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Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Sierra Leonean: A Life Of Twists, Turns And Finally Tragedy By Washington Post

Bowie State Graduate Moved To Sierra Leone, Married Quietly, And Died in Collision There

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009; B01

After the fateful phone call and the long flight from Washington to West Africa, Sulaiman Jalloh arrived at the funeral home in Sierra Leone to claim the body of his only daughter, Kadija.

It was too late, he was told that day in December. Another man had already claimed her.

"They said this man, this Michel Sho-Sawyer, was her husband," said Sulaiman Jalloh, 57. He had known of his daughter's engagement but not her wedding. "I just kept saying, 'What is going on? Where is Kadija?' "

It was then that Jalloh learned about the surprising life that his 22-year-old daughter, a graduate of Bowie State University, had built for herself in Sierra Leone starting last summer. She had revealed select details to a few close friends and to her mother, who was divorced from her father years ago. But Jalloh knew nothing of his daughter's conversion from Islam to evangelical Christianity, or her ascension to Sierra Leone's highest social circles as the girlfriend and later wife of a prominent government official.

In 2005, the father learned, Kadija Jalloh met the man she would marry on a Web site about Sierra Leone -- Sho-Sawyer's native country, and that of her parents. She was a student at Bowie State; he was eight years her senior and living in Atlanta.

Late last year, they married in a small ceremony in a chapel in Prince George's County. And less than two weeks later, on a highway in Sierra Leone, a truck hit the couple's vehicle head-on.

Jalloh, 22, was killed.

Even now, Sulaiman Jalloh becomes emotional as he describes how he and his wife moved to the United States in the 1980s in search of greater opportunity for the children they hoped to have. From an early age, Kadija was fascinated with Sierra Leone, and her father encouraged her; he never dreamed she would move there.

"Sierra Leone is a good place to like," he said, "but it's a difficult place to stay."

Last month, more than 200 people -- including her parents and husband -- gathered at Bowie State to share memories and announce the creation of a foundation in her honor to build orphanages in Sierra Leone.

"She loved Sierra Leone," Sulaiman Jalloh said at the service. "And she went to Sierra Leone. And she died in Sierra Leone."

Kadija Jalloh visited Sierra Leone for the first time in 2005. During the two-week trip with her mother, Jalloh was enamored by the nightlife, music and fashion. Later that year, she started a Maryland chapter of the national organization Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement. At the time, Sho-Sawyer was the national president of the group.

Sho-Sawyer, 30, was born in Sierra Leone and lived there until his family fled to the United States in 1999 during a bloody civil war -- the same conflict featured in the 2006 movie "Blood Diamond," about the human cost of trafficking in gems from conflict areas. Sho-Sawyer and his family lived mostly in New York until 2003. He graduated from Lehman College in the Bronx and then moved to Atlanta.

Sho-Sawyer and Jalloh first crossed paths late in 2005 on the Web site Salone Connection, where Sierra Leoneans the world over post photos, share news stories and talk politics. They met in person at a conference for young Sierra Leoneans several months later.

"Kadija and I fell in love the first time we set eyes on each other," Sho-Sawyer said. "But we refused to give in."

The friendship, however, deepened. Jalloh soon visited an evangelical Christian church. She did not tell her father when she converted, an omission he struggles to understand.

Last year, as a senior at Bowie State, Jalloh keenly missed Sho-Sawyer, he said. By then he was an adviser to the president of Sierra Leone, tasked with helping expatriates return home or invest in the country.

As a graduation present, Jalloh's father bought her a plane ticket to Sierra Leone, where he expected her to visit family. Instead, she spent much of the summer with Sho-Sawyer. According to her blog, she received VIP treatment everywhere she went, meeting top government officials and wealthy businessmen.

"My life in Sierra Leone, seemed so unreal compared to my normal, mundane, type of lifestyle in the states," she wrote. "There is just something about that little country on the west coast of Africa!"

She briefly returned to Maryland, and on Nov. 4 she called Sho-Sawyer, gleeful about the presidential election results. As Sho-Sawyer recalled, she told him: "Are you watching? Obama has won!"

Jalloh commented on how beautiful and strong Michelle Obama looked. "I am your Michelle Obama," she told him.

He said: "Since you are already my Michelle Obama, will you marry me?"

"No! No!" she said. "I am asking you! Will you marry me?"

The couple planned to have a large wedding this year but decided to quietly marry so as to not live together in sin. Two weeks after the proposal, Sho-Sawyer traveled to Maryland. The couple bought rings and met with Jalloh's pastor. The pastor told them their marriage had been "written before they were born," Sho-Sawyer recalled.

Sho-Sawyer called Jalloh's father, telling him he wanted to start the long process of winning approval for marriage. And on Nov. 24, the couple married in the presence of only a handful of relatives.

Early the next morning, Sho-Sawyer returned to Sierra Leone. Less than two weeks later, his new wife joined him.

The next day, Dec. 6, Jalloh and her husband were on the highway, driving to an event where he was to make an appearance. Sho-Sawyer's uncle was behind the wheel. The truck hit their vehicle, and Jalloh was killed, as was the uncle, Sho-Sawyer said.

"I wanted to take my life," said Sho-Sawyer. "I didn't want to be here alone. I was so angry that she left me. Why didn't she take me with her?"

Her funeral was in Freetown on Dec. 15. The president's wife attended, as did other dignitaries. In an ornate carved casket, in her husband's family's plot, Jalloh was buried in her adopted country.

***WASHINGTON POST

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