what i did this summer: a guest post by carnegie smyth

So, what did I do in the summer? I met my niece's twin in her birth country and I visited the centre where my other niece lived for two years.

I start writing this in a very reflective mood. I am sitting in Monrovia (Liberia) airport at 4am after a four week adventure! Wait no....it was only four days but it really does feel like I've been away a month.

I am dirty and drained, proud and humbled but most importantly again I am inspired. I was lucky enough to learn so much after my physical adventure in August 2016 but this was more raw, much more personal and was an emotional rollercoaster.

In 2007 my sister and her husband Billy adopted McKenzie from Liberia and two years later Nahla from Sierra Leone. My parents first grandchildren, my first nieces. Two gorgeous West African angels.

I have just had the honour of accompanying my niece Nahla for the first time back to the centre in Sierra Leone that ensured she is alive today.  I met my niece McKenzie's twin brother Benjamin and some of her birth family in Liberia. I visited Prince, my "brother" in his village and carried his baby Bobby through his village as I promised him six years ago I would when he had his first child. I collected and carried some of the 500kg of medicines, toys, sweets and clothes and gave it to my new African friends and family.  I also went to visit my sister's project (Braveheart Liberia) which is changing the life of a Liberian family and their surrounding village. I also met some of the most amazing people, saw some unbelievable things, and finally understood how special this place was to my mum and sister but still came away a little lost...

 L - R: Carnegie Smyth, Selina Smyth, Bobbie Smyth, Scott Smyth. 

L - R: Carnegie Smyth, Selina Smyth, Bobbie Smyth, Scott Smyth. 

I'm not great at showing emotions and much of my feelings this trip were kept to myself. Nothing new there then! Let me tell you a little about my adventure though.

Entering a children's centre for anyone is difficult.  Everything about them is upsetting and unpleasant. Entering one with your niece surrounded by her (my) family for the first time since she was adopted and left eight years ago, was something else! I actually have tears writing this, something I held back at the time! On the day I felt like I would burst inside - way too much going on for me to deal with looking over and seeing Nahla overwhelmed by the sight of her friends waiting for our arrival. Nahla broke down for a moment, an embrace from her mum and dad helped, a look of confusion but sympathy and maybe a tornado of emotion from her sister McKenzie by her side who can clearly relate too. I was so proud of Nahla! I would not have been that cool....in fact I wasn't. I had no idea what to do. Comfort zone had been well and truly breached!

She instantly wanted to say hello to people, she was in her element, suddenly surrounded by kids who wanted to engage with her and meet this girl who they all knew about - a beacon of hope maybe. This was Nahla all over. Her confidence oozed and she was determined to meet everyone and look around. The aunties as they are called, older ladies, embraced her calling her Grace, the name given to her by the centre which remains her middle name. Then there was Frankie....he corrected us though - it's now Francis he tells us.

Francis is two years older than Nahla and they were best friends when she was there. My family remember him so well and they get reintroduced and told the story. An embrace again. What an amazing little boy. I had a lump in my throat thinking how their lives were so different despite the same beginning. He had spent the past 12 years here while Nahla was....well simply put…. not there.

Nahla insisted on seeing the centre. I don't want to say how I really felt about it as it is a sanctuary for these children and the children were a pleasure to be with.....but it was a concrete block with nothing else! We walked around with Nahla, she remained quiet being told where her cot was, where granny sat with her, where mummy first held her, where she used to be a bit naughty. I pictured her cute little face in that room. I actually sat for a minute in the bedroom struggling to contemplate it. Many of the babies there with Nahla have died - she could easily been one of them. I still can't get my head round. I deflected my thoughts and remembered thinking that we had 60 kids waiting on the presents we had brought them so I jumped up ignoring the previous emotion. 

It was carnage but such an amazing scene. We had so much stuff. The pictures tell a thousand words but these kids have nothing and we had everything in these bags. The reality is we had some old clothes, pens, loom bands, sweets, shoes, football kits, some tennis balls. They remained so respectful. The older kids would let the little ones dictate, a few of the little ones would work in unison filling their own bags and clearly had a deal to split it at the end. I loved this moment, genius if you ask me. 

