The first thing I noticed about John aside from his familiar shy expression, was the way I could see his heart pounding through his shirt. There had been a misunderstanding about which John we were meeting, (John seems to be a name as well loved in Sierra Leone as it is in the U.S.) so he was given no head’s up that he’d be seeing me. When we arrived at the school, he’d already walked home. A staff member took a motorbike to go get him and bring him back. When he walked up to the school’s porch, his day suddenly went from a regular Tuesday of math exams and after-school chores, to four grinning Americans chattering about meeting his sponsor and receiving a gift and getting a video of him. He blinked and had a mic above his head, two cameras on him, and me hugging him.
He was crazy nervous, and I was too. My first relief was that he spoke English (one of four languages he told me later), so I could communicate with him without an interpreter, but understanding each other’s accents was tedious, and he hardly spoke above a whisper. I gave him his gift and he put his watch and Ohio State hat on without hesitation. We looked through a photo album, I read him notes from the girls, and showed him a letter he’d sent us years ago. He grinned at his crayon drawings and told me what each was. I asked to see his classroom.
He took me across the school yard to a building with narrow bench desks and a wall of chalk boards. I asked about the algebra problems on the board. He said it was from today’s exam, and then explained to me how to solve one of them. He lost me at exponents, as has every math teacher I’ve ever had.
We asked if we could see where he lived. He said it was too far. He didn’t want us walking the distance with our stuff. When we told him we had a vehicle and he could ride along, he agreed. When we arrived, he introduced us to his family members. I gawked at the trees in his back yard loaded with bananas, and he grinned and told me they weren’t ready to eat yet. He was relaxing, but each word was still so quiet.
I asked if I could see his room, the place he spent his time. It was in a separate building. On the walk over I asked about his siblings, their names and ages, how they were doing. “Fine. Thanks be to God” he replied. The standard Krio answer, but it still catches my breath, especially considering the horrors the country has faced the past 2 years. Then he asked me a question. “What?” I asked softly, desperately hoping not to annoy him with my endless requests for him to repeat himself. Between adjusting my ears to a new accent, his quiet tone, and the volume of little voices from his village following us, I was trying to catch each word and not having high success. He asked it again. I paused, apologized, and asked him to repeat it once more.
“How is Kayla?” he said carefully. I stared for a moment.
“Yes. Your sister.”
“Kayla my sister!?” I said, stunned. “How do you know Kayla?”
“You sent a photo with her in it.” he said matter of factly.
I answered that she was very well and that I was amazed he remembered. He moved on but my brain was stuck repeating “how is Kayla”.
He told me one of his after-school chores was laundering his clothes, and held up his sparkling white uniform shirt, a startling sight considering the thick red dust. The room he and his brother shared was small. A clothesline ran on either side, for each of them to hang their clothes to dry. The tiny bed was made and the room was orderly and clean. John pointed to a paper tacked above the bed. It was a schedule of his classes. And next to it on the headboard was a notebook. He picked it up and showed me pages of meticulous class notes. “So this is how you are getting such good grades!” I said, looking from the schedule to the literature notes. He gave me a shy grin.
We went back out and he introduced me to some if his friends. Amos grinned wide, much more outgoing than John, and asked if I could take a photo of them together. I told him I would do my best to send a copy the next time I sent photos to John. Then John called for a boy across the way. “David is my best friend, he said.” David came up and shook my hand. We talked about what the boys liked to do. They talked about soccer, but said they had no ball.
“How is your family?” I asked David.
“Both of my parents are dead”, He answered.
"I'm so sorry", I said.
“Do you have uncles and aunts? Grandparents?” I asked?
“Do you have a sponsor?”
“No. I have no one. No one but John.” He added, and smiled at John.
I showed John every photo in my phone gallery. His friends and the rest of the village children crowded in to see videos of Landon and Sami in the snow, and to stare at my “very big dog”.
John went into his room and brought out an album that looked vaguely familiar. It was dirty and ragged. It was photos of us I had sent with a team maybe 6 years ago. “See, Kayla!” he said when he turned to one of her with me.
When we went back to his room to take a few more photos, I asked if he had anything else he wanted to show me. He picked a Bible that was laying by his bed.
“My Bible”, he said.
“Wonderful!” I said. “Do you have a favorite chapter you like to read?
He turned to Psalm 25. “This one.” He answered, and read, “In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you…” He carefully read the entire chapter. I can’t yet find the right words for what the day meant to me. To witness the incredible person that he is; courageous through many photos and questions, shy as he was, earnestly dedicated to his education, respectful and generous to his family and friends. To see that even without any prior notice or preparation, he knew me, knew my family, was succeeding in school, had received a christmas gift made possible by sponsorship funds, and even over the years and through moves, had kept the photos we sent.
Though his is most personal to me, John’s is not the only impacting story in the three days on the ground here. I watched Yawah’s delight as i read a letter to her from her sponsor. I saw Rugi sit in front of her village and weep as she told her story and spoke of the difference sponsorship and her relationship with Angie has made in her life.
Since John read it to me in his little room, these are the words, the prayer in my heart for John and Rugi and Yawah and the thousands of children like them who have seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their path, yet a light of hope in their eyes.
Guard their life and rescue them; do not let them be put to shame, for they take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness protect them, because their hope, OUR hope, LORD, is in you. Deliver your children, O God, from all their troubles!
You guys, I came with my doubts and plenty of hard questions. I don’t have them all answered. But I can say this. World Hope International often says “Child sponsorship works”, and I’ve seen it to be true. This month, WHI has a goal of choosing love every day for the month of love. 29 new sponsors choosing to change the story for a child, one for every day of February. I would love for you to join. To be one. Choose one. Choose love. If you’re ready to jump in, or just want to see more of what World Hope is about, visit here.
Good night from the hot and lovely Sierra Leone, ~C