Note from the author, Eb Roell: I submit our honeymoon experience below with the conviction that it does not relate a miracle. My definition of a miracle is tightly defined and limited to the temporary suspension of natural law. If answers to prayer, no matter how amazing, are interpreted as miracles, we are in trouble.
I proposed to Debbie on our second date, she accepted on the third, and we were married within ten weeks of first meeting. (Some would call our staying together for over 43 years a miracle.) We made it a habit of praying together every morning. Committing our day-to-day living, our six-month hitchhiking tour of West Africa, and our world travels ever since to God doubtlessly accounted for the durability of our marriage.
One of the most remarkable experiences of our West Africa trip happened on our last day in Sierra Leone. We had arrived in Freetown, the Sierra-Leonean capital – named by British abolitionists and designated for repatriated slaves – then had traversed about two-thirds of the southern half of the country. Now we found ourselves in the village of Koribundu, just beyond the provincial capital of Bo. We had arrived at 10:30 a.m. From here it was only sixty miles to the Mano River, which formed the border with Liberia. It would be a cinch to reach – or so we thought.
Traffic was mostly of the barefoot or bicycle variety, with a few mopeds or motorcycles that belonged to the more affluent.
We had wound our way to the southeast end of the village to await our next ride, but were faced with two problems: A car owner in an African village is king and there was no royalty around; and we were on a dead-end road. The Mano had no bridge, only rowboats. Therefore, any automobile or truck traffic would have to originate from Bo or before, and would probably go to one of two other villages between us and the border, or to the border itself. From there passengers would cross the river by canoe. In other words, Koribundu, or either of the two villages, for all intents and purposes, put us nearer, but no closer to our goal, the border, than Bo. At that point we didn’t consider walking an option. Our spirits weren’t lifted by the knowledge that, once across the river, we would be starting out at the dead end of another dead-end road.
By mid-afternoon only one little Fiat had passed with three Italian nuns and their luggage. They had stopped to inform us with pleasant smiles and staccato-accented English, that they were turning off just a few minutes down the road. That had been alright; we wouldn’t have fit anyway. But it was nice to know that we were not the only foreigners around.
At 3:30 p.m., Debbie ambled back towards the center of Koribundu. “I’m just going to go and have a look around.” I stayed with the luggage in the shade of the small front porch where, hours earlier, the friendly African housewife had shown compassion for our weary legs and had lent us two chairs. Debbie’s leaving filled me with expectation: I had come to respect her intuition. Perhaps she was following it now as she left for a stroll back towards the village center. Perhaps a change from the monotony of a fruitless day of waiting was in the offing, and I hoped that her little excursion would be serendipitous.
She had been gone about 15 minutes when, just slightly concerned, I walked out to the road and looked in the direction in which she had disappeared. There she was, about 200 yards away, talking with a young man – a white young man! Patrick had approached her, as I read later in her diary, and, thinking she was German, had said, “Guten Tag. Wie geht es Ihnen?”
Well, I could have answered that easily. I returned to my chair, excited. That was the break I had hoped for. What was this guy doing out here so far off the beaten path, at least the path beaten by foreigners, I wondered. Next, I heard the crackling noise of a motorcycle. One of his buddies rode up, turned into the compound and quipped with a welcome American accent: “We’ve just kidnapped your wife. Hop on! You can leave your luggage here. It’s safe.” Within minutes Debbie and I had joined three Peace Corps volunteers and the local school principal in his home. While quenching our thirst with a refreshing, cold drink, we listened to a fascinating, if eerie, account of West Africa’s widespread form of witchcraft, known as Ju-Ju. The hours of waiting for the ride that never came were forgotten.
At the time, I found the idea of witchcraft too fantastic to give it much credence. But then I read more about it. The book Ju-Ju In My Life (George G. Harrap and Co., Ltd., 1966) was authored by James H. Neal, the former Police Commissioner of colonial Ghana. This man, who was obviously accustomed to evaluate what is legitimate and what is spurious, relates how he slowly overcame his skepticism of the effectiveness of Ju-Ju and concludes that, had he known what dangers he was to encounter by way of revenge through witchcraft, he would not have accepted his appointment. Coming, as it did, from the highest law enforcement officer in the land, that was a powerful testimony.
Eventually the conversation turned to us. Peace Corps workers are, for the most part, a hearty lot and accustomed to hitchhiking to conserve their meager income. But here, all three, as well as Jerry, the principle, assured us that this, being a dead-end road, was no place for that. The last six hours had seemed to confirm their assessment. However, we were confident that there was a purpose to our meeting and that we would get a ride to the river in the morning. We were invited to spend the night and, with their help, collected our luggage. That evening gave us a chance to talk to them about the reason for our faith in the God of the Bible. They were interested. It seems logical that acceptance of a spiritual force of satanic origin, such as Ju-Ju, would presuppose the existence of a spiritual force of divine origin. Life teaches that opposites bring each other into focus. There is no light without darkness and no positive without negative.
