No one spoke as the first shovel of Kansas dirt cascaded into the grave.
It fell across a white shroud that encased a young man’s body.
Family members and friends, a few kneeling but most standing, wiped tears from cheeks chilled by the cold November air. Slowly, a growing blanket of dirt obscured the body, along with the sunflowers and red roses they’d dropped on it with love from above.
Salifu Sesay Vanasse’s death at age 21 felt so wrong, they said.
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How could he survive what he’d been through as a small child in Africa, only to die in Olathe after barely experiencing manhood?
A lifetime ago, Sierra Leone rebels had gashed open his 2-year-old skull with a machete and cut a line across the back of his neck, trying to sever his head from his torso. They left him for dead at the edge of his village.
Surviving became the first miracle. Living for several years with a hole in his skull that exposed his brain to grave danger became a second.
Then in 2001, an American missionary rescued him from a war survivor camp. On the flight to America, the missionary had held a sleeping Salifu on his lap, the streak of a tear still visible on the boy’s cheek, as they flew toward Kansas City and surgeons who could extend his life by sealing that hole.
So many times over the years, it seemed, adults had carried Salifu to safety.
“If anyone had a right to self pity, it was Sal,” an uncle, Bill Miller, said as dirt became a mound over the grave Wednesday in a wooded section of a Lawrence cemetery. “But he never was burdened by his circumstances.”
In fact, for some time Salifu had been carrying others. Not physically, necessarily, but through his quiet way of showing others how to live right, how to make everyone feel special.
In grade school, he had been the one to let the teacher know when a classmate was having a bad day. In middle school, he had befriended children others saw as outcasts. In high school, he blossomed into a talented artist, writer and athlete — the bruising fullback who never complained when he carried the ball for tough yards up the middle only to see other Blue Valley Southwest High School players get the glory of scoring the touchdowns.
Not long ago, the part-time community college student and full-time automotive worker had promised to buy his mother a fancy car.
Just when it seemed Salifu had grown big and mature enough to carry everyone, he left them instead.
Coming to America
About 16 years ago, missionary Lonny Houk left his Raymore home to scour refugee camps and villages in Sierra Leone for children his Christian charity Feed My Lambs International could help.
Among the many he spotted was Salifu Sesay, then about 4, a sweet little boy with a great big smile.
When Houk returned to Africa months later to bring three children back to Kansas City on yearlong medical visas, he didn’t expect to make Salifu one of the three. But Houk couldn’t find a girl he had intended to rescue.
Accompanied by a Kansas City Star reporter and photographer who chronicled exit challenges that lasted for weeks, Houk slipped cash into the hands of key government officials for paperwork to take the children from a country torn by a decade of civil war. At that point, the capital of Freetown had become home to 300,000 refugees, 15,000 amputees, 2,500 abandoned children and more than 2,000 rape victims.
Houk picked Salifu; a 14-year-old girl, Hawa Kargbo, whose hands had been chopped off; and a 10-year-old boy, Francis Ngandor, with severely burned arms and hands. All needed types of surgeries unavailable in West Africa.
The day Houk needed to have final travel documents signed, gunfire echoed down Freetown streets. Rebels were attempting to break prisoners out of the jail.
As people ran and screamed, Houk and the journalists heard bullets splat stucco walls of a nearby government building. Houk swept up Salifu in his arms. The newspaper reporter grabbed Francis. Everyone ran.
Later that afternoon, still jittery from the day’s experiences, they finally reached the airport, paperwork in hand, and began a series of fights to Kansas City.
In Olathe, Ann Vanasse waited.
After seeing a poster about the medical missions and studying photographs Houk laid out in front of her, she had agreed to take in a girl, Emma, and a boy, Francis. They would live with her, her husband and their kids while going through surgeries and recovery before flying back to Africa about a year later.
Instead of Emma, Salifu came off the plane on March 15, 2001.
Vanasse — who now goes by the last name Miller — still remembers seeing him for the first time, clad in red shorts and black flip-flops.
She gathered him into her arms.
“My life was never the same after that,” she said.
Early on, Salifu and Francis ate like they never would see food again, a result of hungry days in Africa. They could down six eggs and three to four cups of rice at a time.
Those early days included lots of doctor visits. Eventually, Francis went to live with another family.
A neurosurgeon at the University of Kansas Hospital repaired Salifu’s skull. A plastic surgeon worked on his forehead scar.
A week later, spinal fluid began leaking from his head. His temperature spiked into fever. To the emergency room they went. Yet he rarely complained.
Miller enrolled Salifu in kindergarten and started tutoring him at home on colors, the alphabet and simple words. But the head wound had damaged his short-term memory. He couldn’t recall something as simple as the word “red” a few seconds after being told it repeatedly, Miller recalled.
Early in the school year, the fire alarm sounded for a drill. The sound so scared Salifu that he bolted into his teacher’s arms. He hit her so hard, he broke three of her ribs.
He was muscular even as a small child.
Eventually, his family in Africa insisted that he stay in America rather than return home. Miller and her husband at the time, Chuck, adopted him. Salifu picked out an American first name, Thomas, but eventually decided to go back to his birth name. Many of his friends grew to know him as Sal.
From the beginning, his new siblings felt he was special. Somehow, he immediately became one of them, his brother Jonathan Vanasse said.
As the early years passed, Salifu still remained at risk of death. No one knew exactly what damage the machete had left behind in his head. Every once in a while, small pieces of bone migrated out of his scalp. For years, hair would not grow well near the old wound.
“He was living on borrowed time,” Jonathan Vanasse said.
One day, Miller came home, opened the door and reeled from the stench of bleach.
