Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not for the (false) history of it – you know, all that jazz about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down together to a happy cross-cultural feast – but for the meaning it now holds. I know it’s sentimental, but what better premise for a holiday than to join together with the people you love and give thanks for all the blessings in your life?
In Sierra Leone, I am constantly reminded of just how lucky I am, and just how immensely, enormously, profoundly thankful I should be – thankful for a Thanksgiving feast on any day I want it when so many people here go hungry every day; thankful for my Ivy League education when most Sierra Leoneans would be lucky to finish primary school; thankful for my first-world health care when one quarter of children here don’t make it to the age of five.
So, at the risk of dampening your Thanksgiving joy, I want to recount another tale of woe from the last few weeks here in Freetown. I hope you take it as I do – yet another reason to give thanks.
For Want of a Cup of Rice
Two weeks ago my friend Pam and I were driving home around 11 at night, and saw a woman lying face-down on the side of the road, arms and legs splayed and the pot that she’d been carrying on her head thrown a few feet ahead of her.
We were on Wilkinson Road, the main artery through western Freetown, and my first thought was that she had been hit by a car and left for dead.
Pam jumped out while I pulled the car to the side of the road. By the time I joined her, the woman had regained consciousness and a small crowd had formed. One man knelt beside her, fanning her face and trying to find out what happened.
The woman – a young adult, probably in her early 20s – didn’t remember how she ended up on the side of the road. She did not seem to be injured, but was definitely confused and disoriented. The last thing she remembered clearly was leaving her home in Tengbeh Town (a neighborhood a mile or so from where she now lay) to walk to an uncle’s house a few miles further on.
As it turned out, she was lying unconscious by the side of the road not because she'd been hit by a car, but because she hadn’t eaten in two days. She’d left her baby daughter at home (alone)and set off to walk across town to her uncle’s house so she could beg him for a cup of rice.
With a loaf of bread bought from a passing vendor and a bottle of water from my car, she got a bit stronger and more alert – and more concerned about getting home to her daughter. So we gave her some money and arranged for transport to take her home, and then got in our own cars and drove home to sleep.
Of course, we all knew we were doing almost nothing. Probably the very next day she would take to the streets again, searching for a bit of rice to keep herself and her child alive. But what could we do? She and her child are only two out of literally thousands in this city alone (and thousands upon thousands more nationwide) who live on the razor’s edge between life and death.
From time to time we give band-aids – spare change, a loaf of bread – and the rest of the time we work at the big systemic changes needed to end this sort of misery. But such changes are slow and success is elusive, and often you’re not sure if things are moving forward or standing still – or even sliding back.
And sometimes it keeps you up at night. And sometimes it makes you want to scream. And sometimes – like when a young woman lies on the pavement for want of a cup of rice – it makes you want to cry.
But this week, at least, it makes me thankful.
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