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Special Feature

A Basket of Tribute to My Little Sister

A famous author, Isadora James said, “A sister is a gift to the heart, a friend to the spirit, a golden thread to the meaning of life.”  I could not have said that better, for I feel exactly the same way. My lil sister, Ceaineh Amel Haddad-Koiwood had an enormous influence on my life, especially during the senseless war in my homeland, Liberia. In the midst of the crisis, she inspired me to navigate the business world as a means of survival, and to look forward to each day as one that “God has given.”

My little sister affected my way of life, my spirituality, and my fortitude at a time “when survival of the fittest” was prevalent – during the Liberian crises that left over 250,000 persons dead.

My sister had a sunny optimism, which I loved. She was a blossoming teenager in 1984 when Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister was killed by two bodyguards. In 1985, she was old enough to know about the intense-able Liberian presidential elections that year.  Later, she got to hear about the students massacred in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 on the much listened to BBC World news. She witnessed the senseless war that started late 1989, and subsequently saw the widespread use of the mobile phone in Liberia.

Many marveled at her adorable disposition – young and unassumingly determined in a way that is hard to describe. She was always grateful for little things you would do for her that really required no thank you at all. For example, a friend gave my sister the replica of a gold cross necklace as a present. Ceaineh wouldn’t stop talking about the present, even after it faded and began to scar her neck. Whenever Ceaineh wore the necklace, she would heap praises at her friend, and attempted to introduce the absent friend to others.  This attitude drew laughter from us, which on the other hand irritated Ceaineh.

In addition to being philosophical, she also had a solid realistical sense about life that formed the basis of all the decisions that she was to make in life. She didn’t stress over facing hard ship. Like her name, AMEL she was a hard worker and her hope was forthrightly audacious. She dealt with life’s hardships with reality.  She also displayed an unshakable sense of humor that remained steadfast in the face of difficult conditions. She shared most of those qualities with me, especially when I returned home late 1990, after my first forcible refugee sojourn at the beginning of the Liberian war.

We had a modest beginning – born in a small rustic town, reared in a rural setting. My sister was one of the youngest in a somewhat middle size family. We did most of the household chores, including cleaning up, doing laundry, and helping to fetch water, and tending garden. Our parents ensured that we [girls] began learning ‘how to move about the kitchen’ from school going age. I had my own ‘home- made’ cooking utensils from as far back as I can remember – before I enrolled in school. I would place my pots (usually opened cans) near my mother’s firewood cooking spot, and put in small amounts whatever my Mom would put in her pot.

For a family considered “kwee” (the colloquial language for civilized class within the Liberian society), it was unusual to see ‘light skinned” or ‘malatto” kids doing household chores. We did help around the home and on the farm, but my lil sister, the late Ceaineh also became much more interested in learning the knack of succeeding in the business world. She would wear the traditional market bag and passed around the community, pretending to be on a business trip.

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Additionally, once old enough, my late sister had already attempted various small businesses and knew when to change from one commodity to the next. She was like a “stock market predictor, or financial analyst, except not on Wall Street, but in a few of Liberia’s small cities, including the capital city-Monrovia. 

So, it wasn’t a surprise that when I returned home, after fleeing Liberia at the beginning of the war to Sierra Leone and then Guinea, I would eventually lean on my little sister to relearn needed  skills to reintegrate into my own homeland. Compared to other flights out of Liberia, though that first escape was the shortest, I found myself terribly “lost” in a world I once was very familiar with- the environment, people, culture and jargons.  But this time around, everything, and almost everyone was like a stranger. In the midst of the strangeness: the face of destruction, widespread insanity, stark poverty, acute hunger,  I would walk the streets of Monrovia, looking at the faceless faces of people who appeared to be going everywhere and somehow nowhere.

One day, after leaving my sister’s place across the bridge, I walked through Freeport; passed through Somalia Drive; tire-fully marched through Paynesville, before reaching my pre-war home in Sinkor. Though my entire body was aching, when I saw my pre-war home in shatters, my ‘heart broke.’ In tears, I felt my body slipping downwards, and with my bare hands, I hungrily scurried through the debris for family pictures and heirloom, but to no avail. While I wailed aloud, and my body trembling from anguish, I hunched on my knees in the rubbles. Holding my face in my hands, I cried out aloud for the brutal destruction and loss caused by the senseless war- men’s cruelty against man. It was at that point some ECOMOG soldiers, who apparently were nearby ran to me. I was still on my knees crying when I felt hands on my back. When I lifted my head, with my hair pasted on my face from the tears, I realized I was surrounded by fully regalia ECOMOG Soldiers. They wanted to know what was happening. When I told them in flood of tears, “this is where I used to live….” they sensed that I was a new returnee. After few more sobs, and beating of my chest as I inquired from no one in particular the “whys” of the destruction, I later mustered the courage to continue my journey on bruised and swollen feet through Sinkor, and back to my sister’s place, “Across the Bridge.”  When I explained my disappointment to my sister, she demonstrated empathy, and said in her usual soft voice, “Sister Musue, it will be okay. We just got to move on now.” 

For the few days I spent with Ceaineh, I learned few basic things about the market trend. At one point she baked bread to sell. At other times, she sold flour in cups. Some other times, her business was “dry” goods, or fresh vegetables. She was always on her feet – a hardworking and devoted mother, a virtuous wife, a loving sister and dependable breadwinner. In all of the challenges, she always had a hint of smile on her face. Sometimes I would tease my lil sister that it was no mistake that she was called Amel, which means “hard worker, hope and expectation,” and also given the name Ceaineh, which in Lorma means “successful trip.” True to her name, my late lil sister, Ceaineh Amel was a hard worker, and whenever she left home to transact business, she always came with some fruitful and rewarding news. 

Subsequently, when I started my own small trading- waking up at dawn to bake bread to sell in slices; opening a street side table market; acquiring a spot and selling “dry” goods at Waterside Market, I knew that I had learned from the Best.

My lil sister always gave us the most precious gift a sister has to give – unconditional love and her full attention. She was never distracted with other things; we were the center of her world, and she was ours. She made our childhood wonderful, and even though we were not wealthy, we were richly blessed with the positive, strong family unit our parents had created. She adored all of us- big and small brothers and sisters, and we dotted on her. Whenever we were together, we were kids again- laughing, playing, tickling, pulling at one another, joking and reminiscing the love we shared. Ceaineh has a lot of love in her heart to share, and she did so lovingly. No matter how far away we went, or how long we spent apart, when we met, we picked up from where we had left. And when we parted, it was with smiles, jokes and teasing.

So, my dear lil sister, if you are watching from your spot from above, I will complete this basket of tribute to you in the very same way we always did: a little smile and a joke. We will miss your love, smile and the sound of your laughter. While my heart aches, I want you to know that I will continue to hold our memories and you will live in my heart forever!

Author’s Note:  My lil sister, Ceaineh Amel Haddad-Koiwood died around 12: 51am on October 16, 2012.  She is survived by her husband, Morris Koiwood, her children and a host of family members.

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