Happy Mother’s Day to one and all. After having been blessed with a very comprehensive mother, who truly tried to comprehensively mother her children, step children and every one else she ever met in the entire world, I have always been fascinated by the various and sundry ways people mother and find mothers. And when when we tragically lost our mom, a friend of our mom’s, Mary Ann Gessner, wrapped my sisters and me up in her maternal love, she shared her story of how she became a mother again through a scholarship, a spare bedroom, and the resilient and mysterious ways of the heart.
Back story: Lawuo Dolo Cummings and I struck up an online friendship when she responded to a blog post I wrote about my adopted daughter’s anguish at being Black and wishing she could be the same color as l my husband and me. Lawuo’s American ‘mother’, Mary Ann Gessner sent my post, entitled, “I Don’t Want To Be Brown” to Lawuo and here is Lawuo’s response to me, a total stranger.
Lawuo: I think Kathleen is doing well by reminding her daughter each day that she is beautiful just the way she is. The “not liking the hair and skin color” will fade away as she gets older. But with her age and seeing that her mom is of different complexion than she is, or watching TV shows that only showcase cartoon characters that have lighter skin or long hair will play into her self-esteem.
I don’t know which school she goes to or if she has other kids her age that are black or have a darker complexion. She is at the “why” stage and if she is in school with mostly white kids, they are also at the “why” stage and most likely kids her age are asking her “why do you look different than me? Why do you look like chocolate, why is your hair this way? Why do you look brown?” And she probably doesn’t have answers to those questions.
When I first got to America by way of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, I didn’t have answers to those questions… I was first asked by little kids in the cafeteria at dinnertime and didn’t have an easy answer because I was not used to being asked these type of questions.
My husband Ethan’s nieces and nephews have asked me these questions before, and after I had been here a while I finally came up with a response. I explained to them that we are all the same. Sometimes I would ask what their favorite pets were, and if they said a cat or a dog, I would say, “You know how some dogs have all black fur and some have white or brown fur, but they are all dogs or cat and you care for them the same way?” Sometimes I would talk about flowers being different colors, etc.
The reality is every single Black kid in the world goes though this fact of not liking their hair or skin color, because of what culture has taught us, and we see in movies, media and etc. and most grow to accept that that’s who they are. Sadly, some however never grow out of that mind set, so they uses bleaching creams to bleach their skin so that they look lighter because lighter is “deemed” more acceptable, pretty, and attractive.
After I read Lawuo’s honest and thoughtful response, I asked her if I could interview her about moving from Liberia to America and finding another family. Here is our chat.
Q: How old were you when you left Liberia?
A: I was 15 years old when I left home.
Q: Did you come with family? A: Nope, I came here all alone, and it was my very first time traveling outside of the continent of Africa. When I was little my family and I lived in la Côte d’Ivoire, our neighboring country for a little bit but I was very little then so I don’t remember much about living there.
Q: What was that first trip away from home like? A: It was my first trip to the U.S. I have been away from my immediate family but just for school. So I was not away for too long, coming to the U.S was and is the longest I have been away from home.
Q: Why did you leave? A: I was given the opportunity to study at St. Johnsbury Academy, in Vermont. I honestly had no clue where Vermont was. This adventure all started one school afternoon when my teacher told me that our principal wanted to see me in her office.
I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but the first thought that went through my mind was, “I am in trouble”. I became nervous and anxious as to why I was needed in the principal’s office, so I was scared but I went to see Aunty Sarah. (That’s what we called her). “Hi Aunty Sarah, I was told that you wanted to see me?” I said.
And she started by asking me about my family background, what my father did for work, what my mother did for work, and to provide her with their contact information. I told her my father is a laboratory technician, and my mother sells palm oil in the local market, and I provided her with their contacts. That was when she told me, “FAWE (the Forum for African Women Educationalists) which I am a member of, asked me to select the top student in your grade (grade 11) to compete with other female students from five different schools for an opportunity to study abroad, and since you are the top student in your class, I have selected you. I don’t know much about the details but I will provide them with your information and we can start from there.”
Oh, I was very relieved that I wasn’t in trouble and a little happy that my principal thought of me, but deep down I told myself not to buy into this “going abroad” hope too much because I may end up disappointed.
