James Kokulo Fasuekoi, Eden Prairie, Minn. – Prior to traveling to Liberia January 2013, having completed studies with a Master’s in Criminal Justice, in addition to a Bachelor’s and Associate degrees in English and journalism from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va., and the Florida Community College of Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Thomas Kai Toteh who had been my partner in journalism and human rights advocacy for nearly eight years, requested me to break news of his joyous return home via a news release after his long years in exile. But little did I know that exactly two years later I would sadly have to write a tribute in memory of my dear friend.
Toteh, a US trained journalist who worked in the United States for many years as freelance writer is reported to have passed away about two weeks ago on February 17th at his Brewerville residence located in a suburb of Monrovia. The deceased was a middle age man. Circumstances surrounding his death so far are sketchy but a family-friend Hamilton Kayee, who broke the death news on social media, said a relative of the late journalist had informed him that Toteh died while asleep. The local online web magazine, Insight Newspaper, Thomas Kai Toteh served as an associate editor till his death had not published news of the sad incident at the time of this writing although the website continues to update and publish fresh stories.
A son of Liberia’s southeastern region of Sinoe County, “Kai Toteh” as he preferred, was the author of two novels on the post-war country, African Child-From Wizard to Refugee and America’s Runaway Prisoner Ruined Little America, both published 2005 and 2006 in the US by Authorhouse. The first is about the mesmerizing but a changeling journey of a young African-Liberian made homeless by a brutal war who fights against all odds for survival in a new environment; the other discusses the perpetual agonies of the Liberian civil war brought upon the people and the state by a man called Charles Taylor, a US prison escapee who soon surfaced in West Africa to “free” one group of people who endured killings and persecution at the hands of another, an episode fueled by the ever growing illusion that “America” would end the war and re-build Liberia.
Kai Toteh also had to his credit, four years as Copy-Editor at the Virginia Pilot, Richmond Va., publisher and webmaster of The Advocate and The Examiner, two defunct advocacy online magazines that fiercely advocated against societal ills such as corruption and widespread abuse of power by Liberian Government officials. He personally operated both publications at various periods before the merger with the Voice of Liberia. He was also a co-author of Djogbachiachuw, the first Liberian Literary Anthology, meant to be used by Liberian schools with such authors as Dr. Syrulwa Somah, Dr. Sakui Malakpa, Dr. Lawrence Zumo and former ULAA leader, Elder Siahyonkron Nyanseor. His passion for movie entertainment also connected him to famous African-Ghanaian Van Vicker during a US tour by Vicker. Read interview at homepage of Modern Ghana.
According to some close associates of the deceased, Toteh had no known illness and had not complained of feeling ill lately since he returned to the Liberian capital, following a trip to his ancestral town in Sinoe where he spent Christmas and the New Year. “Wow, I am speechless! Since he left, at least monthly he would check in with me. I last talked to Toteh on Jan 7, 2015 after his two weeks stay in Sinoe County. He did not appear sick at all nor did he request any over-the-counter medications to be sent to him via express as I have done for him in the past two years,” said Dr. Lawrence A. Zumo, a Liberia-US based neurologist who resides in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
News of Kai Toteh’s death was equally received with disbelief by Mr. Tamba Aghailas, publisher of the US based Voice of Liberia which the deceased previously served as editor in chief. “It’s totally shocking,” Mr. Aghailas wrote on his facebook. He arrived to New York last week before he heard of his friend’s death news from the deceased’s daughter who lives in Minnesota. Mr. Aghailas had been in West Africa throughout 2014, involved with relief activities in Liberia and Sierra Leone during which he stayed in close contact with Toteh.
Even before Kai’s Sinoe trip, Aghailas said, he had visited Toteh at his Virginia, Brewerville home and even posed with him for a photograph. That turned out to be the only one found of Toteh alive after a long goggle search and would hopefully bring some type of relief to scores of his fans and associates (including this writer) who never got the chance to meet or see a photograph of the avid journalist in all their years of friendship.
