Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy

Almost 30 years ago, 13-year-old Birdie Africa became the face of the MOVE disaster, the only child to survive the bombing of that infamous Osage Avenue house. Last Fall he drowned in a cruise-ship hot tub, as alone and mysterious in death as he was in the city’s greatest tragedy.

ANDINO WARD SPENT a lot of that first week at Children’s, learning how to care for his son’s burns. After Andino took him home, he had to debride the burns every day, twice a day, for months: removing the antibiotic and dead tissue with wet gauze, scraping this raw red stuff from his son’s body. Even with pain medication, his son screamed and screamed. There were times when Andino had to excuse himself to weep.

There was so much the boy didn’t know. He couldn’t read, couldn’t write. He didn’t know his ABCs. He didn’t know how money worked. He didn’t know what a store was or how you used it. He didn’t know that men had landed on the moon.

Andino decided that to give his son a fresh start, he needed to give him a new name. He read names out of a Bible until the boy picked one he liked: Michael. And then a middle name, Moses, after the biblical Moses, the lost boy rescued from the Nile.

Inside his home in Hatfield, Andino introduced Michael Moses Ward to television, to Sesame Street and The Three Stooges. Mike warmed to TV instantly, but there were other elements of his new life that he resisted. It took Mike a month to let Andino cut his overgrown fingernails. Then came the food war. MOVE believed cooked food was impure. Mike refused to eat the food Andino offered: chicken, rice, baked sweet potatoes. Finally, one day Andino insisted that Mike eat some cooked food. Mike said no, and Andino wrestled him to the ground. “I was dripping with sweat,” he says. “Like a battle with an alligator or something.” After an hour and a half, Mike went limp, stopped struggling. At dinner that night, he ate fried chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens and apple pie.

In October 1985, five months after the bombing, Andino accompanied his son to a videotaped deposition taken by a city attorney as part of the city’s inquiry into the bombing. Also present at the deposition was a man who would become an important mentor to Mike over the years: David Shrager, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent trial lawyers. Shrager was representing the Wards in a case they’d brought against the city—a case that would eventually bring them a lump sum of $840,000 and monthly payments on top of that for the rest of their lives, according to the New York Times in 1991. (Andino says most of the lump sum was eaten up by attorneys’ fees, and that the annuities were never enough to make them rich. But they were enough for a decent middle-class life.) Aside from testimony he gave in 1996 in Ramona Africa’s litigation against the city, Mike had no further contact with her or MOVE. “Andino would not allow us to have any contact with Birdie,” Ramona says.

Over time, Mike started to open up. He said the MOVE children were forced to fight with one another as a means of teaching them to be self-sufficient. He feared that somehow MOVE would discover where he was living. “He was always afraid that they were going to come back and get him,” Andino says. “And I assured him that that would not happen.”

Gradually, Mike adapted to life outside the MOVE compound. Andino bought him a bicycle and a skateboard; Mike started meeting other kids. In 1987, when Mike was 15, Andino enrolled him at North Penn High in Lansdale, a school with an almost all-white student body and a black principal, and before long, with the help of teachers who worked to integrate him into that new environment, he was thriving. He started to hang out at the Boys & Girls Club of Lansdale. He took up weight lifting.

One kid from the neighborhood, Jerel Hopkins, saw Mike lifting weights one day and introduced himself. Initially, Mike seemed like a “shy, quiet kid,” Hopkins says, but as they got to know each other, Mike “came out of his shell a little bit, became one of the guys.” Mike and his friends did normal teenage stuff: drove up and down the central business strip in Lansdale, hung out at the mall. Mike’s friends and family remember him as a sharp dresser who got a haircut every week. “He was so fashionable,” says Sofia Cowan, Mike’s older sister. “Maybe it was because of the scars and things that he had.” He played on the football team—fullback and cornerback. “I think he was one of the hardest hitters you ever saw,” says Perry Sanford, Mike’s best friend at the time and for years after. “I said, ‘I think you’re doin’ that to get some of that rage out.’ He said, ‘I just love to hit. I’m a physical person.’”

Sanford says Mike only talked about MOVE occasionally: “It would just be random stuff. Mostly it would be like how he was bred to be the next leader … and he was like, ‘We just never wanted to be that. All the kids wanted to play, but it was forbidden.’

