Published in Geez Magazine, Issue 17 -Work Liberates or Enslaves.
There’s a story I never tell.
When I was twenty-five I lived for four months in West Africa, in a city called Freetown. I chose Africa because it sounded romantic and because I wanted to make a difference or become different, or perhaps both. I called my mother, who gives credence to all my restless musings, and told her I needed to grow and experience the non-western world, to explore my guilt and my purpose. She could barely hide the terror in her voice when I explained I had decided on Sierra Leone. I imagine she ran headlines through her mind of violence and civil unrest. But after collaborating with her friend in the U.S. military to ensure a solid exit plan, she gave in, offered her love and encouraged me to go. I went and joined a team of volunteers that lived among the war-torn poor of Freetown. I took up residence in a house full of women, with a porch that faced the Atlantic Ocean.
What I remember is the rain. I arrived during the wet season when the rich red dirt had turned dark from the moisture in the sky. From our porch I would listen to the rain beat down on the tin roofs, while the sun dipped lazily into the watery horizon, leaving the sky the colors of tangerines and strawberries. The ocean puzzled me because I had never pictured Africa as being tropical. But Freetown was exotic. We ate mangos and pineapples in the mornings, tied saris around our waists and floated our light-skinned bodies in the warm saltwater. Never once did I see the safari-like centerfolds of open plains with wild, roaming herds of zebras and elephants. Rather, my African landscape was a mixture of crowded streets, wet earth, lush canopies and colors – evocative, vibrant colors. I’d take walks in the rain, admiring the imported Indian fabrics that lined the alleyways and I’d marvel at the skill of the women who tied their babies to their backs, placed baskets full of coal upon their heads and walked with a steady, graceful rhythm. The neon yellows, purples and greens only made sense against their dark skin.
In the night, I would sleep in a room with four other women – girls like me who had traveled from the States to serve as temporary volunteers. We shared bunk-beds and kept each other awake telling stories and slapping the mosquitoes that sucked at our flesh. We’d amuse each re-tellings of our daily cross-cultural blunderings before falling asleep under nets, mumbling goodnights. Later, I would wake in the darkness, to the sound of distant thunder and remembering how far I was from anything that felt like home, I would miss my mother, her smell and the sound of her voice and in the loneliness I would think of the poor, I would consider my surroundings and the suffering I had observed and I would doubt myself and the notion of God. The thunder would grow louder and I would reach up to hold the hand of Sarah, the small town girl from Georgia who slept above me. Everything’s okay, I’d whisper from my bed and she’d squeeze my hand in acknowledgement.
In the mornings, we five women would rise early, buy loaves of bread and bananas from our neighboring street vendor. We’d gather around a small wooden table and make coffee from powder while smearing peanut butter on the freshly cooked bread. From where we sat we could see both the ocean and the fruit trees that stood in our backyard. We’d eat quietly, pray a blessing over the day, dress and leave our brightly colored home.
I read books about Freetown before I came. I wanted to be prepared. I learned the buzzwords: Blood diamonds, rebel conflict, child soldiers, war brides, amputated limbs. I had visited many poor countries before going to Sierra Leone. I had seen the red paint on the streets of Sarajevo that marked the places where civilians had been murdered by snipers. I had worked often in a poor village in Mexico and had seen children sickly and unkempt. I had also spent three years teaching kids in the inner-city of Los Angeles and had witnessed a fair share of violence and chaos. Even so, it was unnerving to see children with missing hands running in the streets kicking soccer balls with their friends.
Our job, as a team, was a mixture of social work, teaching, medical assistance and community building. Most days I floundered, confronted with our limited resources in the presence of so much need. I fluctuated between anger and paralysis, hope and purpose.
