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I was 14 when I got my first job

Tuesday January 30 2018

Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist, and author with 15 years of professional experience spanning Africa, Europe and North America.

Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist, and author with 15 years of professional experience spanning Africa, Europe and North America. PHOTO| KATE LLOYD 

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Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist, and author with 15 years of professional experience spanning Africa, Europe and North America. She has worked across a broad range of fields supporting universities, governments, NGOs, media institutions, regional and multilateral organisations.


Kenya is just sort of getting back on its feet after what has been a protracted and highly divisive election period. As a researcher in the area of political economy and governance, what are your fast tips on recovery and what are some youth-specific roles that young people can play in the recovery process?

Kenya has matured in the past decade, but old rivalries and unresolved electoral tensions continue to threaten the country’s future.

The powers that be have inherited a divided and disgruntled country, and the economic boycott and threats of swearing in a parallel national leader are only signs of difficult times to come. But all is not lost. Transformation does not happen overnight. Young Kenyans across the country must be committed to creating long-term political solutions that put Kenya first.

During a trip to Nairobi in early December last year, I had the pleasure of speaking with many young intellectuals and activists who reassured me that it is Kenyans who will determine the fate of their country.


During the last elections, many of them started their own political parties, ran for elected office, and served up sharp, comprehensive analysis when the world needed it most. And that filled me with hope. It is prime time for young Kenyans to become more politically engaged than ever before.


Your work in social justice has received recognition from a host of notable global organisations, however, social justice continues to be a tough call in the quest for a fairer world. What stands in the way?

There is a small, elite minority who benefit generously from inequality and injustice. They will do anything, even commit murder, to maintain the political, economic, and social status quo.

They are organised and unified, yet reckless in their single-minded pursuit to put profit before people. Those of us who are committed to a more just and equal world have to be 10 steps ahead of them. We have to be unrelenting in our deeds, words and actions.

We must be willing to work intersectionally, rather than in silos of race, class, ethnicity, ability and sexuality. African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, once said that “power concedes nothing without a struggle”.


Gbagba, your 2013 critically acclaimed book, tackles the murky, adult themes of corruption and integrity. Why did you package it as a children’s book?

Adults are too set in their ways and I got frustrated with them rationalising their dubious deeds. Children tell it like it is. They have oodles of integrity. They are refreshingly truthful until we socialise them to be otherwise. I wanted to stop that socialisation process in its tracks by initiating meaningful conversations with kids about the blurred lines between honesty and dishonesty. Through Gbagba, I hope to build a movement of children who question corruption, resist it, even, and embarrass adults into living more authentic, ethical lives. In Africa, we have folktales that teach children about virtues and vices.  Now, we can add Gbagba to that amazing canon.


How did you get to be all these things that you are? What would you say were some of the most defining moments of your younger life? How did you build a career as solid as this? Top three tips for young people?

I always dreamed of creating a professional life in which I lived my passion every single day. Although I am not entirely there yet, I think I’ve come pretty close to finding fulfillment. But achieving this feat requires hard work and personal sacrifice. One must be willing to do the time. My parents sacrificed so much for me to get a solid education, so I cannot forsake their efforts by squandering opportunities and blessings that have been thrown my way.

My advice is to start by equipping yourself with a solid intellectual foundation, and even if you cannot afford formal education, commit to getting wisdom informally. Secondly, surround yourself with people who share your values and will hold you accountable. And lastly, use whatever privilege you have—because we all have privilege, big and small, to open doors for others. 

What was your first job? How did it prepare you for the professional that you are today?

I was 14 when I got my first real job. My working class parents were spending everything they had to educate me at expensive private schools, so I didn’t want to overburden them with personal requests. I worked as a switchboard operator at my high school on weekday afternoons and some Summer months for four years. This made me appreciate the value of earning my own money. It taught me about effective time management. It made me self-sufficient.


What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was an avid debater, and my parents encouraged me to stand up for what I thought was right and just. I imagined myself becoming a public interest lawyer, but working as a freelance writer during a post-undergrad fellowship in Egypt cultivated a love and appreciation for words.

Challenging received ideas about Africa and telling our stories differently became an obsession, so I figured out a way to turn that into a career.


What are you still looking forward to achieving?

I want to finish a memoir that’s been in my head for almost a decade and publish a revised version of my PhD thesis into a book. I’d also like to become a full professor and then enter formally into politics. 


Do you think that young people in Africa, generally, are doing the best that they can to influence the course of their futures for the better?

Considering all the hurdles stacked up against us, I think they are doing the best they can. But, quite frankly, that’s not good enough. Many young people feel entitled, they need to be reminded that integrity and hard work are the only things worth boasting about. In the age of social media, we all want the glitz and glamour, but I often question whether we are willing to do the heavy lifting to achieve meaningful success. The kind of success that does not tear humanity down but builds it up.


What are your greatest fears in life?

Leaving the world in a worse state than I found it. 


Which lines best describe your life as an undergraduate student?

I was a wanderer at ease with uneasiness, a firebrand with a big mouth and an even bigger heart. At my core, I am still these things.


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