Thursday, December 26, 2013

Meet Mamakula

When we made arrangements to live with Ansu and his family, we didn’t exactly realize how he was defining family. Our Western minds understood that Ansu, his wife, and three biological children would be sharing our duplex. In Liberia, even very extended family is just as much ‘family’ as their own children. There is the expectation that once a family member comes into some wealth, they are to share it with extended family. So, since Ansu has this nice house now, he has had a number of relatives coming and going and staying for various lengths of time. Some for just a few days while others stay for months and months without any idea of when they’ll leave.

I want you to meet Mamakula, one extended relative that we hope never leaves. Mamakula is a 15-year old girl that lives next door with Ansu. At least, we think she is about fifteen since she doesn’t have any documentation and Mandingos generally don’t keep track of birthdays. She was born in Guinea during the war and spent her first couple years of life as a refugee. Her mother abandoned Mamakula when she was just a toddler. Family members searched for her, but she had disappeared. Mamakula’s father was never part of her life. After the war, Mamakula moved just across the boarder to Lofa County in Liberia. Since that time, our sweet Mamakula has been passed around from family member to family member, from village to village. She has spent her entire life in Lofa County and just across the border in Guinea, maybe a 50 mile radius. I can’t say for sure, but it seems that she has always been taken care of, but she is the extended family’s workhorse. When Ansu’s family started building this house, Mamakula left her auntie’s house in a small village and came to live in Voinjama with Ansu to help with the building project.

I’ll never forget the first time I met Mamakula a year ago. We had just moved to the guesthouse in Voinjama. Audrey was about 10 months old and was definitely a momma’s girl. Audrey was adjusting well to living in Liberia, but stranger anxiety was in full mode and it took her days and weeks to get used to new people. But with Mamakula, it was different. The young girl came over to the guesthouse to pull 5-gallon buckets up from the well, carry it across the yard, through the house and into a barrel for our use. She came over to greet Audrey and my little girl gave her a huge smile and reached out her hands to be held. I can’t remember another time that Audrey has done that with a stranger. I knew Mamakula was special.

 Audrey meeting Mamakula, Feb 23, 2013

Mamakula spent the next several weeks coming over to the guesthouse periodically to carry in water. I always looked forward to her visit, as I was completely isolated, bored and uncomfortable. When I first met her, she didn’t speak a word of English, but as my mom always said – we all smile in the same language. Mamakula was always cheerful and would scurry around our kitchen, pointing out objects, teaching me new Mandingo words.

Mamakula with Jonah and Mulbah in our yard in Voinjama

Mamakula (right) loves popcorn and movies

Mamakula, being from the Mandingo tribe, considers herself Muslim, although she doesn’t go to the mosque or do any of the daily prayers. She is secular and has very little interest in anything spiritual, although she does sometimes sit in on the kids’ Sunday school class that I teach. She doesn’t go to school either, but is a fast learner. She has learned a bit of English and is willing to learn how the ‘white people’ do things.

One of Noah's favorite activities - being 'popoed' by Mamakula
I’ve known Mamakula for nearly a year now and I have yet to hear her complain, despite her many responsibilities. She rises before the sun and helps get the kids ready for school – helping them get dressed, cooking a breakfast on the coal pot, and packing their lunch. She then spends a good three hours hauling water and washing clothes over a washboard for their family of seven and our family of four. If she doesn’t have washing to do, she’ll walk 3 miles to the market to get the ingredients for the day’s cooking. When she returns, she spends the next 2 hours or so cooking the big meal for the day. She finally gets to rest a bit and enjoy the meal. Once she finishes scrubbing the meal pots, it is time to build another fire and start heating water for everyone’s baths.  Mamakula loves children and is excellent with them. She and I take turns entertaining and caring for the children throughout the day. Even when she is busy working, she likes to “popo” Noah on her back or keep an eye on Audrey. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor with 2.5 year old John-Mark and 6-year old Makema. We hope to get her a bed made very soon.

Because of these reasons, we felt like a little vacation to Monrovia was well-deserved for Mamakula. Plus, it would be helpful to me to have an extra set of hands on the road. Mamakula has spent her entire life in rural Liberia and has never seen the big city. This was her dream come true. It has been so much fun to watch her see paved roads for the first time, hear her comment about how big and beautiful the sea is, and see her jaw drop as she entered the Sheppard’s home and the western grocery store. She was very confused about the big (Christmas) tree in the middle of the living room and why we were tearing up a hundred pieces of bread (for stuffing). She’s had a soft drink, ice cream and a shower (as opposed to a bucket bath) for the first time this week. I also introduced her to the trampoline, microwave, washing machine, and dryer. She was amazed and kept asking to go back downstairs to check on the clothes.

Bless her heart, I think by Christmas eve, she was completely overwhelmed. Nancy hosted nearly 30 people for dinner. She had probably never seen so many white faces in all her life, much less all at once. Everyone was chatting away in various conversations – all in English. In addition, Mamakula is not used to eating at a table or using a fork and knife. Many Liberians eat their meals communally, with their hands, straight from a large bowl. And finally, each dish on the table was American – all looking very different from anything she is used to eating. I doubt she had ever seen such a feast. She tried to cling to Audrey and Noah as if they were her security blankets. They were the only thing familiar to her. I had to keep reassuring her and actually take her gently by the hand and coax her to sit in a chair next to me at the table.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Mamakula in the next few years. It is extremely common for girls her age to get pregnant only to be left by their boyfriend. We’re hoping to have a positive influence in her life and encourage her set up a good life for herself. I’ve helped her establish a cold water business, where she fills bags of water and sells them in front of our yard to people passing by for six cents apiece. If the water is frozen, she gets twelve cents apiece. She has really good business sense and has done well with keeping her capital and profits separate. She makes between $1.50-$2 on the days that she sells.

Please pray with us for this sweet young lady. Because of her cheerful and hard-working attitude, love for children, teachability, and willingness to listen to and adhere for advice, she has a lot of potential for a good future.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11