Category Archives: Education and Schools

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.

Handing Over Ceremony

Observing ceremonial protocol is  important in Sierra Leone, and special occasions usually entail considerable attention to formalities and  traditions.  While such occasions tend to be a bit lengthy (by American standards anyway), there is something very egalitarian  about the process here in that  many people have a chance to speak and be heard.

The international NGO Action Aid funded a new school building for Calvary Lutheran Primary School in the Up Mountain community of Wellington. Here, the area chief (standing) is addressing the head table at the handing over ceremonies, including Pastor Kaimapo of Calvary Lutheran Church on the left, and the mayor of Freetown, the Honorable George Williams (wearing the tie).

The recent “handing over” of the new school building at Calvary, Up Mountain, is a good example.  The program was about 2 hours long (plus an hour spent waiting for it to begin).   There were introductions, the honoring of guests, speeches and more speeches, skits  by school children, a special musical performance, the presentation of gifts, and the required “vote of thanks.”  A sound  system was hired for the occasion, along with a dj to play dance music before and after the event.    A make shift structure was constructed for shade, decorations were put up, refreshments were arranged, and the community gathered to celebrate.  All of this is important enough to organize and pay for — not an easy thing in many Sierra Leonean communities.

Community members watched the ceremonies from the property next door.

The handing over festivities took place in front of the new school building at one in the afternoon. Not everyone got to sit in the shade.

A variety of stakeholders were present for the occasion:  teachers and children from the Calvary school; ELCSL representatives, staff from the donor organization (Action Aid); a representative of the contractor; the area chief, other local politicians, and even the mayor of Freetown complete with police entourage.

UNICEF and many NGO's are emphasizing the importance of education for girls in Sierra Leone. In addition to funding the new school building, Action Aid gave five substantial financial scholarships to girls from Calvary school for their junior secondary education.

Girls from Calvary Lutheran School's nursery classes: "educating the nation."

An "osusu' is a traditional, communal mechanism for sharing of resources and investing for the future.

Most of the speakers for this occasion challenged the local community to take ownership for the school:  to maintain the building and to use it well for the education of the children.   The “handing over” was official with the passing of the keys from Action Aid to the mayor and to the Calvary Community.   Prayerful dedication and blessing of the school took place the following Sunday as part of Calvary’s worship service that morning.    Teachers and students moved in the next day, and Calvary Lutheran Primary School stands tall, up the mountain, a new beacon of light and learning for the surrounding community.

School Business

Last week was filled with meetings and visitations, productive and good in the ongoing rains of the season.   One of the meetings took place last Wednesday, when the education commission of the ELCSL called together the lead teachers of the 4 primary schools under the Lutheran umbrella.  This was the first time to convene such a meeting and we hope it will be an annual event.   The meeting provided an opportunity for reports from each school as well as an afternoon of training for the teachers.  Our goal was to begin to strengthen the relationship between the local schools and the ELCSL national office, and to identify ways to work better together in order to serve the children of Sierra Leone.

One of the biblical images painted on an interior wall of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Romankneh. Love and concern for children was translated into action when the congregation started their own primary school for village children.

Two of the ELCSL schools are sustainable entities, in that they are “government assisted” (Calvary in Wellington, and Christ the King in Baw-Baw).  The other two schools (St. Peter’s Romankneh and St. John’s Ngolahun) receive no government support.   Government assisted schools are approved by the Ministry of Education so that the salaries of approved teachers are paid by the government.   In addition, government assisted schools should receive subsidies  for purchasing of educational materials and for maintaining school property.     St. Peter’s and St. John’s both seek to become government assisted schools in order to begin to pay their teachers a regular salary.  The process of approval for schools is a difficult one, requiring (as I’ve frequently heard) the school representatives to “go with something” whenever they visit the Ministry of Education offices.  “Going with something” means going with money — to say thanks, to encourage, to facilitate the process (otherwise known as paying a bribe).

At our meeting last week we learned that the government assisted schools had not received their financial subsidies in 2011, so the schools had not been able to purchase materials or undertake repairs.  In addition, teachers salaries for recent months have yet to be paid.   We also learned that most of the schools do not have copies of the government approved curricula.    At one level, the basic issues faced by these schools stem from lack of  resources; at another level, the challenges involved in providing quality education are systemic and a bit overwhelming.  I give great credit to the ELCLS pastors and and teachers for their vision and their commitment to starting schools and keeping them running against great odds.

