CHICAGO (RNS) — “Julia, over three hundred bodies they have buried today,” Ambrose Ndoinje texted me from Freetown, Sierra Leone, after torrential rains and mudslides left corpses floating down the street. Local leaders say the death count this week reached 1,000 in a country too often forgotten.
Twelve years have passed since Ndoinje drove me in his taxi during my six-week trip to the West African nation. But he still sends instant messages telling me that Jesus loves me and news of the latest disaster to befall his Godforsaken place.
“When will you come back to Freetown?” Ndoinje asks again and again.
Never, I say silently to myself. I doubt I can once again bear witness to such relentless sorrow.
As a visiting fellow at Northwestern Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, I went to Sierra Leone to watch proceedings of the Special Court addressing human rights violations during the country’s 11-year civil war and to interview survivors of trauma. I visited segregated settlements built specially for amputees, whose arms and sometimes legs were chopped off by Revolutionary United Front rebels. And I spoke to RUF perpetrators, like the born-again Christian who cried as he told me of eating his victims’ hearts.
A slight, gentle man, Ndoinje, then in his mid-20s, was determined to be my protector, picking me up at my hotel early each morning and steering me away from danger. He navigated his rickety car through six lanes of traffic in Freetown and along the dirt roads to outlying villages, frantically tending to his vehicle when it broke down in the heat.
I’ve never met someone who cared so much about my day, who I met, what I saw and what I thought of his country.
“Ah, Julia,” he’d say over lunch after I had tracked down a government official. “You are having a fine day.”
I was his older sister from America and he would never forget me.
When I returned home, he began saving up his pennies to call every few months. Then Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp changed everything. Now he sends me pictures weekly of his wife and three young children, interspersed with the news of the day in Krio, an English-based Creole language.
Most of his notes are about family and work.
“Julia, we are still waiting 4 d company to pay our monies and they have already close down because of financial problem.”
“My brother Abdul has been paralised. Only God knows why. We have taken him up country to c if he can be cure by a native doctor.
“U have forgotten me, Julia.”
Then there are the religious messages accompanied by pictures of a lily-white Jesus in a country that remains predominantly Muslim.
“Never ask for a lighter rain, just pray to God for a better umbrella.”
During the Ebola crisis that killed thousands in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries, the messages came frequently. Each day he sent the body counts reported in Sierra Leone’s numerous tabloids and described the corpses piling up in the streets. I wrote back inadequate condolence notes, sent a little money, made donations to NGOs and wondered how this slight young man held onto his faith through an unending course of war and natural disaster.
This week’s messages and photographs, which sometimes arrive every half-hour, are about the flooding and mudslides, exacerbated by deforestation, that have left hundreds dead and thousands more homeless.
“I thank god Julia we were able to escape but we lost all our properties but d life is more important I thank god.”
“People are still trap under d debre becoz two things happen d floodind and the land slide.”
“We cannot find my wife's auntie and her eight children.”
My Harvard Divinity School education and my years as a writer specializing in religion and human rights have not prepared me for such extreme stories of loss upon loss. Tragedy has deepened Ndoinje’s faith. But I have begun to lose interest in such questions as whether there is a God who acts upon the world. I just know at the end of the day it brings Ndoinje comfort that someone is witnessing via instant messenger.
“When are you coming?” he asks between emojis.
“I don’t know,” I say. But Ndoinje makes sure I will never forget.
(Julia Lieblich’s latest book is "Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror." She is an Ochberg fellow at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma)