The Long Winding Roads of Africa (Emily’s Trip, Part 3)
By Mommy Emily
I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t turned my head. A flash of color, and then we’d passed by.
These two tiny children whose arms were like matchsticks.
I was in western Africa, in a country called Liberia, on the back of a motorbike taking me from Pastor Zawu’s house to one of his churches, zipping through the red rock gravel backroads in the town of Zorzor — a place where plastered government buildings rub shoulders with run-down cardboard shelters.
And circling this town, like a garnish, is the lushest of rainforest, its palm trees like tall skinny poles exploding into green tassels, and bushes boasting the brightest of crimson flowers, and behind them all, rolling green hills.
It’s a country whose beauty is marred by the hardship of trying to grow rice, or plantain, or any kind of food because of all the trees. You can starve for all the beauty.
And it appeared that this is what these children were doing. They were starving, even as their tiny arms lifted pickaxes to crush rock into gravel. A plump older woman stood watch over them, no doubt the one who paid them.*
I took in the scene in a moment, and then they were gone. It was that fast. I was dropped outside Pastor Zawu’s church and escorted inside a building draped in scarves and smiles and smelling of salty tropical heat, but all I could think about was those children.
When I asked Pastor Zawu about it later he said, Yes, this was a very common thing for mothers and children to do, for there was no other form of income. Then he dropped his eyes and turned away because of the ache of it all.
But this gentle man with the long legs who talks to everyone on the street, who stops to make the shyest mother smile, who jokes with every child, this man is doing what he can. In fact, he’s helping more than 750 children receive an affordable education through a school that he founded.
It was 10 years ago, after his first wife died leaving him a single father, that the Lord told Pastor David Zawu to leave the bustling capital of Monrovia and return, like Joseph, to his hometown of Zorzor.
And so he did, taking his new wife and baby with him, to the village far north, on an excruciating seven-hour drive by night through countless roadblocks, the lights of corrupt “police” flashing in one’s face and the demands to see “papers” a mere guise to secure what they were really after — a Liberian dollar.
And once they arrived, they had nowhere to sleep, taking comfort in a tiny shack which broke apart in the middle of a windy night. A woman from the church he’d begun to pastor soon took his family in, and there they stay to this day, even as Pastor Zawu now has four children and oversees upwards of 75 churches in the area.
In the shadow of his long-legged step Pastor Sonnel Kamara (from Sierra Leone) and I walk, following Zawu across broken bridges to churches constructed on the outskirts of villages so the unchurched villagers don’t feel guilty for their witchcraft practices.
We walk, and the church members run to greet us, singing songs and playing drums and hugging us tight and telling us we’re “home.” They clothe us in traditional dress which they’ve spent months saving for, and we’re family now. It happens so fast, as fast as a smile and a hug and a few songs. That’s how quickly spiritual DNA forms.
After a few days together we drive the long road back to Monrovia, me to fly to Uganda and Pastor Sonnel to take the bus home to Sierra Leone, and we listen to Nigerian worship music and eat apples while we pass forest after forest.
And I think of The Lulu Tree, how it’s God’s Family Tree, one that now stretches between four countries, and how long after we’re gone He’ll be walking the winding roads with Pastor Zawu, laughing with mothers and drawing children near — the children no one else sees, the ones with the matchstick arms crushing rocks so they can eat another meal, live another day.
He grows this Tree for them. May its fruit abound to their good and His glory.
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Isaiah 40:11
*(read more about this form of child labor here)