Suliaman and I were, as always, driving down the road together, heading from somewhere to somewhere else.
We might have been heading home from Kambia after a long day at the holding center in the north. And while I spent my days dealing with a million loose ends and putting out the endless political and interpersonal fires that defined my work, my drivers spent their days lounging in their cars under the enormous mango tree. Sometimes I’d send them to the Total station to buy diesel for the generator. Sometimes they’d run support staff — electricians, cooks — to and from our home in Port Loko to the holding center, or to the huge Kambia market at the crossroads en route to Guinea.
But most of the time they sat in their cars, windows down, doors open. Waiting.
Sometimes they slept. Sometimes they listened to the radio. Sometimes they flirted with the traders who walked the gates outside the center, their wares balanced on their heads, selling oranges, groundnuts, fried onions in dough.
But most of the time, they sat in the heat and waited. And waited. And waited.
So on this particular day, as Suliaman drove and I sat in the passenger seat, watching the fields and palm trees zip by, I said to him, “Don’t you get bored waiting in the car all day?”
He smiled his big, wide, gentle smile. “No. It is my job to wait, so that if you need me I’m ready to drive.”
I persisted. “Well, I know it’s your job. But don’t you wish you had something to do while you sit and wait?”
He shrugged. His English was very good, but it wasn’t perfect, and occasionally the nuances of a conversation would be lost and dropped. Usually if a driver didn’t understand us, they shrugged, or – more excitingly – just said, “Yes,” and carried on doing what they were doing. “I am ok waiting,” he repeated.
If I had to sit in a car and wait for eight hours a day, I’d lose my mind, I thought. So I kept going. “What if you had something to read –” I started, and then a terrible thought occurred to me. I eyed him cautiously. “Do you know how to read?”
He laughed at me. “Yes, Martha, I can read.”
I shoved on through my deep embarrassment. “Do you like books?”
“Yes, I like books.”
“What kind of books do you like?”
He smiled thoughtfully. “In school, I liked history books the best.”
Suliaman was in his early twenties, and looked as though he were in his early teens. He was so young. Sierra Leone is not a country of old men. School was likely a recent memory for him.
I nodded. “Well, maybe the next time I’m in Freetown, maybe we can find some history books.”
His grin reached the corners of his eyes. “I would like that.”
~ ~ ~
I never found any books for Suliaman. I spent a morning in Freetown, several weeks later, walking up and down Wilberforce Street with another driver and our assistant cook, watching them haggle for shoes, chickens, CDs, fish, fabric, DVDs. There were no books to be found.
Eventually I forgot about our conversation, and then I left and flew home.
Suliaman died four days ago. He was alone in the car, driving a route between houses that he’d driven a thousand times before. Except this time a truck met him head-on in the dark, and within seconds he was dead.
~ ~ ~
I remember trying to explain to Daniel – my primary driver – how driving in America was utterly and completely different than driving in Sierra Leone.
“Well, we have lots and lots of rules for driving, and people generally try to follow those rules. And the roads are marked, so you know where it’s safe to pass another driver. And our big roads have lights, so you can see better. And your speed is limited so people don’t drive dangerously fast. And trucks have even more rules — you can’t stack them too high with goods, and they need to have lots of lights on them…”
I glanced over at Daniel. He was focused on trying to pass a van in front of us. “Does any of this make sense?” I asked.
“Yap!” he agreed, and gunned it, passing the van, blaring his horn as a warning when he did so.
I sighed. “And in America, we only use our horns for emergencies.”
Daniel shook his head disbelievingly.
~ ~ ~
In our final month in Kambia, the NGO funding our work requested that the holding center doctor and I attend the evening meeting at the district Command Center. If we were lucky, we were out the door by 6 p.m., and we were frequently not lucky. If one of the district officers decided to lecture us like children at the end of the meeting, we had to sit there, quietly and respectfully, while he blathered on for fifteen or twenty minutes.