It was very humbling seeing what it meant to them. We ensured everyone got a fair share. I remember a little girl. My sister kept calling her little Nahla as she reminded her of Nahla all those years ago. She was relentless, a fighter, scared of no one. She had about 5kg of stuff and could have started a sweet shop. My Aunty Evy joined us on the trip and little Nahla attached to her like glue and she cleaned up. Fair play to Evy though, massive effort to join us and she always will be a fairy godmother to any children that meet her including all of us.

I needed a lie down! Instead I went to the school - a concrete hut for about 10-15 kids out the back - part of the centre. Chalk board on the wall and I asked the teacher if I could take over for a bit. Some maths sums. They were getting an education, however basic the place was delivering. I felt proud that a little girl got the answers to my two questions. A sense of pride as if I'd helped. Talk about me jumping on the band wagon.

Next was a football match in the heavily sloped, potholed concrete car park. My nephew Logan was in his element. There were twenty boys playing football in their new kits, boots, shoes and bibs with their new ball. I was so scared one was going to fall down the hole. I asked Logan if he was enjoying himself, of course he was. I asked, apart from the pitch, what was different to playing at home, he said nothing was different and ran off to play again. Kids are amazing!!

One girl wanted to put a hair band in my hair. Did my hair really look that bad? I let her and the next thing you know all the girls then decided to put bands in my hair so I had loads of tiny bunches. My new nickname from them all was now 'Silly'. I thought it was rather fitting. 

I went and saw the aunties and how and where they cook. They danced in the kitchen singing with happiness about "Grace" being so well and big. They showed me round and again I am amazed. One lady was cooking rice in 2.5ft wide pot, the other bashing fish on the floor and there was a pot of chicken feet. These kids all looked in OK health, small and thin, but OK, what the aunties do working with those basics is creating miracles.

My day finished off speaking with a couple of the older girls, maybe 16. They had spent their whole lives here and now help in return for being allowed to stay. They tell me they want to be a doctor and flight attendant. Curiously I ask what they need to follow their dreams. They laughed and the response is three years at college. You could see in their faces that there was hope. I asked how much money they'd have to get to go to college: $US3000 to put them through college. The whole trip made me want to hand money over to everyone but you can't. I know full well they may never get their $3000.

I had a little chat with Nahla at dinner that night back at our hotel. I told her I was so proud of her and that she is amazing. She just said thank you and hugged me. Not my place to probe how she was feeling but she needed to know that much. She also said to me “thank you for coming with me Uncle Carnegie, I'm proud of you too”. Gets me every time that. It was an honour Nahla to share the day with you.

I must move on but a quick thing. The following day before we moved onto Liberia we went back to the centre to say goodbye with more suitcases of stuff. The mood was very different, yesterday was excitement and hope. Today was quiet, somber: they knew we were leaving. However the most remarkable thing happened. We jumped out the cars and the kids didn't look to see if there were gifts, didn't ask for things, instead started taking off their loom band creations which they had made: necklaces, bracelets, rings. These would have taken hours and hours to make. We only left yesterday late afternoon and it's now 9 am. As they took them off they gave them to us....wait a minute they are giving us gifts back, all of us, multiple times. I was speechless. I wanted to say no but they insisted they had made them for us all. They have nothing yet give something. Maybe that's why this place is special - their mentality. My band didn't leave my arm my entire trip. Same as the whole family. Evy might get stopped at customs as she has a substantial amount of new 'jewellery'.

My mum, sister, brother and I left Billy, Evy and the kids to start our journey to Liberia. My sister is not ready to take McKenzie to Liberia until she is a little older. She has though met family when my sister flew both families to Ghana in 2016 which is a story in itself. My brother and I didn't join the Ghana trip.

Now then....my mum and sister love an adventure. Scott and I like drama free and convenience. I was thinking at the time....This should be interesting. Monrovia is only about 400 miles away, a 45 minute flight but THIS IS AFRICA.