We divided our time between teaching basic educational skills to teenagers in a community center and working in a neighborhood called Kroo Bay, a slum community that had settled by the water in Freetown. It was estimated that over six thousand people lived in the small settlement, and like most squatter communities, the Bay lacked access to clean water, sanitation, and health services. A river ran through the middle of the slum. Brown and coated with trash, it served as a place for bathing, washing, defecating. Pinkish pigs waded through the murky stream, while children, dark and naked, pulled each other under the water in play. The housing structures, as best I can remember, consisted of brightly colored tin walls held in place by a mixture of discarded trash and mud. The neighborhood was overrun with layers of sickness and loss.
Even so, I loved Kroo Bay.
The first day I went to the slum, I wept. It was a Saturday and we were invited to go to a chapel service held for the children of the slum. The dilapidated building that served as their meeting spot stood at the bottom of a long, brick staircase. From the top of the stairs we could see a crowd of children that had gathered near the chapel. When they saw us and recognized the friends we were traveling with, they took to the stairs with a frightening speed. Our pale frames were lost in the sea of tiny children, hundreds of them, with pooched bellies and beckoning eyes. Their excitement was both desperate and adoring. I was terrified and yet laughing because they were alive and vibrating with glee. I pushed forward and they pushed back and we moved together like water sloshing in an aquarium. A small girl, her face frantic and pleading, grabbed hold of my body and screamed, “Touch me!” My eyes grew hot as I pushed my hand onto her head and smiled. With the children hanging on, we pressed our way into the chapel. I leaned my body against a wall and the children submitted, in spite of their excitement, to filing into wooden pews. Hardboiled eggs were placed in their dirt-stained hands while volunteers offered medical assistance to the tiny, broken bodies. Then, an older kid rose from the group and began to lead the children in song. There were no instruments, just the consistent rhythm of hundreds of hands clapping in unison. And though his leg was damaged the leader jumped and danced uninhibited. I scanned the many small faces that spread out before me. Some were peering back, eyeing me with open curiosity; while others were fully engaged in the spirited song. I felt at once helpless and also certain that I was right where I needed to be. It was then that I wept.
I dislike the word “blessed.” In fact, I cringe when others use it. Like when someone suggests, “We’re so blessed to be Americans,” or “We’re so blessed to have wealth.” I suppose I worry about the implications of such an ideology, meaning if I’m blessed because I don’t suffer, then are those that do, cursed or unblessed? Guilt. Guilt is the emotion I feel most strongly when I think of my education, the job that pays my bills, and the citizenship I didn’t earn. Guilt, I have learned, can be a crippling, self-absorbed emotion, and so I’ve tried before to shape my shame into gratitude. Instead of blessed, I’ve tried to be thankful for what I do have. Gratitude seems a much more productive, less narcissistic emotion. I’d much rather be loved by someone who gives out of a sense of wellbeing than by someone who gives to me out of guilt. But still, it feels strange to say I’m grateful for the life I didn’t earn while so many others suffer, by no fault of their own. How appropriate is it to celebrate my own luck? At night, in Sierra Leone, in the room full of girls, in the moments when I questioned my motives and my God, I would tell him that it was unfair to inflict so much misery on humanity. I would remind him, as though he was unaware, as though he had forgotten, that we were still quite fragile and in need of compassion.
Erin was one of the American girls I worked with. She was a Physical Therapist from South Dakota. We were so different, what with her growing up on a farm and me being a city girl from San Francisco. But in the slums of Freetown, among the poor, we found common ground. I had no medical experience, but I felt oddly fearless when faced with desperate need. So in the afternoons, Erin and I would travel into the slums to meet with patients. And Noah was our guide. He was twenty-five, but seemed older, like he had lived many more years than us. He was tall, easy to spot in crowds with his head always poking above donned with a baseball cap. When he wasn’t functioning as the slum’s saint, he was working on a business degree. He had grown up in Kroo Bay and after the war and the rebel attacks, had stayed to help his community. Noah’s home was a blue shack where he allowed orphaned kids from the streets to sleep. He was serious about our work and yet still remained humorous. Together, with Erin, we would crouch down in the dirty shacks and scrub green, infected slime out of the sores of crying children. The heat and the stench would make my head spin; even so, I left feeling invigorated.
