Ernest Vafee (MIDP ’17) passed away from complications of diabetes, a condition he managed for decades. After several days of mourning, he was laid to rest on February 8th in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia. He leaves behind two daughters.
Vafee served as the Deputy Minister for Operations at the Ministry of National Defense, and before that as a Policy Analyst. He graduated with his MIDP in 2017, but his first experience at Duke was seven years earlier: In 2010, Vafee earned a certificate in DCID’s Executive Education program “Budgeting and Financial Management in the Public Sector.” His experience in that summer program and his desire to bring new skills and knowledge into his position in the Liberian government motivated him to return for his Master’s degree.
Growing up in rural Liberia, his driving force was his own personal journey through war, poverty and the vulnerability of youth. His lifelong mission was to improve conditions of marginalized and vulnerable populations. That passion followed him to work as a student and youth leader, and eventually here to Duke.
In his own words, he describes his early trajectory:
“In the early 1990s, the entire sub-regional member countries of the Mano River Union of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were engulfed in violent conflicts that entirely devastated these countries socially, politically and economically. The segment of the population of these countries that was badly affected was the youth cohort who were either victims or perpetrators of violence during the years of war. Many of these young people were recruited as child soldiers and drugged by their warlords. With the cessation of hostilities in these countries, youth violence, drug addiction, crime, and prostitution became the order of the day. In addition to this victimization of young people by the older generation, governments did little or nothing to deal with youth and their myriad of issues such as drug addiction, youth violence and crime, lack of employable skills, and prostitution.
I was motivated to do something about the youth situation when I visited the YMCA of Liberia where I saw young people more engaged in positive things like sports, leadership training, adult reproductive health education, and peace and civic education. What I saw inspired me to become a member of the YMCA and to also work toward the transformation of young people into positive agents of change in a post conflict society like Liberia and the sub-region.”
As a graduate student studying international development, Vafee made an impression on everyone around him. He brought his passion into the classroom even as he struggled with his illness. Classmate Albert Nyuangar Jr. recalled fondly: “I shared an apartment with Ernest Vafee for two years studying at Duke University (“Mr. Minister” as he was affectionately called as a result of his fierce stands during policy analysis simulations). Ernest was a tenacious advocate for effective public policy and alleviation of poverty–his story speaks for his actions. Ernest’s love for his two girls was overwhelming; he depleted his savings just for their trip to the US. I got to understand the workings of diabetes through Ernest. He would beat the sickness back whenever he was attacked, and still kept his focus on studies. There and then I knew he was a strong fighter. I was devastated when I got a call early Saturday morning that my brother, a strong fighter, an intellectual mind, and a caring father has been taken by a sickness he had pugnaciously fought most of his life.”
He was beloved as both a person and a public leader. Several organizations, including the one he founded, have organized memorial celebrations and offered messages of condolence.
H.E. George Manneh Weah, the President of the Republic of Liberia, said:
“Minister Vafee was a great patriot with an impeccable record of service to Nation. He was an outstanding public servant whose love for Country was unquestionable. His passion to serve and penchant for excellence was unprecedented.The death of this noble soul has left an indelible mark in our hearts; and he will forever be remembered for the tenacity and professionalism he exhibited during his service to Country.”
Ernest’s profound impact is illuminated by this tribute from his comrade Mohamed Lavalie:
“Our veteran path to his maker! What colossal loss to the youthful generation. Go in Peace [SUP] Sr. Comrade. Go in Peace the Academic Gladiator. Go in Peace the inspired Speech Writer and Researcher, Go in Peace one of the Promising Philosophers of our time, Go in Peace the Advocate, Go in Peace the True Fighter for Social Justice, Go in Peace the Fighter of Academic Freedom, Go in Peace the National Defence Strategist, Go in Peace the Public Policy Analysts, Go in Perfect Peace the Youth and Students Leader, Go and provide the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Go in Peace and sharpened the contradictions, mend the fence, unleash the beast and consolidate the gains! Until our path crossed once again, I salute you big brother Vafee! Vava academic prowess …. vava comrade leader Ernest Vafee vava … Immortal Comrade Social Justice immortal …..Immortal Comrade Academic Freedom Fighter Immortal.”
In his honor, colleagues and friends have organized fundraising in Liberia and in the U.S. to help support Ernest’s daughters, who still live in Durham.