Friday, November 10, 2006


I’ve been meaning to write an update for a few days now, but things have been a bit busy. And I just can’t seem to get Otiero off my mind. So the update will wait until next time.

Otiero Reeves, formally Samuel Reeves, son of the late Deacon Samuel Reeves, nephew of Pastor Sam Reeves of Providence Baptist Church, came to live next door in June. I was not fond of the nine year old, in part because he was in my space more than usual, trying to get me to buy or give him something, and nine years old or not, I need people to hold back and get to know me a bit before I am interested in acting like pals. He was in love with Hannah from the first week, and in typical boy fashion he showed that love by continually annoying, teasing, and hitting her. He was relentless, and a few times I had to come out of the house to tell him to lay off. He would typically run away and when I had gone, return and start up again.

As the months passed, I noticed Hannah laughing with Otiero more and as he gave me required space, I began the inevitable process of softening up. He began regularly getting books from Renita and hanging out on our porch, reading them. I knew it was just a matter of time before I would begin letting him in my heart a bit.

Just a matter of time.

Last Saturday at around 5:00pm, Otiero’s sister Patience gave him an errand. She needed to return an article of clothing to a friend who lived near the beach and she wanted him to take it to her. Otiero and the friend did not know each other, and likely passed one another on the road. Otiero apparently used the missed opportunity to do some swimming at the local rain-fed lagoon.

At 9:30pm, the Reeds received a knock on our gate from one of the neighborhood boys. Otiero had not returned. This was serious, because after dark in Liberia means everybody is at home. More ominous was the news that his clothes and the clothes he was taking to Patience’s friend, had been found at the edge of the lagoon. I felt sick, because this almost certainly meant something terrible had happened.

I immediately headed to the Oceanside lagoon with our flashlights and about twenty five family friends and neighbors. We debated for a bit about what to do, but when Renita arrived, we both knew we had to at least try to find him. If it had been one of ours, no one could have kept us out of the lagoon. Most of our neighbors are afraid of dark, moonlit water, so only two joined us. The four of us waded through the chest high waters, feeling for signs of a body with our feet, but we knew we did not have enough people, so after twenty minutes, we called a halt to the search.

At sunup Sunday morning, Otiero's father Othello found the body of his son, which had returned to the surface after resting on the sandy bottom all night. On Monday we buried him in a cemetery that lies between his home and the place he died. Children are buried quickly in Liberia.

I have been thinking about Otiero and his last moments. The lagoon varies in depth because of the rains, but usually returns to wading depth quickly. Otiero was an active boy who loved the lagoon. He could not have known that what was a few feet deep last week was now well over his head due to recent rains. The water gets deep quickly; eight feet out is waist deep, but twelve feet out it is five feet deep. In my mind’s eye I see him, a naked little boy rushing out with expectation, finding the water warm but refreshing, happy to be away from older kids telling him what to do. But just ten steps out, an alarm sounds in his head. The water has never been so high before at this spot. He reacts instinctively to stop, but his forward momentum has already taken him over his head. And he is all alone. I imagine his surprise evolving in an instant to shock, then panic, then terror. I imagine after a few frantic seconds coughing and trying to shout at the surface, he disappears. The water settles down immediately and becomes smooth. A bird calls from the bushes. A passer-by notices some sort of clothe and flip-flops on the sand and nothing registers. He enjoys the ocean breeze and moves on.

Later on Sunday, Renita and I were asked to be a part of a "community coroner's panel," a custom that asks a community jury to examine the body and give its observations about the condition of the deceased. It was a sad task. There was no mischievous smile, no hopeful glance. Just the naked body of a little boy. Already gone. I am having difficulty getting around it.

It is interesting to watch his family go through the grieving process - life seems to go on so quickly again, probably because it has to. Maybe it is because tragedy is more a part of normal life here. Drowning happens a lot. There were two in our area last weekend. The children who lived and slept with Otiero seem to have moved on. By the next day they were laughing and playing like normal. A week later, nobody says his name. Already gone.

As a Christian I do not grieve for Otiero as those who have no hope. Deacon Reeves probably greeted his grandson upon his arrival and then introduced him to Jesus. The soul that we named Otiero is fine. But he is gone from this place, and already passing from thought, soon to pass from memory, except for a handful. I think about how long it was taking for me to let him in, and that he never quite got there. I wonder who the next one will be, and will I have let him in by then?

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