“Reality can bring more than physical pain. Sometimes, reality can crush the heart.”
Harold dropped his ballpoint pen onto the slightly damp paper that rested on the flat, pitted surface of the ancient desk. In another place, the paper would have been crisp, but not in Sierra Leone. The desk looked like it was a long disused movie prop from when Humphrey Bogart starred in the black and white movie, Casablanca.
Like much of West Africa, humidity was high through the entire year, although there were many months when it never rained. The Sahara Desert played a huge part in the weather patterns, and during the dry season everything would be covered in a fine red dust. The red dust would seep into the very pores of your skin and the simple bucket baths only gave a few minutes of relief.
His shirt, trousers, and even his undergarments were damp from sweat. The sun’s unrelenting heat was never mitigated, and the best you could hope for was a bit of an ocean breeze to bring some relief at night.
Night brought its own terrors. Bugs, mosquitoes, and spiders the size of your hand seemed to double in size when the generator ran out of gas in the middle of the night. Resting on a damp sheet on top of a damp foam mattress, Harold knew the only think that provided some form of protection was the mosquito netting that surrounded his sleeping area. But, he also knew that the African rats scurrying around his room in the pitch blackness could easily chew through the cotton fibers if they so desired.
Yet, the humidity and the lack of modern conveniences were far from the man’s mind as he glanced back down at the paper in front of him. Yesterday’s events had rocked him to the core. The reality of being in a foreign country only brushed the surface of the depth of feelings and emotions that coursed through his body. Harold was certain that his life was forever changed simply by getting on the airplane, but only time would tell how much it had changed.
The taxi driver would be here soon to collect him and deliver him back to Lungi International Airport. It is the only international airport in Sierra Leone, but was not actually in the capital of Freetown. Freetown was across the bay but was a quick ferry ride from the town of Lungi where he was staying at the Mahera Beach Hotel.
Thoughts raced through his brain, but he found there was nothing more that he felt he could write. All he could think of was the lesson young Foday Koroma had taught him.
The last week, Harold had stayed in the small town of Moyamba, which was about a three-hour drive to the east of Freetown. A group of missionaries were teaching local pastors how to teach their own congregations about the Bible, but were also providing much needed services to villages. This included teaching the locals about bee-keeping, better irrigation methods, and improved hygiene.
Apart from a couple of trips to nearby villages, Foday had lived in Moyamba all of his thirteen years. Thirteen was not a clear number though as he had been orphaned during the brutal civil war. He had been passed from house to house but nobody knew exactly how many years had passed. Harold thought the boy might actually be fifteen or sixteen for the lad was the same height as the white man who had become a friend so quickly.
Foday’s schooling had been minimal at best and Harold guessed that the boy might read at a first grade level. Every day, Foday waiting for other youngsters to get off school or come back from the pineapple farms so they could play football, or soccer as Harold liked to call it.
With a little convincing, Foday managed to get Harold to come play with them. Too many years had passed since Harold played sports of any kind, but he had tried to keep up. Blaming it on the extreme heat of the tropical sun, Harold only managed about ten minutes before explaining that he would have to go sit under the tree on the edge of the football pitch.
An hour later, the game finished. Foday and his companions said goodbye to each other, and the young man came to sit with Harold under the tree. His lithe body glistened brightly with sweat as though it had been covered with oil. Grinning widely, Foday was happy for his side had won quite handily. From what Harold could tell, it was not really much of a contest for Foday was quite good with handling the ball at either end of the field.
“Mr. Harold, I will miss you when you go. You are good friend.”
Harold remembered the lump that came to his throat as he thought about his upcoming departure. Each day seemed like an eternity in a tropical torture chamber, but the people had made a huge impression on him. People like Foday were kind, gracious, and eager to learn of new things.
Harold simply nodded to his young friend as they stared across the grassless, dust-covered patch of ground that doubled as a village meeting place and a football field.
Looking back at the lad, he noticed the boy taking quick glances from the man’s tennis shoes and back to his own feet. Harold would not have dared to say anything and poverty was evident everywhere in Sierra Leone.
Foday’s black feet glistened through several holes in what remained of the ragged shoes. The boy’s shoes had probably been passed from person to person until given to Foday. They did not even have any shoelaces. How he managed to keep them on his feet, even while playing football, was amazing. Yet, he did and he was clearly one of the fastest in the village.
Something stirred within Harold’s heart and he asked the boy if there was anything he would like as a gift.
Foday thought for a moment and pointing at his friend’s feet, he responded.
