The email from Sumo arrived this past Saturday morning as I was packing to leave West Virginia with Mt. Calvary’s youth after a week-long mission trip repairing homes in Central Appalachia. I sat on my bunk – stunned – surrounded by my open suitcase, bag of dirty laundry, and a flurry of dazed youth wandering the hallways doing our pre-departure chores at the ASP work center. I reread it, “I regret to inform you that GLTC has lost one of its work force and a friend. Ma Sando Lovetee Kamara one of the teacher aids and the guest house keeper is died and had been buried.”
I met Sando back in October 2015 along with many other people of Deanville that I encountered that month as our school construction began. She started spending time at the work site helping out with any job that came along, always accompanied by her daughter, Dusu. Very quickly, Sando became a “girl Friday” to me in the most positive sense of the word. The Urban Dictionary defines “girl Friday” as, “A ‘go to’ girl; a female who will help you get things taken care of; a female you can rely on when you are in need of extra assistance; a female who acts as a ‘jack of all trades’ and is capable of doing almost anything; a girl you can count on when you are overwhelmed with your own chores and the duties must be done.” When I needed something at the markets in Gbarnga, she guided me down the back alleyways among the throngs of people and ocean of market stalls to the right vendor. If I misplaced a tool or my notebook, she usually found it for me. She translated English to Liberian-English (more often the reverse so I could understand villagers better)…she translated Kpelle to English for me, especially among the elderly villagers who speak little English. She revealed the hidden culture in Liberia like when she invited me to the “su su savings group” and explained how she deposited about $1.50 each week to save for future emergencies, the interest and penalties members paid if they didn’t repay a loan, and how their was a recorder who used a small rubber stamp because some in the group couldn’t read letters or numbers but could count how many stamps had been made adjacent to their names. A faith-filled Christian woman, she was active in the “Last Redeemer Choir” at the Deanville preaching point.
As our friendship grew, the normally reserved Sando began to share more about herself. Her father died when she was 14 so her family couldn’t afford to pay the fees so she never attended school. After giving birth to Dusu, her boyfriend left her to live in Guinea and never provided financial support or made contact again. Her mother, Yata, recently had a stroke and was paralyzed on one side of her body. Caring for her mother and daughter became more complex after Sando’s younger sister died last year during a simple surgical procedure, leaving a young girl Kou for her to care for as well. Lacking education and having single-parent/elder care responsibilities, she had few qualifications and little time to get a reasonable job and relied mostly on other families in Deanville to share food. She rented a 10’x10′ room in a mud home for $25/year which was demolished in March, leaving her homeless and searching for housing options.
Although she was rather thin in stature and reticent by nature, she wasn’t afraid to try new things or stand up for others. She jumped right in when the offer came to try installing pipes in a trench for the water supply. I recall some male workers looking on as she glued a fitting onto a 2″ PVC pipe, hearing them commenting something along the lines of how they should be in there doing it instead of a woman. She worked with a group of young boys to help me build kitchen cabinets in the guesthouse. If someone tried to cheat me in the market, she verbally let ’em have it.
Over the last (nearly) 2 years, I wanted to expose her to new things and help her little family in some way but struggled how to not build a relationship of dependency. I entrusted her with more responsibilities and began looking for ways she could earn a living at the school campus. Despite being illiterate, she was trained to be a volunteer caretaker for the new solar-powered water supply and chlorination system. I incorporated illustrations and icons for each of the system components on an inspection checklist so she didn’t need to read descriptions. She became the paid house keeper at the guesthouse and would make sure the entire place was clean (including my mosquito bed net) before my arrival each trip. I relied on her to manage keys for every door in the house plus many on the school campus. Hoping she would some day have money to save at the bank, I had her join me when I went to LBDI in Gbarnga to make a cash withdrawal so she could see how it was done and take the mystery/fear out of the process.
We talked about her illiteracy…she wanted to be able to write her name and read a Bible. I thought what better way than to work in the GLTC classroom, following along with the same lessons that Dusu was learning…perhaps she could get a free education and be paid as a teacher helper at the same time. Sumo knew her well from his work as evangelist at the preaching point and hired her on my recommendation.
About 9 months ago, Sando began experiencing non-descript symptoms that required hospitalization and blood transfusions. It seemed every time I would leave Liberia after a trip, I would get a call or email saying she was in the hospital getting blood. I tried to understand what her diagnosis was, but information was both sparse and vague. The first time she received 3 units of blood they said she had “dry blood”…we puzzled this must be anemia. Then another trip for me…I depart…then Sando is back in the hospital
for more units of blood. This time they tell me it’s because she has “sugar blood”…we deduced this must be diabetes. During my trip this past March, I found she had other symptoms and tests, including a chest X-ray. This didn’t seem to add up so I suggested to Sando that we visit the hospital and get information directly from the doctors and see her medical chart for a more precise diagnosis. On March 15th, we celebrated Sando’s 34th birthday with a “birthday pineapple” with a candle in it. A few days later we went to Phebe Hospital for some answers.
