One need only watch the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “Blood Diamond” to get a sense of how Francis Mandewah grew up.
His widowed mother sent him to live in a squatter’s camp with his cousin outside a British diamond mine in the African county of Sierra Leone. Francis had no money for school, so he sold oranges from a basket on his head.
That’s where he met Tom Johnson, an American helicopter pilot who took an interest in the 15-year-old, barefoot peddler.
“He asked me why was I not in school,” said Francis, now 56, of North St. Louis, who works as a drug and alcohol counselor at Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I was shocked. I was astounded. This was my first conversation with a white man.”
That chance meeting in 1976 turned Francis’ life around. Tom paid for him to attend a Catholic boarding school and eventually helped him move to the United States and earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
We came from different backgrounds, but he was kind and generous, and he reached out to this young black boy. Our friendship rose above race.
Francis Mandewah on his friendship with Tom
Francis recently self-published a memoir called “Friendship: A True Story of Adventure, Goodwill and Endurance.” He offers a new perspective on immigration and race relations at a time when Americans are at odds over everything from refugees to a border wall.
“I wrote (the book) because of the miracle that God has performed and to honor Thomas Johnson for giving me the opportunity to be in America today,” he said. “I am so grateful.”
Francis was sitting in Ray’s Restaurant, just down the street from the prison, where he has worked for two and a half years. He formerly was a parole and probation officer in Wisconsin.
The new job has allowed him to reconnect with Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer, who taught at his African boarding school 40 years ago, and other nuns at the School Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse in St. Louis.
Sister Rosanne, 70, now development director for the order’s Province of Africa, wrote the book’s foreword.
“I was astonished at reading of all the adventures, struggles and joys that were part of Francis’ life, beginning many years ago in his small village of Punduru,” she wrote. “(And) I was enamored by his ability to share his deep story.”
Good Samaritan dies young
Perhaps the most sobering part of Francis’ memoir is that its hero, Tom Johnson, died of a massive stroke in 1993, leaving behind a Peruvian wife and two small children. He was 44.
Brother Doug Johnson remembers Tom as a world traveler and fearless adventurer, who once flew helicopters for a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation in Peru.
Tom also had a big heart, helping villagers in the African countries where he worked.
“When he came to my house, he’d always say, ‘Give me all the shirts that you can afford to give away, especially ones with color,’” said Doug, 69, a retired financial manager who lives in Trophy Club, Texas. “He knew they didn’t have a lot to wear.”
By far, Tom’s biggest project was Francis.
As a child, Francis lived with his mother and two sisters in a mud-brick house with a thatched roof and no running water or electricity. His father and two other siblings had died.
Francis began working in rice paddies at age 7 or 8, driving away pesky birds that fed on scattered seeds waiting to germinate.
“I would get up early in the morning with my sling shot in my hand,” he said. “I would yell, clap my hands and throw rocks to scare them away. It was a hard job.”
Francis was 14 when his mother sent him to his cousin’s camp in Yengema, 20 miles away. Overcrowded slum conditions for laborers at the diamond mine starkly contrasted with neighborhoods for white employees, who lived in nice bungalows with manicured lawns.
When he came to my house, he’d always say, ‘Give me all the shirts that you can afford to give away, especially ones with color.’ He knew they didn’t have a lot to wear.
Doug Johnson on Tom’s charity in Africa
One day, Francis was sitting on the ground, taking a break from selling oranges, when a slim, blond-haired man with blue eyes walked out of the mining company’s social club.
It was Tom, a Minnesota native and decorated Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Hearts.
“He was a pilot,” Francis said. “His job (in Sierra Leone) was to transport boxes of gems and alluvial diamonds.”
Tom met with Francis the next day in the mine’s airport lounge and offered him a Coke. It was the first time he had been in an air-conditioned room or drank a refrigerated beverage. The latter startled him, and he spit it out on reflex.
Tom drove Francis to Yengema Secondary School and paid for his first year’s tuition and board. He returned to the United States three months later but wrote letters and sent money.
“You have to respect someone who would help a student get into a school like that,” Sister Rosanne said.
Proving himself in Europe
After graduation, Francis lived with Tom and his family in another African country, Burkino Faso, where Tom worked for the World Health Organization, spraying for tsetse flies.
Francis began asking Tom to go to America, but Tom needed proof he could take care of himself first.
A local contact helped Francis get a job at a fancy Italian hotel in 1980, so he caught a ride with a truck convoy hauling livestock and goods through the treacherous Sahara Desert.
“I almost died,” he said. “I developed a very serious dysentery. I was vomiting and defecating. I was so weak, I couldn’t even move.”
The convoy dropped Francis off in a tiny village, where a family nursed him back to health before he continued on his 3,000-mile journey, slipping through Algeria and Tunisia to reach Italy.
He worked at the hotel a year and a half before meeting a German pharmacist, traveling with her to Sicily and Rome and eventually getting a job in Greece picking oranges, apricots and olives. Tom came to visit in 1983.
“I was so happy to see him,” Francis said.
Tom was satisfied enough with his progress to sponsor his U.S. immigration in 1984. That helped Francis get accepted at Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts, where a family had agreed to house him.
But Francis and Tom had a stressful experience at the American consulate in Sicily. His visa application was initially rejected before being approved.
“Our eyes were fixated on the officer’s every move,” Francis said. “I was sweating, and after about 10 minutes, he came out of the back, and he was holding my passport. He said, ‘The visa cost is $25,’ and Tom reached in his pocket and took out a $100 bill and gave it to the officer.
“The officer gave him his change and said, ‘Welcome to the United States,’ and Tom shook my hand. I was jubilant. I was thankful to God and full of joy. My dreams had come true.”
Opportunities in America
Francis earned an associate’s degree at the community college, a bachelor’s in communications at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, and a master’s in public administration at American International College in Massachusetts.
He saw Tom for the last time in 1991 at a Connecticut airport after his college graduation.
“He said, ‘I’m happy to have done this for you, and if you can, do the same for another person,’” said Francis, who sees helping prison inmates turn their lives around as one way to give back to society.
Francis worked briefly for AmeriCorps in Puerto Rico before moving to Wisconsin in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen the following year. He is divorced with one son, David, 21.
I was astonished at reading of all the adventures, struggles and joys that were part of Francis’ life, beginning many years ago in his small village of Punduru.
Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer on Francis’ book
Doug, Tom’s brother, read the book and thought Francis did a good job “putting his thoughts and emotions on paper.”
“He deserves a lot of credit because he overcame a lot on his own,” Doug said. “Tom gave him a helping hand to get started, but then he took the ball and rolled with it.”
Francis started writing the book about two years ago, not knowing immigration would be such a high-profile and controversial issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.
He calls the United States a “generous country with good people” who must work to find a balance between the reality of terrorism and the humanitarian need to help refugees from countries plagued by war, famine and persecution.
Francis hopes Tom’s life will be as much of an inspiration to others as it has been to him, particularly to end racism.
“Tom was a stranger in my land,” he said. “We came from different backgrounds, but he was kind and generous, and he reached out to this young black boy. Our friendship rose above race.”