“Mr. Harold, if I had some nice shoelaces like yours, I could run even faster when I play football. Do you think I could have your shoelaces?”
Harold sat stunned into silence. It was obvious both of them wore about the same size shoe, but all the boy wanted was the shoelaces to help hold the rags on his feet together.
Any resistance that may have been harbored in his heart toward the people of Sierra Leone evaporated like the jungle morning mist before the tropical sun. Tears had filled the man’s eyes and without a moment’s hesitation, he reached down and carefully undid the shoelaces on each tennis shoe. Slowly, he took off each shoe and handed it to Foday.
It was Foday’s turn to be stunned. He could not believe the miracle that had just taken place. All he wanted was shoelaces, but now he had a pair of tennis shoes that looked brand new. Putting them on, the grin on his face grew even larger than Harold thought possible. The lad felt prouder than if he had been elected as the next village elder.
From Harold’s perspective, the shoes were an older pair that he had brought at the last minute, but was now glad that he had done so.
Back at his hotel, Harold thought through every moment of the interaction. It was burned into his mind as though seared by the hot African sun. Putting the pen back in his damp pocket, Harold knew that it was not just Foday that had impacted his life. Every person, every smell, every plate of food, everything he had seen had changed the way he would look at life.
The reality of life in Sierra Leone caused physical pain to many, but the reality of what he had experienced had crushed his heart. It was not crushed beyond repair, but was crushed from the hardness that he may have felt toward others. It had crushed his need for the finer things of life and he knew he would forever be grateful for everything he owned, which was so much more than Foday and millions of others would ever own themselves.
All because of shoelaces!
Some aspects have been changed to keep individuals anonymous.
Like your parents, but the next step up, grandparents can instill a mixture of emotions. As a little one, they could coerce obedience by promising to tell your parents whether you had been good or not. It was only in later years that you realized they probably wouldn’t say a word if you had been bad.
As parents, grandparents probably raised their children with a firm hand, but with age tend to mellow which means grandchildren probably get away with much more than their parents ever did.
Some things never change though.
The mother who insisted she was not hungry when the last piece of bread, or meat, or even pie beckoned to the stomach of an eight-year-old is probably the grandmother who does the same when you went to visit them.
The father who was a military veteran and instilled strict discipline in the ranks is probably the same grandfather who will sneak with you out of the garage down to the local ice cream store or bakery after making you promise not to tell grandma that something has spoiled your dinner.
While some grandparents never learn, others have had the privilege of helping the next generation to learn and grow. Some grandparents undermine the parents, while others are careful to help instill respect, loyalty, and honesty.
Mygrandparents were the good kind of grandparents. I never knew my maternal grandfather as he passed away when my mother was only sixteen, I spent many years loving my maternal grandmother and the man she married after being a widow for 18 years. We called him Grandpa and he was everything you could ask for in a proper British gentleman.
A master electrician and professor at a local British college, I can remember visiting them and him asking me to help him “do some repairs up in the attic.” A stately man, he carefully took off his suit jacket and worked his way up the ladder still wearing a sweater, pressed dress shirt, and a tie (with a double Windsor knot). Knowing nothing about electrical wiring, he made me feel important as though I had actually done the work.
Grandma, or Nanny as she was preferably called, could bake up a storm. Tarts, sausage rolls, scones, and all things British helped keep appetites at bay. She always had a faint smell of lavender and she was meticulous about her clothing and hair. Til the day she died at almost 87, she had a full head of dark brown hair with no more than a handful of gray or white hairs.
My paternal grandmother abandoned her family when my dad was little, but we did know and spend time with my paternal grandfather. Distance and careers kept us from visiting as often as I would have liked, but he knew he was loved. Laying carpet, tile, and linoleum until he was in his 70’s, he taught me the importance of hard work.
On one visit when I was about ten, we drive across the US to visit him. While there, he kept us entertained while still working hard. In his 70’s, he could still run circles around what I can do in my 50’s. During the visit, my parents bought him a brand-new wallet as his was falling apart. I asked for the wallet, but my parents didn’t think it was of any value and it was thrown away. We left the next evening and headed back across the US. All I could think of was a wallet in the trashcan behind the house, but it was eventually forgotten.
Years later, I visited my grandfather down in Mexico with my own little family that we had just started. During that time, the previous visit when I was ten entered the conversation and it triggered the memory of that old wallet. I shared the story with my grandfather and we laughed about what makes a memory. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out a newer wallet and asked me if I would like to have it. I was very surprised, but insisted that I had a newer wallet myself and wanted him to keep what he had. He never had a great deal of money or possessions, but he was just Grandpa. He was the type of person that would give you what you needed and even what you wanted whether he could afford it or not.
