Happy Birthday, Kenneth Yakpawolo Best. At 75, you are just 25 years shy of being a century old! Keep churning out the years.
But, in all seriousness, it is the mark of high altruism to celebrate one’s birthday in the manner you have. When it is not about you, but about others – your community, your country, and your continent – it is telling on your character. I have known you enough now to advance that it is never about you, but about those around you, the defenseless and helpless people in society. That’s what your proprietorship of the Daily Observer, from The Gambia to Liberia, has always meant to you. When you were expelled from Banjul in 1994, you said the Observer was no longer your own but the property of the Gambian people, and therefore, it must continue publication regardless of your absence.
In The Gambia, you made the Observer a household commodity. The people felt like they had an implicit stake in the running of the paper because it mirrored their realities, their daily struggles, and their aspirations. You made the Observer the unsolicited spokesman of the people. And they listened, paid attention. Unlettered parents bought the paper to have their children read it out to them. You gave voice to opinion makers, students, government and business leaders, farmers and market women. Your kind of journalism is fastened to the ideals of enlightenment and advocacy: informing as well as educating; elucidating as well as intensifying – the dialogue, the issues, the ideas, and the way forward.
As I see it, you pursue journalism as a means to promote social justice, to redress wrongs in society, to hold leaders accountable and to advance the public livelihood as normally understood. I see your 1981 maiden headline in the Liberian Observer, “West Point Dwellers Are Angry” in the cast of advocacy journalism. In a similar vein, I am reminded of this 1993 headline in the Gambian Observer: “Serekunda Market – Home to Billions of Flies!” You had sent me out on my first feature-story assignment to the market to interview the people and describe the filth – a grave public concern at the time – of the place. You made the article the lead back-page story, perhaps, in the hopes that the authorities concerned would take heed and do something. It was a call to action!
Just as you had always wanted the best for the Gambian community, you had also shown the same kindness of heart to us, your employees and colleagues. You shared your knowledge and wisdom. You wanted us to succeed and to get better at it. Perhaps it requires saying all the time, but I take advantage of this wonderful occasion of your birthday to openly say it to you that I am personally indebted. Throughout my professional relationship with you, I have noticed that you have always challenged me to do better, to overcome my hesitations and to rise to the occasion.
I am reminded of the many high-profile reporting assignments you sent me out on: doing a feature on the newly-commissioned Laminkoto-Kassamas road in The Gambia in 1993; visiting then-Lt. Yahya Jammeh's home village of Kanillai in 1994 and writing about his origins; sending me, as your replacement, to a journalism panel on the press in Africa at the American University in Washington, DC in 1996; asking me to be one of your recommenders for a media award at your alma mater, Columbia University in New York; and then recommending me to speak on your behalf and introduce you to the Columbia audience (journalism luminaries and New York city media glitterati) during the award ceremony in 2003. Why me? I always asked myself each time you delegated such heart-throbbing responsibilities. But I must say that such errands, as onerous as they may have seemed at first, have only redounded to my professional growth and excellence. "Be not afraid of greatness,” counseled Shakespeare, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Sometimes, to reach one’s full potential, to do away with one’s own inhibitions and shortcomings, somebody, say, your insightful manager at work, has to push you to go the extra ounce, to get over the hump. I can’t be appreciative enough!
At 75, you are still going strong, which is a wonderful blessing from our Creator. I remember earlier this year I called you in Liberia just to say hello, but you told me you were busy, “call me back later…I am on my way to interview the President” (Ellen Sirleaf Johnson). I said to myself that you were still the original reporter I knew, still pushing it, still pursuing the story, still working tirelessly to inform and educate the people. I marvel at your perseverance!
Again, Happy Birthday! May you continue to be a beacon of inspiration to your family and to all of us who passed through your professional guardianship. Amen.
Cherno Baba Jallow was a senior reporter and feature writer at the Gambian Daily Observer in Banjul, The Gambia. Following Mr. Best’s deportation by the Yahya Jammeh regime on October 30, 1994, Cherno, like many of his Gambian Observer colleagues, was forced to flee his native land. He migrated to the United States, where he graduated from college and obtained a Master’s degree. He was recently admitted to enter the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York, Mr. Best’s alma mater.
Cherno is an active contributor to a Gambian online publication informing their compatriots the world about the desperate situation at home.