Jamie Ford, the best-selling novelist of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and his wife, Leesha, a labor-and-delivery nurse at Benefis Hospital took their seven children between the ages of 14 and 25 to Tanzania. Your Teen asked Jamie Ford to describe this experience, and more.
Interview with Jamie Ford, Author and Father of Seven
Q: How did you decide to take your family to Pommern, Tanzania?
Ford: My wife wanted to go to Tanzania, but I wanted to make a donation rather than spend all that money on airfare. Leesha has learned to apply her parenting skills to her husband. We have this saying when our kids are resistant to an idea—re-approach, re-approach, re-approach. Leesha is a nurse, and in Tanzania, she could do medical work while the rest of the family did service work. So, off we went.
Q: Are you glad you went?
Ford: Absolutely. Once you put a face on poverty, it changes you. The people in the village are so grateful that people from afar come to spend time with them. Western people have money to donate, but they considered our spending time as a very special thing.
Q: How did you help the village?
Ford: Leesha used her nursing skills. I helped with building projects and worked in the AIDS clinic and the children were assigned to teach. Beyond our daily jobs, being there enabled us to see projects that needed help and we could act upon them. We bought a motorbike for the clinic nurses, who sometimes have to walk ten kilometers each way to the next village to treat patients.
Q: What is the education system like in Pommern?
Ford: Most of the kids attend school. But the kids that live at that school will eat ugali (mashed corn) three meals a day, rice on Sunday and maybe some protein once a month so the kids’ growth has been arrested. Everyone is really short. We taught class when school was not in session, and sometimes, 45 out of 45 students came in on their free day because they wanted to see the Americans.
Q: How did your trip impact your family?
Ford: It changed how we regard service. We weren’t just going to do good, we went to change who we are. Our oldest daughter even asked if she could go back as a high school graduation present, and Leesha already went back in October with another nurse.
Q: You mentioned in an interview discovering the positives amidst the poverty.
Ford: It was remarkable how happy everyone was. People are living on the furthest margins of life, truly the poorest of the poor: little kids with no shoes, life expectancy of 44-years-old. A third of the village is HIV positive, but people were so accepting and welcoming and willing to share. It was special. It was very easy to be in the moment there.
Q: Tell us about your family.
Ford: You’ll need a flow chart to keep track of my family. Leesha and I have a blended family: six together and Brittany, the daughter of her first husband, Phil, who passed away in a car accident. They have always been close, and I guess technically we are both stepparents to her, but we claim her, and she claims us. Phil and his first wife had two more children, and we are still very close to them. So, we have a blended family and then some.
Q: How many kids do you factor into your nuclear family unit?
Ford: All of them. We took our six and Brittany to Africa. But we are also close to the other two, Phillip (30) and Nikki (28). We come from big families and are used to being very inclusive of everybody.
Q: What’s it like having such a large family?
Ford: When the kids were in middle school, we would often be in the car for two or three hours every day—just constantly on the go. Now, we have teen drivers and are past that stage. They are responsible for their own stuff now. We had a houseful of little kids for long time; we can survive anything.
Q: Do your kids have chores around the house?
Ford: They have some during the school year, more in the summer, but they are so active that it gets crazy. We have a couple kids who are hyper-involved in school – sports, clubs, every activity. As long as they are doing service in other ways, we give them a pass. I don’t mind; I’m Mr. Mom.
Q: What is your biggest challenge with adolescence?
Ford: When the girls were 13. My wife calls it The Butthead stage because of the drama. They thought we were idiots; they were hypersensitive to the world around them. I call it “imaginary audience” syndrome.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
Ford: I have a degree in design. I was a graphic designer and art director, but I always wrote on the side. Fifteen years ago, I fell in love with writing.
Q: How did your novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, come about?
Ford: My parents passed away, one right after the other. Soon after, I started writing historical pieces. This story began as an exploration of my dad’s childhood. When he was a kid in Seattle after WWII, he wore a button that read, “I am Chinese,” and white kids would throw rocks at him, thinking he was Japanese. What began as a short story turned into a book and a fledgling career.