My stories could probably fill books of all the things they did for us and with us, but the one common factor was their love for us. They didn’t always agree with our decision any more than our parents did, but they stood with us especially when life was difficult.
Asa grandfather myself now, I look at past generations and realize the rich heritage that was left to me. Sadly, we are not allowed to spend time with our grandson due to a nasty divorce, but I can only pray that one day that little fellow will know that we tried to be there for him. I hope that like my own grandfathers, and my children’s grandfathers, that I will be a rock to help guide through life but do so with as much graciousness and love as I was shown.
All of my grandparents are now gone, but their memories live on. I wish I would have taken more time than I did, but when you are young, you think that with a full life ahead of you that they do as well.
My goal is to be the kind of grandfather to my grandchildren that they will one day be to their own grandchildren. If I do it right and they follow in the footsteps that I have followed before me, then I will have succeeded.
Currently, I am in the process of finishing my second book which is a memoir of my first visit to Liberia, West Africa in 2007.
This small country used to be prosperous, but a devastating 14-year civil war absolutely decimated it. Infrastructure such as electricity and running water is only now starting to come back to better standards but mainly only in places like the capital of Monrovia. Traveling outside of Monrovia will find badly damaged unpaved roads that are almost impassable during the rainy season.
Villages and towns across the vast majority of Liberia still have no electricity or running water. Many villages have wells provided by a variety of NGOs (non-government organizations), but the jobs were not finished. I have personally seen and stayed in villages where the well was dug but the proper equipment to procure the water at the surface was non-existent.
The 14-year civil war killed an estimated 10% of the population and left thousands of children as orphans. The war caused a massive drop in the economy by over 90% and made it the 4th poorest country in the world in 2007. Those able to gain employment made an average of $1 per day.
Many still do not work and a published rate of literacy at 60% means that many have no ability do not have the necessary skills to do more than farm. Education is compulsory for children up to 16, but this is rarely enforced. More times than not, teachers are not available outside of Monrovia and the students who get passed to the next grade do so because the parents can bribe the system.
It was to this country that I took my first trip in January 2007. I visited parts of the country under the control of the United Nations, which is probably one of the most corrupt organizations in the world. Soldiers were often left to their own devices. Theft and sexual abuse of the locals was common. None of those involved in these crimes were ever punished. Any crime by the UN would be overlooked as long as a bribe was easily forthcoming.
When I arrived on one of two commercial flights in and out of the country per week, I learned within three hours that I had been duped. Scammed into leaving the comforts of my home in England, I simply wanted to get back on a plane and get out of the steaming jungles of this country for which I had no love.
Over the course of the next two weeks, my heart and mind changed. To this day, I still have a great love for the people of Liberia despite what occurred both on that trip, subsequent trips, and later a move that almost cost the lives of my oldest daughter and myself due to multiple cases of typhoid and malaria.
During my trip, I had the privilege of visiting a few marketplaces where I saw some of the incredible workmanship that goes into West African national costumes. Most of them were out of my budget, but I managed to have enough to purchase gifts for my wife and my children.
The final few days were a flurry of activity as I preached and taught in several locations. Preaching while standing in buildings with metal roofs, the temperatures soared well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In one location, I taught while just around the corner children as young as three or four scrounged in a trash dump looking for scraps of food or something to try and salvage.
My first trip to Liberia made me realize that I was rich. I could not keep up with the expatriates who had companies footing the bill. My role there was a teacher and I had paid my own way to and from the country. However, I was blessed by the richness that I found in the hearts of the people.
My showers were done with one scoop at a time out of a large 55 gallon water bucket. In a land where many were happy to get one meal a day, I learned to appreciate oatmeal every morning for breakfast with a cup of strong coffee. In the evening, one of the local pastors and his family prepared a lovely Liberian meal. It was only towards the end of my visit that I realized that they had provided meat for me at the expense of not getting any themselves.
In one of my last preaching opportunities, the people had prepared a wonderful smelling meal. It tasted really good and each person kept insisting that I get some of the meat in the pot. By now, I understood what they were doing and with my stomach already giving me problems, I was able to encourage them to share.
At the end of the meeting, they asked me to step to the front for a “robing.” Imagine my surprise when the leaders of the church pulled out one of the most exquisite outfits I had ever seen. It was fit for a king or a tribal chief, yet, they were giving it to me.
