Interview: Robtel Pailey

Monday, 9 December 2013
Author: 
RAS Blog

GBAGBA PRE-LONDON LAUNCH INTERVIEW - RAS Blog

To commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day on Dec. 9, the Centre of African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will host the London launch of Gbagba, an anti-corruption primer for children written by SOAS Ph.D. student and Liberian writer Robtel Neajai Pailey.

Gbagba—which loosely translated in the Bassa language means ‘trickery’—follows a few days in the life of Liberian twins, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, who leave their hometown of Buchanan to visit their aunt in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. Previously launched in Monrovia and Washington, D.C., Gbagba explores issues of integrity, accountability, and corruption through a beautifully illustrated children’s narrative. We interviewed Pailey ahead of the UK launch of her book.

What has been your own experience of or response to corruption?

Robtel Neajai Pailey: Generally, corruption is often thought of as something that only those with ‘entrusted power’ engage in, such as those in government, or more increasingly those in big business. But, I think corruption is the little acts of trickery that all of us engage in as a means of bypassing systems that we find cumbersome or problematic. As I stated in a New York Times/International Herald Tribune article in July of this year, “corruption is enmeshed in everyday human interaction; it is a function of both poverty and greed.” I was referring to my country Liberia then, but I think the same can be said for how corruption manifests itself all over the world—varying in scale and degree. My response is that we’ve got to change the discourse on corruption, thinking of it, not only as a problem for the public or private sectors to be concerned about, but as something that we all must confront in our individual lives; in our schools; in our workplaces; in our churches, mosques, synagogues, temples; in our local communities; in our nations.

How would you describe the everyday attitude towards corruption in Liberia?

RNP: A lot of people rationalize corruption as a legitimate way of getting ahead, of amassing wealth, of cheating the system. Because our systems can be easily wielded, and there are few consequences for transgressors—especially the rich and powerful—people have come to believe that the only way to personal fulfillment is through ‘hook and crook.’ Another common phenomenon is that Liberians see corruption as ‘outside’ of themselves. We often point the finger at our government, failing to realize that a democratically elected government is a reflection of the nation. So, if the government is corrupt and corruptible, then the citizenry can also be accused of being corrupt and corruptible.

What kind of social and historical factors have contributed to this?

RNP: South African writer and political analyst William Gumede argues that fighting corruption in Africa fails because the root causes are poorly understood. According to Gumede, African countries “inherited deeply corrupt institutions, laws and values from colonial and apartheid governments” and refused to change them at the time of independence because they benefited an elite few. I agree with Gumede in that systems of patronage are colonial artifacts which breed corruption. However, I would argue that Liberia’s historical trajectory as a nation founded on principles of theft and dispossession doesn’t tell the full story of why corruption persists in the 21st century. Some people say corruption is entrenched because during Liberia’s civil war, people had to get ahead by means both ‘fair and foul’. Granted, but I think there’s a deeper sociological truth we’ve yet to unpack.  Liberia is a very insular society with a population of 3.4 million people. Most times, we pardon transgressions—both large and small—because we don’t want to upset, embarrass, or alienate our neighbors. But it seems a bit counterintuitive to me, really. I would argue that because we live in such close quarters, personal transgressions should be checked at all times because we do have to face one another, day in and day out, whether we like it or not. So, I would argue that contemporary corruption in Liberia can be understood as a combination of factors. Our history of inequality, the civil war, and the contemporary rights rhetoric hailing the primacy of the ‘individual’ has essentially eroded social cohesion.

Can you tell us how the idea of writing Gbagba came about and how you worked with the illustrator Chase Walker and publisher One Moore Book, LLC?

RNP: I got really frustrated with all the rhetoric about fighting corruption in Liberia, and wanted to start a national conversation with children. So, I wrote Gbagba, creating a narrative that Liberian kids could see themselves reflected in, thereby increasing their love of reading. My publisher, Wayetu Moore, of One Moore Book (OMB), was enthusiastic about the concept of the book from the very beginning. She founded OMB in 2011 with her four siblings because they wanted to revolutionise the children’s book industry by producing stories for children from underrepresented cultures. Wayetu was the perfect ally in giving life to Gbagba. So too was Chase Walker, my illustrator, who had been drawing subversive cartoons for months in Frontpage Africa Newspaper, a local daily in Liberia.  A self-taught graphic designer and artist, Chase provided such depth to my twin protagonists, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, that their personalities jumped off each page of the book!

Why did you want to target children in particular with your book?

RNP: After teaching at Liberia’s national university and working in policy spaces in national government, I realized that integrity must be strengthened at the earliest stages in a child’s life in order to mitigate the practice of corruption in the next generation. It’s virtually impossible to expect that an 18-year-old approaching adulthood is all of a sudden going to develop scruples, especially when his/her society does not value honesty. Eight to 10-year-old children are the perfect targets because it is at this stage that they begin to form an ethical core. In writing Gbagba, I imagined myself a proverbial anti-corruption pied piper, without the instrument of doom.

How have children responded to Gbagba so far?

RNP: I’ve done readings of Gbagba followed by discussions with children in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and was struck by how astute they are. They understand issues of integrity better than we adults do, and are able to articulate themselves with such bright-eyed innocence. Before conducting a workshop and preview reading of Gbabga at a local elementary school in Monrovia, one girl told me, “Corruption is breaking the Ten Commandments and hurting people.” This young child understood so fundamentally the intrinsic value of accountability. This is why I wrote Gbagba, to give young children the verbal tools to question the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them.

What are the next steps for the book?

RNP: I’m planning a national tour of Gbagba throughout Liberia in the next couple of years, and on this tour I’d like to give each eight to 10-year-old child I meet along the way their own personal, autographed copy of the book. I’m pushing Liberia’s Ministry of Education to institutionalize Gbagba by including it in the national curriculum for 3rd-5th graders. And there’s a sequel of the book in my head fighting to get on paper. Eventually, I’d like to do pilots of the book in five continental regional hubs—Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda.

Ggagba will be launched at the School of Oriental and African Studies on Monday 9th Decemeber.