In January, I went back to the King George Home for the Elderly in Eastern Freetown, a place I’d visited in 2010 and taken many photos. It’s a strange place — it’s rare for the elderly to live in group homes in sub-Saharan Africa, but most of the people at King George’s lost their children during Sierra Leone’s civil war. There’s a word for children who lose their parents — orphans — but no word for parents who lose their children. King George’s is, in some senses, a place of deep sadness and isolation. And yet, it’s also a place where people have made friends, cut each others hair, and spend the day chatting and listening to the radio.
It was so wonderful to be back – I was greeted with such warmth and kindness, hugs and laughs. The article in BBC’s Focus on Africa had made it to Freetown and the residents, for once, didn’t feel ignored.
Like many unfortunate Sierra Leoneans, Fatu Sesay Maya lost both of her hands during the civil war to fighters who asked victims if they wanted “long sleeves” or “short sleeves.” She speaks no English or Krio, a language common in the capital and elsewhere, but still spends her days saying “Hawa, hawa,” meaning yes, yes, in Limba, a language from Northern Sierra Leone. Despite her disability, she is still relatively self-sufficient.
Prince Jarret, 80, shaves his friend Daniel Koroma’s head on a sunny morning in February. Though both men lost their children and their families during the war and were alone and rejected by their communities, they’ve found each other at King George’s.
Charles Doe rests quietly one afternoon. He spends most days playing his guitar and harmonica, alone in the corner where he lives and listens to the radio. “It is my best friend,” he says of the guitar. “It can’t lie.” He once dreamed of being a musician. During the war, all of his children died and he lost track of his other relatives. King George’s has been his only home for the last decade. He says he would like his guitar to decorate his coffin.
Onike Williams, 71, has lived at the King George home for more than fifteen years. Her family, who tolerated her speech impediment before the war, abandoned her as soon as they could. She never had any children, and mutters that people say, “I an ugly woman-o.” Despite what others may think, Onike smiles all the time and is quick to laugh.
Thomas Daniels is younger and more able than many of the residents at the King George home, but he is no less alone. He was working for an iron ore company in Liberia when war broke out in there and in Sierra Leone and he was never again able to locate his wife or children. He assumes they died in the war.
Daniel Williams lost his family and his vision during Sierra Leone’s civil war. He plays harmonic, recorder, and he sings. His best friend lives in the bed next to him, and is also named Daniel.
“In the name of the Lord I greet you! I am the most stupid fool in the world!” is the way Egbert E. Emens greets most people, most days. He lost his wife and several children during the war. His son put him at King George’s because he could not care for Egbert while he was working during the day, and Egbert had been wandering off and exposing himself to children in the neighborhood. There’s a huge range of mental and physical capacity among the residents at King George’s.
Remie Edwards sits outside on the porch of her building one afternoon. On some days, she is talkative and friendly, offering blessings and laughing with the other residents. On other days, she is combative and quiet and prefers to be left alone.
Mamie Ballay was once a beauty — and she still is. She goes to great lengths to keep up her apperance at King George’s, getting her hair plaited regularly and asking the care takers to paint her toe nails. She didn’t like the first photo I took of her because her dress was red, and she said she looks better in pink. I think she looks nice in both.