Jude: There is an African proverb that says, "When two Elephant's fight, it is the grass that suffers." In the early 1990's the fighting began and it was the children who suffered most.
In 1995 during the dry season in Liberia, West Africa, I waved goodbye to my mother and climbed into the back of a Toyota pick-up with my five siblings, headed for Monrovia. At the time, I believed that I was going to visit extended family, and would be returning to my mother in a few days. I could not have known that I would not see my mother again, and that my destination, along with my siblings, was an orphanage in Monrovia.
Rita: At that time, I was living in Monrovia with my father, who had been raising me on his own since I was a baby. I was attending primary school. The civil war in Liberia began in 1990, with periods of ceasefire at various points. In April of 1996, the war escalated, resulting in an unparalleled death toll. Everyone scattered. My father got detained somewhere, and we had to get to a safe place without him. There were two roads to get there, and the first one was closed. Hundreds of people were forced to go the back way, through a swamp. Women were carrying babies against their chests, with luggage on their heads, holding children by the hands. Children were crying and falling on the ground, getting trampled on.
Jude: The orphanage was no longer a safe haven. It had been overrun by rebel soldiers, forcing us to flee to a safe house several miles away. There were things blowing up all around us, bullets flying, and chaos everywhere. I remember a feeling of complete helplessness. The intense conflict continued for four days. At the end, there was silence, like a ghost town. Even the birds had disappeared. Slowly, over a period of weeks, life came back to the city.
Rita: There was a massive displacement of children as a result of the war, and many of them were brought to the orphanage. My father became ill at this time and lost his sight. He took me to the orphanage because he could no longer care for me. As I've matured, I've come to understand how hard that decision was for my father and how much love that decision was filled with. When my father went blind, he wept for me, begging daily for food and sustenance. In those days he always kept me close, so he could hear me, sense me, and reach out to me – but now he had to let go, for the sake of my future. It was sacrificial love, and for that love, I will always be grateful.
Jude: My siblings and I were at the orphanage for several months. In 1997, I was adopted by an American couple, and my siblings were adopted into my father's extended family. When we arrived at SeaTac Airport, we were met by a news crew from King 5. We were among the first children to be adopted from Liberia.
Rita: My adoptive parents had come to Liberia to adopt a boy. While they were there, they met me when I was singing in a church choir. When they came back to America with Dakinah, the child they had gone there for, they knew they had to come back for me. I was adopted about a year later and came to America.
Jude: It was a summer night in June, and I heard there was a gathering of Liberian people at the 6th Avenue Denny's in Tacoma. I remember driving there with a feeling of anticipation. I greeted everyone and sat down to order one of my all-time favorites – the Moons Over My Hammy. As I was savoring every bit, I stopped for a drink of water and looked into the face of the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen. I spilled the entire glass of water on myself and was left feeling completely embarrassed. I dried off as best I could, and apologized to everyone.
Rita: I, too, was invited to this gathering. At first I didn't really feel like going, but some voice inside of me kept telling me to go. On my way there, I felt very nervous like something big was about to happen. Sure enough, something did happen. As I walked into that Denny's, I saw the most handsome Liberian man I had ever seen - and I've seen a lot of them. We did not say a lot to each other that night, but we did exchange phone numbers.
Jude: Here is the kicker – if this story needs one. Literall,y as I drove away with my siblings and our adoptive parents in vans headed to the American embassy, and eventually to board a plane for Tacoma, Rita was walking across the hot and humid landscape of Liberia with her father on the way to the same orphanage. We just missed each other, but now, almost 5 thousand miles from that orphanage, and seven years later, we finally met . It was meant to be.
Jude: After four years of dating while attending colleges in different states, I proposed to Rita at Zoolights in Tacoma on December 17, 2011. I had talked to management ahead of time, and they agreed to let us have the zoo to ourselves for the proposal. Rita said YES! Our event ended with a seven course meal at a fancy French restaurant in Seattle. Our wedding will be a celebration of African and American foods and dancing, combing our heritages. All but one of Rita's bridesmaids will be other young women from the orphanage.
Rita: Jude began this story with an African proverb, and so I will end it with another: "A single heart by itself is not wise." My heart is full, and my hope is that in that fullness it will be wise. And in marriage, our two hearts will become one in some mysterious way.
6. Every love story is unique, because no two couples are the same. But we believe that ours is a story that moves from despair to hope, which is the movement of every heart in some way. We all have stories of loss and struggle, some more dramatic than others, but all are real. Still, ours seems like an improbable story, one in which blessing, luck, or divine intervention seemed to bring two Liberian children together, not in their homeland, but in a strange land that has become their home. Now, our home has become wherever the other is and that is what our lives will be about – being a home to one another.