My third and final visit to see Alassane and Alseny (two Mercy Ships patients who had surgery to correct their bowed legs and have become affectionately known on our team as the ‘Doublemint Twins’)…what a day.
As you may know, the very nature of traveling in West Africa can be toilsome for a city girl like myself. So when we reached the boys’ community without a single complication, we were long overdue for a hiccup. That’s when we made a tiny wrong turn.
The thing about driving a giant, muddy, used-to-be-white Land Rover with a Mercy Ships logo on it is that wherever we go, we inadvertently say vroom vroom, HERE WE ARE. On this particular lazy Sunday afternoon, such an arrival was rather exciting for, say, every child within a mile radius.
The other thing about traveling in what can only be described as an off-road situation is that you have to go quite slow to avoid giving your passengers concussions. So this slow detour provided exactly the commotion and exposure we needed to effectively announce our arrival to the entire neighborhood. Then came the little faces.
They looked up from their laundry, out of their windows, away from their soccer games. Time stood still as our landy made an efficient three-point turn, now in front of a perplexed audience. But then a simultaneous recognition spread across the Little Faces in the form of a smile. Visitors?
In the more imaginative recount of this story, a boy in a raccoon hat would shout ‘charge!’ while shoving his wooden sword in the air. But let’s stick to the facts. The Little Faces descended on us, propelled by their little feet while wildly flailing their little arms. Children ran alongside the car, they grabbed onto the back ladder, the screamed and cheered. One little girl rode holding on to the top of the vehicle with her face pressed against the passenger side door. Though I’m still unsure why, rambunctious chaos ensued.
Previous home visits here had always drawn some attention because we come with cameras…but this time it was multiplied. Now, we found ourselves leading a march of 50 children. Our car was escorted to the Doublemints’ house with an energy I thought crowds reserved for Justin Bieber.
I glanced at my three team members before we got out of the vehicle. Having rolled our windows up, their screams were now somewhat muted. Aside from the reality that I was in Africa, in a vehicle with no AC, wearing $12 sunglasses, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to knowing what it’s like to be one of The Beatles.
Climbing down into the flock of smiles and handshakes was exhaustingly cute. Mama T, the twins’ great-aunt, caregiver and best-dressed community matriarch, welcomed us gracefully. If she was thrown by our loud entourage, she didn’t show it. Perhaps she was just happy we hadn’t run anyone over.
The twins’ family is lovely. They thanked God for Mercy Ships and said lots of heartwarming things. Here they are:
Even in the hoopla, Alassane and Alseny were easily recognizable because they are guaranteed to be the only two not smiling. As I’ve written about before, the twins are painfully shy for the first 20 minutes while they assess the situation. Finally, when they’ve determined you are not here to take them back to some giant boat to put their legs in casts, the smiles come out. It also doesn’t hurt if you bring some incentives, like soccer balls:
Five months post-operation, there were the boys with beautiful stick-straight legs.
Someone told me that the twins have enjoyed a heightened popularity within their community since their legs have been fixed. (Their new soccer balls will no doubt only increase their social status…) It feels good knowing that they are liked among their friends in a culture that penalizes those with physical differences so harshly. These two kids are more than their deformity, now I think the community can see that. To quote a wise editor-friend of mine in Houston named Max, “suffering is a condition, not an identity.” How right he is.
When we were wrapping up the interviews and saying our goodbyes, I looked over to see that Michelle (a Mercy Ships photographer) had climbed on top of the Land Rover, seeking refuge from the throngs of jumping maniacs down below. A few minutes later, a peaceful silence spread. What’s going on?
Michelle had found an ice cream man. In West Africa, people walk around with these giant insulated tubs on their heads that have (delicious) plastic packets of frozen yogurt inside. On days like this, when the African sun is trying to suffocate you, these men seem almost like a mirage. A seven-cent frozen yogurt and an ice cold orange Fanta have rescued me many times from melting into a puddle. Where do these salesmen come from? And how do they keep their products so cold? We don’t know. One explanation is that they are sent by God from Narnia.
Michelle bought every last yogurt packet – probably 100 – and passed them out to the kids. Finally, there was no one pulling my hair or wrapped around my leg. Each of the Little Faces now was sucking on a yummy yogurt bag. Taking advantage of the moment, we loaded up the car and headed out. It was hard saying goodbye to the boys. It has been a wonderful journey with these two.
As for the next Mercy Ships vehicle that ventures over to that part of town, good luck! I’ve seen how we were welcomed when they expected just a car full of friendly visitors. I’m not sure I want to be there when they think the vehicle is full of soccer balls and ice cream.
Thanks for reading – have a great week! :-)
p.p.s. happy birthday to my wonderful grandmother, Ann! I love you dearly and I can’t wait for our long lunches when I’m home.