When I give readings and keynotes, people sometimes ask me why I decided to donate proceeds from my new book, No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech, to humanitarian causes, and to CARE in particular. In some ways, it's an easy question to answer. I didn't want to profit from the book, given its subject matter and my connection to the tragedy, so I was looking for an organization to be the primary international recipient of funds from the advance I received. I had several domestic recipients in mind, but I had always dreamed of supporting the people of Sierra Leone, where I taught as a volunteer teacher in the late seventies. The civil war that had been waged there for more than a decade had brought unimaginable suffering to the people. And though the scale of the slaughter in Sierra Leone far exceeded what we experienced here in Blacksburg, Virginia, during the April 2007 attack, it was no less traumatic for those close to the tragedy.
For the first time in my life I had enough money to do something significant, and my husband and son were equally enthusiastic about supporting projects we believed in. It was quite possible we would never have an opportunity to do something like this again. I needed to find projects to fund that would make a substantial difference in peoples' lives.
Experience has taught me that one of the most effective ways to cope with trauma is to focus on others whose suffering is more acute than one's own. Reaching out to others is a way to rediscover hope, a way to reconnect with the world and recognize its capacity to inspire us.
It didn't take long for me to decide that the primary international recipient of funds from No Right to Remain Silent would be CARE. It was one of the best decisions my husband and I have made.
I became familiar with CARE when I taught in Sierra Leone in the late seventies. During that time I became friends with a Canadian who worked for CARE. He was stationed in the nearby town of Makeni, and his good humor and generosity made a lasting impression on me. I wanted to find out if CARE was still as dedicated to helping the people of Sierra Leone as it had been when I lived there. I did some research and spoke with people I know who work overseas. Then I spoke with Evelyn O'Reilly at CARE. I felt it was an organization I could trust-one that would be respectful of the culture and the needs of the people.
International aid has always been important to me. I've lived and taught on three different continents, but I have a special connection to Africa. My ancestors were taken as slaves from that continent and became Maroons, living free in the hills of Jamaica. My father, Namba Roy, was the Maroon carver of Jamaica-a legacy handed down from father to son since the 1700's. I grew up surrounded by his African masks, sculptures and paintings. When, at the tender age of twenty-one, I went to West Africa to teach, I was reintroduced to my heritage. My students' courage and determination inspired me, persuading me there was nothing more important than working with young people.
When tragedy struck in Blacksburg, I was reminded of the trials Sierra Leoneans faced as they tried to recover from their brutal civil war. It seemed to me that what happened there was a grotesquely enlarged version of what happened at Virginia Tech on that terrible day in April. On that day, a student for whom I'd tried to get help eighteen months before killed thirty-two students and faculty members and wounded twenty-five others before committing suicide. It is difficult to describe the devastation felt by the community. Later, as I tried to sift through the horror, I was reminded of the suffering in Sierra Leone. There, the attack wasn't confined to a day. The nightmare had continued for eleven long years. For the most part, the emergency responders never arrived because there are so few of them. Bodies were piled up in the streets in Freetown, and kidnapped children were forced to kill or maim their neighbors or, in some case, members of their own families.
The sophisticated infrastructure we have here in the U.S. is absent in Sierra Leone. It's hard to find a good hospital; there are very few ambulances; the police force is often minimal at best. Yet tragedy demands a swift, coordinated, compassionate response. When this is absent, a deep sense of isolation and despair take hold. I imagined how much worse things would have been at Virginia Tech had there been no response by emergency personnel-how unbearable the pain would have been if we hadn't been embraced by others from around the world. Even small gestures of compassion can make a huge difference when people are trying to recover from trauma. They serve as reminders that we are not alone. They tell us we matter.
One of the most joyful memories I have from my childhood is opening a package sent by a group of nuns in London, who knew my widowed mother. They anticipated that she wouldn't have much to spend on her three small, biracial children at Christmas, and they knew she would be lonely without her late husband. So the nuns made a Christmas package for us, filled with treats like canned ham and plum pudding, toys and clothes. That night, it didn't matter that we didn't have a heated bedroom, or a bathroom, or a refrigerator, or that we'd spread the drapes over our beds because they were warmer than the blankets we had, or that the metal curtain rings smacked us in the head whenever we rolled over. It didn't matter because people-relative strangers-had sent us a gift. It mattered to us that we mattered to someone else. It was a sign that our lives had significance.
I strive to remember this kind of thoughtfulness because my joyful memories must not be eclipsed by what happened at Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007, when a severely disturbed and enraged student took the lives of so many people, and robbed us-for a time at least-of joy. My joyful memories are empowering; they teach me how to navigate through the horrific ones.
