Inspired by his experiences ministering to children in Liberia, Dr. Staab wrote this piece of fiction to give readers realistic insight into the lives of countless Liberian children.
Tenneh’s hometown is Monrovia, Liberia, a city that hugs the flat coastal land of west Africa as if trying to keep from being washed into the sea. 270 sloshing inches of rain fall each year on its tin roofs and unpaved lanes to support that aim. It is the capital city. A million people call it home—hard working people, running to stay ahead.
Work is on everyone’s minds. Work means survival, and most of the commerce in Monrovia goes on out of doors. The streets are the shops, a river of goods and services. If it can be carried or carted in a wheelbarrow, it is sold on the streets. Cookies, soft drinks, plantains, shirts, hats, toy cars, firewood, ink pens, jewelry, sunglasses, umbrellas, dresses, and down jackets move about on the heads or in the arms of everyone out on the street. A million pedestrian, independent, small businesses are represented on every corner. Liberian dollars folded lengthwise and wrapped around the fingers on the left hand, ready for action, are bargained and traded many times a day. Though each Liberian dollar is worth little more than half a penny, traded over and over, each one represents many US dollars of trade every day.
Tenneh’s family is a not a major player in Liberia’s commercial enterprise. His mother does laundry and works part-time in a pharmacy. In a year, the equivalent of US $1,000 supports herself and her five children. To be sure, in every rare moment her mind is free, she strains to balance food and cash, work and time, distance and fatigue, the children and the baby.
This family of six lives in a scattering of homes on a wandering lane near the sea. The house abuts a tall wall. What is on the other side of the wall, no one knows. The front yard is really a living room where a lot of living happens; there are buckets for washing dirty clothes, laundry hanging on ropes, people sitting on wooden stools, and cooking over a fire protected by a tin roof. Neighbors share the space. Majestic palm trees partially shade the area.
Tenneh’s two-year-old mind was stunned. He stood at the edge of the gray water and pondered what had just happened. He had gone in for lunch as usual, sat next to his mother, and had had a great shock. Mother was holding a baby. Not usual. He looked around at the faces of his family for an explanation. No one read the question in his mind or gave an answer. He had been given a slice of bread for breakfast. Very usual. He had not been allowed to breast-feed. Very unusual. No breast-feeding, not today and not yesterday. And now this baby had shown up.
Tenneh looked to his brother, Sammy, for support. Sammy was his idol, benefactor, and protector, but Sammy was busy eating from the family food pot and talking. Sammy elbowed Tenneh and told him to eat. The family was eating from the one vessel and ignoring Tenneh. Tenneh obeyed and filled his hand with the warm corn meal mush and vegetable mixture. He put it to his mouth and enjoyed the taste.
Even as fast as he could eat, Tenneh’s hand was only in and out of the bowl four times. The fourth time it came back empty. At the beginning of the meal, the bowl had contained almost enough food for the family. He sucked his fingers and rolled the bowl toward himself. It was wiped clean. Lunch was over. Tenneh looked at Sammy as he got up and left. “Wait,” his eyes implored. Too late. Sammy was out the door. He turned and patted his mother’s arm. She felt the messy hand, adjusted the baby and in one motion wiped the food from his hand and face, then was up and on to the next thing. Tenneh was hungry and on his own.
No one noticed that Tenneh had not eaten his share from the community bowl. He went outside to find Sammy. “Sammy would take care of me,” he thought. As he passed the threshold, Tenneh took a look over his shoulder at the culprit. This baby stranger, the newcomer. His mind was gripped with jealousy driven by hunger.
Outside, Tenneh stood trying to figure this all out as he gazed unseeing at the runoff water. His conclusions had been wrong. Sammy the six-year-old was not his ally. Sammy was Tenneh’s mealtime competitor. His fast hands had out-eaten Tenneh. The baby had mother’s attention, and yes, she had displaced Tenneh from the breast, but inattention was the real robber. Mother oversaw too many people, had not enough money, not enough help, and not enough time. Tenneh was the casualty.
Tenneh looked into the water, and his eyes brightened. What luck! He had found the discarded end of a banana floating in the water! He snatched it out of the water, and it was in his mouth in a flash.
