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'American Idol' Can't Compete With Liberia's 'Integrity Idol'

The winner of Liberia's <em>Integrity Idol 2015</em> is registered nurse Jugbeh Tarpleh Kekula. She works in the emergency room at the Liberia Government Hospital in Buchanan, the country's third-largest city with a population of some 35,000.
Carielle Doe for NPR
The winner of Liberia's Integrity Idol 2015 is registered nurse Jugbeh Tarpleh Kekula. She works in the emergency room at the Liberia Government Hospital in Buchanan, the country's third-largest city with a population of some 35,000.

She was one of the five finalists in an American Idol-style competition. But she did not have to sing. This was Integrity Idol 2015 in Liberia. The candidates all worked for the government and had a record of integrity. The public voted by phone and by the Internet.

The winner, announced this week, was Jugbeh Tarpleh Kekula. She's a registered nurse who works nights in the emergency room at the Liberia Government Hospital in Buchanan, the third-largest city in the country, and also educates people about family planning through Planned Parenthood of Liberia. She is married and the mother of five — "three biological children, two foster children."

"They give me a hard time but it's fun," she says.

And she definitely has integrity, even when asked a question as simple as "How old are you?"

"I'm 40 years old, and I feel very proud of my age," she says. Why proud? "That's my age, I need not to hide my age, so it's better that way."

Kekula hadn't heard of the contest until she learned that she was nominated by a late friend's son who was like "a son to me — I behaved like a mother to [him and other children in her community], tried to talk to them when they'd go wrong and advised them."

He told her, "I nominated you on a program, and I received a call that you were selected."

She asked, "But what is this program about?"

It was the brainchild of Blair Glencorse, who runs , a nonprofit group that fights corruption. "We thought, 'What about some kind of TV show called Integrity Idol where people would vote for honest government officials instead of pop stars?" he recalls. The goal is to recognize people "for simply doing what they think is their job and being the person that they are" — to give them "a sense that they're on the right track."

The first competition was held in Nepal last year, with videos of the nominees on local TV and radio. In Liberia, 1,400 people were nominated; a team from Accountability Lab vetted the nominees, narrowed the list down to 30 and again to five with the aid of an "expert panel." And then the voting began.

We spoke with Kekula about winning the title of "Integrity Idol." The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you ask your friends to vote for you?

If you tell someone "vote for me," then they will tell you "what will be my award?" So the only thing I could tell them [was] that "I'm from Grand Bassa," If I win the Integrity Idol award, I'm going to bring pride to the county, but nothing else I can do for you people.

Did you think you had a chance to win?

I didn't take it that serious. So I was not campaigning because I was not really thinking that something like this was going to really happen.

Why were you skeptical?

Because in Liberia sometimes people tell you something and it don't really happen. So when you build up that strong hope and then you are let down by the roadside, you feel frustrated. So I always made my mindset that when frustration comes, I accept it. When there is good thing, I accept it.

Were you nervous?

When I got [to the award ceremony] I saw a whole lot of press, journalists, white people mixed up with black.

I felt somehow afraid a little bit. I said, "Ay, I shouldn't lose, I should win, because I really want to win."

So they called the third winner, then they said second, and then I didn't hear my name, I knew I was the first winner.

How did you feel when they called your name?

I didn't know really what to do. I just got up and then everyone started to clap, and I felt, you know, very big. Like someone very big and proud of myself.

What qualities do you think made you the Integrity Idol?

I do not hide my feelings. I'm someone who is bold; I am to the point. If even the oldest person does wrong to me, I will go and [say], "What you did to me, I don't like it."

I believe in truthfulness; I believe in fairness. I hate lies. You know, stick to your words. If you say this, do it.

What does the word integrity mean to you?

Integrity for me means being honest, being respectful, sincere, caring, being truthful, doing things with fairness. So for me as a nurse, what integrity implies in my profession is being honest.

Certain times they say, "Oh Jugbeh, talking the truth can spoil your way." I say, "But then so be it." But I always say the truth, because I don't like injustice, because it hurts me a whole lot.

Are you ever afraid to speak up?

I stay brave because I trust in myself. I know that even if I speak out and I'm working [and] you dismiss me from my job, I know I'm a professional person, the No. 1 thing. I can still find another job. The only thing, when everything you are doing is right in the sight of God — for me I'm a Christian — I believe that God can open another door for you. So I believe in myself, and I trust myself.

The prize was a traditional cloth shirt and a live chicken -- a traditional Liberian gift. But no cash?

The prize that I know I got, it's not money, it's not cash. I was honored. I have pride. People in the whole of Liberia are seeing me, listening to me on news, calling my name, people who never knew me. I felt like well-known, like one of the dignitaries.

What is the secret to living life with integrity?

There is no secret in living life with integrity, because integrity is yourself, your whole self. The only thing you have to do is to do what you think is right. Do not look at what people say about you. Look at the positive things you can do. Because always people don't look at [the] positive side of people. They always talk on the negative things.

What is the hardest thing about being a nurse?

This profession is a calling. It's there to serve humanity, to serve people.

What we find difficult is relating to people from different backgrounds. Others come with preconceived minds, so you put them on track [and] they will think you are doing the wrong thing. It's very much challenging. It is not easy to be a nurse.

Were you affected by the Ebola outbreak?

I got in contact with a [sick] child that was Ebola positive, but we didn't know [at first].

Did you wear proper protection?

[The doctor] called me. He said, "You treated this child? How'd you serve him?"

I said, "I wore gloves,"

He said, "You wore [a] gown?"

I said, "No."

So you observed a 21-day quarantine to make sure you were not infected?

When I wake up in the morning, I'd say "but I'm feeling hot" and when I'd do my temperature, I'm not hot. I felt like I had heart problems. So it was very stressful, but I never got sick

Did you ever consider not going back to work because of the risks of Ebola?

It's my area of calling. That's where I belong. If you leave, people will die, and people will point at the nurses and the health workers, that "they were the cause for us to die."

Can people with integrity successfully fight bribery and corruption?

My advice is, that they should not say "in our country, corruption is an inborn tendency." There is nobody that can't be changed. So long [as] you believe that you are able to do something to make a difference, we can make the difference.

So you ' re optimistic?

We can try to fight corruption gradually. It is not a process that can just be done instantly, We will try to talk to people, try to talk to youth groups — because the youth now are our future leaders — to build up their integrity. So that tomorrow, Liberia, it will be at least if not corruption-free, but corruption will reduce.

You think it's possible?

It can happen. [Laughs]

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carielle Doe
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