“There are people who are kind, and people who are not kind, among all races and cultures. It was a White man who gave me opportunity so I could realize the American dream. Our friendship transcended race, and built a positive connection between the races. We can overcome racism through friendship and positive cross-cultural relationships. “
I am a lawful immigrant in the United States and on this eve of July 4th 2016, I wish to express my sincere appreciation for being in this country, and my heartfelt gratitude to the white American man (Tom Johnson) who came to my country – Sierra Leone – and befriended me, and who rescued me from bondage and slavery and gave me that opportunity that paved the way for me to arrive and settle at my dreamed destination– — America.
I was inspired to write my new memoir book titled Friendship: A Story of Adventure, Goodwill and Endurance because of the miracles that God has continued to perform in my life since when I was a 15-year- old boy in Sierra Leone.
In the midst of my hardships while selling oranges I miraculously met an American pilot from Milaca, Minnesota, who was employed to fly boxes of gems and alluvial diamonds in Sierra Leone. This was two decades before the rebel war and the Hollywood movie Blood Diamond.
I was born just before rice farming season in January 1961 in a small impoverished village of Punduru in Sierra Leone, a region once referred to as the heart of the diamond zone. My father passed away when I was an infant. I was raised by my mother and two elder sisters in our 4 bedroom mud brick house. I vividly remember working in the rice farm and paddies at age seven.
I was introduced to Christianity when I began attending the United Methodist Church primary school in my village, at age eight. My United Methodist Church School was a mud brick building with one-room divided into five sections, with instruction for students in grade one through five. There were no more than 20 students with fewer than five girls. We shared one teacher, Mr. Edward Dwende.
We learned by reciting the alphabet aloud, and we were required to bring 100 short sticks so we could use them for counting to 100.
Shortly after school opened, my village also got a church, and my people were converted to Christianity. As a requirement of school, all students must attend morning prayers. When it was my turn to ring the church bell for morning prayers, I slept on the floor in my mother’s room the night before so I was never late. It was through daily practice at the missionary school that I first learned to pray. We recited the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 daily, once during morning prayers and again during devotion before class starts. Looking back, I considered the words of those prayers as a means of reaching and communicating with God. Church sessions were boring and to stay awake I silently prayed to God to make me obedient and help me remember the vital importance and connection between Christianity and education. This way I began to establish a relationship with God as my confidante, and my source of strength.
At age 14, after having never left my village, I was sent to live with a cruel and physically abusive cousin in the diamond mining camp to continue school, but I soon dropped out because my mother and sisters could no longer afford my school fees so I began selling oranges for my cruel and abusive cousin with all the profits going to my cousin and his wife.
I had two options; continue selling oranges and dodge the constant beatings, or return to the village to rot away as a subsistence rice farmer, or become a diamond digger along River Sewa. I didn’t like either option. In truth, I saw no way out for me, until one day I met a white man who would change my life.
On a hot day in February, 1976, when I was selling oranges near the entrance of a predominantly white club at the National Diamond Mining Company Headquarters, I saw a very tall white man exit the club. The white man saw me and stopped, he turned and looked at me for few seconds. I thought he wanted to buy some of my oranges, but continued walking, and he stopped suddenly, looking around as if someone called his name. The white man turned back and began approaching the door he had just exited. He kept walking past the door towards me, and when he stopped next to me, I stood up. “Hey, buddy. How much are your oranges?” he asked. He gave me exact change for three oranges.
He began to peel his oranges and stood beside me as he ate. I watched his face as he ate the juicy meat of the orange. I noticed his eyes were blue like the sky after dawn. After a long silence the white man asked me why I wasn’t in school.
I looked at him, searching his eyes for his intentions. Why did he care? Perhaps he wanted me to work for him. I decided to share part of my story with him. “I dropped out of school because my mother and two sisters could no longer afford to pay my school fees,” I said in my best broken English. The white man responded saying, “ That’s unfortunate. I bet you’re smart.” I began to sense the white man was trying to make a connection with me. I felt compelled to explain my whole background. He sat, listening intently, as I told the story of my first 16 years of life, leaving out only the details of my cousin’s cruelty. The white man kept listening with great interest while I told him about my plight. Although I missed my mother, I could not live with her because there was no secondary school in my village. He held up his hand for me to stop talking, and said, “Wait for me here.”
He went back into the club and after a long while, he came out with two other white people, a man and a woman. They all stood around me; I was engulfed by their shadows. The man who had bought my oranges introduced himself as Tom Johnson. The second white man said to me, “Speak the truth, this man wants to help you with school.” I was so astounded that I told my whole story again, eagerly this time, which made me stumble over my broken English mixed with Creole.