But the story of Obi is the one I never tell.
On a routine afternoon, under the heat of Freetown sun, Erin, Noah and I pushed our way into the heart of the slum. A man, thin with yellowed eyes, approached us and requested our help. We waited as he slipped away behind a corner. He returned holding the hand of a child, Obi. She was wearing light pink, dirty underwear and the remainder of her body was draped in rags, wet and darkened with infection. I glanced back at Erin whose face could not hide her concern. The man began to explain and Noah translated. Obi, three years old, had fallen into a pot of burning oil while her mother was away. The accident had happened the day before and there was no money for treatment. I faced Erin and we stood for a moment saying nothing. The little girl made hissing sounds in the background and I glanced nervously at her wincing face. Noah, usually confident, looked to us for an answer, which of course we did not have. What we decided unanimously was that she was ours now. Noah picked her up with both tenderness and resolve and the mother emerged, a small woman with drooping eyes. She was barefoot, a cloth wrapped around her waist leaving her breasts exposed. We filed behind Noah, who led us with long, determined strides, out of the slum.
Our first thought was to go to our community at the center. They saw the child in our arms and sent us to find a real doctor. Erin had to stay, but Noah, the mother and I took off running through the busy streets of Freetown. The little girl continued to moan as our feet pounded against cement. I assumed she couldn’t cry or scream because the skin around her face was tight and broken from the burns. It seemed excruciating for her to even move her lips. We went to our doctor, the one that treated me when I got stomach infections and high fevers. She was trained in London and was bright and kind. We entered her office and at once were stung with a feeling of otherness. In the lobby were women and men dressed professionally. They sat quietly, fanning their faces with paper. Obi’s mother covered her breasts and we sat down beside them, holding the little girl’s burnt body out before us, her limp arms dangling over our legs. I watched the mother’s face and the shame in her eyes made me uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t her fault, but I didn’t. Eventually the doctor came out to us, but instead of assisting, she became frantic and upset. Her voice shook with disappointment as she told us that the child was very close to shock and needed a hospital. She pushed us out into the blaring sun with no direction. I grew angry. She had treated me with medication and an I.V. before. What more did Obi need? Was it that the doctor didn’t want the responsibility? Was she angry at us for bringing a dirty, slum child into her office? I looked to Noah. His face was tense as he stared out into the city. This is my fault, he said as he glanced frantically from the child, to me, to the busy street before us. I shook my head. She was so angry, he kept repeating.
Noah then asked me if I was able to run. There was no hospital nearby. If we used public transportation it would take too long and the girl could die. We needed to get to the outskirts of the city and the fastest way would be on foot. I reassured him I was up for it and he placed Obi in my arms. Her body was chubby, like her mother’s and her skin wrinkled and green. I could see her lungs pushing up through her flesh, wanting to inhale fresh air. We started to run, Noah ahead of me, the mother trying to keep pace behind. I felt lightheaded and sick. The stench of the child’s burned flesh made it hard for me to draw in air. I tried to breathe through my nose and the air stung my skin as it traveled into my body. When I couldn’t run any longer, Noah would take her and when he grew tired, the mother would hold her. We tried to be gentle with each pass, but there was no way not to hurt her.
There were people and cars packed in the streets and as we weaved through the masses I noticed a United Nations truck in the distance. The UN workers were there to assist in keeping peace, but they lived a very separate life from the people. They drove S.U.V.’s, had nice, unoccupied homes and spent the weekends sipping mixed drinks on the white sandy beaches. I both judged and envied them. I knew it would be a challenge convincing them to help, but I also knew there would be some embarrassment in turning down a white, American girl. I ran up to the vehicle and beat my hand against the driver’s window. He opened it and cold air slapped my face. I need your help. I pointed back to Obi and explained our situation. I could sense that they wanted to say no and perhaps it was the realization that in order to leave they were going to need to pry my white knuckles from their door that made them consent. I took Obi in my arms and climbed into the back. Looking down, I made comforting noises and tried to prevent any unnecessary movements. Whispering in English, I told her, You’re a princess, the daughter of a king and you have nothing to worry about. And I was surprised, momentarily, by the fleeting change in her expression, the smoothing of her face and the crooked turning up of her lips that suggested a smile, understanding even.
