Part 6: The Secret Visit to Freetown

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The Ghanaian slave story gave me an exit out of my teaching position. I was neither a teacher nor a full-time reporter for The Point newspaper. Life became very hard.

To catch up on the continuing series, follow these links:

Introducing the unbelievably true story of Augustine Kanjia
Part 1: The Decision That Saved My Life
Part 2: The Struggle for Survival in a Strange Land
Part 3: Good luck, bad luck, who knows?
Part 4: The Smoldering Bitterness of Enemies
Part 5: The Soccer Match That Saved My Life

Dr. Baimba Baryoh, the best and most specialized orthopedic physician, was a brother to an elderly Sierra Leonean with whom I shared an apartment. He met me in tears and diagnosed me.

The K-nail [Editor’s note: Kuntscher nailing is a common technique in developing countries to treat leg breaks.] that was placed in my fractured right femur was disturbing me. It did not fit me and my body reacted to it. The doctor suggested immediate removal.

Augustine Kanjia

Courtesy Augustine Kanjia

Augustine Kanjia, after a week in the hospital to fix his broken leg.

I had kept some money that would allow me to go to Freetown for a correctional operation. The doctor wanted only $200, which was all the money I had.

The war in Sierra Leone had just ended, but there was news of sporadic fighting here and there. Those were problematic “sobels” (soldiers-turned-rebels).

I thought hard about whether to go or stay on, till all was clear. I thought about buying a one-way ticket and saving the money for my return in case I was there longer than expected. And I had to pay $200 for the operation. I had raised only $200 for the ticket and the doctor. I needed to work a little more.

I embarked on journalism and forgot about teaching for that moment.

It was the year 2000 and my pain increased.

Emil Kujabi, the Gambian education secretary, had no sympathy for me. He told his head teachers to watch out for me around their schools because I was dangerous. He also fired most of my friends who were ready to give me information.

For my stories I collaborated with Commissioner Ensa Badjie, commonly called Jesus, who was then the inspector general of police. He helped me dig up information on some malicious activities by criminals in the city. I had to change my name several times, using such Gambian names as Modou Lamin Jarjou and Manlafie Badjie. I was lucky no one detected me with those names.

In preparation for my return home, I bought my ticket and then went to the hospital to get records about my operation. The hospital refused to give them to me because they said they performed the operation well. They also said it was only a month after the operation and it could be dangerous to travel. I made my decision and finished my final preparations.

As a refugee, I could not return to my home country; the United Nations High Commission for Refugees would not consider me a refugee any longer. Because of that I decided to take an Emergency Travel Certificate to another country, change my name and pray hard for success.

My wife was worried about me, but I needed to leave to stop my pain.

Augustine Kanjia

Mark A. Henderson / Worcester Sun

Augustine Kanjia (present day, at home in Worcester) with his wife, Theresa Johnson, and his 17-month-old daughter, Ann-Britt Anna.

Even though I feared Kujabi, my enemy, could learn about my plans and inform the police, I went to the Catholic Education Office to bid farewell to my informant secretly.

Everyone looked alert and some of them started talking with me, but Kujabi, their boss, signaled to his men to disclose nothing of importance to me. He came out and smiled to me and we spoke briefly before he returned to his office. He seemed a little sympathetic to my plight in the way he spoke to me.

I left the office and went home. At the airport, I pretended I was going to Abidjan, via Freetown, which was my actual destination. It took an hour to arrive in Freetown. It had been almost 10 years since I saw the land that I loved, Sierra Leone.

My old clothes were packed in a little briefcase. I had bought a few items for anybody I would find who could keep me in their home.

While in the air my heart and mind went to many of my friends. However, those who were in Freetown had been killed by rebels when they attacked on Jan. 6, 1999, commonly known as J6. I quickly prayed for good luck.

We landed safely, but in my heart I did not feel safe.

When we finally arrived I watched through the window to see if it was really my sister, whom I had not seen throughout the war and beyond. Yes, it was.

The airport workers in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, looked thin and pale and underfed. Every one of them demanded something from me. I thought, “These guys are not serious. If they knew how lucky they were they would have helped me instead.”

I suddenly saw someone I did not know. She was a police officer.

“Excuse me sir,” she said.

I was a bit hesitant since everybody was dancing for something in secret. I pulled away a bit, then I edged closer. At first I thought she was a conman. She came quite close and whispered, “Do you know Theresa Mustapha?”

“What?” I asked quickly. “Yes, I know that name quite well, but she was in Mile 91 with my dad and we have not seen her in a while.”

During the war she left for Liberia and the Ivory Coast. And she is my younger sister.

“What about her, my sister?” I said.

“I asked because you look very much alike, your shape, your face and complexion,” she said.

She asked me to hire a taxi to go see my sister. When we finally arrived I watched through the window to see if it was really my sister, whom I had not seen throughout the war and beyond.

Yes, it was.

I shouted loudly as she came to hug me. I nearly fell because of my leg, but how was she to know? I explained quickly. She was in tears as she led me home.

She asked my younger brother to take me to the Chinese hospital, where they claimed they would make the stiffness go away just by taking tablets. I was made to pay quite a lot of money for the tablets that would free my stiffness. I had tampered with the $200 for the doctor, and the tablets did not work despite the fact I took quite a lot. I was disappointed.

I went to see my younger brother, who also lived in Freetown. They lived in poverty, but he did his best to feed his family every day. And I was an addition. He did not mind it.

I asked them not to tell people that I was around and in the hospital. It was supposed to be a secret, but that was not the case. Every one of my friends who lived in Freetown came to see me at the hospital.

The doctor arranged for my operation and gave me a bed in the government hospital.

My operation was excruciating. The K-nail was embedded into the right femur. It was forced in from my right butt. There was a small mark made to insert the iron. Dr. Baryoh took over three hours to get the K-nail out. I was tired and nearly collapsing because of the amount of blood I was losing. I could smell the blood. That was the first time I was able to recognize the smell of blood. It stinks!

It was my second week back and I had already fed on the $200 for the operation, starting with the Chinese medication to bend my knee and remove the K-nail. Dr. Baryoh had no sympathy.

My brother and I had only $100 for him. My brother’s friend admired me and gave my brother $100. This helped solve my problem. Dr. Baryoh took $100 and sent his assistant, Dr. Senessie, for the other $100. My first cousin, Abbie, had promised to send $200 for the operation, but it was hard so Abbie sent only $100, which was very helpful. The money played the magic and I was allowed to leave that afternoon. I had been under hospital arrest, in a sense.

Augustine Kanjia

Courtesy of Augustine Kanjia

Augustine Kanjia at his home in Bwiam

The next part of the struggle came when I went to return to Gambia.

It was very difficult to get anyone to help me with my ticket. I stayed for a while with a high school classmate of mine in Freetown. His house was lonesome, and no one prepared any food there. He and his wife worked in a bank and they were well-to-do. After a week he gave me some money and bade me goodbye.

I thanked them and left for my brother’s house. Hunger started. I did not feel it much because I was accustomed to feeling hungry with my many ups and downs.

While at my brother’s house I discovered some of my friends nearby. They too were finding life difficult, and they went without food some days.

I was set to return home to Gambia. My wife had sent some money and some friends gave me some money, so I bought my ticket. I returned with nothing I had come with.

I was all set, as all’s well that ends well. Returning to Gambia was a new challenge in itself. My story was difficult and it was very hard to start over.

When we landed I said to myself, “The struggle continues!”

173 thoughts on “Part 6: The Secret Visit to Freetown

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