Philip Hellmich answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
Well, Phil, I love this question. I've been thinking about it. And the first thing that just came to mind were these two villages that I lived in in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
So here I am from this large family in Indiana and then I go off to the Peace Corps. And this was in the mid '80s when there was no cell phones. I'm assigned to Kagbere for the first two years. Then later I went to Masongbo for another two years. But when I showed up in Kagbere, this was way up in the bush, up this dirt road, and then across a stream where the bridge had collapsed, and get into this small village of 30 houses. And I mean, this is really deep in the bush in Sierra Leone.
And they'd had a Peace Corps volunteer 20-some years earlier. So I show up and the whole village had repaired a little house for me to stay in. They had even collected money to buy two bags of cement to plaster the floor. They had built a latrine in the back and a mud thatched-hut over that, and then built palm fronds around the latrine so I could bathe there.
It was just amazing to show up in this place. And everyone in the village just went out of their way for me to feel welcome, that this stranger would leave his family from America and come to this village. And the chief, Chief Kandeh Finoh II — Kandeh Finoh means “good-looking chief” — he gives me his name, Kandeh Finoh III, which means “good-looking chief” also, and then he asked me on that first night there if I wanted the bathwater cold, warm, or hot. And I was assuming I would be taking bucket baths that would just be cold bucket baths. And I was like, "Well, hot."
He had several wives, and one of his wives, Fatu, would heat up a bucket of water, bring it by on her head and put it back by the latrine where I would go out in the evenings and take a hot bucket bath. And then A.K. Sesay and his wife Tendy... A.K. was the school headmaster, and he had three daughters and he asked if he could help me settle in. His wife offered to cook for me, which was greatly needed because everything was cooked on three stone fires. And so Tendy would cook and I in exchange, I would provide rice and other ingredients and so forth.
Adama Conteh (right) cooking over a three-stone fire in Masongbo
And every day, Tendy would come by with a plate on her head with rice and sauce. And I always looked forward to that time of day. Then her daughter, Josephine, volunteered to wash my clothes, which was done on rocks down by a stream. These were the original stonewashed jeans, I have to say that. And in exchange, I helped Josephine with school fees.
It was amazing that the whole village wanted to make sure I was okay, and people would come by because they thought I might be lonely and just to keep time together, and people would bring by either palm wine or fruits. So the people at Kagbere just really took good care of me.
I then moved to the Masongbo village for a second two years, and Pa Conteh, this old, old man, and he had these sons and daughters, and his daughter Adama volunteered to cook for me and help with that. And when I asked her for hot water, she's like, "You're not an old man." It was funny. So she was kind of teasing me back. But this time, I had such a good rapport with people at Sierra Leone.
The Conteh brothers and Philip fished on the Rokel River and together learned to make fishing lures from local resources
And Adama would cook, and we would all eat together. And there was the Conteh brothers, Moses and Bokarie and their cousin Sampha and we would eat together because we also love to fish. We learned how to make fishing lures out of sticks and wires, and we were catching hundreds of pounds of fish on the Rokel River. And they would be my guides. We'd go to the river, and no electricity... It's just this romantic time. I had fishing gear, and we made fishing gear out of cans for them and sticks and we were catching these hundreds of pounds of fish, and we'd go back and Adama would prepare it, and we would all sit around and eat dinner together and we'd drum together — and they got me to go to church again by saying that I could sit with the drummers. They all just gave me their love and just generosity of, again, whatever little they had, they would share.
I mean, it was really common in both Kagbere and Masongbo, to be walking through the village, people would say, "Come eat," because they'd be eating dinner and invite me to come and sit with them. And so there was just this amazing love and generosity and that sense of connectedness that was just really beautiful.
Sanpha (right) and Moses (left) making fishing lures from local materials
So, this wonderful family I have back in Indiana, then I had family in Kagbere and Masongbo. Normally people stay two years but I just fell in so much love with these folks that I just stayed four. And then when I left, as you may recall from other stories, they went into a war — a war broke out in Sierra Leone. I went back nine years later and started making trips. And I remember the first trip back going to Masongbo, I was like, "Are they going to be still alive?" And sure enough, most of them were there. And we went to the church and we're drumming, and then people would come up, everyone in the village was just coming up and greeting me.
On a later visit to Masongbo, Sanpha offers a 30-pound fish and home-made fishing lures. The Contehs’ love and generosity was overwhelming, especially when they had so little.
And they had been sacked during the war. What little they had, they'd lost. And people were walking up handing me mangoes, and kola nuts, and palm wine… they wanted to give me a chicken. They just were giving me whatever they had, and they just wanted me to know I was welcome. It was so powerfully moving because again, they had been sacked during the war. They, prior to that, were living on maybe a dollar a day, and what little they had was taken. And yet here they were with this generosity.
And I started making more trips back to Masongbo during the war and after the war,,, Masongbo and then also up to Kagbere. Now I got back to Kagbere and the house I had lived in that they had provided for me was destroyed during the war by a rocket-propelled grenade. So my friend gives me his bed to sleep on while I'm up there visiting. And again, people are cooking for me and they're giving me all kinds of food. Then when I went back to Masongbo once, they knew I was coming, they had this walking stick made for me. And they also had fishing lures that they were still making… years after I had left, they were still making these fishing lures, so they'd give me fishing lures. And even once they had like a 20-some pound fish that they had caught, because they knew I was coming back at this particular time and they gave me that fish.
And so the people in Kagbere and Masongbo really taught me a lot about generosity and love through small acts of kindness, and how everyone just wanted to hold me and make sure that I was safe and cared for and loved. And so I'm just really grateful for my friends in Kagbere and Masongbo.
So those were acts of kindness. I think you had said, Phil, that it sometimes takes a village, in this case, two different villages. So thank you for asking the question. And a lot of love to my friends in Sierra Leone.
The Contehs and Philip ate together almost every night
Philip Hellmich is the Director of Peace for The Shift Network.
Click here to order your copy of God and Conflict, Philip’s book about his time in Sierra Leone.
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