Part Eight in the Derailleur Series
The lunacy of Jean’s incarceration was offset by the mystery of a letter received around the same time we found Jean in June, 1981. The letter was forwarded from the Paris Mission directly to our apartment, not via the mission home in Brussels. Its forwarder averted the usual line of authority and somehow trusted whomever opened the letter in our apartment in Nancy. Or they didn’t really give a damn.
The letter was an appeal from a man and his wife who were being held in a refugee camp in Toul, France, about 24 kilometers west of Nancy. Opoku Darko and his wife Linda were refugees of Ghana where they fled for their lives, leaving their young daughter behind, during the military coup of that county’s government that same year. The letter indicated that they had some previous contact with Mormon missionaries and knew that the Church was a benevolent organization with diplomatic ties, one that could help them in their plight to get their daughter back.
Opoku was a member of the existing government’s military cabinet and Linda worked as an administrative assistant within the same. They escaped from the building where they worked when it came under siege of Jerry Rawlings’ commandos. During the violent coup the two fled for their lives back to Linda’s mother’s home to retrieve their daughter who spent the day there while her parents worked, but Rawling’s men preceded them and had taken their daughter and Linda’s mother into custody.
The couple left the city of Accra on foot and after sixteen days in the jungle terrain of Ghana and the Ivory Coast they made their way to the Port of Abidjan. There they boarded and took passage on a container ship to the port of Calais, France, where they mailed their letter, and were sent to the refugee camp in Toul.
Not long after reading the letter we made our way to the out-of-the-way town of Toul. Not far from the Cathedral Saint-Etienne we found a building that housed Ghanaian refugees. I’m not sure what information we had that lead us there to begin with, recalling it now seems so random and abstract that we found them at all. The building was a concrete shell of either a burned-out abandoned French subsidized bat or a burned-out French subsidized bat under construction, it was impossible to tell. Cellblocks were better appointed and in the Loraine summertime sun, the smell was worse than one could summon in the streets of any urban context where piss prevailed and humidity was its vaporizer. One only dared breathing.
We mounted floor by floor asking for the name we had on the letter, peeking in on what had to be squatted domiciles – this was no refugee camp. If it was, shame on the French. We found families in cement chambers destitute and forlorn, men standing in circles smoking and arguing, women attempting domesticity. No water, no sewage, no windows, no doors, just walls and stairs. All of them found us odd at the very least, two white guys in suits asking questions.
And on one of the upper levels, I can’t recall which, at the end of a hall, we found Opoku and Linda behind a bright curtain hung from a sprung rod in the doorway of their refuge. Their place was divided by a curtain, on one side living and on the other sleeping. It was neat and tidy with what little they managed to gather since they left Calais. We called through the curtain and were met by Opoku and Linda. Opoku responded in English, speaking only enough French to get food and day labor. They invited us in.
Linda wasn’t her real name, but we couldn’t pronounce the name given her, rooted in their traditional language of Ewe, so she asked to be called Linda. Opoku was big, muscular, and fierce if he had to be. We showed them their letter and they invited us in to sit. We sat and listened.
When we weren’t with Jean, we were in Toul. Opoku and Linda were beyond gracious in their austerity. We brought them food and clothing, and household items on each visit. For the first time since I started my mission I felt like a missionary, and we had yet to teach anything about the restored gospel.
We made phone calls to French agencies and to church regional offices in attempts to find out anything about their daughter. Every effort of the kind was in vain.
One afternoon, conversation with the Darkos turned to abortion. They asked about the Church’s position and how we felt personally about aborting a fetus. We indicated our alliance in preserving the life of the unborn regardless of circumstances (long before any Roe v. Wade debates ever came into clarity).
While Jean Jacques was cleaning up, the Darkos were progressing in the discussions. They read The Book of Mormon and accepted our challenges to forego coffee and tea – the only beverages they could afford – tobacco, and alcohol. They attended church with us regularly in a ward that had never seen black investigators, let alone members.
And they were baptized. It was around the same time as Jean. Others in the refugee camp became interested in this American church in this foreign land to the point where we organized a Ghanaian branch. Meetings were conducted in English, the chapel filled with Africans in their best dress, and the members of the Nancy ward sighed in relief of not having to associate with non-French speaking, non-white recent converts.
Linda was pregnant, first trimester when we met them. They were considering aborting when we had our discussion on the sanctity of life. She came to term long after I left Nancy, had a baby boy. In the letter they sent announcing his birth they indicated that they named him “Eric,” a letter I received shortly after arriving in Charleroi.