I was at the entrance to Ecobank waiting for my turn to enter when the door unexpectedly flew open. The man holding the door ajar and actually waiting for me instead of rushing through like the others said, “I bet it’s been a while since someone held the door opened for you”. I smiled and said, “thank you” trying to remember where we could have possibly met before. As I made my way into the crowded bank I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him. He was taller than the average Sierra Leonean, with a heavy American accent, too comfortable in the crowd to be foreign yet too casually dressed to be local. “Why do you look so familiar to me?” I asked. “Why do YOU look so familiar to ME?” He joked as he left the bank.
One minute later I was running across the street, hoping his car would not drive off before I caught up, luckily, it didn’t. I tapped 3 times on the tinted window. They rolled down half way. “Aren’t u Madieu Williams from the Vikings?” I blurted out. “Umm actually, no”, he said with a straight face. “I know you are, I wrote about you on my blog last year”. “You’ve got the wrong guy, its not me”. When I heard the giggles from the other passengers in the car who I had until now took no notice off, I knew I was right. “I’m just kidding, *laughs*….how are you”.
After the usual how di bodi and wetin u di do na tong. We exchanged cards and planned to meet at a later date if either of our schedules permitted it. He was in town on his annual Madieu Williams Foundation mission trip with a group of doctors and educators to Sierra Leone.
I first read about Madieu Williams over a year ago when he donated some $2m to his alma mater University of Maryland for the creation of a Global Health center in memory of his mother Abigail Butscher, who had passed away a couple years earlier. Both of Madieu’s parents hail from FourayBay-Fullah Town and he spent the earliest years of his life at their family house on 3rd Street, Mountain Cot.
I met up with Madieu and other members of his foundation at Sierra Light House as they had dinner, and shared pleasantries after a long day of surgeries at PCMH and Connaught Hospital. Over a dozen doctors, dentists, nurses, and volunteers had come with the Healing Hands Foundation a non profit based in Baltimore to provide care and also to bring some $1.4m in donated medical supplies from Citi Hope International to Sierra Leone. One of the members of the team was alum from my alma mater Haverford College, we exchanged a big haverhug and she explained that she had read about my show in our alum magazine. I told her about all the support I had gotten from the Haverford Community about projects in Sierra Leone when I was a student.
I sat with Madieu’s cousins while members of the team huddled over a slideshow of the day’s images. They seemed exhausted, and over worked, but extremely enthusiastic about the next day’s work, plans were already being made for next year’s trip.As Madieu interacted with the team and I was surprised at how deeply involved he was in the whole operation. From little details like making sure everyone had water, and lunch delivered on time, to much more significant ones on which facility was going to get which batch of drugs donation etc. Madieu was at the center of it all. A very different scene of what one would expect to find of people with money and power in Sierra Leone. He didn’t have a cell phone handler, security detail, or an entourage of goons to let everyone know that he was the big boss man. Nothing about the way he looked, or behaved would tell you that he played professional football in the NFL as safety for the Minnesota Vikings on a $33 million contract which made him in 2008 one of the highest paid safeties in the League. In fact any attempt to get Madieu to discuss his NFL career will probably end as an exercise in futility. While he considers himself to be very blessed to play professionally, for him (as it should be) football is merely a means to an end.
I accompanied the team to the Abigail Butscher Memorial Primary School in Calaba Town on the last day of the mission’s trip. Mothers, and children waited patiently as dentists provided free checkups and cleanings to those present. Madieu and the headmaster spent time discussing the urgent issue of teachers’ salaries, which the Madieu Williams Foundation began to subsidize as of May due to the government’s inability to pay the teachers. They also talked about plans to build another school in the vicinity if the community could make land available to the foundation. “I really want to do something innovative with the new school; I don’t want it to be just another standard 3 block classroom building,” Madieu explained as he looked in the direction of the school he built back in 2008.
Prior to the construction of the Abigail Butscher School, many of its current students had to either travel very far to attend school or weren’t in school at all. Both Madieu and the headmaster proudly boast of having more girls students then boys…a rarety in most coed schools in Sierra Leone. As we stood in the empty field over looking the sea under Freetown’s blazing sun, I asked Madieu why he keeps coming back to Sierra Leone, he stopped for minute and stared at me half smiling and said, “honestly, I don’t know why I keep coming back, I just do”. In his response, I recognized a very familiar sentiment, shared by many Sierra Leoneans who regardless of having built successful lives in other countries find themselves compelled to come back and give to Mama Salone. The Madieu Williams and Healing Hands Foundations will return to Sierra Leone next year on another medical and education mission trip.