It is said that journalists often spent much of their lives taking risks and chasing the news and providing great publicity on the activities of local politicians and ordinary people alike. Even with this fact, journalists rarely receive publicity when they die and the belatedness with which the death news of a great writer/author like Kai Toteh is being released to the public says it all.
A reason why even the Insight web magazine that Toteh operated failed too to announce the death news remains unknown. But it became so noticeable that some friends and well-wishers of the deceased questioned as to why it took nearly a week before the death news of this crack journalist with such impeccable character and acclaimed educational statue, hit social media? “Aye mehn! Why is this death coming out so late? Six days ago?” said Kweme Cooper on the OLM.
Even so, since news of his death was announced a week ago, a flood of heartwarming notes by friends and well-wishers of the deceased has been streaming through social media, some, even from Liberians who may have had divergent views with the Toteh on national socio-political matters. “I am shocked and speechless. Thomas exuded so much promise and enthusiasm. What happened?” said Kweme Cooper. For Mr. Wilfred Kabs-Kanu, Minister Plenipotentiary-Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone to the UN, New York: “Kai Toteh has left a yawning vacuum in the information architecture. He was a great communicator and a determined social activist whose love of country was exemplary. What a shock.” Some described him as a great writer and an advocate for social justice and political freedom, one who identified with the daily struggles of the Liberian masses.
Prior to being exiled in the US as a result of Liberia’s civil wars, Kai Toteh had forcibly joined an exodus of Liberian refugees headed to Accra, Ghana in search for refuge. But even after he was granted political asylum and eventually moved to the US during the 1990s, Kai’s didn’t lose his bound with neither his native Liberia or Ghana’s most notorious refugee camp, Gomoiah Buduburam where he had sought refuge as he kept readers abreast of latest events unfolding in Liberia, as well as in Ghana regarding the plights of destitute refugees in Accra, from mass protests by refugees in demands for “just UN Refugee benefits,” to the massacre of the refugees by ruthless Ghanaian state security forces.
“TKT,” as I affectionately called him, was a genuine friend and a man of good moral character who always pressed on for fair play. He placed honesty at the center of everything and hated cheating and lies and if you were someone who couldn’t do without the two, you did better stay away Kai else, he would make you shame. I first learned this about him after his first post-war visit to Liberia in 2010 to locate family members and start building a house.
Upon his return to the US, he wanted to share some good news with me but had misplaced my number so he asked a close friend of mine for it. Knowing my love for Cultural based literatures; TKT wanted me to join the Djogbachiachuw project, unaware that Dr. Somah, head of the publication had already contacted me on the same matter.
To Toteh’s outmost surprise, my “buddy” said, “That’s not Fasuekoi’s area,” perhaps in anticipation that he would be considered in place of me. “It didn’t end there,” in TKT’s own words. What annoyed him most was when the fellow veered into gossip and began to lecture Toteh about what allegedly “broke” my first marriage without any type of solicitation. It was at that point that Kai said he halted the conversation and protested the friend’s behavior and warned that he Kai would inform me. At first I tried to brush it aside but Kai was so adamant that he insisted I call the guy and confront him, and if possible, have him Kai linked to the lines in case my best friend denied the allegation. Kai didn’t sleep till I called and discussed the matter with the friend who apologized. Though I rejected the friend’s apology at the time, but as a Born Again child of Jesus Christ, his apology has been accepted, for our Lord God, Says: ‘Judge not so you can’t be judged.’
The next incident that caught my attention about Kai was after I asked him during a phone conversation if he was married. That was five years later in our friendship. He broke sighed and asked “Why the question?” A charming friend of mine, a Liberian woman, intelligent and educated, living a single life at the time in the US, had always joked that she was looking for a “Faithful” Liberian man and asked me to connect her with someone I thought would be “Reliable.” Inwardly, I knew she was actually serious though she put it in a joke form. After I explained to TKT, he quickly snapped: “No, I can’t do that Bro. James…I just got married when I went to Liberia and I’m planning to go back soon within two years to live there with my wife permanently.”
