Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I'm ashamed to admit it, but today I am bored.  How can you be bored in Africa?!  Well, the human soul is a sort of black hole sometimes, and there's nothing you can do but chug away at whatever's in front of you until something comes by to take your focus off of the general dullness of life.  It's a shame, really, because now after waiting ever so long for word from your well-loved wanderer, you'll have to slog through my complaining of boredom.  And then the contagion of my dissatisfaction will have spread over into your day and spoilt what should have been a lovely "chat".  Sorry about that. 

Hey!  I have an idea!  There's this wonderful little boy I've made friends with at the Hope Center (a facility off-ship, where patients go to prepare for/recover from their surgeries).  His name is Yaya, and recently our media team wrote up a nice story about him.  So, in lieu of several paragraphs of my complaining, why don't I copy and paste a bit of Yaya's story here?  Maybe I can even find a picture of him to show you.  Yes, this is much better.  You can see a different view of what we're all doing here in Conakry.

Rather than joyous celebration, the reaction to Yaya’s birth was broken family ties. Yaya’s mother, Salematou, and his father, Abdulaye, were not married when their son was born. The tradition that Salematou’s father lived by did not make room for a child born out of wedlock. Despite Salematou’s pleading with her father to allow her to keep her child, his decision was final. As soon as Yaya could leave his mother’s breast, he was sent to live with Kadiatou, his grandmother on his father’s side.

 Living with his grandmother turned out to be a wonderful blessing for Yaya. Kadiatou personifies the bottomless heart and limitless space that African grandmothers offer their children and their children’s children. She assumes whatever responsibility comes her way, no matter the burden. Kadiatou explains, “There are many mouths that I feed in my family. In addition to Yaya, five of my children and their nine children need my support too. Everyone shares in the work of the household, but earning income in Conakry is very difficult. My husband now, Mamadouba, is very old. He gives what money he can, but he has family to support too.”

Yaya stole his grandmother’s heart from day one. His ready smile and eagerness to be close to her formed a thick bond. When tragedy struck Yaya, Kadiatou was distraught. “Yaya started walking when he was one year old, but after taking a few steps he would fall. We tried many traditional medicines, but his condition grew worse. At eighteen months, his legs started to twist and curl up. They failed him entirely.”

Yaya’s uncle, also named Yaya, remembers this as a time of many trials for his mother. “Kadiatou was so afraid for Yaya. He often had a high fever, and his legs would cramp up terribly. He would cry for hours from the pain. Kadiatou tried everything to soothe him. She held him for hours. Then my father and sister died very close together. My mother’s heart was broken into so many pieces.”

Kadiatou, who had taken in her daughter’s five children, decided that moving the family to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, was best for Yaya. “I hoped that the medical care Yaya needed was in a big city. As well, I knew that Conakry had schools for handicapped children that Yaya could attend.” Another important reason for the move was that Kadiatou was protecting Yaya from the villagers who thought that children with disabilities were cursed. She would not stand for her grandson being tormented, ridiculed, or forced into hiding.

When Yaya reached five years of age, he started attending the school for handicapped children. “I was so happy for Yaya. He started to learn his letters and bring home things he made,” Kadiatou says. Although there were no school fees and transportation was provided, Kadiatou still had expenses to cover, like school supplies. She made ends meet by going to the Grand Mosque daily and helping with cleaning and cooking. After a full year of being a volunteer, she was finally included in the group that received a weekly stipend, plus donations of money and food from appreciative people attending the Mosque.

Yaya often joined Kadiatou at the Mosque after school, and he soon became a favorite with everyone. In the Muslim faith, people are eager to help the needy as a way of observing sadaqah, the duty to overcome miserliness. Many Muslims wanted Yaya to join the group of handicapped people who begged, so that people could give to him. Kadiatou was against Yaya’s doing this, regardless of the enormous struggle she had to support the family. “I faced so much pressure to allow Yaya, in such obvious need, to help people fulfill their duty to sadaqah. I finally relented,” she explains.

Kadiatou continued to be distressed with Yaya’s participating in sadaqah. She prayed that Yaya would get his education and find an occupation where he could use his sharp mind and very able hands. Kadiatou had many doubts about her prayer being answered, but she remained faithful, clutching that thin bit of hope to her heart.

Yaya himself dared not hope. But then an incredible set of circumstances unfolded around him. Nick Veltjens, who worked with orthopedic patients, saw Yaya at the patient screening location the day before consultations began. “I waited all screening day for Yaya to come because I thought we could help him. We didn’t see him that day, so I sent an email around asking if anyone knew where he was.”

According to Yaya, “I did go to the screening with my friend, but I lost my courage.” Yaya left without being examined.

The next day, Dan Bergman, a long-term hospital volunteer, came to Nick with a video of a possible orthopedic patient that he had just seen outside the Mercy Ships Dental Clinic. According to Nick, “What a coincidence that Dan found the same little guy that I was looking for!”

For Dan, this series of events said loud and clear that, “God wanted Yaya to find Mercy Ships. He kept putting him in front of us!” Dan tracked Yaya down at the Mosque and delivered the news that he had an appointment at the hospital ship.

But Yaya missed his appointment. As he says, “I did not believe I could be healed, and so I did not want to tell my grandmother to bring me. She would be too disappointed.” But another divine coincidence occurred that finally put Yaya and Mercy Ships together. A government official, Cellou, who had befriended Yaya at the Mosque, was at the Mercy Ships Dental Clinic that same week. He casually asked what a young boy with deformed legs needed to do to get an appointment. It was quickly realized that the boy in question was Yaya and that he just needed someone to bring him to his appointment.

Cellou immediately went to Yaya’s grandmother with the news about Yaya’s appointment. They agreed that Cellou would go to the hospital ship with the boy. When Kadiatou received the telephone call from Cellou telling her that Yaya was accepted for surgery, she experienced a mixture of emotions. “I was so grateful that Yaya could be helped. It was all that I had prayed for. But I was also very uncertain and afraid. I wondered how it would be possible to fix Yaya’s legs and what he would go through.”

Dr. Frank Haydon, volunteer orthopedic surgeon, was able to fix Yaya’s legs. According to Dr. Frank, “The condition that Yaya was born with caused his bones to be very brittle. As he started to walk, the pressure on the bones caused multiple fractures. The surgery he had aligned his leg bones properly, and the two rods I installed will give his legs the needed strength and structure so he can walk.”

Each day Yaya does grow stronger. He is starting to take his own steps with the help of a walker, and he has progressed to simple below-the-knee leg casts. But at the same time, each day wears on Kadiatou. She shows the strain of being away from family and being indebted to more and more neighbors. She has borrowed money from them for food and malaria medication. However, regardless of the hardship, Kadiatou’s commitment to see Yaya through his healing journey is unwavering. “I would endure anything so Yaya can do what he longs to do more than anything else – play football. By suffering for Yaya and my family now, I know that there will be great happiness in the future,” she says.

According to his uncle, Yaya’s journey to hope and healing is summed up in a few words: “Yaya is so loved by everyone on Mercy Ships.” And, still, even with so many kind hearts embracing Yaya, there is one who continues to occupy the most special place in his heart. As clear as a bell, Yaya declares, “I love my Grandmother so much! She has done everything for me.”

There now, wasn't that better than my whining?  I feel better myself, in fact.  And Yaya really is a marvelous person--smart, engaging, and just full of energy!  We are all convinced that he will be running the world someday.
(The story was written by my Toastmaster buddy, Joanne Thibault, and the photo was taken by Michelle Murray.)