They all looked directly at me and said nothing. After I had finished, Tom stepped forward and extended his hand for me to shake it. I hesitated because I’d shaken hands with a handful of adults, and never with a white man. Tom said to me, “Come to the airport tomorrow at ten o’clock in the morning to meet me.” I immediately agreed to come to the airport the next day. I knew the airport well. It was about a mile and half from the Gaia Camp, where I lived.
I was excited and overjoyed. Shocked. Full of wonder. I could not believe my fortune. Could I trust this man? What if he changed his mind? What would my cousin say? My young mind was flooded with dozens of thoughts and I felt a joyous and unexplained sensation flow through my body.
On my way home, I walked in a haze. I was in a total shock over the miracle that has just happened in my life…. The next day I showed up at the airport and met with Tom. Tom introduced me to the other pilots in the pilot’s lounge and I heard him say to the other pilots that I am his new found friend, and that he has volunteered to help me with school. Tom drove me to the Catholic boarding school about a mile away and paid my school fees for one year. I was in disbelief to see my life been transformed by this white man. On the way home to my cousin’s house, Tom gave me money to purchase school uniform and my first pair of shoes and he told me he wanted to meet my cousin.
Everyone in Gaia Camp was in shock at the miracle that has just happened to me. On my first day of school Tom was so proud to see me in my school uniform. I was consumed with joy and disbelief at the miracle that has happened to me. At school and boarding home, I was envied and bullied because of my luck, opportunity, and my connection with the white man.
My memoir book is about the power of God, and how He used an altruistic and a generous white man as one of His instruments and servants to rescue a poor Black boy from physical abuse and bondage and in need of education. Tom could have met any other African boy that day that I met him, but God chose me and He positioned Tom to meet me that day, which marked the beginning of my freedom from what I called slavery and bondage. Tom changed the odds against me when he chose to be my friend, and when he chose to pay my school fees, giving me opportunity to education. With Tom’s friendship, I decided to give myself a challenge to prove to Tom that I was worthy of his support to America, so I set myself a challenge –– going through the Sahara Desert to Italy on my own, which almost cost me my life. With Tom’s support, I boarded an overcrowded truck to Bamako, Mali, and crossing the mighty Niger River, I gazed at the road leading to the ancient historical City of Timbuktu. The trials and tribulations I encountered and endured trekking over rugged terrain from West Africa to North Africa through the Sahara Desert which almost cost me my life, contributed to my inspiration to write this book. My challenges continued in Europe and other places, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, and in America but my sustained perseverance and deep faith gave me the courage and determination to keep moving forward during these experiences.
I was full of joy when I finally arrived at my dreamed destination– -in America. My altruistic and generous friend Tom Johnson paid my college education. I graduated and found employment with State of Wisconsin as a probation officer. and I permanently settled in America. In America, I was confronted to recognize and deal with issues of race, but I refuse to believe that all white people are indifferent and racist, simply because I have experienced the love, care, kindness, and altruistic and generous nature of a white man–Tom Johnson. But the reality is I was bound to encounter and endure the ravages of racism, which created undoubtedly created ambivalence for me.
In the end, I learned from my own experiences borne from my worldly travels and adventures during which I interacted with individuals from different cultures that no one country in the world is immune from the human challenges among its diverse peoples. There are people who are kind, and people who are not kind, among all races and cultures. It was a White man who gave me opportunity so I could realize the American dream. Our friendship transcended race, and built a positive connection between the races. We can overcome racism through friendship and positive cross-cultural relationships.
My book lays bare the working miracle of God, how God uses His servants as instruments of His peace and the power of individual acts of kindness to profoundly change the lives of other people. I hope my book appeals to Christians in general because of the very nature of the story; how a stranger, out of his own goodwill and kindness, randomly chose and decided to help a poor boy he met who was in need of education, people who like stories about the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and the sustaining power of friendship, travel enthusiasts, adventurers and people interested in other people’s cultures, and to civil rights advocates and people working for racial justice and equality.
This post is a part of the series Me in the Middle Invites Guest Bloggers. An Invitation to share a time in life where you thought you’d never make it through and you did. A witness of the strength that you never thought you had.
It’s an honor to feature Francis’ writing. I encourage you to visit his Blog at francismandewah.com ~ Friendship: A True Story of Adventure, Goodwill, and Endurance.
You can purchase Francis’ newly published book through Amazon. (Here)
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