I remember when I first saw Victoria. It was the day of the first Mercy Ships medical screening in Liberia. Hundreds of people stood in line outside the JFK Hospital in Monrovia, waiting to see the charity’s doctors and hoping to be scheduled for free surgery. I stood outside too, making notes on the day’s proceedings for the article I’d later write.
I can’t say now what I first noticed about Victoria. Maybe it was her clothes. She wore a neatly tailored ankle-length skirt and short-sleeved blouse, with a matching headscarf, all in the same cotton fabric dyed deep into a beautiful blue. Maybe it was her featureless face. For Victoria had burns injuries to rival the most extreme cinematic special effect. No lips, no nose, no eyelids, no ears. Her head was a smooth ball, the hairless skin marbled in white and brown and pink.
I knew I had to go and speak with her. I also knew I didn’t want to. What on earth was I going to say? How could I possibly look into that face without recoiling? But I knew I had to. So, somehow, I did. I don’t remember all of what we said, but I know I told her that I liked the colour of her outfit, that I was glad she had come to the screening, that I hoped to see her again.
I next saw Victoria a few weeks later, in the ship’s hospital ward. She was recovering from surgery – not primarily for her face, there was little the surgeons could do there – but for her right arm, to release it from the contortions caused by scar tissue. Usually I visited the ward to interview patients in order to write articles, with their permission, that would help publicise the charity’s work. Victoria’s injuries were too severe to feature in any publicity material, but I listened to her story all the same.
It was simple enough. Victoria used to make batches of sugar-coated nuts to sell at the market. One day, while boiling up a large vat of sugar, she tripped on a small stone. And she fell, head first, into the hot sugar. She spent weeks in a coma, with terrible injuries, in a country ripped apart by civil war.
I’m not sure when I last saw Victoria. It may have been one of the times I sat by her bed, gently coaxing her constricted fingers into straightening out. It may have been when her sister visited and showed me a photograph of Victoria before the accident. It was definitely after I got seriously angry at God for not giving her a different job to do, for not moving that small stone, for not making her fall in a different direction. And it was not before she told me how grateful she was to God for her life.