Editor’s note: Francis Mandewah, of Ferguson, Missouri, has penned a book telling the story of a Milaca man who befriended an impoverished African boy and changed his life forever. Links to “Friendship: A True Story of Adventure, Goodwill, and Endurance” can be found online at www.francismandewah.com.
Francis Mandewah stood outside a predominantly white social club.
Not only did the sun beat down upon him, but so did the weight of the basket of oranges that sat atop the young boy’s head.
It was that day that Francis Mandewah’s life changed forever. It was that day that the young boy who originated from a small, poor village in the heart of Africa’s diamond zone had a chance meeting with a pilot from Milaca. It was 1976. Francis was 15 years old.
Francis Mandewah was raised in a village of predominantly rice farmers in the African country of Sierra Leone and in the heart of the African diamond zone. There was no electricity in the village. There was no running water.
He lived with his mother and two sisters. He spoke Mendae, the native language of the area. He attended school in a building made of mud bricks.
Mandewah attended the school through fifth grade, at which time he was sent to live with the family of a cousin 20 miles north of Mandewah’s village.
“My cousin was physically abusive to me,” Mandewah said.
“He hit me. The situation with my cousin was bad,” said Mandewah, now in his mid 50s.
Mandewah was forced to sell fruits for his cousin’s wife.
The boy was selling oranges from a basket outside a club for employees and officers of the National Diamond and Mining Co., which employed about 250,000 people in the region, Mandewah recalled. The company had a 99-year lease with the government of Sierra Leone for the mining of diamonds.
“I was selling oranges at the predominantly white club when I was approached by a tall, white man,” Mandewah recalled. It was pilot Tom Johnson, of Milaca.
Tom Johnson grew up in Milaca. The son of Kenneth and Virginia Johnson, he attended Milaca Public Schools and graduated from Milaca High School in 1967.
In 1968 Johnson enlisted in the United States Army and later served in the Vietnam War where he became a war hero. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Hearts. After the war Johnson became a helicopter pilot and, over a 20-year career, flew helicopters in countries around the world.
It was a hot and sunny day in 1976. Tom Johnson saw Francis Mandewah with his basket of oranges and watched him for a short period of time.
At one point Johnson called out to the boy and eventually purchased three oranges from the basket.
“He began to peel and eat one,” Mandewah recalled.
“It was my first contact with a white man. I watched his eyes,” Mandewah said. “He asked me why I was not in school.”
It’s a question that may have changed the life of Francis Mandewah forever.
In broken English, Mandewah explained to Johnson that his family was poor and his mother could no longer afford to send him to school.
An interpreter speaking to Mandewah on behalf of the pilot said the American wanted to help him with school.
“I thought this was unbelievable,” Mandewah said.
The American pilot extended his hand as he initiated a handshake. He shook Francis Mandewah’s hand and said, “My name is Tom Johnson.”
Johnson also told Mandewah to be at the airport the following day.
Francis Mandewah says he was in shock as he walked home from the social club that hot day in 1976.
“I walked home in a haze. This was a miracle,” Mandewah said.
The boy prayed that the events of the day were real.
“I prayed, Dear God, I can’t take any more heartbreak. Please let this be real,” Mandewah said.
“I prayed that I wouldn’t die in my sleep that night,” he recalled.
Francis Mandewah asked God what he had done to deserve the blessing Tom Johnson was to bestow upon him. He made a promise to God to do well in school and make him proud.
The next day, Mandewah walked to the airport.
He had on his best dress pants, but didn’t have a pair of shoes. He still had an orange basket atop his head.
He remembers the airport vividly. On one side of the facility, helicopters were parked – on the other side, airplanes.
“I stood along a chain-linked fence and looked at the helicopters. I was scared,” Mandewah said.
“As I stood there with an orange basket on my head, I saw Tom Johnson walk from a hangar. He raised his hand, waved, and directed me to come his way,” he said.
People looked at Mandewah with shock, he said. It was not common for a white man to befriend a black child. The two garnered even more looks when Johnson extended his arm and shook the boy’s hand.
“We got to an airport checkpoint and people stared. He said, ‘Come with me,’ and took me into a pilot lounge,” Mandewah said.
It was the first time the boy from a small Sierra Leone village had walked into an air-conditioned facility.
Mandewah was directed to sit on a couch.
Johnson said to his associates in the pilot lounge: “This is my new friend. I’m going to help him with school,” Mandewah recalled.
Johnson then went to a refrigerator and grabbed for the boy an ice-cold Coca-Cola.
“It was my first Coke. It was so cold. I felt the bubbles in my nose,” he said.
With a cold soda in hand, the Minnesota pilot and his new African friend had their first in-depth conversation. Mandewah told Johnson his name was Francis and he wanted to go to school. Later that day, at a Catholic boarding school, Johnson paid the tuition for Mandewah’s school right there on the spot.
“It was a miracle,” Mandewah said. “He paid for one year of school and room and board.”
Johnson also arranged for the purchase of school uniforms and shoes.
“It was the first time I wore shoes,” he said.
After arrangements were made for school, Johnson returned Mandewah to his cousin’s home. Johnson said he would pick Mandewah up in a few days when the uniforms were ready. When that day came, word had made its way through the village.