We arrived at a hospital, a gray, drab building that looked unoccupied. Hurrying inside we were met by relaxed nurses standing around in their uniforms. There were no patients and the hospital had a hollow, openness to it. We seemed again to be out of place but Noah asked a nurse sitting behind a desk for help. She informed him that they were on strike. He pushed his arms forward showing her Obi’s dissolving flesh. The woman still refused; her face unmoved. He begged. She asked for money. He shoved bills in her hand and she nodded to the stairs, saying there was someone on the second floor that could help us. We rushed the stairs and wandered through an empty corridor where we were met by one man, who said, like the nurses, that there was no help available. I watched Noah’s face as the man refused us. There was nothing meek or feeble about his stance or expression. He was resolved to save the girl. He must have seen so many Obi’s, daily. This experience, so shocking for me, was a regular occurrence in his life and yet she was affecting him. Noah turned back towards the stairs and without speaking to me, began walking back the way we came. What’s happening? I called behind him. Corruption! he yelled. The mother grabbed my arm and pulled at me. She wanted to leave. Obi’s body shook.
We found the nurses in their same positions and Noah rushed towards the desk and demanded our money back. The woman refused. His voice rose as the nurses crowded around us. His yelling was met by theirs and then, to my surprise, my own voice joined in. I could make out Noah’s words as they echoed against the cement walls. The poor must not exploit the poor! The women screamed of their own poverty, their own suffering. But this is corruption! He yelled. We can’t win this way! Finally, without remorse, the nurse pulled the few dollars from her clothes and shoved them at Noah. He grabbed the back of my arm and we pushed our way through the angry crowd of nurses as they shouted insults. The mother and child met us at the door and we emerged into the heat and dust of the outside world.
There’s a doctor back in the city, Noah told me. He seemed indifferent to our experience inside, as though he’d already moved on. He took Obi, throbbing and frail in his arms. We started walking again, down the paved road towards the capital buildings. A truck carrying Coca-Cola drove by and Noah took off running, screaming after the driver, who stopped, agreed to help and waited as we climbed in. Obi made little gasps for air and the driver accelerated, making periodic glances back at her, wincing each time at the color and texture of her skin. He took us back into an area of town that was crowded and bustling. We exited the truck and stumbled into a house. A woman at a desk looked at us and frowned, but not in a way that made me think she was going to turn us away. Bring her in, she said and showed us into a room where we laid Obi’s burned body on a white sheet.
Noah explained to me that the mother had a job in the market and needed to return. He asked that I wait to meet the doctor while he escorted her. I sank into a chair in the waiting room and observed a nearby family sitting with their baby. The room was dark and warm and my muscles responded gratefully to the chair. Closing my eyes, I worked on steadying my breaths. My breathing had barely normalized when I was stirred, suddenly, by the sound of screams. The family beside me was standing, frantic, surrounding their baby. A man in a white coat emerged and pushed through the huddled group. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his deep voice yelling above the others. He came into view then and told the nurse, The child is dead. At the sound of his words, the room exploded with weeping and screaming. Their cries hit me like sparks from a fire. Bodies began to spin around me, moving as though stuck in fast forward. The shrieks of the mother rang out above every other noise. I covered my mouth, to stop the sob that had snuck up from my gut and was about to escape my mouth. I shook in my seat, invisible to all those around me, a white ghost amidst their tragedy. I noticed a shadow beside me and recognized that Noah had returned. What happened? He asked, his face lit with terror. The baby died, I told him. Our baby? He asked. No, not our baby. I assured him. His stance softened. He didn’t look at the family. All that work, he kept repeating to me. All that work would have been for nothing.