She had taught Salifu, who was 9 or 10 at the time, how to do laundry. He had poured bleach into the washer but didn’t realize it.
That’s how Miller found out Salifu had no sense of smell.
Was he born that way? Or did the machete steal that from him? His family doesn’t know.
By high school, just when he had succeeded in growing dreadlocks to his shoulders, he asked his mother to shave his head. Surprised, she asked why. He wanted to attend a football camp at the University of Kansas, he said.
His parents had let him play football since he was little, only because a helmet would cover his head.
In his final game, he finally scored a touchdown. Instead of dancing in the end zone, he laid down and waved his arms and legs, as if making a snow angel.
When Houk last visited him, about five years ago, Sal still was in high school. It felt good to see his little buddy doing so well, Houk said.
“Our initial motivation was to sustain his life, so actually I felt like he was well past any danger stage,” Houk said.
Even though Sal now was a big man — he capped out at 5-foot-9 and more than 215 pounds — he looked much the same to Houk as he had at age 4 or 5.
“He was just bigger,” Houk said. “Otherwise, he hadn’t changed one little bit. Sweet smile, sweet disposition. … He was a big strong athletic young man, and I still wanted to get him in my lap and hold him.”
The last months
It started on Mother’s Day earlier this year.
Sal’s family in Africa, including his older brother, had gained internet access and began searching for him.
That brother spotted 2001 and 2005 Kansas City Star stories about him. They provided an important fact: his new last name, Vanasse.
Soon someone who went by Gee Master on Facebook asked to be friends. Jonathan Vanasse received a request. So did Miller, who didn’t know whether to believe what he was telling them at first.
“He and I started messaging each other. Back and forth,” she said. “It was incredible. He would say things like, ‘When I tell my mother this news today, she will dance all night.’ ”
Gee Master had pictures of Salifu as a boy, standing with his mother. Master looked a lot like his younger brother, Sal.
On May 9, with the family together to celebrate Jonathan Vanasse’s birthday, they told Sal.
That night, he spoke with his African brother by phone and learned more about his story. As the rebels entered the village, his mother grabbed a child and ran one way. His father grabbed someone and ran another way. His uncle was left to protect Salifu.
When his family returned afterward, they waded through bodies and found Salifu’s uncle dead. They saw Salifu and thought he was dead, too. Once they realized he was alive, they took him to a Red Cross medical facility, where a nurse gave him a transfusion of her own blood to save his life.
All these years, he had thought his father had died in the attack, carrying him. But it had been his uncle. Now he knew, for the first time, that he had a huge extended family on another continent.
Gee Master dropped another surprise. Houk had only guessed at Salifu’s date of birth, and he’d been off by about 14 months. So when Sal turned 21 officially in the United States, he actually had been only 19.
Many guys would have loved to have such a legit fake ID.
But Sal didn’t drink alcohol, said his sister, Nellie McCool. So it was wasted on him.
The conversation with his family blew Sal away.
“He basically didn’t sleep for two days,” Jonathan Vanasse said.
Sal started making plans to go visit his family in Africa, as soon as he could raise the money.
He also started planning to attend KU, after finishing his associate degree at Johnson County Community College.
On Nov. 17, he was in the middle of one of his killer workouts when he told a friend that he wasn’t feeling well. He went home.
His family believes he died that night.
His mother found the body a day later. He was in bed, face down, mostly covered by a blanket. She reached out and touched his arm. It was cold.
Hysterical, she called 911.
“All the sudden I just felt him, I knew he was there,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m here. It’s OK, it’s OK.’
“Instantly, I just had this peace.”
An autopsy turned up nothing that could have caused his death.
Part of the earth
Salifu had once remarked that after he died, they should just throw away his body. He wouldn’t be in it, anyway.
So as his family thought about burying him, someone suggested a green burial. No chemicals pumped into the body. No casket. Just wrap the body and lower it into the ground.
They found a Lawrence cemetery that does such burials.
It seemed fitting, Miller said, because he wanted to move to Lawrence to finish college.
“Salifu was a part of the very earth under my feet,” she said. “The fact that his body would go to nature — and he loved nature, he loved fishing, he loved plants, he used to work in the garden with me when he was little — that is where he belonged.”
So on Wednesday, they lowered him. After a prayer around the grave, everyone stood in silence for several minutes.
Miller fell into a friend’s arms, sobbing.
Later, she grabbed the handle of a shovel and dumped the first loads of dirt into the grave. Soon, six people had shovels in their hands.
When they were done, Miller placed the final flowers in the middle of the dirt mound.
Most of the burial crowd dispersed, but his sister, a brother and several high school friends lingered.
Soon, stories spilled out — about Salifu’s big heart, contagious personality and the strangeness, at times, of living with a white family. He’d once asked if they could take off his black head and replace it with a white one, his sister Nellie McCool recalled.
Remember how much Sal liked to dance? Remember, McCool said, the time we took him to an African cultural event, when he was 7 or 8, and he danced so well that people started giving him money?
He kept his body in such great shape, someone else said, that he could have been a comic book superhero.
“We should have put a mirror in there with him,” said one friend, Wayne Larison. “He was always looking in the mirror.”
The stories turned their sorrows to laughter.
After the burial, more than 200 people attended his memorial service in downtown Kansas City.
Looking back, his mother feels a sense of awe at having been part of his life.
“There is not one drop of doubt in me that this child was brought here by a higher power for a higher reason,” she said. “For each life he touched, it was for a specific reason. I know what Sal meant to me. He was my rock.…
“Whether you are related to him or not, there’s something about Sal that you will hold forever.”