Kamakwie: Finding Peace, Love, and Injustice in Sierra Leone
by Kathleen Martin
I had been waiting for Mama J’s email. She went back to Sierra Leone a few months after we had been there together. I only spent three weeks in the town of Kamakwie, but I missed it—the people mainly. But also the stories, the music, the dancing, the fried plantain chips, the granat stew. And I missed how much easier it was in Sierra Leone to really see things—as though you were shooting pictures with a telephoto lens—background distractions blurred away.
I had just settled down at my desk the morning the email came. I couldn’t open it fast enough.
“Hey girl!” it began. Cheery. Like Mama J.
“Our trip was so good but so short. We had little time in Kamakwie, which was sad, but you know we got a lot done, and at least I got there. The kids came running into my arms, and it was sooo sweet.”
I could see the smiles as though the kids were in front of me—Brimah, White Boy, Abu, Binty, Maria, Isotu. I could see the slant of their bodies and hear the crunching stones on the hard dirt as they ran fast around the corner of the bunkhouse to meet the white World Hope truck.
We spent some time in Kakissy. I had the kids there chanting ‘community!’ I would stop them if they started with another topic, and get them back to ‘community.'”
My ears still held the memory of the sound of the crowd of Kakissy kids happily yelling out the names of the teams I’d made up. An image of the little boy in the orange shirt jumping in the front row flashed in my mind—then the kind eyes of the Kakissy village chief.
Mama J’s email continued, “I do have sad news. Marie died.”
The words on the screen stopped making sense to me.
Marie! Marie! Oh, no! Please, no.
I wished that I could unread that sentence. I wished that I hadn’t opened the email. I sat very still in my chair. Breathing. Useless.
“Nurse Adama says the father got upset with Marie being in hospital for so long, so he took her out,” wrote Mama J.
My eyes searched down the screen. Marie’s father was certain her sickness was witchcraft. He carried her home to their village. She died. Adama visited Marie’s grandmother to offer condolences.
Of course she died, I thought when I could think again. Of course. My sweet starving girl.
Lots of children die in Sierra Leone. It’s easy to find the numbers if you look. Some years, more children under the age of five die in Sierra Leone than anywhere else in the world.
But Marie was eight. Still not safe.
When I went to Sierra Leone, I knew I would meet people who were hungry and who were sick. I knew to expect houses that were small and that didn’t have bathrooms. I knew I would see things that would make me sad.
And I knew, from a trip I had taken before to an achingly poor part of India, that I would also find happiness growing like determined wildflowers—seemingly oblivious to the troubles around.
But there was so much I did not know. I did not know the vast darkness of war. I did not know how vicious fate could be. I did not expect at times to feel as if I were imprisoned in a dream where no matter how I shouted or waved my arms, I could not be heard or seen.
I am a white North American. I grew up in both Canada and the United States. I cannot tell you what it is like to live in Sierra Leone. I cannot pretend to know the minds of the people I met and loved in that country. But I can tell you about what it was like for me to be there. I want to show you the pieces of that experience.
It is important for me to do this because Marie was not disposable. She had a heart and a brain, just like me. She looked at the same moon and knew the same feeling of warm sun on her back. It is not okay that she starved to death. It is not acceptable.
It is important for me to do this because in that dream-like state, the people I met in Sierra Leone were shouting and waving, too. It was the North Americans—my people—who couldn’t hear us, who couldn’t see us.
But maybe you could try.
© Kathleen Martin, 2011. All rights reserved.
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