“Tom came and people lined up to get a look. This was a place white men didn’t usually go,” Mandewah recalled.
Johnson drove Mandewah to the boarding home.
“I stood in uniform, in my first shoes, and got ready to go to class,” Mandewah said.
His life continued to transform before his eyes.
Mandewah was in class one day when the principal entered the room and pulled the boy out of class.
Standing outside the classroom was Johnson.
“Tom usually smiled. This time he had a serious look on his face,” Mandewah recalled.
“Francis, I’m going to America today,” the boy recalls Johnson saying.
“I was in shock. I wanted to cry. Tears were in my eyes,” Mandewah said.
Johnson paid to the school one year’s worth of tuition. He also gave Mandewah some money for his pocket.
“I thought my world was crumbling down. I went back to my room crying,” he said.
Mandewah was bullied because the man who had sponsored him appeared on the surface to have abandoned him.
“I was shamed,” Mandewah said.
But the teen was anything but abandoned. If anything, the bond between Johnson and Mandewah was growing closer.
A few months after Johnson left Sierra Leone, a nun brought Mandewah a letter from the man. The letter said that Johnson would be continuing to fund the boy’s education.
“I was relieved,” Mandewah said.
A few weeks later, another letter arrived that detailed a journey from Sierra Leone, to England, and then on to Minneapolis.
In the letter, Johnson stated he told his parents about the boy. He stated he was now flying helicopters for the Mayo health system.
One day Mandewah received a letter from Elizabeth Johnson, a woman residing in Milaca, Minnesota. In the letter, Virginia Johnson chronicled how delighted she was that her son had chosen such a noble cause in helping the young boy.
Over time, Mandewah continued to receive packages from Tom Johnson. They often included clothing and socks. He continued to be bullied by other children who were envious of Mandewah.
By 1978, Mandewah was expressing to Johnson a desire to go to America.
Mandewah and Johnson communicated by letter and also saw each other when Johnson made some return visits to Sierra Leone.
Johnson told Mandewah that if he proved he could stand on his own feet for two years, he would help him get to America.
Mandewah had a big challenge ahead of him. He decided he would leave his country. He said goodbye to his mother and sisters, not knowing if, or when, he would ever be back. He left his homeland with nothing but a suitcase.
Mandewah wanted to go to Italy, where a friend of Johnson’s owned a hotel. The hotel was more than 1,300 miles away, but Johnson helped make arrangements to get Mandewah there.
Mandewah traveled across Africa as he made his way to Italy. He crossed the River Niger and traveled across the Sahara Desert. Conditions were sometimes deplorable as he rode on decrepit trucks filled with women and children.
“I got sick and almost died,” Mandewah said. “I had a high fever and was weak.”
At one point, he was so weak that he was abandoned by the convoy with which he was traveling.
“An old man lifted me and helped me. I rested. Another convoy came in three days,” he said.
Mandewah was out of money. He had passport problems at both Algeria and the Tunisian border. He was taken off a train and questioned for hours.
But he somehow persevered and made his way to a ferry filled with hundreds of people going from Tunis to Italy.
He found his way to the hotel and took a job.
Time passed. Mandewah fell in love with a German woman, with whom he hitchhiked across Greece. He began working on a farm.
“One day I wrote Tom through his mom in Milaca. I wrote to Tom that my goal was to still come to America,” Mandewah said.
That was about to happen.
One day Tom Johnson arrived in Greece – in the same town that Mandewah was staying.
“He wrote to me and said he would like to meet with me. I went to his hotel,” Mandewah said.
“Tom was so proud. He said he would help me get to America. I was so happy,” he said.
Johnson helped Mandewah obtain a student visa and arranged to help pay for his college education at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.
When Mandewah graduated in 1991, Johnson was there to watch him receive his diploma.
“He came to graduation. He was so proud to see me step to the podium and get my diploma,” Mandewah said.
Mandewah said he was still trying to make Johnson proud when the two met on that graduation day. That’s when Mandewah received some words of wisdom from his mentor.
“Francis, stop thinking of me and go do for someone else what I have done for you,” Mandewah recalls Johnson saying.
It was the last time Mandewah saw his lifelong benefactor, who was residing in Peru, and later in Togo, Africa.
On Dec. 7, 1993, Johnson suffered a massive heart attack at his home in Lamakara, Togo, Africa.
He did not survive and died at age 44. But Mandewah’s connection to Johnson lived on.
Mandewah did not know that Johnson died on Dec. 7, 1993, and for that reason, did not come to Milaca for Johnson’s funeral.
But in 2001, with a Master’s degree in public administration in hand, Mandewah took a job as a probation officer with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (where he eventually worked for 14 years) and settled down in Hayward, Wisconsin – about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Milaca. Nearly every weekend Mandewah drove to Milaca to spend time with Johnson’s mother, Virginia, and other members of the Johnson family. He maintained that relationship for two years. In 2003 Mandewah moved to Milwaukee and later to Ferguson, Missouri, where he continues to work as a counselor at a correctional facility.
There isn’t a day that Mandewah isn’t grateful for all that Tom Johnson provided in his life.
“This man from Milaca was a big brother. He watched out for me and gave me opportunity,” Mandewah said.
“I am forever grateful.”