Ma Bode

By Rachel Heavner Note: This piece was written after traveling to Sierra Leone in February of 2008, and is based on the story of a woman I had the great pleasure of meeting. -- Bo,1980, her shop was the place to be. A cold Star beer on a hot day. Sweat dripping down the sides of the bottle creating a pool on the table in front of you, Ma’s Batique fabrics lining the walls. A shirt of hers you wear because above all else, she was a true businesswoman and she knew how to sell her product. All the Peace Corps volunteers came in to relax and take a few hours away from responsibility. Ma welcomed them with open arms. “I haven’t seen your face for a long time now, you owe me, how about buying one of my new bags? I made it myself, genuine palm leaves, feel it.” “No thanks Ma, just a Star today. They are beautiful though.” “I’ll give you a good price, but only because you’re one of my favorites.” You laugh. “No thanks Ma, just the beer.” “Fine, fine, so how things out in the village? Met any nice Sierra Leonean boys? We have the best men here you know.” You laugh again. “No Ma, no luck with the men, how are you doing?” “You know, taking care of Pa, running the shop, same business. Thank goodness for you Peace Corps, you keep this place running. Of course, business would be even better if you bought one of these bags.” A smile as she walks away to retrieve your beer. She comes back and places the beer on the table. You take a sip of the cool liquid that has become a true friend. A little semblance of home in this far off land. Ma Bode’s has become a home away from home, a place where you are sure to run into a fellow volunteer on one of your days off, a break from the solitude of the village, the solitude that comes from being the only one of your kind for miles around. Your relationships with the villagers are wonderful; you truly cherish them, yet they have never been outside of Sierra Leone, let alone the region. They have no concept of where you come from, and while for a time this is insignificant, you start to realize that there is a barrier between you because of it. There is a large part of you that they will never connect with and never be able to understand. Ma Bode’s is a safe haven, a break from the new reality of your existence where you can reconnect with a small part of your society and culture. “Ma, tell me, how long have you owned the shop?” “This building has been in my family for generations. It was my father’s father’s and his father’s before that. It has always been my home and always will be my home. It’s all I’ll have left when Pa goes. It’s certainly plenty with all of you in it all the time.” -- October 1998, Bo, The doors are locked, the windows covered, the shop is shut down. Peace Corps left when the fighting began, business stopped. No one went out for a beer anymore, not after the rebels set up their headquarters in the city. The streets were deserted, everyone stayed inside. Ma slept upstairs with her daughter and grand children. It had been a few months and she continued to pray every day that they wouldn’t come. Most of the other shops had been looted and burned in continuous efforts of meaningless destruction; somehow she had been spared. At night she was awakened by the slightest creaking of the house, terrified of who or what it might be. Afraid for the lives of her loved ones. Her husband had passed away before the war and she was left to take care of everyone as she always had. The night her luck wore out. There was a great pounding on the door. Pounding and shouting “OPEN UP OR WE”LL BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN!!!” She begins to tremble; the children start to cry. “Into the attic. NOW!” They obey without a word. She closes the door behind them to the protests of her daughters. “No, Ma, stay with us! They will leave!” She doesn’t listen. She will not lose her house and her family with it. She breathes deeply and slowly walks down the stairs towards the pounding on the door. She starts with the top lock and works her way down. First, second, third… click. She turns the door handle and slowly opens. Before her stand 4 young rebel soldiers, rifles in their hands, eyes blood shot from whatever combination of cocaine and gunpowder runs through their veins. They are nothing but boys, young teenage boys younger than her own sons. She stands before them, a woman of 50, plain features, no more that 5 foot 2”. Hands worn from years of making textiles, her only advantage a silent resilience to their power. “Step aside, it’s time to watch your house burn!” She looks at them. “No you will not”, she says calmly. The leader of the group points his rifle at her head. “Step aside woman!” She looks him straight in the eye, and does not move. They stand this way for what seems like hours. The boy begins to laugh at the woman’s stubbornness. “Ok”, he says finally, “we have to get something out of you.” He looks around at his companions with a sideways grin and turns his attention back to her. “Either we burn your house down or you let each of us have sex with you. What’s it gonna be?” Her face does not change. Slowly she opens her mouth to speak. “You will not burn my house down.” The leader looks at her and they all begin to laugh as Ma Bode slowly backs away from the doorway and they let themselves in. -- August 2004, the war has come to an end and recovery slowly grips the nation. Ma Bode sits on her chair in front of the fan. She hears the bell jingle as someone walks in downstairs. She slowly lifts herself off the chair and saunters down the stairs. You walk in and ask the boy behind the bar, “Is Ma Bode around?” As you hear the slow deliberate footsteps you turn to see the woman you once knew. She has aged a great deal, streaks of gray line her hair and she looks back at you with tired eyes as she smiles. “Ma, it’s so good to see you, I don’t know if you remember me, I was here with the Peace Corps in 1980.” “Of course”, she says, “I remember all of you Peace Corps. It’s about time we got you back in Sierra Leone, business is not so good. What can I get you, a beer, a bag, some shirts maybe? Have a seat, I will show you what I have.” You sit obligingly as she goes to gather her bounty. You ask the bar man for a Star. He says they are out, but he will run across the street and get one for you. Before you have the time to tell him not to trouble himself he is out the door and Ma is back with bags of Batiques and hand woven goods. She starts to lay them out on the table, and you know there is no way you are walking out of the shop empty handed. You turn your attention back to the woman in front of you. “Ma, I’m so glad you are Ok, I was worried the shop was destroyed when the rebels came to Bo. We came back to help with the reconstruction effort. After seeing so much devastation, it is such a relief that you and the shop are still here.” She stops fiddling with her fabrics and looks up at you. “This building has been in my family for generations”, she says, “I could not let them burn it down”.