do the story himself—because he couldn’t imagine “money” from writing about such ‘developmentally worthy story’

Emmanuel Kollie with his creation

“l built the Plane with bamboo, planks, small, small wires, and poster sheets.   I built it in two weeks. Since I was born, I haven’t seen any flying Plane and I haven’t seen inside of any Plane,” Emmanuel responded to my during an exclusive interview on August 1, 2019 at his ‘automobile’ Workshop two yards from a larvae-inhabited body of water that covered a part of the base of the house in a community named Pototoree, in Congotown, outside of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

In 2018, I wrote  story about a model  multi-story building by a 15-year-old, 7th grader, named Jeremiah Somah, living with his parents in a tiny room in the Fiamah community, Sinkor, Monrovia. I took photo with the ingenious lad and his ‘architectural production’ near his ‘workshop’ few yards from the house he was living in (see photo below)

In March, 2021, I did a story (published in FrontPage Africa newspaper) about music career (religious and secular songs) of a 44-year-old man (Henry Kpadeh) on which he supports his five member-family—wife, husband and three children. I accidentally met him 8am (while going to my regular writing point) on Saturday, March 6, 2021 at the intersection of Benson and Johnson Streets, striking the cords of his guitar, accompanied by his sonorous voice. Mr. Kpadeh told me his main hus main “hustle points” are in  front of Government’s Ministries and Agencies, but he was at the place I met him because the all the places he often gets his family’s sustainability money were still closed due to the day being the general “Monrovia cleanup day” (introduced by former Monrovia City Mayor, Mary T. Broh, during the Presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf)

But passers-by, being moved by the sound of his guitar and his voice were dropping their “offerings” into a black polythene bag tied at the head of the guitar.

I have written dozens of other “human interest stories”—visually impaired single mother Christian Vanjah supporting her family with her pastry business, single father (of one daughter) Mr. David Yourfee (wheel chair mobile) combining his petty business (provisions shop) on Benson Street and education (student at the AME Zion University) as means of being self-reliant, et cetera.

MY “FRUSTRATIONS” OF “DEVELOPMENT JOURNALISM”

In spite of patriotism-based free journalistic services and national popularity they have attracted to me, I’m living on less than two United States dollars (in Liberian dollar equivalent) per day. In short, I am poor—similar to the living condition of majority of the people whose talents, inventions, or innovative ideas I have promoted through my writings.

There are driving factors of my current “discouraging financial handicaps”.

The first factor is publishers’ or chief editor’s demand for “publication fee”, or eternal delay to publish my development/human interest stories because I don’t have the needed publication. How can I give money for a pro-bono (humanitarian) story I didn’t receive money for? This part reminds me about the discouraging comments from a very good media colleague (chief editor of one of Liberia’s popular newspapers who I always engage to publish my humanitarianism-based pro bono stories): “Samuel G. Dweh, you will die poor in this media profession on your love for writing about people who don’t have money…blind people…cripple people…government’s pensioner collecting garbage from the streets as survival methods,” the person said to me in a group of journalists. The ‘government’s pensioner collecting garbage from the streets’ story the editor was referring to is about an 83-year-old pensioned man, who had worked as street sweeper of the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) over a decades, but couldn’t get his retirement benefits from the Government, so went into garbage collection (from stores and homes in Monrovia’s Business District) to get food money for himself and his 73-year-old wife (jobless) FrontPage Africa published the story, seen by a United States-based Liberian humanitarian organization that has come in with a 12-month food package with “soup money” through a Liberia-based organization.  On the U.S.-based Liberia organization’s ‘humanitarian intervention’, I did a follow-up News Feature titled “U.S.-based Liberian Group ‘Rescued’ 83-Year-Old Garbage Collector”, also shared around the World by FrontPage Africa through their online platform.  Only this man has given me “soft drink money”—ten United States dollars (US$10)—out of the group of over 25 persons whose talents or deplorable conditions I had publicized through my professional knowledge and have received financial rescued from some of the people who had read the published story.

Many other Liberians had used similar negatively ‘prophetic utterances’ against me. BUT I CAN’T CHANGE! Writing about “poor”—but ingenious—people is my Commission sanctioned by  the Most High (God)!

The second frustration factor is “ingratitude” people those I’ve written about and later received financial help from philanthropist (s) on my story about him/her.  Only “gratitude” call—“thank you for writing about me”—I’ve received. Nothing for “soft drink” (the real soft drink) or replacement of the money I had used as transportation fare to their residences for interview, or to replace the internet access data  I used to send the story to a newspaper’s publisher or chief editor for appearance in the paper or online. (Each of my stories are also featured on my Facebook) The writer, especially the freelancer, also needs “financial help”—like the person who received help from the writer’s professional service. However, “financial appreciation” is not my preoccupation for journalistic service, though.

The third factor is “bias” by ‘humanitarians’ (or philanthropist’) who requested from me the contact channel of the subject—man or woman in my story—after reading my story in a newspaper or on the paper’s website. The philanthropist helps only the person the story is about. The writer needs help, too!