Tenneh walked to the open doorway of his home and looked outside. He had intended to go out when he got up but realized that something was wrong. The ground in front of him was moving. His head hurt as he stood up. His stomach rumbled, and he was shaking. He turned his head to look for his mother and fell back into a sitting position then lay down without a sound. His mother had him up in her arms in a moment, and he looked up at her with blank, hopeless eyes then fell asleep.
Tenneh’s illness was a combination of illnesses—two of the worst. Malaria and diarrhea. For Tenneh, it was malaria again. The malaria destroyed his immunity to other diseases, making the diarrhea worse. The banana he had grabbed out of the ditch water had brought him an E. Coli infection. In the hours that Tenneh had been asleep, his mother had been trying to keep him clean and to get him to drink.
Tenneh had two new experiences that morning. First, his mother was asking him to swallow two small yellow pills. He resisted but swallowed them at her urging. Malaria medicine. His first dose in his life. Next, his mother was holding his head up and asking him to drink a clear liquid out of a glass. It was oral rehydration solution and was slightly salty to Tenneh’s taste. He drank the liquid all morning and slept between drinks of the salty water.
His mother knew, though Tenneh did not, that she had saved his life. Malaria medicine and ORS had made the difference. Sixty-five cents had been enough.
Tenneh had been miserable for two days but on day three he felt hungry. He had hardly sat up in those seventy-two hours. He was tired of drinking ORS and felt hungry. He cried out, and this pleased his mother as this was the first sign of “fight” she had seen in him. She moved him onto a chair in the corner where he was propped up to keep him from falling. He looked at her with wet cheeks and sobbed. She wiped off his hands and brought a sticky ball of fufu, made from ground yams to his lips. He ate a bite and sobbed between swallows. He held the corn ball and examined it carefully as he ate it.
His mother smiled as she watched him eat. It was a good day! Tenneh was on the mend. She had some change in her pocket, and Sammy was in school. She sighed and smiled at the thought. Sammy liked the school. He felt included and loved. He liked the attention from friends and his teacher. A nice man also named Sam.
This turn around was possible because Sammy had been sponsored! Sammy was the newest GlobalFingerprints child in Monrovia. His tuition to school was paid. He had a slate on which to write lessons. Sammy had a seat at the table.
Sponsorship allowed his single mother to rearrange the cash flow in Tenneh’s direction. She knew about malaria medicine and ORS, but her “slicing a bean into ten slices” budget had never allowed her margin for such luxuries.
Now, things were different; malaria medicine was available. Sammy would soon have a white shirt and rubber sandals to wear to school. His younger sister could join him in school in the classroom the school was adding. They would both drink from the well and wash their hands at the big blue wash station.
Tenneh slept after he finished the fufu corn. When he awoke, it was as if he were in a new world. He sat up and looked around. Sammy was writing at the table. His sister was looking on. Tenneh could see his mother smiling and cooking supper. It smelled different but great: fish, rice and casava. He was in a new world.
Tenneh left his illness quickly. Despite being near death one day, he was out in the yard thirty-six hours later. He was there to greet Sammy when Sammy returned from school. It was a strange joy they all shared. The joy of being known, of being included, and of being connected to people with resources.
It was a vast distance geographically, from Andover, Minnesota to Monrovia, 5,540 miles. In human terms, the pathway was Sammy’s care worker, Ruth; Ruth’s supervisor, Patricia. Then Peter the Liberia GlobalFingerprints manager, then Peggy the US-based coordinator, and Cathy, the GlobalFingerprints Africa Director. Perhaps the person least aware of his place in Tenneh’s story was a website manager who added children in Liberia to the sponsorship website, connecting them to a wider world. It was on that website that a housewife and mother in Andover, MN made the all-important “click” that connected her resources to Sammy. Sammy, the previously unknown boy in a slum in a crowded city on the far side of the world, now being blessed by sponsorship.
One commitment to a vulnerable child had had changed the world—several worlds. The beneficiaries: Sammy, the recent scholar; his sister, Princess, who will join her brother in the same school that will add a new room for her; the new teacher who will be hired for the new classroom; Sammy’s mother, who is cooking dinner and smiling rather than attending a funeral; and Tenneh. Tenneh the brother to Sammy and baby Josephine, who would be there for his family’s joys and trials, victories and valleys. Tenneh, who would never meet the “auntie or uncle” he and Sammy would share, would treasure, the family whose click changed their world for God’s kingdom.