As Sando and I stood speaking to the nurses at Phebe Hospital, you could see their guard going up and the nurses became very defensive and argumentative when asked to see Sando’s chart. Initially they couldn’t even find the chart because when Sando was admitted she was nearly unconscious and her taxi driver only remembered her last name. They made up her first name so the chart was labeled: Musu Kamara. The nurses questioned us: what did we need to see this for?…who was this white guy and why does he care?…they refused access. As the encounter got a little more heated, a young doctor (from Ghana I believe) asked me to step in the hallway, clutching Sando’s medical file. As he perused it, I explained the confusing series of treatments and tests and how Sando wanted a better understanding. He looked at me and told me, “She has AIDS” and proceeded to show me figures for her Cd4 cell count (398) and hematocrit (10%) scrawled on a small piece of paper. I was outraged…why was he showing this to me and not Sando? Why didn’t anyone tell her she has AIDS before discharging her a month earlier in February? The hairs on my neck were up…”someone in this hospital is going to tell her she has AIDS…it’s not going to be me!!” The sense of injustice enraged me. He said we should come back in the morning and meet with the HIV/AIDS counselors and they would explain everything to her. I told Sando we had to return tomorrow to a different department for another appointment. One of the nurses handed her a piece of paper with a hand-written number and the name “Musu Kamara” on it…this was the only thing that could be used to retrieve her medical records.
The next morning I asked Sando if she wanted me to accompany her…she said yes. We found the counselors office on the other side of the Phebe Hospital entry road and waited quietly on a bench in the dim hallway. Eventually, an older man arrived and led us to his small office where I requested to speak privately so he understood that Sando had no idea she had AIDS yet. He nodded in apparent confirmation that he understood the situation. When Sando sat down, the first thing this man spoke about was how “people can live a long time with this disease” and proceeded to point to a chart showing pregnant women, explaining what can be done to prevent a child from being exposed. I interrupted him several times then finally determined I would have to tell Sando the bad news myself. After I did, the counselor continued on his discussion of pregnancy. I had to intervene again to ask about the father of Dusu, should Dusu be tested, how does Sando get treatment….obvious topics even an inexperienced counselor should have addressed without prompting from a lay person. FYI – there’s no effort to track the baby’s father down and there wouldn’t be a test of Dusu unless requested….a real crime…but we did go back and Dusu is negative!
We left the counselor’s office and met with a group of nurses charged with dispensing antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients. Fortunately, some unidentified outside aid group was underwriting the medication cost in Liberia and Sando would be able to get the ART drugs anywhere in the country for free. Unfortunately, the nursing staff’s bedside manner left something to be desired as they started accusing her of being told she had AIDS and should have taken responsibility for getting treated. That was another fun, heated conversation because I was fed up with incompetency at this point. They again questioned the “white guy’s” role in all of this.
Sando began her nightly ART regimen which caused severe disorientation and required accompaniment by food. Unfortunately, she never had a meal at night because she couldn’t afford rice. Since she was now employed by GLTC, she received a lunch everyday with the school children. I arranged to have an extra meal made each day for her to carry home and eat before taking her meds. I left Liberia the end of March feeling she was at least on good footing for medication, food, and employment.
In April, I received word that Sando’s family had taken her to Kakata, a small city about 2 hours south of Gbarnga for “treatment” and “traditional healing”. She got blood at a hospital there and had little contact with her friends back in Deanville who were unsuccessful in reaching her by cell phone and couldn’t afford motorbike fees to travel that far. She seemed to disappear for a while. This scenario repeated several times from April to June. By early July, Sumo had convinced Sando to return for proper treatment at Phebe Hospital and receive better care by her Deanville friends. She received more blood transfusions, was discharged, then disappeared again to Kakata. On July 27th — only 4 short months after her diagnosis — she died from complications associated with AIDS.
One of the cultural differences I noticed in Liberia was hand holding…teenage boys, young men. In the US it’s common to see girls holding hands but it isn’t too common for males so I asked Sando about this one time. She explained that when someone hasn’t been around for a while and they return…you hold hands because you’re happy they’ve come back. When someone is going away for a while and you’ll miss them…you hold hands. I tend to spend a lot of time holding hands with various people on the last day before I leave each trip to Liberia. Before my departure in March, I spent time holding hands with Moses, Mary, Samuel….and about an hour holding hands with Sando. I guess she knows I’ll miss her.
If you’d like to help support Sando’s two children, Dusu (age 4) and Kou (age 3), please visit my gofundme page and consider making a contribution…thanks: https://www.gofundme.com/Sando-Memorial