For each of my development/human interest stories, I’ve received at least three phone calls or e-mails from persons expressing interest to help the poor—but artistically/enterprenuerially ingenious—person  in my journalistic production and requested the person’s phone or email contact. My purpose for writing about “disadvantaged person” is for another person to help the person—since I do not have the financial means to help the person. Based on this humanitarian feeling, I always share contacts of those I wrote about to anybody who expressed his/her interest to give assistance.

The fourth disappointing factor is financially privileged national leaders’ prioritization of “political stories”—ones that promote their personal image or demonize their political opponents—and supporting only writers who produce these kinds  stories. Based on my journalistic orientation, I’ve vowed never to be in this “political field” (of political praise-singing or political demonization), so politicians’ invitations to journalists to cover their “developmental programs” do not come my way—even though I’ve promoted the “developmental actions” of some of them. One example: In October, 2021, I wrote an article about “patriotic political will” of halting mass plundering Grand Kru County’s gold-rich mines by Hon. Jonathan Fonati Koffa, Representative of District #2 (Grand Kru County) and Deputy Speakers of the House of Representatives of Liberia. The story was published in some of the local papers, on the website of other local media entities, and on my Facebook (Hon. Koffa and I are friends on Facebook) But, the Honorable politician hasn’t added his name on the lists of cross-section of Liberians (including Government officials) who sent “congratulatory messages” to me on the article. If this article was purely a “praise-singing” one…(I can’t complete this sentence)

The fifth frustration factor is the current Press Union of Liberia (PUL) leadership’s lack of “practical interest” in promoting of writing of “development/human interest” stories. I have a personal painful experience: My name was announced at the PUL’s “Media Excellence Awards Night”, in 2018, as winner of the “Development Journalist of the Year Award”, but my Award hasn’t been released three years later (2021) Presenting the symbolic award (rolled A4 papers) at the event, PUL President, Mr. Charles B. Coffey, Jr., said to me: “The sponsor for this award is the United Nations Development Project, they will give the award after this event, to be delivered by us to you”.

My story that won the First Prize is the second story featured in this article—construction of model houses by a 17-year-old, 9th grade student (Jacob Trawally)

The sixth frustration factor is Liberia’s foreign development partners’ “marginalization”—hiring only local newspapers’ reporters who had promoted only their “public relations stories” (from Press Releases, Press Conferences, and training programs)—in the reporters’ newspapers in the past. Most of these stories are written in “one way lane”—information of “he said…”, “she said…”, “according to him…”, “according to her…”, “it can be recalled…” No personal/independent input by the Public Relations writer (journalists).  The foreign development partners—Governments (represented by Embassies), African regional bodies, UN Agencies, and International NGOs do not prioritize supporting writing of “independent development stories” by “freelance journalists” like me.

In 2013, the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), in partnership with the Press Union of Liberia (led by Mr. Kamara Abdullai Kamara—now deceased—as president), sponsored a three-day “development reporting” training workshop, held in Thinkers’ Village, on Robertsfield Highway. I, a PUL member, attended the workshop, and served as rapporteur. The UNDP’s representative told the body of Journalists this UN Agency is interested in only journalistic productions that promote only people’s talents and innovations or inventions, and will support only Journalists who had been consisting on reporting on development stories over a longer period. But none of my several published “development stories”—between the time the Workshop was held up to now (2021)—has caught the attention of the Liberia’s Office of the UNDP for “support”. This gives me a different meaning of UNDP’s Motto: “Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations” A writer’s profession is a symbolism of his/her “life”. His/her production is source of his/her “livelihoods” (sources of living)

MY PERSONAL “SPIRITUAL REWARDS” OF WRITING DEVELOPMENT/HUMAN INTEREST STORIES

The rewards are only two.

The first is “good health” for my personal family (nucleus) and my only living parent (mother) battling advanced stage of Pressure (sickness), after spending almost a week at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center (State-owned) in October, 2020. Neither I nor any of my children has ever become sick to a “hospital-treatment” point. This “good health” is a product of a “spiritual comment”—(“God bless you”) or “prayers” (for me or my family) from “poor people” whose talents or innovations I had publicized through my talent—writing—and have received help from other people who read my story. (One example: US$200 for visually impaired James Timothy)

The other reward is an accident-free life for me and other members of my nucleus family. Source of this spiritual reward is the comment—“May God be with your family”—from “poor beneficiary” of my writing- related service. This comment takes the place of the “financial gratitude” he/she wishes to give, but doesn’t have.

How can you—reading this article—encourage me to continue writing about more poor-but innovatively important—Liberians and citizens of other Countries? By verbal “thank you” or by “thank you” with small money?

My special gratitude to the Center for Media Studies & Peacebuilding (CEMESP) of Liberia for indirect contributing to production of the story on 14-year-old visually impaired James Timothy and this article by allowing my use of its facilities (seats, electricity and internet facility) for each writing process. CEMESP’s Executive Director is Mr. Malcolm W. Joseph, former president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL)

 

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About Cholo Brooks 15829 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.

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