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When we moved to the Kendeja neighbourhood five years ago, I must admit I was slightly concerned about it. Up to this point we’d always lived in apartments above someone else’s house. This living arrangement instigated my habit of socializing with the household below me, but not mingling too far beyond that.
Then we moved to Kendeja where we were no longer tenants, but the leaseholders of our own property. The buffers between us and everyone around us disappeared, leaving this quasi-extrovert—with a strong need for a quiet home life— feeling exposed.
To the left of our property was a ramshackle house pieced together from scraps of tin and wood. On our right was a well-built concrete house leased by a missionary who shared his home with a few Liberian families. Directly across from us was a quiet, walled, unoccupied property, and adjacent to that was an open lot with an unfinished home and a small provisional shop located at the front of it.
This wall-less property was a hub for the community. There was, and still is, a constant flow of people coming and going. Since they used their front yard for cooking, washing and generally hanging out, it was easy to get a sense of their daily routines.
Initially I wanted to keep my distance for fear of being deemed the bleeding heart NGO household where our neighbours would come knocking for every need that arose (yes, I realize how presumptuous this sounds). I’d heard stories like this from other people living in private houses—versus the large apartment blocks with security guards that many ex-pats prefer—where a steady stream of neighbours made requests at all hours. I didn’t want that to be me.
What I didn’t realize was the people that told me those stories had cultivated that reality and my experience was going to be completely different.
It took me awhile to figure the neighbourhood out. Between the years of long hours with the well program, time spent out of town at the school in Royesville, and finally Ebola, I didn’t have much time for chit-chat with the neighbours.
When we came back after an extended period away due to the Ebola crisis, I suddenly became very popular with the four foot and under crew. At first I assumed that they finally appreciated how amazing I am, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. I was simply a form of entertainment for all the kids who were bored silly from being out of school for so long.
With Ebola still in the country, the small mob that used me as the finish line for the “Landis Race” was not an ideal scenario. I quickly established a hands off policy, but I would show the occasional bit of affection by patting kids on the top of their heads. I know that’s not truly hands off, but it felt safer than having small children wrap themselves around my legs. Soon everyone in my crew would approach me with a slight tilt to their head as they prepared themselves for my pat.
It took five years, but I finally feel like I’m a part of my community. The kids across the alley, who still chat with me every day, have completely captured my heart. Abraham is the responsible one, Joseph likes to be loud, Princess is funny, Ma J is a fashionista, Moses is always helpful and Chantal still cries every time she sees me.
I’ve gotten to know their parents as well, and although my conversations with the adults are more limited, I feel trusted and accepted by them. I can go to them for advice on breaking a fever, cooking cassava or any of the many things I’m not very talented at.
After all that initial worry, it’s me that ended up knocking on their door and I’m grateful that they welcomed me in.
Have you ever experienced a serendipitous moment, where the world converges and everything comes together in the end? A few others and myself are currently in the middle of one those moments; and although this story has a scary beginning, there is hope for a happy ending.
It all started when I was driving to the school early one morning, happily chatting away with the founder of Trinity Dental Clinic Frieda Schmidt, and the visiting dental hygiene students; enjoying what I refer to as my “hour of elation” that occurs each day after I finish my morning coffee. We were bouncing along the final stretch of bumpy dirt road that leads to the school when everyone lets out a gasp.
Emerging from a murky slow flowing creek beside the road is a beanpole of a girl with cheeks that appear to house an apple on each side. She’s holding a worn down toothbrush in her hand, having just come from brushing her teeth.
As soon as the girl is spotted, the truck erupts with highly animated dental “speak” as the group quickly agrees that it’s likely to be a condition called Osteomyelitis – an infection in the bone. I call to the girl, “Fine girl, go get your ma and come back soon, ya. ” while the experts continue their visual diagnosis.
We hastily clamber out of the truck as the girl returns to us, slowly trailing behind her mother Mussu. Mussu informs us that the girl (Maima) was taken to a clinic a few weeks ago and diagnosed with TB from a spit sample. She then tells us that Maima doesn’t have a cough at all and the TB medicine she is taking hasn’t been helping the situation. Mussu also mentions that the pain in Maima’s tooth has been going on for a year now.
Frieda leads a quick inspection of Maima’s face and it’s discovered that she can only open her mouth about 2 cm wide. She eats by squeezing food through the gaps where two molars recently shed. The infection is so bad that its worked its way out four different exit points under her lower jaw.
The students with their fresh textbook knowledge express a concern about the infection killing her imminently, but Frieda reassures them (from her vast dental experience in Liberia) that Maima would be much more listless if the infection was at that level.
The family agrees to bring Maima to the ELWA hospital so a bone biopsy can be preformed then sent to the United States for testing. But there remains one major problem – there isn’t a surgeon in the country qualified to do the surgery.
While discussing what the possible options could be, Frieda mentions that she was just contacted by a maxillofacial surgeon she knows from her days working on Mercy Ship. He recently emailed her to mention that he’ll be passing through Liberia on his way to Guinea in January and was wondering if she had any patients to make a stop in Liberia worthwhile.