For someone like late Kai Toteh who stood for a good cause in his fight to press the power that be to provide equal opportunities (including job and health care) for all, regardless of one’s ethnicity or social status in a war ravaged nation still largely divided along tribal lines, his loss no doubt seems a heavy blow. A heavy blow indeed especially in a place like Liberia where the leaders have become morally corrupt, with rarely any consideration to professional ethical and cultural values, hence, Toteh’s memories must be celebrated by all, in that it is the likes of him, Kai Toteh that Liberia badly needs during these desperate times to occupy positions of trust in order to shape the country’s destiny.
Kai Toteh connected with me sometime 2007, after he read an article written by me on one of Liberia’s most feared and controversial military figures, Gen. Charles Julue, titled: A Look at Another Side of Gen. Charles Julue. Gen. Julue happened to be the second man in command as the brutal war heated up and is rumored to have participated in the Sinkor, Lutheran Church massacre, in addition to other genocides in Nimba during the initial stage of the war. Moved by what he observed to be a “well balanced, objective, and professional” work, Kai Toteh wrote me immediately with the following below compliment which was later added to a dozen others to make another article.
“Hi Fasuekoi, I must admit that you are the first professional Liberian journalist I have ever read. I am a student journalist in the US; but I was in Liberia before and during our crisis. As journalists, it is our duty to dig out the hidden facts. But I observe Liberian journalists only go after politicians on hot issues. I noticed there are so many mysteries that Liberian journalists are supposed to solve or at least try to solve-like Charles Julu’s alleged heinous crimes; but were not investigated and unsolved up to this time of your article. Your article is well balanced, objective, and professional. This is a very interesting information, and investigative, indeed. Bravo!!”
From that point on Kai and I became best friends, and often worked on news articles together. Other times, we also collaborated and issued joint statements whenever there were arrest cases involving the voiceless in the society seemingly grounded in political witch-hunting and it didn’t matter whether the victim came from the independent media or was a critical journalist working for a rival opposition outlet like in the case of Journalist Darlington Pelenah and et all. Kai Toteh and I wrote joint press releases demanding “Immediate release,” or “Speedy trial” for the government’s victims when the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) remained dormant. Mr. Pelenah was eventually granted clemency by the regime.
In all, I saw the great talent of my friend and brother, TKT who often graced the little that I offered and expressed how he had wished to practice as a journalist in Liberia before fleeing the country into exile due to war. It was something that at times made him to feel incomplete and it was that void in his life that apparently forced him to return to his native Liberia in 2013, as he had promised, leaving his single daughter back in the US. “I want to do what I love best…human rights journalism, and with this degree in legal studies, I’m going to get involved with legal advocacy to defend the constitutional rights of the people who don’t know their rights,” Kai Toteh maintained in an interview with me prior to his departure for Liberia.
Kai Toteh, unlike many western educated Liberians of present, strongly held onto his traditional belief and would invoke the “presence and blessings” of his Ancestors in any undertaking just as Christians and Muslims do with their Creator. And as signs of disappointment during his arrival to Liberia, Kai wrote in parts, the followings to friends of the OLM: “I see there is no gov in Liberia. I must repeat; there is no government in Liberia…Because, what I saw from the airport [RIA] and on my way to Monrovia was disgusting. I stayed one day in Monrovia after my departure from Ghana and moved on to rural Liberia beginning from Margibi, Bong, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh on a tour including Maryland and Sinoe for protection from my Anscestors before I start my fight for my people, our people.”
“I must follow my Ancestors’ instructions. They finally blessed me and set me on my way.”
May TKT rest in perfect peace with his (our) Ancestors, and may the Almighty God grant him a special place in His Kingdom for his hard work during his earthly sojourn. Amen!