It was the month of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast. From the day’s first light, when they could tell a white thread from a black one, until evening hid the difference again, they did not eat, did not drink, and – here in rural Liberia – did not even swallow their own spit.

We were three thousand miles from home when the telegram came. My mother’s father had died. From Gbapa, three miles away, five dark-skinned Mandingo men came walking to our house. Students from her English class, a class in a building with mud-brick walls and a tin roof that pinged in the rain. She drove to them several nights each week, teaching them to write “hut” and “mat” and “cat,” drawing little pictures beside the words. But this day, they came to her, walking over dusty, rust-colored roads, under the African sun. They came to sit with her, to offer what comfort they could.

We could not offer them water or coke or tea. For a few hours they sat, talking in soft voices, stepping out occasionally to spit. Then home again… waiting for black and white to merge back into one.

Someone once asked Jesus what it meant to love our neighbor. He said it was to be those men.


Eric K. Taylor, author of Using Folktales (Cambridge University Press, 2000), is currently working on several novels for children.