Memuna McShane: From civil war in Sierra Leone to soccer fields of Washington

October 17, 2013

Memuna Mansaray McShane has many stories: some she remembers, some she doesn’t, some she’ll tell you, some others will tell for her. There are the stories people tell about her, and the story she’s trying to write herself.

Memuna, a 17-year-old soccer player at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, doesn’t remember her story the way history remembers it: As the government-chosen symbol for peace talks in the horrific civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. The toddler whose right arm was lost to rebel fire, who ended up in the arms of the country’s president, was held up at peace talks around the continent as a symbol of the war’s senseless brutality, was recognized in the streets and was the face on posters sold in Freetown, the capital city.

She also doesn’t remember the version of her story her three brothers do: as a 2-year-old crying in the arms of her grandmother as rebels entered the mosque where they took cover from the violence outside. A rebel’s bullet shattering her arm as it passed through and killed her grandmother, leading her mother to rush across the room to save her. Her mother getting shot as she did so, suffering bullet wounds that would kill her one month later. Her eldest brother Alhaji, then 11 years old, now a college student in Freetown, running back into the mosque to retrieve Memuna, left for dead, and carry her miles across the city to the hospital.

“It doesn’t really feel like I lived in that time period,” said Memuna, pried away from her friends on a recent sunny fall day at the St. Andrew’s soccer field. “It’s like hearing a story. You’re like, ‘Okay,’ and just move on. Because I don’t remember anything, it’s not like it’s my story.

“When my brother told me, I was sad, but more sad for him than for me. He remembers it all.”

In her own words

Memuna remembers more of the tale her adoptive parents tell about her: a Brooklyn prosthetist raised Rotary Club funds to bring a group of Sierra Leonean children to the United States to build them limbs lost in the war.

She’s seen pictures of herself in the arms of Bill and Hilary Clinton and with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. She’s heard others’ versions of the time when she and others testified at the United Nations and to the U.S. Senate about the atrocities in Sierra Leone, and about being part of a demonstration in front of the Cartier store in New York, protesting the lawless and brutal West African “blood diamond” trade that partially fueled and funded the war.

She’s heard how Kelly McShane, a former Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Sierra Leone, and her husband Kevin received a newsletter saying adoptive families were needed for the children. She’s been told about Kelly and Kevin, a former soccer coach at St. Albans School, being told to come take Memuna home.

But these aren’t the stories Memuna focuses on when she talks to friends. In fact, it’s only been recently that she started telling those stories at all. She used to wear long sleeves to mask the missing arm, didn’t want to talk about what had happened to it, and all the questions that her physical appearance naturally inspired.

This year, Memuna wears short sleeves with little inhibition. While she had told a few friends about her story, a few weeks ago she addressed the entire St. Andrew’s student body at the school’s chapel assembly — in a short-sleeved dress, no less — the first time she’d talked about her past to a group of that size.

Memuna told her classmates about the day she first met the McShanes. Several prospective adopters came to visit her when she was 6 years old and living in foster homes in New York, but while most visitors would, as Kevin put it, “spoil her rotten,” the McShanes refused.

Memuna recounted a lunch at which she ordered soup, and how her adoptive father told her she’d have to eat it if she ordered it. But Memuna hadn’t anticipated the soup being “terrible,” and explained to her classmates that he made her eat the whole bowl anyway. It was “the worst day of my life,” Memuna told her classmates.

Kevin McShane couldn’t help but laugh. “I was like, ‘You know Memuna, it probably wasn’t the worst day of your life.’ ”

Memuna is no longer disquieted by that missing limb, either. Though she says she hates when strangers glibly ask what happened to it (“I always want to say, ‘What happened to your face?’”), she feels no need to wear her prosthetic.

“It’s uncomfortable. We ordered it, it took a year to make it — in a year my arm changed. So it didn’t fit quite right,” she said. “It’s like my retainer. We got the sizes taken and then we forgot it.”

“Well, I actually did remember,” she added with a sly laugh.

Coming home again

On the soccer field, Memuna’s play is not unique aside from her one-armed throw-ins, which have befuddled some stickler referees. Quick with her feet and well aware of her on-field surroundings, she plays a pass-first style, chipping balls to streaking forwards and hitting midfielders in space. She’s the second-leading scorer on her St. Andrew’s team and boasts obvious closing speed, but is as apt to laugh out loud when a teammate trips as she is to display a frown when her team falls behind.

Ask her about her two trips back to Sierra Leone, and you’ll find more examples of that levity.

At first, she’ll tell you about the yellow house she grew up in, about seeing her brothers and playing Uno with them, and about how strange it was to be recognized in Freetown when she visited years after the war.

She’ll tell you about her country: “beautiful,” but also “very crowded — like New York scrunched 10 hundred million more times, with the same amount of cars.”

But overall, Memuna’s story focuses more on the things like the family’s driver for that visit, a “fun” guy who miraculously turned around their vehicle in an ultra-crowded alleyway. Or how she was crammed into the back of the family car so her parents only had to pay the child’s fare on the ferry, despite the fact that she was 16 at the time.

One particular walk through the city also sticks out.

“I was walking by myself in front of my family, and guys would see me and [the McShanes] caught up to me, and the people were like, ‘Huh? What the. . . ?’ ” taken aback by the difference in skin color between Memuna and her parents. “I was laughing pretty hard.”

Memuna says she and her adopted family “got along immediately,” but that doesn’t mean she wants to spend every second with them. Their interactions are typical of parents and their teenage children.

“My parents say I’m sociable when I want to be,” Memuna said. “My parents would always say, ‘Go to your room, Memuna.’

“At first I was angry [at being punished], but then I’m like, wait a second, I’ve got everything in my room. I’m going to my room!”

Memuna admits with a laugh that “it’s fun being famous.” She says her friends convinced her that doing a story that aired this week on ESPN’s “E:60” would be “so cool,” and that she’s getting more comfortable accepting that distant past as a part of her present.

“It’s gotten a lot easier. When friends would ask [about my arm], I wouldn’t feel comfortable yet. I would have to know them longer,” she said. “It’s not like hard as in I get teary or something like that. It’s just hard to say for some reason. I got shot — it’s not that hard words, but it’s hard.”

As far as her story has diverged from what it might have been in Freetown, a city still ravaged by poverty, crippled by unemployment and trying to recover from the war’s physical and emotional devastation, Memuna seems determined to bring her home country back into her narrative sometime soon.

“We have a lot of school projects where you have to pick a country. So I look it up,” she said. “It seems like the war really affected the country financially, because they were already poor to begin with, and then that war made them even more poor. So I’m trying to think of ways to help them. Like maybe become president of it.”

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