She crept cautiously out of the forest after the gunfire and explosions ceased.
One couldn’t be too careful. At the edge was a large Mahogany tree. From behind it, she peered out towards the village or what was left of it. Smoke rose steadily from some homes still on fire and there was that pungent smell. It reminded her of the fire crackers from last Christmas.
There was no one in sight. She had lost the kids in the melee after the attack started and now she didn’t know even if they were still alive. She crept forward.
As she made her way towards the remnants of the first home, she did so with bated breath, not knowing whether there still attackers out there.
She made her way to the charred remains of a the big hut. Then she stopped as tears slowly welled up in her eyes. There were dead bodies as far as she could see. Men, women, children. Even dogs. The tears kept coming.
She crept further, carefully stepping over bodies.
The wind blew steadily, creating an eerie tone as it whistled through the trees.
She crept further.
Besides the wind was nothing else – just an eerie silence. Not even a moan.
In the distance, she heard a voice call out;
It kept calling, a terrified screaming quality to the voice.
Then it dawned on her – she was standing in front of the remnants of her home yelling for her kids who were no where to be found.
The tears kept falling!
That is when she felt the touch and a small voice say “Mama”.
She spun around.
Before her stood a little girl, covered in blood and soot. She was holding her arms and saying “Mama” over and over. She wasn’t hers but did it matter?
She dropped to her knees, took the child in her arms and pressed her close as she sobbed.
Islay and Momolu ran as fast as their legs could carry them. Behind them, they could still hear sporadic gunshots. In the melee, they had lost their mother. So they ran like everybody else, away for the gunshots. They stayed close to each other, Momolu leading the way. He wasn’t sure but it looked like they were all running towards the church. He looked to his side and realized Islay was starting to lag. Momolu slowed down till she caught up. Soon they could see the church. Just then he heard Islay yell and as he turned, she had vanished. He stopped, looking all around him. The he heard her:
“Momolu! Momolu! I am in here!”
He ran back towards the sound of her voice and soon came to the edge of a pit. He stopped. Looking down, he saw his sister in there. She must have slipped and fallen in there. Momolu looked around. He saw a long tree branch lying at the other side of the pit. He ran to get it. Then he lowered it into the pit, hoping that he could pull his sister out of it with it.
That is when the gunshots erupted. Momolu swung around and was terrified at what he saw. From the church had appeared a lot of armed men who were shooting down the people heading for that building. He slid into the pit and lay the branch across the entrance. He cowered down, covering Islay who was crying silently.
The woman and the little girl kept walking. Everywhere were dead bodies. It was truly a terrible sight. She carried the child till she tired and then she set her down and made her walk a bit.
When they got to the next village, the same gory sight met them. That was when something seem to snap in the woman. She just sat down and starting weeping uncontrollably. The little girls stood next to her repeating “Mama” endlessly. Suddenly a gunshot interrupted the weeping. And then several more. Sadness had now changed to terror as the woman wondered what to do. Looking around, she saw a small pile of dead bodies. She picked up the child, gently asked her to be quiet and crept towards the dead bodies. With the child in her left arm, she burrowed into the bodies and soon looked like one of them. She prayed that the child would not make a sound. The gunshots came closer. Then she heard them – the rebel soldiers, speaking in their dialect. They were arguing over whether to set all the villages on fire or not. One argued that it would hide the carnage. Another argued against it. he thought it would draw more attention. He explained that the UN forces were not that far and that they needed to get away. After what seems like forever, the second soldier won the argument and she heard them walk away. The woman waited a little while longer and then slowly burrowed out, covered by blood. She retched and vomited all over the dead bodies.
A soldier from the UN Peacekeeping Force found Islah and Momolu hiding in the pit as they looked for survivors the next day. Together with a few other survivors, they were taken to the UN Camp about 60 miles away. The soldiers wondered how the survivors had even made it. The rebel soldiers had killed everything moving and seemingly breathing.
Another battalion of UN soldiers found the woman with the child among the dead bodies, about 5 miles from where her kids, Islay and Momolu were found. She was incoherent and kept muttering “Islay, Momolu, Islay, Momolu…”. She was taken together with the child to a camp run by the USAID about 45 miles away.
SIX YEARS LATER
Lexington, Kentucky, USA
Kiki’s Afro Shop on Southland had become a meeting place of people who were far from home – Africans, Asians, South Americans and even the occasional Eastern European. In her very well-stocked store with groceries and meats from around the world, these immigrants were often reminded of the smells and tastes of homes they had left behind.
Kiki, herself an immigrant, ran a great outfit. Even more commendable was her always-welcoming smile and willingness to help each customer find what they wanted, recommend alternatives and discuss recipes. In the 18 months that she had been in business, she had supplanted some of the earlier ethnic stores not only because of how well-stocked her store was but because of her biggest asset – her listening ear. To many of these immigrants, she had become that shoulder they could lean on and someone they could turn to for advice about everything. Surprisingly even if she didn’t have the answer, she always knew who one could call for help.
Richard and Amber Richter were so happy to discover Kiki’s. When they returned form Liberia with the two children they adopted a year earlier, they had some challenges. The kids had a hard time adapting to the American diet. Then was the issue of the girl’s hair. They wanted it braided beautifully but they really didn’t know where to start. Unfortunately, there were no African-Americans in their little church in Danville where they lived.
One day after church, Amber Richter was talking to a church member about this. This member worked in Lexington and remarked that he had heard of an Afroshop where they might be able to find African groceries and recipes. He was able to get them the address and phone number by the next Sunday.
