A Letter from Africa

The hospital ward at Phebe Hospital in Liberia, Africa. Netting provides protection against malaria bearing mosquitos. Air conditioning from the tropical heat is provided by fans during the six or so hours the hospital has electricity each day.

I received a letter last week from Dr. Kylkon Makwi of Suakolo, Liberia. It was an old fashion type of letter. It came in the mail and was handwritten.

When I first met Dr. Makwi, he was a 13 year old boy who went by the name of Sam Kollie. It was the summer of 1965. My former wife Jo Ann and I had just arrived in the upcountry town of Gbarnga, Liberia where we were to serve as Peace Corps teachers.

We were tired, hungry and nervous. It was the end of a long day that had started in Monrovia, Liberia’s Capitol. A week earlier we had been partying in Jo’s back yard in Auburn, California. Now we were in the heart of West Africa. The Peace Corps driver, Wellington Sirleaf, made a quick stop to introduce us to Bob Cohen, the Upcountry PC Director, and was taking us to our new house.

There was one more stop before we got there. This time it was to see Shirley Penchef, another Peace Corps Volunteer. She was waiting at her house with a young Liberian of the Kpelle tribe and a surprise.

“This is Sam,” she bubbled (Shirley always bubbled). “Sam is so excited you are here! He has been waiting weeks for you! He is going to be your houseboy!”

Jo and I were speechless. We had talked about the possibility; it was common practice among Volunteers. A young Liberian would help with chores, earn spending money and often eat with the Volunteer. Both the Liberian and the PCV gained from the experience.

We recognized the value of the arrangement but had decided that having a houseboy didn’t quite fit the Peace Corps image. Like how do you tell the folks back home you are roughing it out here in the jungle and doing good while someone cooks your dinner, washes your clothes and cuts your grass?

On the other hand, how do you tell a woman who talks in exclamation points and a 13 year old boy who is grinning from ear to ear that you don’t want what they are selling?

“Uh, gee, uh, well, why doesn’t Sam help us get settled in and then we’ll see,” we managed to stutter. It was one of the better decisions we were to make in Liberia.

You’ll find the complete story of our first day in Gbarnga under “Armies of the Night” on the sidebar. It includes drums in the night, ghosts, screaming and monster spiders… but no beer.

Sam was a bright young man. Eventually he would get a full paid scholarship to Brandeis University in Boston, pick up his MD in Monrovia and earn a Masters in Public Health at Loma Linda University in Southern California. Life would not be easy for him, however.

The story of modern Liberia is one of the great tragedies of our time. A revolution that begin with the elimination of the ruling elite quickly degraded into tribal warfare that featured modern weaponry in the hands of children and dark juju, the voodoo of West Africa. Brutality, death, disease and starvation were the results. A full generation of Liberians was either lost or forever scarred by the nightmare.

Today, Liberia is struggling to recover and Sam/Kylkon is part of the effort. He and a handful of other medical professionals are working at Phebe Hospital in Upcountry Liberia. The odds against success are staggering.

As Kylkon notes, “there is a gross shortage of health manpower and hospital supplies.” (2009 statistics from Liberia report there was one doctor per 100,000 people in Upcountry.) Even basics, such as bed linens are missing. “We are in need of patient gowns, surgeon gowns and gloves, instruments, anesthetics and therapeutic drugs.” He sometimes performs surgery wearing an apron.

Hospital facilities in Liberia were damaged during the war and are “badly in need of renovation and repair.” Electricity and water at Phebe are limited to six or so hours per day.

Phebe serves the surrounding communities such as Gbarnga, which now has a population exceeding 50,000, and border populations from neighboring countries. Few people have the money to pay for their care.

“People come by my house at all hours begging for drugs,” Kylkon reports. But there are few drugs to be had.

It is hard, almost impossible, to imagine the challenge of providing medical care under such circumstances. The tragedy of Liberia continues.

Hang in there Sam. Our thoughts and wishes are with you.

2 comments on “A Letter from Africa

    • You are right, LaReene, the ability of people to overcome adversity is incredible. But Kylkon was one of the lucky ones. I often think of our other students and wonder what became of them, if they survived the war and its horror. It reminds me of how lucky we are in this country.

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