Mah Sarah's Birthday


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 2, 2003


It was over the Thanksgiving weekend at a party for Ms. Sarah Sawyer, in Silver Spring, Maryland. As usual, on these occasions, there were tens of Liberian professionals. I counted at least 5 former ministers, all well-oiled professionals, a former president and scores of young people who could have all been in Liberia, were not for the decades of folly we imposed on ourselves and our people in the name of "liberation." Every liberation movement brought its own lot of miseries, death and exile.

Ms. Sarah Sawyer, who was celebrating her 80th birthday, surrounded by hundreds of friends and descendants, is also victim as many of that "liberation." Her son, Amos Sawyer, is a "trouble-maker" and always finds ways to get in the way of Liberian "big-men". He caused nightmares for Tolbert, Doe and Taylor. In the end, anyone whose name was Sawyer - unless you could prove that you were in no way related to this Amos - had to flee - and Sarah and her late husband, their children and grand children found themselves here, like hundreds of thousands of Liberians who had to flee the flying bullets and the slaughterhouse the country had turned into.

The situation of Ms. Sarah Sawyer epitomizes the drama and anguish of many elderly who joined her in celebrating the joyous occasion. Born and raised under the tropical sun of Africa, surrounded by hundreds of family and friends, life changed for them, when suddenly, they were thrown into exile, because one group or another of Liberians bestowed on themselves the right to kill other Liberians to get jobs and cars.

There are hundreds of Sarah Sawyers in many Liberian families in the United States. They live with their children and relatives. They wake up every morning wondering what to do with their time. The children are out of the door long before the sun rises. The grand children hop on school buses. And they are left alone, with a television set, a remote control and microwave ovens. The most active part of the day is spent on the telephone, calling friends and relatives of the same age, scattered around the United States, sharing the last news about every thing and everyone. They know to the hour about every event that takes place anywhere in Liberia or in the US. They have more names in their phone books than the yellow pages. They buy phone cards by the dozen and know the cheapest way to call Monrovia, Accra or Danane. After everybody is gone to sleep, they call each other in New York, Minnesota, California, Texas, and hold prayer meetings. The pray for peace love and prosperity for Liberia. When the phone goes silent for a short while, they tune in to CNN and wait for any kind of news on Liberia.

Towards the end of the day, they look forward to everyone returning home. Kids come back first, say a quick hello and, after filling a bowl with cereals or some other junk foods; lock themselves up in their rooms, glued to their afternoon television programs. Later, it is the turn of the parents. The long days of work leave no energy in the body. The meal is already cooked, mostly prepared on weekends and stored in plastic containers. Each family member would get a bowl, warm up some soup, potato greens, cassava leaves or beans and take their plates in a room or sink in a sofa in front of the television set in the living room. There is not much conversation but knowing that every one is home safely from work is enough consolation.

Weekends are not any better. Parents go shopping while children find every possible excuse to get away from the house. Those elderly, who are lucky to have infants in the family and for a few hours, can play "grandma." A walk in the park is as rare as a trip to the grocery store. Sunday church service, followed at times by family lunch is the greatest family event of the week. Mrs. Sarah Sawyer and many of her age are confronted with the most difficult human situations: loneliness, solitude and sometimes depression. They grew up free in Africa and now find themselves confined in tiny little apartments or homes, with no sunrays except the one that filters through the curtains for a split second. Doors are always shut and locked. Neighbors are like ghosts. Winters just add to the sense of solitude.

Sarah and her generation worked all their lives in Liberia, giving their best, saving money to build homes, raising children and keeping families together. They had dreamed of spending their last years sipping ice tea on their porches, keeping an eye on the grand children, feeding the chicken and the goats, attending to family disputes and presiding over the next generation. But they found themselves here, ruined and dependent, with their dream houses back home in absolute ruins. Those who are lucky to have their houses still standing, may return to see them occupied by some former C.O.'s of one the many "liberation" armies that took the country hostage since 1980.

As we shared jokes and sipped wine at the birthday party and sample the great dishes from home, many of us talked about going home soon. Some like Charles Snetter of Radio Monrovia already had set a date. Many said they would leave one spouse and the children behind, because it would take decades before schools in Liberia become operational. The children would most likely grow up to become American, may be taking the occasional trips "home" to see "where Mammy and Daddy came from."

But Sarah Sawyer and others of her generation, cherish one dream and only: that very soon, Liberia would be "freed" from all her "liberators" so that they may go home, grow some tomatoes and peppers to share with their neighbors, cook their own soup if they want to on a coal pot, sit on their porch and watch the sun set. And if they so desire, they could walk the streets in lappas and barefoot, without being looked down on as some type of exotic relic.

Mah Sarah's birthday was an occasion of joy and happiness. This piece was meant to convey that warm feeling. But the more we feel happy in America, the more we miss home. And that sadness always filters through in our warmest moments. Other than that, Sarah could not have wished for a happier 80th birthday, surrounded by dozens of children, grand children and great grand children and hundreds of friends. May we celebrate her 81st birthday in Monrovia.