Q: Why did you think you might end up disappointed? A: The reality was, opportunities like these that comes along to help someone in need usually goes to someone who doesn’t need it, but gets it because they have connections or they have families who have much influence, so I told myself to give it a try but not to give it my all, in fear of being disappointed.
That day when I went home, the only person I told was my father and I specifically told him not to tell anyone because I may not get it and I don’t want to keep anymore hopes up. My dad was my best friend and I told him just about anything (he passed away a little over a year ago). I also mostly told my dad because I needed him to provide me with some taxi fare to that I will be able to transport myself to and from FAWE’s head- quarters for meetings regarding the potential scholarship process. To sum things up, I met with the other students who were also selected, we all took an exam, more like the SATs format (Math, English, and History).
Q: Were you nervous when taking the exam? A: I was nervous, anxious. I didn’t know what we were being tested on until we got the test. We had no prior preparation other than what we knew from school.
I did not give it my all at first, and I think the other students felt the same way too because we all got called back to retake the exam and we were told that we have to take this opportunity seriously.
Q: Did you learn at a young age that most overseas opportunities were not fairly distributed in your country? A: Yes, I did. Unfortunately it is one of the downside of growing up in a country that is corrupt. I learned and was told that some opportunities are for people who can buy it. But now I know that that is not always true.
Prior to retaking the exam, I was given a ride home by one of the ladies in charge of supervising this process (I forgot her name but she worked with an organization called Mercy Corps).
Her job was to make sure that this opportunity would go to someone who, without it, would not otherwise have the means of studying abroad, so she did background searches on each student, and personally visited their homes, to see where they lived. It was my turn for her to visit and see where I lived.
She and I talked all the way home, and she told me how she had been getting calls from government officials, asking her to give the opportunity to their daughters. That was when I started to believe in this opportunity, because the people involved were making sure it was a true and fair process.
It seems like she could tell that I had doubts about the process, she encouraged me not to give up and she also told me that she will make sure that this opportunity goes to the person who deserves it, so I started having hope.
When we went back to retake the exam, I gave it my all.
About 2-3 weeks later, I was informed that the process had been narrowed down to two candidates and I was one of the two. I went for my last interview at the Mercy Corps office. There I created my very first email address (this email account), and a week later, I was informed that I was selected to study for one year at St. Johnsbury Academy, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. It was surreal. I was overjoyed.
It was time for my father and I to finally reveal our little secret to my siblings and my mom. My older sister was the first person I told. I remembered it was a Sunday evening and I was ironing my uniform for school, and I told my sister, “So I will be completing my senior year of high school in the United States” she looked at me and jokingly replied, “Yeah, me too”, thinking I was joking. I replied, “I am not joking. You can ask Papa, I got a scholarship to study in the United States for a year and I will be leaving in a month.”
She lifted me up on her back and swung me around, filled with joy… I was screaming to her to put me down. (Most women back home carry their babies on their back, so carrying a person on your back that is not a baby is a sign of proudness, love and honor to some degree – kinda like giving someone a piggyback ride).
So this is how I came to Vermont. I knew no one here, the Gessners were the first people I met when I landed in Boston, and they have become my family away from home ever since.
Q: I can’t imagine making such a momentous decision to uproot my whole life at such a young age.
Was it difficult to leave your family? A: It was difficult to leave my family behind. It was hard on my parents, siblings, and extended family to see me leave but we all knew that this could be a life changing opportunity for me, and for my family, and they believed that I could do it. It was hard saying goodbye.
Q: Did Vermont and America live up to what you had heard or seen when you were growing up?
A: I didn’t really know where Vermont or the Academy was. I envisioned coming to a place with fancy tall buildings, lots of cars and highways like what I saw in most American movies. When I first landed at JFK, I was like wow, this is exactly what I pictured, but I was told I still had one more stop to go, to Boston. Again, when I landed in Boston, there were fancy tall buildings, lots of cars, and highways, so in my mind I was like, “this is America wow”…until I felt asleep in the car and woke up in Sheffield, Vermont at the Gessners. I woke up to no fancy tall buildings, but instead I saw a lot of trees, which reminded me of home.
