20 years after MOVE, 'Birdie Africa' turns 34

Posted: December 25, 2005

Michael Ward is a long-distance trucker, a barber, an Army veteran, and a father.

He is also a polite and soft-spoken man who rarely discusses his nightmare escape from one of Philadelphia's worst tragedies.

In 1985, 13-year-old Birdie Africa, as Ward was then called, ran naked from the burning MOVE complex in West Philadelphia and was hauled to safety by two police officers.

A photo of his flight remains the iconic image of the fire that killed five children and six adults, including Ward's mother, Rhonda Africa.

Three weeks ago, at the funeral of his longtime lawyer and friend, David Shrager, Ward agreed to his first in-depth interview since 1995.

Wearing a gray sweater, baggy jeans, work boots and a gold-and-diamond Jesus Christ medallion on a gold chain, Ward sipped cappuccino at a coffee shop near his home last weekend and reflected on his life. He asked that the location of his residence and the names of his children not be disclosed, to protect the family's privacy.

Ward, who will turn 34 next week, still bears burn scars on his abdomen, arms and face. But he acknowledged that he had long ago moved past the day - May 13 - when police dropped a satchel of explosives on the radical group's fortified rowhouse headquarters. City officials allowed the resulting fire to burn, destroying 61 houses.

"I think about it from time to time," he said, "but I don't dwell on it."

Ward was more interested in discussing his work, his young son and daughter, buying his first house - about 30 miles from the city - and the loss of Shrager.

"When I first got out of MOVE, I was real shy. I'm still shy but I am trying to get out of it," Ward said.

He rarely comes into the city. "I don't know anybody there anymore," said Ward, who was raised in the commune of several families known as MOVE. When he does come to town, strangers sometimes recognize him, particularly people over 40 who remember the days of MOVE.

"Sometimes people come up to me and ask, 'Are you Birdie Africa?'" he said with a smile. Ward said he then acknowledges who he is and keeps moving.

He said he sees relatives on his mother's side in the city, from time to time. He attended Shrager's funeral with his maternal grandmother.

Shrager represented him in a 1987 lawsuit against the city that yielded lifetime annual payments for burns and trauma he suffered in the fire.

Ward said Shrager was "like a mentor to me. He always looked out for my well-being. Like if I needed to talk to him and needed advice on anything, I would call him. He would always check on my kids."

Shrager's widow, Joan Myerson Shrager, said, "David, I think, really loved him and always said he was proud of him."

Ward occasionally talks with his father, Andino Ward, who raised him after the MOVE fire, but said they aren't particularly close. "We talk once in a while. . . . I just talked to him the other day."

Michael Ward, whose original name was Olewolffe (Arabic for prince) Ward, became Birdie Africa after his parents split up and his mother joined MOVE. His father changed the boy's name to Michael Moses Ward in 1986.

"I think my dad changed it so we could start a new life. He didn't want anybody to bother me."

His years with his father in Lansdale from 1986 to 1992 were "pretty positive, but I had my differences with my stepmom," Ward said.

He played fullback and cornerback for the football team at North Penn High School, where "the kids . . . treated me like a celebrity."

Several years after graduating, he married and had a daughter, now 11, and a son, 8. Divorced this year, he has custody of his children every other weekend.

"My daughter gets straight A's in school and my son does, too," said Ward, who admits he wasn't a great student and didn't finish college.

He described his son, who plays Little League baseball, as "a natural athlete," like himself.

Ward served in the Army from 1997 through May 2001, stationed in Florida, North Carolina and Germany. He earned the rank of sergeant. He said he was a cameraman and videographer, making military training videos, but didn't pursue it as a career. "It wasn't something that I really wanted to do."

What he prefers is his work as a long-distance trucker, driving an 18-wheeler up and down the Northeast corridor from Maine to Virginia, five days a week. "I like the independence and freedom of the road."

In his spare time he works as a barber, cutting friends' hair. He said he earned his barber's license after high school. His childhood dreadlocks have long since been sheared. He is balding and shaves his head.

"Everyone on my mother's side loses their hair," Ward joked.

In October he bought his first house, a townhouse. He said he plans to buy more houses as investments for himself and his children.

Despite his annuity payments, the amount of which he prefers to not disclose, Ward said, "I'm not rich, far from it. I'm paying child support now."

Asked about his marriage, he said, "It was a positive experience." Will he remarry? "I would if I fall in love with someone," he said.

Ward admits that, despite successes, his life has been difficult. "The thing that helps me is I have a drive to better myself," he said. "I can't be stagnant."

As a symbol of his religious views, he wears the medallion. "I believe in Jesus, but I don't believe in organized religion. I am a Christian," Ward said.

What does he see himself doing in 10 years?

"Hopefully, I will be retired. I want to own my own business and watch my kids grow up. I want to retire when I'm 45."

Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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