When I graduated with my B.A. from King's College, London, and enrolled as a VSO (the British equivalent of a Peace Corps volunteer), I had not realized how much the country and its people would teach me about myself and about the world. In London, I had shoes, food, clean water, and access to health care. During my two years in Sierra Leone, I realized I wasn't very poor after all. Though the people of Lunsar lacked the material wealth of many in the West, they were prosperous in other ways. What they had in abundance was good humor, a wealth of wisdom and compassion, and a rich sense of community, all of which they were eager to share. In the end, in spite of my good intentions, I didn't give them the greatest gift after all; it was they who gave it to me.
Sierra Leone was a relatively peaceful place when I lived there, but already it was clear that poverty and a lack of education made the entire country vulnerable. Bribery and corruption plagued the government and the military. There was a coup during my stay, and I was robbed half a dozen times-once by men armed with machetes. In spite of harrowing incidents like these I loved the country because the people showed me extraordinary kindness. When poor people share their food with you, when they offer you not only friendship but support, it is deeply moving. When people have so little that their children rummage through your garbage to find plastic bags or pieces of string, worn clothing or discarded food, you become less cavalier about throwing things away. You begin to realize how lucky you are to be able to turn on a tap at home, or flush a toilet. You realize how much you take for granted. You understand the weight of the word "privilege."
When civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991, the viciousness of the attacks on civilians took the world's breath away. I watched as the country I had loved dissolved into nightmare. I thought of my students-all grown now, no doubt with children of their own. Had they been injured or killed? What of the family I was close to who named one of their daughters after me? Were they still alive? Could I find them?
Because it's neither possible nor desirable to escape from Africa once you've really seen it, I returned to it again and again in my fiction and poetry. I set parts of both my novels in Sierra Leone so that I could experience its beauty vicariously through my characters, even as I mourned the fact that it was too dangerous for me to return. I wrote about the tropical light that casts a vivid pumpkin glow over the land at dusk; I wrote about the haunting wails of mothers, who wake to find their children have been snatched from them by malaria or cholera-how their wails "scratch" their "way through wattle and daub/smelling of pain;" and I wrote about the women who bend to scoop water from the river "in slow genuflections." I created a protagonist in my second novel who leaves Sierra Leone during the war but who is obliged to return because she can't live apart from it. As the country descended into chaos, I vowed I, too, would return one day. There must be something I could do to help.
And then at last the war ended. It still didn't seem safe to go back, but I was confident the time would come when I could return. In 2006, determined not to procrastinate any longer, I packed my bags and headed to Freetown. My husband came with me. "It would be an adventure," he said.
We located the family who had been close to me when I lived there, and we traveled up country to Lunsar and found a student of mine. We came back full of ideas about how we could assist in the recovery effort. I could teach there again perhaps. We could send a little money. And then, that spring, tragedy struck Virginia Tech, and everything changed all over again.
Pain is a steadfast teacher. Often I think it's the only honest one. Knowing that CARE is the primary international recipient of funds from my memoir has helped me come to terms with some of the things that have happened. And although it will never erase the pain, it helps in the process of reconciliation-a process that is always at the heart of grieving. We are funding two different programs in Sierra Leone, and we are saving to go back there so that we can see how these projects are doing. Through the first program, our contributions are helping CARE improve the health of young children and pregnant and nursing women through enhanced nutrition in areas particularly hard-hit by the civil war. The second program we are funding is called LEAD (Livelihood Enhancement and Asset Development). This project focuses on helping the poorest households in six war-torn districts by establishing farmer field schools to help poor farmers expand agricultural production, improving public health through community health schools, and creating village savings and loan groups to help vulnerable women and youth achieve greater economic stability. "Food insecurity" is a term CARE uses to describe these projects. It's a good term-it captures the inherent dangers of malnourishment. A country unable to feed its people is unstable. Unless we assist Sierra Leone as it finds a way to do this more effectively, it will always be vulnerable.
Even if my husband and I are unable to return to Sierra Leone ourselves, I know that the projects we're supporting through CARE will be in good hands. There is something splendid about giving-something wondrous and addictive. It gives me friends I have never met in far-away places; it elicits smiles from strangers I may never see but whose lives now intersect with my own. It is the best kind of legacy because it enables the passing on of something precious to those who need it most. In this way, giving makes us richer than we could ever be were we to hoard the money, or spend it only on ourselves. It is impossible to live happily ever after when so many are denied the ability to live at all. In this global, interdependent economy, we all rely upon each other. I am grateful to CARE for helping me translate the harsh alphabet of suffering into the gentler and necessary phrases of hope.