By: James Kokulo Fasuekoi
Most African journalists particularly from Liberia who manage to escape war, political persecution, or poverty and resettle in the West never get to practice journalism again.
Once they arrive, many tend to focus on work and raising families, and those who pursue further studies usually take on different careers other than journalism. But award-winning photo-journalist, human rights advocate and writer, Musue Noha Haddad was an exception.
After escaping her native Liberia under the rule of then dictator Charles MacArthur Taylor and resettled in the US for a decade before returning home two years ago, Journalist Musue Haddad vigorously continued to practice her career, always photographing and writing news articles for numerous news outlets while at the same time maintaining a column with FrontPage Africa titled: Random Thoughts in which she tackled matters surrounding societal ills-from corruption, women-men’s infidelity, to gender equality and teenage pregnancy in Liberia. Amid it all, this gifted storyteller also ran a blog, An Eye On Society, http://musue-haddad.blogspot.com/ that consisted of religious and poem columns.
But how she carried out such multi-tasking in busy America and still managed to work, care for her toddler and finished graduate studies, baffled many of us. “I could never do that even if you pay me a million dollars,” I once told her as we attended a mass at a huge Catholic Cathedral in Washington D.C., and she responded with a broad smile and nodded in appreciation.
A graceful writer with a strong work ethic, Musue Haddad had deep thirst for journalism and shared empathy for the people she wrote about. Though she felt comfortable writing on politics and international affairs, her work shined even brighter when she was writing satirical tales like “Dear Mama” in Radom Thought and poems about love, culture and environmental degradation as a result of mankind’s unfriendly behaviors to nature.
In fact, much of her writings took an advocacy trend in such manner not only intended to draw public attention to certain ills in the society, but force government authorities to take action by correcting those problems.
A typical indigenous, born and raised in Lofa County where she began early education, Musue had deep emotional tie to her surroundings, especially the land of her birth and would do anything to protect it.
This is exactly the impression one gets from reading great poems like SawMill in Lofa, a once fertile land, where she said, “beautiful trees,” stood with “Large blanket of peaceful shades,” as “Birds sat cozily on tree tops.” Imaginative as she was, she continued: “Children danced in the fields,” “Hung, swung on the [tree] branches,” followed by “foreign sounds on our streets…sounds of machine,” [yellow cranes] with “Big rough tires, sharp blades…tearing at trees, and our soft earth.” “Out of Lofa, and then overseas,” She narrates, “Our green forest,” disappeared, leaving the “earth battered” with “polluted rivers.”
Yet, in another (one of my most favorites), The Tide of Benesu, apparently her favorite creek, she expressed how she enjoyed “riding the tide and swimming,” as she “washed and washed bundles and bundles of laundry.” Then one day, [in her own words] she left for the unknown, (the USA), and upon her return years later, “I ran to my Benesu and called out…Benesu, Benesu.” But “my Benesu laid silent, pale, weak and brutally bruised, her tides chained against litters.” “I sat on her side, and cried.”
Apart from Radom Thought, Musue also ran two short columns regularly in The New Dawn called: “Roving Lenses With Musue Haddad” and “Crime & Punishment With Musue Haddad” and kept both active with attention-grabbing photographs accompanied by captions.
Bulk of her productions featured illegal gold mining near Monrovia in the Bentol, Bensonville areas, petty crimes, traffic safety matters, personality portrait of people in the news, and most of all, food and hygiene. However, those publications of January 19, & 31, 2012 titled: “Street Food and Hygiene!,” “Food Safety and Hygiene-What Are You Doing?”, that showed two teenagers using unclean hands to drive flies off buckets filled with cooked meat and chicken feet, raised questions about streets food safety in Liberia.
Musue’s Roving Lenses also received praises from many readers when The New Dawn featured her photographs (February 14, & 17, 2012 editions) that exposed the appalling conditions of the country’s only old folks’ home located on Front Street opposite the old Government Hospital. But it was the February 28, and March 2, 2012 editions under the titles: “Illegal Mining: Loss of Revenue & Environment Problems,” “Illegal Mining: Who’s In Charge?” highlighting the grave dangers caused by illegal mining to our communities and environment plus the loss of government revenues that forced authorities to begin contemplating on taking some sort of action to halt the illicit mining in the country.
