Sierra Leone

Stumped in Sierra Leone
by Mary Levering

Mary is a friend of mine that has traveled around the world more than any person you know other than Gary Wintz and then even possible more- like over 200 countries and territories.  She is awesome and here is one of her stories.

 As my small expedition ship sailed further up the west coast of Africa from Cote d’Ivoire to Sierra Leone in April this year, I wondered what experiences I’d face in this small, poor West African country with its tortured history of the past 30 years. Since the 1990’s it has suffered one major disaster after another — years of devastating civil war, followed by the brutal occupation of warlord Charles Taylor and his army of drugged-up child soldiers committing atrocities – rapes, amputations , fetuses torn from the bellies of pregnant women and worse — as they raped the women and the country for its “blood diamonds”, and then recently, the horrors of Ebola, thousands infected and hundreds of horrible deaths.


Poor Sierra Leone! Already one of the poorest countries in Africa, its economy was devastated by the years of the murdurous Charles Taylor occupation and then hit by the Ebola crisis, closing its borders, cancelling air flights, evacuating foreign workers, and collapsing cross-border trade. Phew! How did Sierra Leone ever survive? What would the country and its people be like today?  She was welcomed with open heart 

I did know that there were thousands of war-scarred survivors in Sierra Leone today,

living with the scars of mutilations-by-machete by child soldiers high on amphetemines… they brutalized with impunity at the slightest provocation; amputating arms, legs, ears, noses, lips.

I was uncharacteristically apprehensive about encountering amputee victims there because of my unsettling experience just a few weeks earlier when travelling by myself in neighboring Liberia.

It happened on Easter Sunday morning, just after I’d attended an uplifting Easter morning Holy Mass at Monrovia’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. A joyous occasion. In the colorful cathedral, I was transported by the churchful of devout worshippers, soaring West African music, and age-old ritual. But upon leaving the church, I was surrounded by a swarm of pitiful young men, all amputees, probably by Taylor’s murderous Liberian troops. Because the Easter service wasn’t quite over, I was all alone on the sidewalk.
I knew immediately how these wounded men had been maimed — my heart went out to them. They pleaded with me for a few dollars each for Easter morning coffee. Of course I wanted to help…. it was so little to give. But I had only a $20 bill in cash with me. I asked them to share it. They all swore “up and down” that they’d share, no problem. But when I handed it over to one of them, the others immediately began fighting viciously and physically among themselves to get hold of the bill. I was actually a bit frightened… and relieved when my Liberian driver pulled up just at that moment and I slipped away. But it left me with a queasy feeling… had I done the right thing? Should I have just ignored them? Of course not, but somehow I still felt awful.
So I was a bit apprehensive a few weeks later on the small expedition ship I’d joined in Ghana when the expedition leader announced we’d be attending a soccer match later that day in Freetown, played by 2 teams of Sierra Leone amputees. I caught my breath! How would I feel at the game? How should I act? What should I do?
We toured the shabby city and then arrived at the rock-strewn, dirt soccer field, next to a dusty,old, pock-marked high school. I walked over to the field and found a spot among some local spectators. For a few minutes I talked with a young African father holding his 3-year old son in his arms. His sweetness helped calm my apprehensions .

Then the two teams, one in blue shirts, the other in green, ran out to the field, and took their places. The game began. Most players were missing a leg, a few missing an arm. The one-legged players all propelled themselves with hand braces, hopping energetically all over the field. These guys were absolutely amazing. I was spellbound! My apprehension completely fled, replaced by respect and amazement. These determined young men, all of them missing limbs, played intense soccer, hard and fast, most of them on hand crutches. They were running fiercely, all over the field as part of the game. Every time a one-legged player scored a goal, he’d be so thrilled he’d throw his arms up in the air (with the crutches in them), and of course he’d fall flat on his face. Then all his team mates would excitedly pile up on him,. Then some spectators would run out on the field and help them all get standing up on their hand crutches, and off they’d be running again. It was so moving, so inspirational, and thrilling too. What a game!
Our expedition leader came up to me at half time and asked if I would say a few words at the end of the game, on behalf of my fellow expedition passengers. I said “Let me think about it.” Then I jotted a few words down on a slip of paper, and agreed to speak afterward. With the winning goal scored by the blue team, everyone was cheering and yelling excitedly, especially me. The winning team was ecstatic as they all came over to the sidelines and surrounded me. “Thank you” I said, to all of them, “ from the bottom of our hearts for this unforgettable, hard fought game, played so magnificently by both your teams. We all come from many different countries “ and I gestured to my fellow passengers, “ We come from the United States, Mexico, China, Great Britain, New Zealand, Poland, France, and other parts of the world. We all speak different languages. But soccer is a universal language, and today, thanks to all of you great players, we saw soccer at its very best and we all speak the same language. We will never forget you”. Then we all cheered again some more. What an experience!

I have a wonderful photo of me, surrounded by the one-legged teams all on hand crutches, all of us cheering and yelling together. The Blue Team captain leaned over and asked me “What’s your name?” “Mary” I replied , in the noisy excitement. “what’s yours?” “Joseph” he said. Then in all the excited noise around us, he asked “What’s your name again?”. I grinned, then took a chance and asked him (rather boldly in this predominantly Muslim country), “are you Muslim or Christian?” he answered, “I’m a Christian”. “Well,” I replied, “then you’ll always remember me and my name. Just think of Joseph, the baby Jesus, and….” I paused, waiting expectantly, and he yelled” Mary ! “ Right!“ I said, “We’re Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. He laughed, and then he hugged me as best he could while still holding his arm crutches, and we smiled from ear-to-ear at each other. He loved it, so did I. Indeed I will never forget this day– and these amazing, determined, young men – survivors all of them.  From here we went diving in the Philippines

 We had a blast here as well