This trip was full of laughs and we were only just boarding the plane. Already been travelling for 5 hours....My brother and I sarcastically moaning about everything and mum and sister thinking it's hilarious.

We landed in Liberia. I felt disgusting. I am sure my sister’s jeans were trying to run away from her too. I was embracing it though......immigration fast tracked my sister and mum through VIPs, my brother and I got a true grilling.

Prince, his wife Rose and baby Bobby picked us up with a driver we had asked him to organise. He had been waiting 5 hours, didn't want to be late he said. Welcome signs and everything!! Who is Prince, you may be wondering? He worked at the children's centre where McKenzie was as a baby in Liberia. My mum has always done what she can for Prince as a thank you for helping with her first grand-daughter. I've been replaced as the eldest son. Prince chose his birthday when my mum got him a passport, with Billy helping him to get him a job in Dubai a few years back. He wanted the same year as me but said he recalls his mum told him his birthday was the day the whole world celebrated. My mum assumed this to be 1 January. The story of Prince again is a whole other story but what my mum (and sister’s family) have done again has changed his life.

The eight of us started our three hour journey to Prince's village. We had made a promise so as a family we are going to deliver - least we could do. Roads were OK, apart from when you turn off to the village which was about 30 minutes of true off-road (mud) in a beat up people carrier. I honestly thought this was a wind-up by my sister and mum. All they said was wait until tomorrow. It's all part of the experience, I hear my sister say. I'm googling quad bikes Liberia for my trip out of there!

We arrive to a special welcome. Signs up on the house, Rose is a teacher and her English is amazing. The house was a concrete block, with a wooden table in the middle - but it was home for them and they welcomed us like it was our own. We handed out more things than even they could have imagined. The village was invited in and everyone got something. Prince was so proud getting involved with deciding who got what. We couldn't stay long, 45 minutes or so as didn't want to drive that road in the dark. As we were leaving we fulfilled our promise and walked with baby Bobby, Prince and my family through his village. The village was a very modest village of small shacks along the road and his church. Songs and cheers as we passed with Prince waving every step of the way. A promise fulfilled with a very proud man showing off his family.

The next day, the other major reason I was in West Africa: meeting my other niece's twin brother and some of her birth family. This day was emotional, hilarious, surreal but memorable all rolled into a giant Liberian day of chaos. Here goes...

We expected about six or eight Liberian family members to arrive in the morning in a 16-seater minibus my sister had organised. Instead, a 12-seater tin can-on-wheels rocks up to our hotel with ten people in it. I put that to the side and watched my sister and mum embrace family. I couldn't believe how much smaller my niece's twin brother Benjamin was compared with her. We say our hellos and get ready for the journey.

My mum and sister mis-sold this part of the trip. A 16 seater minibus, hang on a minute, no it's not! A 90 minute journey to the house, no.... I find out it's three hours. A seat to myself, no, you can have one bum cheek on a wobbling seat and the other floating around! Ten minutes in, I was working out options to get out. Hire a motorbike maybe, not that I have a licence, don't think I'd get in too much trouble. Anyway my sister and my mum were laughing at my brother and I saying over and over again, it's all about the experience. 

First stop: mattresses for their home. We pick up two king size ones. Don't worry about delivery: fold them and stick them on the roof, they say. OK....

Next stop, a supermarket shop. I had had the last bit of floor space, go me! Then, a quick rice stop. Wait? Should we get closer to the house first? No one listens to the idiot with his floor space, OK that's 40 kg of rice then! Oh and 48 eggs for good measure. 

As the door was about to close, I kid you not, my mum asked if they wanted some chairs. Her and my sister start laughing, hop out and buy four plastic chairs. They actually try and put these in the van, still laughing. Not a chance: put them on the roof. So again ropes out and on they go.

I was trying to work out what was in this van. Apart from several extra people and 100 kg of luggage from us, we now had two mattresses, six pillows, a shop for months for the family, rice for eons, four plastic chairs, some eggs, oh and a cooking oil drum just somehow was sneaked in. 

