I imagine a couple I’ve never met. The father left 5th grade when the principal ordered him to fight for the local warlord or leave. He grows vegetables on a muddy, rented plot. He abandoned his baby. The mother survived relocation camps and returned home to Bong County. She voted for the first female President in Africa. She looks like Oprah Winfrey. She abandoned her baby. They have both lost family to malaria and childbirth. They respect traditional religion but attend Christian services. They have children, parents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They abandoned their baby.
The baby – Grace Phebe – has hydrocephalus, a.k.a. water on the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid floods the soft newborn skull, distorting her features and causing brain damage, seizures, and death if left untreated. In the United States, a neurosurgeon would drain the excess fluid with a brain shunt. Liberia cannot afford shunts, neurosurgeons, or the life-long management of this disease.
The parent in me believes the parents tried. They called wealthy relatives, they prayed for guidance, they cried, they sought help from Catholic Relief Services, Medicins Sans Frontiers, or the Liberian Red Cross. Family pressure. He slapped her, made her choose. It was difficult, heart-rending. I have to believe that, even if none of it’s true. One look at Grace’s misshapen head and her mother declared that Grace was a gena. “She told us to take the baby into the forest and leave her,” said the Practicing Midwife who delivered and named the baby. As soon as the mother could walk, she and her husband left.
According to Liberian tradition, the spiritual realm controls every aspect of life. Spiritual illness causes physical illness; healing the body requires healing the soul. A child like Grace, with her enlarged head and delicate hands, represents brokenness, hatred, and vengeance. The birth of a gena - a curse - signifies that the parents committed some serious crime against nature and refused to repent.
In my imagination, her parents do repent. They drop to their knees and beg forgiveness for the war, for stealing, looting, and arson, for torture and internment camps, for living when so many others died. They ask on behalf of the former child soldiers, too ashamed of their childhoods to grow up, and on behalf of their former warlords, too ashamed of their past to lead. They ask on behalf of those who wake at night, remembering horror. They beg the spiritual realm to lift shame from Liberia before each and every survivor chokes.
They should beg Grace. They should see her tiny hands and translucent skin. They should see her thin feet. They should listen to her cry, and laugh, and her heartbeat. They should feel her grip.
Her options have all but run out. After six weeks without treatment, permanent brain damage has set in. Even if medical evacuation funds could be located, the weight of her head might snap her tiny neck during transit. The child is in legal limbo – the parents simply left, without making any arrangements. Liberia placed a moratorium on adoptions last year in an effort to halt human trafficking.
When I visited her room at Phebe Hospital, I expected the African disaster cliché. Phebe is a poor, country hospital. Nurses reuse gloves and syringes. Cheerless posters wall the waiting rooms. Exhausted family members sleep on hard benches. Locals sell food, drinks, and fresh clothing, since the hospital can provide none of these services. The halls reek of antiseptic and vomit. But in the midst of the typical disaster story, the staff clothes and feeds Baby Grace. They hold her, sing to her, dress her. They break the gena curse every day, not by denial or abandonment, nor even prayer, but through sheer love. Liberia forgot how to love. Grace came to teach them.
“Grace is for Phebe,” the midwife told me. Grace is for Phebe. Grace is for Phebe. Grace is for Phebe. A gena child, sent from the other side. She’s exactly who we need.
[Update: Two weeks after I wrote this, Grace Phebe passed away peacefully.]