Saying Good-bye

The past 2 weeks have been a whirlwind of movement and activity with abundant blessings in the midst of it all.

Representatives from the ELCA and the NTNL arrived in Sierra Leone last week and have been engaged in conversations with the ELCSL since then.   We have covered a lot of ground in recent days, including a working/leisure visit to River #2   and a trip to Bo for churchwide consultations.   Rich conversations about church and mission have shaped our time together with the ELCSL.

Rev. Themba Mkhabela, ELCA West Africa Regional representative; Rev. Jane Mar, NTNL; Rev. Kate Warn, ELCSL Pastor in Residence 2009 - 1012; Rev. Jim Gonia, ELCA Global Mission; Rev. Marc Hander, NTNL. (Photo by Gerilyn Hander)

A gift from the ELCSL. This woven blanket (country cloth) is in the colors of the national flag. It reads: The ELCSL thanks God for the work of Pastor Kate Warn in Sierra Leone.

In the midst of it all, the ELCSL richly blessed me with a night of singing and dancing and traditional ceremonies to bid me farewell as I prepare to leave Sierra Leone on Feb. 27th.   Out of all the experiences I have had in Sierra Leone over the past three years, the farewell celebration offered by the ELCSL was the most surprising and amazing of all.    Special songs of blessing offered by the youth and women still echo in my heart.  The sound of drums  and the traditional gourd shaker being played still resonate as well.

As the night unfolded, I was quite moved to see Bishop Barnett lead a dancing procession of my Lutheran brothers and sisters — coming my way with gifts in hand  As the procession drew near I could also see two men carrying a stout branch across their shoulders, and wondered what exactly they were bringing.  Eventually, I spotted a beautifully woven hammock and began to suspect what was going to happen next.

The traditional mode of transportation for chiefs. I was carried in the hammock as Yei Boi Katie.

During this time of  ceremony, Bishop Barnett honored me with the name/title of “first born daughter.”  I was then invited to settle myself into the hammock.    Being carried in a hammock is an honor accorded to chiefs in Sierra Leone, and  I felt deeply moved to be acknowledged in this way.  I was carried in the hammock, in the midst of  drumming, dancing and singing; eventually I received  the  hammock as my own, among many other gifts.  The blessings of the evening were abundant and memorable — a true reflection of the grace and beauty of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone.

One of the gifts I received was this traditional country cloth outfit, complete with hat and shoes, made by Marion Boima.

My final good-bye to my ELCSL colleagues and Freetown friends is only a few days away as I write.   Today I gratefully sent one heavy suitcase filled with many of the gifts I received in Bo and books from my Africa collection back to the US with the NTNL visitors.  This weekend my challenge will be to empty my kitchen and my closets, and to fit my possessions into two additional suitcases for a flight to Buffalo New York.

As I write tonight, the electricity and the internet are on and off and then on.   That somehow seems fitting.  At this point,  I will plan to make one final posting for On Mission Sierra Leone when I am  stateside, once I’ve had a chance to unpack my suitcases (if not 3 years of African life).

The beginning of the end

For the past two months I have been traveling in Freetown and the provinces,  making final visits to places I’ve come to know, and saying goodbye to the people who have become my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Dancing the good news: gospel processional, King of Glory, Njala

Two weeks ago I traveled to Romankneh, Bo, Ngolahun visiting schools with the chair of the Education Commission.  I also visited Njala and served as the “Grand Chief Unveiler” at a thanksgiving service there.

Construction work on a new school building in Ngolahun resumed earlier this year, as  the path into the village is dry enough to accommodate vehicles.  Most recently, bags of cement and zinc panels for roofing were delivered to the village by motorcycle.

School students in Ngolahun are helping to build their own school building. These mud blocks are heavy!

Michael, teaching in his brand new classroom. He is one of the "volunteer" teachers at St. Peters, working year after year without salary as the school seeks government approval.

In Romankneh, furniture has at last been delivered to the new St. Peter’s Lutheran Primary School, and the students have moved into their classrooms.  It is good to see these changes and to witness slow but steady progress in the village settings.

My time in Sierra Leone is growing shorter and shorter but still there is time for new things.  I traveled with friends to a village called Kpatema last Saturday.  Driving into the village we were met by a crowd singing and dancing, two Texan Lutherans  among them:  Alfred Gorvie and Pastor Cheryl Walenta.  We joined the Gorvie family for a traditional village celebration, complete with addresses by the village chief and local politicians, followed by hours of traditional dancing.

