By Marie Pfeifer
Sierra Leone would not be the first choice for most people seeking adventure in Africa.
But Morristown handyman Tom Johnson choked up last week when asked why he keeps returning to that desperately poor, war-ravaged land with his nonprofit, Africa Surgery Inc.
“I have a sister who worked in special education her whole life. And she once told me I reminded her of Forrest Gump. I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because you don’t do a thing, and amazing things keep happening around you,’” Johnson, 63, told a large gathering at Assumption Church for the premiere of The White Man on a Bicycle, a documentary profiling his volunteer work.
Johnson credited supporters here, and volunteers in Sierra Leone, with helping him arrange medical care for thousands of needy people in the West African country, which was devastated by a civil war at the turn of this century.
“I’m proud to be his friend, and I’m proud of all the work that he does,” Msgr. Martin Rauscher told an audience that included Morristown Council President Rebecca Feldman, Councilwoman Alison Deeb and Morris District school board member Nancy Bangiola.
It was shot by Sergio Burani of Photos by Sergio and produced by Kevin Coughlin, editor of MorristownGreen.com and president of Kevco Media LLC. Africa Surgery volunteers donated refreshments for Wednesday’s screening, and Sheik Fell performed on African drums.
Photos by Scott Schlosser. Please click icon below for captions.
FROM BEES TO SURGERY
Johnson became acquainted with the people of Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer , teaching beekeeping to prospective farmers. He was forced to leave the country when the so-called “Blood Diamond” war broke out in March 1991.
Although Johnson claims the country was among the worst places in the world to live, he returned after the war in 2002 to help a beekeeper.
Citizens with nowhere to turn brought their medical woes to him. Johnson quickly went into triage mode, connecting patients with international medical teams and missionaries to treat hernias, malnourishment and spinal deformities caused by a form of tuberculosis.
For several months each year, Johnson lives in Sierra Leone as most of its people do–without electricity or running water. He delivers medicine on a bike.
“I’m supposed to be a missionary, so I should be doing it for the glory of God. And hopefully, every once in awhile, I do. But I have to confess, mostly I do it for my own satisfaction,” Johnson said.
Burani, who shot The White Man on a Bicycle during eight days in Sierra Leone, has photographed many African countries. He said he was struck by Sierra Leone’s grinding poverty — but also by the warmth of the people.
“It is devastatingly poor, and that is why it is so important that we help them,” said the Morristown resident, a retired marketing executive who donates proceeds from Photos by Sergio LLC to Africa Surgery Inc.
“There is one thing, though, that makes Sierra Leone unique. And it’s the smile of the people. They smile like they are very rich,” Burani said.
Sierra Leone’s greatest source of wealth–diamonds–also is its greatest curse, according to Johnson.
“I wish diamonds never existed in Sierra Leone… they bring people in from the ‘developed world’ to exploit all these natural resources. You see farmers being put off their land, and all that sort of thing,” he said.
At the screening, Johnson displayed intricate artworks carved by a Sierra Leone man whose right hand was hacked off during the war. The artist accomplished his creations with a specially adapted prosthesis.
Jesmed Suma, director of Sierra Leone Policy Watch Inc., a Maryland think tank, said his native country has Africa’s strongest historical ties with the United States.
During the slave trade, Suma said, plantation owners in North and South Carolina paid high prices for slaves from Sierra Leone because they quadrupled their rice output. But the concept of Sierra Leonean freedom–for which the capital of Freetown is named–started with an American missionary school, he said.
Independence from the British was negotiated in 1961 without the firing of a single shot, Suma said. He blamed the recent civil war on an invasion from Liberia, and political corruption.
Yet despite that turmoil and lingering corruption, Suma said, “You can go to no place in the world, if Africa is concerned, in which you will be more welcome, and in which more hearts will be open to you, than Sierra Leone.”
Africa Surgery Inc. welcomes donations of wheelchairs, crutches and sewing machines, and of course, tax-deductible financial contributions, Johnson said.
A donation of just $12 will feed a Sierra Leonean patient for a week; $40 can feed a child for an entire month, he said.
For about $130, a patient in Sierra Leone can have cataract surgery to both eyes. Complex spinal surgery costs about $10,000, he said.
The video screening included a lively question-and-answer session. Johnson and Burani are available to present The White Man on a Bicycle to schools, houses of worship, bicycle groups and other organizations. They can be contacted at Africa Surgery’s website, where donations also can be made.
Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.