Barely any time elapsed before the mourners disappeared carrying the small, dead body and the doctor called us into his office. He told us he would treat the girl because he care for the people of Kroo Bay. I agreed to cover the costs which in all would amount to $50.00 for a two week stay in the hospital. We thanked him, whispered goodbye to Obi, who was safe with a nurse, before stumbling out into the streets. As we walked I asked Noah questions about growing up during the war. He told me how he escaped from the rebel attacks and about his life without a family. I asked him what it was like to be the parent of so many orphans (he was currently raising five) and he shrugged off my question with a smile.
We came to a stop, to the place where I would catch my transport and I asked him what he would do now. I’m late for school, he told me. I grew worried and stuttered out my concerns. I hadn’t known he had missed school to help us. He smiled, laughed actually, revealing the gap between his two front teeth. It’s worth it, he assured me, We saved the life of a child. The small bus, an old mini-van equipped with wooden planks for seats, pulled up and I pushed my way inside. I pressed my face against the window to see Noah. The van sputtered and started moving and for some reason he started running alongside asking if I’d be okay. I nodded and he stood still. Tomorrow we’ll go again! He yelled and I nodded again in acknowledgment before pressing my forehead against the window. I kept my eyes on him for as long as possible, watching his tall figure flicker in the twilight.
Noah and I took turns visiting Obi in the hospital. Her skin began to change colors and where there once was green flesh, white splotches surfaced. During my visits, she would shyly hide behind her mother’s body. I’d resolve to sit nearby, to watch her play, but Obi’s mother would restless push Obi’s little body towards me. We’d come face to face and I’d smile while she frowned; her brow wrinkled, her eyes flickering in distress. She’d concede to the interaction for a brief moment before breaking loose and disappearing once again.
While Obi healed in the hospital, Noah, Erin and I returned to our work in the slums. On one of our visits I was embraced by a stranger, an older woman, who spoke frantically to me in a language I didn’t understand. I looked to Noah who leaned in to hear her words. What’s happening, I asked. She’s Obi’s grandmother, he said. She’s thanking you. I smiled at her and nodded uncomfortably. The grandmother continued to speak to me, her voice growing more frantic with each word. Noah’s expression seemed both amused and uneasy. He motioned for me to come with him and I pulled myself away from the woman and ran quickly to walk behind him. What’s happening, I asked anxiously. She gave you the child, he said without turning around. I felt suddenly naked and vulnerable. I had started something and now I was being asked to see it through. I knew I didn’t want Obi. I knew I didn’t want the responsibility of raising her, just like the doctor didn’t want the responsibility of saving Obi from her burns. But still I considered the benefits, the possibility of taking her from the slum. Without out much pause I whispered to Noah, What if I did adopt her? He looked back at me with a dismissive smile and said nothing. Did he hear the implication – that I was wondering aloud if my wealth was more important than her culture, her community, or even her mother’s presence?
Obi eventually returned to the slums and Erin and I made visits to check on her recovery. Each time we came, her mother begged me to take the girl and each time I refused. On one of my visits to the slums, I was surrounded by a group of children who teasingly requested that I try out my Krio on them. While they giggled at my poor pronunciation I felt a rough, small hand slip into mine and looking down I saw Obi staring up at me. She smiled. She had never shown me much affection or interest. Her face was spotty, white and black, but her wounds were healed. She reached out with her free hand and pushed at one of the kids in front of us. She yelled at the others and someone translated. She said that you’re her white woman. I burst out laughing and nodded. A three year old, in the slums, had taken possession of me.
Later, Obi came and visited me at the house with the volunteers, where I discussed with my friends the relationship between guilt and purpose, American foreign policy and our Judeo-Christian ethics. I took Obi to see the ocean that day. She stripped down to her underwear and we stood, hand in hand, facing the waves. She had never seen the sea and I could feel her fear as her small hand squeezed mine. She let go eventually when I began drawing pictures in the sand. Kneeling down, she joined me, scribbling alongside the hearts I made.
