Dispatch From Liberia: A Zest For Life

John Pratt, George “Junior” Hassan, and Ralph Senwah outside the Cheshire Home. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.
John Pratt, George “Junior” Hassan, and Ralph Senwah outside the Cheshire Home. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

Lane Hartill, CRS’ regional information officer for West Africa, writes from Liberia:

If you could meet George Hassan, I guarantee you’d like him. 

It’s impossible not to. He’s a thinker, a soccer fanatic, and a political analyst. He can talk about Hezbollah’s prominence in Lebanon in one breath and then switch to European soccer the next.

But for being a soccer buff, George — his friends call him Junior — has never played. In fact, he’s never walked. Junior, you see, has polio. He was born with it. But it hasn’t slowed his curiosity or zest for life. What’s more amazing? For being so astute about world affairs, Junior has never learned to read or write.

The war came and interrupted Junior’s already fractured life. He has lived at the Antoinette Tubman Cheshire Home — which takes care of developmentally and physically disabled children — since 1985.

The day the rebels surrounded the home (one of his many encounters with them), Junior quietly slipped out of his wheelchair and slid down the basement steps on his stomach. But the rebels found him, curled on the floor in the basement.

“I hope you don’t have [our] enemy here!” they threatened him. “I said, ‘If you see anyone, you can kill me,’ ” Junior says.

They found no one (they were after rice and fuel) and kicked Junior and the other residents out of the house. The residents of the Antoinette Tubman Cheshire Home had no choice but to cross Monrovia, which was convulsing with war. So Josephine, a sweet mother of five who has worked at the home for more than 20 years, wheeled Junior across the city, talking her way past the soldiers at each checkpoint. She risked her life to save these children, all for $25 a month — if she was paid at all.

At one point during the war, the home ran out of food. Some children starved to death. Junior survived by breaking the rock-hard kernels of palm nuts and sucking the oil out of the seed. He supplemented this with oranges and water. That’s all he ate for months.

CRS has supported the Antoinette Tubman Cheshire Home with food since 1990. Even during the war, CRS delivered food to the home. The only stoppages came when fighting was intense and shipments couldn’t get through.

But enough about the war. Junior wants to know about my family. He wants to know what my sisters do, about my brother’s job in Alaska. My mom’s teaching job. My dad’s fish business. All of a sudden, Junior is interviewing me.

He may be the most curious Liberian I’ve ever talked with. When the conversation turns to politics, Junior wants to discuss the Iraq war. His concern: American mothers. As the war drags on, he says, “[American] mothers are crying for their sons, every day and every night.” He’s bothered by war because he lived through it. “When I hear other people going through war, it grieves my heart,” he says.

Josephine Koko and J. Napoleon Howard, also known as Old Man Howard. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.
Josephine Koko and J. Napoleon Howard, also known as Old Man Howard. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

Junior is happy at the home. His best friends are near him — Ralph and Comfort and Old Man Howard. Comfort and Howard (real name: J. Napoleon Howard) have been with him since the beginning. Comfort, who is 49, doesn’t really speak. She just makes sounds and never stops smiling. But Junior can understand her. That’s what happens after close to 30 years together. Old Man Howard, who floats in and out of lucidity and had been diagnosed to have schizophrenic tendencies, is a comedian. He and Junior talk soccer or play with Junior’s kittens, Chuck and Susie.

And then there’s Ralph. He’s in the ninth grade at a local high school. He is not mentally or physically disabled. In fact, he’s built like a running back. Ralph could spend his free time on the streets of Monrovia with able-bodied young men. But he prefers to be with Junior. Ralph’s father used to work at the home, and Ralph grew up there, pushing Junior around the compound before he could see over the wheelchair. Ralph spends most of his time here, spooning rice into the kids’ mouths, gently lifting Junior out of the wheelchair and bathing him. He carries him to the toilet.

How many 19-year-olds would choose to do that in their free time?

Share on Twitter


One Response to “Dispatch From Liberia: A Zest For Life”

  1. Rachel jones Says:

    I am touched and I am also interested in assisting these children as I work with similar groups here in the states and Liberia is my home. Glad to know that they are happy.

Leave a Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.