Q: Did you grow up in a city, suburb or a small town? A: The last place I lived before coming to Vermont was a small community outside the capital, Monrovia. Everyone knew each other.
Q: How did you feel during this huge transition- scared, overwhelmed, excited, proud, like you were making a huge mistake? All of the above? None of the above? A: All of the above.
Q: What were your first impressions of Americans? A: I thought most people were big! They looked much older than their age, tall, but also physically big in size. I am petite, so most people looked much taller and bigger tome. Before leaving, my father told me to watch what I eat and not to get too fat.
Q: That’s funny. I imagine there aren’t too many overweight Liberians…but I could be making a gross generalization, based on the fact that obesity is an epidemic primarily in America. We do grow them big here! A: That’s changing now, sadly. It is not as bad but obesity is unfortunately spreading everywhere now, including Liberia. And most had no clue where I came from. Especially with my accent, once someone hears me, they just assume that I don’t know English and I have to explain that I am from an English speaking country, but “unlike you” I will say to whomever I am talking to, “I don’t only speak English, and that’s why I have an accent”.
I hated (and still do) when people say, “Wow, your English is so good, where did you learn that? Was it difficult to learn English where you grew up? Or when people speak VERY SLOWLY, as if I can’t hear, all because I have an accent when I speak, that is unlike other accents they are familiar with. Q: Did you feel like Americans were curious about and interested in your Liberian culture or were they more interested in exposing you to American culture? A: I think it is a mixture of both.
Q: I imagine the culture shocks were vast- what was the first surprise that struck you upon arriving in America?
A: Culture, food, weather and all the above. There were not that many Black people in at the Academy, so I didn’t know where to get hair products, then there was the communication barrier because of my accent, getting adjusted to the food, and temperature.
Q: What became your favorite food? What American food do you find disgusting?
A:This is a hard one because I love food, as long there is spicy or hot sauce on the side :). So, that eliminates most typical American food. But I will eat Mom’s porch eggs on toast every day. I also love Thanksgiving food.
Q:Who did you first stay with?
A: The Gessners (Mom and Dad). Q: Was it difficult to live with utter strangers and adapt to their lifestyle? What was different from your family and home as compared to their family and home?
A: It wasn’t too difficult at all, I felt right at home. I did miss home, my parents, and family but I called and emailed. And I was attending a summer program with other international students at the academy and I made new friends.
Q: Do you think your parents were jealous of your close bond with Mary Ann and Bob?
Q: What was adapting to American school like?
A: In terms of actual classes, I thought it was very easy, because at home I was taking 16 subjects in a year, using outdated textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedia to look up the definition to words and vocabulary- then at St. Johnsbury, I was taking 4 classes per semester and had access to computers and Google.
I must say, I had some difficulty adjusting to technology, doing research online, typing things on the computer, making PowerPoint presentations and etc. When I was home, I hand wrote everything, so the transition to having all my homework typed on a computer, and doing research using computers was challenging at first.
Q: What was your first favorite subject in school?
A: I liked science and math, I actually wanted to become a doctor, but I am now an accountant.
Q: Did you experience racism? If not overt, then passive racism? A: Yes, both, directly and indirectly from being a Black person and from being from the continent of Africa. I found that most American people have no clue that Africa is a continent, and in most cases people were/are just ignorant.
I ran cross-country in school, and was once asked this question “Did you choose to run cross country because you people chase after animals back in Africa?”I sometimes get comments like, “So if I go to your country, will I be popular because I am white?” I have many comments over the past 8 years since I came to Vermont and I sometimes I shake my head and walk away.
One time, when I was in a car (as the only Black person) a rap song came on, and this person said to me, “This is your kind of song, come on sing along!” I had to say, “I am from Liberia, West Africa. Yes, I listen to almost all types of music, but rap and hip-hop is not my “type of music!”
Q: Do the people who ask stereotypical questions or make inaccurate generalizations ever apologize? A: Sometimes, I don’t say anything to them so they know how I perceived their comments.