In his tribute, the deceased’s former editor, Mr. Joseph Bartuah of Boston, Massachusetts, described the late Musue as “a qualified, capable and competent journalist of exceptional courage.” “She was a reporter who left no stone unturned in her quest for reporting the truth,” This assertion is very accurate in that Musue Haddad always pushed for the bigger stories and was always seen rubbing elbows with her journalistic male-counterparts, trying to scoop us over every breaking news while we worked together in Liberia during the war.
For Musue, there was nothing like a men’s world. A self-confident person, she believed she could perform any task as her male counterparts and possibly do it even better in a tough career like photojournalism perceived to be exclusively for men.
One of her best photogenic moments came September 18, 1998 when former Pres. Taylor unleashed his ruthless rebel soldiers turned “government forces” to capture former ULIMO-J leader, Gen. Roosevelt Johnson after a longstanding quarrel between the two warlords.
Fearless as she was, Musue stepped out into the frontlines and captured a photograph that told it all during the two-day streets fighting in Monrovia. It was a picture of a group of Taylor’s militias in mufti, heavily armed with a machine gun, looking out for their rivals.
What added strong taste to the photograph is, it depicted a few fighters conveying a long-belt of ammunitions to the gunner; Musue scooped all of us photographers-I was actually in Abidjan and when I flew to Monrovia on the first flight on the third day, the fighting had ceased.
Musue loved compliments for doing great jobs. When I confessed she beat me on that one, she beamed; that photograph made her the winner of the PUL’s (Press Union of Liberia) photojournalist award that year.
My first journalistic encounter with Musue came March 1998, when the international media assembled in Freetown, Sierra Leone to cover the historic return of the country’s deposed leader, President Tejan Kabbah. Among the Liberian press crew were two female journalists, former radio reporter, Lula Bestman and Musue Haddad. On arrival, we were transported to the city’s main beach villa, Cape Sahara.
Lodging was very scarce and as everyone searched for sleeping spots, two ECOMOG soldiers offered their rooms with two camp beds for Musue and Lula. We men, (photojournalists James Momoh of The Inquirer, The Heritage producer, Mohammed Kanneh and I, then an AP stringer, were given mats and instructed to pass the night in a hallway. But Musue later left their room and joined us on the floor. “I feel comfortable with my Liberian brothers than strangers I don’t know,” she joked as we all laughed.
Like many Liberian and foreign correspondents that stayed and worked in the country during Taylor’s rule, Musue too, in her pursue for news, had numerous encounters with Taylor and his tough military guards who were prepared to do anything including murder to protect the status quo.
Musue’s troubles with the regime began when she wrote a series on contemporary American culture for The News after she attended journalism training in the U.S. In the series, she drew comparisons between America and Liberia; the general behaviors of their immigrations and security forces in terms of the “positives” and “negatives” such as “bribe taking,” lack of courtesies and the maltreatment of civilians. The series concluded on a positive note in favor of the United States, acknowledging the discipline and tactfulness that exist among US Immigration and Security personnel unlike the war-ravaged country at the time. It received a hostile reaction from Taylor’s hierarchy and they branded Musue, a “spy.”
Musue wasn’t alone in Taylor’s “bad book.” Other independent journalists, especially correspondents working for US news agencies like The Associated Press were similarly treated with suspicion and accused of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) all because, the US at the time spearheaded international efforts to cut-off financial aids to his government with an armed embargo in place due to his military supports for RUF guerrillas in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Hostility against independent journalists continued unabated under Taylor and one incident that caught public attention was when the late Musue Haddad and myself were stopped from covering Taylor’s lavished 1998 birthday party at the Executive Mansion and escorted out of the Mansion yard as directed by Taylor’s press officer who accused us for stringing “negative photographs” of “President Taylor” to the “foreign media.” Musue wrote a news story about the encounter for her paper while I did the same for my alma mater, The Inquirer and the both were published as back-page leads the next day-that infuriated “insiders” of the regime more.
