Happy 75th birthday Mr. Kenneth Y. Best. And Thank You!

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Anytime the opportunity comes to write about Kenneth Y. Best, I push the responsibility to Cherno Baba Jallow, also a former reporter for Kenneth Y. Best’s Gambian Daily Observer. For some reason I always feel like I am not educated enough or wise enough to write about Best. I even fear I might misspell a word and thus tarnish his image and legacy. Best, I feel, has to be well represented perfectly in words and genuinely from the heart.  Looking back, with all the nepotism in the Jawara era, you think a bright and advanced paper like the Daily Observer, back then, would hire reporters like us?? With no family or government connections? No wonder up till today some people keep saying and narrating that I went to the Observer through the back door. I will not discount that in its entirety, looking back at how I met the legendary Kenneth Y. Best.I was his first female reporter at the Observer!

This is a tribute to Kenneth Y. best for his 75th birthday, but since I had never written about him, I will at least give a snippet on how Best happened on me or how Best and I happened on each other. My first job after High School was as a receptionist/phone operator at the Novotel/Kombo beach Hotel. So it was off-season and some of us got laid off. Then my father’s friend gave me a job at his tiny juice shop, planted at his office compound on pipeline road. We sold soft drinks and rented out action movies.

I would buy the observer regularly; I was a young married mother with two sons, waiting for a husband who went on a hustle in America, to help him get into law school. On my way to check my mail box at the Serrekunda post office, I would always buy the Observer, this new paper, this new phenomenon. I was always fascinated about reading material, but more so of people, about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, about South Africa. I could not pull together well what was going on in South Africa then. I was a village girl. I loved to read about Lady Diana and Whitney Houston. My then-husband was an avid reader of The Times, West Africa Magazine and Newsweek. I had no clue where he got them; probably at the bank where he was working. 

I would buy the Observer. It was my first time getting in contact with a commercially affordable newspaper. I used to read Foroyaa in the village through my brother. We were the Foroyaa/PDOIS protégés during our high school days. After high school, he went to Gambia College and became a teacher and I got married. What was there then for village kids to do after school?? Our happy times with trying to understand the elitist Foroyaa soon got over. This Observer paper was different. It had photos of government officials that my brother and I could not stand. It was simple. All stories were easy to read and understand. We could see all the photos of our politicians. Now we had evidence of all our fears of and distaste for Gambian politicians. Also, the Observer carried human-interest stories. And it represented the downtrodden, from Banjul to Koina, Barra to Senegal. 

I soon began bombarding the Observer with letters to the editor about government waste, nepotism, cheating us on government scholarships, and the dangers of skin bleaching. And about corruption and everything else that was bothering our communities. We wanted to go abroad to study and all our colleagues had been given scholarships and had left us behind.  Oh boy, my brother and I were angry!! 

One fine day, I went to the Observer and met with the letters editor Mrs. Brewer (she passed away in South Africa some years back; God bless her soul), Kenneth Best’s sister. She laughed at the sheer bulk of letters to the editor I was sending by the day. She said to me, ‘my brother is the publisher of this paper and would like to meet you. He asked me to take you to him whenever you drop your letters. He wants to meet you.’  Honestly, I did not know what she meant by publisher then. I was guessing general manager. I am a pure country girl but my taste for fashion was up there, so these Liberian folks could not tell. I actually thought they were Westerners, Americans, I thought.  The way they dressed and spoke sounded more Western to me. Yes, Mrs. Best adapted to the beautiful Marinyerr Gambian dresses quickly. So did Kenneth Best!! They were a very beautiful and educated couple. Few weeks working for the Observer and I just realized that Mr. Best could pass for my uncle next door. He was just very educated. Yes, Best had a whole lot of country folks working for him. The only city boys then were Ebrima Ceesay, Justice Fofana who was also doubling as West Africa Correspondent and I guess Sehriff Bojang, from Brikama (now of the Standard) who was a young prolific writer, poet and liked to demonstrate his rap and dance skills to me at the Observer premises. Abdou Karim Sanneh was the Observer correspondent on agricultural matters. I would fondly call him the Observer farmer. Lamin Cham was sports editor, with Rodney Sieh taking over later. Lamin is from Brufut but he dressed and act as if he was a solicitor from London. And he equally had big words for his stories.

Everything Lamin cham wrote had “pandemonium” attached to it. Be it sports or fires at the Serrekunda market. Just about anything I swear now, is pandemonium. I used to tease him on the abuse of that word. Lamin was a kind hearted, harmless and dedicated sports writer.

Now came the time to meet with Mr. Best in his office. “Kenneth,” said Mrs. Brewer, “here is Fatou JO Manneh.” That was how I heard my name pronounced. He was pushed back, leaning on his chair close to the wall, sizing me up.

“I was wondering if you could work for us as a reporter,” Best asked.

“Oh no Sir, I am not that educated.  I only have an ‘O’ level high school certificate, and I know nothing about reporting.”

He then said, “How about start as a columnist then?”

And I asked him, “What is a columnist?”

