By: James Thomas-Queh
I telephoned “AB” (as he was affectionately called) and Thelma (his devoted wife) on Sept. 21st to find out how both (the patient and the diligent nurse) were doing. But there was no answer; so I left a message. Immediately after, I called another friend who quickly broke the news that AB had just passed away. Unbelievable, it was a total shock. Then Thelma later returned my call, in tears, to confirm that AB had died peacefully in her arms at home on the night before. And soon I realized his death had ended an important chapter of my fantastic youth days with him.
The friendship between AB and I spanned over 50 years (from around 1965), and despite the fact that we both were from two different tribes, different social backgrounds, different schools and distinct opposing characters. We met in his region, Bomi Hills (now Tubmanburg), where his father was a senior staff member at the Liberia Mining Company (LMC). AB was privileged to do a vacation job each year at LMC, and so too was I as a scholarship recipient of the same company. Perhaps our numerous differences might have been a cohesive force that facilitated the longevity of our friendship.
AB was highly intelligent, smart; had a capacity to acquire knowledge with an extreme ease; thus learning anew was always like a pleasure and never a burden. He was also charismatic, convivial and generous; if you were sad, AB will make you happy; his trail always left an unforgettable memory of joy.
We graduated from high school the same year (1968); and our regular vacation jobs were transformed into temporary permanent employments. All our obsession then was to leave Liberia as quickly as possible and go abroad for higher studies. While we waited impatiently, we formed a circle of friends called the “COB” (Crowd of Boys); then came the idea to establish the first night school in Bomi Hills for the LMC labourers. And mind you, we were only in our early twenties, and never thought we were already the forerunners to the “progressives.” The project started off great and operational until we both departed in different directions.
AB was the first to leave for the United States and first to return and start his professional life as a professor, and then into government. I left much later and returned in the late 1970s to join the Ministry of Justice. We hooked up again not like the wild kids of Bomi Hills then, but as career and family men. Our dreams had evolved, but Bomi was still our point of reference.
We both were living on the Old Road - a stone throw from one another. Some Saturdays AB would stop by with his son (then about a year old)who was named after him “AB”. Whenever I opened the door and he spotted my daughter (about 7 months old then), he would say to his son: “AB, break waist!”; and the kid would innocently shake his body. We would laugh, and I would remind him that the dowry to get my daughter for his son would be too high for a poor man like him. And he would reply: “Jimmy, I’m no small boy.” And I would say: “Big mouth Gola boy.” That was our ritual.
Whenever I had my European friends and family members on a visit to Liberia, AB would take us on a tour of his farm near Bomi - Kormah. We would have a great time. As I look back now, I knew of no young Liberian, intellect and with a promising career opportunity in government, was so crazy about farming as AB. He was definitely ahead on this one; and if it were not for the instability of Liberia after April 14, 1979, my farm would been adjacent to his. At least that was our dream to supply the entire country with abundance of vegetables and fruits.
April 12, 1980, shattered that dream and separated us once again. I left few months after the coup and went back to Europe, and he stayed on the ground for a good while. From then on our communication was intermittent until the interim government of Dr. Sawyer (1990-1994). Knowing my presence in the IGNU, AB came to Monrovia in search of business prospects, and as usual Bomi was the prime focus. But Taylor’s infamous 1992 “Octopus” disrupted the stability enjoyed under the IGNU, and AB returned to his US base. I remained on the ground until the dissolution of the IGNU in 1994, and thereafter. Communication between both of us was irregular due to the political instability of the time. Not until I left Liberia after the NPFL/ULIMO assault on Monrovia in April 1996, that we established again our regular contacts.
Then I visited AB and his wife, Thelma, in Durham (NC); and they returned the visit to my family in France for the New Year 2000. I have an anecdote on this visit. AB got on my back for us to visit the famous French region of Champagne. There we toured a well known castle that has been producing one of France’s prestigious champagnes since the 14th century. It was a fabulous experience for me not having had any interest in that part of the French culture. But to my greatest surprise, AB knew everything about the process of champagne making – comparing it even as no different from making cane juice as was being done on his farm in Bomi. We came out there with few bottles of the best French champagne. Two years later my wife and I were invited to Thelma’s birthday celebration in Durham; it was a grand gathering. And that was AB; the boy knew how to live, and he lived well.
The next time I met AB again was in Northern Virginia (USA). He had left Durham and was in transit to Liberia as a staunch member of the Sirleaf campaign team for the 2005 general elections. I already saw in him as an effective Minister of Agriculture because of his genuine passion for farming, but he was appointed as the Minister of Interior.
During my first visit to Liberia after the installation of the new government, and sitting in his office, I asked AB what a big bookman like himself will do at the Ministry of Interior. He replied: “Jimmy, trust me, I will bring this Ministry up to the rank and status of an European Ministry of Interior.” I said: “Big mouth Gola boy.” But truth be told, while he may not have fully accomplished that mission, he could take the credit for being the first Minister of Interior to be left in charge of the government in the absence of the President. A significant recognition for a Ministry mainly relegated to grooming political cheering squads and “petitions” to a sitting President.
Politics can sometimes spoil friendship; so AB and I had a self-discipline or knew the mind of each other very well that we refrained ourselves from discussing political issues for the longest he stayed in the government and after. But he was a fervent democrat who respected independent minds. Perhaps too, that was the other secret which cemented our friendship.
Whenever I was in Monrovia, AB and Thelma always picked me up for lunch; we would eat and drink beer and talked old time talk – Bomi, the farm, and how this age has caught up with us or, how if we were thirty years younger only sky could be our limits.
Unfortunately, when I went to Liberia this last April, AB had already left for the United States for treatment. Upon my return to France, I contacted him, and we had a lengthy chat – mainly on his battle against his illness. He told me it was rough, but he was grateful to have an angel – Thelma - at his side. He was so optimistic that he told me of his plan to run for the House from Bomi Hills in 2017. I promised to be his campaign manager, and we ended with a laughter. Then just two weeks or so before his death, AB and I were at our regular exchange again, and from our conversation it sounded like he was clearly losing the battle against his illness. So I took him back to the roots of our more than 50 years of friendship to boost his courage and morale. I said to him, “AB, do you remember our night school in Bomi?” And he fired back, “But Jimmy, I have never been a progressive; I’m a humanistic liberal.” And I responded, “Yes AB, whatever that is, you know plenty book.” And we laughed it off. That would be our last intimate conversation.
To Thelma and the children, you have lost a marvellous husband, a father and a true friend; continue to have the faith , courage and hope in a bright future.And to the “Big mouth Gola boy”, I will miss you, man; rest in eternal peace until we meet again.