From living in a refugee camp to starting a nonprofit while at the African Leadership Academy, this News Decoder alumnus aspires to be a writer.

Varlee Fofana

Varlee S. Fofana speaking to the Liberian Youth Foundation after receiving a Community Service Award for contributions to community development in Liberia.

Over two weeks in November, we’re spotlighting some of our talented alumni and their experiences and achievements since participating in News Decoder. It’s part of our annual giving campaign, “Beyond the Story: Putting Knowledge to Work.” Learn more about the campaign here.

Former News Decoder Student Ambassador Varlee S. Fofana thought he’d be able to take a rest during a gap year before heading off to college.

At the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a News Decoder school partner in South Africa, he had helped start an NGO called Build Liberia. Now, instead of resting, the budding author is on his second internship and working on a book about his parents.

At ALA, Fofana won first prize in our Eighth Storytelling Contest in 2020 for a powerful first-hand account of growing up as a young Liberian refugee in a camp in Guinea.

He has always been passionate about writing, and the confidence he gained in his writing ability through his interactions with News Decoder has given fresh impetus to his writing ambitions. He is working on a book about his parents’ experiences before, during and since the Liberian civil war and aspires to become a professional writer.

News Decoder caught up with Fofana to find out more about his interests, motivations and influences. (Transcript edited for length and clarity.)

ND: What has been your path since completing your studies earlier this year? 

Fofana: After finishing the African Leadership Academy, I undertook a three-month internship at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change in South Africa, an organisation which focuses on tackling online disinformation on social media and other channels.

My role involved searching for, and correcting, tweets and posts that carried misinformation on issues around democracy, xenophobia and gender-based violence, in dialogue with users.

I’m currently undertaking a second internship with a Liberian non-profit called Educate Children, which focuses on increasing quality and access to education in Liberia. In my role as research assistant, I conduct literature reviews and in-person interviews in different counties in Liberia. I’m also helping to identify out-of-school children and link them to the NGO’s scholarship programme.

Any free time I have I use to complete college applications and work on my book. I thought I’d be resting a bit during my gap year, but there is not much time for that. Only when I’m asleep!

ND: What are you passionate about and why?  

Fofana: I have a great deal of passion for education because of my background. The civil war in Liberia was devastating for education, leaving many schools destroyed or damaged. There are still many children not in school today because of limited school capacity and prohibitive school fees. Those who do manage to go to school are in a broken system. I am passionate about contributing to improving the system in my country in the future.

I am also passionate about writing. When I saw the News Decoder storytelling contest being advertised, I already had an article I’d been working on, so I decided to send it in to see what happened. Part of me wanted to engage in writing but I didn’t know how. I was really excited when Nelson Graves gave me feedback that was almost all positive.

‘Stories have power and we just need to be given the right platform to tell them.’

When the story won first prize and was published, I was pleased when so many people reacted and related to it because it showed it had global relevance. It made me realise that stories have power and we just need to be given the right platform to tell them.

I feel there are many more words left within me. I have always wanted to write but didn’t know I had the potential. News Decoder will always be the sparking point for my writing career. My experience with them helped me understand the difference between good writing and better writing. They also taught me that to be a better writer I need to read more, which I’m now doing.

ND: What have been the biggest influences on your life so far? 

Fofana: It’s difficult to narrow this down as so many things have influenced me. In terms of leadership, my journey at ALA has been central. The curriculum is rigorous and rewarding. It focuses not just on ideas but on turning those ideas into action.

The classic example of this is the student enterprise programme, which enabled myself and other students to establish Build Liberia. Our nonprofit is now implementing a range of activities including entrepreneurship and leadership workshops.

My time with News Decoder also helped me build my sense of leadership and responsibility. In my first year I found the annual webinar a valuable and eye-opening experience. It was my first experience of researching and interviewing in preparation for delivering a presentation. In my second year, as Student Ambassador, I was leading other students through the same process of researching, interviewing, editing etc. This made me realise I can take responsibility myself. I have since used these leadership skills in the running of the nonprofit I am part of.

ND: If you could choose a famous person — living or dead — to have dinner with, who would it be and why? 

Fofana: It would be the great writer Chinua Acheba, who was a major contributor to African literature and helped to make it relevant to the world. I would like to ask him how he managed to keep writing and finding inspiration even though he had a very narrow audience at the time. Most of his stories were counter-arguments to mainstream thinking. So what kept him going?

ND: Share a fun fact about yourself

Fofana: Not many people know how much I love music. I think some of my friends would be surprised to learn that I listen to a lot of music particularly Afrobeat and some American music because I mostly do it in private. I find it especially useful during trying and stressful times.

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Fofana is Executive Director of the BUILD Liberia Entrepreneurial Leadership Development Program, whose participants are pictured in this photo.

tlacey 1

Thea Lacey is News Decoder's Director of Development. She has 15 years of experience managing fundraising and programmes for mostly humanitarian and development NGOs, both small and large, including five years based in West and Central Africa. She holds an undergraduate degree in Politics from the University of Edinburgh and a postgraduate degree in International Development from SOAS University of London.

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News Decoder alumniAlumni in the Spotlight: Varlee S. Fofana 
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