Wow, what an emotional day.
We’re on our second night in the lap of luxury at Doha’s Hotel. I’m blogging from my room, listening to the pounding dance music from the Lebanese wedding that’s happening here. According to my dad, Dorcas, and Julie, Lebanese immigrants were the wealthiest people in Bo when they were kids, and, judging by the glamor of this wedding, not much has changed.
Last night we swam, played some cards, and had a late dinner at the hotel out by the pool. Jeremy managed to break his bed by laying down on it, and our hotel staff kindly nailed it back together within a few minutes. Then he and I joined Victor and our other driver Morie for an expedition outside to check out the local nightlife. We hung out for a while at a bar that would have been at home in any college town in America, except for the beer selection and racial demographics (all black except us.) We hit the dance floor and again shocked the locals by having a sense of rhythm.
This morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then went to the UMC secondary school in Bo so Dorcas could give her Days for Girls presentation for a group of head teachers and administrators. It was the first time I’d seen her complete presentation, and it was awesome to watch. The level of enthusiasm from female teachers for these kits was astounding. Covering sex ed topics for an audience with a very different culture from your own is no easy task, but Dorcas has been doing an excellent job and the reactions have been incredibly positive. The only controversy was over who would be getting the educational materials she’s leaving here.
Then, the day’s main event and one of the high points of the trip: a visit to Manjama, the village where my grandparents lived, where my dad was born and raised until he was 12, just a few miles outside of Bo. The clinic and maternity center that my grandmother founded is still running. We stopped at the clinic, which is up the road from the village itself, and introduced ourselves to the few staff there. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by people from the village, including the chief, Rankin, who was extremely excited to see my dad and his sisters – he remembered them from his childhood, when they played together. “We’ve been waiting for you a long time,” he said. His introduction began a surreal experience that I’ll remember forever, as it became clearer and clearer just how much my grandparents meant to these people and how much they still mean after all these years. We toured the clinic grounds, where they’re building new toilets and waste disposal areas, and where they raise pigs – something my grandfather introduced. Then we walked down the road to where my grandparents’ house was. We were surrounded by dozens of people from the tiny village as we walked, including a gaggle of kids. All that’s left of the house is the concrete foundation, covered in brown papery leaves. My dad stood on the spot where he was born.
Next, into the village itself. The church my grandfather built is still standing. We gathered inside with our entourage and had a brief impromptu service. Don gave a sermon that compared watching the family come to Manjama to standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The chief gave a prayer in Mende in which the only words I understood were Dorcas, Julie, and “Jo Manjama” – that’s my dad, “Jo” meaning the firstborn boy. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried in that church, feeling the weight of years and the strength of the bonds that had survived. As someone susceptible to emotional connections to places and to nostalgia, I was overwhelmed trying to put myself in my dad’s shoes, imagining what it’s like to return to a childhood home on another continent after 46 years. And the way we were received by the village was deeply moving. My religious beliefs are very different from those of my grandparents, but this trip has brought up all kinds of thoughts in me about love, faith, spirituality and religion that are far too complex to reduce into blog form but that have made me deeply grateful for the experience.
We spent some time in the village, playing with kids, taking a lot of pictures, finding my grandfather’s old well. Dorcas bought a bunch of coffee beans grown right there – she’s been looking for Sierra Leonean coffee. We gave some donations and material gifts to the village and the clinic, including a framed picture of my grandparents. Then we said our goodbyes.
We stopped in the clinic on our way out to find that a woman had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy, another Jo Manjama.
The welcome we received in Manjama hugely exceeded all our expectations. For me it helped crystallize the Sierra Leone of my grandparents from a set of stories into a real life, with real relationships, a real house, a real village where real people are still living out their real lives and still feeling the influence of a family of missionaries that’s long gone.
I was drained, but we finished the day with a trip to Mercy Hospital in Bo, touring the beautiful campus, a research lab, and the orphanage, where Jeremy played soccer with the kids and we met a family of German missionaries who have moved here to live, to begin a similar story to the one my grandparents had. We also met a man there who had been delivered by my grandmother.
Back at the hotel, we swam and relaxed before dinner. After we ate, Don called us together for a meeting to discuss the day and we each shared a bit about our experience. Needless to say, it was a memorable one for all of us, and we are so thankful to Don and Marilyn for getting us here. As we walked outside, the song playing at the wedding was “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which I think is as apt as anything.