A few days before my flight was scheduled to leave for London and eventually San Francisco, Noah and I took a walk down into the slums to Obi’s house. I sat on a wooden stool and pulled her onto my lap. Her mother made final pleas for me to take the child. Noah sat nearby and interpreted. Tell her she’s a good mother, I said to him. Tell her Obi needs her, I said. I held Obi’s hand in mine and ran my fingers over her spotted, rough skin. Noah explained, in a tender voice, that I was leaving and Obi patted my arm in response. I felt sick. What good had I done? I gave her health so she could continue to suffer? You’ll take care of her for me, yes? I asked Noah and he nodded assuredly. Setting her on the ground, we pushed our way through the mud and pigs and I didn’t look back. Noah walked ahead of me and for some reason we spoke only in Krio. He murmured his feelings of loss and I stammered back, Me too.
When we drove away in the bus that took us to the airport, the friends we made stood on the side of the road and waved. I felt neither heroic or romantic, mostly confused and tired. Many of the workers stayed behind, but the five of us girls that lived in the room, left together in silence and tears. On the airplane I sat next to Sarah, my bunkmate. We watched American movies and slept on each other’s shoulders until the pilot interrupted and told us we were landing. A palpable pain formed in my stomach and I pulled my earphones off and took her hand, again. We both tried to exchange sentiments, to say what we were feeling, but the sobs started and the words were muddled in hiccups and tears. Eventually we conceded that we didn’t need to say the words. We squeezed hands and stared forward, crying until the plane landed on the ground. And then we five, shell-shocked and fragile, hugged in the American airport before separating, all walking backwards and promising to call as soon as we could. I had no home anymore, so I caught a flight to San Francisco to see my parents. I wrote the whole way home in the red journal I had kept with me. I wrote words that carried a tone of surprised gratefulness.
When I exited the plane, in the city where I grew up, I walked down the long terminal and saw my mother before she saw me. She was standing on the other side of a revolving door and anyone who observed her would have known she was a mother, wildly in love and terrified. Her stance was alert as she scanned the faces in front of me. When her eyes finally found mine her face wrinkled with joy and pain and smirks formed on both our mouths. I went straight into her arms, dropping my backpack and breathed into her clothes. My eyes were hot and moist and when she spoke her voice shook. I wanted to stay there, holding on to her, for as long as it took to find balance again. You did it, she whispered and squeezed tighter.
I went home in the backseat of my parent’s car, barely speaking, just admiring the lights of the city. There was the thrill of being home, but then I was simultaneously lonely for what I left behind. I took safety in the familiar smell of my parent’s car and listened sleepily to the rhythm of their voices bouncing back and forth against the cold windows. That night, before I slept, I crawled onto their bed and nudged myself between them. It was a week before Christmas and we talked about our plans. I didn’t mention Freetown, but still I caught my mother studying me with a confused expression, almost as if she wasn’t quite sure if she still knew me. Africa made you older, she finally said aloud.
Noah still sends me letters to keep me updated. Two of my dear friends, from the five girls that lived together, have returned and are living in Sierra Leone. Erin is even adopting a little girl from the slums. I live vicariously through their experiences, thinking of Freetown often. I find it hard to reconcile my world of privilege with the lives of the poor in Kroo Bay. Sometimes, when the rain falls unexpectedly in the middle of a Los Angeles summer and I smell the musk of a hot, human body, I’m taken back to them. I see the muddy waters, hear Noah’s laugh, taste the ocean in the air and remember Sarah’s hand.
But Obi is the story I never tell.
I once helped save a little girl and now she sleeps on the floor of a dirt hut in the shadow of her mother. Is it humility that keeps me from talking of her? As though I know better than to tell a story that portrays me as heroic by emphasizing the helplessness and poverty of a child. Or is it shame, as I wonder if I did or gave enough? I grew. And what right did I have to grow through her tragedy? I am left with too many questions. Yet, she lives and I don’t doubt that she should. It’s only the process of transforming guilt into gratitude that continues to elude me.