And he replied, “Just bring in your letters to the editor. But make them longer and you will have to deliver them certain days of the week without fail.  You will have a permanent spot on the paper where we will feature your articles.”  And I liked that. I told him to give me time to think over it.  Next time I came back with my letters, I told Best that I would take a job as a reporter instead. As the popular saying goes, the rest then is history. I became his first female reporter at the Daily Observer. My first assignment was to go with Justice Fofana to a parliamentary session. It was the first time I ever went near or into that building. I plan to elaborate on my stint at the Observer at another time. This is Kenneth Y Best’s 75th birthday. 

For some of us, our parents were illiterate. One day my father asked me about my job. “Some people praise you for what you do and some people are asking me to caution you for your Job. What is your job, Fatou Jaw?” my dad asked.

And I answered, “Oh Dad, we are like Radio Gambia but in print."  I guess that would make him proud. Jawara’s Radio Gambia. My Dad was a part of the Jawara fanatic political machine. If he knew that the part I enjoyed most of all the Observer assignments were Sheriif Dibba’s lambasting of Jawara policies. Oh come see my headlines then. Dad would have collapsed. He would be so very upset! Or if he witnessed me playing hate with VP Saihou Sabllay at government functions then, who threatened to deport me because they thought I was Liberian and I was a nuisance!

At the Observer, Best was an affable man. He laughed loud and hard. He would tell you when you did your best or your worst. He was a brother you always wanted around. Kenneth Best is a wise man, an educated man and a sensible man.  A God-fearing man, Best fulfills the role of Modern man and Modern Dad that we all sometimes yearn for. With Kenneth, we had courage that we could push any mountain. He made you feel that you were the best. I loved to watch the way he mingled with and treated the Boys. He made them feel as if they worked for the New York Times. And God help us, they acted so, too. Onetime he rewrote my story and published it without my by-line.  Not happy, I stormed into his office and demanded why.

“Well, I made so many corrections that by the time I was done, I forgot that you wrote it,” he answered.

Ahha Dang!! I left his office with my attitude. Best forced us all into critical thinking. I became more of an opinionated commentator. So probably a columnist job would have suited me better. I used to hate seeing him pluck and peel my opinions out of news stories. “I am not asking for your opinion. Give me the story, the Who, What and Why,” he loved to reiterate. He took me to the blackboard one morning to explain the process of news writing and he ensured that I got it right. Like an excited professor, he cultivated in us work ethics, a love for reading and to verify and follow up on stories. Best saw the uniqueness in all of us and knew exactly how that fitted with our talents. He could see talent from afar.

One time I started to report on a story about a purchasing manager at the Fajara Hotel, who was abusing local women for favors of giving them little contracts to supply vegetables. I came back to the office all excited with the story. The story carried a high risk, because the mangier was a foreign professional and the hotel was owned by a Gambian millionaire then. Best drove me in his car back to the hotel, talked to all the grieving women and made sure that every word I wrote against the hotel was accurate and verified. The next day, these “supplier women” came to the office. They brought along some money for me, just a way of showing their gratitude about the story. But Best came out, and said, “Thanks, we are grateful. But no, Fatou was just doing her job.”

Don’t be fooled. He will never leave you alone even if you merely had a one-paragraph story. At some point people mistook the Observer for a court, a place they could walk into to let us know about their grievances. Market women bought the Observer and took it to their children home to read for them. Yes, Best started this media mania in The Gambia.  We had some newspapers then, I am sure, but this information revolution in The Gambia was started by Best’s Observer. 

For the first time in my life, he made me travel to the hinterlands to bring in stories. I went to Farafenni, Basse and all the way to Fatoto and Koina. I traveled on horse carts, motor cycles and in a pull-boat in Sankulay Kunda. I called him from Basse and he was very excited as if he were a CNN anchorman. But beneath all that, he was concerned about me: Where are you now? Eat well. Are you sleeping alright? Did you meet our man Sarjo? That was Sarjo Bayang, who became a lifelong friend. Sarjo was then a Regional Officer for the Indigenous Business Advisory Services IBAS stationed at Farafenni and Observer correspondent and business columnist.  He told me how great Sarjo was. Best made all of us feel big, but in a very humble way. He used journalism to push for good in Africa. When Yahya Jammeh came to power, and later arrested and deported Best back to Liberia, we all were heart-broken; but the guy was just unstoppable. He came to the US and taught at the American University in Washington, DC. And has now revived the Liberian Observer and the paper keeps doing wonders!! 

Kenneth Y. Best, Let me call you by your official name, May Allah continue to protect you throughout. God has saved you through calamities in both Liberia and The Gambia. He gave you the wisdom to tighten when necessary and to loosen when necessary. What a balancing act you did! You have survived two dictatorships and are still prodding for your beloved Liberia and The Gambia. Don’t worry, Best. Your Gambian sons and daughters Dr. Ebrima Ceesay, Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow, Cherno Baba Jallow, Sheriff Bojang, Ina Cherie and others are all big men and women now. They all have big degrees and are working big jobs. And you have somehow contributed to all of their individual success stories. Now we all want to see you push through a thousand years!! Don’t worry. We got your back! Happy 75th birthday, Mr. Best. WE LOVE YA! 

Fatou Jaw Manneh

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