Patrick Kabbah is a teacher and the chair of the ELCSL Commission for Education. He did some of the training at the recent workshop.

We have been celebrating a providential construction boom for the schools in recent months, with new buildings nearly completed for Calvary and St. Peter’s, and progress continuing in the remote village of Ngolahun.    All of this has been possible with support from a variety of sources:   the international NGO Action Aid, the Bombali District Council (local government), and the Willie Hunt family of Texas.    The school at Baw-Baw was built a number of years ago with funding from the Lutheran World Federation.  In addition, financial support from Holy Trinity Lutheran church in Pennsylvania has provided furniture for some of the classrooms and will also be used to purchase curriculum materials, blackboards, chalk and other essential items.  When I think about these school-related developments,  a variation of the African proverb rings true:  it does take a village — even the global village — to raise and educate a child.

The new building: St. Peter's Lutheran Primary School. A few finishing touches remain before school opens in September. The church very kindly served lunch on the school porch after worship last week, for my driver, the ELCSL Education Secretary, and me.

Dreams coming true

An exciting development is in process for the Calvary Lutheran Primary School in the Up-Mountain community of Wellington.   With funding from the international NGO (non-governmental organization) Action Aid, a new school building is under construction.  The construction work started in May and the building is scheduled for use when the new school year opens in September.

The soon to be opened Calvary Lutheran Primary School

The primary school at Calvary Lutheran Church began operating in 1997 and continues today to offer nursery through class 6 instruction.   For the past four years, lower level classes have been held in a makeshift structure divided and fortified with sheets and tarpaulins.    Classes 4, 5, and 6 met in the sanctuary of Calvary Church up the hill, until this year when a permanent structure was completed to accommodate the older students.  These classes will continue to meet “up mountain” while nursery through 3rd grade will meet in the new building.

School building in 2009

Class in session in the previous school structure.

The new, two-story structure has 6 spacious classrooms and an office.  Action Aid has also provided funding for latrines and a water well.   The carpentry workshop run by Calvary was also awarded a contract to build additional benches and desks for the new school.

Pastor Kobba has been involved with the school since the beginning and Pastor Kaimapo is the pastor in charge of Calvary's various ministries. They are standing in the doorway of one of the new classrooms. Note the shiny new blackboard in the background .

The structure will be a landmark in the Up-Mountain community.  According to Pastor Kaimapo, the building is already attracting the attention of parents and students, and applications for enrollment are expected to rise as a result.  In our visit to the school earlier today, we had a debate about the tension between the number of students each room might accommodate and the optimal number of students for the best learning environment.  Government schools typically have 50 or more students per classroom, and our discussion centered on different ideas about quantity vs. quality.

Students in Sierra Leone are currently preparing for, or engaged in an exam process, and schools will be closing for the season later this month.   We anticipate a community celebration and handing over ceremony later this summer, and excited students in the new classrooms soon.

The road to Ngolahun revisited

This past weekend I journeyed “upcountry” with ELCSL colleagues  to the villages of Ngolahun and Mogbuama to celebrate 2 special occasions with church and community members there.    On Saturday we traveled to Ngolahun to break ground for a new  building for  the St. John Lutheran Church  Primary school.  Currently over 120 children meet for classes in the church sanctuary, outdoors, and in other makeshift places.

Students of St. John Primary School participating in the ground breaking ceremony. Their teacher is blind.

Funds for a new, 6 classroom school are being provided by a retired Lutheran pastor and his family in Ft. Worth Texas.   The partnership between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone and Lutherans in the Northern Texas- Northern Louisiana Synod  has been growing and deepening over many years, and Pasor Willie Hunt’s commitment is another encouraging expression of this global relationship.   I think it is difficult for villagers in Ngolahun to imagine the lives  and support of  Lutherans in a far away land across the ocean, but Bishop Barnett spoke movingly about the contribution of funds for the school as a sign of God’s love that knows no boundaries.

Marking the footprint for the new school building: Bp. Barnett and community leaders.

