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The Time I Fell in Love in Sierra Leone

One of the many things we are taught in our preparation meetings before departing for Sierra Leone is to be careful with what you say while in Sierra Leone.  A friendly “You should visit the United States someday,” could be misinterpreted to mean “Come and stay at my house for as long as you’d like.” As my team leader pointed out, you will be connecting with someone and say something that seems harmless, but you are still connecting with someone from a different culture. Different cultures interpret things in different ways. Be careful with your words.

Also before my trip, my husband told me about Lance (name has been changed). In fact, upon returning from each of his previous trips, he told me all about Lance. When it was confirmed that I was going on this trip, one of the first things he said was, “You will finally get to meet Lance.”

Lance was his boy. They had connected on his first trip. At that time, Lance was just around six years old. Everywhere Tim went, so did Lance. This is common at the Child Rescue Centre. The children seem to divide themselves up and each of them connects with a different member of the team. Lance connected with Tim. For four years I heard how amazing this kid was, so naturally I was anxious to finally meet him.

When we arrived at the CRC it was late in the afternoon. The kids came running to greet our bus. They were singing “Welcome, welcome,” smiling and clapping. As we got off the bus they began to hug us and ask us our names. As they introduced themselves I grew more and more anxious to meet Lance. What did he look like again? He would be older now, but how old?

Finally a boy about 10 years old approached me, gave me a hug and asked my name.  I told him and then asked him his.

“My name is Lance.”

“LANCE! LANCE! I am Tim Ward’s wife! He -” and then I stopped. Remembering our training I wasn’t sure how to continue. I didn’t feel as if I could really launch into a long narrative on how much Tim loved him. I chose my words carefully.

“Lance, I know you! I have heard stories about you! I am so glad to meet you!”

As the week wore on, I had to laugh at my initial hesitation. As I began to meet some of the older kids who also remembered Tim, they would say things like “Oh, you are Tim’s wife? Have you met Lance? He is Tim’s son.” Apparently, the bond between the two of them was well known here.

Lance and I were soon inseparable. Our team stayed at the building next door to the CRC, but every morning when I would enter the CRC, Lance would see me and run to my side. He would save a seat for me at all the events. At night, he would walk me to the door and hug me good night.

On day, while watching the older boys play soccer, we talked about what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I want to be a doctor.” (The great thing about the CRC is that kids here can dream to be a doctor and if they work hard enough it can actually happen. Lance has the benefit of watching the older kids who have graduated the CRC go on to medical school.)

“That’s great. You are going to have to study hard. Are you a good student?”

“I’m number one in my class.” That’s my boy, I thought.

“What kind of doctor do you want to be?”

He smiles at me. Whenever Lance smiles at me, my heart melts. He is beautiful. “I want to be a doctor in America.”

Now that’s going to be a little harder, I think. None of the older students that have gone before him have managed that one yet. Again I choose my words wisely.

“An American doctor, huh? Good thing you are number one in your class.  You better keep that up.”

I wanted desperately to tell him that if anyone can do it, it is him. I wanted to begin planning his future and scheming how he could get to America, study there, live there and finally meet our kids, but I knew I could not.

Instead, I just smiled back at him.

By the end of the week I was dreading saying good-bye. My eyes would literally tear up every time someone would mention the last night. I did not want to leave. I was pretty confident I would be back to the CRC, but I did not know when. In Sierra Leone, the government encourages a process called “reunification” for children who live in group facilities like this. When they reach a certain age, they go live with family members or foster families in the community. I was not sure if I would be back before Lance was reunified. I was hopeful, but not sure.

At the last program I could barely look at Lance. The lump in my throat made talking nearly impossible. I just wanted to hold him forever. Finally, I began to cry. As I hugged the other kids from the CRC, so many wonderful kids that I will also miss greatly, Lance never left my side. When it was time to go, Lance walked me to gate, as he did every night.

Earlier in the week, I had heard a boy talking with Lance about something Tim had told Lance on his first trip. He told Lance to look at the stars and think of him. Remember that we all look at the same stars.

As tears came down my cheeks, I managed the words, “Remember the stars. We have the stars.” I hugged Lance and let the tears flow freely.

“You are an awesome kid. Always remember that. I’m so glad that I met you. I love you. Thank you.”

I looked down at him to see that he was crying too. He didn’t say anything back, he just hugged tighter.

Finally, it was time to go. As I walked away from him, I thanked God for Lance. An orphan in Africa, number one in his class with dreams of becoming an American doctor. I don’t know what the future actually holds for Lance, but I know that he will have a bright one. I know that he is loved and well cared for at the Child Rescue Centre.

I know that he is forever cherished in my heart.

Losing Control in Africa

I like to be in control. I like the feeling of knowing exactly what I want, executing a few steps and accomplishing my goal. In my house, you could even call me a bit bossy. I’m the mom. I call most of the shots. We eat what I make for dinner. The house is cleaned when I say it needs to be cleaned. If one of my children wants to play outside, he/she has to run it by me first. Outside of the home, I know how to get things done. If I want an iced tea from Panera, I have the means (money and transportation) to get one. If I am made to pay more money at store based solely on the color of my skin, I know where to report it and can be assured that it will be looked into. I know how life works in my world.

When I stepped off the plane in Africa, I realized just small the world I know how to control is. As a foreigner in an unfamiliar land, I didn’t have a clue about how things worked. I had heard stories and had a general idea of what to expect but the actual application of this knowledge was completely different. It’s a very odd feeling to be completely helpless. To suddenly be in a country where you have no money, no transportation, no working phone and many of the people don’t speak your language I had almost no means to control anything. I was forced to rely completely on our team leader. A new feeling for a mom who is used to always being in control.

Many things just work differently in Sierra Leone. In Northern Virginia if you schedule a bus to arrive at 9, you expect it to arrive at 9 or 9:15 at the latest (which would be late and unacceptable). In Sierra Leone you might schedule a bus to arrive at 9 but it might not come until 10:30. While disappointing, it doesn’t seem as critical in Sierra Leone. Had it happen the morning we needed to catch our flight home, I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune, but since it was not the morning of our flight, my inability to control the situation led me to realize two things: I could either sit and complain about the bus being late or I could enjoy the extra time with our group. I chose the latter. There is a lot of waiting in Sierra Leone because there is so much that is beyond your control. I typically don’t like waiting, but it seemed different there. It was not anxious waiting as if you will miss something, it’s more of a calm waiting like when you are waiting for the sun to set over the ocean. It’s waiting without the rush.

As I said before, I like being in control, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed not having to control it all. While confusing at times because I didn’t always know exactly what the plan was three steps ahead of what we were currently doing, it was relaxing not having so many balls to juggle in the air at one time. It wasn’t my job to make sure dinner was on the table each night. There were no toys to put away at the end of the day. I wasn’t constantly checking my phone to make sure I wasn’t missing anything from work. I was able to focus on the main reason I had traveled across the world to Africa: to show love to a group of amazing kids.