Bundu society dancer.

Pastor James Hotagua, Faith Lutheran in Senehun

On Sunday I was able to worship for the first time with the people of Faith Lutheran in Senehun.  (Although I have visited every ELCSL congregation, Senehun was one of two I had never joined for worship).  The congregation has struggled to obtain land and maintain attendance, but is doing well now.  They are hoping to build a church structure on land they now own, and for now they are meeting in a rehabilitated chicken house (no one would ever know that now!).  And the congregation definitely needs to build more benches for worshippers. All morning, people kept arriving to join the celebration and by the end of worship it was a standing room crowd. The choir at Faith is all of 2 weeks old and they did an amazing job of helping lead the Mende-language worship.

One of the choir members played this homemade percussion instrument. The stick has notches cut into one side, and the player ran a piece of metal up and down the stick.

This coming week the ELCSL is hosting representatives from the ELCA and NTNL for annual partner meetings.  We will be at River #2, in Bo, and then back to Freetown.  After that, I will be packing up my house and  saying my final good byes.  I will be leaving Sierra Leone on Feb. 27 and returning to the US.  But I hope to share a few final thoughts as I go.

Let the Lutherans Sing (and dance!)

"Y" for Youth.

Youth of the ELCSL are currently dreaming and working towards the goal of producing an album of original music for sale in Sierra Leone and beyond.  Late last year they recorded two tracks for the album and are continuing to raise funds for this project.

This past weekend, some of the members of the Lutheran Youth Organization came together to create a music video featuring the theme song and title track for their project.  They sang and danced and had an altogether fun time, at least for the time they spent outside my house in the ELCSL compound.   The photos here are but a glimpse of the grace and energy of the Lutheran youth!   While I was snapping still shots,  Alfred Gorvie was directing and shooting video;  he hopes to share the music and the finished video at the NTNL church assembly in April.

Dancing to the music: we are saved by grace through faith in Christ!

The theme song has great words, a great tune, and invites all hearers to start moving and dancing:   “Let the Lutherans sing we are one in Christ, we are one, oo–ooh we are one!

We are one in Christ.

Fun and Games

Early in the evening when time allows, I enjoy walking around the Aberdeen neighborhood near my house.  By 5 or 6 pm most nights, adults are sitting outside their homes, listening to the radio, chatting, eating a meal or otherwise passing the time.   Women are often gathered together plaiting each other’s hair. Wherever I walk,   I always encounter  children playing in the dusty streets, and youth engaged in sports.

Brothers at the beach.

Imagine a world not dominated by TV, video games, electronic gadgets and  expensive toys and you can begin to imagine life in Sierra Leone.   Imagine such a world  and you might imagine a world shaped by an appreciation of both simple pleasures and simple treasures.

Draughts is a commonly played board game.

Throughout Sierra Leone, playing and discussing football (soccer) is probably the dominant leisure time activity.  In Freetown,  every neighborhood has a football pitch,  and there are games at the beach every day of the week.  Although daily life here is physically demanding, physical fitness is nonetheless a preoccupation for many young people.   On Sunday mornings in Freetown the streets are filled with people out for a run, and I am seeing serious cyclists more and more on the outlying roads.  Basketball and volleyball are also popular in some circles.

I don't often see girls or women playing football, perhaps because they are busy cooking and caring for the home! This game was part of a recent Lutheran Youth Organization retreat.

I have particularly enjoyed watching children at play in Sierra Leone, and seeing their creativity and skill.

These kids are playing a version of football using batteries, cigarrette boxes, and bottle caps.

Home made toy: sticks and metal.

This is a typical street scene: children carrying things. Here too is , another common homemade toy: a wheel and stick , a toy known as "gig" in krio and mende.. I am told that mothers will sometimes send their sons to the market with this "toy because that way, the boy has to run straight down the road and can't dawdle or get distracted.

This particular boy was extremely quick and very proficient. Kids compete to see who is fastest and most skilled at moving the wheel.

