Written by Daniel Padrnos from Sierra Leone
As I looked at Fr. Kyriacos’ bruised and swollen face I couldn’t help but think about the jokes he was telling us the night before. When he finally got to the punch line after a 10-minute build-up, he could barely get the words out of his mouth between intervals of suffocating laughter: “Di rod mohs be tarrrr. Motocah su seh. Wata tap tap. Ehn lait wagai.” Either the joke wasn’t funny or I didn’t quite understand the Krio, but I couldn’t keep myself from laughing with “Fr. K” who found the joke beyond hilarious.
Later that night Fr. K was riding his motor cycle and found himself in a traumatic accident. The skin on his forehead gave way to his skull and his frontal cranial bone was fractured, causing a hemorrhage. He was even wearing a helmet! Imagine the impact.
As we drove through the military hospital gate, Sergio and I remarked that it seemed like we were entering a shanty town. Fr. Themi explained to us that this “shanty town” was a quarantine place for Ebola victims during the 2014 outbreak. We walked into the hospital and the smell hit us: the one that makes you think twice about inhaling because you question whether the air itself is capable of spreading disease. After depositing 5,000 Leones (about $0.65) into a cardboard donation box labeled “Happy Christmas Eve”, a woman pointed us to the bed we were looking for.
I looked around the stuffy room packed with 30 or so empty beds and I imagined the pain and misery that transpired in that very place during the Ebola crisis not so long ago. And the fear! Fear of the inescapable painful death that each contaminated patient was fully aware of. Fear of the high possibility of contracting the virus that nurses and doctors selflessly endured while serving victims destined to die. Fear that your neighbor might suspect you of having Ebola, therefore calling the authorities to take you to a hospital where you would almost certainly contract the virus regardless. And fear that the virus wouldn’t stop at anything to vanquish the entire population. Fr. K was now in a situation where death was a possibility, but to imagine a whole hospital—a whole country in this state of being….
When we came to Fr. K’s bed he looked up at us, managed a smile and then clenched his fists in pain. Dr. Sergio spoke with Fr. K while I stepped outside with Fr. Themi who continued explaining the havoc wrought by Ebola:
“When Ebola hit in 2014, 500 doctors and nurses contracted the virus and died. This left a huge gap in an already deficient healthcare system.”
During the dangerous and unpredictable Ebola outbreak Fr. Themi chose to stay in Sierra Leone to care for those around him. Here’s a short sound clip of Fr. Themi describing what Ebola victims experienced:
We left the hospital and returned the next 3 days to check on Fr. K’s condition.
With our hospitalized friend on our minds and in our hearts we celebrated Christmas in Freetown—my first Christmas away from home. At midnight on Christmas Eve we attended a beautiful three-hour liturgy. The celebration of God becoming man was marked by sonorous Orthodox chanting accompanied by clamorous dogs barking, party music and fireworks outside the church (I’ve learned that “Freetown” is synonymous with “constant loud noise”). While I stood praying for and thinking about Fr. K, I began to realize why you see churches on every corner in Freetown. I mean really, there must be a Protestant church, a Catholic church and a mosque on nearly every block! It hit me that when people are surrounded by sickness, death and bike accidents, they question why they live in such circumstances. Trusting in a Divine Will enables people to give meaning to their suffering and even find spiritual strength in the midst of physical affliction. Thus, churches. Smart people call this idea liberation theology.
On Christmas Day Sergio and I visited Fr. K and created our own Christmas traditions: eating heaps of fried chicken and binging the second season of Stranger Things. On the fourth day after the accident we again visited Fr. K and asked how he was doing. He nonchalantly informed us that the doctor had just finished stitching up his head. Wait. What? We never even considered the possibility that the bandage covering Fr. K’s head had been hiding an unstitched skull-deep wound—for four days. After some investigation we found that the doctor of the hospital had not yet even examined the X-Ray of Fr. K’s head. I hardly know a stethoscope from a kaleidoscope but even I could sense that something wasn’t right.
After some time-consuming maneuvering through the Sierra Leonean healthcare system, we managed to transfer Fr. K to an Indian hospital and even get him an MRI from the only machine in Sierra Leone. Despite the cracked skull and minor hemorrhage, Sergio decided it would be best for us to take care of Fr. K at our mission house in Freetown.
Fr. K was lucky. Most Sierra Leoneans cannot afford the care of a decent hospital, much less an MRI (the cost exceeds the equivalence of 6 months of wages for the average Sierra Leonean). Even if someone in Fr. K’s position can afford an MRI, if the machine shows that the patient needs surgery, there are no neurosurgeons in Sierra Leone. This means the person would have to muster an incredible amount of money and paperwork just to leave the country. Forget it. This is why so many Sierra Leoneans die from treatable illnesses and injuries.
During the time spent with Fr. K after the accident he hasn’t failed to entertain us with an abundance of jokes and stories. Sergio and I are constantly caught off guard by the way things work (or don’t work) in Africa, and Fr. K’s stories seem to be consistent contributors to these obscurities. For example, a few days ago he explained how an archbishop’s paperwork blunder caused a 17 year discrepancy between Fr. K’s documented age and his real age (he sees no need to correct this).
Amid the light-hearted stories, Fr. K has also disclosed some of the tragedies he’s faced: one of his sisters was shot in front of him by rebels during the civil war. His father was murdered by a political rival. His other sister was kidnapped and burned as sacrifice by a Juju-practicing politician in hopes of leveraging his own power. His wife left Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis and never returned. The pain Fr. K has experienced is unfathomable, but he’s not a special case here.
Sickness and disaster are close acquaintances to all, and death is everyone’s next door neighbor. But what you find when bargaining for sardines in the market or while making small-talk in the back of a cramped Poda Poda (a public transport van) is certainly not depression and despair. On the contrary, people in Sierra Leone are filled with life, laughter and warmness that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Perhaps an awareness of the imminence of death enkindles gratitude for the beauty and blessings that each new day brings. Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica once said “Everyone should remember his own death and bear in mind the end of his life, or at least be aware that this life is very, very short.” Sierra Leoneans don’t need this reminder.
Fr. K had a near death experience and was poorly cared for, yet his exuberance for life is palpable. The purpose of this blog isn’t to beg for sympathy for those affected by tragedy. I just want to share a snippet of the context that Sergio and I are living and working in—the context we must become familiar with during our immersionship. Any Sierra Leonean will tell you that the people here are tired of war, tired of sickness, tired of misfortune. They’re ready to move on. In order to help the suffering poor help themselves we must first listen to their stories. Even when empathy is impossible, we must strive for understanding. And of course, this process of listening will surely deepen our perspectives of the world we live in. This is FTF.