Words Mightier Than The Sword MAE AZANGO ROSE WAS A SINGLE MOTHER AND REFUGEE. TODAY, SHE IS THE SCOURGE OF THE POWERFUL.
BY CLAIR MACDOUGALL | PHOTO MORGANA WIGHARD
like to talk to the common people, I don’t like politics.” Mae Azango sits on the edge of her bed in her old home that is wedged in a rocky enclave between the gray United States embassy and the modern apartments occupied by expatriate workers in Mamba Point, the poshest part of Monrovia, Liberia. Azango’s larger-thanlife personality fills every inch of the dim, cramped, lemon-colored room where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter, Madasi. Within five minutes Azango has hijacked the interview and is yelling out the story of how she came to be one of the best-known female journalists in Liberia. Without a hint of irony, Azango refers to herself in the third person, claims to be a household name and universally feared by Liberia’s political establishment; then announces to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that she will never compromise herself by taking a job from her. Some might say Azango likes to bluff or show off, but the 41-year-old single mother is one of a new generation of headstrong female journalists, who are not afraid to compete with their male counterparts or reel off lists of their achievements. “This breed is more aggressive than what we had before,” says Elizabeth Hoff, who was the first female managing editor of a Liberian newspaper and the first woman to be elected president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). 28 | FORBES WOMAN AFRICA FEBRUARY - MARCH 2014
Hoff, who now serves as deputy information minister, remained an editor throughout the heat of Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. She says a lot has changed since she worked in journalism, when many women left the profession out of fear for their safety. Those who stayed on fought sexism and struggled to win respect from their male colleagues. Azango is one of a handful of female journalists in Liberia who have not only earned respect from their male colleagues, but also international recognition. She is part of New Narratives, an organization that supports independent media in Liberia. Founded and headed by Prue Clarke, an Australian foreign correspondent who reported in Africa for a number of years, the organization was set up in 2010, with funding from a Goldman Sachs partner. New Narratives teamed up the muckraking daily newspaper FrontPage Africa, for which Azango and the other fellows work. These reporters have driven much of the hard-hitting reporting on violence against women and girls in Liberia, ranging from stories on child rape, teen prostitution, maternal health, corruption and education, for which they have won domestic and international accolades. Azango received the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) International Press Freedom award in 2012 for her controversial reporting on female circumcision, a practice
that takes place in the traditional Sande societies that exist attention that the government called for an end to female within 10 of Liberia’s 16 tribes. She says she received death genital mutilation, although Azango says it continues. threats and was forced into hiding, moving from house to Azango’s report on the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by house and avoiding the newspaper office for a month. Mo- a police officer who walked free for over three months, led hamed Keita, the advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa to the his arrest. While the horrific violence perpetrated against women Program, described Azango as “outspoken”, “fearless”, during Liberia’s civil war has come to an end, many Libeand “persistent.” But this was not the first time Azango had experienced rian women and girls continue to struggle with sexism and threats of violence. Like her other female colleagues who abuse and it doesn’t stop in the workplace. One renowned are part of New Narratives, Azango’s experiences of com- journalist and editor, who died recently, even had a policy ing of age during the war compelled her to become a jour- of not hiring female reporters. Wade Williams, 31, is one of two female newsroom nalist and report on the struggles of women and girls. Azango recounts, in vivid detail, a memory from the chiefs in Liberia, also a New Narratives fellow and Azanearly days of the war, when she was 18-years-old and go's colleague and friend. Her past three years at Frontpregnant with her first child, Victor, who is now 22. She Page Africa have proved challenging, with some of her says the pregnancy saved her from being forcibly taken as male colleagues hesitant to accept her leading role. But after three years in the job, the reporters have grown to a girlfriend by a rebel. Charles Taylor’s forces had closed in on Monrovia respect her and women have taken a leading role in the and Azango was picking potatoes around her home. She newspaper headed by journalist and editor Rodney Sieh. Last year Williams became the second Liberian woman kept crossing a checkpoint that was controlled by a fierce to win Journalist of the Year at the PUL awards, since the commander. “‘Why am I keep seeing a pregnant woman?’ he yelled. press union was established in 1964. For Clarke, these achievements have led to a major shift ‘I am looking for a young girl and she is spoiled, why is she in front of me? At the count of five if you don’t disappear in how female journalists are perceived in Liberia. “The sheer fact that women, who were once considI will spray you.’ I was running like a cut, dead dog,” says ered worthy of being nothAzango. ing more than anchors and With a father who was doing entertainment, are an associate Supreme Court The sheer fact that women, now breaking the most imjustice and a mother who portant stories in Liberia was a teacher, Azango iniwho were once considered and are among the most tially aspired to be a hotel worthy of being nothing credible journalists in Libemanager. But after 10 years ria has revolutionized everyof war in her homeland, more than anchors and doing thing,” Clarke tells FORBES Azango’s memories of a entertainment, are now WOMAN AFRICA. privileged childhood were Back in Azango’s room replaced with raw experibreaking the most important we discuss the future of ences of being a poor refustories in Liberia and are her career. She is uncertain gee in neighboring Côte among the most credible as to whether she wants to d’Ivoire. continue being a journalist When she returned from journalists in Liberia has or become an activist workexile in 2000, Azango studrevolutionized everything. ing with abused women. ied journalism at the UniThe line between activism versity of Liberia and has and journalism has always never looked back. Unlike most journalists who focus on the sensational stories sur- been a thin one for Azango. As we leave her house she stands on the stoop and yells, rounding the political establishment, Azango writes about the masses, the ordinary Liberians who live on less than a “thank you for taking up my whole day,” in a sarcastic tone, pretending not to have enjoyed telling her story. Dressed dollar a day. “I like to talk to the common people, I don’t like poli- in leggings, a bright red t-shirt and floral hair tie, Azango is tics,” Azango tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. “Why? Be- surrounded by children and women with white knuckles rubbing wet clothes against washing racks. She flashes her cause I feel politics come and go.” But she is committed to journalism that delivers politi- broad smile and flips out a nonchalant wave. Perhaps she cal change. Her reporting attracted so much international has reason to bluff. FW FEBRUARY - MARCH 2014 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA | 29