Editor’s Note: As the Daily Observer, Liberia’s first independent daily, celebrates its 40th anniversary (February 16, 1981), we bring you a series of articles from various vantage points — through the lenses of individuals who shared a common path with the Daily Observer at various points in time. The series, titled, “Observer @ 40: This Is Our Story”, kicks off with an article from someone who experienced the Observer and its founders in a rather broad sense, and underscores what the Observer stands for, and why it continues to stand.
By Fr. James B. Sellee, Dean, Trinity Cathedral, 14 February 2021
I was to preach today at this Church, Christ Church, Crozierville, and say something about the Daily Observer Newspaper and by extension say something about the Kenneth Yarkpawolo Best family. Unfortunately, I preside over the annual parochial meeting of Trinity Cathedral today and present my annual report for 2020. Please have me excused.
Kindly accept this personal testimony about what I believe to be the incalculable impact the Best family and the Daily Observer Newspaper and the hard-working people who produce it have had and continue to have on two nations, Liberia and The Gambia and beyond (via the online version).
The Best Family
I met the Best family (Bro. Kenneth Y. Best, Mae Gene Best, and the rest of the family) in The Gambia in 1991, when I took an assignment at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia. This Diocese comprised the Republics of The Gambia, Senegal, and Cape Verde. I served there as a missionary priest 1991 1995. For two years I served as Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s Cathedral and another two years a Priest-In-Charge of St. Paul’s Parish, Fajara. Immediately there was a bond between the family and me. The Bests are known for their kind hospitality. They had, at their residence, many receptions, and other forms of gatherings with local and international guests and fed their guests with some of the richest food and finest drinks. At these gatherings, people of all levels of society were there and thus provided opportunities for interesting conversations and interactions. By this means we, the Bests and I, got to know and lived well with the Gambians and enjoyed and made our stay in The Gambia count.
The Bests became an integral part of the Anglican Diocese of Gambia. Bro. K. Y. Best served as a veteran lay reader at St. Mary Cathedral and was for those many years, he lived in The Gambia as chairman of the Resolutions Committee at every Synod (Convention). I would greatly relish hearing him read the resolutions of Synod. The Bests also made substantial financial contributions to the running of St. Mary Cathedral. In short, they became part and parcel of the life, worship, and governance of the Cathedral, St. Paul, Fajara, and the Gambian Diocese.
The Daily Observer and Society
Before the arrival of the Bests in The Gambia, there were no daily newspapers. The country had one or two newspapers that came out two or three days a week. The Daily Observer was the first daily newspaper. Initially, some Gambians tried to discourage the Bests by arguing that The Gambia was not a reading society, but the Bests countered this argument with the observation the Gambians did not read because no one helped do so (by giving them something interesting to read). Hence, The Gambia Daily Observer newspaper was the first daily in the country. It became so successful that many marketers who could not read and write would buy the paper and enjoy looking at the fine pictures of events in the country and would ask their children to read and explain to them what was happening in the country. Some of the ministers of the government confessed openly that they could not begin work until they received their copies of the newspaper and read or browsed through it; it was the first thing a lot of Gambians turned to before moving onto other things.
As usual, the Daily Observer continued to speak truth to power. It managed a relatively cordial relationship with the former president, the old president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. But when the military leader, Yahya Jameh, overthrew Jawara, he could not stomach the Daily Observer that told it as it was in The Gambia. Initially, it embraced and loved the Daily Observer as it was providing information on its plan to audit and prosecute the old government officials. But as the new government began to show signs of bad governance, the Daily Observer began to point out these shortcomings.
Bro. Best was arrested early one morning and deported from the country. His household, including non-family members, were granted visas to migrate to the United States for refuge. This was a testimony of how the US Embassy viewed and respected the Daily Observer! This was a repeat of what had happened to the Daily Observer under President Samuel Kanyon Doe when its offices were ransacked and burnt more than once. It continued that path of speaking truth to power under the elected government of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Initially, I believed that the Daily Observer was an ally to the new government of Madam Sirleaf with her level and sophistication of education, experience in politics, and international contacts. But that perception was short-lived. As soon as the new government began to dash the hopes of many Liberians, the Daily Observer did not shy away from pointing out its failures. Fortunately, Madam Sirleaf was too smart to close it down or burn down its offices. That is the newspaper it continues to be today. It is loved for its objectivity and balanced reporting of happenings in the country and beyond. In my view, it is one of the finest newspapers in Libera, The Gambia, and dare I say in Africa.