After a good night’s sleep and an early breakfast, our friends took us with our luggage on three motorcycles to the spot where we had waited in vain the day before. We immediately started walking. The air smelled fresh, the blades of grass were still laden with dew, the sun was casting its first rays through the foliage of the trees by the side of the road. It was a new day, inviting us to make new friends and master new challenges. In my shop in Estes Park I used to sell a poster with the popular cliché: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Yeah, this was it. This was that day.
Within fifteen minutes a truck from a non-governmental organization (NGO), hauling sacks of relief food, stopped for us. It was only going to Potoru, the next village, some twenty miles down the road. And while this ride would provide merely a change in location, not really in progress, it would help psychologically.
Two men jumped from the cab to let Debbie in. The three of us got into the back of the enclosed truck and sat on sacks of relief food. Through a little window I could see Debbie and the driver conversing. No doubt she was gathering whatever information she could about the road ahead, the river crossing, the border crossing, and whatever else she could learn from this native son. Certainly, ignorance is not bliss, especially not on foreign soil, where information can help avoid unnecessary hassles, and where a silly mistake can easily violate local customs and offend those who would be friends. Consequently we made it our habit to learn all we could about the area we would visit and about the people we would meet.
We had been on that truck about five minutes when we were passed by three Caucasians in a white Range Rover. I could see them from my perch through that little window. My heart sank. It was safe to assume that in this remote place, no driver would refuse a lift to a foreigner. Consequently, I reasoned that, if we had only waited instead of accepting this ride with its nearby destination, we might have been at the border within an hour.
We thanked the men in Potoru, and, after they had moved on, I vented my frustration by beating the dust off our packs with my rolled-up poncho. At least that accomplished something beyond providing a therapeutic outlet. The new day was getting old already. I asked my ever-positive wife why God would allow that truck to come before that Range Rover. What a silly question! I don’t think she responded – she’s too smart for that. She knew that that question was merely rhetorical, just a muttering to make myself feel better. By then we had walked about fifty yards toward the end of the village, and, mustering all my faith (or was it wishful thinking?), I ventured to say – and I remember it verbatim, “I think God is testing us, and, if we pass the test, He’s got something better coming.” Never mind that I had already failed it with my frustrated and doubting attitude.
There might be those who would label our hopes and expectations audacious. “Doesn’t your God have anything better to do than to deal with your silly little selfish requests? After all, you put yourselves into this situation, and now you expect some higher being to bail you out?” That’s a fair question, especially given my attitude at the time.
Now, when I had said “something better” I had nothing particular in mind. We were not picky. At this point we were a bit like Ronald McDonald in a mad-cow-disease crisis. Anything that would transport us over the final forty miles to the Mano River would be “better.”
I had scarcely finished that statement, and we heard an engine. We spun around and there, down this same dead-end dirt road on which we had waited in vain for the better part of the day before, came not as earlier in Mauritania a battleship-gray, overloaded Peugeot 404 pick-up, and not just any car. It was a shiny, black, air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz!
And the driver stopped! And yes, he was going to Zimmi and beyond to the Mano. He spoke English well, but didn’t initiate any conversation – but what counted was that he said “yes,” he was going to the river, and “yes,” we could go with him. He only responded. As we left Potoru, we saw the white Range Rover parked at a home – so much for my assumption of its destination. I asked “our” driver the obvious question: “What on earth are you doing with a car like this in a place like this?” His short answer: “I have been sent to pick up VIPs coming from Monrovia.” VIPs traveling all the way from Monrovia on a dirt road that ends at a river? It seemed incongruous.
After we had been rowed across the Mano, we spent the rest of the day and all of the following day on the Liberian dirt road that had started at a dead end and led to the capital of Monrovia, named after the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, during whose presidency the country of Liberia was founded as a home for freed slaves. And no, we never did see anyone who resembled a VIP on his way to meet the Mercedes and its driver at the end of a short canoe-ride. Perhaps the passengers he expected to meet had changed their minds and flown, as behooves VIPs, or taken the international road via Guinea-Conakry.
The fact that we had spent hours waiting for a ride the day before, and fifteen minutes this day, stood in stark contrast to the literal second that had elapsed between my statement and the sound of the Mercedes engine. An uncanny coincident? Maybe. An answer to prayer? I believe so. But why would God respond to our trivial request, when many more important pleas go unheard? I don’t know. What we do know for a fact is that in all my, and later our, hitchhiking experiences on modern highways between world-renown cities and financial centers, neither I, nor we, had ever been taken in a chauffeur-driven limousine. It had been, uniquely indeed, one fancy ride!
This is an excerpt from Eb’s book Piercing the Night, A Life on the Edge in post-Amin Uganda. Eb offers his book free of charge and will ship it within the U.S. for the media mail price of $3.17. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-530-7962
Original 1975 snapshot provided by: Eb Roell
Background photo by Will Shirley on Unsplash