Back to The Gambia after a few weeks of holidays spent in Liberia, 33-year-old Emmanuel, a former SOS youth from Sierra Leone, looks just as he always used to look except for one little thing. He has not put on weight, he has not changed his hair style, he still smiles and dresses the same way, but now he is proudly wearing a golden ring on his left hand. He has finally got married! Emmanuel is one of the happiest men in the world and you will understand why.
It all began like this
Emmanuel grew up at SOS Children's Village Freetown in Sierra Leone. He came to the Gambia in 1997 at the age of 24 to pursue his studies as a mechanics apprentice at SOS Vocational Training Centre Bakoteh. He stayed at the SOS Youth Facility, just next door from his new training school.
That same year, a girl named Cecelia (at that time 18 years old) from SOS Children's Village Monrovia in Liberia came to receive treatment at the SOS Medical Centre in Bakoteh for a serious hearing problem that she had developed during the war in Liberia. She was accommodated at SOS Children's Village Bakoteh.
Soon after Cecelia had arrived, Emmanuel was introduced to her by one of her Liberian SOS brothers who was also staying at the youth facility. Due to her hearing problem, the girl was very shy and spent most of the time alone; Emmanuel wanted to boost her self-confidence and make her feel happy. As he says, "Every SOS child should feel at home in any SOS Children's Village; that's what I wanted for Cecelia".
He started visiting her almost every day at the SOS Children's Village. "I used to make jokes, dance, buy her presents to make her feel special", recalls Emmanuel with a smile. Communicating was of course not easy for them at first. "I bought myself a little notebook where I used to communicate with Cecelia in writing. She was able to reply speaking and I became very good at writing", he explains. "We communicated like this for three months until she got used to reading my lips."
They became very good friends, and soon they fell in love - secretly, because it was (and still is) against the rules in an SOS Children's Village. Nevertheless, everyone at the village eventually discovered the love they had for each other. The village director could not believe it! He had thought Emmanuel was coming to visit Cecelia as any SOS brother would do. Their feelings were just too strong...
Far from the eyes, but still very close to the heart
In 2000, Cecelia had to go back to Liberia. Her hearing problem could not be solved and nothing else could be done for her in the Gambia. She returned to SOS Children's Village Monrovia and started working there as an "SOS aunt", helping the SOS mothers to take care of the children.
Emmanuel stayed to finish his mechanics training, and soon after was employed as a tutor at SOS Vocational Training Centre Bakoteh. He felt sad and lonely, but knew that their love was strong enough to last. "We could only communicate through letters. With the support of some SOS Children's Villages staff travelling between the two countries, we managed to keep in touch, but sometimes with only one or two letters a year", Emmanuel explains.
She is the one!
Given all these complications and the lack of possibilities to communicate, Emmanuel and Cecelia's relationship could easily have gone down the drain. However, when Cecelia came back to the Gambia in March 2005 to attend the three-month training for all SOS mothers and aunts in the region, Emmanuel jumped at the opportunity to show Cecelia she was the love of his life and proposed to her. "I still asked for permission from Josef Kittl, the regional director of SOS Children's Villages North West Africa, to be sure SOS Children's Villages was supporting me!", Emmanuel adds.
Of course, Cecelia said "yes"! The engagement party took place at the SOS Mother and Adult Training Centre in Bakoteh, where Cecelia and other SOS mothers and aunts from Liberia and Sierra Leone were staying, in a very joyful atmosphere, with all SOS mothers, aunts and staff.
A dream comes true
Emmanuel left the Gambia on 25 August 2006, a little anxious and very excited, as all future grooms are. The wedding took place on 9 September 2006 in the village chapel at SOS Children's Village Monrovia. Sitting in the chapel, he only had to wait a short time before he saw Cecilia arriving in her beautiful long white dress. "I had tears in my eyes", he confesses. "All I had dreamt of for years was finally coming true!" They exchanged their vows, and from this moment on they could finally live happily ever after - together.