The journey was awful!!  The fumes from the traffic were horrific. Scott and I spontaneously laughing and making stupid comments. It kept me sane. At least my sister and mum thought it was funny. We were all laughing at the thought of our dad being there at that moment!! 

About 2.5 hours later we arrive to the house: Braveheart Liberia stage 1.

My sister and Billy had been supporting family in Liberia. Then, two years ago they bought land and built a home for the large extended family. Again, a whole other story but what they have done and achieved is remarkable. A true feat by any standard, let along achieving this in Liberia. 

Grandma Martha, the matriarch of the family is waiting for us. This lady is the queen bee. She has also brought the whole family together (with my family’s help of course). She burst into tears and song when she saw us and praised God. She couldn't contain her excitement at the mattress and pillows.

She was proud as punch with her house and wanted to show us round. It was amazing, it was home. She will not leave, not for anything. She even slept in the metal building materials shed as it was being built for two years, scared someone would take it from her. What a woman!

We got into the house and unloaded the tin can bus. We then started handing out the things we brought. So much of it was food flown in from the UK. Noodles, pasta, tuna, yes, I know we are not allowed, but we don't care. So many sweets. Loads of vitamins and medicines. I'll take this moment to give the biggest thank you from all my family to my friends, clients and colleagues that sent me things to take on the trip. Kids clothes, medicines, sweets, adult clothes, toys, pens. A few people in particular for the massive contributions - you know who you are so thank you from us all. It meant the world to them.

The kids started eating pepperoni and marshmallows at once. One little boy wouldn't let go of a pack of super noodles. Who was I to judge? Lucky Charms cereal was getting demolished all over the place. The look of joy from these kids was a lovely feeling. 

Grandma broke into another song of thanks. I tried to dance. One of the kids just looked at me in disgust. I think she was considering cutting family ties already due to my (lack of) African rhythm. She warmed to me though and she reminded me so much of Nahla and McKenzie as a 5/6 year old. Cheeky!

I followed my sister round the plot as they explained what is being done and what they would like to do in the future. So much achieved but still so much to do. Selina and Billy don't just want to create a home, they want a village. Let's finish the house first!  

Grandma is the brain and work horse. She planted seeds and has already got a huge amount of food growing: rice, chilli, fruits, an astonishing sight. 

My sister spoke with the family about plans for the future. Originally, all my sister and Billy wanted was a home for this family and to educate McKenzie's twin brother. They pay the school fees but it's hard to know if he goes. The reality is that he doesn't a lot of the time. Those reading this may have wondered why at the start I said I remain lost. This is the reason. Lost as I can't help on this point. Money doesn't always help as school is paid for and the attitude towards education is different. My sister was chatting to the family and had an impulse to promise to pay for his little cousin to go to school too. Maybe that will help.... Their dream is eventually have the funds to send the whole village to school. 

I was moved by it all but I found the frustration difficult to take. I remember walking off angry at our Liberian family for a moment. My sister and Billy have helped them get a start. They have to help themselves now. In return they want nothing but McKenzie's twin to be healthy and get an education so he has a chance. For goodness sake, take him to school, that's your one job.

If I ask for one thing out of this trip it is for our Liberian family to listen to my sister and fulfil their end of the agreement and get the two kids to school every day. They then have a chance. 

My brother and I have struggled with this sort of thing but we make a promise to my sister that we would return to Liberia. We are in, all in, tell us what you need and we are in. Upgrade the transport arrangements though.

I sign off with a message. Making a real difference is hard work and frustrating. I am proud of the tiny bit I've done and now I've made my promise. When preparing for this trip it was a hindrance, a drag, and I certainly did not ever intend to be going back! How things changed over the few days I was there! I certainly will be returning and it was honour and privilege to share that experience. I invite anyone to join me next time – I am serious.

To my sister, brother-in-law and mum - it was everything you said it is and more. What you've done is truly change not just Nahla and McKenzie's lives but you are now having such a knock on effect to many others. Your daughters may not realise just yet but soon they will realise they have a special family around them. Lucky for me it's the same as mine which means so do I!

So what did you do this summer? 

Carnegie Smyth