Q: Now I’m going to make a generalization based on race, but I’ve been to Vermont and it is a VERY white state! Were you the only or one of few Black people in St. Johnsbury? A: When I first came, most of the few black people I knew were few that were students at the academy, which I could count, but there seems to be a few more black people now than when I was in high school.
Q: Did your family in Liberia talk to you to prepare you for racism in America? A: Not particularly about racism but mostly about cultural differences.
Q: Did the Gessners explain what might come up for you, race-wise? A: I had the general idea that I was leaving a place of mostly Black people to a place of mostly white people.
Q: Were you at all prepared to be a minority before you came here or once you were here? A: I was told there would be some cultural differences and to be aware of them. But I was born and grew up in a country where 16 different dialects were spoken (I only speak one of the sixteen dialects) and each dialect-centered group has a somewhat different culture and tradition. So I was used to living in a place with many different traditions.
Q: How often did you go back and see your family?
A: I came here in July 2008, and the first time I went home was in August 2015, when my father was seriously ill, to spend some time with him. I am glad I went because he passed away on the day I was heading back to Vermont, a month later.
That must have been very difficult for you. Is death and grief handled very differently in Liberia as opposed to in America?
It is different from what I knew when I was little.
Q: Do you keep your culture or faith alive in America?
A: Not as much as I used to when I was home.
Q: What is your least favorite part of living in America?
American people/families are kinda isolated a little bit and work comes first before family. I think I am biased because I grew up in an extended family and in a culture where family comes first.
Q: What is your favorite part of living in America? A: My favorite part about living in America (Vermont) is that I am surrounded by endless opportunities and possibilities. I have achieved the unimaginable here, thanks to God for guiding me and giving me people who love and care for me.
Q: You still live in Vermont? Do you wish you lived somewhere else?
A: Somewhere warm and more diverse but Vermont ise.
Q: How was living with Mary Ann and her family?
A: Amazing and still amazing each time I visit them.
Q: What was your wedding like? Did you blend cultures for the ceremony?
A: Our wedding was a small gathering of my husband’s family, the Gessners (Mom and Dad), and some friends. The plan is to have a bigger ceremony later.
Q: Are you remaining in Vermont for the foreseeable future? A: Yes.
Q: Have you felt any cultural or racial differences in attitude now that we have a new President?
A: Yes, and it’s terrifying to know that there are a lot more people with his views and ideology.
Q: Can you tell me about the project and the scholarship that brought you to America? A: I found out when I came to Vermont, that I came to the Academy as part of a High Capstone project created by two high school students, Ashton LaCraw and Quinn Sanders. Their project started out as an idea….”to bring a female student from Africa to study for one year at the Academy….” and of the 54 countries within the continent of Africa, it somehow got narrowed down to Liberia, and here I am today.
My life has changed ever since. I stayed for two years, instead of one, I got gifted with an amazing family away from home, I went to and graduated from college with honors right out of high school, I married an American, not just an American, a white American, I currently have a full-time job working as an accountant, and I am studying for my CPA exam… all of these accomplishments, while just being 25 years old.
Currently back home, most girls around my age are either still in high school or dropped out of high school because they have kid(s) and or don’t have the support to continue.
I am the 6th of seven children, growing up all of my siblings were ahead of me in school, but other than my oldest sister, Suah (the first born) who graduated from university, I am the only other person with a college degree. My other siblings are still trying to complete or start college/university while also being self-supporting.
If things had ended up differently, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I am a very lucky girl. My life has been up and down, like the stock market, but for the most part, it has been up.
All because of an idea of two high school students, and me, having hope and persevering.
Q: What was falling in love with an American like? Was there culture shock? A: I do live in Vermont, so I had “limited options”. Just kidding! I started my dating life there, and it was and it is great to fall in love and marry someone who truly cares for me and loves me. I am thankful to have Ethan in my life, and as my husband.
Q: Is Liberia a diverse country? Are there many residents of various races, cultures and faiths? A: People practice two main faiths, Islam and Christianity. But it is mostly Christians and people practice different kinds of Christianity. I was raised Christian.
I am not sure how diverse Liberia is right now, but I know there are a lot of Lebanese, people from other African nations, and recently over the past few years more Chinese people are moving/working there. Americans. Indians… And various UN Peacekeeping troops from various countries over the years.
