The Best Advice I Ever Had
A Tribute to My Sainted Mother, Mrs. Lilian Best, Delivered at the American Embassy on Mother’s Day, 2010, at the Invitation of Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield
By Kenneth Y. Best ( Founder of The Daily Observer , Gambia and Liberia)
It was pouring from the Heavens in Monrovia, Liberia that gloomy September morning. My mother, Mrs. Lilian Best, competing with the heavy raindrops that fell relentlessly upon the zinc roof of our house at Broad and Norris Streets, Snapper Hill, screamed out my name. “Kenneth, Kenneth,” she bellowed, in a persistent attempt to awaken her first son, then 15, to get on with his morning chores.
The chores were everything except cooking and dish washing. In concert with the Almighty, she made me her boy, the work horse of the home. In this, I believe she had a vision – to make me who I became. Unlike many other families in the coastal regions of the country, she refused to get any external help in the home. Her children had to do all the work, most of which was assigned to Kenneth. I hauled the water; cut the wood; cleaned the yard; bought the groceries and fish from the beach; scrubbed the floors on Saturdays; white-washed the four-sided steps for Christmas, Easter and Independence Day; tended the garden (which made my palms eternally rough); made the errands, for her and the other mothers in the neighborhood; and from the age of nine, regularly traveled 45 miles away to Kakata to collect her rent, pick coffee, grapefruit and other citrus fruits and bring them to Monrovia. In the afternoons after school I would sell the grapefruit in Mamba Point, especially to the American Legation wives (each called “Meesee” by the Liberian chefs and stewards). That’s when I learned to speak “American.” I would show up at the kitchen door of each home, tune in my nasal organs and ask, “You want to buy grape fruit?”
Lilian did three things more to shape my life. While she was taking her daily siesta she would stand me up in the corner of her bedroom and make me recite my time tables and spellings. Nor did she spare the rod. When I became too big for that, she called in these strapping men to “lay” me. One would hold my arms and another, my legs, suspended in the air, and someone else, using rattans or guava switches, would dutifully serve me 25 lashes on my bare back and bottom.
Yes, it was raining heavily in Monrovia that unforgettable September morning. When I reluctantly arose from sweet slumber, deepened by the soothing music of the raindrops, I ambled into her room. And here is what she told me: “Kenneth, it’s time you got more serious about life, for five years from now I will not be supporting you. I will be supporting Genevieve, Kelvyn, Ina and Keith, but not you.” I was frankly petrified by that advice, and left her room asking myself in trepidation, if she won’t support me, who would? Our father, Trinidad-born George S. Best, had died in April 1945 when I was only six: so it was Mother Lilian who singlehandedly, with the help of God, raised all the eight children. The 1940s were one of the most difficult periods in Liberian history. There was no money and most people, including our family, were very poor. Lilian was earning only US$15 monthly as a lab technician trainee at Public Health. I wore ten toes on the ground until I was nearly 17 and therefore always had a sore toe. Whenever I showed up at Public Health for treatment, the health officer registered the penniless lad as a “pauper,” then treated me. Our mother could afford to place only one meal daily on the table, and it usually came at night. We often had to scrounge around for something to eat, including occasionally visiting the garbage heap on Randall Street, where the American Legation dumped
their outdated chicken and other foods. Many days we gratefully ate some of that chicken. The first pair of shoes I wore in Monrovia was given me, for reasons I never understood, by a Roman Catholic priest named Father Larkin. Those I wore only on Sundays, to church and Sunday school. I later took Fr. Larkin a tray of grapefruit in appreciation.
That very afternoon, troubled by my mother’s early morning utterance, I visited the home of my Sunday school superintendent, a kind, compassionate and godly gentleman named Jacob H. Browne, who was then Assistant Director of the United Nations Information Center on Broad Street, Crown Hill. I approached him with a certain degree of confidence because I had, since I started attending in 1946, been very active in the Sunday school. And I knew he appreciated that.
Lilian, thirdly, had prepared me for my role in Sunday school. One Saturday morning, after buying the groceries and finishing my other chores, she said to me, “Come and recite that recitation you said you’re going to do at Trinity Pro-Cathedral Sunday school tomorrow.”
I dutifully stood before her, bowed and began in an ordinary, gentle tone, “Drive the nail aright, boys, Hit it on the head. Strike with all your might, boys, Till the iron’s red.”
That wasn’t Lilian again. The daughter of a onetime rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Crozierville, she knew what good public speaking was. “Where’s the nail, where’s the nail? she shouted. Then, screaming at the pitch of her voice, she proclaimed, “DRIVE the nail aright, boys; HIT it on the head. STRIKE with ALL YOUR MIGHT, boys, Till the iron’s RED!” That was my first and only lesson in public speaking. The Sunday school audience was still clapping for me even after I had taken my seat! There was, after that, never a Trinity Sunday School program in which Kenneth Best did not participate. I have made many speeches around the world. Every school I ever attended, including the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata, Cuttington University in Suakoko and Columbia University in New York, USA, has called me back to speak, more than once.
Arriving at Mr. Jacob Browne’s home on what I considered a most important, self-appointed errand, I told him I needed a job. He said he had none at his office, but I was welcome to come there in the afternoons and do odd jobs for him. From that day in September 1953 I started paying my own tuition and buying my own clothes! It was on that day that I became an independent man.
I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to God for giving me Lilian Best as my mother, and to her for that invaluable advice and all the other things she did to make me who I am. Amen!