A native Liberian, Bai Sama Gwenning Best ’01 has lived much of his life in exile. Civil war forced his family to seek refuge in Gambia in 1990, where they stayed four years until a military coup uprooted them again. After 10 years in the United States, Bai finally returned to Liberia in 2005 hoping to open a performing arts academy. “When I saw the destruction and social degradation from our 14-year civil war, I realized the performing arts academy could wait,” he says. “We needed to ensure stability first and help promote an environment where children and families would be safe and given the opportunity to get an education — and then extra-curricular activities could follow.”
Bai went to work for the family business: restarting the newspaper his father founded in 1981. The Daily Observer is Liberia’s first independent daily paper, and Bai serves as marketing manager. One of his biggest projects was redesigning the website and increasing traffic from 50,000 to 2.5 million page views each month (www.liberianobserver.com).
Liberia has made progress in the last five years, Bai says. “People are going back to work, the construction industry is booming, new roads are being built, and the government has instituted free primary education.” But he notes that the justice system still falters, corruption continues to curtail recovery and many accomplished Liberians live elsewhere. “The talent pool Liberia has in the United States alone is enough to open airlines, engineering firms and schools and build up the information and communication technology industries.”
In August 2010, Bai was one of two Liberians selected to participate in a forum at the U.S. White House with 115 young African leaders. The best sessions he attended focused on entrepreneurship and technology for social change. “These are the greatest drivers of economic and political freedom in Africa,” Bai says. “Technology opens a world of information and levels the playing field for democracy to really take root. Entrepreneurship is vital in reducing poverty; the government alone can’t solve people’s problems.”
In a town hall meeting with President Barack Obama, Bai expressed his concern that many young Liberians who return to contribute to their country find their efforts stifled by corrupt or jealous officials, so they seek greener pastures and more appreciation abroad. Obama noted that it’s a common problem and encouraged all the leaders in the audience to stay in their native countries because they can have a greater impact there than anywhere else. “The destiny of Africa is going to be determined by Africans,” Obama said.
The Best family dispersed after the 1994 coup, and Bai moved in with his aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. He completed high school and got involved in after-school programs at Heart of Los Angeles Youth Center, where he first heard about Westmont. He majored in communication studies, sang in the Westmont College Choir and founded and directed In Showing the Expression of Praise (N-STEP), a hip-hop dance company and ministry in its 12th year. “It’s not perfect, but Westmont is one of my favorite places on Earth,” he says.
After graduating, Bai taught dance for several years then co-directed youth ministry at Christ Church in Washington, D.C., with Janelle Adderley ’03. A short-term mission in South Africa with the youth group inspired him to settle in Liberia. “I had always wanted to return home,” he says.