Musue Haddad was an accomplished photojournalist, perhaps, Liberia’s only female-photojournalist (reporter-photographer) in the prints media that I came to know in all my years of practicing photojournalism beginning from November 1985 after the invasion of Liberia.
Prior to Musue’s coming to the fold, there was only one known female Still photographer in Liberia’s prints media, Patience Jensing. The Ghanaian born press photographer, Patience Jensing worked with me in the photo department at The Sun Times in 1989 before the paper was banned by Doe’s government. However, what sets Musue apart from Patience is that Musue, besides being a trained press photographer, proved to be an excellent writer in her own rights.
In the US, prior to Musue’s departure to Liberia, we both often reflected on our “near-death” experiences under Taylor, and during the civil war. As we talked about those encounters, the more we became drawn to one another. Eventually, it became clear that she and I had so much in common; deep love for our African cultural heritage with the burning desire to translate Lorma traditions into a literature.
It is based on that that we started a satirical column on the OLM listserv 2011, called, Country Talk With Musue & Fasue where we shared stories about Lorma culture in the form of letters exchanges, similar to those she wrote in Random Thought to her deceased mother. I discovered Musue possessed a keen understanding of Lorma cultural values than I had earlier imagined. I learned that her hometown of Konia had its meaning in Lorma-“War sweet.” What we had started as fun soon won the admiration of many friends, some of them, writers and journalists as well.
When I later joined Musue in Liberia 2011, the two of us lived and worked closely together for the entire period I stayed. She loved photojournalism more than any other job she had on earth. Musue felt uncomfortable sitting behind the desk and whenever she wasn’t working, she was always out photographing human interest events around streets corners in Monrovia.
On weekends, we planned and made trips to Bai T. Moore’s “Dewoin country” to enjoy the beauty of the countryside and also greet friends like folk singer Yatta Zoe, former photojournalist now District Commissioner, Folley Siryon, and Behsao elder, Morris Beysolow. At other times, we traveled to Lofa County to see friends and relatives as well as checked out our old school campuses and dormitories but we never seemed to get enough.
Based on my personal observation, I can conclude that Musue’s lifelong dream of someday going back to Liberia, work and raise her son, Michael, finally came to fruition. The main factor that influenced her journey to Liberia was her endearing connection to the “beautiful streams” and “beautiful virgin land,” as vividly expressed in her poems, SawMill in Lofa, The Tide of Benesu and My Place of Birth. As much as she loved Great America, Musue wanted to live, work and raise a family in a place she felt more appreciated and that place was Liberia.
Though a US citizen, Musue increasingly became paranoid about the country that once offered her sanctuary. Such fear is clearly presented in her poem called, A Dream Shattered in which she narrates the pathetic situation of an innocent African child in the Washington D.C. area whose ignorant parents she said, failed to protect him against a “system” determined to place kids on “Anti-Psychotic drugs” in order to keep them under control. Apparently troubled by such behavior, and fearing for her only son, she became very suspicious of “school administrators” and did all within her reach to protect Michael against being “labeled” or “bullied” by both teachers and students. Read one of her articles against “school bullying” titled: When the Teacher becomes the Bully – The Cases of Ms. Lee Burke and Ms. KR, posted March 8, 2011 on her column, RAISING MY CHILD.
Musue was very meticulous in making friends. She hated people who try to pull down others and always advised me to watch who I associate with and for that, I will forever remain grateful to her for impacting my life.
Musue Haddad stood for a cause and I regarded her as my “Rosa Parks,” a brave and courageous woman who defiantly “sat down” when “others stood up.” Certainly, her legacy shall survive for a long time to come. Meanwhile, I have found some level of comfort in reading her poems, among them, My Dream Will Never Die which she re-posted shortly before her passing. Because of her hard work on earth, I have no doubt a special spot shall be allotted to her memory should the PUL erect a WRITERS’ or PHOTOJOURNALISTS’ HALL OF FAME in the future.
‘Akay! Na Weegii!’ I say, here I am, your “Fasue,” your “Lormagii,” your “Lorma chief” (Massagii). Keep a watch over Michael and the family as you go, and may God’s abundant blessings rest upon you! Amen!