In my heart, I did not deserve such respect. I had only sought to teach them the Bible, but they were honoring me. It was not until my second trip back to Liberia that I understood what that gift had cost that small congregation. They had given sacrificially in so many ways in order to give the absolute best that they could.
That outfit has traveled with me everywhere I have gone for the last twelve years. It holds a special place in my heart, but not because of the material nor because of the amount of money that Liberian outfit cost. The garments are special because they were given from a heart of love and out of appreciation for what they had learned.
Today, I am in constant contact with some of the people I was able to train. They have never asked me for one single dollar, even though this is common in many parts of West Africa. Each email or phone call always concludes with them telling me thank you again for going to Liberia.
The road of life has never been easy. I have long struggled with health issues, some of them that brought me close to death. However, in the midst of all the struggles, even when living deep, DEEP in the steamy jungles of Liberia, West Africa, we never went without a meal and we have managed to always pay our bills.
Now, I tend to be the kind of person who likes things to be a certain way. In the early years of our marriage, life was difficult on many levels. This was especially true when it came to finances. We can remember having to determine whether we wanted to live off of rice and beans or macaroni and ground beef in order to purchase necessities for our babies.
It seemed that every time we managed to save just a little that another big bill would show up. I was already working two jobs (1 full-time, and 1 part-time) for about 65 hours per week just to make ends meet. My wife and I only had one vehicle and still only have one to this day, but we were thankful that our situation was much better than most of the world.
Ok, let’s rewind to that last sentence and try to clarify.
You see, while I was working as a word processing specialist in the day, and then loading boxes into big trucks at all hours, I was NOT actually being very thankful. However, my wife was thankful because it allowed her to be a stay-at-home mom.
One incident that remains me to this day is just as clear as if it had just happened. The main reason is probably because it helped me to adjust my attitude on life.
In approximately 1991 or 1992, we lived in the US state of North Carolina. We were hoping to purchase a little home, but could never seem to save up enough to even pay our monthly bills.
One hot August day, we took our station wagon (an estate for UK readers) to the mechanic and learned it was going to take about $400 to make necessary repairs. That was a lot of money in the early 90’s and we had only managed to just save up about $500 or $600 in the bank account.
Going to my bank, I pulled up to the ATM Cash Machine while muttering under my breath about how unfair life was treating us. Ok, another confession, my wife was sitting beside me with our babies in the back, but I was actually complaining about how unfair life was treating me.
I took out my wallet, grabbed my ATM card and jammed it into the machine. In a careless manner, I punched in my PIN code and waited.
The machine hummed and whirred and then spit my card back out. On the screen, the words “ERROR — INVALID CODE” appeared.
Already frustrated, I verified the PIN code with my wife and jammed the card back into the machine. Slowly, with great deliberation, and muttering quite profusely, I slowly entered my PIN once again.
The machine hummed and whirred and then spit my card back out. On the screen, the words “ERROR — INVALID CODE” appeared again.
By now, I was quite furious. Life was going downhill once again and I could not even access my bank account.
The sun was setting low in the sky and I had a lucid moment and thought that maybe a reflection on the machine was not allowing my PIN code to go through.
Putting the car in Park, I stepped out of my vehicle and stood close to the machine. I had the presence of mind to know that if you entered the PIN code incorrectly three times in quick succession that the machine would swallow your card. This would have created an even bigger headache as it was almost 5pm on a Friday evening.
Not so carefully and with only a cursory glance at my card, I jammed it into the machine for my third and final attempt while muttering about stupid banks and how they conspired to keep my money just when I needed it the most.
Quicker than Jack being nimble while jumping over the candlestick, I mashed the CANCEL button for all that I was worth. The machine whirred and hummed before FINALLY reluctantly spitting out my card.
With my wife sitting quite calmly in her seat watching me, I waved my card at her as she just laughed. I am sure she was laughing WITH me and not AT me, but I suddenly felt very, VERY foolish when I realized that the card in my hand was NOT my debit card.
It was my Driver’s License!
North Carolina had recently introduced a magnetic stripe on the back and with the sun’s bright glare I had mistaken my driver’s license for my debit card. Yes, that is the story that I am sticking with — it MUST have been the sun!
Even to this day, almost 20 years later, I still keep my driver’s license together in my wallet with my debit cards. Every time I pull up to an ATM machine, I never fail to remember the story of how I had to be taught a lesson in humility.