I first visited Ngolahun in March during the dry season and with help from a road crew of villagers, we were able to drive to the village on that occasion (see posting from March 24, 2010).   This time, however, the journey posed some challenges.  It is particularly noteworthy that in these post-rainy season days, the road/path to Ngolahun crosses and passes through 10 streams and swamps.

It didn't look good when the car I was riding stopped to see what happened to the car that went before us! The stream bed was very sandy, and this Toyota 4 runner's 4 wheel drive was not working properly

In order to get to this point, the men first had to lift and bounce the car sideways onto rocks placed in the stream bed for traction. Then they pushed the car backwards, back across through the water and up a steep embankment. It was an altogether amazing sight. With properly working 4 wheel drive, Bishop Barnett drove his car across with ease.

After we had driven as far as possible in our vehicles, we completed the trip to Ngolahun on foot, crossing over and   through 6 water filled  spots as we walked the final 3 miles.   As we were retracing our steps  on the return journey a couple of hours later, I smiled to see a man carrying a TV set, followed a mile or so later by another man carrying a small generator.

The school to be constructed in Ngolahun in coming months will be built with local materials (mud blocks) as well as cement.  Anything not available locally will probably be carried in the same way as the man carrying the TV.  Where there is a will there is a way in Africa!

One of the swampy areas on the walk to Ngolahun. The ELCSL visitors were honored for coming with gifts of a goat, sweet potatoes and rice. Villagers carried these 3 miles back to the cars for us.

Someone in the village will use the TV to show videos and will probably generate income in that way. This man is crossing the final bridge into Ngolahun.

Traditions

I spent three nights in the provincial village of Momajo earlier this week, participating in a workshop with representatives from 4  ELCSL congregations.  The workshop targeted those communities actively engaged in micro-finance and other income generating projects.    The workshop was coordinated and lead by the head of the development office for the ELCSL, Pastor Moses Momoh Kobba, and the coordinator for the women’s programs, Princess Kobba (also known as “Aunty P,” she is no relation to Pr. Kobba).   I lead the morning bible studies for our time together, focusing on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14 – 30), and the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15.

Workshop participants were from neighboring congregations in Jimmi, Momajo, and Yegele, as well as from Ngolahun some distance away. Each congregation was requested to send women as well as men. The group is standing in front of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church. The front wall of the church building is new since my last visit in April.

In the course of our bible study conversations, one of the participants asked: “does God’s grace cover someone who worships in the church on Sunday and goes home to worship their traditional gods too?”  This led to a rather spirited discussion about the intersection of Christianity and traditional Sierra Leonean beliefs and religious practice.   I find these conversations quite intriguing, and I continue to struggle to grasp all the elements and nuances of traditional beliefs and practices.

This store in Momajo doesn't seem to be operating, but it is one of few buildings I've seen to display any type of artwork

Evangelist John Squire from St. John’s in Ngolahun noted that the question that came up in our bible study  is typical of the kinds of questions asked by members of his congregation.  He shared the challenges he faces as a Christian leader in his village setting, where traditional religious practices and secret society activities are dominant in daily life.   Squire said that he is very careful to avoid confrontation and arguments with non-Christians in the village, particularly with those looking to challenge and find reason to condemn the church as disruptive or detrimental to cultural traditions.  (A Christian critique of the traditional practice of polygamy would be one example of a potentially contentious issue in village settings and beyond.)  For Squire, the best way to evangelize and to strengthen the church is through the children.    His vision — alive and well in Ngolahun — is to  operate a Christian school, and to teach the ways of Jesus to the children so that they grow in faith and in knowledge of scripture.

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105)

I have often heard the ELCSL pastors and evangelists talk about the value of  Lutheran primary and secondary schools as an evangelism tool, but I hadn’t previously heard Mr. Squire’s argument.  In years gone by, in an era of great support for world missions,  the operation of Christian schools was integral to missionary efforts in countries like Sierra Leone.   These mission-operated schools succeeded in raising a generation of faithful and well-educated Christian leaders in this nation — men and women who are now committed to passing on their faith to new generations under very different circumstances.

These children were some of my constant companions in the village. This time, in addition to calling me "pumwe" (white person), some of the kids learned to call me Pastor Kate.