Kabala Adventures

There are many places I’ve long wanted to see in Sierra Leone and this past week I was finally able to visit the northern region.  I traveled with friends to the town of Kabala, about 6 hours by car on fairly good roads, north and east of Freetown.  The area is home to residents of the Limba, Madingo, Koronko, and Fulla tribes.

In Sierra Leone, Kabala is known for its mountains and hills,  and also for being a cold place. I rather wondered what “cold” meant in this context, and was happy to find that a light jacket and jeans were comfortable to wear at night and in the morning there.  ( Many of my expatriate friends enjoy the sensation of being cold in Sierra Leone.)

The dusty (dry season) streets of Kabala are dominated by adjacent hills and rocky outcroppings. I tried twice to climb to the summit of this hill, but never found the proper path. Next time: ask any young person to serve as guide.

Kabala is located  in the midst of the Wara Wara mountain range.   We did some hiking in the adjacent hills, and managed to see a monkey swinging through the trees overhead.  Fortunately, we did not see snakes, and regrettably did not see many birds of interest.

Wara Wara Mountains. The landscape is quite beautiful and stark in the dry season. The sky was incredibly hazy as the harmattan season lingers on.

When we first arrived in Kabala my friends and I decided to see if we could rent bicycles and do some cycling in the area.  The Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone had noted this as a possibility.  We found some young men with bikes in the town center and they agreed to rent us 4 sturdy, mountain bikes for the next day.   The bikes were in good working order when we arrived in the morning, and we paid about $1 each for 3 hours.

We decided to ride on the paved road out of town since the dust on the unpaved roads is intense.   People smiled and waved as we rode by.  Unfortunately,  I ran over a nail and punctured my tire after we had ridden 4 – 5 miles, so we turned back at a walking pace.  At one point, I noted an interesting looking church set back from the road and thought it would be good to check it out.    As we turned up the drive to the church, we were greeted by a couple of people from the  small village.

These boys were quite proficient at repairing my bike tire. They charged 2,000 leones, a little less than 50 cents.

We chatted, exchanged names, learned about the Catholic church, and talked for a few minutes.  And we  discovered  there were two teen boys who had all the knowledge and equipment to repair flat tires .  And so, providentially,  they fixed my bike. The two boys went to work while we sat down and continued to talk with the residents of  the village, called Katombo 2.  We learned a few words in the Limba language, learned about a local school for the blind, and had an altogether delightful, if unexpected visit.  Half an hour later,  I was able to ride with my friends back to Kabala.

Market in Kabala with rice, beans, ground cassava root, corn meal, sesame seeds and more. The red liquid (with the bottle for measuring) is palm oil.

Traveling by car also added to the adventures of our journey.   We weren’t able to buy fuel for my vehicle in Kabala, except on the black market.  I wasn’t altogether surprised by this, but would have planned things differently if I’d known fuel would be a problem.   We ended up buying 10 liters of black market-priced fuel (almost double the regular price), enough to make it to Makeni where we filled the tank and met friends for lunch.

We reached the Freetown area just in time yesterday to meet heavy traffic heading into the city, so we opted to take the mountain by-pass. That particular road is dusty, rutted and rough, but generally faster than going through the city.   We were stuck briefly at a one lane bridge on this road, where we hopped out to help push a taxi up an incline, out of the line of traffic.  The sight of 4 white people helping 6 young Sierra Leoneans push that car made everyone smile.   A mile or so later, our own car came to a halt, as my driver Abu felt the brake system fail.  We could immediately see that brake fluid was leaking and that there was a crack in the system.  We actually felt very fortunate that the breakdown happened where it did. We were near the village of Grafton, and had not yet started climbing the mountains where brake failure would have been dangerous.   Providence came our way again in the shape of an empty land cruiser driven by an Italian man who has lived in Sierra Leone for 30 years.  He gave my friends and I a lift over the mountains and to my door!  Abu stayed with the car and made arrangements for repairs. He drove the car into the compound this morning by 10 am.   Everything worked out amazingly well, and we have a journey to remember.

Down by the Water Side

Beached, at Tokeh.

I have greatly enjoyed living by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean throughout my time in Sierra Leone.   I’ve spent many an hour sitting on my porch watching the waters of the bay ebb and flow; tracking the birds there, and observing the fishermen at work.   All along the coast, and along the many inland waterways, fishing is a way of life, and fish of all kinds are a staple of the Sierra Leone diet.