Since that time, we have moved to England twice, to Liberia, West Africa, and now reside permanently in the USA. Through the years, that experience has helped me to realize how truly blessed my family and I have been. Never hungry and richer in so many ways more than the vast majority of the world, I know that I need to take time to assess each situation that we encounter.
Is it really worth getting angry or upset when God has been so good to me?
Does my life have to be in such a hurry that I cannot take enough time to verify which card I am trying to put into the ATM?
If I am in that much of a hurry, then there are probably other things wrong in my mind and heart that need to be dealt with.
My life may not be what I was hoping when I was younger. My bank accounts will probably never reflect the savings I wish they had. My car may not be the best, biggest, or fastest. However, what I have is far more than I deserve.
Take time to slow down today.
PS — I pulled out the correct card with my wife still laughing at me and gently inserted it into the ATM Cash Machine which promptly delivered the required $400 I needed to pay the bill.
You see, I was born in a town northeast of London, England. However, I now live in the far western US state of Wyoming. The difference between the two is like night and day.
The county where I was born has approximately 200,000 more people than in the entire state where I now reside.
England has a moderate climate with four seasons — winter, spring, fall, and rainy!
Wyoming has a tropical climate — oh wait, never mind, I was thinking of somewhere else for a minute. The climate here also produces four seasons — winter, arctic, spring (with possible snow flurries) and summer/fall (scheduled for 3 weeks in July in 2019).
I am currently writing a long way from home — a very long way.
This last week I traveled from one part of the US to another while helping my parents move from one state to another state. During this week, I have been apart from my immediate family who I love very much. However, today is the day that I get on an airplane and go back to Wyoming.
As I have pondered the differences from one state to the next, I am also reminded of how blessed I am that I have the ability to travel.
My travels have taken me to about 17 countries and 47 out of 50 states. I have seen a lot of beautiful places and a few places that I would rather not live if at all possible.
While I contemplate on traveling though, I am reminded of those who have not. This may be due to their financial constraints or maybe just no interest. A few years ago, I remember asking one individual if they had ever traveled outside of the US. The response was surprising when they revealed that they had never even traveled outside of their own county, much less their state.
We had the privilege of teaching national pastors and church leaders in Liberia, West Africa. We met people who were born, grew up, got married, and still live in the same village with the furthest they have ever gone being one village away from their own. In all likelihood, those people will die never having traveled more than two or three miles from their homes.
I am preparing for a trip a long way from home — a very long way.
No, I do not mean when I board a plane later today to go back to my home. I am preparing for the trip that comes to all people. It is not something we can escape. Speaking of death is morbid for many, yet, every culture and society in the world have learned to prepare themselves for the inevitable.
Some fear death and the unknown. Nobody has ever gone to the other side and returned to describe it. Even in the Holy Scriptures we read of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ and how He was put to death, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Yet, conspicuously absent is any reference to what was on the other side of the curtain called death. The only record from Jesus we have is that He is going to the house of the Father to prepare a place for all true believers to live when they die. Nothing more.
The Bible does record a few instances where the dead were brought back to life, yet, not one person has described what it looks like. One record indicates that the apostle Paul died and went to heaven, yet he tells us that it is not possible to write down the glories of what he saw.
At the end of the Bible, the apostle John was given a vision in which he saw some of the things that are found in heaven. It is absolutely impossible to even hazard a guess as to what it truly looks like.
What I find sad though in my journeys a long way from my homes is that very few seem to be preparing. They live only for themselves or for the moment with no concerns about what the future holds.
For me, I was born at an early age. LOL. I can vividly recollect memories of things and people I met when I was just two or three years old. Then I blinked and I was looking up at the teenagers and could not wait to learn to drive. I blinked again and I was a teenager wanting to find somebody I could marry and have children. However, I did not stop blinking and 20, 30, 40, and now 50 came and went.
I have to consider what I have been doing for I do not have much of my life left. My strongest years are behind me but hopefully my wisest years are still ahead. My hair is no longer full and dark brown, but gets thinner with more gray every month. I am not the thin 127 lbs. I was when I got married and every extra pound I carry now gets harder to remove.
For all my travels though, I have seen much. I have learned much. I have no regrets about what I have accomplished, but there are things I wish I could have redone or goals that I would have pushed through to complete.
Like the picture above, the way ahead turns and winds its way through hills and mountains. I cannot see or even know what life will push my way as I travel through some of those valleys. Some will be difficult and painful while others will be filled with joy. The road I see though looks forward and does not dwell on that which is behind.
Yet, I cannot change the past so I look forward to the future and enjoy the present.