“He became his own person,” Sanford continues. “He didn’t become Birdie Africa. He was Mike Ward, the cool guy, a nice, good-looking kid. I don’t think anyone could say they had a bad story to tell about him. We were all in awe that he came out to be as cool as he was.”

AFTER GRADUATION, Mike spent a semester at a community college but decided it wasn’t for him. He attended barber school, learned to cut hair. He had a pet bird, a bright-yellow-and-cream cockatiel named Herbert. This is where the trail goes cold. We don’t know a lot about Michael Ward in his 20s and 30s. Shrager and Andino protected him from the media, giving him space to find his path, and Mike was glad to retreat, to live a life in the shadows, head either down or swiveling behind him. “He sequestered his world and made sure that everybody stayed out of it,” Andino says. “He never wanted anyone to get too close.” Says Cowan, “I kind of learned to not ask a whole lot of questions about what was going on with him.”

During the ’90s, Mike gave only one in-depth interview, a remarkable one, in 1995, to Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, now a national magazine writer and author. By this point, Mike had become a father. He was living in a local apartment with his baby daughter, Rhonda, and his girlfriend.

Bowden recalls Mike as a polite, neatly groomed man of 23, “someone who clearly took a great deal of pride in his appearance.” Bowden says he didn’t have to do anything special to draw Mike out. “He was clearly someone who had waited a long time to talk about this,” he says.

Some of Mike’s memories were fond: He spoke with warmth and respect about Delbert Africa, who’d been beaten by police in 1978 when trying to surrender unarmed, and about Conrad Africa, who used to take the kids to the park. “He was real friendly, almost like one of the kids,” Mike said.

But Mike also spoke of physical and emotional abuse. Up until now, when people felt sorry for him, it was because of the bombing. It was because of the story that the only other person who made it out of the fire, Ramona Africa, was telling, and is still telling today to anyone who will listen: a credible story of a government unhinged, willing to use appalling force to dominate and kill. “People still want to question MOVE instead of questioning the outrageousness of what happened,” Africa says. “Murder, rape, robbery, gun smuggling, drug trafficking, being pedophiles? None of that. None of that. We weren’t accused of anything that would warrant what this government came at us with.”

Mike’s story was more personal. He made it clear to Bowden that for him, the primary trauma wasn’t the bombing but instead his childhood with MOVE. He had feared John Africa, who punished any disobedience he perceived in Mike by separating the boy from his mother: “They wouldn’t let her talk to me or let me talk to her. It was hard for both of us.” He said his mother eventually soured on MOVE and dreamed of escape—“She got real depressed”—but she was too afraid. “They threatened to kill me if she ran away,” he said. (Bowden spoke with Rhonda’s mother, Ramona Shannon, who confirmed that Rhonda had wanted to escape.) Mike also told a horrifying story of what happened one time when the children all cut their hair in defiance of John Africa’s rules. They figured that after they cut their hair, they would run away, but “we didn’t know where to go. We chickened out or something.” Mike told Bowden:

When the adults came for us and saw we had cut our hair, they didn’t say anything to us for a couple of days. Then they had one of their meetings upstairs, and they called us up. … They told us if we ran away, they would track us down and ‘cycle’ us. That was their word for killing people. Then we went back downstairs. I was sitting up on this bed, and Frank [Africa] came downstairs and started yelling at us again. Mostly, he was yelling at me. I was always keeping to myself. I didn’t like them. I guess they thought I was the strongest one or something. Anyway, Frank was yelling, and he came over and punched me in the face. I fell off the bed, and I was, like, knocked out.

Bowden thought Mike was a “very credible” source. “I find that when people have a grudge, or when people have an agenda, that they overdo it,” he says. “His experience, as he related it, seemed real to me. It didn’t seem like a rant, that he was angry and out to get them. And there was also no anger in his manner. It was more fear. And I don’t think that can be readily faked.”

When asked about Mike’s claims that the adults threatened to “cycle” the children and that Frank punched him, Ramona Africa says, “I never saw anything like that. That’s ridiculous. His mother wouldn’t have tolerated that.” As for Mike’s desire to escape, Africa says, “I mean, you don’t know any other children that are raised a certain way that people know is good for them and they don’t like it? They don’t like eating certain foods that they are pushed to eat? They don’t like being allowed to engage in certain things? … You’re talking about a child’s perception.”