SOAS student Robtel Neajai Pailey with her book, Gbagba
Robtel Neajai Pailey, a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London is using storytelling to combat corruption in Liberia.
student, who now splits her time between the US and Liberia, was inspired to address this issue after working with young people as head of a Liberian government scholarships committee. Pailey had the idea of a book addressing corruption specifically for children, which came to fruition through a friend who works in publishing.
Pailey said: “There seems to be a gap in the fight against corruption — in Liberia and elsewhere — and I was really interested to explore how corruption affects children, and how they might interpret and question the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them.
“Children have a way of making adults feel embarrassed through their innocence — when they question established norms they highlight why things need to be done differently.”
Robtel Pailey with book and kids
Robtel Neajai Pailey presents her book, Gbagba, to children in Liberia
The book, Gbagba, follows the story of a twin brother and sister who encounter various characters in their journey to the Liberian capital Monrovia to visit their aunt. Pailey explains how this scenario enabled her to create dialogue between the two characters who “bounce ideas off one another”.
Pailey also wants Gbagba to help increase literacy, and hopes to introduce the book into Liberia’s school curriculum. So far it has been well received by the Ministry of Education, which also supported Pailey’s previous campaign to make Liberia’s international scholarships system merit-based, transparent and gender-balanced.
After spending her childhood in Liberia, the SOAS student received scholarships enabling her to attend secondary school and university in the US and UK. She was driven to reform Liberia’s international scholarships scheme after she noticed the most gifted were not being awarded the funds. She worked with a committee to develop a fair system which identified and supported the best applicants. In less than six months, the scheme was being fully implemented by the Liberian government.
After achieving these breakthroughs in her home country, Pailey left Liberia to study for her doctorate at SOAS, where she is currently researching the implications of proposed dual citizenship legislation on Liberia’s post-conflict reconstruction and development process.
Describing herself as a “cheerleader for SOAS” Pailey adds: “I love SOAS. Here, you are trained to identify gaps and fault lines in the dominant narrative. SOAS has so many experts from different regions who examine what development means for developing countries. You are encouraged to critique conventional neo-liberal perspectives, which requires you to ‘step out of the box’ and really understand whether a certain developmental policy or program is right for a particular country.
“SOAS students have a different kind of consciousness – many go on to work for NGOs, in the media or become academics and they remain committed to squashing the status quo.”