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Scenic images from the field

Canaan Village

Sierra Leone

Canaan Village, in the eastern Kono District of Sierra Leone, W. Africa, was the site assigned to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This was in 1985, after ten weeks of training in the Agricultural Sector in Songo, north of Freetown. My mission was to assist the farmers in the development of swamplands for rice production. I was to also develop camaraderie amongst the women, with their kitchen gardens.

Volunteers were to deal with health issues as well, and were provided with an emergency kit for minor problems. Small children were especially vulnerable and professional aid was a mile and a half walk from the village. One little girl particularly drew my attention. Two-year-old Leah had difficulty keeping up with children her age in their play activities. I decided that querying her grandfather, the patriarch of the village with its extended families, was the best approach. He spoke English fluently and explained to me that Leah had been very slow in learning to walk. With mobility there was pain—she could not even climb on her grandfather’s lap. It was obvious that a bowing of her forelegs was symptomatic of a problem There wasn’t a thing in the Peace Corps kit, however, that could fix that.

After six weeks in the village, I noticed that I had a problem of my own. A tiny lesion was growing on my face. Having had several lesions removed in the past, I knew that a check-up was necessary. There was a dermatologist across the country, in Freetown. AS was suspected, the diagnosis was basal cell carcinoma. The doctor did not have the proper equipment to do a biopsy and prescribed a flight to Washington, DC to seek treatment, scheduled for the next day. Fortunately I had a change of clothes and the essential clean sheet in my backpack. Once treated I decided that at my age, 65-years-old, I would have to terminate my service with the Peace Corps. It was a very difficult decision, but the tropical sun of Sierra Leone was simply too threatening.

Upon returning to my home in eastern Washington State, I missed the villagers, especially little Leah. Despite the continents between us, I began to consider means of helping her. Like a brilliant star the idea of probably aid was not that far from my home. The Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children is located in Spokane, about a two and a half hour drive away from me. With much perseverance and inquiry into preparatory measures and with the help of a Peace Corps friend in Sierra Leone, the task moved forward. PCV Betsy (Small) Campbell, the woman who had been my domestic helper in the village, did all of the necessary in-country groundwork. This included, x-rays, medical check-ups, and air fare to the US for Leah and her appointed guardian, Aunt Sarah. Almost a year to the day that I returned home, word came that they would be arriving at Sea-Tac Airport.

The reunion brought for me tears of joy and gratitude for the effort made to ensure that the girls traveled comfortably. Another PCV acquaintance of mine had accompanied them since he was connecting with a flight to visit family south of Sea-Tac. From this day forward, there were many adjustments that were to be made. It was not easy for the girls to adjust to the different diet, the cold winter weather, etc. However, the spirit of Christmas soon brought gifts and unsparing community support.

Before Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children would see Leah, both girls had to have a medical check-up for any parasitical problems that they may have brought with them. That being done, a local member of the organization was appointed to drive us to Sokane for Leah’s diagnosis. Pre-mailed x-rays from a doctor in sierra Leone revealed splayed bones at the ankles and that her shin bones were also weakened. Thus the pain and bowing from the knees downward. Actually, the pediatrician commented that he was now acquainting himself for the first time with this severe case of rickets. A concentrated dosage of vitamin D was prescribed in addition to the necessary regiment of nutritious meals and periodical visits. A early visit was attended by professionals who were reviewing this child in her walk across the table top where they sat. Apparently this was a first for them as well.

Leah’s general health improved quickly. She grew stronger. I enrolled her in a pre-school which quickly brought out her happy social side. Being able to somersault with her playmates was a major accomplishment. She could now climb on a chair and even the pasture fence of boards. She ran and eventually pedaled a tricycle. After six months, the Shriner’s hospital bought her a pair of orthopedic shoes. She could now return to her African home! This was a very difficult time for me. The girls’ tickets had been donated and my accompaniment would take my savings account. That was understood. The trip was enjoyable, except for a timeframe glitch at the London airport. However, the time for a visit at the Leone Embassy quickly had us on our way. This was a first ever for us, a helicopter ride to Freetown from Lungi Airport. The next day, the Peace corps director arranged to have us cross the country as far as Koidu with two PCVs in a Landrover. We overnited with Lebanese friends and then continued on to the Canaan Village area by auto.

There was a great celebration in honor of Leah’s return and much astonishment at her physical well-being. She had grown four inches taller and ten pounds heavier than the 25 that they had remembered. The little new white shoes shortly came off as Leah romped with her barefooted friends. With my return to the States, I kept in touch with the family and continued to send the Vitamin D supply throughout her teen years. While her leg bones were lengthening, the Shriner’s Hospital received x-rays of her later growth. It was determined that surgery was possible, but only as a cosmetic factor. Meanwhile, life goes on for this pretty young woman. She struggled to finish school during the eight years of war in her homeland. And she now must stand with her family, remembering when the Peace Corps helped the villagers… of a Canaan now destroyed.

Elva Heinz (Sierra Leone)

Elva was an Agricultural Extenstion Volunteer in Sierra Leone. She earned her B.A. in African Studies from Ohio University at the age of 62. She later graduated with an M.A. at the age of 74. She currently lives in Clarkston, WA.

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