The next Saturday, the Richters drove to Lexington with the children. They found the store easily using their GPS system.
Kiki welcomed them warmly. The Richters introduced themselves and the two children – Islay and Momolu. Kiki noticed how protective Momolu was of his sister. Kiki recommend several simple West African dishes they could make, and helped them to get the ingredients for them.
Just before they left, Amber Richter asked:
“Kiki, do you know anyone who could braid Islay hair like yours?’
“Yes! The lady who braided mine is also from Liberia. She comes quite here often. When you are here next, I will arrange so you meet her”, Kiki said.
The Richter’s thanked her and left.
Lisa Mulbah had come a long way. Very far from that day when she had to burrow into dead bodies to escape certain death. She sat in class trying to concentrate on the lecture about the immune system. Eighteen months ago, she arrived in the US as a refugee and was sent to Lexington. The city had become a home away from home. Everyone has been most welcoming and she still could not believe how lucky she was sometimes. Now she was in nursing school and had a life ahead of her. She missed her kids, Islay and Momolu, greatly. She often wondered what had happened to them. The mother in her told her that they were still alive and that one day she would find them again. She sighed, her eyes misting over. Then she thought of Japlo, her little girl. The little girl who had called her ‘Mama” among all the carnage that fateful day. He parents had never been found and Lisa was allowed to adopt her. She had named her Japlo, meaning “Beautiful”. She was beautiful and had brought beauty into her life which would have been otherwise empty and arid. Besides providing a life for Japlo, she was driven by the hope that one day, she would find her children again.
The lecture ended mercifully and as she packed up her books, her phone buzzed. It was Kiki. She picked up.
It was two weeks before Christmas and the winter had arrived in full force. It was really cold that Friday afternoon as Lisa made her way down Southland to Kiki’s. From the first day they met, she and Kiki had become friends and what a great friend she was. She had been of the utmost assistance as she settled in, guiding her every inch of the way.
Lisa was great at braiding hair and she was known among both the African as well as African-American women in town as the go-to person for the best hair-dos. Before she started nursing school, she took on any client. With a lot less time these days, she had restricted her services to a few clients, number one being Kiki. Earlier in the week, Kiki had called about a possible client she highly recommended. She was going to the Afroshop to meet them.
The kids had no school that Friday so Amber was driving with them to Lexington to meet the lady who might be able to braid Islay’s hair. They were meeting at Kiki’s. It would be great if she could get it done before Christmas Day.
Amber Richter and the kids opened the door to Kiki’s store, rushing in to escape the cold wind whipping through Lexington. As usual, Kiki was behind the counter and came around when she saw them. She hugged each to them.
“Well, is she here?”, Amber Richter asked.
“She is at the back”, Kiki answered.
“Lisa, they are here”, Kiki called.
Lisa was using the restroom when she heard Kiki call. She washed her hands and headed towards the front of the shop. She could see Kiki, who had he back to her. She was talking to an older white lady. Lisa walked up and stood beside Kiki.
“There you are. Lisa. Meet Mrs Richter”, Kiki said as she did the introductions.
“Amber”, Mrs Richer said as she stuck out her right hand.
“Lisa Mulbah”, Lisa said as she shook Amber’s hand.
Even as she shook Amber’s hand, her attention was riveted on the two children who stood before her. There was something about them. As she starred at them, she noticed the boy also starring at her.
“Momulu?’, she ventured tentatively.
“Mama? Is that you?”, the boy replied.
“Momolu Mulbah! Is that you? And Islay?”, Lisa screamed.
“Mama!”, Islay screamed.
Kiki and Amber looked on shocked as Lisa embraced her kids and they began to weep.
After a while, Romulu turned to Amber and said:
“Mama Amber, this is our mother that we lost that day the soldiers came”.
It has been six years but the bond between a mother and her children is unbreakable.
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
They were at all Kiki’s home for Christmas dinner. Amber and Joseph Richter, Momolu and Islay, Lisa, Japlo, Kiki, her husband and their two kids. The house was filled with the smell of goat meat soup, grilled fish and fried red plantain. There was cake in the oven.
The last weeks had been nothing short of crazy. What were the odds that a mother would lose her children in the heat of war and find them years later at the other side of the world but that is exactly what had happened.
The last time Lisa saw her kids, Momolu was seven and Islay was six. Now Momolu was taller than her and Islay was as tall as she was. Life, she thought.
The Richters were an older couple who already had grown children. They were doing missionary work in Liberia, saw the kids at an orphanage and felt an urge to adopt them. Little did they know that that they were the vehicle for a much higher purpose. Richard Richter thought it was poignant that it happened the reunion occurred during the holiday season. As he watched Lisa talking to her kids, his heart swelled with love, pride and faith. Even though a DNA test was pending, he didn’t need that to see that they had helped to bring a family together again. He turned to look at his wife. Amber was sitting quietly with a smile on her face watching Lisa and the kids. Somehow Richard knew that Amber felt the same..
Just then Kiki swept into the family room where they were all waiting to announce that dinner was ready. They all got up and headed towards the dining room.
Later that evening, Kofi, Kiki’s husband, proposed a toast:
“This is to life and all it’s trials and tribulations. This is to love, compassion and empathy. Qualities that made Richard and Amber reach out to Islay and Momolu…made Lisa find Japlo. This to Providence, a power that sustains us and guides us in ways we cannot even fathom. This is to all who tonight are afflicted, lost and suffering. This is to hope that the world will care more. Merry Christmas!”
Outside, a cold wind blew but in that home that night it was warm. Even warmer than that day when the soldiers came….