It was an innocent enough first question. “Do you like living here,” I asked 12-year-old Bobo, an orphan living at the Christ Our Hope North orphanage in Foya, Liberia.
'Yes,' he responded. I followed with the obvious. 'Why?'
He stared blankly for a moment. Then his face slowly twisted in pain as tears began to roll down his cheeks, and hands made an attempt to cover the emotion-filled face.
It wasn’t this question that upset him. Unintentionally within hearing distance of Bobo, I had asked Pastor Abraham Howard, who started the orphanage with his wife Agnes, for a little background on Bobo. He explained that Bobo’s father died before Ebola and his mother died during the Ebola crisis. His baby brother died as well last year. He had been living with his grandmother, but he had taken to the streets to steal. His grandmother and uncle, his only relatives, couldn’t manage him so Abraham and Agnes took him in. By the time I asked the harmless question, Bobo was already on the edge of painful memories.
Over two years have passed since the end of the Ebola crisis and the death of Bobo’s mother. Abraham explained that though she didn’t die from the Ebola virus, she became seriously ill, and it was impossible to get medical help even for non-Ebola conditions. Fear reigned. The sick were untouchable and many died unnecessarily, collateral damage from the most widespread outbreak of Ebola in history.
Abraham Howard is the pastor of Abide In The Vine Disciples Church (AVDC) in Foya, Lofa County, the area of Liberia hardest hit by the epidemic. In late 2014, Abraham and Agnes became aware of many Ebola-related orphans in the area. The first group of orphans Abraham encountered included 15 children from an extended family who had lost nine members.
'I’m an orphan,' Abraham explained. 'My father and mother died by the time I was eight and I suffered a lot. So if I see anybody in that condition…I know what it is to suffer.' He couldn’t ignore the need and asked for help.
'Our major need now is food' Pastor Abraham Howard
Abraham’s church is part of a larger group of churches led by Rev Emmanuel Bimba, Abraham’s youngest brother, and includes two other orphanages close to the capital of Monrovia, all supported by the US non-profit One Body One Hope (OBOH). By the end of 2014, Emmanuel and Abraham had surveyed Foya and the surrounding villages documenting 60 orphans, three times more than they anticipated or could care for. Fully convinced of the great need to establish an orphanage, the brothers partnered with One Body One Hope in the new endeavour, which raised funds for the start up and eventually found sponsorship for each child.
Time to Heal
Agnes remembers that first year with the children. It was a year filled with tears, talks, and time for grieving.
“In the first year it was difficult,” Agnes said. “Sometimes they would sit and cry and cry, especially the big group from the same family that came here first. I kept talking to them. I told them to trust God. We teach them the Word of God.”
I asked Agnes if there is any child who is particularly special, who touched her heart. She responded like a good mother should. “I can tell you that I love all of them the same. They call me ‘ma’.”
But, there is one ten-year-old girl. 'Fatu used to cry a lot. Her father and mother died from Ebola. She would say she couldn’t eat. I’d bring her close and talk and talk to her. This last year she hasn’t cried.'
Grief and pain take time to heal, as Abraham knows well from his own childhood without his parents, working to pay for his own school fees, and hunting for wild yams in the bush with his grandmother to supplement the little food they could afford. 'At a certain time in my life, I thought I was not loved by God because the suffering was so much, until I knew that God had brought me this far to make me what I am. I didn’t know that I would be a pastor. Maybe that was the reason God took me that way so I will speak from experience of how I suffered.'
School, Eat, Play and Pray
The orphanage currently cares for 19 girls and 16 boys, plus the pastor’s own five children. Some lost both parents, some only one with the remaining parent unable to care for all the children. Some of the children contracted and survived Ebola, like little Junior who lost his mother and father to the virus.
The orphans’ home is basic with the children sleeping on mattresses laid out each evening on the floor and piled against the walls during the day. Each child’s meagre possessions fit into a rectangle plastic bag. They are fed, attend school, and join prayer and daily devotions that include scripture memorisation. According to Abraham and Agnes, the children’s favourite part of the day is eating and playing. 'They eat a lot,' Abraham notes.
'MAF’s bi-weekly passenger shuttle from Monrovia to Lofa County is able to help Pastor Abraham and his team in their travels. It’s a small blessing MAF can give for these children who have lost so much.'
They also play hard. One favourite, all-age-inclusive game is called Awana, taught by a visiting group of Americans. Teams compete in relays, running around a centre circle in a race to grab the plastic bottle in the centre. The cheering, the screaming, the bottle raised in triumph while the team hoots and claps – all create the illusion of a normal childhood with the spectre of loss vanquished. Bobo’s tears have disappeared and after the games he talks unemotionally about his mother’s death, life at the orphanage, favourite school subject – maths, favourite sport – football, favourite food – rice, and how happy he was to come here.
Needs and Support
'Our major need now is food,' Abraham explained, 'But we thank God for Pastor Aaron Baart with One Body One Hope because the Lord is using him. He saw our need and he came in. And like-wise, Danish Refugee Council helped us with used clothes, some mattresses and school bags. Our major concern now is their health and education. Our First Aid and drugs for headaches and malaria are finished.'
Another concern is transporting food to Foya, particularly rice that is more affordable and available in the capital. 'It’s very difficult to get food in the rainy season when the road is damaged from Monrovia. It’s going to be tough on us. We are praying to see how best we can get our food for the children. If we go by road it takes almost two days. When it comes April, it soon starts to be a mess, because they haven’t worked on the road this year. I’ve flown with MAF twice. It was so nice. If we are fortunate to fly with MAF, it can be so very good for us because just one hour and you’re here.'
MAF’s bi-weekly passenger shuttle from Monrovia to Lofa County is able to help Pastor Abraham and his team in their travels, including visitors from One Body One Hope, and to carry supplies for the orphanage if needed. It’s a small blessing MAF can give for these children who have lost so much.