`Saint' Helen. Fathers away, homes often run by mothers and grandmothers. FAMILY LIFE IN LIBERIA

IN Sanoyea, Liberia, a village 120 miles inland from the West African coast, a kindly widow is known to everyone as ``Saint'' Helen. Admired by all the villagers, she lives a simple life of hard work and family care. A slight, gentle woman, Saint Helen cares for five grandchildren. Two teen-age boys, Noah and Peter, work in the field. Kama, a 12-year-old girl, helps with the housekeeping. Otto, 12, and Patrick, 11, perform tasks such as bringing wood cut from the bush. Kama is only a month older than her half brother Otto. They have different mothers but the same father, who lives in the capital city of Monrovia - a pattern typical of much of black Africa. Any number of cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, or other relatives might appear at any time.

The visiting relatives sometimes bring money or gifts of food that help Saint Helen sustain the family. In a patch beyond her house she grows cassava, edos, sweet potatoes, bananas, and plantains. In a thatched-roof pen she keeps a few chickens.

During the past 10 years most round mud huts have been replaced by square houses with stucco finish and tin roofs. Saint Helen's cement block one is the nicest in the village. With great humility she cares for it the best she can. But begun by her husband when he retired from the military, it was never completed before his death a few years ago. The home consists of four bedrooms, a bathroom, a small living-dining area, and a porch.

Every morning soon after dawn, Kama makes numerous trips to the nearest well (about 300 yards) and brings back one bucketful of water after another on her head. She pours the water into a large drum in the backyard. All day Saint Helen uses it for cooking, baths, and laundry.

Many people still go to the stream at the edge of the village to wash their clothes. That is a long walk, and if the dry season does not last too long (usually three months - January to March), the community well will supply all she needs until the rains come.

Unlike many of her neighbors, who spread out their clothes on rocks or the clay ground to dry, Saint Helen hangs hers on a line, stretched between trees. If the steaming humidity prevents their drying during the day, she brings them in late in the afternoon, folds them in a basket, and hangs them out again the next morning.

``They might disappear at night,'' Saint Helen says with a solemn nod. Although theft is uncommon, she closes the doors and window shutters over the screening as soon as the sun sets for security and privacy.

A building in the other side yard has two rooms. One of these is for her teen-age grandsons, Noah and Peter, who, like most young people around the world, want a place of their own.

The other, more spacious room was meant to be the kitchen. It has built-in cabinets and a small sink. Without running water, electricity, or even a kerosene stove, the room is mainly used for storage.

Beyond the back steps, balanced on a rack supported by three stones over an open fire, two pots of food are cooked by Saint Helen for her family and any guests who might arrive in time for the one daily meal.

One pot is always used for native rice. Fluffy and slightly pink, it is more nourishing than the rice Westerners eat. Like her neighbors, she grows and thrashes her own and tries to make each harvest last through ``hungry time'' before the next season.

In the other pot, Saint Helen makes a stew from anything available - squash (pumpkin), plantains, edos, palm hearts, sweet potato, or cassava roots. She also uses greens, chopped fine and boiled. They're all mixed with any meat - pork, lamb, chicken, dried fish, or ``small beef'' (any wild creature: bird, rodent, squirrel, rabbit, armadillo).

Saint Helen boils water for drinking and brushing teeth, a habit not yet practiced by everyone. When any of the five hand pumps, located in different parts of the village, are working, potable water can be had. But too often the pumps are idle, waiting to be repaired.

When the Christian missionaries left the area in 1973, the government took control of a clinic and the school. The villagers complain that neither the services nor the maintenance is adequate now. About 400 students attend a school that CARE built after the mission one deteriorated and was subsequently abandoned.

But Kama, her brother, and cousins attend the Muslim private school. ``The learning is better,''says Kama, as she glances up from an advanced geography book, lent to her by a teacher because she is eager ``to know about faraway places.''

Muslims make up about half the population of approximately 2,000. Despite the differences in religious practices from those of the Christians, the people respect each other and cooperate in village affairs.

Saint Helen and the children, along with many others, attend the Christian church every Sunday. In the stone-and-frame building, which is a memorial to one of the early religious leaders, a native minister preaches. The choir ladies, usually dressed in white wrappers, lead the singing.

Every night after Kama brings the lantern into the living room, the grandmother joins the children in singing such hymns as ``Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham'' in English, and other religious songs in their native Kpelle, one of the 26 tribal languages of Liberia. Often Saint Helen talks to them about moral values, as she repeats Bible passages. When this ``vesper service'' is over, the children go to bed without complaint.

There is no television, movies, or entertainment of any kind, except on Thursdays when the disco runs from 9 to midnight. For 25 cents anyone can join the crowd inside to dance. In a small building on main street the only generator in town makes possible flashing colored lights and the lively beat of popular music from a tape player.

Kama and her younger brothers, too small to attend this raucous affair, listen to the rhythmic sounds that can be heard all over the village, as they try to fall asleep.

From the dense bush that surrounds the modest homes, the squawks of birds, the croaks of frogs and calls of wild animals are all drowned out for those three hours once each week. If Noah and Peter have any money left from their sale of rice, cocoa, or coffee that they helped to grow on farm land hacked from the bush, they attend the dance as often as possible.

On Fridays everyone mingles in the marketplace, built with Peace Corps help some time ago. It's always flooded with traders from other villages and itinerant merchants, who come in crowded minibuses from the capital city of Monrovia.

They bring pots and pans, lanterns, buckets, rubber thongs, piece goods, spices, salt, and any other items that might be saleable in this remote spot, 15 miles off the main motor road.

Saint Helen takes the few eggs, bananas, or cassava greens she can spare to the marketplace to trade for soap, towels, or clothes for the children. Also she visits her friends, laughs with them, or listens to their troubles. Then she lingers to examine the ``store goods'' that she cannot afford.

Finally, with her few parcels balanced on a flat basket on her head, she walks slowly back down the side street to her home, dust stirring and settling on her sandaled feet.

Despite the hard work and lack of conveniences, the grandmother with her extended family in the unfinished house continues her gentle kindness that earned her the name Saint.

The lovely granddaughter, Kama, smiles with a charm that makes her dark eyes sparkle.

The boys giggle and tease and go about the business of growing up, in what some might call a primitive setting - but others would call a loving home.

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