Sunset at Hamilton Beach

Dugout canoes for river fishing. Photo by Jim Gonia.

Life along the  waterways is full of color and character.   Folk wisdom and expressions of faith abound.    As always, words and pictures offer only a glimpse, but here are some of my favorite photos from life by the water.

I saw this same sentiment on a boat in the bay by my house today.

Evangelism on the sea.

Net with boats at Tokeh.

Hauling in the fishing nets is a community effort.

Lumley Beach. The boat has just come in, and the nets stored for next trip. The boat will be hauled further up the shore using the wooden poles as rollers.

Sail boat in the waters beyond the Freetown port.

New things in the new year

I traveled to Bo late last week for a  workshop with a select group of  ELCSL evangelists.   Rev. Edward Lavally (chair of the Commission on Evangelism and Outreach) and I worked together to teach these lay leaders about the sacrament of holy communion in the Lutheran tradition and to train them to preside at the Lord’s table.

Participants in the training for holy communion: Wilfred Kamara of Faith, Freetown, James Vandy, St. Anthony's, Yeagele, Rev. Lavally (teacher), Henry Massaquoi, Mt. Olive, TImidale, Marion Boima, St. Paul, Kissy, and Dwight Suluku, Messiah, Taima. Two additional evangelists were not present for the picture.

The evangelists have been asking for this training for some time, and the Commission on Evangelism debated at length about the best way to address the need for communion services in congregations not served by pastors.  In the end, the Commission selected 7 of the 23 ELCSL evangelists to participate .  Five of these are in remote provincial congregations and two are serving  in Freetown in congregations without pastors.   The evangelists who participated in the training will be “tested” in August and be eligible for certification as Eucharistic Ministers thereafter.

I’m always struck by the variety of issues that arise as we seek to train and support the churches in Sierra Leone.   Language is an ongoing issue.  Rev. Lavally asked the evangelists to learn the communion liturgy in English. He said the upcountry evangelists would be able to translate easily into Mende once they know the service by heart in English.   During the workshop last week, we also talked at length about the elements used in holy communion.   A visiting pastor shared his experience of being asked to celebrate holy communion in a distant village and using coconut water and cassava root for the elements.  In that instance, he needed to be creative, and to use the resources available.  He believed, (and I concur)  that in those extraordinary circumstances,  he was indeed celebrating holy communion, and that with the words of promise and command spoken by Jesus, God was present in the act of sharing food and drink. In our teaching, however, we instructed the evangelists to stay within the ancient tradition of the church, and to use bread and “juice” for holy communion.  Most village congregations will be able to procure  bread, as long as they plan ahead.  Communion wine is not easily accessed and so the question of the cup presents a greater challenge here.   Grape juice is not easily found either, and with wine  is also very expensive.   The  alternative communion drink used by most ELCSL  churches is a cherry soda.

Rev. Christopher Yanker, St. Peter's,Romankneh. The communion trays were most likely sent by churches in northern Texas. St. Peter's does not have a chalice. Distribution of communion drink is by plastic cups which are recycled month after month.

Additionally, none of the remote village congregations have communion ware or easy, affordable access to  suitable alternatives.   Most plates, cups and dishes used in daily life here are plastic, and that is by far the most practical and affordable material for this context.  We encouraged the evangelists, however, to set aside special items for holy communion.   I was able to purchase simple, durable wine glasses with short stems to be used as the chalice in the village congregations, and we encouraged the evangelists to purchase a suitable plate for the communion bread.

I originally posted this picture in Oct. 2009 after worshiping in Yeagele. Since I was a visiting pastor, the congregation celebrated holy communion for the first time. We brought the chalice, bread and drink, and improvised for other communion ware items. St. Anthony's evangelist was among those trained to preside, so the congregation will now be able to share holy communion on a regular basis.

In addition to their own learning about holy communion, the evangelists now have the task of returning to their communities and teaching their people — what it means; the liturgy itself; as well as the very practical details about how to receive the bread and wine.   In my experience here, baptism and communion are often occasions for “holy chaos,” as worshipers (especially the children) eagerly seek to participate.  It is my hope that local congregations and the ELCSL as a whole will be strengthened and renewed as “Christ is known [anew] in the breaking of the bread” — especially in those places where the bread has not often been shared before.