“Have you heard of the Beatles?” My mother’s question was met by silence as an illustration for her Junior Secondary School Technology class proved to require a little more explanation than she had first thought. Both my parents and two good friends visited Ngolala recently for about two weeks. It was a great time for me to share with them and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them be put to work, aiding various parts of our ministry in different ways. I often wonder what our kids really think of all these visitors that come and go. Is it unsettling or simply exciting fun? Does it leave them feeling special and loved or do broken promises of “I’ll be back!” leave a bitterness and cynicism about those who claim to love? I hope it is a positive experience on the whole. For me this latest visit was a special time to share loved ones with loved ones and also offered important perspective on my life here. In Sierra Leone people joke that when you see your mother for the first time in a while, “U de go suck bobby”, that is, “You are going to breastfeed”. So my family’s arrival also saw me in the strange position of being the subject of countless breast feeding comments.
The very first thing that I discovered when my family arrived at Lungi airport was that I am tanned. Always looking pasty and white beside my African friends and family, the Irish contingent proved that everything is relative and I looked positively brown beside those so recently shovelling their way through snow. Also, as we travelled to beautiful Banta and the conversation in the back seat of our vehicle saw repeated expressions of fascination at the sights and sounds around us I was struck by how normal such things have become for me. I live in Africa and while I have not allowed myself to forget the wonder of that fact it does feel, however ridiculous this may be, kind of normal.
Today I walked for an hour with two teachers from our school and the older boys from our children’s home to fish in a large river. We fished for an hour or two in the sunshine before rods were left on the river bank and bodies were thrown into the cool water. I gave some impromptu swimming lessons, practised paddling a dugout canoe and rather recklessly toyed with sunburn (but emerged unscathed). Before we had begun we went to greet the local town chief to make sure our day out had his blessing and I put a group of women gathering for polio vaccinations in to stitches by joining in with the cultural dance they were welcoming the medical team with. When bellies started to feel a little empty we returned to this village to fill them up (not with fish mind you). I dozed in a string hammock and before we left five of the boys would be stung with four cuts of a cane across the butt for sneaking back to the water for unsupervised swimming time. As we trekked through the bush on the way home the boys bundled up wood to give to their aunties and as I reached my front door Massah arrived with the fresh smelling laundry she had asked if she could wash that morning. On the one hand these are quite remarkable things to make up your day. On the other it was really rather normal.
As the four wheel drive that would carry my parents to the airport pulled away from the COTN childrens’ home and headed off in to darkness just before dawn, lots of our home aunties waved them off with me. They had already started provoking and teasing me, in an affectionate way, about how I was going to cry now that my parents were leaving. Mummy Josephine, the home mother (in charge of all our carers), pulled her bottom eyelid down with her finger and said, “Oh, Mummy don go!” (“Mummy has gone”) and then laughed at me. They were as bad as the children who had been at it for a few days and would continue for a few more. In one moment of somewhat black humour one of the girls, Hawa, commented, “Ha, your parents are going, so we will all be the same soup. We don’t have parents and neither will you, so we will be the same soup again.” So the aunties followed their children’s lead and teased me before heading back to their houses to make the children their breakfast. Just before that though Mummy Elizabeth put her arm around my shoulders and said “Don’t worry Uncle Mark, you have lot’s of mothers here”, a comment which was greeted with loud agreement from the others. It was all just what I needed.