That put us on the road at 6:30 p.m., and the drive in daylight was a solid hour long. At night, it was even longer, and infinitely more dangerous. Trucks and cars were poorly lighted, and people drove fast and aggressively. If a truck overturned in the road and lost power, it was nothing more than a lump of dark amidst a savannah of dark, lit by nothing. We wouldn’t see it until it was nearly too late to stop or swerve.
Daniel and Suliaman saved our lives on more than one occasion by being cautious, attentive, and acting with lightning reflexes. After one particularly harrowing close call, where Suliaman wrenched the wheel to the right and rode the edge of the pavement, avoiding a car coming the other way while trying to overtake someone, he straightened the car out and immediately began to apologize. The doctor interrupted him.
“Good job, Suliaman. Thank you.”
~ ~ ~
Not only was Suliaman safe, he was kind.
After yet another patient escaped from our holding center and disappeared into the jungle, a district officer – a fat, patronizing, and wildly corrupt local physician – publicly shamed the holding center staff and leadership at the evening meeting. He accused us of not doing our jobs, and not doing enough to keep the district safe.
I bit my tongue and remained silent, and left the meeting as soon as possible. The doctor who always worked with me – and always attended those awful meetings with me – watched me cautiously as I climbed into the back seat of the car. Suliaman pulled out of the parking lot, and made the turn onto the main road. The doctor turned around in his seat, and looked at me.
“Let it out,” he said.
And I fell apart.
I said terrible things about the officer, about the district, about the people of Sierra Leone. I said terrible things about our NGO, our funding organization, our leadership, my job. I swore to get on the next plane out of Freetown to anywhere in the world, and never come back.
And then I cried, non-stop, for the entire hour-long drive back to Port Loko. The doctor handed me a steady supply of paper towels while both he and Suliaman remained quiet, allowing me the space I needed to rage.
The next morning after breakfast, Suliaman came up to me in the parking lot.
“I found these in the back seat, and kept them safe for you,” he said, and handed me my sunglasses. They had fallen out of my hair during my tantrum.
I stared at them for a second, and then at him. They had cost me $12 at Walgreens the summer before, and one side of the frame was held together with duct tape.
“Thank you,” I said, humbled.
He smiled at me, but there was worry there. “Are you ok?”
I nodded, and as I did so, the worry on his face vanished. “I’m ok.”
“OK.” He grinned. “Good.”
~ ~ ~
Less than two weeks before I left the country, Suliaman’s only son died. He was a toddler, maybe only a year old. He received a call from his wife that they were going to the hospital, and by the time he called her back again the boy was dead.
I arranged with Daniel to drive Suliaman home the next morning to be with his wife and their daughters. But late that night, the doctor and I peered out the gate and saw Suliaman sitting alone across the road, leaning back against a wall, gazing at the night sky. We glanced at each other and, in mutual agreement, left the compound, crossed the street, and sat with him for a while.
I wish I could remember what we talked about. I know Suliaman talked about his son, told us his name. I know he spoke briefly of his grief, that he wasn’t there when the child was sick and dying. I know that we all stared at the endless stars together, and I tried to offer what comfort I could to a parent suffering an unimaginable loss.
But the exact words we shared that night, the three of us there, leaning against the rough concrete of the wall, those words are lost to my memory. And unless the doctor remembers, those words are now lost to the world forever.
~ ~ ~
How do we eulogize someone? Is it easier to speak of someone who has done great deeds, or lived an extraordinary life? Of course it is. It’s easier. But is it better? Is the eulogy that writes itself better than the one that must be built, small word by small deed, inch by inch?
How do we remember someone outside ourselves? How do I convey the memories I have of Suliaman, of Gibril, of Zainab, of Saffie, of people a thousand miles away and a million hours ago, who died in my arms, who died in the arms of my friends, who died alone in a truck on a dark road? How do I tell anyone that is not me that these people mattered?
How do we express the value of a single life among billions?
Maybe we don’t. Maybe we take our grief, and offer it to the world, and say, I knew him. He was a husband. He was a father. He was a hard worker, a safe worker. He was not perfect, but in that he was like the rest of us.
He loved history books, and loved his son.
He was a good person, and he was a friend.
And he is missed.