18 July, 1988
Sierra Leone, West Africa: Kainkordu village
Sahr woke me early to say that someone had come. Half asleep I walked into the outdoor room to find a fresh pail of river water. I always take time for the morning bucket bath, sometimes luxuriating for to long because it allows me the only time to be alone. This morning I was annoyed at having to rush.
Someone from Kainkordu needed or wanted something I thought or just wished to sit silent on the veranda, sometimes for hours, visiting in that strange Kono way that I can never grow accustomed.
On the veranda sat a small nicely dressed man in his 20’s I’d guessed. He rose to greet me with an extended hand and held a large box in the other. He seemed familiar and at first did not speak. I apologized for not having tea but offered him some filtered water, which he took and drank quickly. I offered more, which he accepted.
“Do we know each other”, I asked
“No, but I…” his eyes looked behind me as Kris came out and joined us. He rose again. I was about to repeat my question when Kris said,
“We met in the lorry park in Koidu did we not”?
“Yes, that is right. We met when you were trying to get transport upcountry to Kainkordu”.
“You have traveled quite a ways” I said, “is there something we can do for you?”
He became nervous and agitated and, after what seemed a long time, Kris began to excuse herself when he quickly and, somewhat desperately, interrupted,
“I have come to ask you questions”.
With that he set the large box on the table opening it carefully so as not to further stress the already broken spine.
The contents, which he began to, and there is no other word for it, tenderly remove, were drawings and charts of the stars as well as old and yellowed newspaper clippings with stories about the American space program. There were stories about Mercury, Apollo and the names of some astronauts including John Glenn, which was circled in red. The young man’s hand drawings of Saturn and Mars were beautiful and on some of the pages there were a series of numbers or equations, some I took to mean latitude and longitude but could not be sure. He went on turning page after page. In another place and time he would have been a student or perhaps a professor of Astronomy I thought. His passion for the subject was startling and I could see that Kris too was amazed by the quality and sheer volume of his writings and drawings.
I told him that this was fantastic but my compliment was either ignored or not heard as he arranged more pages on the table. He then asked me his questions.
They were about propulsion systems and temperatures on planets. Questions about Haley’s comet and other astronaut’s names, how the space program had developed after he had lost track. How far was the end of the galaxy and how long would it take to reach it and then questions about the theory of relativity. I was dumbfounded and could only manage a silly, insecure smile in response, and then, I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. I told the truth.
I said, “You have studied this so much and it’s amazing but I’m afraid that you know much more about this than I do. I am learning from you and I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t know.”
The look on his face cut deep and in an instant I realized that he had not come for facts at all, he had come for new words to dream by. Perhaps my words would have carried him until August or September and maybe well past. He might have lain in the tall grass at night staring at the stars, remembering the veranda where we had talked and ponder what was said. Perhaps he would have fallen into deep sleeps and dreamt of stars and in those dreams he might have taken flight far from his life of questions with no answers and loneliness. But that was not to be for I made the terrible mistake of admitting my ignorance and removing myself from our delicate charade.
I learned in that moment, when I took everything from him, the importance of lying, not merely telling an untruth but lying, with passion and flourish like an actor on a stage claiming to know that which they do not know for the lie that keeps hope and dreams intact is preferable to a truth that removes them. Lies and truths are easy to come by dreams that sustain people through difficult lives are not. I wish I could take back the day.