Almost all of these people from different cultures mostly live in the capital, so it seems diverse for someone who live in the city, but not so much for one who lives outside the city.
As a mother AND a daughter, I know that mothers sometimes have interesting contributions to the story of their children, regardless of whether the offspring are biological or children ‘of the heart.’ With Lawuo’s blessing, I asked Mary Ann Gessner some questions. She responded with words and photographs.
Q: What do you know about Lawuo’s life in a war zone before moving to America? A: We get nuggets of information as she remembers in context of various situations. One night it was pouring rain hammering on the roof. She told Bob that it took years for her to not be afraid of the rain… that was when the soldiers would come and try to kill people. One night, the entire family had to escape into the jungle. They had a home…. but it was taken over by squatters after they escaped. Lawuo had been in 6 or 7 schools before she came to us just before she turned 16.
Q: What was it like meeting Lawuo? A: This little slip of a child came all by herself half way around the world. She had on jeans with sequins on them… we talked ourselves through security so Bob and I could greet her right at the gate. She came off the plane and came right to us and gave us a hug. She called us Mom and Dad from the first.
Q: What do you think confused her most about America and moving into your home?
A: Lawuo is the most self assured, resilient person I have ever known. She has an open approach to everything. She accepts life as it presents itself and is always content with whatever she has… then or now.
I tried to find recipes from Liberia online but struck out. A few days after she got here I asked her what she ate in Liberia. She said rice. I was waiting for more but that was all she said. Then she told me that they had one meal a day in the evening. It was served to her father…who worked 3 jobs to support her family and assorted extended families. Whatever he didn’t eat was divided among the kids. Knowing her father as we came to… I know he left more than anyone else would for his family to eat. He was an amazing and dear man. He died in August 2015. She was home for the last month of his life and he died on the day she returned to us.
Q: How did she react to American food? What was she into versus what horrified her?
A: Lawuo loves to try new things. She loved very hot, spicy foods… cayenne on everything. We joke that she is too American now. She can’t eat so much heat anymore. She still loves rice. She also loves to cook and bake. One of the funniest things that happened a few months after she arrived….we were on the couch watching a movie and she was doing something with her hair. I really wasn’t paying too much attention. I looked over at one point and there was a huge pile of hair in her lap! I was totally startled and we started laughing. She was undoing the plats which you saw in her “first day of school” photo. I had no idea that wasn’t her own hair! I told her I was old and she shouldn’t shock me so, which got more laughs and a hug. She mentions about the hair products. I got her shampoo and body wash and it was all wrong. A Bermudian woman who works at our school gave me a real hard time about it, all joking but gave me a list of the products with coconut oil and palm oil that Lawuo needs and where to get them. I think I got one of everything so she could have a choice. African skin suffers in Vermont cold weather. Who knew? I’m lots smarter now.
Q: Did you ever have to discipline her?
A: Never. She was a dream child and that was her true nature.
Q: How did your family and Lawuo’s family interact? A: We had a connection with Lawuo’s father… with very few words by email and a few phone calls, he became our family. We never had a conversation with Lawuo’s mother. We do know who her brothers and sisters are but have had no connection with them.
Q: Tell me about your other children. A: When I delivered Mark and Ryan, our midwife put them in my arms and our lives were changed. When Bob and I saw Lawuo coming off the plane, we fell in love.
I opened my arms to give her a hug and she came into my arms… a perfect fit. We had 7 miscarriages between Mark and Ryan. Lawuo is the daughter of our heart and we could not love her more if we gave birth to her. I can’t imagine our lives without her. My sons Mark and Ryan love her as part of our family… they rarely see her but the heart connection is there.
Q: Have you and your family been to Africa? A: Bob and I have been to Nairobi… Bob traveled to Johannesburg when he was working for Lufthansa. I went to Nigeria and Ghana when traveling for the Academy. That is all very different than learning about a family surviving a war, moving countless times, family dynamics in a tribal, patriarchal society. Her dad was not the typical patriarch…. he recognized Lawuo’s spirit, intelligence, courage and always told her that she was given these gifts to make her country better and she should become as educated as she could.