It was as though the car physically expanded as all of us breathed out a unified sigh of relief. The surgeon would be here on January 10th and with a few visits to the Liberian Medical and Dental Board Frieda speculated that she could get all of the licensing in place ahead of time so he could preform the surgery upon arrival.
Since that fateful day Maima, Mussu, and myself have been to the hospital numerous times for all the preliminary doctor’s appointments. To add to the serendipity of this story, on her first visit to the hospital Mussu mentioned that Maima had a fever and wasn’t feeling well. While we were at the hospital awaiting her blood tests results Maima rapidly deteriorated before our eyes. The tests came back quickly and it revealed that Maima had 4+ malaria. She and her mother spent the next 24 hours in the emergency room while treatment was administered. Fortunately it was caught early and Maima recovered quickly.
At the moment Maima is on a high dose on antibiotics to control the infection and the biopsy results should be in any day. She is scheduled to arrive at the hospital the day before the surgeon to ensure her stomach is empty and she is ready for surgery.
It may come as a surprise, but Maima is actually doing quite well for a girl with such a serious condition. Her spirits are high and she actually seems to enjoy her trips into town with me to the doctor’s office, especially when we make a stop at the beach to splash around in the waves before going back to Royesville.
So this story with its sad start appears to have the potential to end well. It will be a big month for Maima this January and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on her progress.
I’d like to introduce you to Roosevelt, Samuel Jr and Alexander (left to right) – best buddies from the grade one class at the Royesville School. If a picture is worth a thousand words then this one reveals it all.
Meet Roosevelt – the serious one. He’s seven years old and is often left in charge of his 18 month old sister Geraldine. His dad is a teacher at the school so he can frequently be spotted purposefully striding around the campus with Geraldine on his hip and a farm tool in his hand. Roosevelt is always the one offering advice to the other kids on the best way to execute whatever task is at hand.
Next is Samuel Jr – the mischievous one. Sammy has this contagious smile that spreads across his face every time he looks at you. He has this lightness to him that comes with being a natural charmer so it’s not easy to get mad at a face like this, even when he is stirring up some trouble. When put to a task he’s quick to get to work though. He comes from a large family where everyone has a job to do and he knows when its time to contribute.
Finally Alexander – the awkward one. Every time he poses for a picture Alex has his eyes down cast or is fidgeting with something on his shirt. Its as though Alex is unsure of his place in this world, which makes some sense, considering his situation. The story is vague, but it appears that his parents gave him to Roosevelt’s family knowing that he’d have a better life with them. Alex is doing great in their care – he’s a kind, gentle boy always ready to tag along with anything fun that’s going on.
These boys are 3 of the 107 students at the Royesville School and 3 of 107 reasons why I love what I do.
Its been raining non stop for two days now. As I kneel on my couch, scanning the sky through the tight black grid of the double-screened windows, I see an endless canopy of dull grey and I realize this downpour will not end anytime soon. Part of me relishes in the luxurious coolness the rain brings and the other part of me really wishes I didn’t put a load of laundry in last night.
This rainy version of the relentlessly sunny Liberia I’m accustomed to is creating a bit of a drying dilemma. My habitual trips home during the season of torrential downpours has left me ill equipped to manage this situation.
At the moment my small living room closely resembles a very poorly run laundry mat. Shirts hang off the back of chairs, underwear lays strewn over the exercise bike, pajamas cling to the standing fan and pants dangle from the ajar doors. I’m surrounded.
This is all part of “the shift” – the adjustments that need to be made each year when I move between two distinctly different worlds. Upon return to Canada, ask me if the transition home is difficult and without a pause my answer will be, “No, of course not!” I have no problem embracing 24-hour power, safe tap water, cool breezes, amazing fresh food, excellent public transit, and clean air (this is not a comprehensive list).
Now ask me that same question when I first arrive back in Liberia and you’ll get a very different answer. There is definitely a period of transition when I return to Africa.
It’s the multitude of daily realities that shake me up for a bit. Little things like indestructible cockroaches, teeny-tiny killer mosquitos, relentless kitchen ants, untrustworthy tap water, weird stomach issues, diesel belching trucks, crazy drivers and perpetual sweating (this is not a comprehensive list).
Eventually, after a period of denial, I begin to navigate this new reality and it becomes just normal everyday routine. I even start to enjoy the added challenge life here brings. Trying to outsmart mice, figuring out what erratic maneuver the driver in front of me is going to pull, knowing when to hold my breath – it all makes even the most mundane day a little more interesting.
So while this is transition time is still fresh in my mind, I want to ask you to help me with “the shift” next year. On the last day we see each other in Canada I need you to put your hands on my shoulders, look me straight in the eyes and say, “Remember.” Next you’ll need to take off your shoe and smack it really hard on the ground. Then, come back to the previous shoulder/eye lock and say: “That’s how you kill a cockroach.”