An interesting example of the power of “tradition” arose in the course of the journey back to Freetown  from Momajo yesterday.  I was traveling with 2 colleagues and our driver Abu. We stopped briefly in one local village to buy some ears of roasted corn for a morning snack, and I spotted pumpkins for sale by the side of the road.  When I expressed my interest in buying one, my companions insisted that Abu should make the purchase,  as I would be asked to pay a higher (ie, unreasonable price).  My driver, however, refused to cooperate with this plan.

On one previous occasion when we were traveling in the provinces I had purchased a small pumpkin to take back to Freetown and had loaded it into the car without Abu’s knowledge.  When he later saw the pumpkin, he asked me if I had cut it before placing it in the vehicle.  That question seemed a bit mysterious to me, but my driver explained that it is necessary to cut or nick the skin of the pumpkin before placing it in a vehicle,  or else  a breakdown or other problem might occur.   Cutting a pumpkin prior to transporting it is an established and necessary custom — so I learned.  (We did manage to arrive home safely without problems on that occasion.)

Given my understanding based on that previous experience, I thought it would be a simple thing to buy a pumpkin, to cut it, and to take it home in the car yesterday.   Abu, however, was adamantly opposed to the idea based on his own traditional understandings.  In light of chronic problems with my car in recent months, I decided not to press the issue as I had images of the conversation we might have if something did happen on our journey.  It seemed far better just to buy a pumpkin in Freetown.

Oranges, like pumpkins, are typically green in Sierra Leone. These boy picked the oranges and some limes for ELCSL staffer Halima George.

This morning I asked two people about this custom related to carrying pumpkins in a motor vehicle.  Both people were familiar with the practice and when I asked them for more information, they just said:  it’s  tradition.  But when I asked “why?”  neither could explain the practice.   Still, these conversations led me to explain some of the American traditions surrounding pumpkins, with an eye to demonstrating one particular custom late in October.

International Literacy Day

Today, September 8,  is International Literacy Day, a day so designated to draw attention to issues of literacy in the world, including the link between poverty and the inability to read and write.    Appropriately enough, the ELCSL is sponsoring a Krio literacy workshop this week.  In partnership with the ELCA, the Sierra Leone Bible Society, and The Institute of Sierra Leonean Languages (TISLL), 17 ELCSL pastors and lay leaders are learning to read, write and teach the Krio language.

Pastor Jones (from an indigenous Pentecostal church) is one of three Krio literacy instructors working with ELCSL leaders this week.

English is the official language of Sierra Leone  but Krio is the language of the people.   Yesterday the executive director of the Sierra Leone Bible Society challenged the workshop participants with the idea that “until a person can read and write their own language, they aren’t educated.”  She was speaking to a gathering of  individuals who speak Krio, English  and probably at least one other language, and all of whom have completed some level of higher education.   Until this week, however, few of them were able to read and write Krio.

Krio is an English based creole, with influences from many languages. Learning to read Krio is fairly simple for English readers, although the alphabet is not equivalent and the differing vowel sounds can be confusing at first.

Literacy trainers and bible translators talk about “heart language” meaning “mother tongue,” or the   language people know and understand by heart,  from birth.   Organizations like the Bible Society, Lutheran Bible Translators, and TISLL emphasize and promote literacy in countries like Sierra Leone because scripture is best understood by people when they hear and read it in the language of their hearts.   This week’s workshop is the first step in a process leading to translation of the English liturgy into Krio and introduction of the liturgy in the Krio speaking churches of the ELCSL.    Most significantly for now, all the pastors and evangelists have been equipped with a Krio New Testament, and have been trained  to read the gospel to their congregations in Krio.   The workshop has been extremely positive so far, and I’m eager to start hearing the scripture in Krio when I attend worship in Freetown in coming weeks.

Marion Boima is an evangelist at Calvary. She is holding up the Krio word for hand.

Pastor Samuel Yovonie of Resurrection, Bo is holding the Krio word for "see" or "sea."

Evangelist John Kandeh (Thomas Memorial, Newton) has a flash card with the Krio spelling of the word for month. Next to him is Evangelist Wilfred Kamara.